Cicero is perhaps one of the best known of the ancient Romans. This is due to the fact that much of what he wrote during his lifetime was published abroad during the ancient world and then was meticulously copied and recopied during the Middle Ages and thus was preserved.
What brought Cicero to prominence was a law case. The case was begun to be heard in 70 BC. The rebellion by Spartacus had just been put down; in fact, the bodies of the 8,000 or so slaves, who had been crucified on the Appian Way as it wends its way from Capua to Rome, may still have been hanging on their crosses.
The case involved the question of whether a governor by the name of Gaius Verres had abused his office. Cicero represented wealthy Sicilians who wanted to prosecute Gaius Verres for his depredations and thefts and who wanted compensation for their losses. Verres had hired a number of famous orators and lawyers to defend him.
Both sides prepared for a long trial. Yet, just two weeks into the trial, Gaius Verres decided that his case was hopeless, because Cicero was doing such a fantastic job. While the court was in a break for as holiday, Verres left Rome and put himself into a voluntary exile. He did not, however, give up any of his ill-gotten gains.
Cicero, because he had done so much preparation for the trial and because he did not want to waste his work, published his opening speeches in the case and also the speeches he would have delivered had the trial continued. The full text of the case survives today, because it was a model of how to denounce an enemy. Cicero wrote an account which told in graphic detail, utilizing numerous examples, of the cruel acts of exploitation, theft, and depredation which Verres had committed. Cicero painted a picture of the greed, lust, and cruelty of Verres for women, for works of art, and for money. In fact, later in 43 BC, Mark Antony put Verres on a proscription list, because Verres would not let Antony have some of his Corinthian bronzes.
Cicero portrayed Verres as a governor who fudged the taxes of his province, who debauched young virgins, who profited from the corn supply, and who systematically stole art works from their rightful owners. In contrast, Cicero presented examples of victims who had been exploited or hurt by Verres. Including in the recital was the story of a Roman citizen, named Publius Gavius, who was thrown into prison, tortured, and crucified, on the pretext that he was a spy for Spartacus. This was especially appalling behavior, because a citizen could not be subjected to any of these acts. Cicero brought to bear every possible weapon in his arsenal, in order to convict Verres, including jokes and puns upon the name Verres, which means either ‘hog’ or ‘snout in the trough’.
It was this case that made Cicero’s reputation. His defeat of numerous other well-known and well-respected orators and lawyers marked him as a man with whom to be reckoned. His self-promotion through the publication of this case, not only of what was said, but would have been said, was a stroke of genius.