It seems that by the time this trial came about the Roman Republic was heading downhill fast. Around this time the tension between the plebeians and the patricians was reaching fever pitch and there were a number of prominent individuals appearing that were rallying the plebians to their cause. This, as is understandable, was quite upsetting to the patricians because it meant that it would undermine the status quo, so the patricians began to take things into their own hands – through murder (though in many cases this was simply an extension of the unrest that had began around the time of Sulla). The murder at the centre of this trial was of Saturnius, and after he met his unfortunate fate Julius Caesar, who was also rising to prominence at this time, decided to bring back the perdullio, which is basically the offence of high treason.
This is the charge that Rabario was brought up on, and unlike the other trials that Cicero has participated in, this one was being held in a special court before Caesar and his cousin, and duly found guilty. However Rabario had the right of appeal (since this was basically a kangaroo court, for want of a better word). The problem was that Cicero, in this instance, was facing an uphill battle, namely because the jury was simply going to ratify Caeser's original findings. It seemed that despite Cicero being, at the time, the foremost orator in Rome, this was a case in which his brilliant public speaking skills were going to be of no use. Rabario has already been convicted, and the ratification of that decision, especially since Caesar was a man of the people, was going to happen. It was only due to outside events (and the fact that Caeser's objectives had been met) that Rabario was acquitted.
The interesting thing about this text is there is a lot of discussion about Mars hill, and crucifixion. The funny thing with crucifixion (not that it is actually all that funny because it is a pretty horrid way to go) is that many of us simply connect it with Jesus Christ, as if he was the only person in history that was ever crucified (not counting the two thieves that were crucified to either side of him, though sometimes I wonder if there were a lot more people being crucified at the same time, it is just that the thieves were the only ones mentioned). Mind you, those of us who are not familiar with Roman history are quite likely to believe that. Okay, while he may have been the most famous person to have ever been crucified, he wasn't the only one. The interesting thing is that this was a punishment that was generally dished out on people who were not Roman citizens, with the exception of high treason. This is why the topic was being brought up – this was going to be Rabario's fate. No doubt Cicero was doing his best to spare Rabario from going down that road, especially since it would have been incredibly undignified for a Roman of high standing to meet that fate (and I suspect that this was one of the main reasons that Caesar wanted him charged with high treason).
Another problem with this oration is that it is not entirely extant – there are a number of sections that had been lost (probably because the manuscript has been damaged – it was not clear in the text how much of the manuscript was destroy). This makes following Cicero's argument a little difficult as it appears that it jumps about the place. This is one of the problems with ancient texts in that even if we have copies of the text it does not necessarily mean that we have the entire text, and sometimes the missing section contain some key idea or important information in regards to context. This didn't seem to be a huge issue with this text though as we do retain the opening remarks and large sections of the defense speech.
Still, one does sometimes wonder if it is possible to be able to persuade a jury who has already made up their mind about something, though we notice that these days the opposite can happen, especially in media circuses, or where public figures are involved. In one sense my mind drifts back to the infamous OJ Simpson trial, a court case that was incredibly hard to ignore since it would be dominating the headlines every night. As we all know he was eventually acquitted, though some wonder whether this was because there was a lack of evidence, or whether it had more to do with the media circus. However, in many cases all one needs is a really good lawyer (and these guys come with a very high price tag) to be able to turn an almost certain finding of guilt into an acquittal.