"Verres convened a tribunal in the forum of Messana," said
Numitorius, "and then he had Gavius dragged before him. He announced to
everyone that this man was a spy, for which there was only one just
penalty. Then he ordered a cross set up overlooking the straits to
Regium, so that the prisoner could gaze upon Italy as he died, and had
Gavius stripped naked and publicly flogged before us all. Then he was
tortured with hot irons. And then he was crucified."
"Did Gavius speak at all?"
"Only at the beginning, to swear that the accusation was not true.
He was not a foreign spy. He was a Roman citizen, a councillor from the
town of Consa, and a former soldier in the Roman cavalry, under the
command of Lucius Raecius."
"What did Verres say to that?"
"He said that these were lies and commanded that the execution begin."
"Can you describe how Gavius met his dreadful death?"
"He met it very bravely, senator."
"Like a Roman?"
"Like a Roman."
"Did he cry out at all?"
"Only while he was being whipped and he could see the irons being heated."
"And what did he say?"
"Every time a blow landed, he said, 'I am a Roman citizen.'"
"Would you repeat what he said, more loudly please, so that all can hear."
"He said, 'I am a Roman citizen.'"
"So just that?" said Cicero. "Let me be sure I understand you. A
blow lands" -- he put his wrists together, raised them above his head,
and jerked forward, as if his back had just been lashed -- "and he says
through gritted teeth, 'I am a Roman citizen.' A blow lands" -- and
again he jerked forward -- "'I am a Roman citizen.' A blow lands. 'I am a Roman citizen.'"
The flat words of my transcript cannot hope to convey the effect of
Cicero's performance upon those who saw it. The hush around the court
amplified his words. It was as if all of us now were witnesses to this
monstrous miscarriage of justice. Some men and women -- friends of
Gavius, I believe -- began to scream, and there was a growing swell of
outrage from the masses in the Forum. Yet again, Verres shook off
Hortensius's restraining hand and stood up. "He was a filthy spy!" he
bellowed. "A spy! He only said it to delay his proper punishment!"
"But he said it!" said Cicero triumphantly, wheeling on him, his
finger jabbing in outrage. "You admit he said it! Out of your own mouth
I accuse you -- the man claimed to be a Roman citizen, and you did
nothing! This mention of his citizenship did not lead you to hesitate
or delay, even for a little, the infliction of this cruel and
disgusting death! If you, Verres, had been made a prisoner in Persia or
the remotest part of India and were being dragged off to execution,
what cry would you be uttering, except that you were a Roman citizen?
What then of this man whom you were hurrying to his death? Could not
that statement, that claim of citizenship, have saved him for an hour,
for a day, while its truth was checked? No it could not -- not with you
in the judgment seat! And yet the poorest man, of humblest birth, in
whatever savage land, has always until now had the confidence to know
that the cry 'I am a Roman citizen' is his final defense and sanctuary.
It was not Gavius, not one obscure man, whom you nailed upon that cross
of agony: it was the universal principle that Romans are free men!"
The roar that greeted the end of Cicero's tirade was terrifying.
Rather than diminishing after a few moments, it gathered itself afresh
and rose in volume and pitch, and I became aware, at the periphery of
my vision, of a movement toward us. The awnings under which some of the
spectators had been standing began to collapse with a terrible tearing
sound. A man dropped off a balcony onto the crowd. There were screams.
An unmistakable lynch mob began storming the steps to the platform.
Hortensius and Verres stood up so quickly in their panic that they
knocked over the bench behind them. Glabrio could be heard yelling that
the court was adjourned, then he and his lictors hastened up the
remaining steps toward the temple, with the accused and his eminent
counsel in undignified pursuit. Some of the jury also fled into the
sanctuary of the holy building (but not Catulus: I distinctly remember
him standing like a sharp rock, staring unflinchingly ahead, as the
current of bodies broke and swirled around him). The heavy bronze doors
slammed shut. It was left to Cicero to try to restore order by climbing
onto his own bench and gesturing for calm, but four or five men,
rough-looking fellows, ran up and seized his legs and lifted him away.
I was terrified, both for his safety and my own, but he stretched out
his arms as if he was embracing the whole world. When they had settled
him on their shoulders they spun him around to face the Forum. The
blast of applause was like the opening of a furnace door and the chant
of "Cic-er-o! Cic-er-o! Cic-er-o!" split the skies of Rome.
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