I want to suggest a project: Nostos 2024. ‘Nostos’ is the ancient Greek word for a voyage home, and the project I suggest is that the Parthenon marbles, removed from the Athenian Acropolis by agents of Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century and currently housed in the British Museum in London, should complete their long-delayed voyage home to Athens before the end of the year 2024.
Why should the marbles go home? This hardly needs asking. Elgin took them without clear permission from the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled Greek lands, and certainly without permission from the subject Greek people. Even at the time, their removal was controversial, and the Greek state has been campaigning for their return since its foundation in 1832.
Today, their retention in London is indefensible, morally and aesthetically, if not legally. They were designed to be part of the Acropolis complex and belong with the other remaining Parthenon sculptures in the Acropolis Museum, which has been specially designed to exhibit them. Many organizations campaign for the return, working under the aegis of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, and UNESCO has recently called on Britain to hand them back.
Why 2024? Because it’s the bicentenary of the death of Lord Byron. Byron was a passionate philehellene who sold his estate in England to fund the cause of Greek independence and travelled to Greece to help lead the fight. It was there that he died on 19 April 1824.
Byron had condemned Elgin’s removal of the marbles in his poems ‘The Curse of Minerva’ and ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, writing this of Elgin and his men:
Curst be the hour when their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking Gods to northern climes abhorrd!
–Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto II, Stanza XV
The British will want to celebrate the bicentenary of the death of one of their greatest poets, and I can think of no finer or more appropriate tribute than the righting of this wrong done by his countrymen to a country he loved. If we could ask him what memorial he would like, I have no doubt he would choose this one.
It would be a generous, noble gesture, befitting Byron, and it would reaffirm the long-standing bonds of friendship between Britain and Greece.
I know it’s presumptuous of me to ‘suggest’ this, as if no one else had thought of it. There are many people working hard for the return of the marbles, and doubtless others have made the connection with Byron’s bicentenary. But I wanted to add my voice and propose Nostos 2024 as a watchword.