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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 hisremarks, 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 often
heartbreaking, 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
"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
"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
"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
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.
Excerpted from Imperium
by Robert Harris
Copyright © 2006 by Robert Harris.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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