BMCR 2023.01.41

Who saved the Parthenon? A new history of the Acropolis before, during and after the Greek Revolution

, , , Who saved the Parthenon? A new history of the Acropolis before, during and after the Greek Revolution. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2022. Pp. xviii, 876. ISBN 9781783744626

Open access


This rich and rather odd volume is the product of decades of collecting, compiling, and ruminating on the part of the literary scholar and champion of open access publishing, William St. Clair. Sadly, St. Clair died before he could complete manuscript revisions, and thus we owe thanks to his admirable editors, David St. Clair and Lucy Barnes, for weaving together the pieces and making this valuable, if rather anarchic, book available to readers by open access. Wisely, the editors also hived off St. Clair’s material related to the meaning and use of the Parthenon in ancient Athens to form a separate book, now also available by open access, and titled: The Classical Parthenon: Recovering the Strangeness of the Ancient World. The volume under review here has as its subject matter the history of the Parthenon after the fall of Rome, and narrates in particular detail the preservation of the monuments on the acropolis during the Greek Wars of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. Amidst a cornucopia of other information and fascinating images, the book does answer the question: Who saved the Parthenon? But I will postpone revealing St. Clair’s surprising conclusions until I offer a wider sense of the book’s contents and utility.

In his preface to the book, the eminent scholar of modern Greek history and literature Roderick Beaton describes the “complex richness” of the book and notes the clear evidence in the text of St. Clair’s strong “moral compass,” his devotion to getting history, and heritage, right. “[T]here is even something reminiscent of the ‘father of history’, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, in the book’s length,” Beaton continues, “in its exhaustive treatment of details as well as the broader picture, in its many digressions, and in the way the narrative often loops back to pick up earlier threads and weave them into new and unexpected patterns” (xvii). Beaton is quite right, here, both about the digressive structure of the book and about St. Clair’s moral convictions; it is good for readers to know on approaching the book that it offers a series of rather loosely related chapters, a somewhat chaotic chronology, and a conclusion that sets forth the author’s perspective on heritage preservation.

In the introduction, St. Clair describes his interests as lying “not simply in the history of the building itself, but in the history of looking at the Parthenon, and the ways in which it has been made meaningful by, and to, different groups of people” (2). The volume does indeed contain many rarely seen images, and it is packed with firsthand commentary from a wide range of viewers, from Greek clerics to French antiquarians to Turkish officials and anti-Nazi protesters. We hear the paeans of romantic poets and meet archaeologists; there is a very (I would say too) long section on religious travelers and their identification with St. Paul. But St. Clair’s narrative ranges far beyond this ‘imaginary’ dimension; indeed, the author’s real quest is to excavate the many political interventions that have changed the material realities of the site over time, stripping it of its original soil, of the storks who once nested on columns, of its Byzantine walls and tower, and of its Ottoman-era mosque. Near the volume’s end, St. Clair cautions against what he calls historical ’emanationism,’ the belief that monuments represent the mentality of whole societies. In fact, he argues, in ways reminiscent of the Comte de Volney’s 1791 critique of ‘oriental’ ruins, that monuments reflect the methods that religious, political, and economic leaders have used to “influence the minds of people over whom they exercised power. Emanationism too,” he continues, “therefore is always at risk of giving the producers what they wanted, namely to influence the minds and actions of contemporaries and of later generations in ways that suit their own rhetorical and political agenda” (657-8). In St. Clair’s view, we ought not to think that the current state of the Parthenon reflects either the real culture of ancient Athens, or of the modern Greeks. Its would-be rescuers have, for their own purposes, made it into the virtually ahistorical site it is today.

This is chiefly a book for readers with particular interests to dip into, but one can piece together a narrative, one closely tied to the general history of modern Greece, with its vanishing point in the years 1821-1834. St. Clair’s focus on the material and intellectual history of the acropolis occasionally wavers, but he generally succeeds in providing a lively portrait of pre-nineteenth-century Athens, which was little more than a dusty and provincial Ottoman town. In those centuries, Greek and Ottoman residents alike felt a profound indifference to the pagan temple complex. The acropolis was useful as a military fortification, where small communities had lived from time to time; but potable water was always a problem, and the area not particularly attractive as a place to settle. Few, aside from the Ottoman soldiers garrisoned there, visited the site, and the Parthenon itself was not even visible to inhabitants of the lower town (though it was certainly visible from ships at sea). As Greek and Ottoman painters were not permitted to paint representational and/or non-ecclesiastical images, views of the acropolis were only produced by western visitors, of which there were very few before the 1670s. At a time in which most educated western Europeans cared much more about Rome than about Greece, the acropolis was not yet anything that one could call a heritage site.

Western traffic started to pick up in the next decades, thanks in large part to the detour made by the Marquis de Nointel on his way home from negotiating trade agreements with the Ottomans in Constantinople in 1674. Nointel brought with him a French artist who sketched the Athenian monuments, and his enthusiastic report to Louis XIV evidently made the rounds. By 1676, four visitors were briefly in Athens at the same time, the most important being the Huguenot antiquarian and physician Jacob Spon, perhaps the first to subject the ruins to on-site antiquarian inquiries, and, importantly, the figure most essential in the popularization of Pausanias, from that time forward the indispensable guide (usually in Latin translation) to the acropolis. Although visitors were still few during the next decades, his visit seems to have inspired and emboldened others to make the trip. As trade and diplomatic relations between Europeans and Ottomans improved, the number of travelers slowly increased; some of them, like the Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier, brought servants, artists, mapmakers, and natural scientists along as well. In 1730, the French state sent the Abbé Fourmont to collect manuscripts and inscriptions; so avid was he in the latter pursuit that he was willing to knock down buildings and deface inscriptions after he had copied them. Fourmont certainly does not count as someone who helped ‘saved’ ancient Greek monuments–nor really do the rest of his successors, who conceived the urge to bring home souvenirs, or carved their names in pillars.

Better versed in Greek literature, history, and myth than their predecessors, later eighteenth-century travelers generally arrived in Athens with a preconceived notion of the ‘birthplace of the Muses’ they wanted to see (none, as far as I know, were yet seeking the ‘birthplace of democracy’). By 1810, there were enough of these sorts of ‘Frankish’ (the Ottoman term for Europeans) to make for a sort of philhellenic tourist industry, even if few local Greeks or Muslims cared much for the monuments. Lord Elgin’s depredations and Byron’s poetic denunciations of his plundering certainly spurred interest in visiting Athens, but St. Clair passes swiftly over this chapter (covered so fully in his Lord Elgin and the Marbles [3rd ed., 1998]). Instead, the book speedily moves from the eighteenth century’s end to the Greek War of Independence, during which time, in St. Clair’s view, the Parthenon was actually saved.

In this section, the author draws extensively on the letters, dispatches, and memoirs of contemporaries with considerable on-the-ground knowledge: military men, consuls, artists, collecting agents. He introduces us to figures such as Georg Gropius, the long-time Austrian consul in Athens, and Richard Church, the commander in chief of the Greek forces, who were deeply steeped in the culture, politics, and languages of modern Greece. He also draws on recent translations of Ottoman documents to fill in as much as possible of the other side of the story. Clearly, St. Clair’s sentiments are much less with the traveling ‘Franks’ than with these long-time residents, and with the Greek and Turkish modern persons, whose city was to be so transformed by the ‘Frankish’ vision of classical, Periclean greatness. His disturbing discussion of the massacres committed by both sides in the Greek War of Independence, and the terrible poverty and sufferings of those who survived, echoes recent work by Beaton (Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation, 2020) and Mark Mazower (The Greek Revolution, 2021). There are even ways in which St. Clair seems to take up a moderately anti-philhellenic position, including as one of his appendices Ottoman and Orthodox texts opposing the Revolution.

At last, St. Clair gets to his main subject: the fate of the Athenian monuments during the Greek War of Independence. When Athens initially fell to the revolutionaries in 1821, the Muslims took shelter on the acropolis, and most ordinary Athenians left for Salamis. In mid-1821, the Ottoman army easily retook the town and acropolis; apparently its commanders were already under instructions from Istanbul not to damage the monuments that were so valued by the ‘Franks’ (274-5). But then the main army left, and the Greeks retook the town, besieging the garrison and Muslim refugees holed up on the acropolis. On western advice, the Greeks, too, largely desisted from bombarding the Turkish stronghold. Suffering terribly from hunger and thirst, the 1,150 Muslim survivors of the siege surrendered in June 1822, and most of them were subsequently butchered by the Greeks; the fortunate were sold as slaves, and the Muslim community in Athens was effectively wiped out in an episode that might today, St. Clair argues, be regarded as genocidal (263). The Greeks retained control of Athens until just after the Ottoman victory in the gruesome siege of Missolonghi in 1826. It was then that the hardworking British Ambassador in Constantinople, Stratford Canning, intercepted a letter written by the Ottoman commander on the mainland, Reschid Pasha, in which he described plans to use explosives to destroy the pagan monuments that had become a philhellenic symbol—a potent act of ‘heritage cleansing’ in the eyes of a vengeful invading army. Canning, as St. Clair describes, immediately set to work to use his diplomatic savvy to dissuade Reschid from his plan, hinting at later rewards (and offering him high-ranking prisoners in exchange). Reschid, addressed perhaps for the first time as a modern leader capable of appreciating historical monuments, ensured that his men spared them and even allowed for a peaceful surrender on the part of the Greeks. At this most critical juncture, the Parthenon—or what was left after Elgin—was saved, by perhaps the unlikeliest of actors: the British Ambassador and the Ottoman military commander and arch enemy of the Greek cause. This secret has endured down to today, St. Clair argues, buried underneath a different and more deceitful rhetoric that it was Elgin, and the British Museum, who ‘saved’ the Parthenon.

In the end, I am not even sure that St. Clair is particularly pleased that the Parthenon was saved (and he certainly does not seem to like the historically cleansed, Pausanian look of the acropolis today, though he does praise the new acropolis museum for restoring some of the site’s history). In saying that today the built heritage “is at least as influential as words in constituting and changing mentalities,” he goes so far as to suggest that monuments should be seen not as incidental to conflicts, but as among “the causes and the weapons” (658). Was the ‘saving’ of the Parthenon simply a Frankish quest, whose consequences included the sacrificing of many Greek and Turkish lives and the stripping of the monument of the very history that has made it meaningful? Are the Franks the very people from whom the Parthenon has needed saving? This book poses these uncomfortable questions.