Historical notes: The Elgin marbles were never whiter than white

"IN THE history of mankind, Greece will eternally remain the place where mankind experienced its fairest youth and bridal beauty . . . noble youth with fair anointed limbs, favourite of all the graces, victor in Olympia and all the other games, spirit and body together, one single flower in bloom."

For the Romantics (here the philosopher Johann Herder) ancient Greece was the springtime of human history, an episode of innocence and purity. Its classical art, said Johann Winckelmann, achieved a "noble simplicity and calm grandeur" which was soon to be lost. "In the Greeks alone we find the ideal of that which we should like to be and produce," proclaimed Wilhelm von Humboldt as he set about planning a new education system for Prussia after the humiliating defeat by Napoleon. Greek texts were made the core of the German secondary curriculum.

So the Greek past was appropriated for Europe. What European collectors could not carry off from the Greek sites (as late as 1880 the Germans shipped 350 tons of marble statuary from Pergamum) was dressed up to fit the ideal. When the Acropolis was cleared of its later building in the 1840s, it was left as a shrine, with isolated marble buildings among which the Parthenon reigned supreme. It is still treated as such by millions of visitors. There is little public recognition of the clutter of votive statues which made up the fifth-century sanctuary nor of the paint which covered the buildings. If the purity of the Greeks was to be sustained, it followed that their marble was white. As late as the 1930s, Lord Duveen was able to order the scraping down of the Elgin marbles in order to "restore" their whiteness.

By the mid-19th century the study of ancient Greece had become hopelessly entangled with the political, social and cultural needs of the European elites. The Greek achievement could be used to legitimise the superiority of Europeans over others. The mastery of Greek, useless in any practical sense, could serve to isolate, in the public schools, those who did not need to earn a living from those who did and preserve them as a ruling class. In the entrance exams for the British civil service there were 700 marks for the Greek papers, 350 for each of the French and German papers.

This ideological baggage has, inevitably, affected perceptions of Greek history. The emphasis has been on a few great thinkers and artists within the classical period and it is only recently that wider aspects, the relationship of the Greeks with their land, their slaves and with the surrounding cultures, have been explored in introductory surveys. Other distortions have still to be dealt with. One of the most extraordinary is the virtual exclusion of science and mathematics, surely among the greatest of the Greek achievements, from many cultural histories. "The state of editions . . . of ancient scientific works remains scandalous by comparison with the torrent of modern works on anything unscientific," complains T.E. Rihill in her recent Greek Science.

Another is the continuing concentration on the classical period. At a popular level histories still congratulate themselves for including a chapter on the Hellenistic period (332-30 BC) but venture no later than that. It is, in fact, the resilience of Greek culture in later centuries which impresses. Greek culture was old when the Romans conquered it, it was still there, and expanding, as archaeologists in the Near East are finding, when Rome fell. The apogee of the remarkable Greek achievement in astronomy (Ptolemy) and medicine (Galen) was in the Roman centuries and Greek philosophy was still vital enough then to underpin Christian theology.

Now that the ideological cladding which has encased classical studies has fragmented the history of ancient Greece can come into its own. The Greeks can take their place within the mainstream. Exciting times lie ahead for the ancient historian.

Charles Freeman is the author of `The Greek Achievement' (Allen Lane, pounds 25)