Roman Empire > Roman Empire History > The Gracchi - b.C. 133-121

The Gracchi - b.C. 133-121

The more thoughtful Romans had foreseen the dangers with which Rome was menaced by the impoverishment of her free population, and the alarming increase in the number of slaves. It is said that Lælius, the friend of the elder Scipio Africanus, had at the close of the Second Punic War meditated some reforms to arrest the growing evil, but had given them up as impracticable. The Servile War in Sicily had lately revealed the extent of the peril to which the Republic was exposed. It must have been felt by many that the evil would never have reached its present height if the Livinian Law had been observed, if men had been appointed to watch over its execution, and if the newly-acquired public lands had from time to time been distributed among the people. But the nobles, from long possession, had come to regard the public land as their own; many had acquired their portions by purchase, inheritance, or marriage; and every one shrank from interfering with interests supported by long prescription and usage. Still, unless something was done, matters would become worse; the poor would become poorer, and the slaves more numerous, and the state would descend more rapidly into the yawning abyss beneath it. Under these circumstances, two young men, belonging to one of the noblest families in Rome, came forward to save the Republic, but perished in the attempt. Their violent death may be regarded as the beginning of the Civil Wars, which ended in the destruction of freedom, and the establishment of the despotism of the Empire.

Tiberius and Caius Gracchus were the sons of Tib. Sempronius Gracchus, whose prudent measures gave tranquillity to Spain for so many years. They lost their father at an early age, but they were educated with the utmost care by their mother, Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio Africanus the elder, who had inherited from her father a love of literature, and united in her person the severe virtue of the ancient Roman matron with the superior knowledge and refinement which then prevailed in the higher classes at Rome. She engaged for her sons the most eminent Greek teachers; and it was mainly owing to the pains she took with their education that they surpassed all the Roman youths of their age. Tiberius was nine years older than his brother Caius. The latter had more ability, but Tiberius was the more amiable, and won all hearts by the simplicity of his demeanor and his graceful and persuasive eloquence. So highly was Tiberius esteemed, that as soon as he reached the age of manhood he was elected Augur, and at the banquet given at his installation Appius Claudius, then Chief of the Senate, offered him his daughter in marriage. When Appius returned home and informed his wife that he had just betrothed their daughter, she exclaimed, "Why in such a hurry, unless you have got Tib. Gracchus for her husband?" Sempronia, the only sister of Tiberius, was married to the younger Scipio Africanus. Tiberius was thus, by birth and marriage, connected with the noblest families in the Republic - the grandson of the conqueror of Hannibal - the son-in-law of the Chief of the Senate - and the brother-in-law of the destroyer of Carthage.

Tiberius served under his brother-in-law in Africa, and was the first who scaled the walls of Carthage. He was Quæstor in B.C. 137, and accompanied the Consul C. Hostilius to Spain, where he saved the army by obtaining a treaty with the Numantines, which the Senate refused to ratify. In passing through Etruria, on his way to Spain, Tiberius had observed with grief and indignation the deserted state of that fertile country. Thousands of foreign slaves were tending the flocks and cultivating the soil of the wealthy landowners, while Roman citizens, thus thrown out of employment, could scarcely procure their daily bread, and had not a clod of earth to call their own. He now conceived the design of applying a remedy to this state of things, and with this view became a candidate for the Tribunate, and was elected for the year B.C. 133.

Tiberius, however, did not act with precipitation. The measure which he brought forward had previously received the approbation of some of the wisest and noblest men in the state; of his own father-in-law Appius Claudius; of P. Mucius Scævola, the great jurist, who was then Consul; and of Crassus, the Pontifex Maximus. It was proposed to re-enact the Licinian Law of B.C. 364 - which had, in fact, never been repealed - but with some modifications and additions. As in the Licinian Law, no one was to be allowed to possess more than 500 jugera of public land; but, to relax the stringency of this rule, every possessor might hold in addition 250 jugera for each of his sons. All the rest of the public land was to be taken away from them and distributed among the poor citizens, who were not to be permitted to alienate these lots, in order that they might not be again absorbed into the estate of the wealthy. An indemnity was to be given from the public treasury for all buildings erected upon lands thus taken away. Three commissioners (Triumviri) were to be elected by the tribes in order to carry this law into execution.

The Law affected only Public Lands, but it was no less a revolutionary measure. It is true that no prescription can, as a general rule, be pleaded against the rights of the state, but the possessors of the public lands had enjoyed them without question for so long a period that they had come to regard these lands as their private property. In many cases, as we have already said, they had been acquired by bonâ fide purchase, and the claim of the state, now advocated by Gracchus, was regarded as downright robbery. Attacks upon property have produced the greatest convulsions in all states, and the Roman landowners were ready to have recourse to any measures to defeat the law. But the thousands who would be benefited by it were determined to support Tiberius at any risk. He told them that "the wild beasts of Italy had their dens, and holes, and hiding-places, while the men who fought and bled in defense of Italy wandered about with their wives and children without a spot of ground to rest upon" It was evident that the law would be carried, and the landowners therefore resorted to the only means left to them. They persuaded M. Octavius, one of the Tribunes, to put his veto upon the measure of his colleague. This was a fatal and unexpected obstacle. In vain did Tiberius implore Octavius to withdraw his veto. The contest between the Tribunes continued for many days. Tiberius retaliated by forbidding the magistrates to exercise any of their functions, and by suspending, in fact, the entire administration of the government. But Octavius remained firm, and Tiberius therefore determined to depose him from his office. He summoned an Assembly of the People and put the question to the vote. Seventeen out of the thirty-five tribes had already voted for the deposition of Octavius, and the addition of one tribe would reduce him to a private condition, when Tiberius stopped the voting, anxious, at the last moment, to prevent the necessity of so desperate a measure. Octavius, however, would not yield. "Complete what you have begun," was his only answer to the entreaties of his colleague. The eighteenth tribe voted, and Tiberius ordered him to be dragged from the rostra. Octavius had only exercised his undoubted rights, and his deposition was clearly a violation of the Roman constitution. This gave the enemies of Gracchus the handle which they needed. They could now justly charge him not only with revolutionary measures, but with employing revolutionary means to carry them into effect.

The Agrarian Law was passed without farther opposition, and the three commissioners elected to put it in force were Tiberius himself, his father-in-law Appius Claudius, and his brother Caius, then a youth of twenty, serving under P. Scipio at Numantia. About the same time news arrived of the death of Attalus Philometor, king of Pergamus, who had bequeathed his kingdom and treasures to the Republic. Tiberius therefore proposed that these treasures should be distributed among the people who had received assignments of lands, to enable them to stock their farms and to assist them in their cultivation. He even went so far as to threaten to deprive the Senate of the regulation of the new province, and to bring the subject before the Assembly of the People. The exasperation of the Nobility was intense. They tried every means to blacken the character of the Tribune, and even spread a report that he had received, a diadem and a purple robe from the envoy from Pergamus, and that he meditated making himself King of Rome. It was evident that his life would be no longer safe when he ceased to be protected by the sanctity of the Tribune's office. Accordingly, he became a candidate for the Tribunate for the following year. The Tribunes did not enter upon their office till December, but the election took place in June, at which time the country people, on whom he chiefly relied, were engaged in getting in the harvest. Still, two tribes had already voted in his favor, when the nobility interrupted the election by maintaining that it was illegal, since no man could be chosen Tribune for two consecutive years. After a violent debate the Assembly was adjourned till the following day. Tiberius now became alarmed lest his enemies should get the upper hand, and he went round the forum with his child, appealing to the sympathy of the people and imploring their aid. They readily responded to his appeal, escorted him home, and a large crowd kept watch around his house all night.

Next day the adjourned Assembly met on the Capitol in the open space in front of the Temple of Jupiter. The Senate also assembled in the Temple of Faith close by. Scipio Nasica, the leader of the more violent party in the Senate, called upon the Consul Mucius Scævola to stop the re-election, but the Consul declined to interfere. Fulvius Flaccus, a Senator, and a friend of Tiberius, hastened to inform him of the speech of Nasica, and told him that his death was resolved upon. Thereupon the friends of Tiberius prepared to resist force by force; and as those at a distance could not hear him, on account of the tumult and confusion, the Tribune pointed with his hand to his head, to intimate that his life was in danger. His enemies exclaimed that he was asking for the crown. The news reached the Senate. Nasica appealed to the Consul to save the Republic, but as Scævola still refused to have recourse to violence, Nasica sprung up and exclaimed, "The Consul is betraying the Republic! let those who wish to save the state follow me" He then rushed out of the Senate-house, followed by many of the Senators. The people made way for them; and they, breaking up the benches, armed themselves with sticks, and rushed upon Tiberius and his friends. The tribune fled to the Temple of Jupiter, but the door had been barred by the priests, and in his flight he fell over a prostrate body. As he was rising he received the first blow from one of his colleagues, and was quickly dispatched. Upward of 300 of his partisans were slain on the same day. Their bodies were thrown into the Tiber. This was the first blood shed at Rome in civil strife since the expulsion of the kings.

Notwithstanding their victory, the Nobles did not venture to propose the repeal of the Agrarian Law, and a new Commissioner was chosen in the place of Tiberius. The popular indignation was so strongly excited against Scipio Nasica that his friends advised him to withdraw from Italy, though he was Pontifex Maximus, and therefore ought not to have quitted the country. He died shortly afterward at Pergamus.

All eyes were now turned to Scipio Africanus, who returned to Rome in B.C. 132. When Scipio received at Numantia the news of the death of Tiberius, he is reported to have exclaimed in the verse of Homer -

"So perish all who do the like again"

The people may have thought that the brother-in-law of Tiberius would show some sympathy with his reforms and some sorrow for his fate. They were, however, soon undeceived. Being asked in the Assembly of the Tribes by C. Papirius Carbo, the Tribune, who was now the leader of the popular party, what he thought of the death of Tiberius, he boldly replied that "he was justly slain" The people, who had probably expected a different answer, loudly expressed their disapprobation; whereupon Scipio, turning to the mob, bade them be silent, since Italy was only their step-mother. The people did not forget this insult; but such was his influence and authority that the Nobility were able to defeat the bill of Carbo by which the Tribunes might be re-elected as often as the people pleased. Scipio was now regarded as the acknowledged leader of the Nobility, and the latter resolved to avail themselves of his powerful aid to prevent the Agrarian Law of Tiberius from being carried into effect. The Italians were alarmed at the prospect of losing some of their lands, and Scipio skillfully availed himself of the circumstance to propose in the Senate (B.C. 129) that all disputes respecting the lands of the Italians should be taken out of the hands of the Commissioners and transferred to the Consuls. This would have been equivalent to an abrogation of the law, and accordingly the three Commissioners offered the most vehement opposition to his proposal. In the forum he was attacked by Carbo, with the bitterest invectives, as the enemy of the people; and upon his again expressing his approval of the death of Tiberius, the people shouted out, "Down with the tyrant!" In the evening he went home accompanied by the Senate and a great number of the Italians. He retired to his sleeping-room with the intention of composing a speech for the following day. Next morning Rome was thrown into consternation by the news that Scipio was found dead in his room. The most contradictory rumors were circulated respecting his death, but it was the general opinion that he was murdered. Suspicion fell upon various persons, but Carbo was most generally believed to have been the murderer. There was no inquiry into the cause of his death (B.C. 129).

Scipio was only 56 at the time of his death. To the Republic his loss was irreparable. By his last act he had come forward as the patron of the Italians. Had he lived he might have incorporated them in the Roman state, and by forming a united Italy have saved Rome from many of the horrors and disasters which she afterward suffered.

The leaders of the popular party perceived the mistake they had made in alienating the Italians from their cause, and they now secured their adhesion by offering them the Roman citizenship if they would support the Agrarian Law. As Roman citizens they would, of course, be entitled to the benefits of the law, while they would, at the same time, obtain what they had so long desired - an equal share in political power. But the existing citizens, who saw that their own importance would be diminished by an increase in their numbers, viewed such a proposal with the utmost repugnance. So strong was their feeling that, when great numbers of the Italians had flocked to Rome in B.C. 126, the Tribune M. Junius Pennus carried a law that all aliens should quit the city. Caius Gracchus spoke against this law, and his friends still remained faithful to the cause of the Italians. In the following year (B.C. 125), M. Fulvius Flaccus, who was then Consul, brought forward a Reform Bill, granting the Roman citizenship to all the Italian allies. But it was evident that the Tribes would reject this law, and the Senate got rid of the proposer by sending him into Transalpine Gaul, where the Massilians had implored the assistance of Rome against the Salluvians. In the previous year Caius Gracchus had gone to Sardinia as Quæstor, so that the Senate had now removed from Rome two of their most troublesome opponents, and the Italians had lost their two most powerful patrons. Bitter was the disappointment of the Italians. Fregellæ, a town of Latium, and one of the eighteen Latin colonies which had remained faithful to Rome during the Second Punic War, took up arms, but its example was not followed, and it had to bear alone the brunt of the unequal contest. It was quickly reduced by the Prætor L. Opimius; the city was utterly destroyed; and the insurrection, which a slight success would have made universal, was thus nipped in its bud (B.C. 125).

The Forum in its present state
The Forum in its present state

Caius Gracchus had taken very little part in public affairs since his brother's death. He had spoken only twice in public: once in favor of the law of Carbo for the re-election of Tribunes, and a second time in opposition to the Alien Act of Junius Pennus, as already mentioned. But the eyes of the people were naturally turned toward him. His abilities were known, and the Senate dreaded his return to Rome. He had been already two years in Sardinia, and they now attempted to retain him there another year by sending fresh troops to the province, and by commanding the Proconsul to remain in the island. But Caius suddenly appeared at Rome, to the surprise of all parties (B.C. 124). His enemies brought him before the Censors to account for his conduct, but he defended himself so ably that not only was no stigma put upon him, but he was considered to have been very badly used. He showed that he had served in the army twelve years, though required to serve only ten; that he had acted as Quæstor two years, though the law demanded only one year's service; and he added that he was the only soldier who took out with him a full purse and brought it back empty.

Exasperated by the persecution of the Senate, Caius determined to become a candidate for the Tribuneship, and to reform the Roman constitution. He was elected for the year B.C. 123, and lost no time in bringing forward a number of important measures which are known as the Sempronian Laws. His legislation was directed to two objects: the amelioration of the condition of the poor, and the weakening of the power of the Senate. Caius was the greatest orator of all his contemporaries; the contagion of his eloquence was irresistible, and the enthusiasm of the people enabled him to carry every thing before him.

I. His principal laws for improving the condition of the people were:

1. The extension of the Agrarian Law of his brother by planting new colonies in Italy and the provinces.

2. A state provision for the poor, enacting that corn should be sold to every citizen at a price much below its market value. This was the first of the Leges Frumentariæ, which were attended with the most injurious effects. They emptied the treasury, at the same time that they taught the poor to become state paupers, instead of depending upon their own exertions for a living.

3. Another law enacted that the soldiers should be equipped at the expense of the Republic, without the cost being deducted from their pay, as had hitherto been the case.

II. The most important laws designed to diminish the power of the Senate were:

1. The law by which the Judices were to be taken only from the Equites, and not from the Senators, as had been the custom hitherto. This was a very important enactment, and needs a little explanation. All offenses against the state were originally tried in the Popular Assembly; but when special enactments were passed for the trial of particular offenses, the practice was introduced of forming a body of Judices for the trial of these offenses. This was first done upon the passing of the Calpurnian Law (B.C., 149) for the punishment of provincial magistrates for extortion in their government (De Repetendis). Such offenses had to be tried before the Prætor and a jury of Senators; but as these very Senators either had been or hoped to be provincial magistrates, they were not disposed to visit with severity offenses of which they themselves either had been or were likely to be guilty. By depriving the Senators of this judicial power, and by transferring it to the Equites, Gracchus also made the latter a political order in the state apart from their military character. The name of Equites was now applied to all persons who were qualified by their fortune to act as Judices, whether they served in the army or not. From this time is dated the creation of an Ordo Equestris, whose interests were frequently opposed to those of the Senate, and who therefore served as a check upon the latter.

2. Another law was directed against the arbitrary proceedings of the Senate in the distribution of the provinces. Hitherto the Senate had assigned the provinces to the Consuls after their election, and thus had had it in their power to grant wealthy governments to their partisans, or unprofitable ones to those opposed to them. It was now enacted that, before the election of the Consuls, the Senate should determine the two provinces which the Consuls should have; and that they should, immediately after election, settle between themselves, by lot or otherwise, which province each should take.

These laws raised the popularity of Caius still higher, and he became for a time the absolute ruler of Rome. He was re-elected Tribune for the following year (B.C. 122), though he did not offer himself as a candidate. M. Fulvius Flaccus, who had been Consul in B.C. 125, was also chosen as one of his colleagues. Flaccus, it will be recollected, had proposed in his consulship to give the Roman franchise to the Italian allies, and it was now determined to bring forward a similar measure. Caius therefore brought in a bill conferring the citizenship upon all the Latin colonies, and making the Italian allies occupy the position which the Latins had previously held. This wise measure was equally disliked in the forum and the Senate. Neither the influence nor the eloquence of Gracchus could induce the people to view with satisfaction the admission of the Italian allies to equal rights and privileges with themselves. The Senate, perceiving that the popularity of Gracchus had been somewhat shaken by this measure, employed his colleague, M. Living Drusus - who was noble, well-educated, wealthy, and eloquent - to undermine his influence with the people. With the sanction of the Senate, Drusus now endeavored to outbid Gracchus. He played the part of a demagogue in order to supplant the true friend of the people. He gave to the Senate the credit of every popular law which he proposed, and gradually impressed the people with the belief that the Nobles were their best friends. Gracchus proposed to found two colonies at Tarentum and Capua, and named among the founders some of the most respectable citizens. Drusus introduced a law for establishing no fewer than twelve colonies, and for settling 3000 poor citizens in each. Gracchus, in the distribution of the public land, reserved a rent payable to the public treasury. Drusus abolished even this payment. He also gained the confidence of the people by asking no favor for himself; he took no part in the foundation of colonies, and left to others the management of business in which any money had to be expended. Gracchus, on the other hand, superintended every thing in person; and the people, always jealous in pecuniary matters, began to suspect his motives. During his absence in Africa, whither he had gone as one of the three Commissioners for founding a colony upon the ruins of Carthage, Drusus was able to weaken his popularity still farther. On his return he endeavored in vain to reorganize his party and recover his power. Both he and Flaccus failed in being re-elected Tribunes; while L. Opimius and Q. Fabius, two personal enemies of Gracchus, were raised to the Consulship. The two new Consuls had no sooner entered upon office (B.C. 121) than they resolved to drive matters to extremities. One of the first measures of Opimius was a proposal to repeal the law for colonizing Carthage, because it had been established upon the site which Scipio had cursed. It was evident that a pretext was only sought for taking the life of Gracchus, and Flaccus urged him to repel violence by force. Caius shrunk from this step, but an accident gave his enemies the pretext which they longed for. The tribes had assembled at the Capitol to decide upon the colony at Carthage, when a servant of the Consul Opimius, pushing against Gracchus, insolently cried out, "Make way for honest men, you rascals" Gracchus turned round to him with an angry look, and the man was immediately stabbed by an unknown hand. The assembly immediately broke up, and Gracchus returned home, foreseeing the advantage which this unfortunate occurrence would give to his enemies. The Senate declared Gracchus and Flaccus public enemies, and invested the Consuls with dictatorial powers. During the night Opimius took possession of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, which overlooked the forum; summoned a meeting of the Senate for the following morning, and ordered all the partisans of the Senate to be present, each with two armed slaves. Flaccus seized the Temple of Diana on the Aventine, and distributed arms to his followers: here he was joined by Gracchus. Civil war was thus declared. After some fruitless attempts at negotiation, the Consul proceeded to attack the Aventine. Little or no resistance was made, and Flaccus and Gracchus took to flight, and crossed the Tiber by the Sublician bridge. Gracchus escaped to the Grove of the Furies, accompanied only by a single slave. When the pursuers reached the spot they found both of them dead. The slave had first killed his master and then himself. The head of Gracchus was cut off, and carried to Opimius, who gave to the person who brought it its weight in gold. Flaccus was also put to death, together with numbers of his party. Their corpses were thrown into the Tiber, their houses demolished, and their property confiscated. Even their widows were forbidden to wear mourning. After the bloody work had been finished, the Consul, by order of the Senate, dedicated a temple to Concord!

At a later time statues of the two Gracchi were set up in public places, and the spots on which they fell were declared holy ground; but for the present no one dared to show any sympathy for their fate. Their mother Cornelia retired to Misenum, where she was visited by the most distinguished men. She loved to recount to her guests the story of her noble sons, and narrated their death without showing sorrow or shedding tears, as if she had been speaking of heroes of the olden time.

Temple of Saturn at Rome
Temple of Saturn at Rome

A Roman Trophy
A Roman Trophy
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