Earlier this month I was near Windsor and took the opportunity to visit Virginia Water, a large man-made lake in Windsor Great Park which has long been a royal hunting ground and spacious back yard for the monarchs staying at Windsor Castle.
Not far from the Visitor Centre stands a classical ruin which, on Google Maps, is marked as Leptis Magna Ruins. Since I had been to the real Leptis Magna in Libya back in 1976 I was curious to find out how ruins from Libya have ended up in Surrey.
In 1816 an English Consul in Tripoli called Colonel Hanmer Warrington, along with an artist friend, visited the ruined Roman city of Leptis Magna and thought some precious relics from there would make a great addition to the British Museum. He saw no problem with powerful Britain throwing its imperial weight around and regarding itself as the rightful heir to items left behind by those other great empire builders, the Romans. He persuaded the local Ottoman governor to let him take some of the structures back to Britain. Today that would probably be seen as a war crime under the Hague Convention but those days it was common practice. The Elgin Marbles had been removed from the Parthenon and shipped to Britain just a couple of years earlier and the French had removed 600 columns from Leptis Magna in the 17th century and incorporated them into Versailles, Rouen Cathedral and elsewhere.
Some thirty seven marble and granite columns, together with pedestals, cornices and various other ancient stone slabs arrived in London in 1818 and were deposited in the courtyard of the British Museum which really did not know what to do with them since they were undergoing rebuilding at the time. After lying around for eight years it was decided that King George IV could have them to use as garden adornments at Virginia Water. The King’s architect Jeffrey Wyatville created a folly in the form of a ruined Roman temple using the looted Leptis Magna stones, together with some masonry reclaimed from the demolished Carlton House and some classical statues taken from a captured French ship. He called his creation the Temple of Augustus, perhaps in honour of King George whose middle name was Augustus.
By 2008 the ruins were in poor condition due to a combination of the English climate, root damage and vandalism but they were restored by the Crown Estate and reopened to the public in 2009.
As for the original Leptis Magna in Libya, at its height around 1800 years ago it had been the third most important city in Africa after Carthage and Alexandria. This was during the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus who was born in the city. It fell into decline after his reign and, over the centuries, was damaged by a tidal wave, sand encroachment and various invasions. Locals also used the site as a source of building materials. Despite all this, and even with the plundering of Warrington and Louis XIV, the ruins remain among the best preserved Roman sites in the Mediterranean and they are a world class tourist attraction, or at least would be, if Libya were not wracked by war. Hopefully Leptis Magna will emerge unscathed from this latest episode in its turbulent history but if it needs any replacement columns we know where there are some spares.