You are here

Art as Plunder: The Ancient Origins of Debate About Cultural Property

Art as Plunder: The Ancient Origins of Debate About Cultural Property

By Margaret M. Miles. Pp. xiii + 426, figs. 22. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2008. $90. ISBN 978-0-521-87280-5 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Miles’ book reconstructs the ancient discourse on cultural property and plundering (i.e., any action removing an enemy’s property in or after wartime [15 n. 2]). The three central chapters are an extended treatment of Cicero’s Verrine Orations, bolstered by a general history of looting in antiquity (13–95) and a discussion of the post-Antique reception of Cicero’s speeches (285–360). A short appendix provides a selection of passages in translation.

Throughout, Miles addresses acts of plundering—including the seizure of monumental artworks, plate, textiles, and furnishings—that crossed cultural, spatial, and temporal boundaries. Victors often targeted monuments evocative of a defeated culture’s religious beliefs and history. Thus, plundering provided not just a means to display martial victory at home but could also result in the appropriation of a defeated people’s self-conception.

The first chapter anchors Miles’ topic within a broad historical context. While the chapter overall provides a useful survey of the material that Cicero himself cited as “precedent,” some of the shorter sections might have been more fully fleshed out. Miles’ brief characterization of plundering in the ancient Near East, for example, tantalizes the reader with a different cultural conception of both the practice of plundering and its meaning to the state. Here, she suggests, the custom was winner take all, though certain rulers such as Cyrus the Great showed benevolence by either choosing not to despoil conquered cities or returning plundered materials. Yet she discusses the relatively rich evidence for the treasuries at Persepolis and Susa only cursorily (e.g., 16 n. 2), and through the lens of Herodotus’ accounts (on behalf of the plundered society), rather than from the perspective of the Persians (the plundering society). These contexts might have warranted more discussion because it would have been possible to examine—even if imperfectly—the varied materials stored there (some excavated and some through ancient accounts), particularly given the treasuries’ function as repositories for works of art that, like the Tyrannicides, were particularly emblematic for the Greeks themselves.

Miles begins the second chapter with a background discussion of “Cicero’s Sicily,” and she paints a picture of the island as verdant and culturally rich (105–14). She then carefully outlines the influence and history of Cicero’s fourth oration against Verres, the Roman governor who seized many artworks from the island. She discusses why the speech was published, who read it, and its contemporary critical reception, concluding that the speech was widely influential and shaped the way future Roman authors—including Pliny—thought about the place and role of art.

In the third chapter, Miles addresses how Cicero’s speeches illustrate his ideas about art’s intrinsic and extrinsic worth, including its monetary value, but extending beyond the material value of gold, silver, bronze, or marble to include other kinds of value imbued by provenance, artist’s reputation, or aesthetics (163–71). She argues that, for Cicero, the wrongness of Verres’ actions derived from the extrapecuniary value of the sacred dedications plundered, whether ivory tusks from a sanctuary in Malta or a bronze statue of Diana from Segesta (178–79). Cicero’s description of this episode (esp. 2.4.77) is so vivid that it is a pity the selection is not included in the appendix. For here Cicero describes in detail the reaction of the local community, which refused to participate in the statue’s removal and spontaneously accompanied her to their borders and decked her with flowers, a last ritual act. Miles argues convincingly that in removing such artworks, Verres abrogated deeply held social conventions, undermining the community’s relationship with their gods and between its members. She further argues that, for Cicero, changing the social context of a work from public and religious to private, through forced removal, was unacceptable; she ably illustrates a similar tension in other cases.

Cicero’s text is so rich with similar examples that Miles tends to treat his speeches issue by issue rather than through extended discussion of any individual case. While her arguments are compelling, a result of this structure is that a reader less familiar with Cicero’s text (such as a student or nonspecialist reader) might have difficulty reconstructing the narrative of any given event or its use by Cicero in his prosecution. A linear reading of the passage regarding the Diana from Segesta shows that Cicero is, in fact, vague about the many contexts for the display of the artwork and even about the uses to which Verres put it. Of its original location, he says only that it was displayed in public, and, while it is a fair inference that it was on public display in Carthage as well (whence it had been seized during an earlier conflict, before being restored to Segesta by Scipio Africanus), on this point Cicero is also vague. Only at the end of an impassioned address to the jury does he reveal that the statue’s eventual location was Verres’ house, where he entertained women of ill repute (2.4.84). Miles acknowledges at the outset of the chapter that Cicero’s broader goal was to prosecute Verres for extortion; discussion of his misuse of art was but one example of many Cicero employed. A linear reading of the passage does not undermine Miles’ broader points about Cicero’s view of the place and meaning of context in artistic display. Such a reading, however, does serve as a potent reminder that Cicero’s own goal in recounting these events was rhetorical flourish, not providing a historical narrative of the artwork’s appropriation and reuse.

In the fourth chapter, Miles turns to the Roman display of spoils of war more generally. She treats in greatest detail the building campaigns of Pompey, Augustus, the Flavians, and Constantine but also discusses how—in the aftermath of Verres’ prosecution—customs (and tastes) changed in the private sphere (218–31). Here, the reader will find a discussion of plunder as it reflects the various ideologies of Roman emperors, to celebrate significant victories or to mark for the Roman public a transition from a bad emperor to a beneficent one (e.g., the construction of the Flavian amphitheater, which Miles notes was financed ex manubiis [260]). Miles casts Nero and Caligula as “Verrine” emperors, detailing not just their taste for Greek antiquities but showing that ancient authors used their appropriations of art as a literary device to emphasize poor character—in Miles’ view, building upon the rubric first set forth by Cicero. In contrast, good emperors (e.g., Claudius) were more respectful, even at times repatriating artworks. The chapter is a good read, illustrating the cultural significance of many well-known monuments from an unusual vantage.

The final chapter provides a fascinating discussion of the post-Antique reception of Cicero’s Verrines, and it is one of the highlights of the book. Miles traces the development of the idea of “cultural property” as a category that deserves special protection, and shows that Cicero’s speeches both inspired and formed the legal precedent for many interested in the protection of antiquities and material heritage.

In total, the book is more properly a history of ideas about art and its social display than it is a history of Roman art or Greek art in Roman contexts. Its expansive scope, starting with the Stele of Naram-Sin and concluding with the Treaty of Tolentino, means that readers looking for in-depth discussion of specific contexts (e.g., the Templum Pacis) or extant monuments and artworks (e.g., the sculptures of the Temple of Apollo Sosianus) may be frustrated. Miles’ treatment is summary, not specialized. Her footnotes orient the reader to relevant publications but do not engage points of controversy. In a few cases (e.g., the Egyptian obelisk in the Campus Martius, now thought to be a Meridian, not a “Horologium”), Miles glosses important differences of interpretation. Some well-known works of art, such as the Hellenistic bronze prince in the Palazzo Massimo bearing a numerical Roman “inventory inscription” or the Ludovisi Throne, both certainly in Rome as the result of plunder or the art market, are absent. None of these observations is a critique of Miles’ broader purpose. In fact, a strength of the work is that Miles’ breadth of coverage allows her to show how pervasively issues of cultural property affected ancient art. Rather, Miles’ discussion opens lines of inquiry well worth pursuit in more detail, particularly as they relate to the artworks themselves.

The subject of cultural property and its appropriation should interest many, whether in the field, behind a lectern, or in a museum storeroom. Miles writes with a clear tone and degree of explanation that renders the book accessible to students and nonspecialist audiences. Simultaneously, her discussion of the post-Antique cultural property debate will enlighten many experts within the field unfamiliar with later periods or legal history.

Molly Swetnam-Burland
Department of Classical Studies
College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, Virginia 23187

Book Review of Art as Plunder: The Ancient Origins of Debate About Cultural Property, by Margaret M. Miles

Reviewed by Molly Swetnam-Burland

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 1 (January 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1131.Swetnam

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.