Last Updated on December 14, 2021 by Vladimir Vulic
Life: 168-133 BC
Tiberius and his brother Gaius Gracchus were to be two men who should become famous, if not infamous, for their struggle for the lower classes of Rome.
They themselves though originated from Rome’s very elite. Their father was a consul and military commander and their mother was from the distinguished patrician familiy of the Scipios. – At the death of her husband she even turned down a marriage proposal by the king of Egypt.
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus at first distinguished himself in the army (as an officer in the Third Punic was he is said to have been the first man over the wall at Carthage), after which he was elected quaestor. When in Numantia an entire army found itself in dire straits, it was Tiberius’ negotiation skill, which managed to save the lives of 20’000 Roman soldiers and thousands more among the auxiliary units and camp followers. However, the senate disliked what they called a dishonourable treaty which saved lives, but admitted defeat. If the intervention by his brother-in-law Scipio Aemilianus saved at least the general staff (including Tiberius) from suffering any indignity at the hands of the senate, then the commander of the force, Hostilius Mancinus, was arrested, put in irons and handed over to the enemy.
When Gracchus won the election to the tribunate in 133 BC he had probably no intention of starting a revolution. His aim was largely economic.
Long before his rise to fame, the plebeians who wanted office and social recognition had made common cause with the urban poor and the landless country dwellers.
Was the plight of landless Italian farm workers hard enough, it was now further endangered by the rise of slave labour, by which rich land owners now sought to maintain their vast estates.
It could indeed be suggested that those very estates had been acquired agaisnt the rule of law. Law according to which the peasantry should have shared in the land.
As any projects of reform which would touch their own wealth or power would naturally be opposed by the nobles, Tiberius’ ideas of land reform should win him few friends in the senate.
Tiberius brought forward a bill to the concilium plebis for a creation of allotments mostly out of the large area of public land which the republic had acquired after the Second Punic War.
Those currently living on the land would be restricted to what had for some time been the legal limit of ownership (500 acres plus 250 acres for each of up to two sons; i.e. 1000 acres), and would be compensated by being granted a hereditary rent-free lease.
This was a significant political package at a time of general unrest and of expansion abroad. It 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.
After all, Rome needed soldiers. Leading jurists of the day confirmed that his intentions were indeed legal.
But however reasonable some of his arguments might have been, Gracchus with his contempt for the senate, his flagrant populism and political brinkmanship, heralded a change in the nature of Roman politics. The stakes were getting ever higher, things were becoming more brutal. Rome’s well-being seemed more and more to be a secondary factor in the great contest of egos and boundless ambition.
Also the passions whipped up during Tiberius’ and Gaius’ brief time in office is largely seen as having led to the following period of social strife and civil war.
Gracchus’ bill was unsurprisingly supported by the popular assembly. But the other Tribune of the people, Octavius, used his powers to overrule the law.
Gracchus now replied by applying his own veto as Tribune to every sort of action by government, in effect bringing the rule of Rome to a standstill. Rome’s government was to deal with his bill, before any other matter should be dealt with. Such was his intention. At the next assembly he reintroduced his bill. Once again there was no doubt of its success in the assembly, but once again Octavius vetoed it.
At the next assembly Gracchus proposed that Octavius should be deposed from office. This was not within the Roman constitution, but the assembly voted for it nonetheless. Tiberius’ agrarian bill was then voted on once again and became law.
Three commissioners were appointed to administer the scheme; Tiberius himself, his younger brother Gaius Sempronius Gracchus and Appius Claudius Pulcher, ‘leader’ of the senate – and Tiberius’ father-in-law.
The commission began work at once and some 75’000 smallholdings may have been created and handed to farmers.
As the commission began to run out of money Tiberius simply proposed to the popular assemblies to simply use the available funds from the kingdom of Pergamum, which Rome had recently acquired. The senate was in no mood to be outwitted again, particularly not on matters of finance. It unwillingly passed the proposal. But Tiberius was not making any friends. Particularly as the deposition of Octavius was a revolution, if not a coup d’état. Under the given conditions Gracchus could have introduced any law on his own, given popular support. It was a clear challenge to the senate’s authority.
So too, hostile feelings against Gracchus arose, when rich, influential men discovered that the new law may deprive them of land they saw as their own.
In such hostile conditions it was distinctly possible that Gracchus was in danger of prosecution in the courts as well as assassination. He knew it and therefore realized that he had to be re-elected to enjoy the immunity of public office.
But the laws of Rome were clear that no man was to hold office without interval. His candidacy was in effect illegal.
The senate failed in an attempt to bar him from standing again, but a group of enraged senators, led by his hostile cousin Scipio Nasica, charged into an election rally of Tiberius’, broke it up and, alas, clubbed him to death.
Nasica had to flee the country and died at Pergamum. On the other hand some of Gracchus’ supporters were punished by methods which were positively illegal, too.
Scipio Aemilianus on his return from Spain was now called upon to save the state. He probably was in sympathy with the real aims of Tiberius Gracchus, but detested his methods. But to reform Rome it would need a man of less scruples and perhaps less honour.
One morning Scipio was found dead in his bed, believed to have been murdered by the supporters of Gracchus (129 BC).
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.