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Gaius Verres – example of corrupt and evil Roman governor

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Sleeping Eros is one of the many sculptures that have been taken by Werres
Sleeping Eros is one of the many sculptures that have fallen prey to Werres | Author: Yair-haklai | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Gaius Verres was an example of a wicked and greedy Roman governor who, while in office (73-71 BCE) in Sicily, committed countless thefts of works of art, tax evasion and speculation on grain prices.

Cicero, the famous Roman orator, was asked by the Sicilian aristocracy in 70 BCE to bring charges against the former governor. Cicero, despite the fact that Verres enjoyed great support from the Roman elite, agreed, and the winning case became a springboard in his political career.

It is worth mentioning that we know a lot about the events of this period, especially the trial or the character of Verres, thanks to the preserved speeches of Cicero. In the end, the case was pending only for two weeks, because the effectiveness of Cicero’s accusations was too high, and Verres himself gave up the fight for his good name and went voluntarily into exile to the south of Gaul, to Massalia. Cicero’s speeches have survived to our times and are proof of how morally corrupt some Roman governors were. According to Mary Beard, Cicero’s speeches in total are several hundred pages long, and he himself did not have time to deliver them, because the process ended earlier. He prepared the speeches for subsequent court sessions.

What offences of Verres can we learn from the speeches of Cicero? Most of all, Verres increased his private art collection by appropriating works of art in Sicily. It did this by forcing the owners to sell their properties at very low prices. In addition, Verres was even able to falsely accuse a Roman citizen, only to seize his property. He accused a certain Publius Gawiusz of spying for Spartacus (there was a slave revolt in Italy at that time) and, despite the fact that he had citizenship, he tortured him.

It is worth mentioning that relying only on Cicero’s messages is extremely risky in the assessment of the character of Verres. Certainly, however, the multitude of evidence and the victory of Cicero underline what officials sometimes had to deal with by ordinary inhabitants of the province.

  • Beard Mary, SPQR. Historia starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2016

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