Seven reasons to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece

Two hundred years ago, the UK bought sculptures from the Parthenon from the Earl of Elgin — it's time to send them back and here's why

Ian Johnston
Monday 11 July 2016 00:10
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The architecture of Parthenon temple in Athens has been copied all over the world
The architecture of Parthenon temple in Athens has been copied all over the world

July 11 this year is the 200th anniversary of the Act of Parliament that saw the UK buy 2,500-year-old sculptures taken from the Parthenon from the then Earl of Elgin. Widely known in Britain as the 'Elgin Marbles', campaigners believe it is time to send them back to Athens to allow all the surviving sculptures to be reunited.

Here are seven reasons why:

Art

The brilliance of the Parthenon building and the sculptures that once adorned it cannot be understated. Its fluted columns can be seen on great buildings around the world from London and Rome to Washington DC. The artists who created the sculptures were among the finest the world has ever seen, making stone seem almost like flesh. Their skills were not seen again until the likes of Michelangelo in the Renaissance.

Democracy

The Athenians built the Parthenon after playing a leading role in the defeat of the Persians in the 50-year Greco-Persian war. The free men of the first significant democracy known to history and their allies managed to prevail against the Persian Empire's army of conscripts and professional soldiers. In addition to Athens’ success on the battlefield, there was also a flowering of philosophy, theatre and art at this time. To many, the Parthenon is a monument to the democratic values held by countries around the world today.

Greece

Following the global recession in 2008, Greece has found itself burdened by massive debts and forced to live under policies of austerity that the Financial Times has described as turning the country into a “quasi-slave" economy. Youth unemployed is about 50 per cent and suicide rates have soared. The country has also had to deal with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the brutal war in Syria and desperate poverty and religious extremism in other countries. Returning the sculptures would boost public morale and also tourism, a mainstay of the Greek economy.

Greece wants its treasured Elgin marbles back from the British

The world

It is often said that the Parthenon sculptures belong to the world. All over the globe, there are committees for the reunification of the marbles for one very simple reason. It is better to be able to see them all in one place.

No reasons not to

None of the reasons for keeping half the Parthenon sculptures in London stand any serious scrutiny. Returning them would not set a precedent that would empty every museum in the world. Most museums have returned artefacts in the past without causing a significant problems. And this would not be the return of a single entity to its place of origin, but instead would allow the reunification of a work of art in the most appropriate place.

Altruism

In a world where the number of genuinely altruistic acts between nations is vanishingly small, this would be an astonishing example. It would be an inspiration to all and help counter those who believe humans are innately selfish.

Brexit (and self-interest)

There is an element of British self-interest in this, but not to the degree that it outweighs the overall altruistic nature of returning the marbles. China sends pandas around the world partly to make people think it’s ‘the nice country where the cool bears come from’, rather than the ‘Communist dictatorship that sends dissenters to gulags’. Giving a gift of this magnitude would remind EU member states that despite our imminent departure, Britain is still a friend and ally — and one worth cutting a reasonable trade deal with.

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