Greece recently hired Amal Alamuddin Clooney as a legal advisor in their campaign to have the Parthenon Marbles returned to Athens. The move has once again thrust the centuries long controversy into the limelight. Carved by the master sculptor Phidias during Athens’ golden age, the statues (that depict various scenes of Ancient Greek mythology and religion) were designed to adorn the Acropolis’ Parthenon Temple, a building that has since stood as an unwavering and pertinent symbol of all the positive virtues of European civilisation.

In the early nineteenth century, however, the Earl of Elgin Thomas Bruce, then the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which at the time occupied Greece), acquired a controversial permit from the local officials allowing him to dismantle and remove the statues. Some remained in Greece but over half were shipped back to Britain. Elgin aimed to have them displayed at his estate in Scotland but bankruptcy in later life forced him to sell them to the British government. Since then they have had pride of place at the British Museum in London. Britain has proved an admirable steward of the Marbles, but now the time has come to send them back to their rightful home in Athens. The arguments in favour of repatriation are overwhelming.

Yet, coming before all the emotional appeals, rational protestations and British counterarguments is the simple fact that the Marbles are a single work of art and therefore must be united. Their separation – even some parts of the same figures have found themselves on opposite ends of the European continent – is an affront to artistic decency. Imagine the Mona Lisa torn apart and displayed in different museums. This is, in the succinct words of the late, great Christopher Hitchens, a ‘grotesque’ state of affairs. A few years ago, the Italian government returned a small fragment of the Marbles that Elgin had left in Palermo. It is time the British did the same.

It must be conceded that the legal ownership of the Marbles is a thorny issue. According to the laws of the time, Elgin did acquire the statues ‘legitimately’. It is telling that the Greek government has never pursued a formal, legal appeal. However, the manner in which they were taken does scream of indecency. At the time, Greece was a subjugated nation. The Ottoman occupiers can hardly be said to have been legitimate representatives of the people. Elgin’s actions represent an imperialist mindset that I would like to think this country had moved beyond, but the British government has remained disturbingly impertinent in the face of what have always been courteous Greek protests.

The two most prominent arguments that Britain has used over the years to refuse repatriation have been that Greece lacks the capability to look after them and that the gesture would establish a dangerous precedent by which all of the British Museum’s treasured possessions would have to be returned. Recent developments have made these arguments totally redundant. Firstly, Athens does now have a fantastic museum, opened in 2009, specially built to house Phidias’ sculptures. A modern, light and beautiful building, it is positioned directly opposite the Acropolis and provides spectacular vistas of the remarkable ancient rock. Walking around the empty top floor, which seems to be perennially basked in gloriously soft Mediterranean sun, it is impossible for the heart not to yearn for the righting of an old wrong.

As for the idea that returning the statues would establish a dangerous precedent, there are two key problems with this. My immediate reaction is: so what? Many of Britain’s artefacts (not to mention the ones in France, Germany, America and elsewhere) were taken under dubious circumstances and should be reviewed on a case by case basis. It is supremely arrogant and imperialistic to argue that all of the world’s treasured art works deserve to remain in a select few of Northern Europe’s museums. Yet I am a cosmopolitan and very sympathetic towards the argument that the British Museum provides an unparalleled coming together of all the world’s cultures under one roof. To see all of its magnificent rooms emptied would be heartbreaking. This is why Greece should not – and has not in the past – ask for all its looted relics to be returned. The Parthenon Marbles are a unique case and their return would not set off a slippery slope. Just look, for instance, at the aforementioned Italian decision to return their portion of the sculptures. Italy possesses a great deal of Ancient Greek artefacts but Athens was content with just Artemis’ stone foot making the short journey from Sicily to Attica. The floodgates did not open.

This perhaps brings us to the crux of the issue. Phidias’ statues are not ordinary relics. They are exceptionally beautiful yes, but they are more than just that. There is a reason their residence in London inspires such an astonishing amount of protest both within Greece and abroad. They are the pinnacle of Ancient Greek culture. Embodied in those statues and metopes are all the virtues that Greece cherishes and gave to the rest of the world: our notions of beauty, truth and knowledge. They are the emblems and pride of a nation. Greece’s Statue of Liberty. They must be returned to their rightful home. Academics and scholars often dismiss these arguments as overly romantic but what is wrong with an emotional appeal! Lord Byron, perhaps the most famous of British Hellenophiles, summarised the issues aptly in his poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’:

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see

Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed

By British hands, which it had best behoved

To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.

Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,

And once again thy hapless bosom gored,

And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

Those words were written in 1818. It is to Britain’s great shame that almost two hundred years later, Elgin’s great crime remains unrectified.

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