Britain and the Elgin Marbles: How Brexit Can Restore Greek Artifacts and Honor

By Anastasia Kaliabakos

In the aftermath of Brexit, a debate has arisen over whether Britain should return artifacts that had been “unlawfully removed” from their countries of origin. One specific case that many people feel strongly about are the “Elgin Marbles,” which are remnants of the Parthenon from ancient Greece. In order to fully understand the gravity of the situation and why Greece has persistently advocated for the return of the Elgin Marbles, it may be helpful to turn back the clock and examine the history of these great artifacts.

More than two millennia ago, after their victory in a Persian invasion, the city of Athens, led by the famed Pericles, built the Parthenon in the location of a previously destroyed temple. Literally, the word “parthenon” means “the virgin’s abode.” The building was dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. Originally, the temple held hundreds of sculptures, carvings, and friezes by the famed artist Phidias, one of the greatest artists of ancient Greece. The decorations in the Parthenon were mainly allegorical, telling the stories of Greek heroes and histories of epic battles. At the very center of the temple stood an awe-inspiring gold-plated statue of Athena herself, called the Athena Parthenos (unfortunately, the fate of this statue remains unknown).

Over the past two thousand years, the Parthenon has changed in several ways. It was rededicated to Mary of Nazareth in 450 AD and then became a mosque after the Ottomans sacked Athens in the 1400s. Finally, in 1687, during the “Great Turkish War” between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice, it became a ruin, much of it destroyed by Venetian shelling.

THE “ELGIN MARBLES”, left, remnants of the Parthenon from ancient Greece, currently on display at the British Museum in London. Photo by ChrisO, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia.

In the early 19th century, Lord Elgin, a Scottish nobleman, journeyed to Greece and, with a “mandate” from the Ottoman empire, took many marble sculptures, friezes, and art from the ruins of the Parthenon. He, along with a team of assistants, brought these important Greek artifacts back to England. In 1816 the British Museum bought the Marbles from Elgin, and they henceforth became known as the “Elgin Marbles,” or the “Parthenon Sculptures.” Although the Elgin Marbles’ display in the British Museum was indeed breathtaking and beautiful, it was also the source of much controversy. Even back then, it was almost shocking for one to see pieces of an ancient monument stripped from their place of origin and displayed thousands of miles away in a cosmopolitan museum. 

When Greece won its independence in 1832, its campaign to reclaim the Elgin Marbles began. However, to this day, the British Museum has refused to give back what rightfully belongs to Greece. One argument put forward is that the document that Elgin had acquired before pillaging the Parthenon allowed him to take debris that had already fallen from the building and even to remove some of the works that appealed to him. Some say that Elgin was an original conservator and hero. In the early 1800s, when Elgin traveled to Greece, the Ottomans were using the Parthenon as a type of military base, sometimes using the ancient statues for their target practice. Therefore, some believe that Elgin’s subsequent actions were heroic, saving many artifacts before they could be destroyed. However, now that time has passed and Greece is fully autonomous, it may be time for the Parthenon Sculptures to be returned.

The British Museum has justified its possession of the Elgin Marbles by stating that they are preservers of the sculptures, protecting them from incoming environmental damage such as that which is caused by oil refineries and acid rain in Greece. Additionally, global institutions like the British Museum argue that art achieves its true potential through magnificent public display, labelling the removal of some artifacts from their home countries to museums as “creative acts.” Opponents of returning the Marbles also say that the repatriation of the Parthenon Sculptures may lead to the gradual emptying and decline of popular “encyclopedic museums.” The British Museum also has other famous artifacts in its possession, such as the Rosetta Stone, that have not been returned to their rightful countries of origin.

In the EU’s negotiating mandate for Britain, the return of “unlawfully removed cultural objects” to their places of origin is called for. Although the Elgin Marbles were not specifically mentioned, it is clear that this clause can be applied to their repatriation. As one of the main ideals of Brexiters is that of sovereignty, Britain should abide by this clause and restore the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens. Not only would this establish a fully legitimate relationship between Britain and Greece, acknowledging Greece’s strength through so much opposition and strife over the past centuries and economic suffering during past decades, but it would also demonstrate that Britain is able to resolve a past injustice. 

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