THE PEOPLE'S TRIBUNES: THE GRACCHI
Tiberius Gracchus attempted to organise a fairer distibution of land, his brother Gaius tried to integrate the peoples of Italy into the Roman state. Both - despite being the elected representatives of the people (tribunes) were murdered by senators, fearful that their ancient privileges were being eroded. Thus began a century of political violence - previously unknown in Rome.
(c.168 -133 BC)
The brothers Gracchus had an aristocratic upbringing. Their father was a notable consul and military leader, their mother the daughter of Scipio Africanus. (Acknowledgment Julius Caesar: the Last Dictator web site)
Tiberius Gracchus, having served with the army and been a quaestor, was elected tribune of the people in 133 BC. The main reform he proposed was the reclamation of tracts of land which had been acquired by the state in its conquest of Italy, and their redistribution among smallholders with guaranteed tenure in return for a nominal rent. Those currently occupying the land, who were merely tenants of the state, would be restricted to what had for some time been the legal limit of ownership (500 acres plus a further 250 acres for each of up to two sons), and would be compensated by being granted a hereditary rent-free lease. His bill also restored to the list of those eligible for military service (for which a tradition of qualification was the possession of land) a section of society which had fallen out of the reckoning.
Though the bill had the backing of several prominent senators as well as of one of the consuls, Tiberius’s tactics in trying to make it law were questionable. Instead of submitting it first for discussion by the senate, he proposed it straight to the concilium plebis, where it was bound to succeed. This inevitably annoyed the senate, which persuaded one of the other tribunes to veto the bill as it was being read out. Tiberius retaliated by invoking his right to suspend all business. He then refused to listen to attempts to get him to refer his legislation to the senate, and took the unprecedented step of asking the assembly to vote his refractory colleague out of office, which it promptly did. The bill was then passed to acclamation, and three commissioners were appointed to administer the scheme: Tiberius himself, his younger brother Gaius, and Appius Claudius Pulcher, “leader” of the senate and Tiberius’s father-in-law.
Greece, the Aegean, and western Asia Minor. (Ancient World Mapping Center)
The commission began work immediately, and in all about 75,000 smallholdings may have been created and farmed as a result. When it began to look as though the commission would run short of funds, Tiberius coolly proposed to the concilium plebis that the revenue confiscated from the newly acquired kingdom of Pergamum should be diverted to its use. The senate, rather than risk being outflanked again, and this time in the area of finance, which it regarded as its prerogative, capitulated, but Tiberius was a marked man. State officials could not be brought to task while they were in office, but they could be prosecuted afterwards for acts committed during their term. Tiberius Gracchus now took the unprecedented and arguably unconstitutional step of announcing himself as a candidate for a tribuneship for a second year running. A band of senators, failing in an attempt to have him disqualified from standing, charged out of the senate, broke up an electioneering meeting which Tiberius was addressing, and clubbed him to death with stools and cudgels.
A group of senators, late first century BC. (VRoma: Ara Pacis, Rome: Ann Raia)
(c.159 -121 BC)
They had not by any means heard the last of the Gracchus brothers. Nine years after his brother’s assassination, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus was elected a tribune of the people. He was elected again, unopposed, the following year - there is some suggestion that one of his first acts in office was to have the law repealed whereby a man could not hold office for two years running.
Gaius was a different and more formidable proposition than Tiberius. He was more flamboyant and passionate, and a skilled and powerful demagogue. His programme of reforms passed by the concilium plebis was wide ranging and designed to benefit all interests, except of course those of the senate. He reaffirmed and reactivated his brother’s land laws and established smallholdings in Roman territory abroad. For city-dwellers who could not be persuaded to leave the teeming streets of Rome for the hazards of country life, he enacted corn laws which entitled every citizen on demand to a monthly ration at a fixed price.
While the nobility still dominated the senate, the wealth and business acumen lay largely with the equestrian class. Gaius Gracchus gave them greater power, and riches, by awarding them the right to contract for gathering the enormous taxes which accrued from the newly-created province of Asia, and by substituting knights for senators as jurors in cases of extortion brought by the state against provincial governors. He also forced through massive measures for expenditure on public works, particularly roads and harbours, which again benefited the business community. His most enlightened piece of legislation, however, fell foul even of the comitia tributa. This was a proposal to extend full Roman citizenship, and thus voting rights, to the population of the surrounding area of Latium, and to give all allied states in Italy the rights enjoyed by the Latins, such as trade with Rome and intermarriage with Romans.
When Gaius Gracchus offered himself in 121 BC for a third term of office as tribune, the senate resorted to terrorism once again, though this time with quasi-constitutional overtones. They put up against him a straw candidate with an entirely fallacious programme of reforms which would be even more acceptable to the people, who was duly elected. The supporters of Gaius Gracchus held a mass rally on the Aventine Hill, but made the mistake of carrying weapons. The consul, Lucius Opimius, armed with a senatus consultum ultimum, which gave moral backing to a senior official to take action against those who were endangering the stability of the state, raised a levy of citizens augmented by a company of soldiers and archers, to disperse the demonstrators. Gaius escaped the first wave of violence, but then, recognizing that the cause was hopeless, ordered his personal slave to stab him to death. It is said that three thousand of his supporters were rounded up, thrown into jailed, and there strangled.
Gaius Gracchus was begged by his friends to escape, while they held off his pursuers. As he ran along, no-one helped him or gave him the horse for which he asked. He finally took refuge in a sacred grove. (“The Death of Gaius Gracchus” by Jean Baptiste Topino-Lebrun (1764-1801). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseilles: Gallery of Art web site.)
The actions and ultimate fates of the brothers Gracchus constituted a watershed in Roman politics. Their legislation highlighted the links between the problems of property holding, poverty, the army, and the extension and retention of the empire. Their use of a popular assembly to initiate legislation gave it powers rivalling those of the senate. That political conflict could lead twice to violence established a precedent which affected the equilibrium of Roman society and instigated periods of anarchy and civil war.
Achaea became part of the Roman empire in 146 BC, and at the same time Macedonia, Thessaly, Illyria, and Aetolia were fully annexed to Rome. The city of Pergamum, which is not far from the site of Troy on the coast, was the capital of the kingdom of Pergamum. The kingdom was bequeathed to the Roman people in 133 BC by Attalus III, who left no heirs. The province known as Asia (equating to Asia Minor on the map) was established in the same year, with Pergamum as its capital.
Greece, the Aegean, and western Asia Minor. (Ancient World Mapping Center)