Hobhouse: A note on Lord Elgin’s Pursuits in Greece (1813)

John Cam Hobhouse (1786–1869) delivers one of the most telling British accounts of the intense debate triggered by Lord Elgin’s archaeological expedition in Greece and the removal of major architectural sculptures from the Parthenon and other ancient monuments of the Athenian Acropolis. Against the background of the raging Napoleonic wars, Hobhouse treats the removed assets as an object of dispute between the French and the British imperial powers, while denying local inhabitants any claim to them or any understanding of their historical and aesthetic value.

commented by Eleonora Vratskidou

Original text   Brief biography   Commentary   Sources and literature

A note on Lord Elgin’s Pursuits in Greece

from: John Cam Hobhouse, A Journey through Albania and other Provinces of Turkey in Europe and Asia to Constantinople, during the years 1809 and 1810. 2 vols. London, 1813: vol. 1, Letter XXIII, pp. 345–348, note.

My Lord Elgin’s agents are not accused on account of any of their excavations, or carrying off the numerous articles they discovered by those proceedings: their rifling of ancient tombs, and pulling down modern houses to get at buried remains, was on all hands allowed to be a fair and laudable proceeding, as was also the modelling of the reliefs and other sculptures. The part of conduct objected to, was the not being content with the casts, which was all the French wanted or obtained when in power, without the possession of the originals, and by that means hastening the decay, and defacing the ancient monuments, so as for ever to diminish considerably the gratification of future travellers and artists.

The injuries seem to be these: The taking off the metopes, the statue over [346] the Theatre of Bacchus, and the statues of the western pediment of the Parthenon; and the carrying away one of the Caryatides, and the finest of the columns of the Erecthéum. No other come, I believe, within the limits of censure—no other marbles were detached.

It may be enquired, what excuse can be offered for such a spoliation: It is answered, the French De Choiseul Gouffier detached part of the frize (sic) of the Parthenon many years past. Some of the persons employed in collecting for his museum, and assisting his projects, still remain at Athens, and have the same views, which nothing but inability have prevented them from accomplishing; they had even a plan for carrying off the whole of the Temple of Theseus!!! They only complain because they envy our success, and would themselves have been masters of the same treasures. To this the others reply, »With the exception of De Gouffier, no one of us ever injured the temples—we have often had it in our power—we went to great expence (sic) in modelling and designing, which would have been unnecessary, had we resolved to take the originals—you, yourselves, when you first settled here, professed no more; we looked on without opposing you; we were your friends—you have not only robbed, but treacherously robbed!«

The answer is, »We are no robbers, we bought, and dearly bought, every article. Admitting your facts, we only took that which would have been destroyed by the Turks, and which was in a state of dilapidation—it was better the sculptures of the Parthenon should be preserved in a museum in England, than ground to powder on their own bases—we took nothing from the Theseum, because it was exposed to no such eminent peril.«

The last retort of the French is, »The case was the same with respect to both; but having been prevented from ruining the latter, you take merit to yourselves for a moderation which was not voluntary. When you talk of buying the right to deface the finest remains of all antiquity, you seem to put out of the question all the proprieties which might in such a case be expected to regulate the conduct of the artist, the scholar, and the gentleman.« [347]

This is, as well as I recollect, the sum of every thing adduced on either side, and reduces at once the question to the two points—Would the French have removed, or endeavoured to remove, the ornamental sculptures alluded to or, if they would not, were those precious remains likely to have been speedily destroyed by their barbarian masters?—It is certain, that if the Turks remain for many more years in possession of Athens, every valuable antiquity will be entirely destroyed. But the French contemplate the chance of Greece being soon attached to the dominions of Napoleon: in that case, not even our nationality would prefer a possession of some of their broken parts to their integrity in the hands of an enlightened enemy. It is not the vanity of being the owners of such a treasure, but the wish to advance the fine arts in civilized Europe, that should influence the conduct of any collectors; but without enquiring into motives, it is pretty evident, that an infinitely greater number of rising architects and sculptors must derive benefit from these studies, if they can be pursued in a museum at London or Paris, than if they were to be sought in the Turkish territories; and surely, we can hardly complain, if they are to be found in our capital. Present travellers may feel a little mortification, and those who are utterly incapable of appreciating the merit of the remains in question, wherever they may be fixed, will join in the fashionable clamour of the day. I have said nothing of the possibility of the ruins of Athens being, in the event of a revolution in favour of the Greeks, restored and put into a condition capable of resisting the ravages of decay; for an event of that nature cannot, it strikes me, have ever entered into the head of any one who has seen Athens, and the modern Athenians. Yet I cannot forbear mentioning a singular speech of a learned Greek of Ioannina, who said to me, [348] »You English are carrying off the works of the Greeks, our forefathers—preserve them well—we Greeks will come and re-demand them.«

A curious notion prevailing amongst the common Athenians, with respect to the ancient statues, is, that they are real bodies, mutilated and enchanted into their present state of petrifaction by magicians, who will have power over them as long as the Turks are masters of Greece, when they will be transformed into their former bodies. The spirit within them is called an Arabim, and is not unfrequently heard to moan and bewail its condition. Some Greeks, in our time, conveying a chest from Athens to Piraeus, containing part of the Elgin marbles, threw it down, and could not for some time be prevailed upon to touch it, again affirming, they heard the Arabim crying out, and groaning for his fellow-spirits detained in bondage in the Acropolis. It is to be added, that the Athenians consider the condition of these enchanted marbles will be bettered by a removal from the country of the tyrant Turks.

Brief biography

John Cam Hobhouse, Baron Broughton (1786–1869), was an English politician and prolific memoirist, mostly remembered today as Lord Byron’s closest friend and executor. Born into a Unitarian wealthy merchant family, he was educated in Cambridge, where he struck a lifelong friendship with the poet Byron (1788–1824). In 1809-1810, they travelled together through Portugal, Spain, Albania, Greece and Turkey, a journey partly described in Hobhouse’s Journey through Albania (1813). Upon his return to England, Hobhouse went on to tour through war-ravaged Europe (1813–1814) and positioned himself against the restoration of the Bourbons in France, in a memoir on Napoleon’s Hundred Days. He later engaged in politics, entering the House of Commons in 1820. Up to the 1850s he held various offices and ministerial positions, among others in the colonial administration of India, and was raised to the peerage as Baron Broughton in 1851. His travelogues, diaries and correspondence, held today at the British Library, are significant sources for scholars of the political and cultural history of the 19th century, and for Byron studies in particular (Cochran, 2004).

Commentary – »Destruction of the Parthenon, Indignation of the Athenians«

The text commented here is extracted from Hobhouse’s comprehensive account of his journey through the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire, written in epistolary style. Focused on description of modern life rather than on antiquarian concerns, Hobhouse is considered as one of the finest analysts of social relations in continental Greece just before the Greek War of Independence. Letters XXI-XXIII of the travelogue are devoted to the city of Athens, where Hobhouse and his travel companion Lord Byron stayed for ten weeks, from December 1809 to February 1810. Letter XXIII concerns more specifically the ascent of the Acropolis, at the time a citadel hosting a Turkish garrison. The topographical account of the hill reserves a central place for the description of the much-admired remains of Greek architecture, such as the Temple of Nike, the Parthenon and the Erechtheion.

Hobhouse’s core concern is to document the current state of preservation of the monuments, compared to what previous travellers had reported. Lord Elgin’s interventions on the site come into question time and again in this description recording the various successive appropriations and destructions that the monuments had undergone. Most interestingly, though, almost each reference to the British ambassador’s seizures is accompanied by allusions to alternative scenarios of decay, the latter being deemed inevitable. For example, when Hobhouse refers to the removal of the sculptures from the pediments of the Parthenon by Elgin’s men, he adds: »Such of the statues as had before fallen, had been ground to powder by the Turks. It is but fair to mention this fact, at the same time that the other circumstance [Elgin’s removals] is recorded.« (Hobhouse, 1813, 1, pp. 340341). Referring to the Erechtheion, he writes »The corner one of these columns, the best specimen of the Ionic in the world, with its base and capital, had been removed by Lord Elgin to England. The remainder will soon fall«. The appeal to fairness in the first citation is indicative of Hobhouse’s interest in arguing in favour of, or at least justifying, Elgin’s archaeological expedition in Athens. The tension underlying this description of the current situation of the monuments is only directly addressed in an overt assessment of Elgin’s pursuits, undertaken in the form of a four-page extended footnote, which forms the extract commented here. This lengthy excursion is triggered at the point at which the author refers to Lord Elgin’s removal of one of the Caryatids of the Erechteion, the sculpted female figures, used as pillars to support the entablature of the building, considered at the time to be the ambassador’s most precious and most disputed acquisition (Gotsi, 2015). Upon the mortar wall freshly built to replace the removed Caryatid, Hobhouse reads the inscription »QUOD NON FECERUNT GOTI | HOC FECERUNT SCOTI«. He cannot resist pointing out the unfounded comparison of Elgin to the King of the Visigoths Alaric, to whom the inscription alludes, and sets out to examine the question in detail (Hobhouse, 1813, 1, p. 345).

Hobhouse first makes clear that the cause of the controversy around Lord Elgin’s acquisitions regards the extraction of the sculptural decorations from the temples, and not his excavations and the items that had been found on the ground. He drafts a list of the disputed pieces and stages a dialogue between the British and French viewpoints, rehearsing the accusations that had been heard so far, particularly from the French and the British parties. For Hobhouse and his intended audience, it seems self-evident, given the way he structures his account, that the question concerns almost exclusively the two main imperial powers active in the region, Britain and France. Hobhouse reminds the reader that the French ambassador to the Ottoman court, Auguste De Choiseul Gouffier (17521871), was the first to obtain parts of the Parthenon’s friezes by detachment, some years prior to Lord Elgin’s expedition. French accusations are dismissed as based on »envy« of the British success, as opposed to their own »inability« to obtain the same when they still had favourable relations with the Ottomans. A further point in this imaginary crosstalk concerns Lord Elgin’s claim to the legitimate purchase of each detached piece, while, on an ethical level, his critics condemn the very idea of »buying the right to deface the finest remains of antiquity« in the name of unwritten codes regulating the culture of travel, scholarship and collecting. Implicit here is the shared understanding of the monuments as universal heritage, to be treasured for the benefit of education, aesthetic pleasure and scholarship.

Hobhouse himself tends to justify the »noble Ambassador’s« (Hobhouse, 1813, 1, p. 345) deeds, employing a hypothetical rhetoric: if Elgin’s agents hadn’t taken the marbles, they would have either been seized by the French or destroyed by the Turks. The ultimate excuse for the removal of the sculptures is, of course, their accessibility, their contribution to the promotion of the arts and scholarship being better served in a »museum at London or Paris« than in the politically unstable Ottoman territories. »We can hardly complain, if they are to be found in our capital«, concludes Hobhouse with a fair amount of ‒ slightly cynical ‒ pragmatism. Although Hobhouse had been one of Lord Byron’s closest friends up to the latter’s early death in 1824 (Graham, 1984), his account displays none of the poet’s polemical attitude, as expressed in the verses of his The Curse of Minerva (1811) or in his long poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (18121818), in which he castigated Elgin’s deeds and British cultural imperialism at large. Particularly in the second work, Byron moreover opens up the question of the modern Greek people deprived of their lawful heritage: (»[Minerva’s] sons too weak the sacred shrine to guard/Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains/And never knew, till then, the weight of Despot’s chains«, Byron, 1812, Canto I, XII, p. 67).

According to Hobhouse, in contrast, Elgin’s intervention on the monuments is accountable only for compromising »the gratification of future travellers and artists« who visit the site. Only at the end of the discussion does Hobhouse ultimately introduce the rather improbable possibility of another interested party, a different pretender to the custodianship of the Athenian antiquities: that is the Greeks themselves, »at the event« of a revolution in their favour ‒ an event which would indeed take place eight years later. Even on such occasion, though, the author strongly doubts that the ancient ruins might »be restored and put into a condition capable of resisting the ravages of decay« (»an event of that nature cannot, it strikes me, have ever entered into the head of any one who has seen Athens, and the modern Athenians«). Although in mid-1820 Hobhouse would become one of the most ardent advocates of the Greek cause as a member of the London Greek Committee (Cochran, 2004), a decade earlier – against a very different configuration of the balance of power in the Mediterranean and with Napoleon still standing – he appears rather sceptical in his attitude towards modern Greeks. In letter XXXIV of his travelogue, devoted to the several attempts at insurrection in the Southern end of the Balkan Peninsula, Hobhouse testifies to the existence of a heightened sense of Greek patriotism, but he sounds rather reserved both as to the legitimacy of the Greeks’ aspirations and rights on a soil »that has received such a perpetual succession of invaders and settlers«, and as to their recognition as an »individual people«, pointing to the multi-ethnic composition of the populations in the Greek territories of the Ottoman Empire and describing Greeks rather as »a religious sect dissenting from the established church of the Ottoman Empire« (Hobhouse, 1813, 1, p. 596).

As to the possibility of a revolution of the Greeks, the British traveller offers on the one hand a sober analysis of the various social forces and their conflicting interests (Hobhouse, 1813, 1, p. 598), but indulges nonetheless in openly mishellenic comments, more or less typical of the ethnic prejudices that circulated in travel literature of the time (Hobhouse, 1813, 1, p. 598: »The Greeks have in many instances shown a desperate frenzy in distress, and a sanguinary ferocity in prosperity, but are certainly not at all notorious for that cool, determined courage, which is necessary for the accomplishment of any great action. They are light, inconstant, and treacherous, exceedingly subtle in all their dealings, and quite remarkable for a total ignorance of the propriety of adhering to truth*. Their situation may account for these defects. I do not make them objects of accusation; I merely state the fact.«; p. 602: »Unfortunately, an acquaintance with the actual national character of this people makes us inclined to dislike them so much as to prevent us from wishing to examine the cause of their debasement, and from duly appreciating the improvement and important services which might be expected from them under a change of circumstances.«).

Despite his overall scepticism, Hobhouse does record the »singular« reaction to the removal of the sculptures by an educated Greek from Ioannina, a city in Epirus, Northern Greece, at the time one of the major hubs of Greek learning: »You English are carrying off the works of the Greeks, our forefathers – preserve them well – we Greeks will come and re-demand them.« The removal of ancient vestiges by the British is here accepted as temporary and is already accompanied by a desire for restitution. The scholar from Ioannina perceives the ancient artefacts as ancestral relics – »the works of the Greeks our forefathers«; he uses them to communicate cultural identity and difference between the Greeks and the English, who, in Hobhouse’s account, appear as more worthy custodians of the classical masterpieces, since they had managed to rescue them from the »barbarian« Ottomans.

In sharp contrast to the reaction of the scholar of Ioannina are the attitudes of the common Athenians, to which Hobhouse devotes the final paragraph of his footnote. Somewhat awkwardly attached to the previous tightly argued section, this last paragraph records the superstitious beliefs of the uneducated Athenians, who, oblivious to the historical and aesthetic significance of the ancient remnants, regarded statues as animated beings mutilated and petrified by magicians, who »will have power over them as long as the Turks are masters of Greece, when they will be transformed into their former bodies«. Similar views on the ignorance of the Greeks regarding their past history are voiced elsewhere in the travelogue (Hobhouse, 1813, 1, p. 588).

The attribution of anthropomorphic qualities to ancient artefacts, particularly those representing human or animal figures, is a recurrent feature in the records at our disposal of local pre-modern perceptions of antiquities in Ottoman Greece. These are mainly oral narrations and folktales from different regions of Greece and Turkey, dated from the 18th century, collected and published by foreign travellers, as well as Greek ethnographers and historians (Kakridis, 1967; Hamilakis, 2008 and 2011; Gotsi, 2015). It is interesting to observe the various, often contradictory, uses to which such narrations are put, particularly in travel literature. Frederick Sylvester North Douglas (1791–1819), who travelled in Greece during the same period (18101812) and published his travelogue the same year as Hobhouse (1813), uses a similar tale of locals hearing and being strongly affected by the laments of the Caryatids of the Erechteion on their separation by Lord Elgin’s men, as a means to acknowledge »that the Athenians are not indifferent, as has been sometimes represented to the wonders that ornament their city.« (Douglas, 1813, pp. 8586). In Hobhouse’s account, in contrast, no feelings of dispossession or loss are recorded as manifested towards the abduction of these human-like statues, the act of resistance and lament for their displacement being entirely left to the sculptures themselves. Modern Athenians were, according to Hobhouse, ready to ship away the »enchanted« statues of the Acropolis, Greece being regarded as a prison for these petrified fellow-humans, whose fate was sealed by the Turkish rule. Presenting the removal of the sculptures thus as fully compatible with local beliefs, Hobhouse seems to draw a politically loaded conclusion.

It is moreover to be observed that the concluding sentence of this last paragraph (»It is to be added, that the Athenians consider the condition of these enchanted marbles will be bettered by a removal from the country of the tyrant Turks.«) is completely absent in the version of the same passage contained in the traveller’s unpublished diary (»Lusieri also mentioned a singular superstition of the Greeks. They consider that the statues antiques in Greece are men and women enchanted by some magician and that they will at some future time recover their pristine form. Some men employed in loading my lord Elgin’s marbles a few days past refused to put one of the chests on board saying that it was an Arabim or had a spirit within. And some Greeks who conveyed two busts to Captain-Leake declared they heard an Arabim groan and scream most piteously within them. Some of these statues, they say, have been heard to bewail at leaving their friends and fellow marbles in the Acropolis. In the well of Lusieri’s house there is also an Arabim«, Hobhouse, cited in St Clair, 1998, p. 209). The ideologically loaded character of the last sentence becomes transparent in the introductory »It is to be added«, but it is also at odds with an earlier statement by the author. A few pages prior to the footnote, in a short relative clause, Hobhouse does mention that the statues taken from the Parthenon’s pediments ‒ »the two female colossal statues, the Neptune, the Theseus, and the inimitable horse’s head« ‒ were »still remembered and regretted by all at Athens« (Hobhouse, 1813, 1, p. 340).

Despite its legitimising function and contradictory character, Hobhouse’s account reveals different responses to the translocation of ancient artefacts, structured upon diverging ontologies and worldviews. For the uneducated inhabitants of Athens, the statues are quasi-animated beings capable of agency and emotive expression (they moan and bewail, cry out and groan); they were regarded as fellow men and women who cannot be possessed or exchanged and who, according to Hobhouse, are to be treated in their own best interest, in view of undoing the spell under which they lie. In the case of the »common Athenians«, we observe no sense of ownership vis-à-vis the statues. This attitude coexists with claims of belonging, both by the educated Greek elite as well as by the citizens of an imperial super-power, both of whom, on an ontological basis, mobilise a discourse of kinship (»our forefathers«) and of cultural affinity with the creators of the sculptures – not with the sculptures themselves. These diverging attitudes were not only coinciding but also competing, in the course of the process of nationalisation of classical antiquity that the Greek state would implement (Hamiliakis, 2007, pp. 57124; Hamiliakis, 2008). Object of colonial competition between Britain and France, the Greek antiquities of the Ottoman Empire were soon to be claimed as cultural heritage by a new nation-state, the first to be created in the former territory of the Ottoman Empire in 1830. As early as 1834, in the Kingdom of Greece, ruled by a Bavarian King, all antiquities were declared »national heritage« and »state property«, according to the first archaeological law of the state. This perception tended to suppress previous ways of engaging with ancient remnants, which, during long episodes of their dense, multi-layered biographies, were experienced under social and emotional regimes utterly foreign to those promoted either by nation-state identity politics – which sees them as cultural property – or by modern scholarship.

Eleonora Vratskidou is Visiting Professor at the Institut für Kunstwissenschaft und historische Urbanistik, Technische Universität Berlin.

Sources and literature

George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: a Romaunt and Other Poems. London 1812.

Peter Cochran, »Hobhouse, John Cam, Baron Broughton (1786–1869), politician.«, in: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford 2004ff., online available, accessed 2 October 2018.

Frederick Sylvester North Douglas, An Essay on Certain Points of Resemblance Between the Ancient and Modern Greeks, London 1813.

Georgia Gotsi, »›Ο θρήνος των Καρυατίδων‹: βιογραφία μιας παράδοσης (1803-1902) [‘Τhe lament of the Caryatides’: biography of a tradition (1803-1902)].«, in: The Journal of the Society for Modern Greek Studies, 1 (2015), pp. 55104, online available.

Peter Graham, (ed.), Byron’s Bulldog: The Letters of John Cam Hobhouse to Lord Byron, Columbus: Ohio 1984.

Yannis Hamiliakis, The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece, Oxford 2007.

Yannis Hamiliakis, »Decolonising Greek Archaeology: Indigenous Archaeologies, Modernist Archaeology and the Post-Colonial Critique«, in: Dimitris Dimitris Damaskos and Dimitris Plantzos, A Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and Hellenic Identity in Twentieth Century Greece, Athens 2008, pp. 111.

Yannis Hamiliakis, »Indigenous Archaeologies in Ottoman Greece«, in: Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik, and Edhem Eldem, Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753–1914, Istanbul 2011, pp. 49–69.

John Cam Hobhouse, A Journey through Albania and other Provinces of Turkey in Europe and Asia to Constantinople, during the years 1809 and 1810, 2 vols., London 1813.

Joannes Th. Kakridis, Die alten Hellenen im neugriechischen Volksglauben, München 1967.

William St Clair, Lord Elgin and the marbles, 3d rev. ed., Oxford 1998.

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George Tolias, »›An Inconsiderate Love of Arts‹: The Spoils of Greek Antiquities, 17801820«, in: Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik, and Edhem Eldem, Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753–1914, Istanbul 2011, pp. 71–93.

Cite this article as:
Hobhouse: A note on Lord Elgin’s Pursuits in Greece (1813), commented by Eleonora Vratskidou, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike, https://translanth.hypotheses.org/ueber/hobhouse, published 29.10.2018.

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