Sicilians and other Greeks: Cicero’s praise for Sicilians in the prosecution of Verres (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Sicilians and other Greeks: Cicero’s praise for Sicilians in the prosecution of Verres (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 31, 2023,

Author: Marcus Tullius Cicero, Against Verres 2.2.2-3, 7-10 (link)

Comments: There are numerous examples of Cicero engaging in ethnic invective in defence of a Roman official charged with extortion or other actions, including cases where the injured parties were Sardinians (link), Gauls (link), Judeans, and “Asiatic” Greeks (link). In each case, the subject peoples in question are characterized very negatively, to say the least. Cicero’s prosecutorial speech against Verres excerpted below works from the other side of the fence. (This specific speech was never delivered because Verres had left the country as he expected to be exiled).

Anticipating that the defence would argue that the Sicilians were an inferior people who are untrustworthy witnesses (Cicero’s usual approach when defending an official as well), Cicero instead constructs an image of Siciilans as the best of all Rome’s subjects. Rather than lambasting some ethnic group under Roman subjection, Cicero aims to show the superiority of the people that was harmed by the actions of Verres as governor (propraetor) of Sicily in 74 BCE.  It is also important to notice that – a bit like his smearing of “Asiatic” Greeks who brought charges against Flaccus (link) – Cicero still takes a swipe at all other Greeks in order to place Sicilians at the top. So this is an ethnic hierarchy constructed for the specific needs of a legal case.

Works consulted: Ann Vasaly, Representations: Images of the World in Ciceronian Oratory (Berkeley, CA: UCP, 1993), 191-243.

Source of the translation: C. D. Yonge, The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, 4 volumes (London: Bell and Sons, 1913-17), public domain, adapted by Harland.


[Sicilians as an exceptional friend of the Romans]

2.2 . . . (2) On this account I must quickly come to the cause of Sicily, omitting all mention of Gaius Verres’ other thefts and iniquities, in order that I may be able to handle the cause of Sicily while my strength is not yet weakened, and that I may have time enough to expand fully on the business. And before I begin to speak of the distresses of Sicily, it seems to me that I should say a little about the dignity and antiquity of that province, and of the advantage which it is to us. For as you should have a careful regard for all the allies and provinces, so especially you should have a regard for Sicily, judges, for many – and those the greatest – reasons: First, because of all foreign peoples Sicily was the first who joined herself to the friendship and alliance of the Roman people. She was the first to be called a province (and the provinces are a great ornament to the empire). She was the first who taught our ancestors how glorious a thing it was to rule over foreign peoples. She alone has displayed such good faith and such good will towards the Roman People, that the cities of that island which have once come into our alliance have never revolted afterwards. Rather, many of them, and those the most illustrious of them, have remained firm to our friendship forever. (3) Therefore our ancestors made their first strides to dominion over Africa from this province. Nor would the mighty power of Carthage so soon have fallen, if Sicily had not been open to us, both as a granary to supply us with grain, and as a harbour for our fleets. . . [material omitted].

[Praise for the Sicilian people and denigration of other Greeks]

. . . (7) . . . And as to the inhabitants themselves, judges, such is their patience their virtue, and their frugality, that they appear to come very nearly up to the old-fashioned manners of our country, and not to those which now prevail [i.e. they are superior to some current Romans in this respect]. There is nothing among them then like the rest of the Greeks: no laziness, no luxury. On the contrary, there is the greatest diligence in all public and private affairs, the greatest economy, and the greatest vigilance. Moreover, they are so fond of our men that they are the only people where neither a publican nor a money-changer is unpopular.

[Sicilians bear considerable mistreatment without complaint]

(8) And they have born the injuries of many of our magistrates with such a disposition that they have never until now fled by any public resolution to the altar of our laws and to your protection. Although they endured the misery of that year which so reduced them that they could not have been preserved through it, if Gaius Marcellus [governor of Sicily ca. 79 BCE] had not come among them, by some special providence, as it were, in order that the safety of Sicily might be twice secured by the same family. Afterwards, too, they experienced that terrible government of Marcus Antonius. For they had had these principles handed down to them from their ancestors, that the kindnesses of the Roman people to the Sicilians had been so great, that they should consider even the injustice of some of our men endurable. (9) The cities have never before this man’s time given any public evidence against any one. And they would have borne even this man [Verres] himself, if he had caused them harm like a man, in any ordinary manner; or in short, in any one single kind of tyranny. But as they were unable to endure luxury, cruelty, avarice, and pride, when they had lost by the wickedness and lust of one man all their own advantages, all their own rights, and all fruits of the kindness of the Senate and the Roman People, they determined either to avenge themselves for the injuries they had suffered from that man by your instrumentality or if they seemed to you unworthy of receiving aid and assistance at your hands, then to leave their cities and their homes, since they had already left their fields, having been driven out of them by his injuries.

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