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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"Here," replied Lucius. "In the tablinum. But I must warn you, they do not want to testify."

Cicero hurried through to find two formidable men of middle age -- "the perfect witnesses from my point of view," as Cicero afterwards described them, "prosperous, respectable, sober, and above all -- not Sicilian." As Lucius had predicted, they were reluctant to get involved. They were businessmen, with no desire to make powerful enemies, and did not relish the prospect of taking starring roles in Cicero's great anti-aristocratic production in the Roman Forum. But he wore them down, for they were not fools, either, and could see that in the ledger of profit and loss, they stood to gain most by aligning themselves with the side that was winning. "Do you remember what Pompey said to Sulla, when the old man tried to deny him a triumph on his twenty-sixth birthday?" asked Cicero. "He told me over dinner the other night: 'More people worship a rising than a setting sun.'" This potent combination of name-dropping and appeals to patriotism and self-interest at last brought them around, and by the time they went in to dinner with Cicero and his family they had pledged their support.

"I knew if I had them in your company for a few moments," whispered Lucius, "they would do whatever you wanted."

I had expected Cicero to put them on the witness stand the very next day, but he was too smart for that. "A show must always end with a climax," he said. He was ratcheting up the level of outrage with each new piece of evidence, having moved on through judicial corruption, extortion, and straightforward robbery to cruel and unusual punishment. On the eighth day of the trial, he dealt with the testimony of two Sicilian naval captains, Phalacrus of Centuripae and Onasus of Segesta, who described how they and their men had escaped floggings and executions by bribing Verres's freedman Timarchides (present in court, I am glad to say, to experience his humiliation personally). Worse: the families of those who had not been able to raise sufficient funds to secure the release of their relatives had been told they would still have to pay a bribe to the official executioner, Sextius, or he would deliberately make a mess of the beheadings. "Think of that unbearable burden of pain," declaimed Cicero, "of the anguish that racked those unhappy parents, thus compelled to purchase for their children by bribery not life but a speedy death!" I could see the senators on the jury shaking their heads at this and muttering to one another, and each time Glabrio invited Hortensius to cross-examine the witnesses, and Hortensius simply responded yet again, "No questions," they groaned. Their position was becoming intolerable, and that night the first rumors reached us that Verres had already packed up the contents of his house and was preparing to flee into exile.

Such was the state of affairs on the ninth day, when we brought Annius and Numitorius into court. If anything, the crowd in the Forum was bigger than ever, for there were now only two days left until Pompey's great games. Verres came late and obviously drunk. He stumbled as he climbed the steps of the temple up to the tribunal, and Hortensius had to steady him as the crowd roared with laughter. As he passed Cicero's place, he flashed him a shattered, red-eyed look of fear and rage -- the hunted, cornered look of an animal: the Boar at bay. Cicero got straight down to business and called as his first witness Annius, who described how he had been inspecting a cargo down at the harbor in Syracuse one morning when a friend had come running to tell him that their business associate, Herennius, was in chains in the forum and pleading for his life.

"So what did you do?"

"Naturally, I went at once."

"And what was the scene?"

"There were perhaps a hundred people crying out that Herennius was a Roman citizen and could not be executed without a proper trial."

Copyright © 2006 by Robert Harris

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