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

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A Novel of Ancient Rome

by Robert Harris

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

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"Describe to the court what happened next."

"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.

Copyright © 2006 by Robert Harris

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