© 2022 Roderick Beaton, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

William St Clair, who died on 30 June 2021 at the age of 83, while this book was in preparation for press, is justly well known to readers interested in the ancient monuments of Athens and particularly in the fortunes of their sculptures since the early nineteenth century. Lord Elgin and the Marbles, first published in 1967, tells the story of the flawed Scottish aristocrat who determined to take advantage of his appointment as HM Ambassador to Constantinople, in 1799, in order to improve the standards of the decorative arts in Great Britain—and ended up transporting a large part of the sculpted monuments from the Acropolis of Athens to London, where they later ended up in the British Museum. Thirty years after that book’s first publication, the author returned to the controversial story of these ‘marbles’ in a third edition, published in 1998, that added much new material about the monuments and raised searching issues about the custodianship of cultural heritage. No less of a classic is St Clair’s second book, first published in 1972 and reissued in 2008 with much new visual material thanks to the possibilities of digital publishing offered by Open Book Publishers. That Greece Might Still Be Free tells in unprecedented detail the often tragic stories of those European and American volunteers who risked everything to go and fight in the Greek Revolution, or War of Independence, during the 1820s.

As might be expected, the author returns to the themes of both those books in Who Saved the Parthenon?—but with a considerable difference. During the intervening decades this most versatile of scholars had turned his attention to such diverse matters as what he called the ‘political economy of reading’, the early history of feminism, and the history of slavery, as well as becoming a champion of Open Access publishing. All of these separate strands come together in the remarkable richness of the present book. Drawing on his in-depth study of publishing practices and reading habits in Britain from the first printed books to the mid-nineteenth century, published in 2004 as The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, St Clair had more recently applied himself to developing a concept of ‘viewing’ to match that of ‘reading’ that he had explored in that book. In the chapters which follow, the author of The Reading Nation maps out what he calls ‘a history of conjunctures of consumption’, as he discusses the many contrasting, overlapping, and self-contradictory ways in which different categories of viewer, and many different individuals of many different backgrounds and nationalities, have viewed the ancient monuments of the Acropolis from the seventeenth century to the present—with the lion’s share going to the period immediately before, during and after the Greek Revolution of the 1820s.

During the same period, St Clair had addressed the early history of feminism in Britain, in the twelve volumes of facsimiles of rare editions, with editorial introductions and commentary, Conduct Literature for Women, edited with Irmgard Maassen. Covering the period from 1500 to 1710, these appeared in two sets of six volumes in 2000 and 2002 respectively. The history of slavery became the subject of another large-scale monograph with the publication in 2006 of The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British Slave Trade, published a year later in the USA as The Door of No Return, The History of Cape Coast Castle and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Together with its companion volume, The Classical Parthenon: Recovering the Strangeness of the Ancient World (on which see the Editors’ Note), Who Saved the Parthenon? draws together all these disparate themes and approaches. The result is a complex synthesis that is hard to categorise, or to compare with other books, including the author’s own, that traverse some of the same terrain. Two causes espoused vigorously by William St Clair in his later years—the history and ethics of the custodianship of cultural heritage (as exemplified in the emblematic case of the ‘Elgin Marbles’) and the value of Open Access publishing—animate the whole project, the first as a running theme (though never, this time, the dominating one), the second in the book’s expansive structure, its inclusion of a wealth of visual images, on a scale that would scarcely have been possible in a volume designed to be bound and marketed by traditional methods, and, of course, the collaboration with Open Book Publishers.

Greece, ancient and modern, and the intersection of both with the European Romantic movement, are very much to the fore once again. St Clair’s scepticism about that creation of the early nineteenth century, nationalism, and his humane critique of the violent excesses it can engender, shine through; scrupulous and meticulous as a historian, the author also displays the strong moral compass that was evident in his life and his earlier writings. And there is even something reminiscent of the ‘father of history’, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, in the book’s length, 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. Just one example is the storks, whose wide nests atop ancient columns used to be described, and sometimes drawn or painted, by many visitors to the Acropolis before the Greek Revolution of 1821. Driven off by the violence, possibly even hunted for food during successive sieges, and finally exiled in the interests of archaeological purity for a reconstituted ancient site, the long forgotten storks return at different moments in the narrative to remind us of how drastically the monuments of ancient Athens have changed, along with the ways in which we (whoever we happen to be) see them.

Summing up a lifetime of erudition and scholarship, and thanks to the mode of Open Access publishing pioneered by Open Book, Who Saved the Parthenon? is a monumental work in several senses. The hundreds of high-quality images alone are to be treasured, and many of them are extremely rare; extensive notes provide additional information and a wealth of bibliographical and archival resources. But above all, as a biographer and a historian William St Clair knew how to tell a story vividly, with compassion and an eye for human detail. Alongside discussions that are more theoretical, this book contains passages of beautifully written, highly paced narrative that bring home the horrors experienced by ordinary people of all walks of life, on both sides of a brutal war, in Athens during the decade of the 1820s when Greece fought its way to recognition as the first modern nation-state in Europe.

Had the author lived to see this book through to publication, he would have had the opportunity to enrich its already huge bibliography with a number of items which either appeared too late or to which he would not have access during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 and 2021. The interested reader may wish to consult any or all of the following titles, which in different ways complement aspects of this book:

Elizabeth Key Fowden, ‘Portraits of Ottoman Athens from Martin Crusius to Strategos Makriyannis’, in Elizabeth Key Fowden, Suna Çağaptay, Edward Zychowicz-Coghill and Louise Blanke (eds), Cities as Palimpsests? Responses to Antiquity in Eastern Mediterranean Urbanism (Oxford and Philadelphia, PA: Oxbow, 2022), 155–97.

Maria Georgopoulou and Konstantinos Thanasakis (eds), Ottoman Athens: Archaeology, Topography, History (Athens: American School of Classical Studies, 2019).

H. Şükrü Ilicak, ‘Those Infidel Greeks’: The Greek War of Independence through Ottoman Archival Documents, vol. 1 [introduction and translations] (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2021).

Andreas Karkavitsas, The Archaeologist and Selected Sea Stories, trans. Johanna Hanink (London: Penguin, 2022) (see ch. 21).

Mark Mazower, The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe (London: Allen Lane, 2021).

Roderick Beaton

King’s College London & British School at Athens

March 2022

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