The Trial of Sextus Roscius







Rome, 80 B.C.






the State


Sextus Roscius the Younger

Charge: (1) Murder of Sextus Roscius the Elder

The Roman Republic fought and won the Punic Wars against its bitter rival, Carthage, queen city of the Mediterranean, in 146 B.C. But the Republic’s greatest moment sowed the seeds of its decline into social chaos. In its moment of glory, the Romans made a fatal mistake. They brought large numbers of war captives into Italy, and these were made to work on large commercial farms wealthy investors were setting up called latifundia. After a few decades, the markets were flooded with food, which lowered the price. This sounds good, but had the unintended consequence of putting a large number of Italian family farmers out of work because they couldn’t compete with the prices of the food grown on the commercial farms. If this sounds familiar, a similar thing is happening now to American family farmers. Cheap labor, based on an ideology of "free trade," affected them in the same way. What might a large number of destitute Italian farmers do after losing their livelihood and becoming homeless?


Social tensions between noble Patricians and common Plebeians intensified, and by 88 B.C., the wealthier Patricians had their own political party, the Optimates (best people party), and a military hero named Sulla who was its head. Sulla was Consul, the highest position in Rome. They also had the majority of the Senate. The poorer Plebeians also had a political party, the Populares (majority people party), with a leader in Gaius Marius. There were street battles like in 1920s Germany, when communists of the Red Front fought National Socialist SA storm troopers. It would be as if Republicans and Democrats in America each had a general as a leader, who directed social war against the other party! The Romans took politics pretty seriously. Then again, they also watched gladiator matches for fun. Do you think Americans will ever fight in the streets based on what political party they support?



Guess they fought a little too much


In the midst of this social conflict, the streets of Rome were dangerous at times. As many poor people moved in and around town, Sulla announced a state of emergency in 82 B.C. and declared himself Dictator. He went so far as to put bounties called proscriptions on the heads of people he labeled “enemy of the state” and offered rewards for their capture- Old West style- dead or alive. After a year, Sulla stepped down and was elected back as Consul, but many still feared his power. How might a ‘death list’ posted at malls, stores and on the Internet help maintain order and conformity in modern society?


One night in 80 B.C., one of Sulla’s friends, Sextus Roscius the Elder, a wealthy landowner, had some wine at a party and was murdered in the street on his way home. He had been having family problems. Some of his relatives were coveting his properties, 13 farms outside of town, and were trying to get Sulla to put him on the proscribed list, which meant his properties could be confiscated. And since they were the ones who pointed out he was an enemy of the state to Sulla, they expected to be rewarded. The blood hadn’t even dried from the dead man’s toga when these relatives and their friend Chrysognus (Kry-sog-in-us), a former slave from Greece turned powerful magnate, pointed the finger at the murdered man’s son, Sextus Roscius the Younger, who was in the middle of trying to clear his father’s name. If he had been successful, he could have gotten the properties and wealth reinstated. Everything was in limbo, but now he was arrested for murder, and none of the lawyers in Rome would touch the case, because the prosecution consisted of such powerful and well-connected people. But this would prove to be a murder trial for the ages, because the man who took up the defense of Roscius was a young man who would become the greatest lawyer in the history of Rome: Marcus Tullius Cicero. Why do you think the relatives conspired with Chrysogonus to accuse Sextus Roscius?


Chrysogonus was a big player. Roscius told Cicero he should not take the case: “I’m dead. If Chrysogonus wants a man dead, he’s dead. If you defend me you’re dead too.” To take on Chrysogonus posed a huge risk. Merely bringing up his name in court could get you killed, like pointing at a mafia boss and saying, “that godfather dude over there is a criminal!” Cicero now had to choose: leave it alone or take on the great and popular lawyer Eruchius (Er-oo-kee-iss) in open-air court in front of hundreds of people. He chose the danger. But how would he proceed? On day one of the trial, the people applauded when Eruchius confidently strode in. Court cases were like live-action movies for the Romans. They loved hearing the arguments of the best lawyers. Would you ever consider going to see the trial and sentencing of someone famous?


Eruchius talked to the audience. He bid them imagine how heinous it would be for a son to kill his own father. There were many fathers and sons looking on, and he was appealing to them. He asked the judges to “dispatch this murderer as he dispatched his father,” an eye for an eye. Then Cicero rose. He walked over to Eruchius and told him this was a court of justice and that he had no evidence. Then he strode to the 21 judges and said he intended to exonerate his client to a hushed crowd. Then he boldly brought up Chrysogonus, who was out of town, blaming him for the ills of his client. Eruchius, angered, called to the stand his first witness, one of the cousins, Capito, who said he overheard Roscius talking about how he wished his father were dead. He also claimed Roscius’ father told him he wanted to disinherit his son. Cicero established it was one man’s word against another, and that the prosecution had still not produced one shred of evidence. Is the American principle of “innocent until proven guilty” a good legal policy in your opinion?


Eruchius claimed the father banished Roscius to work his farms outside of town, which is where Roscius lived most of the time, implying country life was far lower than city life, and that no one would want to do it willingly. He argued his dad was punishing him. Cicero defended country life, and said it was a reward, not a punishment. Recall, many Patricians had come to disdain peasant farmers and agricultural work as “below them.” Only losers do that kind of work, that’s why all the foreigners were brought to Italy, he implied, to do jobs the Romans didn’t want to do. But Cicero reminded the crowd that the old Rome was built on hard work and good values, country values. Jefferson would use exactly these arguments during the founding of America. Do you consider cultivating the land and growing food an honorable occupation? Or is the more sophisticated, urbane city really better?



Roman family farm


The prosecution called the other cousin, Magnus, who was in the neighborhood when the murder happened and was on hand to identify the body. He claimed he sent a messenger to inform the family, who rode through the night to find them. Cicero speculated he actually sent the messenger to inform his pals that the owner of 13 farms just died, and with the proscription case in limbo, that the farms were “up for grabs.” The prosecution objected that this case was not about property but about murder, and Cicero was badgering the witness. But Cicero made an argument that it was important to establish who now owned the farms. The witness Magnus answered meekly: Chrysogonus! And who runs them? Magnus himself. Here Cicero established the legal principle of Cui Bono, “Who benefits?” How important is it that lawyers establish motive for a crime?


Cicero then established that Chrysogonus gave three of the ten farms to Capito, the other witness who denounced Roscius. The court broke for the day, and that night, armed men accosted Cicero as he searched for whether the elder Roscius’ name was on the last posted ‘death list,’ in the Forum. These were people who could be legally killed, recall, and he found it was not. Yet Eruchius had produced a list in court that did have his name on it, meaning the proscription went through and his property was legally sold to Chrysogonus. Thing is, the name was last on the list, and the official who approved it was… Chrysogonus! The men brought him to the family who got Cicero on the case, and who now suddenly asked him to give in and simply ask for mercy for the accused. Everyone, even them, was afraid of the powerful forces arrayed against them. Cicero told them that he was on trial for himself and his own honor as much as for Roscius. And in a deeper sense, the whole legal system was on trial. Would it be a tool for the few, or a shield for the many? What would you have done? What threat would it take for you to give up and let an innocent person be unjustly punished? A twinkie?


Next day in court, a man from Ameria, the village where the 13 farms were, testified for the defense that he was willing to pay 6,000,000 Roman cisterti for the farms, but at the auction, Magnus and some men bullied him and others out of the bidding process, and bought the farms themselves- for 2,000 cisterti. Cicero also produced an letter to Sulla from the people of the village asking for an inquiry into the proscription of the old man, along with a request that his name be taken off the death list and his lands returned to his son. A delegation of them, he said, came from the village to meet with Sulla. But instead, they only met with an official who had access to him. Cicero established that the official in question was… Chrysogonus! This man assured the delegation he was shocked that such a good man would be put on the list, and that the government would look into it immediately. Of course, they did nothing. So the delegation sent one from among them to see what was going on and protest. Who was the man they sent? Cicero questioned further. It was Capito! Capito two-timed the villagers. Cui Bono? indeed. It was now that Cicero asked the audience to picture Chrysogonus as what he was, a rags-to-riches story, yes, once a slave and now one of the most powerful men in Rome. He appealed to the Romans’ notions of masculinity and virility, noting Chrysogonus was as pampered as a young lady of nobility, that his major worry was how his hair looked so he could show off his good looks in the Forum. And then Chrysogonus actually showed up at the trial by surprise. And he was not happy. The crowd went silent with anticipation. But instead of backing down, Cicero’s indignation rose to new heights. He called Chrysogonus out directly, saying, “What is it, this power of yours? You rob a man, want him dead, and when he refuses to be murdered, you get this court to kill him instead. Do you really have such power in a ROMAN court?” He turned to the judges: “Chrysogonus believes he can control you, your noble, independent minds. Look at him. He really believes it.” What Roman values was Cicero appealing to in the judges?



Cicero's closing statement


It was time for the closing statements. Eruchius tried to get the crowd to condemn Roscius again by using vivid imagry to get them to imagine the old man murdered by his monstrous son. Then Cicero reviewed how every last witness and person associated with the trial benefited. He asked the judges what kind of Rome they wanted to live in. Was in one in which rich people could go around taking the homes of others, and then having them legally killed? Would their safety be assured in such a Rome? He bid them to think of his client, of themselves, and more than those things, of Rome. And unexpectedly, the audience erupted in cheers. They knew he had put the court system on trial, and convinced the judges it had to be a force for justice, not a tool for influential people. Cicero demonstrated justice was something exalted, something higher, something to be counted on in times of social strain as well as in times of calm. Justice is more than a concept; it contains our definitions of right and wrong. The judges were to mark either absolve (not guilty) or condemn (guilty). They made their marks. A simple majority was needed. How would you, as a judge, find the defendant, Sextus Roscius?



not guilty



The court rendered a not guilty verdict. However, Sextus Roscius did not get his land back. Somehow Chrysogonus managed to pull some strings and keep it. But he did get his life back. Eruchius the prosecutor remained a popular lawyer for Rome’s people of status, and Cicero became the most famous advocate in Roman history. He was elected Consul in 63 B.C., and dedicated his life to defending the Republic against instability, corruption and usurpation. Despite his best efforts, however, documented in books like On Moral Duties, The Philippics, Tusculan Disputations, On Old Age, and The Character of the Orator, along with many letters, the Republic was ultimately usurped 20 years later by his friend, Julius Caesar.


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