During the Roman Republic, two brothers took it upon themselves to seek to change Rome to benefit the poor and underclass.
Needless to say, the Roman elites did not like this and did everything in their power to ensure it didn’t happen.
…and the elites were successful.
But in the process, they changed Roman history forever and put the Republic on a path to destruction.
Learn more about the Gracchi Brothers and how they tried to change Roman society on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were born to a very prestigious Roman family.
Their father, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, had an impeccable resume for a Roman. He was a general awarded two triumphs, the highest honor you can bestow on a Roman General.
As a politician, he served as praetor, governor of Hispania, and censor. He was elected consul, the highest position in the Republic, twice.
Unlike other men elected as consul, he also served as Tribune of the Plebs, which was a very high position in its own right. He was able to do this because he was a plebian, not a patrician.
The distinction between plebian and patrician had everything to do with who your ancestors were when the Republic was founded. The 100 men selected as the first Senators were the basis of the patrician class.
Clearly, as the elder Gracchus proved, you could advance pretty far as a plebeian.
Having consuls in your family, especially your father, was a very big deal in Rome.
The elder Tiberius was 30 years older than his wife and died when his children were still quite young.
The mother of the brothers was a woman by the name of Cornelia, who was the daughter of Scipio Africanus.
Women are often overlooked in Roman history, but Cornelia gets a special mention. She was upheld by Romans for centuries as the example of what the prototypical Roman woman should be.
She had 12 children, which was unusual for a Roman woman, of which three survived to adulthood.
She was well-versed in literature and was a prolific writer. She is one of only four women in Roman history whose writings have survived to the present day.
She was also the first woman in Roman history who had a statue erected in her honor while she was still alive.
On top of all that, not surprisingly, she was instrumental in her sons’ political careers.
So, to summarize, the Gracchi boys came from a top-notch family but just so happened to be plebians.
Tiberius, the older brother, was born in 163 BC, and Gaius, his younger brother, was born in 154 BC.
By this time, the Roman Republic had been around for about 350 years. It had become extremely corrupt, and wealth, in particular land, had slowly
become concentrated in the hands of a small number of patrician senators.
The Republic had been founded on the idea of citizen farmers like Cincinnatus. By the time of the Gracchi, that has all but disappeared.
The tradition in Rome was to divide up land between all heirs, which, over time, led to smaller and smaller plots of land. These small plots of land would get to a point where you couldn’t feed yourself, so people would just sell the land, which was purchased by wealthy landowners
Large estates were now the norm, owned by the very rich and run almost exclusively on slave labor.
The slaves took jobs that would otherwise be available for Roman citizens, leaving them unemployed.
On top of all this, Rome had expanded to encompass the entire Italian peninsula, but the number of people with Roman citizenship and the rights of citizenship was rather small.
With this background, we are finally introduced to Tiberius Gracchus.
Once he came of age, Tiberius was on a career path where he looked to follow in his father’s footsteps to possibly become consul.
During the Third Punic War, in 147 BC, he served as legate to his brother-in-law, Scipio Aemilianus. If you remember back to my episode on the war, this was where the Romans leveled the city of Carthage.
In 137 BC, he was elected to the position of Quaestor, which was sort of like a treasurer position. He served in Hispania, where he negotiated a treaty to surrender Roman forces.
His treaty actually saved many Roman lives, and it wasn’t his idea to negotiate, but it was looked upon unfavorably in Rome, where any surrender was seen as dishonorable.
What makes Tiberius Gracchus notable and someone worth doing a podcast episode about, occurred in 133 BC when he was elected to the position of Tribune of the Plebs.
The Tribune of the Plebes was only open to plebians, of which Tiberius was one. There were two of them elected every year, just like consuls. It was a powerful position as the tribune could propose legislation, summons the senate, and veto laws.
Thus the Tribune of the Plebs served as a check on the power of the patrician class in the Senate.
Also, and this becomes really important, the person of the tribune was sacrosanct. Anyone who assaulted a tribune would be executed.
Tiberius was a member of a political faction known as the populares. He began advocating a policy of radical land reform. Putting limits on the amount of land that could be owned and redistributing it to those without any land.
His words were recorded by the Roman historian Plutarch when he said,
The wild animals of [Italy] have their dens. Each of them has a place of rest and refuge, but those who fight and die for Italy have nothing[,] nothing except the air and the light. Houseless and homeless, they roam the land with their children and wives… They fight and die to protect the rich and luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by others. These so-called masters of the world have not one clod of earth that they can call their own
His proposal, known as the Lex Agraria, would limit the amount of public land anyone could own to about 125 acres or 50 hectares.
While this was a radical proposal, Tiberius wasn’t alone in advocating this. Needless to say, it was extremely popular with the common people. It had the support of one of the consults for the year, as well as many junior senators.
Likewise, it was extremely unpopular with many wealthy senators whose land holdings would have been the target of the legislation. This group was known as the optimates.
The main opponent of the bill was the other Tribune of the Plebs for that year, Marcus Octavius.
Marcus Octavius continually vetoed Tiberius’ proposals and worked against the clear desires of his plebian constituents.
Eventually, during an assembly of the plebians, Tiberius got the plebs to revoke the tribunate of Marcus Octavius, and he was literally pulled out of the assembly by force. This was a highly unorthodox and illegal move.
Right, when this was being debated, King Attalus III of Pergamon died, and he left his kingdom and entire fortune to the people of Rome.
Tiberius proposed that this money be used to fund the land reform by compensating the landowners whose land would be taken.
The bill eventually passed, but it was hamstrung by the Senate, which didn’t allocate enough money for the committee which was to oversee the program.
Things came to a head when Tiberius decided to run for reelection in 132 BC. This was highly unusual, if not illegal.
The optimates began saying that Tiberius was trying to become king, using his popularity with the masses to take control of Rome.
During the election for tribune, a mob led by his cousin, Scipio Nasica, went to where the election was taking place and beat Tiberius and 300 of his supporters to death with blunt objects.
This act of violating the sacrosanct powers of the tribune broke a long-standing taboo. In fact, this was just the last step in many taboos which had been broken, starting with Tiberius.
With Tiberius dead, the plebians elected his younger brother Gaius to Tribune.
Gaius continued with the same populares measures as his brother, but his proposals were far more varied and far-reaching.
He banned magistrates who were removed from office from running again. He renewed his brother’s agricultural reforms.
He established a state grain reserve. The government would buy when the price was low, store it, and then sell it when the price became too high.
He established colonies for settlement by poor Romans.
He set aside funds for uniforms for poor Romans who were conscripted into the army and banned conscription for anyone under 17.
Basically, he got a lot done in his year as tribune, all in the spirit of the policies his brother advocated.
There was a ten-year wait between when you could run for tribune a second time. In 122 BC, Gaius was selected as tribune again, but he actually didn’t run for office, he was spontaneously proclaimed.
In his second term, his big issue was granting Roman citizenship to all Latins, who were the people who lived around Rome, and Latin rights to all Italians. He also wanted to establish a new Roman colony in Carthage.
He was not nearly as successful in his second term as tribune. He was still deeply unpopular amongst the optimates in the Senate, and he was losing support with the plebians as well.
In 121 BC, a scuffle broke out when someone insulted Gaius and his entourage, who wound up getting killed by Gaius’ group and sparked riots associated with the repeal of several of Gaius’ laws.
This violence by Gaius’ supporters was the excuse that the senate needed. For the first time in Roman history, the senate passed a decree known as the Senatus Consultum Ultimum. This translates to “the final decree of the senate.”
It was used as a last-ditch effort to preserve the Roman state. Once the Senatus Consultum Ultimum is passed, anything can be done to secure the objective.
In this case, Gaius was declared an enemy of the state. He was to be killed without a trial. A group of mercenaries was sent to the Aventine Hill to kill Gaius and his associates, and a reward of the weight of Gaius’ head in gold was offered.
It isn’t known if Gaius was murdered or if he committed suicide, but the end result was that he died.
The repercussions didn’t end with the death of Gaius. In the weeks that followed, 3,000 of Gaius’ supporters were executed without a trial.
The story of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus is more than just one of the rich and powerful keeping the little guy down, although that certainly is a part of it.
The reason why this story is so important is that it marked a pivotal moment in the history of Rome. Before the Gracchi, there were rules and norms that governed Roman domestic politics that were strictly enforced. Violence was seldom introduced.
With the murder of the Gracchi Brothers, that taboo was now lifted. Over the next century, Rome saw a series of civil wars. Marius vs. Sulla, Caesar vs Pompey, and Octavian vs Mark Antony.
In the end, it resulted in the death of the Roman Republic and the rise of Imperial Rome.
Did the Gracchi really have the best interest of the common Roman in mind?
Not all historians agree that they did. They happened to have been born plebians. Plebians from a very wealthy and successful family, but plebians nonetheless.
Because they were plebs, certain doors were closed to them, yet other doors were open. Being tribune of the plebs potentially offered certain advantages, like the support of the masses if they supported the right policies….which the Gracchi did.
Ambition was everything in the Roman Republic. Given how powerful and influential their mother was in driving their careers behind the scenes, it wouldn’t be surprising if they used policies that had widespread popular support to increase their influence and power.
Regardless of the reason why they did what they did, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were early versions of social reformers. There weren’t really many examples in history before the Gracchi of the wealthy taking such risks to publicly advocate programs for the common people.