Brothers Gracchi

Tiberius Gracchus

For the decades immediately after 146 B.C., our attention turns to internal affairs of the Roman Republic. Carthage and Corinth had both been utterly destroyed in that year. Macedonia and Africa were now provinces. In 133 Attalus III of Pergamum had died and tried to spare the Romans involvement in a war over his succession (there was no heir) by bequeathing his empire (in his will) to the Roman people. If so he failed, but a brief campaign in 131 and 130 was enough to settle the hash of Aristonicus, a pretender to his throne. The creation of a province of Asia followed in 130. Seleucid power was a thing of the past, and although two Ptolemies (VI and VII) were squabbling over Egypt and its vassals, the Romans simply left them to it. So the east was quiet. In the west, there was ongoing difficulty with the administration of Spain (Numantine War, 143-133), but no major threat prior to the war with Jugurtha (112-106).
Up until 133 the Senate had controlled Roman policy, not by law but by custom. It is commonly supposed that the growth of the empire induced the people to cede authority over foreign affairs to the Senate, where there were experts in foreign policy. The people would not have dreamed, for example, of interfering with the senatorial prerogative in the extremely important matter of the assignment of provinces to ex-praetors and ex-consuls. What was the social structure of the Republic like at this point? The Senate consisted of around 300 landed aristocrats, who made use of the informal system of client/patron relations to control elections and legislation. At this point senatorial politics begins to be described in the sources as a conflict between two parties, Optimates ("aristocrats") and Populares ("democrats"). On the standard view, different methods of political action and different ideologies distinguished the two parties from one another and replaced the previous dominance of family ties as the determinant of political alliances. The Optimates worked through the Senate and the traditional avenues, while the Populares worked through the tribunate and the popular assemblies. Some, e.g. Boren, maintain that the distinction between Optimates and Populares arose as a result of rather than prior to the affair of Tiberius Gracchus. Another important socioeconomic element is the equites, whose numbers and influence had swelled with the growth of the empire in the first half of the 2nd century B.C.; the larger dominion provided lucrative opportunities in banking, mining, public works, and the supply of arms. Many a member of the senatorial class, forbidden by the Lex Claudia of 218 to engage in business, chose to be an eques; to put it another way, not everyone who could afford to be in the Senate chose to be in it. Farming was becoming increasingly profitable as the rich bought up the ager publicus and worked it as plantations (latifundia) with slave labour, readily available from overseas conquests [Cato's De Agri Cultura]. The 500 iugera limit supposedly set on ownership of ager publicus in 367 was being widely ignored. The direct consequence of this trend was the displacement of the small farmers, who drifted to the city of Rome to become the urban mob.
That leads directly to Tiberius Gracchus. A grandson of Scipio Africanus on his mother's side, he was elected tribune of the people for 133 B.C. Tiberius proposed to enforce the law of 367 and confiscate all ager publicus held in excess of the 500 iugera limit; as a concession to the landowners, the remaining 500 iugera was to be rent-free. This raises a question: did the Licinian law really impose a limit of 500 iugera? The only ancient source to say so directly is Varro. Plutarch and Appian are both vaguer about what law it was which Tiberius was proposing to enforce. A strong case can be made for the idea that the 500 iugera limit was retrojected onto the law of 367 to make it more venerable and to associate it with a legislative landmark in the struggle for popular rights. If so, the true occasion for the imposition of the 500 iugera limit has to be sought elsewhere, possible in the law of Cato (the lex Porcia de modo agrorum) which belongs somewhere in the years 172-167 (so e.g. Bauman).
The confiscated land was to be distributed in individual lots (viritim) of 30 iugera to Roman citizens, and thereafter the plot would be inalienable (possibly only for a certain period). To pass this measure, Tiberius bypassed the Senate and went directly to the concilium plebis. It would be wrong, though, to suggest that all of the Senate opposed him; he had powerful friends in the Senate, including P. Crassus, P. Mucius Scaevola, and Tiberius' father-in-law Appius Claudius Pulcher the princeps senatus (Cic. Acad. Prior. 2.5.13). It is not clear why Cicero says that Scaevola acted covertly (and this conflicts with Plutarch Tib. 9). Initially the bill was vetoed by another tribune, M. Octavius. Thereupon Tiberius induced the assembly to depose Octavius from office, and so passed his bill. Again, it is not likely that the deposition of his opponent from office was strictly speaking illegal, despite Plutarch's statement to the contrary (Tib. 11. 2); the assembly was alone empowered to elect the tribunes, hence presumably also to depose them. The answer may be that no one knew whether it was illegal or not because it had never happened. The resettlement of the ager publicus was to be carried out by a commission of three (the tresviri): Tiberius himself, his brother Gaius, and Appius Claudius. They were to decide what was and what was not ager publicus. When the Senate tried to block or delay the commission by withholding funds for its operation, Tiberius forced their hand by threatening to have the assembly administer the revenue from Pergamum, the legacy of Attalus III Philometor (Plut. Tib. 14). What became of this threat or bill is not entirely clear, but it seems to have been effective, because the commission got funded and began its work.
What were Tiberius' true motives? As quaestor in Spain in 137 he had concluded a treaty with the Numantines on less than favorable terms in order to get the Roman forces out of a tight spot. At Rome, however, the treaty was repudiated and the ancient sources insist that this caused Tiberius to bear a grudge against those senators who had most been responsible for its defeat, especially Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Numantinus, the patron of Polybius and adoptive grandson of that Scipio Africanus who had commanded at Zama in 202. As we have seen, ancient writers of history love to ascribe public actions to personal grudges. These ascriptions are rarely convincing; in this case, one may suppose that Tiberius could have found a more direct way to strike at his opponents in the Senate than the passage of a land bill. Another fairly nebulous motive ascribed to Tiberius is philosophical; we are told that he was influenced by stoicism and that Blossius of Cumae was his teacher, and there are some precedents from Greece which, with some contortion, can be made into models for the Gracchan measure. More weighty is the idea that the land bill was a direct response to the underlying socioeconomic causes of the recent slave uprising in Sicily; the displacement of the small farmer, who was the backbone of the Roman army, had reached crisis proportions, and the results were all too visible in the mass of former ploughmen gravitating to the city. The "Servian" property classes which determined, among other things, eligibility for military service had had to be readjusted downwards several times in the 2nd century (cf. Cic. de Rep. 2.40). And even so P. A. Brunt estimates that around 170 BC there were as many Roman citizens as allies in the army, but by 100 BC allies outnumbered Roman citizens by 2 to 1. Even Appian's account seems to accept that the manpower crisis was a major concern to Tiberius (BC 1. 11).
Whether because of the financial interests at stake, or whether because Tiberius had crossed a line by inviting the assembly to interfere in foreign affairs, there was enormous ire among the Optimates. P. Scipio Nasica emerged as the leader of the opposition to the Gracchan plan. The moment Tiberius' term as tribune expired, and with it his immunity (sacrosanctitas), they intended to prosecute him for illegally removing Octavius from office. Tiberius' answer was to stand for another year as tribune (e.g. Appian BC 2. 14). Would a second consecutive term as tribune for Tiberius have been illegal? Astin says no, because the tribune was not a magistrate, and points out that the assembly had the power to prolong the term of a consul (a less than exact parallel). Custom, to be sure, was strongly against it. The elections deteriorated into a riot, in the course of which Gracchus himself and many of his supporters were killed. Predictably enough, Appian makes Tiberius start the riot (BC 2.15) while Plutarch has him in a defensive posture. Such, in its bare outlines, is his story. Later there was introduced into the tradition a transparent bit of slander, to the effect that Tiberius was aiming at tearing down the republic and setting himself up as a king (rex). This idea was persistent enough to make it at least plausible in the eyes of Sallust (Iug. 31.7), though he himself heartily approved of the Gracchi (ibid. 41). The canard is attested also in Plutarch's account, but with the exculpatory explanation that at the final assembly Tiberius motioned to his head to indicate that he was in mortal danger, and his enemies construed this as a request to be crowned (Tib. 19). Even a few modern scholars have been taken in by this. [One school, led by Claude Nicolet, sees the models for the Gracchan land laws among certain Greek distribution schemes, and emphasizes the supposed influence of Stoic philosophy on Tiberius. Boren argues, most improbably, that people were widely aware of the precedent of the demagogic land-reforming Spartan kings, especially Agis (244-240), Cleomenes (236-222), and Nabis (207-192), whose stories Polybios had told. ]
The best evidence against this is that the Senate upheld the legality of the land bill after Tiberius' death, and even appointed a new commissioner to take his place. That fact also points to a conclusion widely accepted in the modern writers on Tiberius, viz. that what so alarmed the senatorial opposition was not the agrarian bill itself but the methods by which it was passed. Some have sought the answer to the opposition against Tiberius Gracchus in political factions, arguing that anti-Gracchan sentiment characterized the "Scipionic" group. While there is some truth in this, it is also clear that the opposition to Tiberius transcended political groups; Quintus Metellus Macedonicus, a known foe of the Scipios, joined them in denouncing Tiberius Gracchus (Plut. Tib. 14). A good case can be made out that the most offensive of all of Tiberius' actions was not the land bill, nor the iustitium (the suspension of public business, omitted by Appian and hence doubted by some modern writers), nor the deposition of his colleague Octavius, but his threat to encroach upon the senators' traditional prerogative in foreign affairs by referring the matter of the legacy of Attalus III to the popular assembly. Appian's epitaph upon Tiberius Gracchus is "He lost his life in consequence of a most excellent design, too violently pursued."

Gaius Gracchus

Elected tribune for the year 123, the younger Gracchus promptly set about rekindling the resentment of the people over his brother's death, and pushed the popular assembly to ever greater lengths in the attempt to place checks and restraints on the power of the senators. His first step was to enact a law ensuring that no Roman citizen could be prosecuted on a capital charge, or declared an enemy of the people and executed as such, without the vote of the assembly (Plut. C. Gracch. 4); this was clearly aimed at calling into question the legality of the killings of Tiberius and some of his supporters by the senators on the grounds that a state of emergency had existed.
Thereafter the chronology of the legislative efforts of Gaius Gracchus becomes confused, but the ideological thread remains quite clear. He ingratiated himself with the people by legislating to keep the price of grain sold to citizens permanently and artificially low (whereas in the past shortages had been met by occasional largesse, ad hoc distributions which tended to create political capital for whichever of the magistrates, usually the curule aediles who had charge of the grain supply, had been behind them). Likewise, his revision of the terms of military service, which amounted a pay raise for soldiers, was an unmistakably populist measure. Significantly, Gaius Gracchus planned to pay for his massive government subsidy of the food supply and increased military budget by reorganizing the way taxes were collected in the provinces; again, this meant stepping heavily on the toes of the senators. Instead of having the Roman magistrates collect the taxes in the provinces, a system which lent itself to abuses and resulted more often than not in mighty increases in the personal fortunes of the provincial governors, in the future the taxes were to be farmed out to corporations of tax collectors (the publicani). These would advance the money to the state and take on for themselves the risk and difficulty of collecting in the provinces. Each corporation would need powerful financial backing; senators were prohibited from engaging in commercial speculations of that sort, though some did so anyway; but the financial heart and soul of the tax-farmers was the knights.
He strengthened and extended Tiberius' land bill, setting aside land both in Italy (at Capua and Tarentum) and in Africa (at Iunonia = Carthage) for new colonies, whose residents would of course become his clients. Again, this measure was probably less antagonistic in the eyes of the senate than our ancient sources usually suppose, to judge from the fact that they did not try to repeal it (cf the boundary stones, exampled in SB 99) until the commission was suspended in 118 BC. And even after steps were finally taken, in 111 BC, to prevent further land laws settling the poor on public lands, the settlements which had already been carried out were left in place. Measures of the Gracchan type tended to relieve the pressure on the city's population and the grain supply by draining off some of the urban mob into the countryside.
A good deal of difficulty attaches to Gaius Gracchus' reforms of the courts. To oversimplify, the ancient sources usually represent this as an infusion of equites into the senate (e.g. Livy, Periochae 60; Polyb. 6.17.7), but later on the senate does not appear to have been enlarged. One satisfactory solution is to suppose that the reform simply transferred control of some of the courts from the senators to the equestrians.
We have preserved a piece of one of Gracchus' laws, setting up a court de repetundis (for the prosecution of ex-magistrates on charges of extortion), which lends weight to that supposition (SB 100). It may belong to the beginning of his second year as tribune of the people (122 BC). Significantly, it states that none of the jurors may be senators or the sons of senators. But this measure is not simply anti-senatorial. It also confirms the tradition on the point of Gaius Gracchus' wooing of the Italians and provincials, since it was their right to seek redress for abuses which this measure guaranteed.
It may be legitimate to see the last major legislative initiative of C. Gracchus as inspired by his success with the tribunal de repetundis. A free male resident of Italy at this time, who was not a full Roman citizen (most of Latium had full citizenship; local magistrates of Italian cities seem to have had full citizenship or at least the right of provocatio), might hope to enjoy one of two lesser degrees of citizenship or special rights. The better of these was the ius Latinum or `Latin Rights', which entitled one to marry Roman citizens (connubium), to be treated by the courts as a Roman citizen, to own land at Rome (commercium), and to vote (if present at Rome during an election) in one of the 35 tribes. The less desirable status was civitas sine suffragio, which comprised only the private rights of connubium, commercium, and provocatio but not the right to vote or hold a magistracy. Gaius Gracchus proposed to grant full Roman citizenship (civitas optimo iure) to all of those currently holding Latin rights (not a group geographically limited to Latium), and to jump the rest of the Italians up to Latin rights; thus the number of those with the right to run for office would increase, while the number of those with the right to vote would increase drastically. He was vigorously opposed in this, both by his former supporter in the senate and the current consul C. Fannius, and also by the other populist tribune M. Livius Drusus (who, according to the pro-Gracchan tradition, was suborned by the senate to try to outdo Gracchus in pandering to the masses).
In the following year Gaius Gracchus was not reelected tribune, and a number of his laws came under attack. Gracchus and his closest adherents tried to disrupt the proceedings at a crucial assembly, when it looked as if several of his measures were about to be modified or annulled. The details of how violence erupted are not likely to be reliable enough to be worth repeating, but it ended with another senatorial pronouncement that the safety of the Republic was at stake, and the consul L. Opimius was empowered to save it, which he proceeded to do by raising a rag-tag force and killing Gracchus together with a number of his adherents. Later tried under the lex Sempronia (Gracchus' law), Opimius was acquitted on the grounds that he had acted with the authority of the senate; this set an important precedent for the legality of the senatus consultum ultimum (the declaration of a state of emergency, martial law, by the senate).
The importance of the two Gracchan episodes can not be underestimated. The temptation to read back on to them the roots of the later struggles between the popular and conservative parties, whose conflicting interests were a major cause of the failure of the Roman Republican system, need not be wholly resisted. Hardly a hot button issue exists in the 1st century which does not have its counterpart in the Gracchan reforms. Of course it would be an error to view the Gracchans as revolutionaries, as wanting to tear down the structure of the state. Without denying that they were out to curb the power and influence of the senatorial class, there is no evidence to show that they intended to remove the senate from the government altogether, nor even to relegate it (as the Athenian democratic reformers had done with the old aristocratic council of the Areopagos) to prestigious but harmless religious functions. The lesson their example set for future populist leaders was not so much that trying to encroach on senatorial powers meant death. After all, many of the Gracchan reforms passed duly into law and remained in force long after their authors met their untimely ends. Rather, the lesson was that a would-be populist reformer had better have two things going for him in addition to widespread popular support: (1) powerful, numerous, and steadfast allies in the senate itself, and (2) the ability, if necessary, to meet force with overwhelming force.

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