After the Washington Post, it was the Sunday Times that ran an opinion piece last month in favor of the return of the Parthenon Marbles, framing it in the context of Brexit. The main argument in both of the articles is that a country which has decided to increase its distance from the rest of the world cannot expected to be entrusted by the rest of the world to safeguard treasures of international importance.
Of course, the British Museum has kept the Marbles for two centuries and in this time the UK’s relations with Europe have undergone alls sorts of shifts and changes. In this time, Britain’s assistance to Greece has been immeasurable and instrumental in Greece’s ability to accomplish several of its biggest goals and milestones: from gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire to the creation of a new state, and from its involvement to minimize the effects of the disastrous Greco-Turkish War of 1897 to the defense against Nazi Germany in 1945.
But even today, with its culture, universities and economy, Britain provides inspiration and a livelihood to tens of thousands of Greeks – not only to those living in the UK but also those who remotely consume its cultural goods, ranging from the media, politics and music to any other form of cultural output from a country that is so dynamic and pioneering.
In this regard, we should not be calling for the return of the Marbles because of Brexit, but for a more fundamental reason: because they belong to Athens and they form part of a single, meaningful set. The sculptures are an organic element of the Parthenon, but also of the city itself because they depict, not merely forms, but symbols that form a cultural vernacular and a philosophical narrative.
The ancient world was defined by this vibrant narrative, which began at Plato’s Academy and was exemplified by the Parthenon. Pivotal to this narrative – which was a catalyst for Athenian unity – was the celebration of the annual Panathenaea festival, which started with a torch relay at the Academy, passed through Kerameikos and ended at the Parthenon.
The scenes from Panathenaea depicted on many of the sculptures hacked off from the Parthenon frieze symbolize the enduring struggle of the opposites in nature, in society and in man himself. Therefore, the sculptures should take their rightful place at the Acropolis Museum not to attract more tourists, but to complement a narrative from which sciences and arts evolved.
This narrative – essentially a code for the laws of the material and the intellectual world – was the reason why the Parthenon Marbles were created nearly 2,500 years ago in Phidias’ workshop, and therefore their return is a matter of much deeper importance to our culture than a simple victory in a transnational dispute.