Vandalism in the ancient world

By Owain Williams

Unfortunately, there were several news stories throughout this summer announcing that tourists had been caught vandalising the Colosseum in Rome. Vandalism of historic monuments is to be deplored no matter the country they reside in or the culture that created them. After my initial feelings of frustration and sadness had passed, I began to think about these acts of vandalism from a historical perspective. While we might decry the acts of vandalism as ignorant acts of the arrogant, archaeologists in the future might have different feelings about them.


For better or worse, humans have been vandalising monuments throughout history. While we might be angered by such vandalism in the modern world, the ancients’ acts of vandalism are actually valuable historical evidence.


A particular striking example of ancient vandalism, one that is reminiscent of the circumstances of the recent modern acts, is the inscription dating from ca. 590 BC on the statue of Rameses II at Abu Simbel, 700 miles up the Nile, which was constructed sometime between ca. 1265 and 1245 BC. The inscription was created by several Greek mercenaries serving the Egyptians.

When King Psammetichos came to Elephantine, those who sailed with Psammetichos son of Theokles wrote this; and they came above Kerkis as far as the river allowed; and Potasimto had command of those of foreign speech and Amasis of the Egyptians; and Archon the son of Amoibichos wrote us and Peleqos the son of Eudamos

Meiggs and Lewis 6

The King Psammetichos is Psamtek II, who led an expedition to Ethiopia (see, for example, Herodotus, 2.161). The Greeks in this inscription do not bear ethnic identifiers, while other Greek inscriptions do, such as Pabis of Colophon and Telephos of Ialysos on Rhodes, and it has been suggested that these Greeks may have actually been those born in the Greek settlement of Naucratis. Indeed, their names attest to some degree of cultural interaction, with several some names being Egyptian or Greek versions of Egyptian names. This is not the only reference we have to Greek mercenaries in Egypt, but it is still a valuable piece of evidence. It records the names of Greeks we would not have known about otherwise, which attest to their exposure to Egyptian culture.

The Temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel

Arguably the most famous example of vandalism from the ancient world is the mutilation of the Herms in late-fifth century BC Athens. During the preparations for the ill-fated Athenian invasion of Sicily, the Athenians one morning awoke to find that:

all the stone Hermae in the city of Athens, that is to say the customary square figures so common in the doorways of private houses and temples, had in one night most of them their faces mutilated. No one knew who had done it, but large public rewards were offered to find the authors

Thucydides, 6.27

This was a serious matter. Not only was it vandalism, but it was also religious sacrilege. So serious were the Athenians about this vandalism that they thought it heralded an anti-democratic revolution (Thucydides, 6.27). Indeed, Andocides records how there was a general muster of the Athenian levy after the vandalism was discovered (1.45). These Herms were erected in porches, where they stood to protect people’s homes, making an attack on these statues was also an attack upon the people, by threatening the protection these statues offered, not to mention the divine disfavour the act might bring upon the upcoming expedition.


While the mutilation of the Herms could be seen as the results of a youthful drunken misdemeanour (see Thucydides, 6.28), there are other occasions where vandalism undeniably had a political dimension. A notable example is Philip V’s sacking of Thermon during the Social War. While sacking the city, Philip V’s soldiers wrote “Seest thou the path the bolt divine has sped?” (Polybius, 5.9). Earlier in the war, the Aetolians had sacked and destroyed the sanctuary of Dodona, where there was an oracle of Zeus (Polybius, 4.67). Thus, by having his soldiers paint this message on the walls of Thermon, Philip V was presenting himself as the embodiment of Zeus’ retribution – a very powerful propaganda message.

CIL IV 7863

The power that graffiti offered in terms of propaganda was certainly not lost on the inhabitants of Pompeii, where thousands of surviving examples of graffiti and vandalism reveals much about the social fabric of the city that was destroyed by Vesuvius’ eruption in AD 79. Over 2800 examples of what has been called ‘election graffiti’ alone have been discovered in Pompeii. These acts of vandalism served to promote a particular candidate for a political office in the city. One such graffito, for example, reads “Asellina’s girls, including Zmyrina, ask for the election of Caio Lollius Fuscus as duumvir” (CIL IV 7863).


The ancients clearly had a different attitude to graffiti and vandalism than we do today, and examples of ancient vandalism can provide great insight into the lives of those who committed such acts. However, this is no excuse for vandalism in the modern world, the best recorded period in human history. Defacing historical monuments serves to only highlight the ignorance and lack of respect of the vandals.

1 comment

It’s just a shame but it’s been going on for thousands of years probably won’t stop it’s just a human nature of people I don’t understand all of it it’s just a shame


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