Art Robbery in Antiquity

If works of art of some value are stolen from a private collector through theft or the criminally more serious variant through robbery, public interest is usually kept within manageable limits today. It obviously didn’t hit anyone who couldn’t have afforded this luxury. If it happened on the other hand to a public museum, as it did at the well known Green Vault in Dresden in November 2019, the at least temporary but possibly also permanent loss of precious diamond studded jewelry ensembles leads to a widespread outcry of horror. Words about the lost identity of the entire cultural nation quickly make the rounds. The former Minister of State Grütters expressed herself in this way and thus appropriately attached supraregional importance to the regrettable event.

However, there is very little that is unique in the meaning of completely unforeseeable and completely unexpected activities when it comes to artstealing actions, whether they affect the public or private sector. They have always existed and presumably always will. If anything can astound, it is the opus moderandi itself and the status or role played by the (sometimes governmental) actors involved.

Cicero versus Verres

We already have relevant information for the late phase of the Roman Republic on the subject of art robbery by public officials. The region in question is the island of Sicily, which dates back to 227 BC the fate happened to become the first Roman province. In addition to the strategic importance the insular wealth of grain was of particular interest to Rome. To better enforce their own interests, a governor with the rank of praetor was installed in Syracuse, who in turn was supported by two quaestors, one in Syracuse again and another in the west in Lilybaeum, particularly in supervising the tax collectors, the notorious publicani, who acted as freelancers.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, generally known as philosopher and politician, who had just held the office of quaestor in Sicily for a year, acted as a prosecutor in a so called repetition trial (= actio de repetundis) against Gaius Verres that started 70 BC. In this case Cicero protected the interests of numerous inhabitants of Sicily. Repetition trials were directed against former officials who enjoyed immunity during their term of office and could not be prosecuted. Verres was one such former official in the rank of praetor at Syracuse.

The fourth trial speech written by Cicero in this context was no longer held, since Verres had meanwhile escaped from the trial. It has been published nonetheless and gives a perspicacious insight into what happened. The first allegation is that: „I say that in all of Sicily, that province so rich, so ancient, with so many families so prosperous, there is not any vase, whether Corinthian or Delian, not any precious stone or pearl, not anything of gold or ivory, there was neither a bronze, nor a marble, nor an ivory statue. I say that there was not an image on a painiting or on a cloth, that de did not track down, inspect and remove when he liked it.“ (Cicero, In Verrem, II, 4, chap. 1)

The high esteem in which Greek pottery was held by the Romans becomes clear here. For now, however, the charge remains in general terms, which is changing rapidly. „All these images, that I named, you judges, Verres stole from Heius from the private chapel. He didn’t leave any of these, as I said – nothing at all except an old wooden effigy, a Bona Fortuna I think.“ (Cicero, In Verrem, II, 4, chap. 7)

Soon after, the argument that a formal purchase had taken place was invalidated. „So I see that Heius was not induced to sell these statues by his free will, by difficult times, or by the amount of money. And that you by pretending a purchase by force, by fear, by your authority and political position snatched and robbed these very statues from this man whom the Roman people and their other allies had entrusted not only to your political power but also to your care.“ (Cicero, In Verrem, II, 4, chap. 14)

Verres‘ behaviour is later summarized as follows: „Not only no town, but not even any house that was a little wealthy will be found unaffected by this man´s wrong. After he came to the banquet, if he saw anything carved or engraved, he could not keep his hands off it.“ (Cicero, In Verrem, II, 4, chap. 48)

Nothing is known to what extent the general mood of the time, aroused by the slave uprisings of Spartacus and his companions, might have encouraged Verres‘ behaviour. In any case, we were still decades and several civil wars away from the period of peace known as Pax Romana, which was spreading under Augustus in the Imperium Romanum. 140 years after the documented events in Sicily, it was the need to calm down the situation in the Middle East that, with Vespasian and Titus, brought members of the Flavian imperial dynasty and the city of Jerusalem into the focus of history reported by Flavius Josephus.

Titus and the destruction of the temple

Things took their course in Judea, which had been part of the Roman Province Syria since the year 6 AD, when the local procurator Gessius Florus, a kind of sub-governor, began plundering the temple treasury in Jerusalem in the spring of 66 AD. The dissatisfaction existing on the Roman side with the low amount of taxes paid locally was suggested as an explanation for this. Taxes that could have been used particularly well for the reconstruction of Rome after the devastating fires in Neron´s time. As a result of escalating conflicts during the Great Rebellion, Jerusalem was encircled in the spring of 70 AD and then captured and burned in September of the same year. After the Babylonians had destroyed Solomon´s temple in 586 BC and had taken the survivors into Babylonian captivity, the members of the Jewish faith community, who have returned to their homeland in the meantime had to accept the renewed loss of their religious center 650 years later. The historian Flavius Josephus reports what happened in detail: „As the temple burst into flames, the soldiers stole what they could get their hands on and wreaked a monstrous bloodbath on those they came across.“ (Flavius Josephus, Bellum Judaicum, VI, chap. 5, 271)

The report of the informant and eyewitness, who worked as an interpreter in the Roman service and was involved in questoning prisoners and deserters, also contains information about which valuables the legionaries knew how to take possession of: „He brought out from the wall of the temple house two candlesticks, which were very similar to those in the sanctuary, then also cloths, mixing jars and bowls. All of solid gold and of significant weight. He also delivers the curtains and the vestments of the high priest with the precious stones attached, as well as many other utensils used at the sacred service.“ (Flavius Josephus, Bellum Judaicum, VI, chap. 8, 388, 389)

Finally, somewhere else Flavius Josephus tells us: „When the rebels fled down into the city and the actual temple building and all the surrounding buildings had been destroyed by the flames, the Romans carried their eagles into the sanctuary and set them up in the east gate opposite. Here a sacrifice was offered to them, and amid the enthusiastic congratulations of the soldiers Titus was proclaimed Emperor. All the soldiers had crammed themselves with captured treasures, so that in Syria a certain weight of gold could only be sold for half its previous value.“ (Flavius Josephus, Bellum Judaicum, VI, chap. 6, 316, 317)

As a result the value of gold had halved. 


2. Relief from the Arch of Titus, Rome, 1st century AD (Graphically edited).

The events described are not only recorded by writing, but also particularly in pictures. The figure above shows one of two Pentelic marble reliefs found on the arch of Titus in Rome. The arch of honor donates by the Senate and People of Rome (SPQR) to the deified Emperor in 81 AD is 14.50m high. To give an idea of the dimensions of the relief: It is 3.85m long and 2.40m high and attached to the soffit of the archway. The depicted Jewish slaves and Roman soldiers are burdened with the spoils stolen from Jerusalem. The golden, seven-branched candelabrum, the menorah, from the destroyed temple itself is particularly recognizable in the middle of the relief. After all, Rome did not remain the final place of storage for the candelabrum, since the vandals who were haunting the eternal city are said to have taken it to Carthage in North Africa around the middle of the fifth century. After that, the trail gradually gets lost.


These examples from antiquity presented here clearly show how profoundly and lastingly art robbery can damage those affected. It is not primarily about the existing and irrevocably lost material value, but about the identity of individuals and groups of people. Apparently their self-image is expressed in an extremely condensed form in certain objects from the fields of art and culture.

photo credit©1-2 Hauke Christen  

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