In 2013, I spent a happy week at the Center for Hellenic Studies, where I did research on the ways in which Americans read the Odyssey in the 19th century. This was related to a book project I was beginning (now forthcoming), which investigated a long journey by Abraham Lincoln in 1861, to become the leader of a divided country that had forgotten its founding principles. In my research, I was attuned to the myriad ways in which Americans remembered ancient Greece, including their tendency to misremember it, or confuse it with other civilizations. The Washington Monument offers just one of many examples—as originally conceived, it was projected to include a 500-foot Egyptian obelisk, mounted atop a circular Greek temple, with a statue of George Washington in a Roman toga, seated in a Greek chariot, drawn by Arabian steeds, with an Etruscan winged victory nearby. In the end, only the obelisk was built.
But an interesting fragment of Greece survived the design process. At the time of the first phase of construction, in the 1840s and 1850s, an appeal was sent out to donate memorial stones. Many states, cities and fraternal associations answered the call, and a smaller number of foreign countries did as well. Greece was one of them. In 1854, an American missionary (and acting US consul in Athens), Jonas King, succeeded in persuading the Greek government to send a 30-by-45-inch slab of marble from the Parthenon to the construction site in Washington. The so-called Parthenon Stone now rests at the 190-foot level, in a stairwell (where it is off-limits to visitors). It is inscribed in Greek, with a few suitable phrases expressing the admiration of Greece, “the mother of ancient liberty,” for George Washington and the new order of liberty he launched.
In other ways, as well, an older past is present inside that darkened stairwell. Stones were sent from the Temple of Aesculapius on the island of Paros, from the Governor of Paros and Naxos, and from the ruins of Carthage. Thirteen of the stones were inscribed in Latin, and two in Greek (the Parthenon Stone and a stone sent by the Ohio Sons of Temperance, quoting Pindar, “water is best”). From Constantinople, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid sent an extraordinary stone, elaborately carved and inscribed by Turkish artisans.
But another gift from the ancient world fared less well. Pope Piux IX sent a marble slab from the Roman Temple of Concord. But in 1854, masked men broke into the construction site, stole the stone, and dumped it in the Potomac River, where it remains to this day. Despite the reverence most Americans felt for the ancient world, these men, linked to the Know-Nothing movement, were angry that Washington’s shrine might be tainted by a foreign gift (and from the Pope, in particular). But the Parthenon Stone managed to evade the political crosscurrents of the 1850s, and to this day it rests serenely inside the dark stairwell, a genuine piece of the ancient world in a city mostly known for its imitation knockoffs.
Ted Widmer is Distinguished Lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York. His next book, Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington, will be published by Simon and Schuster in April.
For further reading, please consult John E. Ziolkowski, “The Parthenon Stone in the Washington Monument,” Prologue: the journal of the National Archives, vol. 25 (Winter 1993), 374–381, and Judith M. Jacob, “The Washington Monument: a technical history and catalog of the commemorative stones” (Washington, DC: National Park Service, 2005), https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/wamo/stones.pdf.