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Literature

Geoffrey Robertson Asks “Who Owns History?”

January 24, 2022

The Parthenon is the most impressive building to survive from the Classical period of ancient Greece and for many Greeks worldwide, it is a potent symbol of the homeland and a source of pride in the achievements of our ancestors. The return of the Parthenon Marbles has been an issue basically since they were stolen by British diplomat Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, during his term as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century. Among the earliest to criticize the vandalism and theft of the Parthenon marbles was Lord Byron in a satirical poem from 1807. Since that time, many books and articles have been written about the Parthenon Marbles and why they should be returned.

Published in 2019, Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure by Geoffrey Robertson is one of the most recent books and is essential reading for anyone interested in the topic of the Parthenon Marbles, the history and the legal case for their return to Greece. Robertson, QC, (Queen’s Counsel, a senior barrister recognized as a leader in the field) makes the case clearly in this easy to read volume. He dismantles the baseless arguments, lies, and propaganda that have kept the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum for too long. The book is a must read, especially in light of recent developments, including the return of fragments to the Acropolis Museum from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and from the Antonio Salinas Archaeological Museum in Palermo, Italy.

Robertson, founder and head of Doughty Street Chambers, the UK’s leading human rights legal practice, begins with a preface highlighting the fact that looting cultural treasures and punishing the looters is nothing new. He cites the 70 BC case brought by the renowned Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher and orator Cicero against Gaius Verres who plundered public and private artworks from the Greek province of Sicily while he served as Roman governor. The stolen goods decorated his home and some even went on display in the Forum. Robertson writes: “As for peacetime occupation of territories won by conquest or by consent, Cicero articulated the principle that representatives of an occupying power had no right to take, or to purchase at an undervalue, cultural items of significance to the people of those territories.”

Verres fled Rome after hearing Cicero’s opening speech and never returned but “his estate was ordered to pay compensation to his victims for his thefts,” Robertson noted.

The world of art and culture continues to face the question of the return of property taken without consent. The book underlines the fact that the return of the Parthenon Marbles is long overdue. Robertson points out that the first claim for the return “was made by the newly independent Greek government in 1833.”

The Acropolis Museum which opened in 2009 is more than ready for the return of the Parthenon Marbles and Robertson’s book explores how justice can best be served, combining international human rights law with a deep appreciation of cultural history.

Robertson’s colleague Amal Clooney, who had worked as a legal advisor on the issue for Greece in 2015, said that Robertson’s book “provides, once and for all, the case for reuniting the Parthenon Marbles in Athens. This is a powerful cry for justice- it deserves a response.”

Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure by Geoffrey Robertson is available online and in bookstores.

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