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 History of Protection of Cultural Property

Ancient Authors



2nd century BC—Polybius, the earliest extant author to criticize wartime plundering of art

In his work, The Histories, Polybius, a 2nd century BC Greek historian,gives a detailed account of the period 264–146 BC. In Book IX he criticizes the wartime plundering of art by the Romans after their defeat of Syracuse in 212 BC. Furthermore, after witnessing the sack of Carthage in 146 BC, he undoubtedly influenced his pupil, the consul Scipio Aemilianus, who ordered the restoration of objects to the cities in Sicily from which they had been looted. The formulation of international law from the 18th century on has been influenced by Polybius’s view that war should be waged according to generally accepted rules.


The Romans, then, decided to transfer these things to their own city and to leave nothing behind.

Whether they were right in doing so, and consulted their true interests or the reverse, is a matter admitting of much discussion; but I think the balance of argument is in favor of believing it to have been wrong then, and wrong now. If such had been the works by which they had exalted their country, it is clear that there would have been some reason in transferring there the things by which they had become great. But the fact was that, while leading lives of the greatest simplicity themselves, as far as possible removed from the luxury and extravagance which these things imply, they yet conquered the men who had always possessed them in the greatest abundance and of the finest quality. Could there have been a greater mistake than theirs? Surely it would be an incontestable error for a people to abandon the habits of the conquerors and adopt those of the conquered; and at the same time involve itself in that jealousy which is the most dangerous concomitant of excessive prosperity. For the looker-on never congratulates those who take what belongs to others without a feeling of jealousy mingling with his pity for the losers. But suppose such prosperity continues to increase, and a people accumulates into its own hands all the possessions of the rest of the world, and moreover invite in a way the plundered to share in the spectacle they present, in that case surely the mischief is doubled. For it is no longer a case of the spectators pitying their neighbors, but themselves, as they recall the ruin of their own country. Such a sight produces an outburst, not of jealousy merely, but of rage against the victors. For the reminder of their own disaster serves to enhance their hatred of the authors of it. To sweep the gold and silver, however, into their own coffers was perhaps reasonable; for it was impossible for them to aim at universal empire without crippling the means of the rest of the world, and securing the same kind of resources for themselves. But they might have left in their original sites things that had nothing to do with material wealth; and thus at the same time have avoided exciting jealousy, and raised the reputation of their country: adorning it, not with pictures and statues, but with dignity of character and greatness of soul. I have spoken thus much as a warning to those who take upon themselves to rule over others, that they may not imagine that, when they pillage cities, the misfortunes of others are an honor to their own country. The Romans, however, when they transferred these things to Rome, used such of them as belonged to individuals to increase the splendor of private establishments, and such as belonged to the state to adorn the city. . . .

146 BC—Scipio Aemilianus conquers Carthage and returns works of art to Sicily

Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus Numantinus(185–129 BC), also known as Scipio Aemilianus, or Scipio Africanus the Younger, was the adopted son of Publius Scipio, the son of Scipio Africanus the Elder. He was a leading general and politician during the Roman Republic and, as consul, commanded the final siege and destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.

After the capture of Carthage, Scipio, not taking advantage of his position to increase his own wealth, arranged to have various works of art that Carthage had robbed from the Greek cities of Sicily returned to their owners. Cicero speaks of this in his second speech against Verres (In Verrem 2) where he says, “not only Himera, Thermae, Gela, Agrigentum and Segesta (Ver. 2.4.74-83), but also all Sicilians (Ver. 2.2.86) benefited by this act."

70 BC—Cicero prosecutes Verres for corruption

In 70 BC, the Sicilians commissioned Cicero, who had served as quaestor in Sicily five years previously, to prosecute the island's former governor, Gaius Verres, for corruption. Verres was defended by the eminent orator Quintus Hortensius, who intended to use procedure to spin the trial out until an upcoming public holiday, hoping to secure a more sympathetic judge; however, Cicero prevented this by delivering a quick and damning summary of his evidence rather than the lengthy speeches he had drafted. As a result, Hortensius was unable to make a defense, and Verres went into exile rather than wait for the verdict. Cicero later published the speeches he would have delivered, known as Against Verres (In Verrem), in five books. The second pleading of Book 4 gives a detailed account of the objects Verres took from numerous Sicilian cities.


Some ages afterwards, Publius Scipio took Carthage, in the third Punic war; after which victory (remark the virtue and carefulness of the man, so that you may both rejoice at your national examples of most eminent virtue, and may also judge the incredible audacity of Verres worthy of the greater hatred by contrasting it with that virtue) he summoned all the Sicilians, because he knew that during a long period of time Sicily had repeatedly been ravaged by the Carthaginians, and bids them seek for all they had lost, and promises them to take the greatest pains to ensure the restoration to the different cities of everything which had belonged to them. Then those things which had formerly been removed from Himera, and which I have mentioned before, were restored to the people of Thermae; some things were restored to the Gelans, some to the Agrigentines. . . .

At that time the same Diana of which I am speaking is restored with the greatest care to the Segestans. It is taken back to Segesta; it is replaced in its ancient situation, to the greatest joy and delight of all the citizens. It was placed at Segesta on a very lofty pedestal, on which was cut in large letters the name of Publius Africanus; and a statement was also engraved that “he had restored it after having taken Carthage.” It was worshipped by the citizens; it was visited by all strangers; when I was quaestor it was the very first thing, they showed me.