French Display of Roman Antiquities Expropriated from Postconquest Algeria, 1830–1870
This chapter explores how the French discovery of Roman ruins in Algeria was used to legitimate its annexation of the territory. Intellectuals and politicians argued that the Ottoman Empire was illegitimate; France was the true heir of the shared Latinate civilization created by the Roman Empire. The new French Empire would simply reunite the Mediterranean world. These efforts were, however, thwarted by both human and material actors. Parisian museum administrators thought that the North African finds were of low quality and not of much interest. French colonists argued, by contrast, that the Roman artifacts should stay in Algeria, to help build a French imperial identity. And the things themselves resisted; they broke when soldiers tried to extract them and their weight sank the ships used to transport them. The chapter then suggests that nineteenth-century campaigns to steal, export, and re-signify art and antiquities sometimes fell short of their ambitions.
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