Stealing Athena by Karen Essex

9 August 2008 — fuzzyhistory

Stealing Athena tells the story of the deconstruction of the Elgin Marbles during the early 19th Century. Originally belonging to the Parthenon, the Elgin Marbles comprise marble sculptures created, or supervised, by the Greek sculptor Pheidias. In 1801, Thomas Bruce, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, received permission to remove them to England. He did so over the course of several years at great expense and not without mishap.

While the politics of both countries regarding this event, as well as the disruption of the Napoleonic Wars, provide interesting background, the story centers around the lives of two women – Bruce’s (called Lord Elgin) wife, Mary, and Aspasia, the consort of the Athenian politician Perikles during the 4th Century B.C. Both women suffer to a greater or lesser degree because they live in a world that did not recognize their status except as a man’s chattel.

Thus, the premise of the novel intrigued me. But, unfortunately, the anachronistic portrayal of Aspasia, as well as oft-mentioned feminist ideals out of context with the times and anachronisms in conversations amongst ancient Greeks (particularly, the use of modern coarse slang) contribute to my overall dissatisfaction with the book.

If this were the sum of the problems with the novel, I might still have rated it “good” as defined in my chart. But the story fails to engage. I became bored at about page 150 and remained bored until the end. I was unable to connect with either Elgin or Mary.

Elgin was an irritating conniving vengeful bully, who despite his role in government, remained clueless about people and politics. Mary, more a woman of her times than Aspasia, was too innocent and saintly – a Mary Sue. Rating: Fair.