There has been a minor furore today as a British TV programme has been debating the fate of the Parthenon Marbles. Quite apart from the political and ethical arguments over ownership, it is also important to reemphasise why they are so important.
Very little Greek statuary has survived from the ancient world. Most of the statues that we consider to be Greek bear the fateful lines ‘Roman copy of a Greek original’. This includes even the world-famous discobolos in the British Museum.
So where are all the originals? There are very few remaining. Many of them have survived as a result of finds from shipwrecks. It’s ironic that the statues that we most closely associate with Ancient Greece were probably never seen by the contemporary population, as they sank to a watery doom long before they were ever unveiled.
Among the most famous finds from shipwrecks is the stunning statue of a god from the National Archeological Museum in Athens. Bereft of whatever weapon he was wielding, it is difficult to assess his identity exactly. If it was a trident, the statue is Poseidon, whereas a lightning bolt would mean this is a statue of Zeus.
Awed by the collection of the national museum, many visitors to Athens ignore one of the city’s other impressive galleries. The museum in the Piraeus has a whole room of gods and heroes that were dredged up from the harbour in 1959. It is well worth a couple of hours visit before hopping on a ferry to the Greek islands. The Piraeus is also the city’s main port, so it is apt that their museum contains a rare stone eye from a Greek trireme.
Ancient Greece didn’t really exist in the way that we talk about it today. The Greeks saw themselves as Achaens and identified more closely with their city states such as Corinth, Athens or Sparta, than with an idea of Greece as a whole. The Greeks also considered the coast of modern Turkey and Southern Italy to be part of their world. This explains why two of the most renowned shipwreck finds were discovered off the toe of Italy and now feature in the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia in Reggio Calabria. The two Riace Bronzes show warriors or heroes and include highlights in bone, silver and copper.
However, not all Greek statues were of gods or heroes. The Greeks seemed to have a particular love of horses, perhaps the equivalent of the enthusiasm for cars among petrol heads today. Visitors to St Mark’s Basilica in Venice should make sure to visit the four bronze horses inside the building. These magnificent sculptures date from around the fourth century BC and have been an object of envy and theft ever since.
Another fine equestrian statue can be found in Athen’s National Archeological Museum, where there is a jaunty, expressive sculpture of a young jockey on a horse.
Today we think of horse races as more Roman than Greek, no doubt due to the impact of the movie Ben-Hur. However, the Greeks were clearly race crazy too. Another of the greatest remains from the ancient world is this champion charioteer from the Delphi Archeological Museum.
© Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism
© 10th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities
The astonishing realism of the statue is sharpened by the fact that he still has his glass eyes. Greek statues in their heyday would have had many adornments like this. The metal sculptures would have had their skin shined to create a bright bronze effect, while the marble statues would have been painted in various bright colours.
Like many statues from Ancient Greece, the charioteer is broken. This is also true of most stone sculptures that survive, like the marble Winged Victory of Samothrace, which remains one of the most important exhibits in the Louvre despite missing both its head and arms.
Imagine then, the importance of a whole group of figures on horseback, as well as a long bas-relief sequence of Lapiths battling centaurs, sculpture after sculpture, many of them almost complete. Individually, each of the Parthenon marbles would be one of the most important fragmentary records we have of ancient Greek sculpture.
Their importance is heightened by the fact that they were part of the Parthenon. Today, when a guidebook describes an ancient Greek temple, visitors will be lucky to find more than a broken column and a few smudged markings on the ground. The Parthenon in Athens is one of the best preserved temples in Ancient Greece, along with the nearby Temple of Hephaestus.
So it is a disgrace that one of the finest remaining examples of Greek architecture lies incomplete, when it could be reassembled. It could also provide a rare opportunity to see genuine Greek statues in place or at least nearby to their original location. Most statues that we have today were found far from their designated sites, divorced of meaning, silent regarding their patrons, sculptors and creators. We have little more context regarding most Greek sculptures than the barnacles that stuck to their sides. It seems to me that the Parthenon marbles deserve to return home.