The Fratres Gracchi – The First ‘Death Throes’ of the Republic?

SHOTTER states ‘…the growth of the Roman empire has been held as the main cause of the breakdown of the old respublica.’ (The Fall of the Roman Republic Routledge, 1994)

To what extent can this be accepted, and to what extent was it the underlying cause of the other events which ultimately led to the Principate and subsequent Imperial periods?

The Romans themselves had an idealised interpretation of the situation until 146:

‘…before the destruction of Carthage the people and senate of  Rome together governed the republic peacefully and with moderation. There was no strife amongst the citizens either for glory or power, fear of the enemy preserved the good morals of the state.’ (Sallust, Bellum Iugurthinum 41.2)

This is a somewhat blinkered version of the reality which had experienced a plethora of problems, particularly up until 300 – although the question of how much Sallust actually knew of the earliest days and chose to ignore or of which events he was ignorant is an unanswerable question.  There is no doubt that the beginnings of a power struggle between the assembly and the senate had begun before this, each pushing for its own rights in the constitutional battle for supremacy. Livy tells us that in 188:

‘When four tribunes of the plebs vetoed this bill [which was to grant citizenship to the people of Arpinum, Formiae and Fundi] on the ground that it was not proposed with the sanction of the senate, they were informed that it was the prerogative of the assembly, not the senate, to bestow the franchise.’ (Livy, 38.36.8-9)

Thus we can conclude that the acceptance of a generalised enfranchisement of extraneous territories into the body of the Quirites remained the prerogative of the assembly alone and that the senate continued simply to have the authority to recommend such an action rather than bestowing this ad hoc.

The impending struggle which is recorded here, pitting the libertās of the populus against the auctoritās of the senate, although most remembered perhaps through the times of the Gracchi brothers, was to be a constant battle of the last centuries of the Republic.

Cicero stated that it was:

‘…fitting that all powers, all commands, all commissions are granted by the Roman people.’ (De Lege Agrariae, 2.17)

So, even at the time that the Republic was entering what was arguably its terminal decline, one of the protagonists on the political stage viewed the people as being the ultimate authority in all decisions of major importance. Syme, however, challenged this idea:

‘The Senate being a permanent body, arrogated to itself power, and after conceding sovranty to the assembly of the People was able to frustrate its exercise. The two consuls remained the head of the government, but policy was largely directed by ex-consuls. These men ruled, as did the Senate, not in virtue of written law, but through auctoritas.’ (Syme, The Roman Revolution, OUP, 1939, 10)

The lack of a written constitutional framework, relying on tradition and the mos maiorum to support a legitimised claim to wield the power and authority to run the state through unofficial auctoritās was to be a major factor in the problems which the Republic faced in its final century and a half. Had the power of the people of Rome been the true driving force of the state, even in its earliest days? Or were all such ideas nothing other than a façade behind which hid the true holders of power, the eminence grise of an omnipotent oligarchy? This rather murky area is one to which I shall return later.

Whilst involved in the struggles for absolute control of the Mare Nostrum, Rome had waged massive military campaigns against both Macedonia and Carthage as well as stamping her authority on the remaining Greek poleis Leagues which possessed a level of independent government – principally Corinth in the Achaean League in the Peloponnesus. 146 saw the vanquishing of these final great enemies. It is arguably after this period that the true instability of the political system began to become more evident. Whilst many historians dispute the true importance of the date, the easiest point to begin an examination of the collapse of the Republican system is in 133 with the tribunate of Ti. Sempronius Gracchus and what can be interpreted as the first direct challenge to senatorial power in the name of the people – whilst SPQR was the watchword of Roman government, the power of the senate had swollen at an almost exponential rate during the acquisition of the Empire, though ‘…not by constitutional enactment but simply through its own initiative: custom, not law, enabled it to govern.’  (Scullard, The Gracchi to Nero Routledge, 2010, 5) The corpus of the senate consisted of 300 senators at this time, drawn from the landed aristocracy with an income of 1.000.000 sestercii per annum from non-mercantile earnings. Unless removed by the censor for falling under this income level, or very rarely for gross moral turpitude, a membership of the senate was lifelong, and the upper magistracies, through familial alliances, and the clever manipulation of the patron-client system, were dominated by this group, though caste is arguably a better term. The assembled wisdom and political knowledge of the Republic was gathered in the senate, as well as the pool of wealth required to run for the positions of praetor and ultimately consul. In some ways, the increasing influence of the senatorial decrees were enhanced in a form of vicious circle, in that any consuls who chose NOT to accept and act upon that ‘advice’ were choosing to relinquish their subsequent auctoritās as ex-magisterial senators, and as a result, a concurrent fall in their familial fās. The senatorial auctoritās had been indubitably enhanced by their reliability in advice and leadership in the struggles with Carthage, and most particularly during the Second Punic War while Hannibal was in the Italian peninsula. Foreign policy (eg the receiving of foreign ambassadors) had rested in the hands of the senate, as had the ultimate say in state fiscal policy. The senate was controlled by those families who constituted the nobiles – the dominant small group of families; indeed they were so dominant that the ‘highest’ 26 gentes had held 159 of the previous 200 consulships. At face value, it does seem a non sequitur that the senate was followed in most political matters when the ultimate authority was, through the comitiae and concilium plebis, in the hands of the entire citizen body. However, it would appear that their acceptance came from the fact that the senate was composed of former magistrati, offices elected by the entire populus, therefore they may have felt that their senatorial representatives were to be trusted through a combination of prestige and having been elected. Novi homines – new men in the senate who were not from the traditional noble families – were most certainly not a common occurrence, though where one did achieve ranking positions of power, the gloria, fās, dignitās and auctoritās of his descendants grew enormously. Despite this, the families which composed the nobiles were the absolute dominant force, both in the fact that, whilst a small number of the lower magisterial offices may have been occupied by individuals outside of the ‘club’, both the curule magisterial positions and, perhaps more importantly, the business of the curia were totally dominated by the insiders due to the required order of speaking in senatorial debate combined with the fact that often the most powerful families would act as patrons to the less influential families, hence ensuring their political loyalty. It must be pointed out, however, that there was rarely, if ever, true harmony among the nobiles. Families in this group built up systems of amicitiae between each other, through both the patronage towards less influential members of their group or through marriage ties. These led to power blocks (factiones) in the senate and amongst the curule magistrates, though they never resembled the political parties associated with modern day politics, and it was far from rare that amicitiae collapsed and resentments almost resembling modern day vendette arose. As the Republic rolled towards its inexorable collapse, these systems of amicitia and alliances were to become more important and influential due to the increasing role of the individual in political life. SPQR gradually became ego super omnibus. Power was also wielded by the nobiles through control of the few hereditary state priesthoods and dominance of the Colleges of Augurs and Pontiffs above all as practically every official act of the state had to be accompanied by a reading of the omens or a sacrifice – the highest state priesthood, that of Pontifex Maximus was to be used by Caesar to great effect in the 1st Century. 

The main conclusion that we can draw from this closely defined role of each group in the political life at Rome is the subsequent idea that society itself was a closely defined hierarchical structure for the population. In its simplest term, every inhabitant knew precisely where he or she stood and what the limitations and rights of that social position implied – be one a slave or paterfamilias in the noblest of families. Rank and social position were all important to a Roman, and it was an integral part of their public and personal life; this can be seen in, for example, Cicero’s continual citing of the social rank of individuals he names – everything from senator to ex-slave. It is easy to grasp the concept of citizen and slave, the two absolute extremes, but within these extremes lay a whole variety of ranks; whilst they may have qualified as ‘free-men’, their rights and level of legal protection under the lex romana varied enormously. Treggiari cites the example of the freed slave who, under manumission, would be granted a rather curtailed form of citizenship. Whilst he would be assigned a tribe and permitted a vote with all other citizens, the right to serve in the armed forces was never given to him, and the cursus honorum was a definite closed door – the right to run for magisterial office was granted only to free-born citizens. (Treggiari, Roman Freedmen in the Late Republic, Oxford 1969)

 For the female populace, whilst granted the citizen protection under the lex romana, any official role in the political life of the community and the right to run for any form of office was forbidden. (For a much more detailed discussion, Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, London 1976)

It seems unusual to have a complex hierarchy of citizen ranks based upon the social status of an individual – to the modern concept, one is either a citizen or one is not. However, when it is remembered that the Romans, unlike so many of the preceding and indeed subsequent dominant civilisations, were extremely generous with citizenship, though not willing to grant full citizen rights along with that civitās. The influx of ‘outsiders’ and the Roman obsession with knowing one’s place in society led to the evolution of this graded citizenship over a long period – remember the ‘civitas sine suffragio’ granted to certain Latin former allies in the earliest days of the Republic. The distinctions between the citizen / non-citizen / restricted citizens are complicated enough, but the gradations of position amongst the approximately 200,000 free born citizens were an even more complex system. In common, they had rights to protection under the law, rights to vote and the duty to pay taxes and serve in the legions provided they qualified in financial requirements until Gaius Marius began recruiting amongst the capite censi. There was, however, no attempt to give even the slightest appearance of equality amongst the various citizen groups; groups which were based upon the census classes which were ratified and / or altered as required by the censors, senior magistrates appointed on a quinquennial basis, to verify the financial and moral state of the individual citizens to remain in the class in which they had been recorded previously or move them up or down the social scale – these classes were, however, stratified according to wealth, and ergo were subject to a certain level of change depending upon the fortunes and misfortunes of an individual family and the members.

There were five principle grades in the fiscally based classes – Latin for ‘gradations’ – excluding the equites and the enormous capite censi subclass – those whose combined property and income did not entitle them to a place in the social hierarchy of classes, even though they did count amongst the voting citizen body in the comitia centuriata as explained above. The military based structure of the comitia centuriata lost much of its importance, however, after Marius carried out his levy for the legions amongst the capite censi in 107. This was the situation at the turning point of 133 and the tribunate of Ti. Gracchus.

By 133, there were two dominant groups in the political landscape – the optimates and the populares. As Scullard has pointed out (op cit, 7), it is all too easy to categorise these as two competing parties on the political stage – the optimates as the Party of the Senate and the populares as the Reformist Popular Party. This is a radically incorrect assumption – these were NOT the Conservative Party and the Labour Party or the Republicans versus the Democrats. Both these groups came from the upper echelons of society as they were the only members of society able to pay for the election costs and take up a magisterial position which offered no income; often the one gens was split along these two fronts. The optimates did win control of the senate and used their influence to block the arguments and proposals of the populares who were left with the option of giving up their political sway, or turning to demagoguery through the office of tribune to counter the senatorial domination by the optimates through appealing to the Tribal Assembly which was the only way to counter the senate. (Cicero refers to the populares as ‘nefarious citizens’ with ‘pernicious designs’ on the Res Publica by posing ‘internal and domestic threat’. Pro Sestio)

The key change which occurred under Ti. Gracchus’ tribunate was the overt use of extreme violence in the realm of politics. Whilst there had been scuffles and violent arguments under the Republic since the 3rd century (Lintott, A Violence in Republican Rome Oxford, 1999, 175 ‘At the time when Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune, the majority of Romans would not have regarded political violence as mere primitive barbarism. Rather it was a recognized political weapon, which in recent years had been used rarely, but was nevertheless a necessary sanction, should law and its associated physical power prove inadequate.’), the stability of the governmental system had meant, as Beard and Crawford (Rome in the Late Republic, Duckworth, 1989, 2) have pointed out, the limited prize of reaching the top echelon of political life – a military leadership and one, possibly two consulships – a working continuation of the consular diarchy and the magisterial system. Intervention from the Tribunes of the Plebs was rare, and the comitiae pulled together for the greater glory of Rome. Behind the scenes, however, senatorial seizure of the ager publicus was continuing to cause some ever more major social and economic problems in removing peasant farmers from their lands and replacing them with massive slave worked estates which would later be termed latifundia, increasing the personal wealth of a small group of the élite at the expense of, principally, the capite censi and the Latin socii. The cult of the individual over absolute loyalty to the State was also beginning to raise its head, setting the outline for what was to become the violent norm over the subsequent century and a half. Indeed, it is from this point that we will look at the events affecting the political scene more through the careers of individuals rather than the political process itself. By the start of the 2nd century, the factionalism in the senate, as far as this can be classed as an accurate term, was gathered around the two leading senatorial families of the era – the Gens Scipiones and the Gens Claudii. It was a split over their attitudes towards change which was the major difference – the former

‘…eagerly embraced the opportunities offered by Rome’s new Eastern interests, and the narrow nationalism and traditionalism of many of the followers of the Claudii. Such interests were, however, subordinate to the need to live up to ancestral tradition (mos maiorum) in the acquisition and retention of power.’ (Shotter, op cit, 17)

The Scipiones dominance was, however, relatively short lived as, to a great extent, it had rested on the personal gloria of Scipio Africanus after his defeat of Carthage at Zama in 202, eradicating the threat from Hannibal Barca; possibly the greatest threat Rome had ever experienced. By the mid 180s, their role had been assumed by a new group under the leadership of G. Claudius Pulcher and his two main amici, Cato the Censor, renowned for his foul temper, and Ti. Sempronius Gracchus the Elder, father of the notorious tribune. This power struggle swung back again by the 150s in favour of Scipio Aemeilianus, adopted son of Africanus, the opposing faction being led by Ap. Claudius Pulcher who was to become princeps senatus in 136.

It was also at this time that the potential social problems founded in the difficulties of land ownership being tied in with military service of the 2nd century became a reality. The stopgap measures of lowering the property requirements for military service and dropping the number of soldiers in a legio were no longer sufficient – legions were becoming undermanned and ill trained due to strong resistance to the levy. The gradual drift of populace from the land to the city was becoming much more than an absorbable trickle which was being enhanced by a high mortality and a plummeting birth rate – the situation was reaching critical point. Aemilianus attempted to grasp the bull by the horns and proposed a bill which would give land grants to resettle citizens who had lost their land. It is not known exactly why, though presumably through factional politics in the senate, but the bill was blocked and disappeared, Rome managing to weather the growing problem through the 140s. Crisis point came in the Numantine War in the province of Hispania where things went badly wrong for Rome. This is the backdrop to the Tribunate of Ti. Sempronius Gracchus the younger.

Ti. Gracchus, after travelling back from Spain through Italia, had seen that much of the ager publicus, land which should have been split into small farmsteads and occupied by citizen farmers, had actually been absorbed into the enormous latifundia and was being cultivated by endless numbers of slave workers. (Plutarch, Life of Tiberius Gracchus, 8.7) Ti. Gracchus’ main legislative proposal was the lex Sempronia agraria, in many ways a resurrection of the Aemilianus legislation to resettle the landless peasantry. Gracchus proposed that the amount of land which could be settled from the ager publicus by the wealthy and powerful be severely restricted. In combination with this, over the period 135-131, a major slave revolt was taking place in Sicily and many of Rome’s allies were at best disgruntled with the treatment which they were receiving at the hands of their, in reality, Roman overlords. These were combining to lead to a possible crisis in the grain supply and, due to such, a prospective crisis in the feeding of the populace combined with the large number of rural unemployed flocking to the urban metropolis.

The death of Attalus III of Pergamon was the key event. He died without heir, and bequeathed his city to Rome in order to avoid a civil war – an ironic motivation in that it set Rome on her way to the subsequent series of bella civilis which would ultimately lead to the collapse of the Republican government into which secure hands Attalus was leaving his kingdom and people. The sudden influx of wealth from the new territory was to become the catalyst for Ti. Gracchus’ demagoguery. He had turned away from the political associations with the Scipiones, despite his being Africanus’ grandson. This was a consequence of circumstances and happenings during the Numantine War where, as quaestor in 137, he had been involved in negotiating the freedom of a large captured force of Romans. (Plutarch, ibid, 5-7) When the results of his negotiations were delivered to the senate however, they refused to abide by his agreement, stating he had no right to conduct such negotiations, and sending Aemilianus to starve the Numantians into submission and ultimate annihilation. Upon his election as Tribune, he was on poor terms with his relatives amongst the Scipii and was ready to square up to the senate through the lex Sempronia agraria. The motivation and intentions of Ti. Gracchus are highly disputed – was he an altruist who truly did wish to ease the plight of the poor, or was he simply preparing to turn to the Assemblies, bypass senatorial power and use that popularity to work his way up the cursus honorum? The latter seems highly unlikely as his familial connections would have almost guaranteed him a consulship through influence from the leading patrician families if he had simply been willing to toe the line and not cause any disruption in the status quo. This was not something he was willing to do, however, and so the question of his motives must remain an open one. Even if he did have mainly self-aggrandising intentions, there were certain practical positives to the policies he intended to carry through: the landless poor in the city would return to the country, producing food and counteracting the economic depression in Rome itself; this would have the knock on effect of enlarging the base for the levy of soldiers, hence rebuilding the army to its former strength; equally, however, it can be interpreted that his motives rested more on a fear of the spreading of the slave revolt in Sicily to the rural areas of Italia, now mainly occupied by the slave work forces on the senatorially owned latifundia and growing into an almost uncontrollable situation for the already overstretched military – something which he had seen at first hand during his return through provincial Italia. It is further possible that he had been affected in his outlook by the political teachings of the Hellenic democrats of previous centuries, or, of course, quite simply that he felt that both his and his family’s dignitās had been stained and therefore he intended to take revenge upon the senate for his public humiliation as quaestor after the Numantine Wars. Whatever his motivations, we know that he had support from a number of powerful families, and that his proposed bill was not something totally new as an almost identical bill had been, as we have seen, proposed a decade earlier. Again, whether Ti. Gracchus actually saw the need for land reform in favour of the landless poor as the key to the economic problems facing Rome at the time, or whether it simply provided him with a both acceptable and credible tool to use to challenge the authority of the oligarchs in the senate is a question which must remain unanswered. The law itself was arguably very fair to the senatorial owners of these immense estates – they were not even required to return all of the ager publicus which they had gradually occupied – up to 500 iugera – 320 acres – could still be held, and the area of Campania was not to be subject to this. Land in excess of the allotted amount would be rented out in the form of small farms at a low rent and would not be removed from the peasant farmers under any circumstances. Plutarch cites Ti. Gracchus, though as with all speeches in ancient sources, the veracity of the words must be treated carefully, particularly with the time discrepancy, though the message itself is likely trustworthy:

‘But they accomplished nothing; for Tiberius, striving to support a measure which was honourable and just with an eloquence that would have adorned even a meaner cause, was formidable and invincible, whenever, with the people crowding around the rostra, he took his stand there and pleaded for the poor. “The wild beasts that roam over Italy,” he would say, “have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in; but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchres and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.”’ (Plutarch, op. cit, 9, IV, Loeb 1921)

If the sentiments of such a speech are to be trusted, there is little doubt that, whatever his personal motives, a strongly demagogic approach to addressing the populace from the rostra was most certainly a weapon in Gracchus’ arsenal, and one which he wielded to its utmost extent.

It only required one of the ten annual tribunes to veto an appeal to the Assembly in order to remove that proposal, and this is exactly what happened – a tribune called Octavius, a major beneficiary of the land seizures from the ager publicus, did veto Ti. Gracchus’ proposal. (Cicero, Brutus, 95 ‘What broke Ti. Gracchus was the resolute obduracy which M. Octavius displayed in the noblest of causes.’ De Legibus, 3.24 ‘Ti. was himself overthrown by the tribune whose veto he had disregarded and whom he had moved from office. For what else was his undoing but his abrogation of an obstructive colleague’s powers?’, Plutarch, op. cit, 10 – 12; Appian, Civil Wars 12)

This is the point where all fell into chaos, perhaps, as Cicero points out, due to Ti. Gracchus’ manipulation of the system to his own attempted advantage. Through using his powers as tribune, Ti. Gracchus more or less managed to stop the daily business of Rome through constant use of the veto whilst appealing to Octavius to withdraw his veto and even going so far as to accept an appeal that the case be put to the senate. Octavius refused to withdraw his veto, and the Assembly voted to have him impeached and returned to the status of private citizen. The election of Mucius (Appian names the replacement as Mummius), a client to Tiberius, as the replacement tribune meant that the land reform bill was passed, despite the vocal attacks by the aristocrats in the senate on Gracchus, led, Plutarch tells us, by Publius Nasica, one of Rome’s largest land owners, cousin of Tiberius, and Pontifex Maximus. The morality of this move by Tiberius is highly questionable, but the person of the tribune was sacrosanct and inviolable during his tenure of office, protected by the plebeian oath and it was in no way an illegal move.

When the news arrived that the wealth of Pergamum had been bequeathed to Rome, Tiberius moved to take command of the riches and use this to support those who had been granted the parcels of the ager publicus, then, according to Plutarch:

‘And as regarded the cities which were included in the kingdom of Attalus, he said it did not belong to the senate to deliberate about them, but he himself would submit a pertinent resolution to the people. By this proceeding he gave more offence than ever to the senate…’ (Plutarch op. cit, 14.2)

The senate evidently did not take this lying down – it was a direct challenge to their authority, even though that authority was based upon tradition rather than constitutional right, Pompeius going so far as to accuse Tiberius of having accepted a purple robe and diadem from Attalus – every Roman would have realised this was an indirect accusation of regnum – the desire to be king – the greatest insult for any Roman politician. Within absolute technicality, neither the senate nor Gracchus and his allies had broken any law; indeed, Ungern-Sternberg (The Crisis of the Republic in Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, Cambridge, 2004, 91) goes as far as to argue that this was the catalyst as neither side could back down as the crisis escalated. The Constitution of Tradition worked on a state of consuetudio – consensus – existing between the two groups, hence Senatus Populusque. When this consensus broke down, there was no constitutional answer, nor, as had often united Rome in the face of discord, an external enemy against whom to wage war:

‘For the nobility began to abuse their prestige and the people their liberty. Each man was taking, seizing and stealing for himself. And so everything was divided into two factions, and the state, which was in the middle, was torn apart.’ (Sallust, Bellum Iugurthinum, 41.5)

Tiberius now had to face the reality of the end of his tenure of office – he chose the only option to avoid the inevitable prosecution by the optimates after he ceased to be tribune; he ran for the tribunate again, and to have close family members in certain other key magisterial positions. (Cassius Dio, frag. 83 ‘When the end of his tribunate drew near and he was threatened with attack from his enemies when he gave it up, he attempted to get elected for the following year along with his brother, and have his father-in-law elected consul.’)

The senate viewed this as a justification of their claims that Tiberius wanted to assume regnum, and when he made his way to the Forum surrounded by his supporters, the senators, who had been gathered in the Temple of Fides (Appian, 16) made for the Assembly, from which Gracchan supporters had driven the wealthy. The claim was made that Tiberius had deposed the other tribunes and despite the attempted intervention by the senate, the consul

‘…replied with mildness that he would resort to no violence and would put no citizen to death without a trial; if, however, the people, under persuasion or compulsion from Tiberius, should vote anything that was unlawful, he would not regard this vote as binding.’ (Plutarch, 19.1)

Nausica in response led the senators armed with clubs and broken spear shafts and laid into the Gracchans on the Capitol:

‘In the tumult many of the Gracchans perished, and Gracchus himself, vainly circling round the temple, was slain at the door close by the statues of the kings. All the bodies were thrown by night into the Tiber.’ (Appian, 16.11)

This event is arguably one of the most significant in the history of the Roman Republic, referred to in the ancient sources (Plutarch, 20.1; Appian, 17.1; Vell. Pat, 2.3.3-4). Whilst none were killed by metal blade, this was the first time that citizen had killed citizen without a trial, and the sanctity of the tribunate had been broken. Nausica, though Pontifex Maximus, did not have the consular right to call for tumultus, the emergency levy to protect the state from attack, despite his draping his toga border over his head. (As this was the traditional dress for the Pont. Max. when making sacrifice and that of Consul declaring tumultus, there may well have been a level of propagandistic thought here.)

After the desecration of Tiberius’ body and the exile or brutal murder of many of his supporters, the irony is that, according to Plutarch (21.1) the senate, through fear of the people’s reaction to their murderous deeds, allowed the lex Sempronia agraria to be carried through. The following year, the sources (Cicero, Amic. 37; Val. Max. 4.7.1; Plutarch, Ti. Gracch, 20.3-7) tell of how the senate used this as an excuse to arrest, try and put to death many of those who were accused of ‘conspiring’ with Tiberius by setting up a special court to bring to trial his supporters (Sallust, BJ, 31.7 ‘After the murder of Ti. Gracchus, who they said was aiming to make himself king, a special court was set up against the Roman commons.’) – as Konrad has put it (in A Companion to the Roman Republic Blackwell 2012 Kindle edition)

, ‘the unspoken agreement not to take political disputes to the point of lethal violence – was thus swept away.’

Cicero stated bluntly,

‘The death of Ti. Gracchus, and already before the whole political tenor of his tribunate, divided a single populace into two factions.’ (Cicero, Rep, 1.19.31 ‘mors Tiberii Gracchi, et iam ante tota illius ratio tribunatus, divisit populum unum in duas partes.’)

Scipio Nasica’s subsequent acquittal on all charges of murder was later used to justify his actions as a defender of the res publica from the machinations of a megalomaniacal demagogue whose sole intention was to shatter the position of the boni and remove them from their ‘rightful place’ in the social hierarchy. (Valerius Maximus, 5.3.2e ‘Who does not know that Scipio Nasica earned as much glory as a private citizen as the two Scipiones Africani did in command of armies, when he refused to stand by and allow Ti. Gracchus’ foul hand to throttle the life out of his country. but the totally unjust estimation of his splendid qualities by his fellow citizens meant that he had to leave Rome under the pretext of a legateship. He withdrew to Pergamum, and there spent the rest of his days with no regret towards his ungrateful homeland.’)

The agrarian reforms actually took until 118 to be put in place, though in themselves they stirred up the long-standing underlying problem of Rome’s position towards her allies. This raised its head as a serious problem in that the Gracchan law did not permit allies to receive a parcel of the ager publicus, though any land which socii held was subject to redistribution. By 129, the large scale allied land owners were mounting official protests to the inherent threat to what they viewed as their lands. Appian (Bell. Civ. 1.19-20) tells us that the man they turned to was Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus. Scipio had ‘found them extremely supportive in the wars’ and was ‘reluctant to ignore their request’. He persuaded the senate that the allies’ cases should not be heard by the triumvires, led by the younger Gracchus, but rather by the Consul for the year, Tuditanus. The complexities proved too much for Tuditanus, who was given a command to invade Illyria and left without making a decision. According to Appian, Scipio Aemilianus very quickly became unpopular with the populus, who felt that he was now siding with the Latins over them, despite their having supported him against powerful enemies and electing him to two consecutive consulships (1.19). This discontent was enhanced by Scipio’s inimici who put forward that he intended to quash the lex Sempronia agraria and indeed intended to massacre his opponents in an armed riot. Scipio had intended to deliver a speech, though what it was on we shall never know as he was found dead of apparently natural causes on the day he was due to deliver it, though there were the inevitable rumours that his wife or Cornelia, Gracchus’ mother, had a hand in the death as well as a rumour of ‘taking the honourable way out’. In resolution of this problem, the consul of 125, M. Fulvius Flaccus proposed as both consul and land commissioner that the allies who were deserving of it should be granted full citizenship, hence the problem could disappear overnight – those who were not seen as being deserving of the civitas would be allowed provocatio and hence could appeal to the populus Romanus if they believed the magistrates’ decision an unfair one (Appian, ibid 1.21; Val. Max. 9.5.1). However, once again, military matters upset the political running and Flaccus was given the command to defend Massilia from Gallic attack. Without the consul present to push his bill through, it was quietly laid to rest; something which was later to cause the Romans trouble in the Social Wars.

123-121 saw the last act in the drama of the Gracchi in Roman political life. Like his brother, C. Sempronius Gracchus used the tribunate as his means of political might. Unlike his elder brother, however, Gaius was a much more radical reformer, intending on a programme which would cover a plethora of issues – he did not put all his ambition behind one single piece of legislation (For a somewhat negative judgment on C. Gracchus, Vell. Pat. 2.6.1-3). In the first place, he slightly altered the law promulgated by Tiberius, placing a rent on the lands allotted by the lex Sempronia agraria and further clearing large areas of the ager publicus from being distributed to the landless; these were most likely the lands which were already occupied by the socii landholders. After this, he turned the land distribution to the end of founding new coloniae – symbolically, the first Roman colonia, Iunonia, was set up on the ruins of Carthage and came with the enormous grant of 200 iugera per family. Part of this was presumably to expand the increasing demand for grain from the burgeoning urban populace in Rome herself which, unlike the Italian provinces, was not at all self-sufficient. The Sicilian slave revolt and the intervention of pirates in the Mediterranean showed how precarious that supply could be; when the supply was disrupted, the lower the amount of the diminishing grain stocks saw a concurrent rise in price and hence meant that many poorer Romans could scarcely afford to eat, if at all. Gaius therefore settled on solving this problem through the lex frumentaria, which demanded that the state purchase and store massive grain stocks which could be sold at a subsidised price once per month at a rate below that charged on the open market, thus driving any price rises back down (Appian, Bell. Civ., 1.21, 89-90 ‘Elected in the most brilliant manner, he immediately prepared traps for the Senate, establishing the distribution, at the expense of the state treasury, of a certain quantity of grain for each citizen each month, a thing which up until that time was not normally done. And thus, certainly, with a single measure, he obtained the consent of the people, having the collaboration of Fulvius Flaccus. And, immediately following that, he was elected tribune of the plebs for the next year as well.’). Needless to say, this was seen as an overt act of bribery of the people, giving Gaius the label of demagogue. There was the fear that this law would simply encourage indolence amongst the poor:

‘…and last, the law on grain proposed by C. Gracchus: a measure appreciated by the plebs, who received plentiful food without working; whereas good citizens were against it, because they thought it would draw the plebeians away from work, throwing them into the arms of sloth, and they were aware that it would exhaust the public finances.’ (Cicero, In Defence of Sextius, 103 ‘frumentarium legem C. Gracchus ferebat. iucunda res plebei; victus enim suppedibatur large sine labore. repugnabant boni, quod et ab industriam plebem ad desidiam avocari putabant et aerarium exhuiriri videbatur.’ Cf Tusculan Disputations, 3.48)

However, any basic examination of the reasoning shows this to be nothing other than propagandistic maligning by Gaius’ inimici amongst the optimates who were in the habit of using a personally subsidised grain hand out in order to curry the favour of the plebs urbana. This was not the annona, a free hand out of state purchased grain, but rather an attempt to keep the populace fed, therefore content and as such less prone to riots. The question was inevitably the financing of this state subsidised grain dole which was to be made up by an increase in revenue from tolls, taxes and the publican contracts for the collection of the decuma, the 10% annual tax raised on the agricultural produce of the province of Asia, which was now carried out before the censors in Rome as a single provincial wide contract (Cicero, Verrines, 2.2.12 on the fiscal importance of Asia, cf. pro lege Manilia, 14, 19), thus bypassing the provincial governor’s often corrupt influence. It further kept the contracts out of the hands of the provincial bidders and the smaller corporations, favouring the publicani in Rome herself and hence facilitating the collection of the state cut of the income. (Lex Sempronia de provincia Asia)

C. Gracchus also wished to persuade the newly arising ordo equester, the ‘nouveau riche’ amongst the propertied classes who were not senatorial families as such (On his oratorical prowess, cf Cicero, Brutus, 125-6). The division between the equestrians and the senators was not so much in the wealth of the families, but rather in their participation in the political life and the level of influence in the running of the Republic. This he did by making the division between these two upper orders even further blurred by appointing equestrian jurymen to the quaestio de repetundis, Rome’s first permanent court for the prosecution of provincial governors on charges of corruption through the lex repetundarum, sponsored by the tribune Marcus Acilius Glabro, removing senators from the position of being the jury on a crime on which they were the only echelon of society that could be charged. He further moved to crush the senatorial monopoly on being sole judges and jurymen in the criminal courts. This he did through the lex iudicaria which set up the album (panel) of one third senators and two thirds equestrians from which judges and jurymen in the ratio 1:2 were to be drawn for all future criminal trials (Pliny, Natural History, 33.34 cf also Tacitus, Annales, 12.60; Flores, 2:1, on the Gracchan Laws). His third legal move was to restrict capital charges on a Roman citizen to being tried in the comitia tribunata or a legally convened court, i.e. removing the process of a quaestio being convened by senatorial decree. This meant that a magistrate had to allow recourse to provocatio ad populum on capital charges (Cicero, pro C. Rubirio perduellionis reo, 12; In Catalinam, 4.12) or forcing into exile, unless he himself wished to be open to charges of unfair trial and prosecution; it also applied to any magistrate or senator found to have been conspiring on false prosecution of such a charge.

The usefulness of these reforms is hugely open to question. Broadening the judiciary and juries in reality simply opened them up to another very wealthy landowning group in society and hence ‘quis custodet custodes ipsos?’ remains a highly pertinent point. Further, on a social niveau, they gave a certain level of legality to the widening chasm between the senatorial families centred on the nobiles who controlled the elected public offices and the nouveau riche of the ordo equester who were classified by their wealth rather than their ‘masks in the cupboard’ (A reference to the wax death masks of former holders of the consulship and high magisterial office amongst the noble and senatorial families – and integral part of their right to their social rank and a part of the reminder of mos maiorum. Their symbolic importance is cited by Pliny, Natural History 35.6-7 ‘Things were different in the atria of our ancestors: there were not marble and bronze statues by foreign artists to be admired, but masks made out of wax were displayed in individual cupboards so that there might be images which could be employed in family funerals, and whenever a member of the household died the whole community of those who belonged to his family were there. Family trees were linked by lines to painted portraits; the archive rooms were filled with books and memorials of achievement in magisterial careers.’). These new roles and identities were defined through the twin leges and were made almost concrete by C. Gracchus in pitting them openly against each other, particularly in the quaestio de repetundis.

It will hardly come as a surprise that C. Gracchus’ legislation regarding the grain laws and the judicial reforms made him many enemies in the senate (Lintott points out these led the optimates to ‘conceive Gracchus’ legislation as an elaborate plot against the authority of the Senate.’ Political History, 78), though, as all his laws went through, they were evidently wary enough not to attempt a veto on any of his bills. Without being nominated as a candidate, he was returned for a second tribunate along with the former consul, M. Fulvius Flaccus – this is the sole time that a former consul served as a tribune of the plebs. C. Gracchus now turned his attention to the settlement of the colonia of Iunonia, again to alleviate the problems of feeding the urban populace as well as the ever present call upon the grain supply from the army, and on a much more insecure footing, improving the lot of the disgruntled Italian allies. To carry through the former, he left Rome for six months to help the 6,000 families drawn from all over Italy to set up the new colonia, despite the perpetual reports of ill omens which conveniently issued from Rome. Upon returning, C. Gracchus found that his inimici had used his absence to their best advantage, led by his fellow tribune for the year, M. Livius Drusus, who had full senatorial backing as well as that of the consul Gaius Fannius (For his speech against C. Gracchus, cf. Iulius Victor, 6.4 in LACTOR 13, 53-54). Rather than one colonia, they proposed 12, across the whole of Italia, each consisting of 3,000 families. Despite the fact that ultimately not a single one of these materialised (indeed, there is nor record of a vote for them), as a public relations exercise, they proved a huge success. As regards the socii, we know from Cicero and Plutarch (Cic. Brut. 99; Plut. C. Gracch. 12) that prior to leaving for Africa, Gaius had prepared a bill to grant civitās to all Latin allies and voting rights to non Latin socii. Drusus now turned to his own demagoguery, accusing Gaius of cheapening the citizenship and pointing out that all rights would be shared out – in modern parlance, with C. Fannius’ backing, he played what to all intents and purposes was a race card. Needless to say, when the proposal went before the plebs, C. Gracchus suffered a heavy defeat.

In 121, Gaius ran for a third tribunate, but was unsuccessful. In the same year, the new consul and inimicus of Gaius, L. Opimius, proposed to cancel the African colonia at Iunonia. This not only humiliated Gaius, but also struck at the dignitas of his friend and fellow tribune, the former consul Flaccus, bringing lethal violence to the streets again. After one of Opimius’ attendants was killed by a group of pro-Gracchan thugs, the following day saw major demonstrations, enough for the Senate to use senatus ultimum consultum, the first example of its use (videat consul, ne quid res publica detrementi capiat – the consul should ensure that no harm befall the Republic – Cicero, In Catalinam 1.4, Philippics 8.14), to permit the consul to take whatever measures required for the safety of the state. Here, the optimates used their latent power to abandon all legal restraints and Opimius ordered all senators and equestrians to report fully armed to the Capitol; in the meantime, Flaccus’ supporters gathered at his house, whilst Gracchus apparently returned home totally despondent at Flaccus’ readiness to lead an armed insurrection.

The following day, as had been done in the ‘Conflict of the Orders’, the Gracchan supporters seized the Aventine, C. Gracchus apparently reluctantly accompanying them – perhaps remembering the similar situation with his brother. Despite the attempted negotiations and the evident appeal to the mos maiorum, L. Opimius led his armed followers in a massacre of the Gracchans (Epitome of Livy, Bk. 61 ‘Once his seditious tribunate was over, C. Gracchus occupied the Aventine with an armed mob, so the consul, L. Opimius, acting in accordance with SUC called the populus to arms. Gracchus was defeated and killed, and with him Fulvius Flaccus, the former consul, who was his partner in this madness.’ cf also Vell. Pat, 2.6.4-7; Orosius, 5.12; Diod. Sic. 34-35.28a), including the unfortunate Gaius. In 120, the surviving supporters of Gracchus had garnered enough support to prosecute Opimius ad populum under the tribune Decius Subulo.  The question of law at point was how far any serving magistrate could take his imperium during a time of internal national emergency and more especially if, as here, he had the backing of the SUC. For almost four centuries, citizen had stood under the protection of the lex provocationis and it could not be challenged that the final court for any legal question was the populus Romanus. In a case of putting down armed insurrection whilst the rebels bore arms, Opimius could be seen to have been acting within his rights and indeed fulfilling his consular duty to protect the state; in other words, concerning the crushing of the Gracchans on the Aventine who resisted and fought back, therefore becoming officially hostes and who as such had forfeited all citizen rights and protections, there would have been no legal justification to prosecute Opimius. However, many of the Gracchans had surrendered and been taken into custody or had been disarmed and therefore were no longer hostes. Many of these men had also been cut down, though without even the slightest semblance of a trial, or had been dragged before he consul and condemned to death without any right of defence or appeal, thus totally ignoring the laws passed by Gracchus for the protection of the people against a magistrate’s abuse or misuse of his imperium (ne quis iniussu populi Romani capite damnetur). Opimius was cleared of the charges of murder the following year under the backing of the former Gracchan and consul for 120, C. Carbo, and, for the subsequent decade, the tribunate became an office to be avoided and toothless. The evident lesson to be learned from the debacle of C. Gracchus’ tribunates was that the restriction of the office to one year left anyone with a long term programme of reforms in a hopeless position. Gaius had attempted to unite the disparate factions by appealing in some way to all the groups, but simply succeeded in alienating most groups and even in openly pitting them against one another (Lintott, A, Political History, 78 C. Gracchus’ reforms ‘were important individually as attempts to solve political problems, but also collectively, because the means chosen often recalled the procedures of Greek democracy and the total effect was to use popular sovereignty to create an administration in the popular interest.’). Overt demagoguery would appear to have been perceived as almostas great a threat as the threat of kingship. Scullard perhaps sums it up best: ‘Whether or not the Gracchi should be regarded as revolutionaries, without doubt they precipitated the revolution that overthrew the Republic.’ (op. cit, 38) Whilst there was never any intention to set up an Athenian style democracy, as Kennedy points out, ‘…it can be said that the reforms proposed by the populares had a detrimental impact on senatorial control over republican institutions.’ (The Politics of Natural Law in Cicero’s De Legibus, 6) 

The oligarchy appeared to have defeated the reform programmes of the Gracchi (eg lex frumentaria of 111 BC), and the tribunate had, to all intents and purposes, lost its teeth. L. Opimius being cleared on charges of murder only underlined this (Epitome of Livy, Bk. 61, Cicero, pro Sestio, 140, de Oratore, 2.132, 106 / 165 / 170), and the subsequent years saw a gradual neutering of the Gracchan land reforms by allowing the recipients of the land from the ager publicus the right to sell their land, which was snapped up by the senators and equites and added to their latifundia once again (Appian, Bell. Civ.1.27), though Cicero does praise the Gracchi for what they did (On the Agrarian Law, 2.10). This short sighted move, presumably motivated by the greed and scheming of the great families, simply led to the problems of the pre-Gracchan period rising to the surface once again, despite a series of laws which ratified the land holdings in the ager publicus – but this time it would require much more radical and permanent solutions to be found (see Frank, T, An Economic History of Rome, 90-91 for a detailed discussion of the post Gracchan situation). From this point on, however, until the death of the Republic, one major legacy of Gaius’ period of influence lived on – the unchallenged hegemony of the Senate had found a counter balance in the form of the Assembly and the Tribune, and above all the potential resorting to violence to counteract and countermand the will of the Senate (Heftner, Von den Gracchen bis Sulla, Pustet, 2006, 83 ‘Von nun an würden Volkstribunat und Plebsversammlungen ein potenziell wirksames Gegengewicht gegen die Vorherrschaftsanprüche der Nobilität darstellen und mussten die Nobiles damit rechnen, dass ihnen ungebärdige Volkstribune in der Nachfolge des Gaius Gracchus entgegentreten und gegen den Willen des Senats die gesetzgebende Gewalt ausüben würden’). Sallust also praises the Gracchi, though with reservations due to the fact that their ‘desire for victory had led them to behave with insufficient moderation.’ (BJ, 42.1-4). Power was, however, to swing totally into the hands of individuals in the coming decades, and the loyalty to one man was to swamp the idea promulgated by the mos maiorum – that Rome was to be the central idea for every Roman. Whilst the tales of the great early heroes such as Horatius Cocles and Brutus were to be taught for centuries to come, they would become little more than fairy tales rather than tales to inculcate the values of the mos maiorum in young Romans. The next wave of problems was to ride in on the wings of military difficulties, caused by what was in reality a small, but dragged out colonial war in North Africa against King Jugurtha of Numidia – a war which was to have immense consequent problems for Rome for the next eight decades.


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