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Parthenon Marbles

Our family holiday in summer 2018 was to Athens and Crete. We walked around the Acropolis on a sweltering day. I thought the heat was playing tricks on me when I saw the then Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, also wandering around with his partner. We had a brief chat which I hoped hadn’t ruined his holiday.

How fitting, I thought, to meet your country’s Prime Minister at this enduring symbol of democracy.

In 2007, the European Union declared the Parthenon to be the most important cultural monument in Europe. As a reminder, the Parthenon is the 2,500 year old temple on the Acropolis hill constructed by Pericles dedicated to the goddess Athena to celebrate victory over the Persians.

Adjacent to it is the New Acropolis Museum and the most striking exhibit there consisted of some blank spaces. These spaces are reserved for the day when the British Museum agrees to return the stolen and brutally vandalised ‘Elgin Marbles’, more appropriately known as the Parthenon Marbles.

Back in 1801, Lord Elgin’s workers started to hack away at the marble friezes that had to that point adorned the Parthenon for 2,300 years. Lord Elgin claimed that he had permission to do so (he didn’t) and that he was doing it to protect against the marbles being destroyed by the Turks who then occupied Athens.

There is no evidence to show that the Turks were about to tear down the marbles and cart them off. And even if they were, surely that danger has sufficiently receded at this point to allow for their safe return to Athens. The marbles had survived in place thousands of years of invasions and earthquakes and cannon fire.

Lord Elgin’s stolen treasure was lodged first at the British Council building in Athens, before being sent forward to the port of Pireaus and shipped to London.

The British Museum is full of stolen treasure.

I was in Bruges a few weeks ago and saw the Madonna sculpture by Michaelanglo. It had been sold by the sculptor himself in 1506 to a Flemish businessman who then had it placed in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges. As such, its provenance is well established and there is no question of its return to Italy.

The Parthenon Marbles were acquired thanks to extensive bribery of Turkish officials. A transaction secured through bribery is void in contract law. The liability of the British Government for this theft is clear.

There was some discussion at the time of the Brexit negotiations that the marbles would be returned as part of the settlement with the UK but this didn’t get anywhere. In March of this year, UNESCO stated that the UK should return the marbles to Greece and a majority of UK citizens agree, according to opinion polls.

In 2017, President Macron declared that colonisation of Africa was a crime against humanity and that “African cultural heritage can no longer remain a prisoner of European museums”. 90% of the material cultural legacy of Africa resides outside of that continent.

As Geoffrey Robertson noted in his book, Who Owns History, “great art is not just property but has a special quality - that of heritage - because of its continuing significance to the people from whom it has been wrested, and a cultural value because of its religious or political context.”

If ‘Global Britain’ wants to set off on the right foot, it could do much worse than returning the marbles to the great temple of democracy in Athens.

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