YOU don’t see many British visitors to the “Elgin Marbles” these days. In the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum, most of the faces staring up at the Parthenon sculptures are Chinese, American or holiday-makers from the European Union. And there is a reason for this. The British – the English especially – long ago sucked the Marbles dry. The thrilling message once drawn from them has lost its flavour and become meaningless.

Now this array of huge, broken bodies is reduced to a mere symbol of British nostalgia for departed world power.

Rishi Sunak wraps himself in a faded Union Jack, as he snubs the Greek prime minister for daring to ask for their return to Athens. That ask has been repeated for almost 200 years now, ever since Lord Elgin – armed with a dodgy Turkish licence – ordered his men to saw the sculptures off the Parthenon. (Most were actually part of the temple’s structure, not detached panels.)

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The Victorian public adored them. They became part of Great Britain’s glory. It was assumed that the Greeks were unworthy of the Marbles, unfit to care for them. But as the 19th century passed, a bizarre question began to excite London intellectuals. How could the Greeks – small, dark, poor, and erratic – possibly have carved these sublime torsos?

Surely some other race, physically and artistically superior, lived in Attica in the 5th century BC? And surely those magnificent white bodies, broad-shouldered and long-legged, were ... well, “northern” rather than Mediterranean?

The National: Elgin Marbles

Robert Knox was the brilliant Edinburgh anatomist for whom Burke and Hare murdered, providing him with dissection corpses. Burke was hanged in 1829. Knox somehow persuaded the police that he had known nothing about the murders, and decamped to London. There he wrote books about “race”.

As a Lowland Scot, Knox proclaimed himself a “Saxon”, threatened by the inferior “Celtic” race to be found in the Highlands. But he also argued that modern Greeks had no connection to the races in classical Greece: “The Scandinavian or Saxon ... was early in Greece, say 3500 years ago... while in Greece it contributed mainly, no doubt, to the formation of the noblest of all men – the statesmen, poets, sculptors, mathematicians, metaphysicians and historians of ancient Greece. But from that land, nearly all traces of it have disappeared.”

Knox was not alone. His “Races of Men” came out in 1862. But the German scholar Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer had already published an account of Greece in which he claimed that “the race of the Hellenes has been wiped out in Europe” and that modern Greeks were the descendants of later Slav and Albanian immigrants. (Fallmerayer remains one of the most hated names in Greece today, and the Nazis used his racial theories when they invaded the country in 1941.)

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So where had it gone, the stock from which those Parthenon Hellenes had sprung? Robert Knox had an answer: “The Maid of Athens had blue eyes … [had] fair and flowing locks, full-bosomed, fleshy and large-limbed ... the streets of London abound with persons having this identical facial angle ... It is in England that women resembling Niobe, and men the Hercules and Mars, are chiefly to be found.”

In short, it was the proto-English – not the Greeks – who built the Parthenon, invented philosophy and carved the Marbles before migrating north. Utterly daft as this sounds, like all Knox’s racialist theories, it found subtle echoes towards the end of the Victorian century. That was the time when British visions of global imperial destiny for “the English race” rose to their wild peak.

At home, this was also an age of lifestyle experiment. Very cautiously, the love of man for man was edging out of the shadows, and visitors to the Marbles looked at their superb male nakedness in a new way. In the next generation, the culture-historian John Addington Symonds almost “came out” with his homoerotic poetry. His book “A Problem in Greek Ethics” has been called “the first gay history”; he wrote about “the passionate and enthusiastic attachment subsisting between man and youth” in Hellenic Greece.

The National: First World War poet Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) cira. 1902.

Later still, the poet Rupert Brooke (above) was a Greek scholar deeply in love with rural England, a neo-pagan bisexual in his first youth. But by then, on the eve of the Great War, his modern sense of humour meant he couldn’t swallow Victorian solemnity about the male body.

“Straggling, irregular, perplexed, embossed/Grotesquely twined, extravagantly lost ...”

Brooke died at only 27, on his way to the Dardanelles front. That war, the foul carnage of trenches and men’s shattered bodies, brought Marbles-worship to an end.

I went to see them once more. Stupendous, tragic wreckage set around a sunless grey hall. Again, small groups of Chinese, American, Spanish visitors – hardly a single Brit except for a multiracial primary-school class from east London. “Don’t touch!” shouted the teacher. But that figure was only a plaster cast. You couldn’t tell the difference until you read a notice.

So, copy the Marbles, and ship them back to the sunlit Acropolis where they belong.