Against Verres 66 Essay

Cicero describes the banquet that Philodamus put on in honour of his guest, emphasizing the hybrid nature of the event, in which elements of the Roman convivium (a dinner-party) and the Greek symposium (a drinking party) get mixed. The etymologies of the two terms underscore the different emphases of the two get-togethers: convivium comes from con-vivo, i.e. to live together, spend one’s time in company, and hence dine together, with a stress on conviviality, that is, the enjoyment of one another’s company and the social dimension of the affair; sym-posion comes from sun-poteo, that is, to drink together, which, while also highlighting the social aspect of the activity with the prefix sun- (‘with, together’ – the Greek equivalent of Latin cum), focuses on alcohol consumption. What starts out as an orderly Roman dinner party ends up as a rowdy Greek symposium. One significant difference in the social etiquettes that governed the Roman convivium and the Greek symposium concerned the role of women: while ladies of the household could be present at the former (though they tended to sit on chairs, or were often represented as doing so, rather than to recline on couches), the only females present at the latter were courtesans. The occasion was strictly off-limits to women of the household, especially unmarried and hence supposedly virginal daughters.72

Strikingly, Cicero does nowhere say that Verres himself was actually present at the banquet, though some of his formulations are designed to generate the (erroneous) impression that he was. But the sentence Rubrius istius comites invitat makes it clear that Verres himself was not invited – even though Cicero instantly follows up this piece of information by saying that Verres briefed the invitees before they went to dinner (eos omnis Verres certiores facit quid opus esset). Steel (2004) 237 is surely right in arguing that Cicero would have made much more of it if Verres had participated in the banquet: ‘quite apart from his role in the supposed kidnap, allegations of misbehaviour in sympotic contexts are a recurrent feature of Cicero’s invective against Verres elsewhere in the Verrines, and against his other forensic opponents and political enemies.’73 As it is, the care Cicero takes to assert Verres’ involvement, if not to suggest his presence, without ever committing himself to an explicit statement concerning his whereabouts, would seem to imply that his absence from the banquet was too well-established a fact to bend it much.

Why did the brawl break out? Cicero overlays two scenarios, which are not mutually exclusive: (i) a cross-cultural misunderstanding concerning the presence of women at a party that got out of hand: see Steel (2004) 240, who moots the possibility that ‘Rubrius simply did not understand how offensive and inappropriate his request was, and that the incident was a cultural misunderstanding and not the start of a premeditated attack’; or (ii) a carefully devised plot, hatched and masterminded by Verres and Rubrius before the dinner even started. (ii) is clearly the scenario that Cicero presupposes and tries to render plausible, while building aspects of scenario (i) into his account. But we have to ask ourselves: does scenario (i) not suffice to explain what happened – or indeed constitute, by itself, the more plausible scenario? Is it really likely that Verres devised a scheme that would have him wait elsewhere until his henchmen brought him his prey? Could Roman magistrates count on abducting a random woman from the household of their hosts to have their way with her and expect to get away with it? Would it not have made more sense for Verres to join the party (after all, according to Cicero, Rubrius was at liberty to invite anyone he wanted) and to see what would transpire? In short, should we not rather reckon with a version of scenario (i), namely chance circumstances that turned awry on the spot, owing to cross-cultural misunderstandings and the inebriation of the participants, which Cicero then embeds within the freely invented scenario (ii)? These are fraught questions: a dinner party getting out of control is one thing, a violent abduction to perpetrate premeditated rape quite another.

72.See further the collection of papers edited by J. Donahue and B. K. Gold (2005), Roman Dining, Baltimore, especially that by M. Roller, ‘Horizontal Women: Posture and Sex in the Roman Convivium’, 49–94, which challenges the view that ‘respectable’ women dined seated until the Augustan era. On the Greek symposion, see e.g. Murray, O. (ed.) (1994), Sympotica: A Symposium on the symposion, Oxford; and Davidson, J. (1997), Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, HarperCollins.
73.With reference to Corbeill, A. (1996), Controlling Laughter: Political Humor in the Late Republic, Princeton, 128–43.