The tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC introduced a new chapter into Roman history which is widely understood as the beginning of the Roman Revolution, leading to the downfall of the Republic. Nine years after his murder by Roman senators, his brother Gaius in 123 BC became a tribune, and a year later, he too was murdered. For the first time in its history, the Senate issued a decree – Senatus Consultum Ultimum – for the consuls to save the Republic. Both brothers had tried to bring laws to improve and alleviate the plight of the Italian poor, and both brothers were killed as a result of those laws. The purpose of this article is to investigate whether the Gracchi were reformers or revolutionaries by examining their methods of introducing those laws and how they offended the senatorial tradition.
The tribunate had been an important office in the early Republic, for a tribune was set up to protect the welfare of the ordinary people. Gradually, the office began to change complexion and became a powerful tool for two groups of people: ambitious politicians who used the tribune’s right of veto to promote their own interests, and those men of obscure births who used the office to gain notoriety and fame to promote their own ambitions. Tiberius did not fit in any of the two categories.
Tiberius was from a prestigious family. He was the grandson of the elder Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202. His mother, Cornelia, was the daughter of Scipio Africanus, and his father, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, was twice consul (177, 163) and censor in 169. His wife, Claudia, was the daughter of Appius Claudius Pulcher, the Princeps Senatus. Had Tiberius followed the proper steps of cursus honorum, he would have achieved, just like his ancestors, the office of consulship and all the other honors that were customary to someone of his position. But Tiberius had other ideas in mind.
In 137, passing through Etruria on his way to Spain to serve under Gaius Mancinus as his quaestor, he noticed that there weren’t any free peasants working the farmlands, only slaves on large estates. He must have seen the need for change then. During his time in Spain, Tiberius proved himself to be both courageous and intelligent. He saved the lives of twenty thousand Roman soldiers and made a peace treaty with the Spaniards, and yet he never lost respect for his general whom Plutarch described as the unluckiest Roman ever to hold the office of general.
Upon returning to Rome, Tiberius faced a hostile Senate that was not going to ratify the peace treaty. Instead, it was going to punish Mancinus along with Tiberius and other officers. But Scipio Aemilianus, Tiberius’s brother-in-law, together with the friends and families of the soldiers Tiberius had saved, urged the Senate to punish Mancinus alone. Mancinus was sent back to Spain in chain but the Spaniards rejected him. Tiberius and his friends blamed Scipio for not saving Mancinus and also for not insisting that the peace treaty be ratified by the Senate.
In 133, Tiberius became a tribune and as his first act he proposed a law to limit landownership. Anyone holding public land that was more than the legal limit of 500 iugera (126.5 ha) had to give up the surplus to be distributed to the needy. He added 250 for the first two sons as compensation, bringing up the total sum to 1000 iugera. This law, though fair and generous, angered the wealthy, for it would strip land from them.
How the public land had come into the possession of the wealthy is best explained by Plutarch:
“Whenever the Romans annexed land from their neighbors as a result of their wars, it was their custom to put a part up for sale by auction; the rest was made common land and was distributed among the poorest and most needy of the citizens, who were allowed to cultivate it on payment of a small rent to the public treasury. When the rich began to outbid and drive out the poor by offering higher rentals, a law was passed which forbade any one individual to hold more than 500 iugera of land. For a while, this law restrained the greed of the rich and helped the poor, who were enabled to remain on the land which they had rented, so that each of them could occupy the allotment which he had originally been granted. But after a time, the rich men in each neighborhood, by using the names of fictitious tenants, contrived to transfer many of these holdings to themselves, and finally they openly took possession of the greater part of the land under their own names. The poor, when they found themselves forced off the land, became more and more unwilling to volunteer for military service or even to raise a family. The result was a rapid decline of the class of free smallholders all over Italy, their place being taken by gangs of foreign slaves, whom the rich employed to cultivate the estates from which they had driven off the free citizens.”
According to Plutarch, Scipio’s friend Gaius Laelius had attempted to reform this abuse, but the opposition was so great that he took fright and abandoned the program for which he gained the name of the wise. Tiberius would not follow Laelius.
Plutarch states that the law was not drafted by Tiberius himself, that he consulted a number of very important men: P. Licinius Crassus Mucianus the Pontifex Maximus, P. Mucius Scaevola the jurist who was the consul in 133, and Appius Claudius Pulcher. One would assume that Tiberius, having the support of some of the most powerful and distinguished men in the Senate, would have had good reason to believe that his proposal would get a fair hearing and most likely an approval. But Tiberius bypassed the Senate and took his proposal directly to the people, thereby offending the Senate.
An important question arises here. Why didn’t Tiberius’s backers advise him against bypassing the Senate? It is logical to assume that the Senate would have been fully aware of Tiberius’s proposal; hence, they would have already begun to take steps to block it. After all, the majority of the large landowners were the senators themselves and they had much to lose. Thus, the Senate’s response to Tiberius’s law would not have been favorable even if the proposal had the backing of some of the most distinguished members of the Senate. Appian speaks at length that the Roman people were aware of the condition, but they did not consider reforms as either easy or altogether fair to take away from so many men so much property.
However, Tiberius’s action of bypassing the Senate was neither revolutionary nor unprecedented. One hundred years before him, Gaius Flaminius had carried a land-bill without consulting the Senate and took his measure straight to the Popular Assembly. Another Tribune, C. Valerius Tappo, also bypassed the Senate and brought a bill granting full Roman citizenship to some Italian communities. The difference between Tiberius’s action and theirs was that Tiberius was actually taking away property from people who were in possession of it, however illegally it might have been. Nonetheless, Tiberius was acting within the boundaries of the law.
Those opposing Tiberius’s land-law resorted to the long-held tradition of using a tribune’s power of veto to block what they did not desire. Thus, they approached Marcus Octavius, Tiberius’s fellow-tribune and friend, who was a large landowner himself. Tiberius, however, was determined not to allow Octavius’s veto to cause his law a setback. Therefore, he took his proposal to the Senate, and according to Appian, he thought that the law would find favor with all right-thinking people but was rejected immediately.
The reason why Tiberius consulted the Senate, when he had refused to do so previously, could be that he might have believed that the Senate would see how determined he was in passing his law and would acquiesce to avoid trouble. When his attempt failed, Tiberius took an unprecedented step. He proposed for Octavius to be deprived of his office. People voted in favor of the proposal and Octavius was promptly removed. After another was elected in his place, the Lex Agraria was passed.
Though the law was passed, Tiberius was faced with the problem of implementing it and financing it. A commission of three men was set up to enforce the land distribution: Tiberius Gracchus himself along with his brother Gaius and his father-in-law Appius Claudius. The fact that Appius Claudius was elected as one of the commissioners is very important, for it meant that he was publicly supporting all of Tiberius’s measures.
However, finance was not forthcoming to fund Tiberius’s land project. But it so happened that just in time, king Attalus of Pergamum died and bequeathed his kingdom to the Roman People. Tiberius grasped this opportunity with both hands and went directly to the people to pass a law that the money should be spent on financing his land settlement as soon as it became available. Given his previous experiences with the Senate, he cannot be blamed for this action. However, this was regarded as an insult to the Senate. Tiberius had challenged the Senate’s authority to decide the destiny of the cities which lay within the bounds of Attalus’s kingdom. The foreign policy and finances had always been strictly in the domain of the Senate. Polybius was very specific in recording that all matters involving foreign matters were in the hands of the Senate, and the people had nothing to do with them. Although not by any legal constitution, but by the adherence to mos maiorum, which was the cornerstone of the Roman government.
Time was running out for Tiberius and he needed re-election if he were to accomplish all that he had in mind. Thus, he began to consolidate his position among the people and introduced new measures. According to Plutarch, these included a reduction of the period of military service, the right of appeal to the people from the verdicts of the juries, and the admission to the juries – which had hitherto been composed exclusively of senators – of an equal number of the knights. Tiberius was now angling for the support of the equestrian class.
Appian provides an account of Tiberius being fearful for his life and going around asking the city people to vote for him again, as the people from the country on account of the harvest could not come to Rome to vote for him. Tiberius seeking re-election was not something new, for it had already been done. According to Livy, two tribunes, Gaius Licinius and Lucius Sextius, were re-elected in 376 for a period of five years during the struggle of the orders between the patricians and the plebians.
Plutarch states that Tiberius’s program was designed to cripple the power of the Senate in every possible way, and it was inspired by motives of anger and party politics rather than by consideration of justice and the common good. This does not equate well with the facts. True, he was challenging the authority of the Senate, but the authority of the Senate had been challenged before. The Roman government, Senatus Populusque Romanus, of which Polybius was full of praise and stated that “the Senate stands in awe of the masses and takes heed of the popular will,” was based on the principle that people had a great role to play in running their country, however theoretical it might have been. At any rate, Tiberius never got the chance of being re-elected, for he was brutally murdered along with 300 of his followers by a gang of senators led by the Pontifex Maximus, P. Scipio Nasica.
The tribunate was an office that was supposed to be inviolable, and his person was to be protected. This brutal and criminal act of the Senate requires a close examination. To suggest that they killed him because Tiberius insulted the Senate and interfered with the Senate’s prerogatives is simply an oversimplification of a serious crime committed by the Senate. The cornerstone of the Senate’s power was based on mos maiorum, not by any legally drafted constitution, whereas the sacrosanctity of a tribune was established by law and oath.
It is argued that the Senate did not object to the laws themselves, but to the method by which they were brought in. However, events regarding the land distribution after Tiberius’s death suggests otherwise. According to Appian, after Tiberius’s death, the three commissioners, Fulvius Flaccus, Papirius Carbo, and Gaius Gracchus, faced enormous difficulty in entangling the problems of landholders, for it seemed the landed Italians were not willing to cooperate with the land commissioners. The Italians sought the support of Scipio Aemilianus, who accused the commissioners of being prejudiced against the landholders; hence, the commissioners were rendered inactive.
After Scipio’s death, the landholders, by various means of pretext, delayed the distribution of land for a long time. Then came the offer of citizenship, which found greater favor among the Italians than the land distribution. One of the proponents of this proposal was Fulvius Flaccus. It was at this point that Gaius entered the stage. He proposed both the citizenship and the land distribution. Had the Senate acquiesced to the former, the Social Wars would have been averted in 90 BC.
Gaius’s measures expanded those of his brother’s. They included the founding of colonies, the construction of roads, the establishment of public granaries, raising the conscription age to seventeen, supplying the soldiers with clothing at the public expense, and the reduction of grain prices for the poor. Plutarch says that Gaius’s measures were meant to find favor with the people and undermine the authority of the Senate. But Gaius’s measures were responses to the social and economic needs of a society that was rapidly metamorphosing. Rome was an empire and the nation of Italy was being born. The Gracchi understood this and some of the more enlightened people understood it.
Gaius’s other law, which transferred the extortion court to the knights, cannot be criticized either, for he was not to know that the court, run by the knights, would be just as corrupt as it was with the senators. During his time, the courts were corrupt. There were suspected cases of bribery, and the corruption was to such a degree that the shameful Senate did not oppose the law and acquiesced to it.
Gaius became a tribune for a second time due to public enthusiasm. And he gained popularity with the Latins by extending full Roman citizenship to them. This caused the Senate to become fearful of his influence. Plutarch records that Gaius’s opponents secured the election of Lucius Opimius as consul, a man with extreme oligarchical views, who was a leading member of the Senate, to destroy Gaius. The plan was to revoke many of Gaius’s laws so as to provoke him into committing an act of violence, giving the Senate an excuse to kill him. The plan worked and Gaius along with 3000 of his supporters were killed and their bodies were thrown into the Tiber. Their properties, too, was confiscated by the public treasury and their wives were forbidden to wear mourning, while Gaius’s wife, Licinia, was deprived of her dowry. Among the slain was Fulvius Flaccus who was once a consul and had celebrated a triumph. And yet the same Opimius could not resist the temptation of fraud as he accepted bribe from Jugurtha.
One of the greatest moral qualities of the Senate was its ability for compromises. Rome would have been torn asunder if it were not for this one unique quality. Its history had been tumultuous, and its authority had always been constantly challenged by a host of tribunes over the centuries prior to Punic Wars, for at this juncture, the nature of the political crisis was such that it needed the unchallenged and concentrated effort of one body – that of the Senate. After the destruction of Carthage, Rome was the undisputed superpower with no enemy to challenge her position. Rome was secure, and real power on earth, and the riches flowed into her land. Rome gained the world, but, in the process, Rome lost her moral strength.
The new Senate was greedy, selfish, and had lost all perspective of right and wrong. Perhaps the words spoken by Licinia on the day of Gaius’s murder best captures this new Senate:
“You are going to expose yourself to the men who murdered Tiberius and you are right to go unarmed and to suffer wrong rather than inflict it on others. And yet our country will be none the better for taking your life, for injustice has triumphed in Rome, and it is violence and the sword which settle all disputes.”
The new Senate had inherited the power of the old oligarchy but not its moral strength, for Rome was not fighting to survive anymore. The new Senate, propped up with greed and vanity, was serving its own interest, not that of Rome. It would not be quite accurate to state, as many historians suggest, that the Gracchi period was the beginning of the end for the Republic. It is more accurate to suggest that the Gracchi period coincided with the demise of the Republic.
The Gracchi were not revolutionaries but two enlightened reformers who understood only too well the plight of their countrymen. Their motivation was anything but personal ambition. It was not they who contributed to the events that brought the fall of the Republic. It was the Senate. The greed of the Senate is best described by Gaius Memmius (tribune elect in 111 BC) as recorded by Sallust:
“In Rome, as well as at the battle front, the Republic has been put up for sale.”
Which confirms Jugurtha’s parting shot from Rome:
“Yonder is a city put up for sale, and its days are numbered if finds a buyer.”
Had the Senate refrained from unlawful violence against the Gracchi, perhaps the Roman people would not have unconstitutionally voted seven times for Marius to become a consul. And perhaps, the civil wars between Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, which destroyed the Republic, could have been prevented.