Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Margaret M. Miles, Art as Plunder: The Ancient Origins of Debate about Cultural Property. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii, 426. ISBN 9780521872805. $90.00.
Reviewed by Silke Knippschild, University of Bristol

Table of Contents

Margaret Miles takes Cicero's Verrines as the focal point in a study of art and its fate during war or occupation by a foreign power in times of peace. She opens her discussion with a brief overview of historical precedents in ancient Western Asia and Greece, merging into a discussion of Roman policies and perceptions up to Verres' plunder of Sicily as addressed by Cicero. The main part of the book deals with the context of Verres' trial and Roman perceptions of the cultural and social role of art. Following this, Miles looks at the Roman display of art and changing attitudes to collecting and displaying art in Late Antiquity. Her last chapter addresses the afterlife of the Verrines, especially their influence on European attitudes toward plundering and returning art during and after wars. An appendix with published translations of ancient authors and Early Modern sources addressing the subject, an extensive bibliography, and a useful index complete the volume.

The book is written in an entertaining, easily readable style, which is further helped by the relatively large print. The rather sizeable chapters are subdivided into smaller sections with catchy subtitles. Miles takes little previous knowledge for granted and explains technical terms such as quaestor, haruspex, or virtus succinctly in parentheses. Footnotes helpfully supply further reading, although this often extends only to standard books on the subject in English. The volume also contains an illustrative selection of maps, plans, and images. In general terms, the book is suitable for undergraduates and the interested public as well as for advanced students and scholars.

In chapter 1, "Art as Roman plunder", Miles addresses Western Asian and Greek antecedents, choosing a small range of notorious instances of plunder in order to provide the reader with a general picture. She keeps it simple, although in the view of this reviewer Miles sometimes oversimplifies historical processes1 and addresses Western Asian customs from a understandable but perhaps not quite fitting modern Western viewpoint. Nevertheless, she does get the job done. Once Miles reaches the Roman record, she analyses instances of plunder like the sack of Syracuse by M. Claudius Marcellus in greater depth and detail, comparing the different ways in which cities along with inhabitants and their possessions could be handled after a conquest. The treatment of sanctuaries receives special attention. Miles describes general points in the Roman approach to plundering and the acceptance or critique of plunder with a view to the Verrines.

In chapter 2, "The Roman context of Cicero's Prosecution of Verres", Miles introduces the reader to Sicily in Greek and Roman times. The first settlements of Greeks on the island in the eighth century BC form the starting point of her short history. In the section on Rome, Miles goes quickly in medias res, discussing Verres' uncommonly long praetorship in the context of the Spartacus Revolt and the Sicilian Slave Wars. She goes on to describe the Roman legal system relevant for cases of foreigners accusing magistrates of extortion and Cicero's preparation for the trial. Miles follows the career of the defendant as depicted by Cicero during the trial, his flight into exile with much of the plunder, and his subsequent death. As a final step towards contextualising the Verrines, she details their publication and reception in Rome, remarking on the ways in which they came to influence concepts of morality and right behaviour.

Chapter 3, "Cicero's views on the social place of art", deals with the objects Verres took from Sicily and the breach of normative ethics the extortion constituted both politically and socially. Roman attitudes towards art and the appreciation of art, especially Greek art, are also highlighted. Miles considers Cicero's classification of art into public and private and emphasises its social functions. Further, she elucidates the legal situation and Cicero's approach towards classifying the plunder (age, monetary value, artist, provenance, aesthetic quality). The violation of shrines and temples, such as the sanctuary of Ceres in Henna, features prominently and in detail. The author also focuses on the function of communal art displayed in sanctuaries, on its misuse by the defendant as adornments of his private house, and analyses art in different spheres of the domus (e.g., dining). The chapter closes with a discussion of Cicero's own ideas about the appropriate uses of art.

In chapter 4, "Roman display of art: From Lucullus to Lausos", Miles addresses the shift in status display in the wake of the trial away from antique statuary, with notorious figures like Lucullus as examples. Such alternative displays include expensive pastimes (like keeping fishponds and fine dining). She highlights how Verres' behaviour became a negative model for the use of plundered art in the private sphere, while making clear that he should not be considered exemplary for Roman customs of acquiring Greek art--with the exception of the emperors Caligula and Nero, whose appetites ancient sources modeled on Verres. Miles makes clear that art in the public sphere constitutes an entirely different issue by looking at displays of plunder in triumphs and dedications in public spaces or temples as well as private displays accessible to the public, such as Asinius Pollio's garden-park. After a discussion of the Flavian period and collectors such as Novius Vindex, whom she considers to be "true connoisseurs" (p. 263) and diametral opposites to Verres, Miles goes on to discuss the shift in the treatment of art under Constantine. She demonstrates how religious art especially became state property and fair game because of the change in religion, focusing on examples like the collector Lausos, an official under Theodosius II, whose collection included works of art like the famous chryselephantine Zeus from Olympia.

The study of Late Antiquity leads to Miles's discussion of Early Modern Europe in chapter 5, "Art as European plunder ". Her focus here is to outline the development of the concept of cultural property protected by national and international law. Miles sets out by describing the survival and reception of the Verrines and the role of Sicily as travel destination since the Renaissance. She continues with case studies of the employment of the Verrines when defending cultural property, such as Byron's and Edward Dodwell's criticism of Elgin for his despoliation of the Athenian Acropolis by ripping apart the Parthenon in order to get at the infamous Elgin Marbles. (Negotiations about the return of these marbles, which were damaged by cleaning attempts whilst in the care of the British Museum, continue.2) Miles goes on to depict Napoleon's conduct in Italy and his brother Joseph's despoliation of Spain. Here, we do have a happy ending for many of the works of art abducted: they were returned under the auspices of the Duke of Wellington.

Epilogue: "The continuing plunder of art" starts out with the first legal recognition of a protected status for cultural property in war drafted by Francis Lieber for President Lincoln and circulated as General Orders No. 100, April 24, 1863. The Lieber Code is behind the international agreements on cultural property of The Hague, 1907 and 1954. Miles comments on the plundering in Europe during WWII and briefly mentions the looting in Iraq before moving on to the general issue of ongoing art theft and the protection of cultural property in times of peace. Miles closes her book with recent successes in the repatriation of stolen art from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Malibu, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Her last issue is the fate of the Parthenon Marbles and the discussion about their return to Greece vs. their educational function in the British Museum. This reviewer would like to join Miles in hoping for a speedy return of this part of Greek cultural property.

Margaret Miles deals with the sadly timely issue of art as plunder levelly and with sensitivity. Her study is not only well researched and sound, but also a very good read and as such easily accessible not only to scholars, but equally to undergraduates and a wider interested public. Broaching much wider issues than the historical extortion of Verres, the reception of concepts of art as cultural property and the ways of dealing with plundered art across the centuries are today highly pertinent and make this a very important book.


1.   To pick but one example, the killing of Hipparchos appearing as an uprising leading to the foundation of a democratic constitution in Athens (p.26). This may ultimately be the case, but the story is clearly more complicated than this.
2.   See Snodgrass, A. M., "The Parthenon Marbles as an Archaeological Issue", in: Brodie, N., Hills, C. (eds.), Material Engagements: Studies in Honour of Colin Renfrew, Cambridge 2004, 115-124. Id., "The Parthenon Marbles as an Architectural Issue", Medelhavsmuseet: Focus on the Mediterranean 2, Stockholm 2005, 152-156. On the viewpoint of the British Museum on the "cleaning", see Cleaning and Controversy: The Parthenon Sculptures 1811-1939.

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