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“Blazingly exciting... Harris, as Vesuvius explodes, gives full vent to his genius for thrilling narrative... suffocating suspense and searing action.”
“As explosive as Etna, as addictive as a thriller, as satisfying as great history.”
From the Hardcover edition.
It had been my intention to describe in detail the trial of Gaius Verres, but now I come to set it down, I see there is no point. After Cicero's tactical masterstroke on that first day, Verres and his advocates resembled nothing so much as the victims of a siege: holed up in their little fortress, surrounded by their enemies, battered day after day by a rain of missiles, and their crumbling walls undermined by tunnels. They had no means of fighting back. Their only hope was somehow to withstand the onslaught for the nine days remaining, and then try to regroup during the lull enforced by Pompey's games. Cicero's objective was equally clear: to obliterate Verres's defenses so completely that by the time he had finished laying out his case, not even the most corrupt senatorial jury in Rome would dare to acquit him.
He set about this mission with his usual discipline. The prosecution team would gather before dawn. While Cicero performed his exercises, was shaved and dressed, I would read out the testimony of the witnesses he would be calling that day and run through our schedule of evidence. He would then dictate to me the rough outline of what he intended to say. For an hour or two he would familiarize himself with the day's brief and thoroughly memorize his remarks, while Quintus, Frugi, and I ensured that all his witnesses and evidence boxes were ready. We would then parade down the hill to the Forum — and parades they were, for the general view around Rome was that Cicero's performance in the extortion court was the greatest show in town. The crowds were as large on the second and third days as they had been on the first, and the witnesses' performances were oftenheartbreaking, as they collapsed in tears recounting their ill treatment. I remember in particular Dio of Halaesa, swindled out of ten thousand sesterces, and two brothers from Agyrium forced to hand over their entire inheritance of four thousand. There would have been more, but Lucius Metellus had actually refused to let a dozen witnesses leave the island to testify, among them the chief priest of Jupiter, Heraclius of Syracuse — an outrage against justice which Cicero neatly turned to his advantage. "Our allies' rights," he boomed, "do not even include permission to complain of their sufferings!" Throughout all this, Hortensius, amazing to relate, never said a word. Cicero would finish his examination of a witness, Glabrio would offer the King of the Law Courts his chance to cross-examine, and His Majesty would regally shake his head, or declare grandly, "No questions for this witness." On the fourth day, Verres pleaded illness and tried to be excused from attending, but Glabrio was having none of it, and told him he would be carried down to the Forum on his bed if necessary.
It was on the following afternoon that Cicero's cousin Lucius at last returned to Rome, his mission in Sicily accomplished. Cicero was overjoyed to find him waiting at the house when we got back from court, and he embraced him tearfully. Without Lucius's support in dispatching witnesses and boxes of evidence back to the mainland, Cicero's case would not have been half as strong. But the seven-month effort had clearly exhausted Lucius, who had not been a strong man to begin with. He was now alarmingly thin and had developed a painful, racking cough. Even so, his commitment to bringing Verres to justice was unwavering — so much so that he had missed the opening of the trial in order to take a detour on his journey back to Rome. He had stayed in Puteoli and tracked down two more witnesses: the Roman knight, Gaius Numitorius, who had witnessed the crucifixion of Gavius in Messana; and a friend of his, a merchant named Marcus Annius, who had been in Syracuse when the Roman banker Herennius had been judicially murdered.
"And where are these gentlemen?" asked Cicero eagerly.
"Here," replied Lucius. "In the tablinum. But I must warn you, they do not want to testify."
Cicero hurried through to find two formidable men of middle age — "the perfect witnesses from my point of view," as Cicero afterwards described them, "prosperous, respectable, sober, and above all — not Sicilian." As Lucius had predicted, they were reluctant to get involved. They were businessmen, with no desire to make powerful enemies, and did not relish the prospect of taking starring roles in Cicero's great anti-aristocratic production in the Roman Forum. But he wore them down, for they were not fools, either, and could see that in the ledger of profit and loss, they stood to gain most by aligning themselves with the side that was winning. "Do you remember what Pompey said to Sulla, when the old man tried to deny him a triumph on his twenty-sixth birthday?" asked Cicero. "He told me over dinner the other night: 'More people worship a rising than a setting sun.'" This potent combination of name-dropping and appeals to patriotism and self-interest at last brought them around, and by the time they went in to dinner with Cicero and his family they had pledged their support.
"I knew if I had them in your company for a few moments," whispered Lucius, "they would do whatever you wanted."
I had expected Cicero to put them on the witness stand the very next day, but he was too smart for that. "A show must always end with a climax," he said. He was ratcheting up the level of outrage with each new piece of evidence, having moved on through judicial corruption, extortion, and straightforward robbery to cruel and unusual punishment. On the eighth day of the trial, he dealt with the testimony of two Sicilian naval captains, Phalacrus of Centuripae and Onasus of Segesta, who described how they and their men had escaped floggings and executions by bribing Verres's freedman Timarchides (present in court, I am glad to say, to experience his humiliation personally). Worse: the families of those who had not been able to raise sufficient funds to secure the release of their relatives had been told they would still have to pay a bribe to the official executioner, Sextius, or he would deliberately make a mess of the beheadings. "Think of that unbearable burden of pain," declaimed Cicero, "of the anguish that racked those unhappy parents, thus compelled to purchase for their children by bribery not life but a speedy death!" I could see the senators on the jury shaking their heads at this and muttering to one another, and each time Glabrio invited Hortensius to cross-examine the witnesses, and Hortensius simply responded yet again, "No questions," they groaned. Their position was becoming intolerable, and that night the first rumors reached us that Verres had already packed up the contents of his house and was preparing to flee into exile.
Such was the state of affairs on the ninth day, when we brought Annius and Numitorius into court. If anything, the crowd in the Forum was bigger than ever, for there were now only two days left until Pompey's great games. Verres came late and obviously drunk. He stumbled as he climbed the steps of the temple up to the tribunal, and Hortensius had to steady him as the crowd roared with laughter. As he passed Cicero's place, he flashed him a shattered, red-eyed look of fear and rage — the hunted, cornered look of an animal: the Boar at bay. Cicero got straight down to business and called as his first witness Annius, who described how he had been inspecting a cargo down at the harbor in Syracuse one morning when a friend had come running to tell him that their business associate, Herennius, was in chains in the forum and pleading for his life.
"So what did you do?"
"Naturally, I went at once."
"And what was the scene?"
"There were perhaps a hundred people crying out that Herennius was a Roman citizen and could not be executed without a proper trial."
"How did you all know that Herennius was a Roman? Was he not a banker from Spain?"
"Many of us knew him personally. Although he had business in Spain, he had been born to a Roman family in Syracuse and had grown up in the city."
"And what was Verres's response to your pleas?"
"He ordered Herennius to be beheaded immediately."
There was a groan of horror around the court.
"And who dealt the fatal blow?"
"The public executioner, Sextius."
"And did he make a clean job of it?"
"I am afraid he did not, no."
"Clearly," said Cicero, turning to the jury, "he had not paid Verres and his gang of thieves a large enough bribe."
For most of the trial, Verres had sat slumped in his chair, but on this morning, fired by drink, he jumped up and began shouting that he had never taken any such bribe. Hortensius had to pull him down. Cicero ignored him and went on calmly questioning his witness.
"This is an extraordinary situation, is it not? A hundred of you vouch for the identity of this Roman citizen, yet Verres does not even wait an hour to establish the truth of who he is. How do you account for it?"
"I can account for it easily, senator. Herennius was a passenger on a ship from Spain that was impounded with all its cargo by Verres's agents. He was sent to the Stone Quarries, along with everyone else on board, then dragged out to be publicly executed as a pirate. What Verres did not realize was that Herennius was not from Spain at all. He was known to the Roman community in Syracuse and would be recognized. But by the time Verres discovered his mistake, Herennius could not be allowed to go free, because he knew too much about what the governor was up to."
"Forgive me, I do not understand," said Cicero, playing the innocent. "Why would Verres want to execute an innocent passenger on a cargo ship as a pirate?"
"He needed to show a sufficient number of executions."
"Because he was being paid bribes to let the real pirates go free."
Verres was on his feet again shouting that it was a lie, and this time Cicero took a few paces toward him. "A lie, you monster? A lie? Then why in your own prison records does it state that Herennius was released? And why do they further state that the notorious pirate captain Heracleo was executed, when no one on the island ever saw him die? I shall tell you why — because you, the Roman governor, responsible for the safety of the seas, were all the while taking bribes from the very pirates themselves!"
"Cicero, the great lawyer, who thinks himself so clever!" said Verres bitterly, his words slurred by drink. "Who thinks he knows everything! Well, here is something you do not know. I have Heracleo in my private custody, here in my house in Rome, and he can tell you all himself that it is a lie!"
Amazing now, to reflect that a man could blurt out something so foolish, but the facts are there — they are in the record — and amid the pandemonium in court, Cicero could be heard demanding of Glabrio that the famous pirate be fetched from Verres's house by the lictors and placed in proper official custody, "for the public safety." Then, while that was being done, he called as his second witness of the day Gaius Numitorius. Privately I thought that Cicero was rushing it too much: that he could have milked the admission about Heracleo for more. But the great advocate had sensed that the moment of the kill had arrived, and for months, ever since we had first landed in Sicily, he had known exactly the blade he wished to use. Numitorius swore an oath to tell the truth and took the stand, and Cicero quickly led him through his testimony to establish the essential facts about Publius Gavius: that he was a merchant traveling on a ship from Spain; that his ship had been impounded and the passengers all taken to the Stone Quarries, from which Gavius had somehow managed to escape; that he had made his way to Messana to take a ship to the mainland, had been apprehended as he went aboard, and had been handed over to Verres when he visited the town. The silence of the listening multitudes was intense.
"Describe to the court what happened next."
"Verres convened a tribunal in the forum of Messana," said Numitorius, "and then he had Gavius dragged before him. He announced to everyone that this man was a spy, for which there was only one just penalty. Then he ordered a cross set up overlooking the straits to Regium, so that the prisoner could gaze upon Italy as he died, and had Gavius stripped naked and publicly flogged before us all. Then he was tortured with hot irons. And then he was crucified."
"Did Gavius speak at all?"
"Only at the beginning, to swear that the accusation was not true. He was not a foreign spy. He was a Roman citizen, a councillor from the town of Consa, and a former soldier in the Roman cavalry, under the command of Lucius Raecius."
"What did Verres say to that?"
"He said that these were lies and commanded that the execution begin."
"Can you describe how Gavius met his dreadful death?"
"He met it very bravely, senator."
"Like a Roman?"
"Like a Roman."
"Did he cry out at all?"
"Only while he was being whipped and he could see the irons being heated."
"And what did he say?"
"Every time a blow landed, he said, 'I am a Roman citizen.'"
"Would you repeat what he said, more loudly please, so that all can hear."
"He said, 'I am a Roman citizen.'"
"So just that?" said Cicero. "Let me be sure I understand you. A blow lands" — he put his wrists together, raised them above his head, and jerked forward, as if his back had just been lashed — "and he says through gritted teeth, 'I am a Roman citizen.' A blow lands" — and again he jerked forward — "'I am a Roman citizen.' A blow lands. 'I am a Roman citizen.'"
The flat words of my transcript cannot hope to convey the effect of Cicero's performance upon those who saw it. The hush around the court amplified his words. It was as if all of us now were witnesses to this monstrous miscarriage of justice. Some men and women — friends of Gavius, I believe — began to scream, and there was a growing swell of outrage from the masses in the Forum. Yet again, Verres shook off Hortensius's restraining hand and stood up. "He was a filthy spy!" he bellowed. "A spy! He only said it to delay his proper punishment!"
"But he said it!" said Cicero triumphantly, wheeling on him, his finger jabbing in outrage. "You admit he said it! Out of your own mouth I accuse you — the man claimed to be a Roman citizen, and you did nothing! This mention of his citizenship did not lead you to hesitate or delay, even for a little, the infliction of this cruel and disgusting death! If you, Verres, had been made a prisoner in Persia or the remotest part of India and were being dragged off to execution, what cry would you be uttering, except that you were a Roman citizen? What then of this man whom you were hurrying to his death? Could not that statement, that claim of citizenship, have saved him for an hour, for a day, while its truth was checked? No it could not — not with you in the judgment seat! And yet the poorest man, of humblest birth, in whatever savage land, has always until now had the confidence to know that the cry 'I am a Roman citizen' is his final defense and sanctuary. It was not Gavius, not one obscure man, whom you nailed upon that cross of agony: it was the universal principle that Romans are free men!"
The roar that greeted the end of Cicero's tirade was terrifying. Rather than diminishing after a few moments, it gathered itself afresh and rose in volume and pitch, and I became aware, at the periphery of my vision, of a movement toward us. The awnings under which some of the spectators had been standing began to collapse with a terrible tearing sound. A man dropped off a balcony onto the crowd. There were screams. An unmistakable lynch mob began storming the steps to the platform. Hortensius and Verres stood up so quickly in their panic that they knocked over the bench behind them. Glabrio could be heard yelling that the court was adjourned, then he and his lictors hastened up the remaining steps toward the temple, with the accused and his eminent counsel in undignified pursuit. Some of the jury also fled into the sanctuary of the holy building (but not Catulus: I distinctly remember him standing like a sharp rock, staring unflinchingly ahead, as the current of bodies broke and swirled around him). The heavy bronze doors slammed shut. It was left to Cicero to try to restore order by climbing onto his own bench and gesturing for calm, but four or five men, rough-looking fellows, ran up and seized his legs and lifted him away. I was terrified, both for his safety and my own, but he stretched out his arms as if he was embracing the whole world. When they had settled him on their shoulders they spun him around to face the Forum. The blast of applause was like the opening of a furnace door and the chant of "Cic-er-o! Cic-er-o! Cic-er-o!" split the skies of Rome.
Copyright © 2006 by Robert Harris
Posted September 28, 2011
No text was provided for this review.
Posted April 4, 2012
No text was provided for this review.