Excerpt from Imperium by Robert Harris, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Imperium

A Novel of Ancient Rome

by Robert Harris

Imperium
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2007, 496 pages

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"How did you all know that Herennius was a Roman? Was he not a banker from Spain?"

"Many of us knew him personally. Although he had business in Spain, he had been born to a Roman family in Syracuse and had grown up in the city."

"And what was Verres's response to your pleas?"

"He ordered Herennius to be beheaded immediately."

There was a groan of horror around the court.

"And who dealt the fatal blow?"

"The public executioner, Sextius."

"And did he make a clean job of it?"

"I am afraid he did not, no."

"Clearly," said Cicero, turning to the jury, "he had not paid Verres and his gang of thieves a large enough bribe."

For most of the trial, Verres had sat slumped in his chair, but on this morning, fired by drink, he jumped up and began shouting that he had never taken any such bribe. Hortensius had to pull him down. Cicero ignored him and went on calmly questioning his witness.

"This is an extraordinary situation, is it not? A hundred of you vouch for the identity of this Roman citizen, yet Verres does not even wait an hour to establish the truth of who he is. How do you account for it?"

"I can account for it easily, senator. Herennius was a passenger on a ship from Spain that was impounded with all its cargo by Verres's agents. He was sent to the Stone Quarries, along with everyone else on board, then dragged out to be publicly executed as a pirate. What Verres did not realize was that Herennius was not from Spain at all. He was known to the Roman community in Syracuse and would be recognized. But by the time Verres discovered his mistake, Herennius could not be allowed to go free, because he knew too much about what the governor was up to."

"Forgive me, I do not understand," said Cicero, playing the innocent. "Why would Verres want to execute an innocent passenger on a cargo ship as a pirate?"

"He needed to show a sufficient number of executions."

"Why?"

"Because he was being paid bribes to let the real pirates go free."

Verres was on his feet again shouting that it was a lie, and this time Cicero took a few paces toward him. "A lie, you monster? A lie? Then why in your own prison records does it state that Herennius was released? And why do they further state that the notorious pirate captain Heracleo was executed, when no one on the island ever saw him die? I shall tell you why -- because you, the Roman governor, responsible for the safety of the seas, were all the while taking bribes from the very pirates themselves!"

"Cicero, the great lawyer, who thinks himself so clever!" said Verres bitterly, his words slurred by drink. "Who thinks he knows everything! Well, here is something you do not know. I have Heracleo in my private custody, here in my house in Rome, and he can tell you all himself that it is a lie!"

Amazing now, to reflect that a man could blurt out something so foolish, but the facts are there -- they are in the record -- and amid the pandemonium in court, Cicero could be heard demanding of Glabrio that the famous pirate be fetched from Verres's house by the lictors and placed in proper official custody, "for the public safety." Then, while that was being done, he called as his second witness of the day Gaius Numitorius. Privately I thought that Cicero was rushing it too much: that he could have milked the admission about Heracleo for more. But the great advocate had sensed that the moment of the kill had arrived, and for months, ever since we had first landed in Sicily, he had known exactly the blade he wished to use. Numitorius swore an oath to tell the truth and took the stand, and Cicero quickly led him through his testimony to establish the essential facts about Publius Gavius: that he was a merchant traveling on a ship from Spain; that his ship had been impounded and the passengers all taken to the Stone Quarries, from which Gavius had somehow managed to escape; that he had made his way to Messana to take a ship to the mainland, had been apprehended as he went aboard, and had been handed over to Verres when he visited the town. The silence of the listening multitudes was intense.

Copyright © 2006 by Robert Harris

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