TIBERIUS AND GAIUS GRACCHUS, THEIR REFORMS AND CIVIL WAR

ROME IN THE 1ST AND 2ND CENTURIES B.C.


the privelaged Roman upper classes

The period of Roman history after the Punic Wars (264-146 B.C.) is one of the saddest, and yet one of the most interesting. It is one of the saddest, because it was a time when the Roman state was torn asunder by civil strifes, and the arms of the conquerors were turned against themselves. It is one of the most interesting, because it shows to us some of the greatest men that Rome ever produced, men whose names are a part of the world’s history. Our attention will now be directed not so much to foreign wars as to political questions, to the struggle of parties, and the rivalry of party leaders. And as a result of it all, we shall see the republic gradually passing away, and giving place to the empire. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

Divisions of the Roman People: 1) the aristocratic class, made up of the senators and equites; 2) a poor citizen class, made up of poor urban dwellers and country farmers about Rome; and 3) then a disfranchised class, made up of the Latins, the Italians, and the provincials, besides the slaves. \~\

At top of Roman society was the senatorial order — men who kept control of the higher offices, who furnished the members of the senate, and who really ruled the state. Next was the equestrian order,—men who were called equites, or knights, on account of their great wealth, who formed the moneyed class, the capitalists of Rome, and who made their fortunes by all sorts of speculation, especially by gathering the taxes in the provinces. These two orders formed the aristocratic classes. \~\

Below these was the great mass of the city population—the poor artisans and paupers, who in some cases formed the materials of a mob and lived upon public charity and the bribes of office-seekers, and were amused by public shows given by the state or by rich citizens. Then came the poor country farmers living upon the Roman domain—the peasants, many of whom had been deprived of their lands by rich creditors or by the avaricious policy of the government. These two classes formed the mass of the poorer citizens of Rome. \~\

Outside of the Roman domain proper (ager Romanus) were the Latin colonists, who were settled upon conquered lands in Italy, who had practically no political rights, and who were very much in the same social condition as the Roman peasants. Besides these were the Italian allies, who had been subdued by Rome in early times, and had been given none of the rights of citizenship. These two classes formed the subject population of Italy. Now if we go outside of Italy we find the great body of provincials, some of them favored by being left free from taxation, but the mass of them subject to the Roman tribute; and all of them excluded from the rights and privileges of citizens. \~\

Finally, if we go to the very bottom of the Roman population, we find the slaves, having none of the rights of citizens or of men. A part of them, the house slaves, were treated with some consideration; but the field slaves were treated wretchedly, chained in gangs by day and confined in dungeons by night. \~\

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Roman Government in Late Republican Era


lower classes

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “Up until 133 B.C. the Senate had controlled Roman policy, not by law but by custom. It is commonly supposed that the growth of the empire induced the people to cede authority over foreign affairs to the Senate, where there were experts in foreign policy. The people would not have dreamed, for example, of interfering with the senatorial prerogative in the extremely important matter of the assignment of provinces to ex-praetors and ex-consuls. What was the social structure of the Republic like at this point? The Senate consisted of around 300 landed aristocrats, who made use of the informal system of client/patron relations to control elections and legislation. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“At this point senatorial politics begins to be described in the sources as a conflict between two parties, Optimates ("aristocrats") and Populares ("democrats"). On the standard view, different methods of political action and different ideologies distinguished the two parties from one another and replaced the previous dominance of family ties as the determinant of political alliances. The Optimates worked through the Senate and the traditional avenues, while the Populares worked through the tribunate and the popular assemblies. Some, e.g. Boren, maintain that the distinction between Optimates and Populares arose as a result of rather than prior to the affair of Tiberius Gracchus. *^*

“Another important socioeconomic element is the equites, whose numbers and influence had swelled with the growth of the empire in the first half of the 2nd century B.C.; the larger dominion provided lucrative opportunities in banking, mining, public works, and the supply of arms. Many a member of the senatorial class, forbidden by the Lex Claudia of 218 B.C. to engage in business, chose to be an eques; to put it another way, not everyone who could afford to be in the Senate chose to be in it. Farming was becoming increasingly profitable as the rich bought up the ager publicus and worked it as plantations (latifundia) with slave labour, readily available from overseas conquests [Cato's De Agri Cultura]. The 500 iugera limit supposedly set on ownership of ager publicus in 367 was being widely ignored. The direct consequence of this trend was the displacement of the small farmers, who drifted to the city of Rome to become the urban mob.” ^*^

Problems with the Roman Society and Government in Late Republican Era

When we look over these various classes of the Roman people, we must conclude that there were some radical defects in the Roman system of government. The great mass of the population were excluded from all political rights. The Latins, the Italians, the provincials, and the slaves, as we have seen, had no share in the government. This seems quite contrary to the early policy of Rome. We remember that before she began her great conquests, Rome had started out with the policy of incorporation. She had taken in the Sabines on the Quirinal hill, the Luceres on the Caelian, the plebeians of the city, and the rural tribes about Rome. But after that time she had abandoned this policy, and no longer brought her conquered subjects within the state. This was the first defect of the Roman system. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

But even those people who were given the rights of citizens were not able to exercise these rights in an efficient way. Wherever a Roman citizen might be, he must go to Rome to vote or to take part in the making of the laws. But when the citizens of Rome met together in the Forum, or on the Campus Martius, they made a large and unwieldy body, which could not do any important political business. Rome never learned that a democratic government in a large state is impossible without representation; that is, the election by the people of a few leading men to protect their interests, and to make the laws for them. The giving up of the policy of incorporation and the absence of the principle of representation were the two great defects in the Roman political system. \~\

The Decay of Patriotism: We may not blame the Romans for not discovering the value of representation, since this system may be regarded as a modern invention. But we must blame those who were the rulers of the state for their selfishness and their lack of true patriotism. There were, no doubt, some patriotic citizens at Rome who were devoted to the public welfare; but the majority of the men who governed the state were men devoted to their own interests more than to the interests of the country at large. The aristocratic classes sought to enrich themselves by the spoils of war and the spoils of office; while the rights and the welfare of the common citizens, the Italians, and the provincials were too often forgotten or ignored. \~\


Roman slaves


The Growth of Large Estates: One of the causes which led to the civil strife was the distress and misery of the people in different parts of Italy, resulting from the growth of large landed estates. Years before, the people had possessed their little farms, and were able to make a respectable living from them. Laws had been passed—especially the Licinian laws (see p. 70)—to keep the public lands distributed in such a way as to benefit the poorer people. But it was more than two hundred years since the Licinian laws were passed; and they were now a dead letter. Many of the small farms had become absorbed into large estates held by rich landlords; and the class of small farmers had well-nigh disappeared. This change benefited one class of the people at the expense of the other. The Roman writer Pliny afterward saw the disastrous effects of this system, and said that it was the large estates which destroyed Italy. \~\

The Evils of Slave Labor: But this was not all. If the poor farmers, who had been deprived of their own fields, could have received good wages by working upon the estates of the rich landlords, they might still have had some means of living. But they were even deprived of this; because the estates were everywhere worked by slaves. So that slavery, as well as large estates, was a cause which helped to bring Italy to the brink of ruin. \~\

Tiberius Gracchus and His Reforms

The first serious attempt to remedy the problems that existed after the Punic Wars was made by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (c.164-133 B.C.). He was the elder of two brothers who sacrificed their lives in efforts to benefit their fellow-citizens. Their mother was the noble-minded Cornelia, the daughter of the great Scipio Africanus, who is said to have regarded her boys as “jewels” more precious than gold, and who taught them to love truth, justice, and their country. Tiberius when a young man had served in the Spanish army under Scipio Aemilianus, the distinguished Roman who conquered Carthage and Numantia. It is said that when Tiberius Gracchus passed through Etruria, on his way to and from Spain, he was shocked to see the fertile fields cultivated by gangs of slaves, while thousands of free citizens were living in idleness and poverty. He was a man of refined nature and a deep sense of justice, and he determined to do what he could to remedy these evils. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune and began his work of reform in 133 B.C). He believed that the wretched condition of the Roman people was due chiefly to the unequal division of the public land, and especially to the failure to enforce the Licinian laws. He therefore proposed to revive these laws; to limit the holding of public land to five hundred iugera (about three hundred acres) for each person; to pay the present holders for any improvements they had made; and then to rent the land thus taken up to the poorer class of citizens. This seemed fair enough; for the state was the real owner of the public land, and could do what it wished with its own. But the rich landlords; who had held possession of this land for so many years, looked upon the measure as the same thing as taking away their own property. When it was now proposed to redistribute this land, there immediately arose a fierce conflict between the old senatorial party and the followers of Tiberius. \~\


Tiberius Gracchus

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “Tiberius proposed to enforce the law of 367 B.C. and confiscate all ager publicus held in excess of the 500 iugera limit; as a concession to the landowners, the remaining 500 iugera was to be rent-free. This raises a question: did the Licinian law really impose a limit of 500 iugera? The only ancient source to say so directly is Varro. Plutarch and Appian are both vaguer about what law it was which Tiberius was proposing to enforce. A strong case can be made for the idea that the 500 iugera limit was retrojected onto the law of 367 to make it more venerable and to associate it with a legislative landmark in the struggle for popular rights. If so, the true occasion for the imposition of the 500 iugera limit has to be sought elsewhere, possible in the law of Cato (the lex Porcia de modo agrorum) which belongs somewhere in the years 172-167 B.C. (so e.g. Bauman). [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“The confiscated land was to be distributed in individual lots (viritim) of 30 iugera to Roman citizens, and thereafter the plot would be inalienable (possibly only for a certain period). To pass this measure, Tiberius bypassed the Senate and went directly to the concilium plebis. It would be wrong, though, to suggest that all of the Senate opposed him; he had powerful friends in the Senate, including P. Crassus, P. Mucius Scaevola, and Tiberius' father-in-law Appius Claudius Pulcher the princeps senatus (Cic. Acad. Prior. 2.5.13). It is not clear why Cicero says that Scaevola acted covertly (and this conflicts with Plutarch Tib. 9).” *^*

Tiberius Gracchus by Plutarch

On the Life of Tiberius Gracchus, Plutarch (A.D. c.46-c.120) wrote: “When he returned to Rome, he found the whole transaction censured and reproached, as a proceeding that was base and scandalous to the Romans. But the relations and friends of the soldiers, forming a large body among the people, came flocking to Tiberius, whom they acknowledged as the preserver of so many citizens, imputing to the general all the miscarriages which had happened. Those who cried out against what had been done, urged for imitation the example of their ancestors, who stripped and handed over to the Samnites not only the generals who had consented to the terms of release, but also all the quaestors, for example, and tribunes, who had in any way implicated themselves in the agreement, laying the guilt of perjury and breach of conditions on their heads. But, in this all the populace, showing an extraordinary kindness and affection for Tiberius, indeed voted that the consul should be stripped and put in irons, and so delivered to the Numantines; but, for the sake of Tiberius, spared all the other officers. It may be probable, also, that Scipio, who at that time was the greatest and most powerful man among the Romans, contributed to save him, though indeed he was also censured for not protecting Mancinus too, and that he did not exert himself to maintain the observance of the articles of peace which had been agreed upon by his kinsman and friend Tiberius. But it may be presumed that the difference between them was for the most part due to ambitious feelings, and to the friends and reasoners who urged on Tiberius, and, as it was, it never amounted to anything that might not have been remedied, or that was really bad. Nor can I think that Tiberius would ever have met with his misfortunes, if Scipio had been concerned in dealing with his measures; but he was away fighting at Numantia when Tiberius, upon the following occasion, first came forward as a legislator. [Source: Plutarch, “Lives,” translated by John Dryden]

“Of the land which the Romans gained by conquest from their neighbours, part they sold publicly, and turned the remainder into common; this common land they assigned to such of the citizens as were poor and indigent, for which they were to pay only a small acknowledgment into the public treasury. But when the wealthy men began to offer larger rents, and drive the poorer people out, it was enacted by law that no person whatever should enjoy more than five hundred acres of ground. This act for some time checked the avarice of the richer, and was of great assistance to the poorer people, who retained under it their respective proportions of ground, as they had been formerly rented by them. Afterwards the rich men of the neighbourhood contrived to get these lands again into their possession, under other people's names, and at last would not stick to claim most of them publicly in their own. The poor, who were thus deprived of their farms, were no longer either ready, as they had formerly been, to serve in war or careful in the education of their children; insomuch that in a short time there were comparatively few freemen remaining in all Italy, which swarmed with workhouses full of foreign-born slaves. These the rich men employed in cultivating their ground of which they dispossessed the citizens. Caius Laelius, the intimate friend of Scipio, undertook to reform this abuse; but meeting with opposition from men of authority, and fearing a disturbance, he soon desisted, and received the name of the Wise or the Prudent, both which meanings belong to the Latin word Sapiens.


Tiberius Gracchus and Cornelia, his mother

“But Tiberius, being elected tribune of the people, entered upon that design without delay, at the instigation, as is most commonly stated, of Diophanes, the rhetorician, and Blossius, the philosopher. Diophanes was a refugee from Mitylene, the other was an Italian, of the city of Cuma, and was educated there under Antipater of Tarsus, who afterwards did him the honour to dedicate some of his philosophical lectures to him.

“Some have also charged Cornelia, the mother of Tiberius, with contributing towards it, because she frequently upbraided her sons, that the Romans as yet rather called her the daughter of Scipio, than the mother of the Gracchi. Others again say that Spurius Postumius was the chief occasion. He was a man of the same age with Tiberius, and his rival for reputation as a public speaker; and when Tiberius, at his return from the campaign, found him to have got far beyond him in fame and influence, and to be much looked up to, he thought to outdo him, by attempting a popular enterprise of this difficulty and of such great consequence. But his brother Caius has left it us in writing, that when Tiberius went through Tuscany to Numantia, and found the country almost depopulated, there being hardly any free husbandmen or shepherds, but for the most part only barbarian, imported slaves, he then first conceived the course of policy which in the sequel proved so fatal to his family. Though it is also most certain that the people themselves chiefly excited his zeal and determination in the prosecution of it, by setting up writings upon the porches, walls, and monuments, calling upon him to reinstate the poor citizens in their former possessions.

“However, he did not draw up his law without the advice and assistance of those citizens that were then most eminent for their virtue and authority; amongst whom were Crassus, the high-priest, Mucius Scaevola, the lawyer, who at that time was consul, and Claudius Appius, his father-in-law. Never did any law appear more moderate and gentle, especially being enacted against such great oppression and avarice. For they who ought to have been severely punished for trangressing the former laws, and should at least have lost all their titles to such lands which they had unjustly usurped, were notwithstanding to receive a price for quitting their unlawful claims, and giving up their lands to those fit owners who stood in need of help. But though this reformation was managed with so much tenderness that, all the former transactions being passed over, the people were only thankful to prevent abuses of the like nature for the future, yet, on the other hand, the moneyed men, and those of great estates, were exasperated, through their covetous feelings against the law itself, and against the lawgiver, through anger and party-spirit. They therefore endeavoured to seduce the people, declaring that Tiberius was designing a general redivision of lands, to overthrow the government, and cut all things into confusion.

“But they had no success. For Tiberius, maintaining an honourable and just cause, and possessed of eloquence sufficient to have made a less creditable action appear plausible, was no safe or easy antagonist, when, with the people crowding around the hustings, he took his place, and spoke in behalf of the poor. "The savage beasts," said he, "in Italy, have their particular dens, they have their places of repose and refuge; but the men who bear arms, and expose their lives for the safety of their country, enjoy in the meantime nothing more in it but the air and light and, having no houses or settlements of their own, are constrained to wander from place to place with their wives and children." He told them that the commanders were guilty of a ridiculous error, when, at the head of their armies, they exhorted the common soldiers to fight for their sepulchres and altars; when not any amongst so many Romans is possessed of either altar or monument, neither have they any houses of their own, or hearths of their ancestors to defend. They fought indeed and were slain, but it was to maintain the luxury and the wealth of other men. They were styled the masters of the world, but in the meantime had not one foot of ground which they could call their own. An harangue of this nature, spoken to an enthusiastic and sympathizing audience, by a person of commanding spirit and genuine feelings, no adversaries at that time were competent to oppose.”

Tiberius Gracchus’s Effort to Initiate His Reforms

Tiberius determined to pass his law in spite of the senate. The senate, on the other hand, was equally determined that the law should not be passed. Accordingly, the senators induced one of the tribunes, whose name was M. Octavius, to put his “veto” upon the passage of the law. This act of Octavius was entirely legal, for he did what the law gave him the right to do. Tiberius, on the other hand, in order to outdo his opponent, had recourse to a highhanded measure. Instead of waiting a year for the election of new tribunes who might be devoted to the people’s cause, he called upon the people to deprive Octavius of his office. This was an illegal act, because there was no law which authorized such a proceeding. But the people did as Tiberius desired, and Octavius was deposed. The law of Tiberius was then passed in the assembly of the tribes, and three commissioners were chosen to carry it into effect.


David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “Initially the bill was vetoed by another tribune, M. Octavius. Thereupon Tiberius induced the assembly to depose Octavius from office, and so passed his bill. Again, it is not likely that the deposition of his opponent from office was strictly speaking illegal, despite Plutarch's statement to the contrary (Tib. 11. 2); the assembly was alone empowered to elect the tribunes, hence presumably also to depose them. The answer may be that no one knew whether it was illegal or not because it had never happened. The resettlement of the ager publicus was to be carried out by a commission of three (the tresviri): Tiberius himself, his brother Gaius, and Appius Claudius. They were to decide what was and what was not ager publicus. When the Senate tried to block or delay the commission by withholding funds for its operation, Tiberius forced their hand by threatening to have the assembly administer the revenue from Pergamum, the legacy of Attalus III Philometor (Plut. Tib. 14). What became of this threat or bill is not entirely clear, but it seems to have been effective, because the commission got funded and began its work. “ [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

This of course roused the indignation of the senators, who determined to prosecute Tiberius when his term of office had expired. Tiberius knew that as long as he held the office of tribune his person would be sacred, and he could not be tried for his action; hence he announced himself as a candidate for re-election. This, too, was illegal, for the law forbade a reelection until after an interval of ten years. \~\

The law of Tiberius and the method which he had used to pass it, increased the bitterness between the aristocratic party and the popular party who came to be known, respectively, as the optimates and the populares. The senators denounced Tiberius as a traitor; the people extolled him as a patriot. The day appointed for the election came. Two tribes had already voted for the re-election of Tiberius, when a band of senators appeared in the Forum, headed by Scipio Nasica, armed with sticks and clubs; and in the riot which ensued Tiberius Gracchus and three hundred of his followers were slain. This was the first blood shed in the civil wars of Rome. The killing of a tribune by the senators was as much an illegal act as was the deposition of Octavius. Both parties had disregarded the law, and the revolution was begun. \~\

What were Tiberius' True Motives?

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: ““What were Tiberius' true motives? As quaestor in Spain in 137 he had concluded a treaty with the Numantines on less than favorable terms in order to get the Roman forces out of a tight spot. At Rome, however, the treaty was repudiated and the ancient sources insist that this caused Tiberius to bear a grudge against those senators who had most been responsible for its defeat, especially Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Numantinus, the patron of Polybius and adoptive grandson of that Scipio Africanus who had commanded at Zama in 202. As we have seen, ancient writers of history love to ascribe public actions to personal grudges. These ascriptions are rarely convincing; in this case, one may suppose that Tiberius could have found a more direct way to strike at his opponents in the Senate than the passage of a land bill. Another fairly nebulous motive ascribed to Tiberius is philosophical; we are told that he was influenced by stoicism and that Blossius of Cumae was his teacher, and there are some precedents from Greece which, with some contortion, can be made into models for the Gracchan measure. More weighty is the idea that the land bill was a direct response to the underlying socioeconomic causes of the recent slave uprising in Sicily; the displacement of the small farmer, who was the backbone of the Roman army, had reached crisis proportions, and the results were all too visible in the mass of former ploughmen gravitating to the city. The "Servian" property classes which determined, among other things, eligibility for military service had had to be readjusted downwards several times in the 2nd century (cf. Cic. de Rep. 2.40). And even so P. A. Brunt estimates that around 170 BC there were as many Roman citizens as allies in the army, but by 100 BC allies outnumbered Roman citizens by 2 to 1. Even Appian's account seems to accept that the manpower crisis was a major concern to Tiberius (BC 1. 11). [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“Whether because of the financial interests at stake, or whether because Tiberius had crossed a line by inviting the assembly to interfere in foreign affairs, there was enormous ire among the Optimates. P. Scipio Nasica emerged as the leader of the opposition to the Gracchan plan. The moment Tiberius' term as tribune expired, and with it his immunity (sacrosanctitas), they intended to prosecute him for illegally removing Octavius from office. Tiberius' answer was to stand for another year as tribune (e.g. Appian BC 2. 14). Would a second consecutive term as tribune for Tiberius have been illegal? Astin says no, because the tribune was not a magistrate, and points out that the assembly had the power to prolong the term of a consul (a less than exact parallel). Custom, to be sure, was strongly against it. The elections deteriorated into a riot, in the course of which Gracchus himself and many of his supporters were killed. Predictably enough, Appian makes Tiberius start the riot (BC 2.15) while Plutarch has him in a defensive posture. Such, in its bare outlines, is his story. Later there was introduced into the tradition a transparent bit of slander, to the effect that Tiberius was aiming at tearing down the republic and setting himself up as a king (rex). This idea was persistent enough to make it at least plausible in the eyes of Sallust (Iug. 31.7), though he himself heartily approved of the Gracchi (ibid. 41). The canard is attested also in Plutarch's account, but with the exculpatory explanation that at the final assembly Tiberius motioned to his head to indicate that he was in mortal danger, and his enemies construed this as a request to be crowned (Tib. 19). Even a few modern scholars have been taken in by this. [One school, led by Claude Nicolet, sees the models for the Gracchan land laws among certain Greek distribution schemes, and emphasizes the supposed influence of Stoic philosophy on Tiberius. Boren argues, most improbably, that people were widely aware of the precedent of the demagogic land-reforming Spartan kings, especially Agis (244-240), Cleomenes (236-222), and Nabis (207-192), whose stories Polybios had told. ] ^*^

“The best evidence against this is that the Senate upheld the legality of the land bill after Tiberius' death, and even appointed a new commissioner to take his place. That fact also points to a conclusion widely accepted in the modern writers on Tiberius, viz. that what so alarmed the senatorial opposition was not the agrarian bill itself but the methods by which it was passed. Some have sought the answer to the opposition against Tiberius Gracchus in political factions, arguing that anti-Gracchan sentiment characterized the "Scipionic" group. While there is some truth in this, it is also clear that the opposition to Tiberius transcended political groups; Quintus Metellus Macedonicus, a known foe of the Scipios, joined them in denouncing Tiberius Gracchus (Plut. Tib. 14). A good case can be made out that the most offensive of all of Tiberius' actions was not the land bill, nor the iustitium (the suspension of public business, omitted by Appian and hence doubted by some modern writers), nor the deposition of his colleague Octavius, but his threat to encroach upon the senators' traditional prerogative in foreign affairs by referring the matter of the legacy of Attalus III to the popular assembly. Appian's epitaph upon Tiberius Gracchus is "He lost his life in consequence of a most excellent design, too violently pursued." ^*^

Gaius Gracchus


Gaius Gracchus

After the death of Tiberius his law was for a time carried into execution. The commissioners proceeded with their work of re-dividing the land. But the people were for a time without a real leader. The cause of reform was then taken up by Gaius Gracchus, the brother of Tiberius, and the conflict was renewed. Gaius was in many respects an abler man than Tiberius. No more sincere and patriotic, he was yet a broader statesman and took a wider view of the situation. He did not confine his attention simply to relieving the poor citizens. He believed that to rescue Rome from her troubles, it was necessary to weaken the power of the senate, whose selfish and avaricious policy had brought on these troubles. He also believed that the Latins and the Italians should be protected, as well as the poor Roman citizens. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “Elected tribune for the year 123 B.C. , the younger Gracchus promptly set about rekindling the resentment of the people over his brother's death, and pushed the popular assembly to ever greater lengths in the attempt to place checks and restraints on the power of the senators. His first step was to enact a law ensuring that no Roman citizen could be prosecuted on a capital charge, or declared an enemy of the people and executed as such, without the vote of the assembly (Plut. C. Gracch. 4); this was clearly aimed at calling into question the legality of the killings of Tiberius and some of his supporters by the senators on the grounds that a state of emergency had existed. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ]

When Gaius Gracchus obtained the position of tribune (123 B.C.) his influence for a time was all-powerful. He was eloquent and persuasive, and practically had the control of the government. From his various laws we may select those which were the most important, and which best show his general policy. First of all, he tried to help the people by a law which was really the most mischievous of all his measures. This was his famous “corn law.” It was intended to benefit the poor population in the city, which was at that time troublesome and not easy to control. The law provided that any Roman citizen could receive grain from the public storehouses for a certain price less than its cost. But the number of the poor in the city was not decreased; the paupers now flocked to Rome from all parts of Italy to be fed at the public crib. This corn law became a permanent institution of Rome. We may judge of its evil effect when it is said that not many years afterward there were three hundred and twenty thousand citizens who were dependent upon the government for their food. Gaius may not have known what evil effect this law was destined to produce. At any rate, it insured his popularity with the lower classes. He then renewed the agrarian laws of his brother; and also provided for sending out colonies of poor citizens into different parts of Italy, and even into the provinces. \~\

His Failure and Death: Gaius did not succeed, as he desired, in being elected tribune for the third time. A great part of the people soon abandoned him, and the ascendency of the senate was again restored. It was not long before a new law was passed which prevented any further distribution of the public land (lex Thoria). Gaius failed to bring about the reforms which he attempted; but he may be regarded as having accomplished three things which remained after his death: (1) the elevation of the equestrian order; (2) the establishment of the Roman poor law, or the system of grain largesses; and (3) the extension of the colonial system to the provinces. He lost his life in a tumult in which three thousand citizens were slain (121 B.C.). \~\

Gaius Gracchus’s Reforms

His Efforts to Weaken the Senate: But Gaius believed that such measures as these would afford only temporary relief, as long as the senate retained its great power. It was, of course, impossible to overthrow the senate. But it was possible to take from it some of the powers which it possessed. From the senators had hitherto been selected the jurors (iudices) before whom were tried cases of extortion and other crimes. By a law Gaius took away from the senate this right to furnish jurors in criminal cases, and gave it to the equites, that is, the wealthy class outside of the senate. This gave to the equites a more important political position, and drew them over to the support of Gaius, and thus tended to split the aristocratic classes in two. The senate was thus deprived not only of its right to furnish jurors, but also of the support of the wealthy men who had previously been friendly to it. This was a great triumph for the popular party; and Gaius looked forward to another victory.


Gaius Gracchus

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “Thereafter the chronology of the legislative efforts of Gaius Gracchus becomes confused, but the ideological thread remains quite clear. He ingratiated himself with the people by legislating to keep the price of grain sold to citizens permanently and artificially low (whereas in the past shortages had been met by occasional largesse, ad hoc distributions which tended to create political capital for whichever of the magistrates, usually the curule aediles who had charge of the grain supply, had been behind them). Likewise, his revision of the terms of military service, which amounted a pay raise for soldiers, was an unmistakably populist measure. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“Significantly, Gaius Gracchus planned to pay for his massive government subsidy of the food supply and increased military budget by reorganizing the way taxes were collected in the provinces; again, this meant stepping heavily on the toes of the senators. Instead of having the Roman magistrates collect the taxes in the provinces, a system which lent itself to abuses and resulted more often than not in mighty increases in the personal fortunes of the provincial governors, in the future the taxes were to be farmed out to corporations of tax collectors (the publicani). These would advance the money to the state and take on for themselves the risk and difficulty of collecting in the provinces. Each corporation would need powerful financial backing; senators were prohibited from engaging in commercial speculations of that sort, though some did so anyway; but the financial heart and soul of the tax-farmers was the knights. ^*^

“He strengthened and extended Tiberius' land bill, setting aside land both in Italy (at Capua and Tarentum) and in Africa (at Iunonia = Carthage) for new colonies, whose residents would of course become his clients. Again, this measure was probably less antagonistic in the eyes of the senate than our ancient sources usually suppose, to judge from the fact that they did not try to repeal it (cf the boundary stones, exampled in SB 99) until the commission was suspended in 118 BC. And even after steps were finally taken, in 111 BC, to prevent further land laws settling the poor on public lands, the settlements which had already been carried out were left in place. Measures of the Gracchan type tended to relieve the pressure on the city's population and the grain supply by draining off some of the urban mob into the countryside. ^*^

“His Effort to Enfranchise the Italians: When he was reelected to the tribunate Gaius Gracchus came forward with his grand scheme of extending the Roman franchise to the people of Italy. This was the wisest of all his measures, but the one which cost him his popularity and influence. It aroused the jealousy of the poorer citizens, who did not wish to share their rights with foreigners. The senators took advantage of the unpopularity of Gaius, and now posed as the friends of the people. They induced one of the tribunes, by the name of Drusus, to play the part of the demagogue. Drusus proposed to found twelve new colonies at once, each with three thousand Roman citizens, and thus to put all the reforms of Gaius Gracchus into the shade. The people were deceived by this stratagem, and the attempt of Gaius to enfranchise the Italians was defeated. \~\

Gaius Gracchus’s Legal Reforms

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “A good deal of difficulty attaches to Gaius Gracchus' reforms of the courts. To oversimplify, the ancient sources usually represent this as an infusion of equites into the senate (e.g. Livy, Periochae 60; Polyb. 6.17.7), but later on the senate does not appear to have been enlarged. One satisfactory solution is to suppose that the reform simply transferred control of some of the courts from the senators to the equestrians. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]


Death of Gaius Gracchus

“We have preserved a piece of one of Gracchus' laws, setting up a court de repetundis (for the prosecution of ex-magistrates on charges of extortion), which lends weight to that supposition (SB 100). It may belong to the beginning of his second year as tribune of the people (122 BC). Significantly, it states that none of the jurors may be senators or the sons of senators. But this measure is not simply anti-senatorial. It also confirms the tradition on the point of Gaius Gracchus' wooing of the Italians and provincials, since it was their right to seek redress for abuses which this measure guaranteed. ^*^

“It may be legitimate to see the last major legislative initiative of C. Gracchus as inspired by his success with the tribunal de repetundis. A free male resident of Italy at this time, who was not a full Roman citizen (most of Latium had full citizenship; local magistrates of Italian cities seem to have had full citizenship or at least the right of provocatio), might hope to enjoy one of two lesser degrees of citizenship or special rights. The better of these was the ius Latinum or `Latin Rights', which entitled one to marry Roman citizens (connubium), to be treated by the courts as a Roman citizen, to own land at Rome (commercium), and to vote (if present at Rome during an election) in one of the 35 tribes. The less desirable status was civitas sine suffragio, which comprised only the private rights of connubium, commercium, and provocatio but not the right to vote or hold a magistracy. Gaius Gracchus proposed to grant full Roman citizenship (civitas optimo iure) to all of those currently holding Latin rights (not a group geographically limited to Latium), and to jump the rest of the Italians up to Latin rights; thus the number of those with the right to run for office would increase, while the number of those with the right to vote would increase drastically. He was vigorously opposed in this, both by his former supporter in the senate and the current consul C. Fannius, and also by the other populist tribune M. Livius Drusus (who, according to the pro-Gracchan tradition, was suborned by the senate to try to outdo Gracchus in pandering to the masses).

“In the following year Gaius Gracchus was not reelected tribune, and a number of his laws came under attack. Gracchus and his closest adherents tried to disrupt the proceedings at a crucial assembly, when it looked as if several of his measures were about to be modified or annulled. The details of how violence erupted are not likely to be reliable enough to be worth repeating, but it ended with another senatorial pronouncement that the safety of the Republic was at stake, and the consul L. Opimius was empowered to save it, which he proceeded to do by raising a rag-tag force and killing Gracchus together with a number of his adherents. Later tried under the lex Sempronia (Gracchus' law), Opimius was acquitted on the grounds that he had acted with the authority of the senate; this set an important precedent for the legality of the senatus consultum ultimum (the declaration of a state of emergency, martial law, by the senate).

Legacy of the Two Gracchi


Two Gracchi

Thus in a similar way the two Gracchi, who had attempted to rescue the Roman people from the evils of a corrupt government, perished. Their efforts at agrarian reform did not produce any lasting effect; but they pointed out the dangers of the state, and drew the issues upon which their successors continued the conflict. Their career forms the first phase in the great civil conflict at Rome.

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “The importance of the two Gracchan episodes can not be underestimated. The temptation to read back on to them the roots of the later struggles between the popular and conservative parties, whose conflicting interests were a major cause of the failure of the Roman Republican system, need not be wholly resisted. Hardly a hot button issue exists in the 1st century which does not have its counterpart in the Gracchan reforms. Of course it would be an error to view the Gracchans as revolutionaries, as wanting to tear down the structure of the state. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“Without denying that they were out to curb the power and influence of the senatorial class, there is no evidence to show that they intended to remove the senate from the government altogether, nor even to relegate it (as the Athenian democratic reformers had done with the old aristocratic council of the Areopagos) to prestigious but harmless religious functions. The lesson their example set for future populist leaders was not so much that trying to encroach on senatorial powers meant death. After all, many of the Gracchan reforms passed duly into law and remained in force long after their authors met their untimely ends. Rather, the lesson was that a would-be populist reformer had better have two things going for him in addition to widespread popular support: (1) powerful, numerous, and steadfast allies in the senate itself, and (2) the ability, if necessary, to meet force with overwhelming force. “^*^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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