Roman Life in the Days of Cicero - Alfred J. Church

A Great Roman Cause

There were various courts at Rome for persons accused of various crimes. One judge, for instance, used to try charges of poisoning; another, charges of murder; and, just as is the case among us, each judge had a jury, who gave their verdict on the evidence which they had heard. But this verdict was not, as with us, the verdict of the whole jury, given only if all can be induced to agree, but of the majority. Each juryman wrote his opinion on a little tablet of wood, putting A. (absolvo, "I acquit") if he thought the accused innocent, K. (condemno, "I condemn") if he thought him guilty, and N.L. (non liquet, "It is not clear") if the case seemed suspicious, though there was not enough evidence to convict.

In the year 66 B.C. a very strange trial took place in the Court of Poison Cases. A certain Cluentius was accused of having poisoned his step-father, Oppianicus, and various other persons. Cicero, who was prætor that year (the prætor was the magistrate next in rank to the consul), defended Cluentius, and told his client's whole story.

Cluentius and his step-father were both natives of Larinum, a town in Apulia, where there was a famous temple of Mars. A dispute about the property of this temple caused an open quarrel between the two men, who had indeed been enemies for some years. Oppianicus took up the case of some slaves, who were called Servants of Mars, declaring that they were not slaves at all, but Roman citizens. This he did, it would seem, because he desired to annoy his fellow-townsmen, with whom he was very unpopular. The people of Larinum, who were very much interested in all that concerned the splendour of their temple services, resisted the claim, and asked Cluentius to plead their case. Cluentius consented. While the cause was going on, it occurred to Oppianicus to get rid of his opponent by poison. He employed an agent, and the agent put the matter into the hands of his freedman, a certain Scamander. Scamander tried to accomplish his object by bribing the slave of the physician who was attending Cluentius. The physician was a needy Greek, and his slave had probably hard and scanty fare; but he was an honest man, and as clever as he was honest. He pretended to accept the offer, and arranged for a meeting. This done, he told the whole matter to his master the physician, and the physician told it again to his patient. Cluentius arranged that certain friends should be present in concealment at the interview between the slave and his tempter. The villain came, and was seized with the poison and a packet of money, sealed with his master's seal, upon him.

Cluentius, who had put up with many provocations from his mother's husband, now felt that his life was in danger, and determined to defend himself. He indicted Scamander for an attempt to poison. The man was found guilty. Scamander's patron (as they used to call a freedman's old master) was next brought to trial, and with the same result. Last of all, Oppianicus, the chief criminal, was attacked. Scamander's trial had warned him of his danger, and he had laboured to bring about the man's acquittal. One vote, and one only, he had contrived to secure. And to the giver of this vote, a needy and unprincipled member of the Senate, he now had recourse. He went, of course, with a large sum in his hand—something about five thousand six hundred pounds of our money. With this the senator—Staienus by name—was to bribe sixteen out of the thirty-two jurymen. They were to have three hundred and fifty pounds apiece for their votes, and Staienus was to have as much for his own vote (which would give a majority), and something over for his trouble. Staienus conceived the happy idea of appropriating the whole, and he managed it in this way. He accosted a fellow-juror, whom he knew to be as unprincipled as himself. "Bulbus," he said, "you will help me in taking care that we shan't serve our country for nothing." "You may count on me," said the man. Staienus went on, "The defendant has promised three hundred and fifty pounds to every juror who will vote 'Not Guilty.' You know who will take the money. Secure them, and come again to me." Nine days after Bulbus came with beaming face to Staienus. "I have got the sixteen in the matter you know of; and now, where is the money?" "He has played me false," replied the other; "the money is not forthcoming. As for myself, I shall certainly vote 'Guilty.' "

The trial came to an end, and the verdict was to be given. The defendant claimed that it should be given by word of mouth, being anxious to know who had earned their money. Staienus and Bulbus were the first to vote. To the surprise of all, they voted "Guilty." Rumours too of foul play had spread about. The two circumstances caused some of the more respectable jurors to hesitate. In the end five  voted for acquittal, ten  said "Not Proven," and seventeen "Guilty." Oppianicus suffered nothing worse than banishment, a banishment which did not prevent him from living in Italy, and even in the neighbourhood of Rome. The Romans, though they shed blood like water in their civil strife, were singularly lenient in their punishments. Not long afterwards he died.

His widow saw in his death an opportunity of gratifying the unnatural hatred which she had long felt for her son Cluentius. She would accuse him of poisoning his step-father. Her first attempt failed completely. She subjected three slaves to torture, one of them her own, another belonging to the younger Oppianicus, a third the property of the physician who had attended the deceased in his last illness. But the cruelties and tortures extorted no confession from the men. At last the friends whom she had summoned to be present at the inquiry compelled her to desist. Three years afterwards she renewed the attempt. She had taken one of the three tortured slaves into high favour, and had established him as a physician at Larinum. The man committed an audacious robbery in his mistress' house, breaking open a chest and abstracting from it a quantity of silver coin and five pounds weight of gold. At the same time he murdered two of his fellow-slaves, and threw their bodies into the fish-pond. Suspicion fell upon the missing slaves. But when the chest came to be closely examined, the opening was found to be of a very curious kind. A friend remembered that he had lately seen among the miscellaneous articles at an auction a circular saw which would have made just such an opening. It was found that this saw had been bought by the physician. He was now charged with the crime. Thereupon a young lad who had been his accomplice came forward and told the story. The bodies were found in the fish-pond. The guilty slave was tortured. He confessed the deed, and he also confessed, his mistress declared, that he had given poison to Oppianicus at the instance of Cluentius. No opportunity was given for further inquiry. His confession made, the man was immediately executed. Under strong compulsion from his step-mother, the younger Oppianicus now took up the case, and indicted Cluentius for murder. The evidence was very weak, little or nothing beyond the very doubtful confession spoken of above; but then there was a very violent prejudice against the accused. There had been a suspicion—perhaps more than a suspicion—of foul play in the trial which had ended in the condemnation of Oppianicus. The defendant, men said, might have attempted to bribe the jury, but the plaintiff had certainly done so. It would be a fine thing if he were to be punished even by finding him guilty of a crime which he had not committed.

In defending his client, Cicero relied as much upon the terrible list of crimes which had been proved against the dead Oppianicus as upon anything else. Terrible indeed it was, as a few specimens from the catalogue will prove.

Among the wealthier inhabitants of Larinum was a certain Dinæa, a childless widow. She had lost her eldest son in the Social War (the war carried on between Rome and her Italian allies), and had seen two others die of disease. Her only daughter, who had been married to Oppianicus, was also dead. Now came the unexpected news that her eldest son was still alive. He had been sold into slavery, and was still working among a gang of labourers on a farm in Gaul. The poor woman called her kinsfolk together and implored them to undertake the task of recovering him. At the same time she made a will, leaving the bulk of her property to her daughter's son, the younger Oppianicus, but providing for the missing man a legacy of between three and four thousand pounds. The elder Oppianicus was not disposed to see so large a sum go out of the family. Dinæa fell ill, and he brought her his own physician. The patient refused the man's services; they had been fatal, she said, to all her kinsfolk. Oppianicus then contrived to introduce to her a travelling quack from Ancona. He had bribed the man with about seventeen pounds of our money to administer a deadly drug. The fee was large, and the fellow was expected to take some pains with the business; but he was in a hurry; he had many markets to visit; and he gave a single dose which there was no need to repeat.

Meanwhile Dinæa's kinsfolk had sent two agents to make inquiries for the missing son. But Oppianicus had been beforehand with them. He had bribed the man who had brought the first news, had learnt where he was to be found, and had caused him to be assassinated. The agents wrote to their employers at Larinum, saying that the object of their search could not be found, Oppianicus having undoubtedly tampered with the person from whom information was to be obtained. This letter excited great indignation at Larinum; and one of the family publicly declared in the market-place that he should hold Oppianicus (who happened to be present) responsible if any harm should be found to have happened to the missing man. A few days afterwards the agents themselves returned. They had found the man, but he was dead. Oppianicus dared not face the burst of rage which this news excited, and fled from Larinum. But he was not at the end of his resources. The Civil War between Sulla and the party of Marius (for Marius himself was now dead) was raging, and Oppianicus fled to the camp of Metellus Pius, one of Sulla's lieutenants. There he represented himself as one who had suffered for the party. Metellus had himself fought in the Social War, and fought against the side to which the murdered prisoner belonged. It was therefore easy to persuade him that the man had deserved his fate, and that his friends were unworthy persons and dangerous to the commonwealth. Oppianicus returned to Larinum with an armed force, deposed the magistrates whom the towns-people had chosen, produced Sulla's mandate for the appointment of himself and three of his creatures in their stead, as well as for the execution of four persons particularly obnoxious to him. These four were, the man who had publicly threatened him, two of his kinsfolk, and one of the instruments of his own villanies, whom he now found it convenient to get out of the way.

The story of the crimes of Oppianicus, of which only a small part has been given, having been finished, Cicero related the true circumstances of his death. After his banishment he had wandered about for a while shunned by all his acquaintances. Then he had taken up his quarters in a farmhouse in the Falernian country. From these he was driven away by a quarrel with the farmer, and removed to a small lodging which he had hired outside the walls of Rome. Not long afterwards he fell from his horse, and received a severe injury in his side. His health was already weak, fever came on, he was carried into the city and died after a few days' illness.

Besides the charge of poisoning Oppianicus there were others that had to be briefly dealt with. One only of these needs to be mentioned. Cluentius, it was said, had put poison into a cup of honey wine, with the intention of giving it to the younger Oppianicus. The occasion, it was allowed, was the young man's wedding-breakfast, to which, as was the custom at Larinum, a large company had been invited. The prosecutor affirmed that one of the bridegroom's friends had intercepted the cup on its way, drunk off its contents, and instantly expired. The answer to this was complete. The young man had not instantly expired. On the contrary, he had died after an illness of several days, and this illness had had a different cause. He was already out of health when he came to the breakfast, and he had made himself worse by eating and drinking too freely, "as," says the orator, "young men will do." He then called a witness to whom no one could object, the father of the deceased. "The least suspicion of the guilt of Cluentius would have brought him as a witness against him. Instead of doing this he gives him his support. Read," said Cicero to the clerk, "read his evidence. And you, sir," turning to the father, "stand up a while, if you please, and submit to the pain of hearing what I am obliged to relate. I will say no more about the case. Your conduct has been admirable; you would not allow your own sorrow to involve an innocent man in the deplorable calamity of a false accusation."

Then came the story of the cruel and shameful plot which the mother had contrived against her son. Nothing would content this wicked woman but that she must herself journey to Rome to give all the help that she could to the prosecution. "And what a journey this was!" cried Cicero. "I live near some of the towns near which she passed, and I have heard from many witnesses what happened. Vast crowds came to see her. Men, aye, and women too, groaned aloud as she passed by. Groaned at what? Why, that from the distant town of Larinum, from the very shore of the Upper Sea, a woman was coming with a great retinue and heavy money-bags, coming with the single object of bringing about the ruin of a son who was being tried for his life. In all those crowds there was not a man who did not think that every spot on which she set her foot needed to be purified, that the very earth, which is the mother of us all, was defiled by the presence of a mother so abominably wicked. There was not a single town in which she was allowed to stay; there was not an inn of all the many upon that road where the host did not shun the contagion of her presence. And indeed she preferred to trust herself to solitude and to darkness rather than to any city or hostelry. And now," said Cicero, turning to the woman, who was probably sitting in court, "does she think that we do not all know her schemes, her intrigues, her purposes from day to day? Truly we know exactly to whom she has gone, to whom she has promised money, whose integrity she has endeavoured to corrupt with her bribes. Nay, more: we have heard all about the things which she supposes to be a secret, her nightly sacrifice, her wicked prayers, her abominable vows."

He then turned to the son, whom he would have the jury believe was as admirable as the mother was vile. He had certainly brought together a wonderful array of witnesses to character. From Larinum every grown-up man that had the strength to make the journey had come to Rome to support their fellow-townsman. The town was left to the care of women and children. With these witnesses had come, bringing a resolution of the local senate full of the praises of the accused, a deputation of the senators. Cicero turned to the deputation and begged them to stand up while the resolution was being read. They stood up and burst into tears, which indeed are much more common among the people of the south than among us, and of which no one sees any reason to be ashamed. "You see these tears, gentlemen," cried the orator to the jury. "You may be sure, from seeing them, that every member of the senate was in tears also when they passed this resolution." Nor was it only Larinum, but all the chief Samnite towns that had sent their most respected citizens to give their evidence for Cluentius. "Few," said Cicero, "I think, are loved by me as much as he is loved by all these friends."

Cluentius was acquitted. Cicero is said to have boasted afterwards that he had blinded the eyes of the jury. Probably his client had bribed the jury in the trial of his step-father. That was certainly the common belief, which indeed went so far as to fix the precise sum which he paid. "How many miles is your farm from Rome?" was asked of one of the witnesses at a trial connected with the case. "Less than fifty-three," he replied. "Exactly the sum," was the general cry from the spectators. The point of the joke is in the fact that the same word stood in Latin for the thousand  paces which made a mile and the thousand  coins by which sums of money were commonly reckoned. Oppianicus had paid forty thousand for an acquittal, and Cluentius outbid him with fifty thousand ("less than fifty-three") to secure a verdict of guilty. But whatever we may think of the guilt or innocence of Cluentius, there can be no doubt that the cause in which Cicero defended him was one of the most interesting ever tried in Rome.