We Are All Romans Now


One might think, from frequent news reports, that the Metropolitan Museum would be running low on artifacts to fill its redesigned galleries of ancient art. It has agreed to return twenty-one objects to Italy, including the famous Euphronios krater and sixteen pieces of valuable silver. (Half of the silver objects will remain on long-term loan to the Met.) It had already sold an ancient coin collection to pay for the Euphronios vase, “the million-dollar pot.” More than two hundred gold, silver, and bronze artifacts from the sixth century BCE—the famous “Lydian Hoard”—were returned to Turkey in 1993.1

Some say this rage to call art back to its place of origin is just part of a post-colonial and anti-imperial culture, new in our day. But Cicero shows that it was a concern even in antiquity. Prosecuting Gaius Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily, Cicero blames him for stripping statues and other artwork from the island’s temples:

He took away marble tables from Delphi, exquisite bronze kraters, a large treasure of Corinthian ware from all the Syracuse temples. Thus temple guides called sacred custodians, who used to describe what is to be seen there, must turn their explanations sharply about. What they used to show as present they must now describe as absent.

These objects were sacred to the Sicilians. “No polity anywhere in all Asia or Greece would freely have sold a single statue, or wall painting, or city monument.”2

The astonishing thing is that Cicero, who so roundly denounced Verres, was himself a voracious collector of Greek art. He had friends search for artifacts in all the Greek areas Rome now ruled. He wrote to his friend the millionaire Atticus, who was in Athens:

The herms you describe with bronze heads have already quite enticed me. So please send them, and the statues, and anything else that seems to fit this site, my acquisitiveness, and your connoisseurship—as many (and as soon) as possible, anything especially for my auditorium and portico. I am so eager to acquire them that you must help (let others perhaps rebuke) me.3

So one of the two main cultures (the Roman) being celebrated in the Met’s new galleries was already plundering the other (the Greek). This provenance issue is complicated.

Despite what has been returned to their countries of origin, the Met’s collection of antiquities remains vast. In fact, before the new galleries opened, only two thousand of the museum’s 17,000 ancient artifacts were on display. In the new space, over half the total is exhibited without crowding. The museum was, at its founding, primarily ancient in focus. Its first great acquisition, in two purchases (1874 and 1876), brought it some 35,000 works of art from Cyprus—it is still the major Cypriot collection outside the island, though it has been winnowed to about six thousand choice works.

The South Wing of the Central Park building was designed in 1912 by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White…

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