Stealing Athena

Written by Karen Essex
Review by C.W. Gortner

In her highly anticipated follow up to Leonardo’s Swans, Karen Essex delves into the controversial heart of the origins of the Elgin Marbles, those priceless artifacts of Athena’s temple on the Acropolis which Lord Elgin dismantled and carted off to England in the early 19th century. To this day, Greece and Britain are locked in argument over which country has the right to house these treasures. With her trademark elegance and rare insight into the passions and vicissitudes of the past, Essex weaves this complex issue into a tale personified by two characters in different eras—Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, who assisted her husband in his frenetic quest to capture the marbles and save them from destruction at the hands of the occupying Turks; and Aspasia, philosopher and courtesan of Perikles of Athens, who commissioned the temple itself. Through their alternating eyes, we enter a world of 19th-century greed, adventurism, and arrogant disregard for the concept of cultural heritage, as well as experience the astonishing talents, dignity, and pervasive misogyny of ancient Greece.

Though separated by millennia, both women share a common link to the marbles and the societal restrictions placed on their gender. While high-spirited Mary finds herself forced to reckon with her disillusionment in order to honor her own desires above those of her domineering husband, Aspasia faces accusations of corruption and must defend her independence. Shadowing each of them in their struggles are the marbles themselves—impervious, coveted, irreplaceable. Essex paints a fascinating portrait not only of two distinct eras tainted by disregard for the rights of women, but also of the illusory value we place on objects and the spiritual sacrifices we often make to obtain them.