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The Spoils of Syracuse: Works of Art Taken To Rome

A city is not really adorned by what is brought from without, but by the virtue of its own inhabitants. . . .

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

Syracuse was taken in the autumn, B. C. 212. "The ornaments of the city, statues and pictures were taken to Rome." Livy, 25, 40, cp. 26, 21.
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 favour 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 thither 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 to go on increasing, and a people to accumulate into its own hands all the possessions of the rest of the world, and moreover to 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 neighbours, 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 honour 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 splendour of private establishments, and such as belonged to the state to adorn the city. . . .

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    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 25, 40
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 26, 21
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