Greek Classical Antiquity in the World Today: Given, Stolen, or Changed?








Greek Classical Antiquity in the World Today: Given, Stolen, or Changed?

In this blog, I have chosen to explore a variety of ideas existing today throughout the world that originated in classical Athens, such as democracy, philosophy, architecture and artifacts. I intend to focus on early foreign claims upon Athenian territory and artifacts, such as Lord Elgin’s “theft” of the Parthenon Marbles and Nero’s inscriptions upon the Parthenon. Also, I seek to investigate how the modern world has used Greek classical antiquity in structures and media such as the United State’s Supreme Court and Coca Cola’s Parthenon advertisement in the 1990s. All of this leads me to one question: Of what ideas does Modern Greece possess ownership of, and if they do, did the world steal them as Lord Elgin did or do such ideals belong to everyone’s shared cultural heritage, as the British Museum would claim? Furthermore, I seek to question whether the rest of the world has the right to re-purpose and redefine buildings like the Parthenon and artifacts such as the Archaic Kores.

A reconstruction of Nero’s inscription upon the Parthenon in 61/62 A.D.
Translation: “The Council of the Areopagus and the Council of the 600 and the Athenian People to the Great Emperor Nero Caesar Claudius Augustus Germanicus, son of god, when Tiberius Claudius Novius son of Philinos is acting as general over the hoplites for the eighth time and while he is epimeletes and nomothetes and while Paullina daughter of Capito is priestess of Athena.”

Nero Claudius Caesar was the ruler of the Roman Empire beginning in 54 A.D. Perhaps being best known for, among other things, his passion for the arts and music, Nero undoubtedly possessed a curiosity in Athens. Like Hadrian, Nero delighted in Athenian theatre and history. Nero had a dedication of the Parthenon to himself carved upon the Parthenon, of which all remains today is holes from the engravings. Although the exact meaning of the inscription is widely debated, it is viewed as many as a dedication of the Parthenon to Nero himself. Others suggest that Athenians themselves carved the inscription themselves, as Athens was under the control of the Roman Empire at the time, to gain favour from Nero himself. No matter the actual meaning of the inscription, Nero’s inscription upon the Parthenon is, together with Alexander’s shields, one of the first cases of foreign powers claiming the Parthenon and Greek classical antiquity. The centuries of reuse of the Parthenon by foreign powers confirm such a narrative of Greek classical antiquity being reused, and continues today in other forms such as advertising and museum exhibits.

Parthenon Marbles of the Parthenon East Facade, Duveen Gallery in British Museum

In 1803, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed hundreds of pieces from the Parthenon frieze and brought them to England. There is great debate regarding the legality of the marbles’ removal, as Lord Elgin maintained the stance that he received authorization from the sultan of the Ottoman Empire at the time to remove the marbles and paid Ottoman officials for access to the monument. Such a narrative is dubious, and the Greek Government and National Acropolis Museum has demanded the return of the marbles for decades. Today, as pictured above, the Parthenon marbles remain on display in the British Museum. The British Museum maintains the stance that the marbles are a part of the world’s shared cultural heritage, not belonging to only Greece. Even more forcefully, a colonial perspective was, and still is, in full force today, epitomized by the British Museum’s suggestions that Lord Elgin was simply safeguarding the Parthenon marbles from a Greek state that could not properly take care of them or protect them from further destruction. Such words have further sparked the debate concerning whether Modern Greece can lay claim to the Parthenon marbles, and furthermore, if the rest of the world can lay claim to the marbles at all.

Archaic Kore, Mid-5th c. B.C., Kelsey Museum

Kores, being produced in Athens in the Archaic Period from 5th to 7th c. BC, were youthful female figures, made of clay and sometimes painted. Kores were used as votive offerings to deities and rulers, and even served as an indicator of socio-economic standing within the city. This Kore, originating from the 5th Century BC, possesses a Boetian provenance, as indicated by its design style. At the bottom of the figure, the traces of red present suggest that this Kore was painted. For centuries, scholars believed Athenian artifacts to be white clay or marble, with no color present. Such color was undoubtedly lost over the centuries to due to weathering. However, many believed that white was the intended color of such artifacts, including the Archaic Kores. Such an image of the whiteness of Acropolis artifacts had been present since Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles. Both Lord Elgin and the museum that housed them at the time “washed” the marbles and even used tools to restore the whiteness of the marbles. However, it has since been discovered that many of the Parthenon marbles and even archaic kores were not white, but painted in a variety of colors. Yet, today the image of whiteness of Athenian artifacts is familiar and embraced around the world in popular media, reconstructions, renovations, and even museums. Such actions spark a debate regarding not only the ownership of the Parthenon marbles and archaic Kores, but about the promotion of whiteness of Athenian artifacts around the world. Even if Modern Greece could not lay claim to owning such archaic kores, it is clear that the promotion of whiteness of the Archaic Kores is mislead and has even promoted racism against modern Greeks.

The Supreme Court Building of the United States of America

The United States Supreme Court building was completed on April 4th, 1935. Being designed by Cass Gilbert, the building is a neoclassical style, featuring Corinthian style columns, an ornate pediment, and marble figures. Although many features of the building, such as the sculpture of Justicia, are Roman influenced, most design elements of the building reign from Classical Athens. The Supreme Court building is just one of numerous buildings around the world inspired by Athenian design styles and architecture. Similarly to the Parthenon, the United States Supreme Court’s design emphasizes its ideals, such as the statue of Themis upon its entrance, the Greek Goddess of law and justice. This building is just another example of the world borrowing from classical Athens not only its architecture, but classical Greek architecture to emphasize ideals that are thought to come to ancient Greece, such as democracy and justice. Ideals such democracy and architecture styles are difficult to claim ownership of, and in seems that such ideas are things given to the rest of the world by classical Athens.

Statues of Socrates, Academy of Athens

This statue of Socrates does not depict just a Greek philosopher, but his entire body of work and freedom of thought. Among other Greek philosophers such as Democritus, Melissus, Plato and others, Socrates is viewed as one of the founders of the school of philosophy. His place upon the Academy of Athens solidifies such a position. Yet, Socrates’ legacy is not only in Athens. The Greek Philosophers’ body of work led into Roman philosophy, the Christian philosophical work of St. Thomas Aquinas and skeptics such as Descartes, and of course modern philosophical thought today. Even fields such as mathematics, physics, economics, and the sciences have their roots in philosophy, all of which dates back to classical Athens and prior. Today, Socrates’ methods remain in practice, being used through the Socratic method of most ranked law schools throughout the United States. Yet, Socrates’ work was not intended for Athenians alone, and he certainly was not a popular figure within his home city, being executed for corrupting the youth and spreading blasphemy against the Greek deities. In this case, it seems that Socrates, as well his philosophical school of thought, originated in Athens, but cannot be owned. It is very much a case of a scholar that gave his work to the world, rather than one city.

Coca Cola’s 1992 Advertisement depicting Parthenon columns as Coke bottles

Coca Cola’s Parthenon advertisement sparked great debate among scholars and locals alike. The Parthenon’s fluted columns in the image are reshaped to look like Coke bottles. Many have complained that this is an inappropriate use of Greek classical antiquity, as the focus of the image is not the Parthenon itself, but the Coke bottles. Furthermore, as Melina Mercouri has noted, the Coca-Cola’s brand image is arguably more well-known across the world than the Parthenon itself in this context, due to the zoomed-in nature of the image. Greeks were far from pleased at this use of the Parthenon for advertising another product, in which the Parthenon, and therefore Greek identity, became a object of consumption. Such actions have sparked debates regarding what is and what is not an acceptable use of media regarding the Parthenon. Coca-Cola’s actions can be seen as another time where Greek classical antiquity is, in some regards, taken from Greeks by the rest of the world. Even more importantly, if Greeks cannot explicitly claim ownership of Greek classical antiquity, do world brands like Coca-Cola have the right to use classical antiquity for the pursuit of profits?

“Imported from Detroit”, Chrysler Commercial for Super Bowl XLV, 2011


Chrysler’s commercial was aired in 2011 during Super Bowl XLV and featured Detroit musician Eminem. The commercial made multiple emotional appeals to the Detroit Riots of the 1960s, Devil’s Night, the recent economic hardships of Detroit, and overall attached the Chrysler brand to the city of Detroit. The commercial was lauded for its attachment of Detroit Brands, like Chrysler, to the city itself and its newly coined slogan “Imported from Detroit”. However, very few people objected to the commercials use of Detroit’s tragedy for what was, in truth, an advertising campaign for the sake of economic profit. I wish to examine the commercial’s connection to both Devil’s Night and the Detroit Riots. The Detroit Riots of the 1960s is a very sensitive topic that still continues to rock a city rife with racial strife today. Yet, no one objected to its use in a commercial for the sake of selling cars. Furthermore, Devil’s Night, which occurs every year on October 30th in Detroit, has resulted in the burning of hundreds of homes, injuries, and deaths. It is ironic that Chrysler, a brand from Detroit, continues to shut down plants in Detroit resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs that ultimately contribute to the city’s hardship in favor of manufacturing vehicles abroad, chooses to attach such value to Detroit in a commercial. Such an action bears resemblance to what scholars and people deem to be appropriate and inappropriate use of the Parthenon in media and advertising. It seems that, in this case, Devil’s Night and the Detroit Riots would be considered similar to the Parthenon being used for economic profit. Even if Chrysler is  traditionally a Detroit brand, it is becoming increasingly global, and its actions regarding such sensitive topics and the city of Detroit as a whole must be subject to scrutiny.

Works Cited

Artnet. “London’s British Museum Won’t Return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, Saying Their Controversial Removal Was a ‘Creative Act’.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 29 Jan. 2019, www.businessinsider.com/london-british-museum-will-not-return-elgin-marbles-2019-1.

Chrysler. “Chrysler Eminem Super Bowl Commercial – Imported From Detroit.” YouTube, YouTube, 5 Feb. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKL254Y_jtc.

Craven, Jackie. “Symbolism and Architecture at the U.S. Supreme Court Buiding.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 28 Dec. 2018, www.thoughtco.com/us-supreme-court-building-by-cass-gilbert-177925.

Editors, History.com. “Nero.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/nero.

Josse/Scala, et al. “How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles.” National Geographic, 28 Mar. 2017, www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/magazine/2017/03-04/parthenon-sculptures-british-museum-controversy/.

Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan

Mallonee, Laura C., et al. “Once More, Britain Refuses to Return the Elgin Marbles.” Hyperallergic, 3 Apr. 2015, hyperallergic.com/194892/once-more-britain-refuses-to-return-the-elgin-marbles/.

“Nero’s Parthenon.” Mediterranean Palimpsest, 7 Feb. 2013, mediterraneanpalimpsest.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/neros-parthenon/.

Snavely, Brent, and Detroit Free Press. “Chrysler Keeps ‘Imported from Detroit’ Tagline.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 24 Apr. 2013, www.usatoday.com/story/money/cars/2013/04/24/chrysler-imported-from-detroit/2110611/.

Talbot, Margaret, and Margaret Talbot. “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 24 Apr. 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/29/the-myth-of-whiteness-in-classical-sculpture.

“The 1930s Cleaning of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum.” British Museum – Cleaning the Sculptures 1811-1936, www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/statements/parthenon_sculptures/1930s_cleaning/cleaning_the_sculptures.aspx.

Yalouri, Eleana. The Acropolis: Global Fame, Local Claim. Berg, 2001.