Ancient Looting and Modern Laws

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Victory stele of Naram-Sin

Plundering is defined as the taking of property by force or during times of war. This practice has happened since before the Romans, and continues in today’s conflicts. During the Roman period, plunder was used to pay for war and raise revenue for the state. Today, the looting of cultural heritage feeds the black market at an estimated $200 million each year. Since Roman times, however, there have been those who opposed plunder. Their words and thoughts have influenced the legal parameters in which we now live.

The earliest known incident of war time looting of art was the theft of victory stele of the Akkadian ruler Naram-­Sin by the Elamites. The stele depicts Naram-­Sin’s victory over the Lullubi in a battle that took place around 2250 BCE. Approximately 1,000 years later, the stele was taken from Sippar to the capital city of Susa by the conquering Elamites. An inscription, later added by the Elamites, celebrates this victory over the descendents of Naram-­Sin.

The Romans had an extensive tradition of plundering. Livy described Rome’s attack on the Etruscan city of Veii in 396 BCE. During the sack of Veii, there was an extended Senatorial debate about the best way to divide the loot, as it was “more booty than had been amassed in all the previous wars taken together.” One side argued that the booty should be put towards paying the soldiers salaries and thus alleviate the taxation of the people. The winning side argued that any of the population who wanted part of the plunder could go to the camp and keep what they could take. However, the Veientine temples were treated differently and the statue of Juno was carefully taken and installed in temple on the Aventine Hill in Rome. These traditions did change over time and descriptions can be found in the work of Polybius, Livy, Josephus Flavius, Suetonius, and Plutarch.

Despite the tradition of plunder by the Romans, it is interesting to note that there were limits to what the Romans viewed as acceptable. In 70 BCE, Cicero prosecuted Gaius Verres, the governor of Sicily, for extortion. While not formally charged for art theft, this was included in the accusations and arguments put forward by Cicero. Plunder, as described above, was allowed and encouraged within specific set of conventions and expectations. However, Cicero devoted the fourth speech of his arguments to the Verres’ theft and plunder of art that went well beyond the allowed norm.

The main argument Cicero made, which would appeal to his Roman audience, is that Verres took what he pleased with no regard for whether it was private or public, sacred or earthly. Cicero argued:

I will say that he has left nothing in any one’s house, nothing even in the towns, nothing in public places, not even in the temples, nothing in the possession of any Sicilian, nothing in the possession of any Roman citizen; that he has left nothing, in short, which either came before his eyes or was suggested to his mind, whether private property or public, or profane or sacred, in all Sicily. (Cicero 4.2)

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Eastern Equine Encephalitis (Marcus Tullius Cicero)

Cicero then went on to illustrate his point by describing the various thefts from personal shrines to public monuments and temples. Cicero listed offense after offense, including Verres’ theft of a bejeweled and golden candelabrum that the king of Syracuse was going to dedicate to Jupiter and the removal of decoration from objects before returning them to their owners. The evidence against Verres mounted, as numerous examples of the various sorts of looting and abuse of force and power were discussed. The trial never was concluded as Verres fled, and lived in exile.

There were other objections to the Roman belief that ‘to the victor go the sspoils’. Polybius wrote in the 2nd century BCE about the Roman rise to power. Specifically discussing the sack of Syracuse he stated:

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. (Polybius 9.10)

While Cicero was not criticizing the tradition of plunder and looting after war, classical arguments made by Cicero, Polybius and others, influenced future lawmakers and framed the legal precedents that we now follow and support today. The classical works, including those above, would have been widely read and studied. The nineteenth century press used Verres as a negative example of excess and theft, most notably when discussing Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin. These, and citations in court cases of the time, showed that Cicero’s Verrines was still an applicable source and had an influence on thoughts about cultural heritage protection. (For more information about this, and most of the above, see Margaret Miles’ Art as Plunder: The Ancient Origins of Debate about Cultural Property).

In 1864, the United States issued the “Instructions for Government of Armies of the United States in the Field,” more commonly called the Lieber Code after the creator, Dr. Francis Lieber. The code was formulated as a set of laws for the volunteer soldiers fighting during the Civil War in order to protect both the Union’s army and property and that of its enemies. Article 34 was especially important, as it extended specific protection beyond sacred spaces, to include schools, hospitals, libraries, museums and charitable institutions. Article 35 protected works of art, libraries and scientific collections against avoidable damage even if they were in a location that was under siege or bombardment. However, whether a nation’s holdings could be seized with a conquering nation gaining ultimate ownership would be determined by a peace treaty. Article 36 did protect the seized property through a requirement that confiscated pieces “shall not be sold or given away if captured, nor privately appropriated or wantonly destroyed or injured”.

Dr. Lieber

Dr. Francis Lieber (Wikipedia)

The Lieber Code was followed by the 1874 Draft International Regulations on the Laws and Customs of War. Article 18 prohibited pillage during invasion while Article 39 prohibited any pillage during belligerent occupation. Unfortunately, the 1874 Draft was never ratified, though it did form the basis of later laws and international regulations, such as the Hague Conventions and the 1970 UNESCO Act.

The justification behind modern laws that make the looting, plunder and trade of stolen cultural heritage illegal has a long history, dating back to the ancient authors. In turn, each generation of law makers and advocates look back to the precedents and philosophies of the past and learn from them to strengthen protection of cultural heritage.


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Mary Cochran earned a BA/MA in archaeology at the University of Edinburgh and an MA in Anthropology and Archaeology at Columbia University. She is an Anthropology Intern at The Field Museum and previously interned at The Walters Art Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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One Comment on ““Ancient Looting and Modern Laws”

  1. Bryan Ramsey

    Were any Americans or Russians or, indeed Nazis prosecuted for looting works of art during WW2? I trust that no British soldiers were guilty of that offence.

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