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The Roman in Sicily, and "The Sack of Sicily"

THE HISTORY OF SICILY

The Roman Sack of Sicily

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The Romans ruled Sicily for over six centuries (from 211BC to 440AD) in which time the largest island in the Mediterranean was seen principally as an important source of food, even winning the epithet of “Rome’s bread basket”.

Two quaestorships were set up to rule the island, one in Syracuse, the other in Lilybaeum (modern-day Marsala). The Sicilians were left largely to their own devices (as long as they paid their taxes) and prospered from the stability the Romans brought. Little attempt was made to change their essentially Greek culture and life went on for some 150 years in relative calm.

This was all to change, however, in about 73BC, when Gaius Licinus Verres was appointed Governor. His history as a wheeling-dealing, corrupt ruler went back to his time spent in Asian outposts of the Roman Empire, where he systematically looted and pillaged towns and villages.

On his return to Rome, he testified against his criminal mentor, the Governor of Cilicia, Gnaeus Dolabella, and not only managed to escape prosecution but succeeded in winning the election to become praetor of Rome. After a couple of years consolidating strong political links to some of the most powerful aristocratic Roman senators, Verres was appointed Governor of Sicily.

He wasted no time in instituting his corrupt methods and immediately raised taxes. He then, quite literally, went on the rampage around Sicily, looting temples, private villas and public monuments.

He wasted no time in instituting his corrupt methods and immediately raised taxes. He then, quite literally, went on the rampage around Sicily, looting temples, private villas and public monuments. He forged lucrative relationships with infamous pirates and, when anyone tried to stand in his way, even if a Roman citizen, the consequences were usually severe. Indeed, one Roman citizen, accused of being a spy, was crucified at the port of Messina. Other scams involved arresting the most important slaves of wealthy Sicilian landowners on trumped-up charges carrying the death penalty. On payment of large sums of money, however, it was possible to arrange for the accusations to be withdrawn.

Eventually, the Sicilians could stand such personal oppression and religious desecration no longer, and a group went to Rome in the hope of bringing Verres to trial. They first knocked at the door of Hortensius, the most famous and successful lawyer in Rome but he was a close ally of Verres. The next port of call was Marcus Tullius Cicero, then just an up-and-coming Senator. He accepted the case and victory turned him into a household name and a dangerous rival to the conservative Roman aristocracy.

A wonderful account of this episode, largely based on historical evidence, can be found in Robert Harris’ Imperium.

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