Last week, we saw the 26-year-old Cicero rose to prominence by giving an effective legal defense to a man many had given up for lost in the wake of all the political violence surrounding Sulla’s proscriptions. By successfully defending Sextus Roscius, Cicero made a stand not just for an individual defendant, but for the rule of law itself. This week, we see him take on the role of prosecutor in a case heard in the Extortion Court, a case that would launch him into politics as a formidable orator and principled politician.
Cicero had begun his official political career with a quaestorship in 75 BCE, where he served in western Sicily and made many contacts. He entered the Roman Senate after fulfilling his office, but as a novus homo or new man, he was hardly much of a player. But he was respected by the Sicilians for his fair dealing, which is why they appealed to him when, during the years 73-71 BCE, Gaius Verres ran rampant in the province as its Roman governor. Having attained the rank of praetor, Verres outranked Cicero in the cursus honorum, and had shown himself to be agile and ruthless by switching sides from Marius to Sulla in the earlier civil strife. In 80-79 BCE, Verres had served as a legate under Gnaeus Cornelius Dolabella in the eastern provinces of Cilicia and Asia, and joined with the governor in the plundering of those provinces. But in 78, when Dolabella was on trial, Verres gave testimony against him and thus escaped prosecution. His subsequent behavior in Sicily was so shocking that, as Cicero assumed, its exposure should suffice to turn the Roman Senate against Verres, whose position rested more with powerful supporters rather than family influence of his own. And there was an additional incentive for the prosecution: by the odd (to us) rules of Roman political and judicial order, a successful prosecutor would attain the rank of the defendant, meaning Cicero would be considered a man of praetorian rank in the Senate, a jump up for one still considered young and without much personal influence.
This case is interesting for a number of reasons.
- First, it is a look into the accountability of provincial governors to the Roman people, who have a vested interest in maintaining good relations with their allies; hence the need for good governors who keep order, stimulate business and assist the collection of fair taxation, maintain the military on Rome’s various frontiers and insure the rights of Roman citizens in their jurisdiction. Verres appears to have failed at all of this, and much of Cicero’s orations is made up of detailed evidence of these failures that he personally collected.
- Second, this is a moment when a judicial reform is in the air, which would change the composition of the Extortion Court to include juries of equites instead of senators. Once again, Cicero finds a way to make the jury very keenly aware of what is at stake in their conduct and verdict, since, as a senatorial jury, their mismanagement of the case could jeopardize their order’s standing in the court system.
- Third, it appears Verres’ defense team was hoping to game the procedure so that this trial would stretch over into 69 BCE, by which time the turnover in civil administration would swing their way in terms of greater influence on the outcome of the trial. Cicero had to find a way to accelerate his prosecution to avoid this, and he did just that, as we’ll see.
- Fourth, Cicero’s opponent was Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, reputedly the greatest orator and advocate of the time. It would be no easy task to get the better of so great a speaker, even given Verres’ patent greed and corruption. Hortensius’ skill coupled with the influence of the powerful Metelli family meant that odds were against the prosecution from the get go. This made Cicero’s victory all the more stunning.
So get ready for Cicero the prosecutor, who will come out swinging against a man who would live the rest of his life in exile on account of this effective intervention on behalf of the Sicilians. After this success in the court and the publication of these orations, Cicero would be recognized as Rome’s greatest living court orator. Next week we will see him take action as Consul, the highest office in Rome, when he is at the pinnacle of his political career.
Monday 10/11:Read the introduction and first oration Against Verres, pp. 3-29 in Cicero: Political Speeches.
Wednesday 10/13: Read II.5, skimming in particular for those parts that would most outrage a Roman jury: failure to maintain the Roman military in the province, and the disregard or violation of the rights of Roman citizens. We will break up this long text into sections for your group discussion, but try to get a sense of the whole. Make sure to read the final sections 179-188 carefully.
Group Discussion Questions for 10/13
Aeneas: How does Cicero attack the defense’s line of argument that Verres, though maybe not a good man, is at least an effective general and cannot be removed for that reason? See sections 1-8.
Remus: What is Cicero’s point about the incident involving slaves at Triocola (sections 10-14)? How does this reflect badly on Verres’ administration in Sicily?
Romulus: Look at sections 20-22 on page 37-38. What are all the things that Cicero says he will not talk about? Why is it that he won’t talk about them? And yet, isn’t he talking about them? What seems to be his strategy here in couching his argument in this way?
Numa: How does Cicero address Verres’ personal conduct in Sicily in sections 25-32? What measure of masculine behavior does he use to size up Verres?
Servius: What is said about Verres’ treatment of Roman citizens in sections 140-152? Why do you think Cicero chose to put this part so late in his speech?
ALL: How does Cicero’s invocation of the gods in sections 179-188 serve as a suitable climax to this prosecution? How does it explain Verres’ criminal conduct?