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The Elgin Marbles, by Dorothy King

What's Colin Firth doing with the marbles?

What an exasperating volume: 295 pages pass before its main point, which is its short final polemic in harrumphing prose insisting that the Parthenon sculptures should remain in the custodianship of the British Museum. All the rest, including the belated arrival on page 220 of Lord Elgin, is but preface to King's disparagement of Greek management of antiquities. I'm not among those fervently convinced that the return of the marbles to Athens so they can be seen again under blue Attic skies is the only course: they are likely to swap immuration in a big, free museum for ditto on smaller, pricier premises, and anyway Athenian skies are too hazed with exhalations to be that blue.

But I won't be addressed as a public meeting, especially after I've read with curiosity all the preceding chapters of background, from the Parthenon's completion in 434BC, and been left not merely irritated by rambling and repetition, but unsatisfied. Not for want of hard facts: King amasses professional archaeological detail, referring to figures by their scholarly identification alphanumerics without even a key; the book really needs a pullout strip-cartoon of where all the bits fitted, instead of a scramble of snaps of marmorial tits and fragments of tantalising sketches inked before the 1687 explosion. (A groundplan would help.) And not for want of frivolity: King has clearly decided that Lord Elgin is a Colin Firth role, what with the two monied wives, the loss of his nose, his fierce rivalries with failed fellow-collectors, and she never misses an excuse for just-relevant gossip - the first Lady Elgin on Emma Hamilton ("She is indeed a Whapper! And I think her manner very vulgar"), or Melina Mercouri kissing the floor of a BM gallery and declaiming its exhibits to be "our history, our soul" before being helped up by a curator who explained that the sculptures were indeed beautiful, "but the Elgin Marbles are in the next room."

But then, it may not be King's fault. Dissatisfaction seems intrinsic to the Parthenon. It wasn't ever what subsequent ages presumed it to be. King certainly is brilliant on its original construction and purposes. It wasn't a temple, although it was erected to house a giant statue of Athena Parthenos, goddess of the city-state and its brief empire, and to commemorate that state's victory over the Persians at Marathon. The statue's flesh was ivory over wood, and her robes were cast from a ton of the Athenian treasury's gold reserves; the Parthenon was somewhere between the Lincoln Memorial and Fort Knox. They seem to have kept the moulds of sculptor Pheidias so Athens could melt its assets in an emergency, and cast the drapes again when flush, until dwindling prosperity forced a trade-down to gilded bronze. Moreover, the Parthenon wasn't a dominating edifice, despite the prime location: by the time of its founder-funder Pericles (he signed the cheques), the building had to be overlaid on an Acropolis already cluttered with heritage, jammed in like a monumental clock among the ornaments on a Victorian mantelpiece. It would have been impossible to get a clear sightline of those carvings whose battered remains we have come to admire in extreme close-up. Nor was the Parthenon considered that impressive in antiquity. The statue was - gold always awes guidebook compilers - if you could access it, which few could even in Athens, but its carved box didn't rate worth-the-detour status. Hardly a wonder of the world. More city hall. Alexander the Great, passing through, knew it was the appropriate venue to dedicate suits of captured Persian armour and stick up shields under the frieze, where their pegholes remain.

Indeed, the subsequent history of the Parthenon as its adornments were shed or shaken, stripped and smashed by blast and greed, is melancholy and venal. When Athens was a late classical Oxbridge, it did at last become a proper temple, only to be evicted by Byzantine Christianity. It was converted to a Catholic church, a mosque, dwindled into a store. King hates Byron and his malicious slights on Elgin in Childe Harold, but I feel Lord B was on to something in "Cold is the heart, fair Greece! That looks on thee/ Nor feels as lovers o'er the dust they lov'd": the Franco-British scramble to own the just-about-portable artworks of ancient empires was personally selfish as well as nationalistically vaunting. Byron did understand selfishness. Mine, mine, all mine! That, despite a narrative of captures, counter-captures, bribes, sunken ships and desolation in dank country gardens, anybody anywhere ended up in safe custody of a single Centaur or charioteer, is almost accidental. And a blessing, wherever they go.

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