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Britain and Greece continue to fight over the Parthenon Marbles. Source: markara / Adobe Stock.

Brexit Reignites Greece’s Appeal to Return Stolen Parthenon Marbles

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Greece’s continuing demands for the UK to return its famous Parthenon Marbles has been ignored by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, again.

What is becoming a historically significant archaeological dispute between Britain and Greece over a collection of ancient treasures is being presented by major media outlets, including Greek City Times, as a “Brexit tension” after a demand for the return of stolen cultural artifacts was recently added to the draft of a European Union negotiating mandate.

The British Museum in London has so far refused to even consider returning the famous Parthenon Marbles; 2,500 year-old sculptures which comprise about half of a 525 foot (160 meter long) frieze that adorned the 5th century BC Parthenon temple. They were removed from Athens by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, under license, when Greece was under Ottoman Turkish rule.

The Parthenon Marbles are part of a 525 foot (160 meter long) frieze. (Solipsist~commonswiki / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Parthenon Marbles are part of a 525 foot (160 meter long) frieze. (Solipsist~commonswiki / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lord Elgin’s Historical Bait And Switch

The Parthenon, the Temple of Athena, was built between 447 to 432 BC to enhance Athens magnificence as a great imperial city and in 1799, Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to Constantinople received a letter of permission from the sultan to make plaster replicas of the sculptures. But after bribing the Turkish officer in charge of the Acropolis Elgin proceeded to ‘remove’ the sculptures and subsequently sold them to the British Government for $45,318 (£35,000).

As if the early 19th century relocation project wasn’t controversial enough, between 1930 and 1940, staff at the British Museum attempted to clean the Parthenon sculptures with wire brushes and acid inflicting permanent damage to them. In 1983, Melina Mercouri, Minister of Culture for Greece, first requested the return of the sculptures and this debate has been evolving ever since.

Will Brexit Really Make Britain Weak At The Knees?

Now, according to a CBC report, a draft of the 27 EU nations' position on negotiations with Britain on their future relationship, which seeks the “return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin,” originally specified no artifacts, however, with support from Italy an EU diplomat said the line was added at the request of Greece retrospectively. This comes just one month after the New York Times reported on Greece's culture minister, Lina Mendoni, saying Athens would “step up” its campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from London and he expected increasing support from European ministers thinking Brexit would “diminish” Britain's influence in such matters.

Metope from the Parthenon Marbles depicting a Centaur and a Lapith fighting. (Kbh3rd / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Metope from the Parthenon Marbles depicting a Centaur and a Lapith fighting. (Kbh3rd / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Even Hollywood Stars Had Their Say

Three years after Britons voted in a referendum to leave the EU, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not yet commented on this escalation to the long standing Parthenon Marbles situation. However, the British Museum says the marbles were acquired by Lord Elgin under a “legal contract with the Ottoman empire,” which in maritime terms would make Elgin a noble privateer, but Greek ministers say the marbles were “stolen” suggesting the British Lord was nothing more than a bent old pirate.

Back in 2014, an Ancient Origins news article told how Hollywood actors George Clooney, Bill Murray, and Matt Damon were in London promoting their film, The Monuments Men, which was inspired by the true story of a soldier rescuing valuable artworks stolen by the Nazis during the invasion of Europe. These actors said, like Greece politicians think today, that Britain “needed to have a long, hard, look at itself”.

The Parthenon Marbles in a temporary Elgin Room at the British Museum surrounded by museum staff, a trustee, and visitors in 1819. (Understat / Public Domain)

The Parthenon Marbles in a temporary Elgin Room at the British Museum surrounded by museum staff, a trustee, and visitors in 1819. (Understat / Public Domain)

And in what was not a blaze of intellectual prowess demonstrating a deep understanding of international cultural and heritage laws, actor Bill Murray said, “London's gotten crowded, there's plenty of room back there in Greece, plenty of room”. Clooney was a little more professional when he stated that Athens had a very good case” to reclaim the 2,500 year-old sculptures, but back then when current British Prime Minister Boris Johnstone was mayor of London he said Clooney was “advocating nothing less than the Hitlerian agenda for London's cultural treasures”.

Let Go, Or Lose Your Marbles

An anonymous EU source told CBC that the reference to “stolen artifacts” was included in a draft of the document as early as last week with support from Cyprus and Spain, and that EU countries were more broadly concerned about the illegal trade of artifacts through London auction houses. And herein perhaps lies the unseen political core of this ongoing dispute.

Greece’s recent accusation that Lord Elgin “stole” the ancient artifacts is maybe more politically problematic than it might first appear, for even if every minister in the UK aligned with George Cloony and the group of EU diplomats demanding the Parthenon Marbles be returned to Greece, to legally engage with such a protocol means admitting Lord Elgin committed theft.

The debate of ownership of the Parthenon Marbles continues. (Joyofmuseums / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The debate of ownership of the Parthenon Marbles continues. (Joyofmuseums / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Struggling to assign his time between the floods currently ravaging Britain and his continued efforts at regaining British sovereignty after leaving the EU, Boris Johnson won’t be righting colonial wrongs any time soon, so Greece will no doubt have to continue “losing its marbles”.

(Editors note: This article was updated 10/3/20 to remove politically sensitive comments considered irrelevant to the piece.)

Top image: Britain and Greece continue to fight over the Parthenon Marbles. Source: markara / Adobe Stock.

By Ashley Cowie



“Recent accusation”? Seriously?

Also, what does the economic situation (the analysis of which, in the article, leaves very much to be desired but anyhow) have to do with the issue at hand? Or is it implied that because the UK helped (or “helped”) Greece they may keep the marbles? Some  great leap there...

Robert Bowie Johnson's picture

The image introducing the article is not a sculpture from the Parthenon. It looks like it's from the temple of Apollo at Bassai. This is one of many examples of mistakes revealing how little is understood about the meaning of the Parthenon and its sculptures. In the last hundred pages of "The Parthenon Code: Mankind's History in Marble," I restore the east pediment, identifying all the figures based on all available evidence. Book is available on amazon and at For an introduction to the meaning of ancient Greek religious temple and vase art, please see

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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