Letter to a Thief


[From the looters, diggers and traffickers on the ground to high-end galleries, auction houses and museums in New York, London and elsewhere, the problem of antiquity theft is growing. It is now a booming industry affecting not just the usual Mediterranean and Egyptian targets, but many other countries as well, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, India, China and Bolivia. Some are fighting fire with fire: employing lawyers with specialist backgrounds in history and the classics (and even former smugglers!) to sniff out the perpetrators. This is a smart move but I wonder whether high-profile court cases, raids and prison sentences will ever stop what seems like an insatiable desire to steal, subsume and ‘own’ a piece of the precious history of mankind? I also wonder what ancient peoples would have thought about this dangerous and dishonest practice. Their penalties for such conduct were even harsher than our own. So I have penned the following letter to a thief using various sources and quotations drawn from the ancient world…]

Dear thief,

I would not deign to speak with any authority on this subject except that I have lived as both a slave and a freeman, and been falsely accused of theft more than once in my life. To be perfectly clear, I am no thief. But I can certainly define one for you.

A thief is nothing more than a slave, and the most abominable one at that. He is a slave to a cheap desire for wealth, grandeur and reputation but rather than working towards these ends through usual, honest means, he assumes that he can bypass certain necessary steps and simply take the objects of his desire without payment, exchange or service. As a result of his dishonesty, the satisfaction he reaps in acquiring objects is much less than the normal amount, which only drives him to be more daring and to seek more. In truth, his acquisition of stolen treasure is a type of illusion. He acquires nothing more than further ropes to bind himself until his servility is total and complete. (1)

Let us now consider whether theft is wrong and in what circumstances.

There are some who say that in certain limited circumstances, theft can be justified. But not every action or passion has a reasonable and justifiable form. There are some actions and passions that are, by definition bad, and one of these is theft. The very name for this action implies ‘badness’ and there is no corresponding excess or deficiency. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to theft: it will always be wrong. (2)

Let us now consider the different punishments for theft in different jurisdictions.

If you are caught stealing in ancient Athens, the value of the item that you have stolen, as well as your intention, will be taken into account by the citizens in the law courts. Still, the punishment for theft can be severe. If you are a slave, you will likely receive a good whipping and beating. If you are a citizen, they will likely impose a fine, imprison you, confiscate your property, send you into exile or sentence you to death.


In my view, the current state of Athenian law is rather soft. If I had my way, there would be only one law of theft and one punishment, whether the item was small or big, for the intention is the same in both cases. According to my ideal model, if you happen to be a slave, or a stranger, the court will decide the punishment or what penalty shall be paid, bearing in mind that you probably can be cured of this unfortunate malady. But if you are a citizen who has been raised in this country as a citizen with full knowledge of its laws, then whether you are guilty of robbing by fraud or violence, and whether you are caught in the act or not, the penalty shall be death, for clearly your form of this disease is incurable. (3)

If you are caught in Rome, the punishment for theft will depend on the nature of the crime, the nature of your intent, and your status. You might be flogged, thrown off a precipice, fined or killed. Temple robbery is a specific category, which we call ‘sacrilegium’. This simply means to steal from a god or the place where a god resides (such a temple or sanctuary). Whether the item be small or large, to steal from a sacred place is a capital crime. You might be punished by being thrown to wild animals, being burnt alive or crucified. (4)


Should it be the case that the prospect of punishment in this life is insufficient to deter you, have you considered the fact that the punishment may not end there, my friend? Have you considered, in other words, what may happen to you in the afterlife?

We have it on good authority that your soul will depart your corpse and journey through the underworld until you reach the Hall of Judgment. There, before a panel of forty-two divine judges, you must state a negative confession:

“I have done no evil…I have not robbed…I have not been greedy…I have not killed anyone…I have not told lies…I have not plotted against the king.”

This will clearly pose a problem for you. You may know a spell that will help you convince the judges but you will still have to pass the ‘feather test’. Your heart, which contains a record of all your deeds and wrongdoings, will be weighed against the feather of the goddess Ma’at, symbol of truth and justice. If your heart is found to be heavier than the feather, it will be fed to Ammut, the monstrous Devourer. You will die forever and your soul will be cast into darkness. (5)


In the light of day, my friend, we urge you to reconsider your actions. There is still time. Perhaps we have persuaded you to reform your ways and you can now join the army of good people who seek to prevent these dishonest deeds. If so, you will need to make some rather drastic changes to your lifestyle and the sort of company you keep. So we give you one last piece of advice in the form of a fable:

The Farmer and the Stork

A Stork of a very simple and trusting nature had been asked by a gay party of Cranes to visit a field that had been newly planted. But the party ended dismally with all the birds entangled in the meshes of the Farmer’s net. The Stork begged the Farmer to spare him. “Please let me go,” he pleaded. “I belong to the Stork family who you know are honest and birds of good character. Besides, I did not know the Cranes were going to steal.” “You may be a very good bird,” answered the Farmer, “but I caught you with the thieving Cranes and you will have to share the same punishment with them.”

Moral: You are judged by the company you keep.

Yours sincerely,

The ancient writers and thinkers of antiquity.



(1) Anonymous, The Aesop Romance (transl. by L. W. Daly), reprinted in W. Hansen, 1998, Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature (Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis).

(2) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2.6.

Available online at: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.2.ii.html

(3) Plato, Laws, Book 12 (transl. Jowett).

Available online at: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/laws.12.xii.html

(4) H. Mueller, ‘Sacrilegium’ in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History (published 26 Oct 2012) accessed at:


(5) Book of the Dead of the Priest of Horus, Imhotep (Imuthes), ca. 332-200BC:


Articles on recent thefts of antiquities:

‘Looted Antiques Seized From Billionaire’s Home, Prosecutors Say’:

‘How Tomb Raiders Are Stealing Our History’:


‘Hobby Lobby Agrees to Forfeit 5,500 Artifacts Smuggled Out of Iraq’

Indiana Joan’: 95-year-old accused of looting Middle East tombs:


Header image: https://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/news/stolen-antiquities-tw

Image of Varvakeion Athena: http://www.gettyimages.com.au/detail/photo/varvakeion-athena-roman-marble-copy-of-high-res-stock-photography/103024155

Image of Mosaic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damnatio_ad_bestias

Image of Ammut the Devourer: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/8117852/Ancient-Egyptian-Book-of-the-Dead-British-Museum-review.html



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