S is for Stealing Athena by Karen Essex
I’ve always been fascinated by the debate over the patrimony of the Parthenon Marbles. One of my favorite college moments was participating in a four-sided debate in my Museum Studies class over who should have ownership of the metope and frieze sculptures currently housed in the British Museum. There is so much literature, academia, and scholarly dialogue about the Parthenon marbles that I was pleasantly surprised to see an increase over the years in popular literature about the Marbles and the Elgins, the aristocratic couple who spearheaded the removal of the sculptures from the Acropolis.
My love of all things ancient and of the modern debate over the ownership of the decorative architectural adornments was what drove me to pick up Karen Essex’s novel, Stealing Athena for the A to Z Reading Challenge. The book takes an insightful look at two strong, independent women connected to the marbles and frames events of magnitude in their lives with the creation, control, and influence of the sculptures dedicated to Athena.
Essex takes the reader back and forth between the turn of the nineteenth century and fifth century BC Athens, at the height of the Classical Period. In the early 1800’s, Lord Elgin with his new wife, Mary, is setting off on a journey to the Ottoman Empire to fulfill his duties as British ambassador to the Turks. Over 2,000 years before that, Aspasia, a native of Miletus, is pawned off by her Athenian brother-in-law to Perikles, elected leader of the Athenian people. Both women, though living centuries apart under different laws of politics and morality and codes of socially accepted behavior, are indeed experiencing parallel existences at the mercy of their husband’s quest for immortality and obsession with the Parthenon.1
Rather than thinking about history from the perspective of the men who funded, built, and dismantled the Parthenon, Essex imagines the story from the perspective of the women around them, who somehow have a more rational view of the events that become obsession for Perikles and Elgin.
In many ways, this book is about achieving immortality through the conduit of the Parthenon. The Parthenon is a character in and of itself and is the only constant throughout the ancient world of Aspasia, the Regency period of the Elgins, and the modern frame of reference of the reader. Perikles attains immortality as patron, as much for himself as for his city, Pheidias as sculptor, and Elgin as the Parthenon’s protector and preserver. They all sacrifice pieces of their time, money, political popularity, and even sanity in their quest to build, complete, dismantle, and possess the Parthenon. It is the women in these great men’s lives who witness the ambitions that tear their homes apart. The women are the silent supporters who have a marginalized role both historically and socially, for while these women are just as great as their men for their intellect, wit, support and aid, bearing of children, and unfailing love, they achieve more infamy that immortality.
We see the sad and lonely life of Mary culminate in the epiphany that Elgin probably married her more for her money than affection, divorce, and the loss of her children to Elgin; children who, though loved, were sired on her with disregard for the near-fatal pregnancies that began their lives. Mary leaves her husband, who not only was disfigured (possibly by syphilis), but who single-mindedly spent every penny of his fortune and that accessible to him of Mary’s on the obsessive removal of the Parthenon sculptures to England. Yet, it is she who is painted with the defamation of divorce and the taint of adultery after she begins a relationship with another man based on mutual respect, admiration, and love, after separating from her husband.
Aspasia, one could say, fares much worse. She is publicly mocked in comedic plays, blamed as the instigator of the Samian War, barred from seeing her sister by her horrid brother-in-law, and is rumored in historical claims to have been a prostitute, brothel owner, and trouble-maker.
Although both women have arguably tragic lives, Essex’s storytelling is both sympathetic and poignant. She frames the lives of these women by the actions involving the Parthenon and the beauty and deterioration of this architectural feature echoes the duality of Aspasia and Mary’s lives; lives that are at the same time rich in experience and alive with sparkling intelligence, vivacity, and reason and are limited by the constraints of their society, revolve around the demands or wishes of their men, and end with public shame.
I enjoyed seeing Essex take a popularly debated, controversial issue in the museum world today and put a human face on the cultures that play a part in the patrimony of the Parthenon sculptures. She gives voice to two strong female protagonists who I would have liked to know, had I lived in either of their times. I can heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in either history, art, or the current political debate about the marbles. While it is fiction, Essex’s book made me take a step back and look at the marbles from a different, more philosophical point of view, wondering what it is worth, arguing over sculptures that are both a source of cultural enrichment and contention, when 2,000 years from now, British and Greek cultures as they stand now will too be ancient history and the debate over patrimony just another footnote in history.
1 – I refer to Perikles here as Aspasia’s husband although this fact is debatable. Perikles passed a law in 451 BC limiting Athenian citizenship only to those born from BOTH a male and female Athenian citizen. This limited marriage choices for Athenians if they wished to have legitimate, Athenian children and thus makes it possible that Aspasia was not officially the wife of Perikles, since she was from Miletus. Yet, the two lived together as man and wife until his death from the plague of 429 BC. They has a son together that was later made legitimate by a change in the citizenship law by the Athenian people, but only after Perikles’s two legitimate sons from his ex-wife were killed in the plague, leaving him heirless. Aspasia could have been a live in mistress, but either way, I like to believe that even if they weren’t legally married, they were married in their hearts. Perikles and Aspasia are their own great romance story, but I digress…