How an ancient Greek bronze ended up in the Vatican

Lysippos, Apoxyomenos, Roman marble copy after Greek bronze original dating to c. 300 B.C.E. (Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy)

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Vatican Museums, looking at one of the most famous works in the entire Western tradition. This is a sculpture known as the “Apoxyomenos,” the Scraper.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] By a very famous ancient Greek sculptor named Lysippos. We’re actually looking at an ancient Roman copy.

Dr. Zucker: [0:22] What we’re going to try to answer in this video is how a major sculpture by a famous ancient Greek ended up as a Roman copy in the Vatican in the city of Rome in the 3rd, the 2nd, and even the 1st centuries B.C.E.

[0:35] The Romans not only conquered Greece, but also its many territories and colonies. Triumphant Roman generals brought back enormous numbers of Greek sculptures and, to a lesser extent, ancient Greek paintings and even architectural fragments.

Dr. Harris: [0:50] Now, the Romans were not unique in making off with booty during war. There was an age-old precedent for that.

[0:57] But when the Romans confronted Greek art and brought it back to Rome, that was a transformational experience. In fact, Horace wrote that although the Romans had conquered Greece, Greece, through its culture, conquered Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [1:14] It symbolized a great intellectual tradition that Rome saw itself as becoming the inheritor of.

Dr. Harris: [1:20] It signified a kind of luxury, a life of educated cultural refinement that seemed very different than the current life of ancient Romans.

Dr. Zucker: [1:32] Let’s just walk through how this would work. Rome would conquer an area, perhaps a Greek city-state, or perhaps simply an area that had been allied with Greece.

[1:41] Soon after, objects that were deemed worthy of import would be packed onto ships and brought back to Rome, where they would often be paraded through the city during a triumph.

Dr. Harris: [1:52] A triumph was essentially an opportunity for a victorious general to exhibit the booty that they had brought back and to celebrate their military victory. It would have given the ancient Romans who lived here in Rome, and hadn’t traveled to these distant places, a sense of the wealth and power of these places that were being conquered by the great Roman army.

Dr. Zucker: [2:14] Then, after the triumph, an enormous number of objects would be put on public display in various parts of the city, but most famously in the Temple of Peace, just beside the Roman Forum.

[2:26] Now, ancient Rome didn’t have museums, but in a way, places like the Temple of Peace become a kind of proto-museum. Many of these Greek objects had been used originally in religious or civic environments. The Romans ripped them out of their original context and made them aesthetic objects, made them objects of luxury.

Dr. Harris: [2:45] When objects are looted, whether we’re talking about the ancient world or the modern world, they often lose that original meaning.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] The “Apoxyomenos” is a perfect case in point. We don’t have its original location. We don’t know from literature or from any evidence where this originally would have been placed. The Romans took it, and now it’s here.

Dr. Harris: [3:05] Let’s be careful when we say the Romans took it. The Romans took the bronze original. And because of this developing love of Greek art, ultimately, many copies were made of it. One of the most beautiful is here in the Vatican Museums.

[3:19] So the “Apoxyomenos” is brought to the city of Rome as war booty. It’s set up by Agrippa in front of the baths that he built for the public here in Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [3:32] It was in the Baths of Agrippa that the Roman public really fell in love with this sculpture. The baths were, essentially, a public place, and a place where the average Roman could see ancient Greek sculpture.

Dr. Harris: [3:43] What Agrippa did was considered to be generous. He was giving this to the people the way that a private collector today might donate a work to a museum so it could be shared with the public.

Dr. Zucker: [3:55] You can imagine how upset that public was when the emperor Tiberius took the sculpture from the Baths of Agrippa and brought it to his own house, put it in his own bedchambers.

Dr. Harris: [4:07] Pliny says, “Lysippos was most prolific in his works and made more statues than any other artist. Among these is the man using the body scraper, which Marcus Agrippa had erected in front of his warm baths and which wonderfully pleased the emperor Tiberius.

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“[4:25] This emperor could not resist the temptation and had this statue removed to his bedchamber, having substituted another for it at the baths.

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“[4:36] The people, however, were so resolutely opposed to this that, at the theater they clamorously demanded the ‘Apoxyomenos’ to be replaced. And the emperor, notwithstanding his attachment to it, was obliged to restore it.”

Dr. Zucker: [4:52] The court of public opinion was so loud that the emperor actually gave it back to the people. It speaks to the power of images. In a way, the sculpture became a way of differentiating public good from private greed.

Dr. Harris: [5:05] This was part of a longstanding conversation in Rome among those like Cato and Cicero, who believed that this booty that was taken should be available to the public versus those who took the booty and kept it for themselves to decorate their private villas.

Dr. Zucker: [5:24] All of these issues remain important today. Our museums are filled with objects that come from different places, and many of those objects were looted.

[5:33] Museums are looking at their collections now and wondering whether some of them should be repatriated, that is, returned to their country of origin, and in any case, how their meaning has been transformed by being taken out of their original context and put into a museum where their meaning is completely transformed.

Dr. Harris: [5:51] The Romans were not without sympathy for the conquered peoples. In fact, Livy wrote very sympathetically about the king of Syracuse.

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“[6:00] If this king were to rise from the realms below, with what words could we show him either Syracuse or Rome, when, after he looked back on his half-destroyed and despoiled fatherland, he would see as he entered Rome, in the vestibule of the city, almost in the gates, the spoils of his own fatherland?”

Dr. Zucker: [6:22] So when we look at the “Apoxyomenos,” now on display in the Vatican in the 21st century, we generally look at it as an exemplar of ancient Greek art, and too often we forget the complex story of how this sculpture was looted, how it was loved, how it was adopted by the Roman people, how it was copied and ultimately ended up here.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "How an ancient Greek bronze ended up in the Vatican," in Smarthistory, June 16, 2020, accessed April 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/apoxyomenos-looting/.