The Trial of Verres and Cicero's Speeches

The Trial of Verres and Cicero's Speeches

The run-up12

When the Sicilians turned to Rome for help against the plundering and extortion perpetrated by Verres, Cicero was a natural point of contact: he had been quaestor in Sicily only a few years earlier, knew the province well, had close ties with various leading locals, and saw himself as their patron.13 He agreed to act as the Sicilians’ legal representative, in what shaped up as a case for one of Rome’s ‘standing courts’, the so-called quaestio de repetundis.14 Because Roman officials enjoyed immunity from prosecution during their time in office, the trial could not start before Verres’ period as pro-magistrate finished at the end of 71 BC. His return to the status of privatus (‘an individual not holding public office’) set in motion the following procedural steps:

postulatio (c. 10 January 70): in early January of 70, Cicero applied to the praetor presiding over the extortion court, Manlius Acilius Glabrio, for permission to prosecute Verres (postulatio).

divinatio (c. 20 January 70): no doubt at the instigation of Verres or his advocate Hortensius Verres’ quaestor Q. Caecilius Niger also applied for the leave to prosecute; such rival requests entailed the need for a so-called divinatio, which consisted of a hearing before a jury presided over by the praetor at which the rival parties staked their claims. Cicero triumphed with the (surviving) speech Divinatio in Caecilium, in which he showed that his adversary was just not up to the task.

nominis delatio and nominis receptio (c. 20 January 70 or soon thereafter): after his victory over Caecilius, Cicero submitted a formal charge (nominis delatio), which was accepted by the praetor (nominis receptio).

inquisitio: to prepare his case, Cicero asked for, and was granted, 110 days, during which he travelled to Sicily to secure witnesses and documentation. Time was precious: he was aware of the fact that the defence wanted to delay the trial until the following year. At various places in the Verrines, he boasts about the speed with which he marshalled evidence. Thus he calls the period he requested for gathering evidence ‘astonishingly brief’ (Ver. 1.6: dies perexigua). About sixty of the 110 days he had available, he spent on a trip to Sicily, priding himself on ‘the speed of his return’ (Ver. 2.1.16: celeritas reditionis).

The trial

After the selection of the jury in the second half of July, the trial began on 5 August. As already mentioned, Verres and his supporters tried to prolong the trial until the following year. In 69, Hortensius, one of his advocates, and Q. Caecilius Metellus Creticus, one of his main friends and supporters, would have been consuls, and M. Caecilius Metellus (a brother of the aforementioned Metellus) would have presided over the extortion court as praetor. In a society that placed a premium on esteem for magistrates, this would have meant a powerful boost to Verres’ cause. Likewise, there was the prospect of a more favourable jury (that is, one more liable to corruption) since several of the chosen jury members were due to leave Rome in 69 BC to take up offices, ruling them out of jury duty.15 At one point, when it looked as if the ploy were to succeed, a third brother, L. Caecilius Metellus, who had taken over the governorship of Sicily from Verres as pro-praetor, tried to intimidate the Sicilians against giving testimony against Verres, boasting somewhat prematurely that Verres’ acquittal was certain and that it was in the Sicilians’ own interest not to cause difficulties. As a countermove and to accelerate proceedings, Cicero broke with conventions in his opening speech: instead of a lengthy disquisition setting out all of the charges (oratio perpetua), followed by a prolonged hearing of supporting witnesses, he quickly and summarily sketched out each of the charges and produced a limited number of supporting witnesses.

Verres’ advocate Hortensius did not expect this deviation from standard procedure and faced a difficult challenge. As M. Alexander points out, he was ‘put in the invidious position of having to reply to charges that had not been fully argued, and while [he] probably had a good idea of the arguments which Cicero would be making at the second hearing, he would not have wanted to give credence to them by stating them himself, and then trying to refute them.’16 In the Orator, a rhetorical treatise he wrote in 46 BC, Cicero seems to imply that Hortensius never gave a formal speech in reply and only cross-examined some witnesses during the first hearing (Orat. 129).17 With the actio prima completed on 13 August, the court adjourned for the Votive Games that began on 16 August (comperendinatio). It never reconvened: Verres considered the case that Cicero presented against him during the first hearing so compelling that he went into voluntary exile. The actio secunda, for which Cicero had prepared a massive amount of material adding up to five full speeches, never took place.

The corpus of speeches18

In the aftermath of the trial, Cicero not only published the Divinatio in Caecilium and the speech he gave during the actio prima (commonly labelled in Verrem 1), but also the five speeches he had prepared for the actio secunda (in Verrem 2.1–5). In outline, we have the following corpus:

  • Divinatio in Caecilium [delivered January 70 BC]
  • in Verrem 1 [delivered August 70 BC, during the actio prima]
  • in Verrem 2 [planned for the actio secunda, but never delivered]
    • in Verrem 2.1: Verres’ youth and public career prior to his governorship of Sicily
    • in Verrem 2.2: Sicily - abuse of judicial power
    • in Verrem 2.3: Sicily - extortion of taxes
    • in Verrem 2.4: Sicily - robbery of artworks
    • in Verrem 2.5: Sicily - Verres as magistrate with imperium, responsible for public safety and endowed with the power to punish

Cicero only decided to publish a selection of his speeches.19 The fact that he circulated all the speeches to do with the trial of Verres indicates his high opinion of the set and his belief in their value as documents of self-promotion. Scholars have debated, more or less inconclusively, whether and, if so, to what degree Cicero revised speeches after delivery before circulating them in written form. No clear consensus has emerged, not least since his practice will most likely have differed from case to case, ranging from almost instant release with only minor adjustments to significant revision and publication several years after the original delivery.20 The speeches that Cicero prepared for the second hearing belong to those that he anyway never gave, so here the question is moot. Still, it bears stressing that in the form we have them they are indistinguishable from the written versions of those speeches he actually delivered. In all of his published orations, Cicero maintains the illusion that the text is the record of a performance. (Devices that sustain this illusion include direct addresses to the audience, in particular the defendant, members of the jury, or opposing advocates, orders to the clerk to read out documents, and the use of deictic pronouns such as iste that suggest the presence of the person thus referred to.) It would have been Cicero’s practice in any case to work up extensive written notes for a speech before its oral delivery – which of course does not mean that he read from a script in court – and he most likely had his contribution to the actio secunda more or less ready to go by the time the trial began.21

The first speech intended for the second hearing (Ver. 2.1), from which our passage comes, contains an exhaustive discussion of Verres’ career before he took on the governorship of Sicily. In outline the speech breaks down into the following sections:

  • 1–23: Preface
  • 24–31: Explanation why Cicero didn’t indict in detail during the actio prima
  • 32–34: Blueprint of the actio secunda22
  • 34–40: Verres’ quaestorship
  • 41–102: Verres’ stint as legate and pro-quaestor of Dolabella in Cilicia
    • 41–61: Verres’ thefts of artworks
    • 62–86a: The Lampsacus episode
    • 86b–90: The theft at Miletus
    • 90–102: Verres’ crimes as a guardian and pro-quaestor
  • 103–58: Verres’ urban praetorship
    • 103–27: Abuses of his judicial powers
    • 128–54: Misconduct as a supervisor of the maintenance of public buildings
    • 155–58: His jury-tampering in other trials

The Lampsacus episode stands out as the centrepiece of the oration – a sustained and largely self-contained unit, in which Cicero explores Verres’ past in particular depth and detail. Yet while it is the centre of Ver. 2.1, in the trial as a whole this particular oration (and hence the Lampsacus episode as well) is a bit of a sideshow. If one only reads an excerpt from this speech, it is easy to forget that Verres was not – nor had ever been – on trial for any of his actions as legate. Cicero here reconsiders events that happened about a decade earlier, in an effort to portray Verres as evil through and through. True, consistency of character was an important argument in Roman law courts – anyone who could be shown to have a criminal record was considered more likely to have perpetrated the crime for which he was on trial, whereas an unblemished past could be marshalled in support of a plea of innocence. Thus Cicero does his best to depict Verres as a heinous and hardened criminal, with a particular penchant for debauchery from his early youth. But in the larger scheme of things, Ver. 2.1 is primarily a warm-up to his account of Verres’ governorship of Sicily, to which he devoted the four subsequent speeches.23


12.For issues of chronology, see Marinone, N. (1950), Quaestiones Verrinae, Turin; and (1977), Cronologia Ciceroniana, Rome, 65–7. Many more detailed accounts of the circumstances of the trial exist than the bare-bone coverage provided here. Two of the best are Berry, D. H. (2006), Cicero. Political Speeches: A New Translation, Oxford, 3–12, and Lintott, A. (2008), ‘Cicero and the Citadel of the Allies’, in Cicero as Evidence: A Historian’s Companion, Oxford, 81–100.
13.Brunt, P. A. (1980), ‘Patronage and Politics in the Verrines’, Chiron 10, 273–89.
14.See below Section 5: The Roman extortion court.
15.For details, see Marshall, A. J. (1967), ‘Verres and Judicial Corruption’, Classical Quarterly 17, 408–13; McDermott, W. C. (1977), ‘The Verrine Jury’, Rheinisches Museum 120, 64–75.
16.Alexander, M. (1976), ‘Hortensius’ Speech in Defense of Verres’, Phoenix 30, 46–53 (52).
17.The speech of Hortensius that Quintilian read (Institutio Oratoria 10.1.23) might have been ‘a mere literary composition’ or the one he ‘delivered at the litis aestimatio, after Verres’ condemnation in absence’: Brunt, P. A. (1980), ‘Patronage and Politics in the Verrines’, Chiron 10, 273–89 (280 n. 44).
18.For an excellent account of the corpus and its context, see Vasaly, A. (2002), ‘Cicero’s Early Speeches’, in J. M. May (ed.), Brill’s Companion to Cicero: Oratory and Rhetoric, Leiden, Boston, Cologne, 71–111 (87–103).
19.For those speeches that he decided not to disseminate in written form, see Crawford, J. W. (1984), M. Tullius Cicero: The Lost and Unpublished Orations, Göttingen.
20.Excellent recent discussions include Berry, D. H. (2004), ‘The Publication of Cicero’s Pro Roscio Amerino’, Mnemosyne 57, 80–87, Gurd, S. (2007), ‘Cicero and Editorial Revision’, Classical Antiquity 26, 49–80, and Lintott, A. (2008), Cicero as Evidence: A Historian’s Commentary, Oxford, 15–9.
21.See Frazel, T. (2004), ‘The Composition and Circulation of Cicero’s In Verrem’, Classical Quarterly n.s. 54, 128–42.
22.Cicero uses *praeteritio to pass over Verres’ (singularly depraved) youth, limiting his coverage of Verres’ crimes to the four periods in which he acted as a magistrate of the Roman people: his quaestorship, his legateship in Asia Minor, his urban praetorship, and his governorship of Sicily (§ 34). Ver. 2.1 deals with the first three parts of this fourfold division (quadripertita distributio), Ver. 2.2–5 with the fourth.
23.See Steel (2004) 251 for some comments on how Cicero employs the Lampsacus episode to prefigure events in Sicily.