Ancient History & Civilisation



On the wall of a now dilapidated house in the centre of the Sicilian town of Enna, there is a remarkable commemorative plaque. A carefully inscribed slab of marble, put up by the local council in 1960, reads: ‘On this very spot stood the house in which Marcus Tullius Cicero lodged, the defender of Enna and the whole of Sicily against that plunderer of temples, Caius Licinius Verres, Roman governor of the island. The city of Enna, still mindful of his services twenty centuries later, erected this memorial’. Leaving aside the elements of fantasy (we have no idea at all where Cicero lodged when he visited Enna), it is vivid testimony to the enduring power of a Roman court case of 70 BC and to the memory of Cicero as defender of the province of Sicily against the depredations of its rogue governor.

Cicero was then an up-and-coming politician, keen to make a name for himself. So he had taken on the case of a group of Sicilians, who wanted to charge their governor with ‘extortion’. It was a risky strategy. Verres was much better connected than Cicero, and it was anyway hard to secure a conviction for extortion in the provinces. Roman governors expected to come home considerably richer from their overseas postings, and juries at Rome (in 70 BC composed entirely of senators) almost inevitably saw it from the governor’s side. For a prosecution to be successful, there had to be evidence of really outrageous crime and/or some overriding political advantage in delivering a guilty verdict. But Cicero, playing the combined role of prosecuting counsel and amateur detective, went off to Sicily and gathered together witnesses and detailed documentary evidence of Verres’ misdemeanours. His case for the prosecution is laid out in the surviving speeches ‘Against Verres’.


6. A shadow of its former glory? The spot in Enna where Cicero is supposed to have lodged while investigating the case against Verres.

These document Verres’ lifetime of crime. One speech concentrates on his fiddling of the corn supply; another exposes his profiteering when he was overseeing building work on the temple of Castor in the Roman Forum (he tried to extract a vast payment from the contractor on the grounds that the columns were not quite vertical). But the most lurid and memorable parts of Cicero’s denunciation concern Verres’ reign of terror in Sicily. The fate of Gavius from the Sicilian town of Consa, who was flogged, tortured and crucified for being a spy, despite the fact that he was a Roman citizen and so legally protected from such treatment, has remained a powerful political symbol. Gavius died with the words ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’) on his lips – a slogan that was later adopted by Lord Palmerston when he sent a gunboat in support of the British citizen Don Pacifico, who in 1847 had been attacked by an anti-Semitic crowd in Athens. It was famously wheeled out again in 1963 by John F. Kennedy in Berlin: ‘Two thousandyears ago the proudest boast was “civis Romanus sum”. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “ich bin ein Berliner”’. Kennedy, presumably, did not know what happened to Gavius.

Another whole speech, and the focus of Margaret Miles’s Art as Plunder, is devoted to detailing Verres’ expropriation of the famous artworks of the province. As the commemoration in Enna hints, some of this came from sacred temples. In fact, his worst theft, according to Cicero, was of various venerable images, including a venerable cult statue of Ceres: ‘this very Ceres, the most ancient and sacred of all, the fountain-head of all the cults of the goddess among all races and peoples, was stolen by Gaius Verres from her own temple and home’. But private property was not safe from his thieving hands. Gaius Heius, a ‘successful businessman’ of Messana, kept some rare masterpieces (including statues by Praxiteles, Polykleitos and Myron) in a shrine in his house. Verres soon forced him to sell them for a ridiculously low price. In general, for anyone in Sicily with valuables at home, the governor was a dangerous dinner guest. He was likely to leave with your gold and silver, your dinner service, or your rare Corinthian bronze, in his carriage.

These speeches against Verres are the only speeches for the prosecution to survive from the ancient Roman courtroom (speaking for the defence was usually seen as the more honourable trade). They now amount to six separate speeches (plus one from a preliminary hearing), or almost a quarter of all Cicero’s oratory that has come down to us. It looks as if it must have been a long case – but it was not. Verres decided to scarper after listening to the evidence presented in the very first speech (a move which has usually been taken as an admission of guilt). He spent the rest of his days in exile in Marseilles, apparently still in possession of his art collection; almost thirty years later he was put to death on the order of Mark Antony, because he refused to hand over to Antony his favourite Corinthian bronzes – or so the suspiciously apposite anecdote, recounted by the elder Pliny, has it. After his flight from Rome Verres was condemned in absentia, and Cicero circulated a no doubt highly embellished version of the one speech he had actually delivered, and the five that had remained unused. Not only did these turn out to be a success in the Roman classroom and in the training of young orators; they also established the conflict between Cicero and Verres as an exemplary story of right versus might, and the cause of justice triumphing over violence and corruption. And so it still rings true in Enna.

The facts of the case are not, of course, so simple. As always, we only have Cicero’s side of it. No one would seriously suggest that Verres was an entirely innocent victim of some vendetta on the part of Cicero and the Sicilians. But it is hard to know if he was very much worse in his conduct than other Roman governors at the time; and it is also hard to know how far the case was fired by Cicero’s own eagerness to make a name. Recent studies have exposed many of the tactical obfuscations in Cicero’s account of Verres’ abuse of the corn supply. Besides, although his flight after Cicero’s first speech in the courtroom may be an indication of Verres’ guilt, innocent (or relatively innocent) men may also take to their heels. Sometimes they have just had enough.

Miles has no serious doubts that Verres was more or less guilty as charged. But in her study of his plundering of works of art, she does tease out some of the complexities that underlie Cicero’s invective. In broad terms, we can detect a development in the ancient world from the idea of art as essentially a public or religious medium to the idea of art as the object of private collecting and connoisseurship. The late second and early first century BC in Italy was a particularly loaded moment in that transition, as the Romans came increasingly in contact with the artistic traditions of the Greek world, and works of art flowed to Rome from the eastern Mediterranean as the prize of conquest. Intensely debated were the role of Greek art within the ‘native’ traditions of Roman culture, the legitimacy of the private ownership of luxury arts, and how far it was appropriate for an elite Roman to fashion himself as a ‘lover of art’.

Within these debates, almost anyone was a potential target. Gaius Mummius, who destroyed the city of Corinth in 146 BC, was ridiculed for being ignorant about art. One hostile anecdote tells how, when the treasures of Corinth were being loaded on to ships to be transported back to Rome, Mummius warned the sailors that if they damaged anything they would have to replace it. Yet to be passionately keen on Greek art could be presented as equally culpable – as Cicero makes clear in his attack on Verres. It was not just his crimes in acquiring all these statues and antiques that could be held against the accused, but his cupidity itself, his desire for art. Cicero, meanwhile, when discussing the famous statues owned by Heius of Messana, affects not even to be able to remember who exactly those renowned artists were (‘… the sculptor, who was he? Who did they say he was? Ah yes, thank you, Polykleitos …’). Whether this was an attempt to distance himself from Verres’ artistic passions, or (as Miles less plausibly suggests) an attempt to make fun of Verres’ own ‘pretensions to connoisseurship’, it illustrates the perils for Romans of engaging – or refusing to engage – with art and its acquisition.

But there are other, bigger dilemmas at issue that Miles does not always pick up. For a start, the contested boundary between the cultured patron and the obsessive, rapacious collector is an almost universal one. This is nicely illustrated in Carole Paul’s account of the display of the Borghese collection of paintings and antiquities in eighteenth-century Rome. In discussing the formation of the collection she devotes a short section to the seventeenth-century Scipione Borghese – a ‘distinguished … patron of the arts’, ‘a great Maecenas’. It is only in the next paragraph that we learn that ‘Scipione was also a remarkable – and ruthless – collector, who would stoop to confiscation and theft to obtain paintings, and even had artists imprisoned when they displeased him’. Same person, same habits: it all depended which side of Scipione’s patronage you were on.

We can find very similar ambiguities in ancient Rome. In the fourth book of his poetry collection, the Silvae, published in the mid-90s AD, Statius praises one Novius Vindex, a connoisseur of art who has recently acquired a statuette of Hercules by Lysippos, once owned by Alexander the Great. Miles stresses how different the tone of this poem is from Cicero’s treatment of Verres’ art collecting. ‘Unlike Verres’, she observes, ‘Vindex collects art honestly … not to further his ambitions and public career’. For her, there is ‘an antithetical difference in character between the two men’, and a chronological difference too. One hundred and seventy years after the Verrine case, there was now a positive role for the private collector in Rome. So there may have been, but surely more to the point is that we know of Verres from his enemy and Novius Vindex from his friend. If Verres had had a tame poet, he too would presumably have praised his cultured patron to the skies.

Even more crucially, the transfer, removal, or theft of art objects is almost always more complicated than any simple model of plunderer and victim suggests. This is certainly the case with Heius’ collection of masterpieces, which he lost to Verres. How, we must ask, did a Sicilian ‘businessman’ acquire statues by Praxiteles, Polykleitos and Myron? Cicero stresses that they were inherited ‘from his ancestors’; but that assertion, on its own, deflects rather than answers the question. The little we know of Heius suggests that he had been in business on the island of Delos, a major commercial centre of the Mediterranean and capital of the ancient slave trade. It is possible, though in my view unlikely, that he was ‘an art dealer’ of some kind. More probably, these fine statues were acquired with the profits from the ancient traffic in people. It could even be that the circumstances in which Heius acquired his prize works of art were not so very different from those in which Verres acquired his.

It was also the case that Verres bought rather than simply stole these famous statues. True, Cicero emphasises that the price was absurdly low – and, even if money did change hands, a coerced sale was coercion nonetheless, another version of theft. But inevitably the precise circumstances of the transfer of ownership are impossible to reconstruct now. (Just as it is impossible to know, in Paul’s account, quite how willingly Camillo Borghese sold some of his collection to Napoleon; the pieces were not restored to him, with the other confiscated works of Italian art, after Napoleon’s defeat.) Simply because the vendor later complains that he was forced into the deal does not necessarily mean that he was not a willing partner to the transaction at the time.

We tend now to imagine that most of the ‘original’ Greek works of art that ended up in Rome were the result of plunder and exploitation. Some of them certainly were. Triumphal processions in Rome were sometimes full of plundered masterpieces, the fruits of Roman victory. But, unless you take the extreme position that any trade whatsoever between the imperial power and its conquered territories was always coercive, there must have been some occasions on which the Greeks were happy to sell, or were even the leading partners in the transaction. The temple of Apollo Sosianus in Rome was refitted at the end of the first century BC, with antique sculpture that had once adorned an early fifth-century temple in Greece newly installed in its pediment. (The surviving fragments, now in the Centrale Montemartini Museum in Rome, leave no doubt whatsoever as to the date and general provenance – though most suggestions as to where exactly the stuff came from are no more than guesses.) This may have been the result of brute Roman rapacity. But it may have been a more collusive deal than that. It may even have been a deal driven by the original Greek proprietors, trying to make a profit out of some old sculpture they intended to replace anyway, and the Romans were gullible enough to buy.

On a more domestic scale, how, in Pompeii, did the terracotta frieze that originally decorated some temple in the city end up built into the garden wall of the rich ‘House of the Golden Bracelet’? We can guess how Cicero would have excoriated the owner for using sacred sculpture to adorn his private property, Verres-style. And maybe Cicero would have been right. But maybe the owner was encouraged to buy them, at a high price, by the temple authorities. Or maybe he rescued them from the ancient equivalent of a skip.

The old idea of cultural plunder as ‘rape’ is more useful here than we might imagine. Just as few sexual rapes are violent attacks in dark alleys by unknown assailants, so in practice relatively few arguments about cultural property start from an invading army removing art treasures at the point of a gun. In any case, those are the easy ones to solve. Most rapes are some version of date-rape, where the issues turn on intention, (mis)understanding, competing memories and the fuzzy boundary between coercion, acquiescence and agreement. It is very hard to establish guilt or innocence; hence, in part, the very low rate of conviction. From Verres to Lord Elgin and beyond, disputes about cultural plunder normally follow the date-rape model. (Who gave permission? Did the owner really agree? And so on.) That is why they have proved so intractable to resolve.

Miles is keen to follow the themes of Cicero’s attack on Verres through to modern debates on cultural property. She is particularly taken with Cicero’s emphasis on the conduct of Scipio Aemilianus after the fall of Carthage in 146 BC. Under Scipio’s aegis, those works of art which the Carthaginians had plundered from Sicily were sent back to their original homes in an unprecedented gesture of artistic repatriation – and a striking contrast to Mummius who, in the same year, was having all the masterpieces of Corinth sent off to Rome. Scipio’s motives have been debated. Was this the virtuous act of a man of culture? Or a self-interested attempt to secure Sicilian support? And how far is Cicero’s repeated stress on this action connected to the presence of one of Scipio’s descendants on the jury? But Miles is mostly concerned to link this act of repatriation with the decision, centuries later, to send many of the works of art seized by Napoleon back to their original home (the campaign of repatriation in which Camillo Borghese lost out, because his pieces had technically been purchased rather than plundered).

The unlikely hero of the last part of the book is the Duke of Wellington, who was instrumental in getting Napoleon’s artistic plunder returned to Italy and elsewhere (despite the fact that there were many in England who had rather hoped to see the Laocoön and other prize pieces decorating an English museum). This was an important challenge to the traditional doctrine that art was a legitimate spoil of war – heralding the modern idea that cultural property is a ‘special category that should be protected’.

Yet again it is more complicated than Miles appears to acknowledge. The most important point is that repatriation never restores the status quo ante: it is always another stage in the moving history of the art object. It is well known that the return of the Elgin Marbles would not restore them to the place from which they had been removed, but to the quite different context of a new museum. Less well known are some of the radical consequences of the repatriation of Napoleon’s booty. True, many of the masterpieces were sent back to their country of origin, but they did not always go back to their original homes. The losers in the process included not only the Borghese family, but also the little churches of Italy, which did not in fact recover their beloved altarpieces. For these were usually ‘returned’ to the increasingly important Italian museum collections, such as the Accademia in Venice, or the Vatican in Rome. This act of repatriation was, in other words, a major step in turning them from sacred to museum objects.

We may try to regulate the movement of cultural property, but – licit or illicit – we cannot stop it. Nor would we wish to entirely (the idea of a world in which art was destined to stay in the place in which it was made is a terrible nightmare). One thing is certain: criminal prosecutions in this area tend to have a symbolic rather than practical importance, as the people of ancient Sicily found. Cicero may have won his case. In modern Enna the citizens may have decided to honour the man who defended their ancestors so stalwartly against the depredations of their governor. But the fact was that they did not get their statues back. Verres enjoyed them until his death.

Review of Margaret M. Miles, Art as Plunder: The ancient origins of debate about cultural property (Cambridge University Press, 2008); Carole Paul, The Borghese Collections and the Display of Art in the Age of the Grand Tour (Ashgate, 2008)

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!