The Roman Extortion Court
(quaestio de repetundis)

Verres stood trial in the so-called quaestio de repetundis. quaestio (from quaero + tio) refers, in its most basic sense, to ‘the act of searching’ and then came to mean ‘judicial investigation, inquiry’ and, more specifically, ‘a commission appointed to try certain cases of serious public crimes’ (Oxford Latin Dictionary s. v. 4). Such commissions could be either ad hoc or permanent (‘standing’). The first such permanent criminal court or tribunal (quaestio perpetua) was the quaestio de repetundis, which was set up in 149 BC to deal with acts of embezzlement by Roman magistrates. The gerundive phrase de repetundis means, literally, ‘about matters that need to be recovered’, so the quaestio de repetundis was a standing criminal court that heard cases of corruption or misconduct in office and concerned itself especially with the recovery of extorted money. Many, but by no means all, cases that came before the quaestio de repetundis involved the exploitation of provincial subjects by Roman magistrates. While it may go too far to see this institution, in which members of Rome’s ruling elite sat in judgement over their peers, as a means by which Rome’s imperial republic maintained for itself the myth of beneficial imperialism, in practice the court can be considered ‘the chief countervailing force against the all-powerful Roman magistrate and his companions in the military field and provincial government.’39

In the course of its history, arrangements of who could act as prosecutor and who manned the juries underwent several changes. One such reform coincided with Cicero’s prosecution of Verres, who was the last person judged in a quaestio de repetundis under the system put in place by Sulla: ‘The year 70 was momentous. The full power of the tribunes was restored. The senatorial monopoly of criminal jurisdiction was terminated.’40 Cicero obliquely links the case at hand to this imminent judicial reform, thereby putting his individual stamp on a watershed-year in Roman history. Throughout the Verrines (though not in the passage under consideration here) Cicero plays on a sense of constitutional crisis.41 It was part of a larger strategy ‘to make Verres’ guilt matter’, not least for purposes of self-promotion.42


39.Lintott, A. (2008), Cicero as Evidence: A Historian’s Companion, Oxford, p. 81 and 83.
40.Brunt, P. A. (1980), ‘Patronage and Politics in the Verrines’, Chiron 10, 273–89 (284).
41.Cf. though § 58 and the note on iudiciorum … dominos … cupiditatum … servos. For details, see Vasaly, A. (2009), ‘Cicero, Domestic Politics, and the First Action of the Verrines’, Classical Antiquity 28, 101–37.
42.Vasaly, A. (1993), Representations: Images of the World in Ciceronian Oratory, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford, p. 110.