If you have been to the British Museum in London you could not have missed the Elgin Marbles, those lovely white carvings taken from the Parthenon in Athens. What you might not have done is imagined the arduous task it was to move them there. In this historical novel Karen Essex has painted the picture for us of the personal lives of the people involved.
In 1799 Lord Elgin was appointed ambassador to Constantinople. He was a newlywed and took his wife, Mary, with him to his post. He was glad to have been given the position because he was an architecture buff and believed that what the Ancient Greeks built was the pinnacle of architectural perfection. At the time, Athens was occupied by the Ottoman Turks. They were camped at the Acropolis and were smashing the marbles to use for building materials, using the core metal to make ammunition. He wanted to make moldings and have drawings done so that those historical buildings would not be lost forever.
Mary was only twenty one and pregnant at the start of this odyssey. But she was a lovely, smart and charming young woman. She won the admiration of the Sultan and other high ranking Turks. The Turks put no value on the ancient buildings in Greece and, as a favor to Mary, ended up allowing the Elgins to remove whatever ancient item they desired from the country.
Removal of the priceless ancient sculptures became an obsession for Lord Elgin. He spent an enormous amount of money extracting the artifacts, becoming deep in debt, causing transportation nightmares, ruining his health and his marriage. All the while competing with Napoleon and the French for artifacts in between the Napoleonic Wars.
While we see the destruction of the Parthenon through Mary’s eyes, the author also gives us a glimpse of it’s construction through the eyes of Aspasia. She was the mistress of the man behind the building of the Parthenon, Perikles, and a philosopher in her own right. Through her the reader is given a window into the society of ancient Athens and their political structure, which shows us the roots of our own.
Since that time the debate has raged: where do the marbles belong? The Greeks would like them back and have even built a new museum to house them when they return. The British Museum shows no sign of letting them go. It is questionable whether the marbles would even still exist now if they had not been removed when they were.
This is a great historical novel with it’s basis in fact. The author did extensive historical research and it shows in the story line. It is a fascinating story of two strong women who had the courage to take control of their own lives.