Gaius Verres (c. 120–43 BC) was a Roman magistrate, notorious for his misgovernment of Sicily. His extortion of local farmers and plundering of temples led to his prosecution by Cicero, whose accusations were so devastating that his defence advocate could only recommend that Verres should leave the country. Cicero's prosecution speeches were later published as the Verrine Orations.
During the First Civil War (88–87 BC), Verres supported Gaius Marius and the Populares, but soon went over to Sulla and the Optimates. After Sulla’s return from the East and his subsequent victory in the Second Civil War (84-81) Verres found himself on the winning side. Sulla made him a present of land at Beneventum and secured him against punishment for embezzlement. In 80 BC Verres served on the staff of Gnaeus Cornelius Dolabella, governor of Cilicia. According to Cicero, the governor and his subordinate both ruthlessly plundered the province. In 78 BC Dolabella had to stand trial at Rome accused of extortion and was found guilty with the evidence of Verres, who had secured a pardon.
In 74 BC, by lavish use of bribes, Verres secured a praetorship. He abused his authority to further the political ends of his party. As a reward, the Senate sent him as governor (propraetor) to Sicily, the breadbasket of the Roman Republic – a particularly rich province thanks to its central position in the Mediterranean making it a commercial crossroads. The people were for the most part prosperous and contented, but under Verres the island experienced more misery and desolation than during the time of the First Punic War (264 to 241 BC) or the recent Servile Wars (135–72 BC). Verres ruined the wheat-growers and the revenue collectors by exorbitant imposts or by the iniquitous canceling of contracts. He robbed temples (notably that on the site of the Cathedral of Syracuse) and private houses of their works of art, and disregarded the rights of Roman citizens.
Another major charge leveled against Verres during his Sicilian tenure alleged that, during the time of the Third Servile War (73–71 BC) against Spartacus, he had used the emergency to raise cash. He would, allegedly, pick key slaves of wealthy landowners and charge them with plotting to join Spartacus' revolt or otherwise causing sedition in the province. Having done so, he would sentence the slave to death by crucifixion, and then lay a broad hint that a sizable bribe from the slave's owner could expunge the charge and sentence. Other times he would name non-existent slaves, charging that the landowner held a slave suspected of plotting rebellion and that the owner was actively hiding him. When the owner, quite understandably, could not produce the slave (which he didn't own), Verres would throw the putative owner into prison until a bribe could be paid for his release.
Verres returned to Rome in 70, and in the same year, at the request of the Sicilians, Marcus Tullius Cicero prosecuted him: Cicero later published the prosecution speeches as the Verrine Orations. Verres entrusted his defence to the most eminent of Roman advocates, Quintus Hortensius, and he had the sympathy and support of several of the leading Roman patricians.
Trial and exile
The court was composed exclusively of senators, some of whom may have been his friends. However, the presiding judge, the city praetor, Manius Acilius Glabrio, was a thoroughly honest man, and his assessors were at least not accessible to bribery. Verres vainly tried to get the trial postponed until 69 BC when his friend Marcus Caecilius Metellus would be the presiding judge. Hortensius tried two successive tactics to delay the trial. The first was trying to sideline Verres' prosecution by hoping to get a prosecution of a former governor of Bithynia to take precedence. When that failed, the defense then looked to procedural delays (and gaming the usual format of a Roman extortion trial) until after a lengthy and upcoming round of public holidays, after which there would be scarce time for the trial to continue before Glabrio's term was up and the new and more malleable judge would be installed. However, in August, Cicero opened the case and vowed to short-circuit the plans by taking advantage of an opportunity to change the format of the trial to bring evidence and witnesses up much sooner, and opened his case with a short and blistering speech.
The effect of the first brief speech was so overwhelming that Hortensius refused to reply, and recommended his client leave the country. Before the expiration of the 9 days allowed for the prosecution Verres was on his way to Massilia (today Marseille). There he lived in exile until 43 BC, when he was proscribed by Mark Antony, apparently for refusing to surrender some art treasures that Antony coveted.
Verres may have had a more decent character than that with which Cicero, the primary source of information, credits him, but there is no evidence to counter the allegation that he stood preeminent among the worst specimens of Roman provincial governors. Of the seven Verrine orations collectively called In Verrem, only two were delivered; the remaining five were compiled from the depositions of witnesses and published after Verres' flight.
Popular culture references
- Last Seen in Massilia a novel of the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor. Verres plays a minor character.
- Imperium the first novel of Robert Harris‘s trilogy about Cicero. The first half of the book features Cicero's prosecution of Verres.
- Spartacus: Swords and Ashes by Jonathan Clements. Verres is a major character in the novel which is set on the eve of his governorship of Sicily and concerns an undocumented dispute with a young Cicero in Neapolis.
- Fortune's Favourites a novel of the Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough. Verres, while a secondary character, describes his career in detail, since his pillaging of the Samnium during the Social War, from his departure to Asia in the retinue of governor Gnaeus Cornelius Dolabella, where the author describes his vices and immensurable greed, foreshadowing his misgovernment of Sicily, and, in the end, Cicero's energetic prosecution.
- "Song for Cleomenes", a song by The Mountain Goats from their Beautiful Rat Sunset 10" EP, recounts the story of Verres.
- University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law, The Trial of Gaius Verres