Skip to main content

It is well known that Cicero exploits religious sentiment to lend force to his accusation of C. Verres: Verres should be condemned for embezzlement a fortiori because he is guilty of sacrilege. Cicero's rhetorical manipulation of religion, however, has been analyzed only generically (Cancik, Lhommé, Zimmer, Miles, Vasaly). A careful reading of the Verrines, especially Book IV (de signis), reveals that Cicero pervasively assimilates eastern and Sicilian Greek cults to Roman norms, creating the illusion that Verres had committed sacrilege not merely against a variety of Greek gods, but against the gods and cults of the Roman people.

In this paper I examine Cicero's representation of religion in the Verrine orations according to the norms of the official religion of the Roman state. Cicero does not merely frame Greek gods, sanctuaries, and cults in the categories of the official Roman religion; he intentionally misleads his audience into accepting as Roman, gods and cults that were irrelevant to the public religion of the Roman Republic, particularly with respect to the public categories of sacred and profane applied by the Roman pontiffs. Cicero's general strategy is to beg the question of the Romanness of Greek cult by representing it consistently in the terminology of Roman sacral law.

The paper considers four aspects: nomenclature, topographical terminology, syncretistic precedents, and ritual. First, nomenclature: It is obvious that Cicero uses only Roman names for nearly all the injured deities (Lhommé). What is not obvious is that he creatively extends this nomenclature to misrepresent local Greek gods as identical to gods of the city of Rome itself, for example the gods of the Capitoline Triad. Secondly, Jordan noted that when Cicero discusses non-Roman sanctuaries, he prefers the word fanum to other terms that have connotations in pontifical and augural law. This is true generally, but Cicero's usage also shows that when he reasonably can get away with it, he deliberately uses precisely the same topographical terminology applied to civic Roman temples. Thus Verres’ depredations in Syracuse occur in virtually a Roman setting. Thirdly, in order to magnify Verres' wrongdoing, Cicero judges Verres against several exempla from Rome's past, such a delegation of the Xviri to the sanctuary of Demeter in Enna. This and the other examples are, under scrutiny, highly unusual events in Roman religious history and far more complex than Cicero allows (cf. Cancik). The final section is dedicated to the representation of religious ritual in the Verrines. Cicero carefully creates scenes that evoke both Roman domestic and public religious ceremonies. The latter category is the most spectacular: Cicero represents a Syrian king performing a Roman dedicatio that is, technically speaking, wrong in every possible way.

Thus throughout the Verrines Cicero cleverly and carefully misappropriates Roman religious terminology to elevate Verres' crimes beyond theft (furtum: Frazel), and to transform them into sacrilege against the gods and cults with which a Roman readership would have identified most: their own.