Some experts, and at least one museum that holds a statue being sought, have questioned whether the evidence placing these particular artifacts in Bubon is as strong as the authorities have suggested. But Matthew Bogdanos, who leads the unit, said he is undeterred.
“Everybody fights Bubon,” he said of the naysayers. “But if there were ever a case we wanted to get into a courtroom, Bubon is it.”
The story of the Bubon bronzes, though, is more than just a tale of looters’ remorse, investigative zeal, art market intrigue and antiquities repatriation. It’s also a lesson in history, one that presents a more nuanced view of ancient Rome than that popularized by Hollywood epics. Those films often depicted an empire that relied almost exclusively on the spear, the whip and the executioner’s sword to keep the conquered in line. The truth was more complicated.
Some of the men who rose to lead Rome were, in fact, born in conquered lands. Severus was from modern-day Libya; the emperor Trajan from modern-day Spain. Rome allowed a measure of self-government and promoted the promise of citizenship as potent tools to keep the peace. And there was often local buy-in, evident in the shrines built by invaded peoples to show respect for their conquerors.
Known as shrines to the “imperial cult,” only a handful of them survive today in any form. One is the excavation at Bubon, according to archaeologists. From the time of Augustus, Roman emperors were venerated as gods, sometimes alongside the deities themselves. The shrine at Bubon, in what was then known as Asia Minor, is believed to have been built by local gentry as a sign of fealty to Rome. Started around A.D. 50, it is thought to have been in use for perhaps two centuries before it was buried in earthquakes.
The calamity, fortuitously, protected the bronze statuary at a time when discarded metal was routinely recycled into armaments. The Bubon bronzes, instead, remained underground, intact, for almost 2,000 years.