On August 5, 70 BC, at 1:30 in the afternoon, a remarkable criminal trial began in Rome. A young prosecutor named Marcus Tullius Cicero was accusing a senior Roman political official, Gaius Verres, of extortion and misrule during Verres’s tenure as governor of Sicily. “For three long years he so thoroughly despoiled and pillaged the province that its restoration to its previous state is out of the question,” Cicero proclaimed in his bold opening statement.
Verres was well connected, and the case seemed to have long odds. Undeterred, Cicero suggested that his crimes were so numerous that it was hard to keep track of them: he sacked the treasury, manipulated the courts, stole grain from farmers, and connived with pirates; he locked up anyone he didn’t like (or the husbands of women he coveted) in the latomie, the fearsome subterranean rock prison near Syracuse, or simply crucified them.
Above all was Verres’s voracious appetite for art. “Ancient monuments given by wealthy monarchs to adorn the cities of Sicily…were ravaged and stripped bare, one and all, by this same governor,” Cicero continued.
Nor was it only statues and public monuments that he treated in this manner. Among the most sacred and revered Sicilian sanctuaries, there was not a single one which he failed to plunder; not one single god, if only Verres detected a good work of art or a valuable antique, did he leave in the possession of the Sicilians.
So overpowering was this opening statement, and the evidence used to support it, that Verres fled into exile and the trial was never completed. But that didn’t matter much to Cicero, who published the full legal arguments he had prepared anyway and was elected praetor two years later. “He never did anything on the same scale again,” Elizabeth Rawson writes in her classic biography of the orator. “Rome must have been dazzled.”
Ever since the Verrine Orations, the subject of plundered art has retained a special hold on the popular imagination, from Byron, who railed against Lord Elgin’s exploits in Athens (“Thy mouldering shrines removed/By British hands…”) down to Thomas Hoving, who engaged in some Elgin-like behavior before becoming a zealot of the anti-collecting cause.1 Beginning in the early twentieth century, if not earlier, it has also increasingly been a matter of law. Many countries have declared state ownership of artifacts found in (and on) their soil; more recently, some, including Italy and Greece, have shown a readiness to prosecute those who trade in them.…
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