The Gracchi Brothers
The social and political landscape of the Roman world was about to undergo an abrupt transformation in the Late Republic. The emergence, and eventual assassination of the Gracchus brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, is often considered the first major step towards the fall of the Roman Republic.
While Roman class and social affairs had for centuries consisted of machinations by various individuals to get their way (such as the Plebs withdrawal from Rome in the early Republic), the activities of the Gracchi completely altered the state of Roman politics.
The careers of these two men were marked by riots, murder, and ultimately, outright manipulation of the common population to achieve their goals. This political behavior would become increasingly more prominent in the 100 years from their time, through to Caesar and the eventual rise of Augustus.
The tremendous growth of the Empire, through both acquisition of land, slaves, and various citizen classes led to a fundamental divide in the Roman political system. On one side of the divide, the patrician and wealthy, long-standing equestrian families developed into a faction known as the optimates (though there were certainly exceptions). Essentially the conservative party, these aristocrats were the old and powerful families of Rome. Their goal was the preservation of the Roman state, in its then current form, where these families reaped the benefits of Roman expansion and the senate maintained controlling power of the system. Roman strength, in their opinions, resided with their ability to lead and the results of that leadership would help all of Rome.
By contrast, a new faction began to gain power as some of the members of these powerful families began to take up the causes of the less fortunate common masses. Manipulating the 'head count' or the 'mob' with popular ideas was a powerful political tool, but none before had used it as effectively as the Gracchi. The Populares party took root in this Late Republican period, and the 'causes of the common man' (or political ambition guised by such causes) became a constant factor in the political wrangling of the capital.
From 137 to 121 BC, Tiberius, and then Gaius Gracchus, stood at the center of this turmoil. The recent conquests had opened many doors to new found wealth, but the rapid pace of such expansion opened more doors to corruption and mismanagement. The lack of new recruits from among the landowning class was beginning to take its toll. Small farms were slowly driven into extinction as the wealthy bought up land and resources for vast estates. Laws preventing the Legions from taking the landless as recruits were certainly an issue. These displaced Roman's had no farms and no opportunities to regain their status through military service. Governing all the new provinces was a strain at best, without a large recruiting base of small landowners.
Meanwhile, the Optimates' land base continued to grow and the agrarian laws of the time were certainly written in their favor. Slaves imported with the conquests replaced the Italian worker and the small farmer. Thousands of landless and jobless Romans were idle in the city, with little hope for relief. Food supplies dwindled as less farms were worked. Social debt and overwhelming corruption was rampant throughout the entire society. Italian allies were feeling more and more disenfranchised, as they had these same issues without even the right to vote in the citizen assemblies. The stability of Rome was badly fractured, just as it started to grow into an empire.
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus saw an opportunity not only to achieve their own political power, but to stabilize the inequality through reform and new laws benefiting the common people. Reasonable and noble concepts on the surface, however, were underlying with their own contempt for the Senate and optimate party. What could be seen on one side as an attempt to rectify a dangerous and debilitating social system was viewed on the other as nothing more than a power grab and a flagrant attack on the Republican institutional ideas of the time.
One-upmanship was countered with arguments and these countered with physical force. As the results at stake grew, so did the egos of the individual players. The goal of the betterment of society as a whole was lost, and victory became the only objective. As ambition and personal motivation became the predominant theme of the Late Republic, the social fabric that long held Rome together, against all odds, was being torn apart.
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (163 - 133 BC)
The Gracchi brothers, while championing causes for the common people, were themselves members of the highest Patrician order of Rome. Their father was a consul and their mother was of the distinguished Scipio family. Tiberius started his political career under the wings of C. Scipio Amelianus but later was to be opposed by the powerful Senatorial elite of which he was originally a member.
As a quaestor in Spain, Tiberius Gracchus got his first bitter taste of factional politics. The Roman army had suffered miserably against the Celtic tribes and he proposed a treaty that was written to spare the lives of up to 20,000 Roman soldiers. The treaty was firmly rejected in Rome, because passage would've been akin to admitting defeat. This terribly disappointing incident marked Tiberius' break from the optimates and the beginning of his opposition to the elite authority as a supporter of the populares movement.
The Populares party was convinced of the need for reform in many facets of Roman society. Some members, perhaps Tiberius included, simply liked to oppose the established authority, and he may have been used in his early days by the more prominent members. Whether Tiberius himself was sincere in his reforms to benefit the common man is impossible to ascertain, but regardless, he developed into an icon of equality for all people of Rome. Badly tarnished by the rejection of his treaty, Tiberius took up the challenge of reform with a zeal previously unencountered in the Roman forum.
Election as a Tribune of the Plebs in 133 BC was the beginning of his fight for reform. He likely had little intention to cause the sort of upheaval that followed, as economic security and stability was a real concern. The Plebeians had long struggled for social equality and a magisterial office in which to voice their concerns. The introduction of slave labor in mass quantities and loss of plebeian farms from the previous wars left the Italian farmers in dire straights.
Patrician and upper Equestrian families acquired vast stretches of new lands in the recent wars, while the Plebeians gained none. In fact many farms were lost simply because men were killed or wounded in the wars and unable to work their lands. According to Roman law, land gained in such a manner was to be shared equally among the masses, and not simply distributed to the Patricians. The inability to compete with the huge slave labor farms of the wealthy certainly played a part in Plebeian dissatisfaction.
As Tribune, Tiberius now had the power and position to begin the process of change. He introduced legislation, a concilium plebes, for a creation of land allotments to the Plebes out of the public lands won in the Punic Wars. In this case the bill may have been in complete good faith and intentions. It stated that those currently living on the land would be restricted to the legal limit of ownership (500 acres plus 250 acres each per son, limited by 2 sons.) and would be compensated by being granted a hereditary rent-free lease. This would restore land ownership to more Plebes and satisfy a variety of social needs. The ranks of land-owning citizens would be increased, making more people eligible for service in the legions, while putting more people to work and balancing the social scale, if even by a small amount.
Gracchus' bill, as sound and perfectly legal as it may have been, was immediately opposed by the Senate. Not only would the bill have a direct effect on the benefits they themselves could receive, but Gracchus flagrantly opposed them by taking the bill directly to the citizen assemblies, rather than to the Senate for discussion and debate first, as was customary. Octavius, the other Tribune for that year, and apparently as a pawn of the Senate, used veto powers to undermine this reform land bill and Tiberius was stymied. In opposition, Tiberius raised the ante by disrupting every form of legislation and governing of any sort throughout his term as Tribune. He used his own veto right to put down every proposed law or bill effectively shutting down the government until his own bill could be dealt with.
At the next citizen assembly, he was sure that he had taught a lesson to the opposition and that his bill would pass without incident. Octavius, however, vetoed the Agrarian bill once again. Attempts to have Octavius physically removed from the Tribunate in order to allow passage of the bill by popular vote all failed, but the assembly voted for the bill anyway despite Octavius' veto. The bill passed into law, as the Senate had little choice, regardless of the illegally ignored veto attempt. Perhaps facing open rebellion from the mob, they allowed its passage but relations with Tiberius were badly strained.
Upon the bill's approval, three men were commissioned to oversee its institution. Tiberius, his brother Gaius Gracchus and Appius Claudius Pulcher, a leading Senator and Tiberius' father-in-law. As many as 75,000 small farms may have been created with the bill and handed to small farmers. There was a noticeable improvement in social conditions, but the plan proved an expensive project to implement. Money allotted to oversee the introduction of the law was running low and Tiberius proposed to take money from the rich and newly acquired land of Pergamum.
The Senate once again opposed the concept, but was not willing to risk Tiberius taking the matter before the Plebes. Reluctantly, this issue was passed, and Gracchus' continued direct challenges to Senatorial authority was backing himself into a corner. He used the people as his mob, threatening the Senate into supporting his bills. All the while, Tiberius was immune from retaliation as long as maintained his position as Tribune (which was considered sancrosect or rendered him immune from legal prosecution and physical harm).
Hostility between the two factions continued and the relationship deteriorated. As the year of his tribunal powers neared a close, Gracchus was in real danger of court trial or even assassination if he couldn't get re-elected as Tribune. However, the law stated that no man could stand for election without an interval period without holding office (this essentially was a check and balance preventing the abuse of power if office holders could face immediate prosecution following their terms of duty). Therefore it was illegal for Tiberius to run for election again. Tiberius, with the popularity among the people behind him, ignored Senatorial objections and carried forward with his election campaign anyway.
Once again, the Senate was powerless to stop the rising star of the popular Tiberius Gracchus. Without recourse and entirely enraged by Tiberius' constant mocking of Roman law and tradition, the Senators took up arms against him. Led by Tiberius' own cousin, Scipio Nasica, a group of armed Senators and supporters charged into a 'populares' campaign rally to break it up. In the ordeal Tiberius was clubbed to death (certainly after being marked as a target), thus ending his short but tumultuous political career.
In the aftermath, Scipio Aemilianus (who was much beloved for his service in the final destruction of Carthage) was called in to restore order and the political situation slowly settled down. As it turned out, however, the political fever introduced by Tiberius Gracchus would pale in comparison to that of his younger brother Gaius Gracchus, just a few years later.
Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154 - 121 BC)
After the death of his brother Tiberius, Gaius Gracchus would make an even bigger splash on the Roman political scene. Following a similar path, he served under Scipio Aemilianus, and then was elected Consul, in which he spent two years governing Sardinia. Returning to Rome he was elected to two consecutive terms as Tribune of the Plebes in 123 and 122 BC. In the position of harnessing the power of the Roman masses, Gaius had far wider reaching plans for administrative reforms and social equity issues.
Initially, his measures saw to the exile of the Consul Popolius for his involvement in the death of Tiberius Gracchus. To cement the authority of this action, he initiated a law stating that any magistrate who had been deposed from office by the will of the people would, in the future, be ineligible to ever serve in any capacity at all. Avenging the murder of Tiberius, he then set about a new strategy of popular political legislation. His next proposal was a direct strike against the Gracchi enemies in the Senate. Through another Tribune, Glabrio M' Acilius, the Lex Acilia provided for judices to be chosen from the equestrian class rather than the senate. Damaging both the prestige of the conservative optimates and its potential for revenue through the court system, and giving more power to the equestrians, he then looked to implement direct policies aiding the lower classes.
The taxation of Asia Minor, which had recently become a province through the will of King Attalus III of Pergamum, was then completely overhauled to cause further economic damage to the Senate. Equestrians were awarded the right to contract for the collecting of the enormous taxes due from there, rather than senatorial agents. The mob was won over further when he next proposed a state subsidized grain law, which allowed every citizen to buy grain at half the market price, directly from the Roman state. His brother's agrarian law, which was revoked after Tiberius' death, was then re-adopted to allow the Plebes more access, once again, to available public land. Additional legislation was put forward to protect provincial residents from the greed, corruption and excessive taxation by local governors and other officials. Furthermore, Gaius forced through huge expenditures on public works, such as roads harbors and baths, which once more mainly benefited the equestrian business community. An orator of great magnitude, later admired by one of history's great orator's, Cicero, his laws and proposals were far more successful than those of his brother. While surpassing the success of Tiberius, he redeemed the legacy of the Gracchus name and forever put the family into the annals of history.
By 122 BC, Gaius was firmly entrenched as the champion of the people, but one piece of legislation proved to be his eventual undoing. Complaints from Italian Latin rights citizens that the agrarian laws were helping the lower classes of Rome, while leaving the Italians behind didn't fall on deaf ears. Through his political ally, M.Fulvius Flaccus, who was fresh back from the conquest of Gallia Narbonensis, Gauis next proposed a law to incorporate all the Latin rights citizens into full citizenship. Unfortunately for Gaius and his allies, this move was extremely unpopular with not only the Senate, but the head count of Rome as well. The lower classes of Roman citizenship would be forced to share their land allotments with the Italians, and the Senate saw an opportunity to strike at Gaius. A senate backed Tribune, Livius Drusus, began to propose laws far more liberal and beneficial to the Roman head count, while decisively against the Italian allies. While not a position traditionally backed by the Senate it was at least not as harmful as complete inclusion of the Italian tribes would have been. It had the added benefit of keeping the Roman mob happy, while temporarily replacing the Gracchus status of popular champion with their own man, Drusus. The laws of Drusus, however, were never intended to be permanent, and were only supported by the Senate long enough to do damage to Gracchus. Rapidly losing popularity, Gaius' attempt for a third straight election to Tribune failed in 121 BC.
Realizing the tactics of the Senate too late to counter them, Gracchus, along with Flaccus and thousands of their supporters, led a protest in the streets of Rome. A large angry mob turned out in favor of Gracchus on the Aventine Hill, but unfortunately, the protest escalated into an armed revolt. The Consul Lucius Opimius, an obvious political enemy of the populares party, was all too happy to see this occur. The unlawful carrying of weapons by Gracchus' supporters was all the excuse needed for the Senate to act out. Charging Opimius with the first ever, and soon to be regular occurring, Senatus Consultum Ultimatum (the ultimate decree of martial law), he set out after the protestors with an armed militia of legionary infantry and auxilia archers. Swooping down on the Aventine, all hope was lost for the Gracchus party. Ordering his own slave to stab him to death, the political career of the famous Gracchi came to a violent end. In the end, thousands of the mob were killed outright, and later, up to 3,000 more Gracchus supporters were rounded up, arrested and strangled.
The legacy of the Gracchi brothers was one of social upheaval and the eventual disintegration of the Roman political and governing system. Their violent deaths were the first of many more political riots and executions to come over the next 100 years. Traditional powers of the Senate and the people were being torn apart, rebuilt and torn apart again. Ambitious politicians now had many new ways to exploit a system teetering on collapse and powerful men and political parties began to develop in extreme polar opposites. The voice of violence, riots and mob tactics was quickly to become the mainstay throughout the perilous era in Roman history. The Senate even, once steadfast in cooperation against the Tribunes of the Plebes, now even began to splinter off against one another. With the fast rise and fall of the Brothers Gracchi, the stage was set for the rise of Marius, Sulla, Pompey and the eventual last dictator, Gaius Julius Caesar.
Did you know...
The Optimates (Latin: respectively, "Best Ones," or "Aristocrats") were the dominant group in the Senate.
Did you know...
It is said that Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was, during the Third Punic War, the first man over the wall at Carthage, after which he was elected quaestor.
Did you know...
The Aventine Hill is one of the seven hills that ancient Rome was built on.