Monday, July 29, 2013

The Gracchan Reform and the Death of the Roman Republic

            Following the destruction of Carthage at the close of the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE), fear of foreign invasions diminished within the Roman Republic. This newfound sense of security, however, was accompanied by a surge in domestic problems. The formidable drive which had once animated Roman expansionism seems to have suddenly begun to turn in on itself. As a consequence, the virtues of resoluteness, self-sacrifice, and discipline, once so crucial to the Roman ethos quickly began to deteriorate as individuals began to put personal gain above civic responsibility.[1] To a large extent, this precipitous decline in traditional Republican values, as it were, was a consequence of a decline in the yeoman farm class which had once formed the backbone of both the Roman military and society.
            A crisis in agriculture had occurred as a result of Rome’s numerous armed engagements with its neighbors. Many Roman soldiers owned farms that now lay in neglect as a result of their perpetual absence. In addition, many of these returning veterans with only small land holdings lacked sufficient means to have their land restored.[2] This problem was only exacerbated when conflict caused the destruction of such small farms. Hannibal’s Italian campaign during the Second Punic War had been particularly taxing on these Roman soldier-farmers, as much farmland was destroyed, many farmhouses were razed, and numerous livestock were killed. Without means to properly salvage their land, many such small farm-owners were forced to sell their property at cheap prices to larger land holders. These wealthier Romans then used slave labor to work the new lands rather than contracting labor from the depressed yeoman class. Now without land or adequate means of support, these destitute farmers began pouring into the city of Rome looking for work.
            In Rome, the farmers found little additional support. Instead, the now landless masses became victims of poverty, disease, violence, and idleness. Meanwhile, the Senate and wealthier members of Roman society, far from helping the situation were instead enjoying the benefits of the plundered provinces and the added security of their newly acquired land holdings. The uprooting of the farm class from their former country estates and their subsequent transposition into urban Rome disrupted the harmony that had previously existed in Roman society. The social disharmony that arose out of this situation as a consequence seems to have been rather inevitable.

            Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (c.163-133 BCE) came from one of the most prominent and well-connected families in all of Rome. However, he eventually became distressed by what he saw as the ongoing unjust treatment of the peasantry at the hands of the Roman elite. Additionally, he recognized the practical concern that with the number of landholders diminishing in the Republic the number of men eligible for military service would diminish in equal measure as well. So, in 133 BCE, Tiberius was elected tribune of the plebs and set about to improve the conditions of the poor by means of a law on land reform.
            The proposed law, the Lex Sempronia Agraria, reorganized control of the ager publicus[3] and sought to redistribute the land among the dispossessed peasantry. Even though the earlier Licinio-Sextian Law had already limited the possession of ager publicus to 500 iugera per individual, the Senate largely ignored the rule. This Senatorial indifference led to public lands being divided-up with impunity (often by Senators themselves) and treated like public property. Tiberius’ reform efforts drew the ire of the Senate and gained him powerful enemies. After the land reform measure passed into Roman law, the Senate gave Tiberius’ commission on reform only trivial amounts of money to see the reform enacted. So, when Attilus III of Pergamum died and bequeathed his entire kingdom to Rome, Tiberius proposed that the plebian counsel offer legislation on the use of the funds for the reform effort. Because decisions on finances were traditionally the prerogative of the Senate, Tiberius’ actions infuriated the Senators. Soon there was talk of prosecuting Tiberius when his term as tribune of the plebs ended. In order to avoid prosecution and continue his reform efforts, Tiberius decided to stand for another term as tribune. However, the Senate had already become incensed by rumors that Tiberius wanted to make himself king. Leading the charge against Tiberius was his cousin, the Pontifex Maximus, Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio. So, on the day of the vote, violence broke out between Tiberius’ supporters and the Senatorial opposition. Senators led by Scipio Nasica beat Tiberius to death with pieces of chairs and threw his body into the river Tiber. Approximately, three hundred of Tiberius’ supporters are said to have died with him.
            Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (c. 154-121 BCE) was the younger brother of Tiberius Gracchus. Gaius supported his brother’s reform efforts and even held a seat on Tiberius’ land reform commission in 133 BCE. Ten years later in 123 BCE, Gaius himself was elected tribune of the plebs. Gaius would go on to be elected for a second term as tribune of the plebs the following year 122 BCE. His period as tribune saw Gaius attempt to enact a large program of reform, more ambitious, and no less contentious than that of his brother. Arguably more reformist than his Tiberius, Gaius fell into disfavor with the Senate; not so much because he was deliberately undermining their authority, but because he was practically doing so. He was attempting to enact the most comprehensive political program that had ever been attempted by a tribune. Including the continued work on his brother’s land reform, Gaius also pushed for reforms on the court system, provisions concerning grain distribution, and the proposed extension of citizenship to all Roman allied tribes. For this, he sought little help from the Senate and at every step they felt increasingly threatened by his popularity and influence. Finally, the Senate used another tribune, Marcus Livius Druses as a foil in an attempt to undermine Gaius reform efforts.[4] In 121 BCE, Gaius’ political rival Lucius Opimius was elected tribune and set about the work of dismantling Gaius’ previous reforms. The day that Opimius was to vote to repeal the laws, violence broke out between Gaius’ supporters and the Senatorial opposition. In a struggle the following day, it is reported that approximately 3,000 people, including Gaius himself were killed. Opimius is said to have erected a temple to the goddess Concordia to commemorate the restoration of unity which he believed the death of the Gracchi had brought about. However, what Opimius failed to realize was that far from restoring unity to the Republic the Gracchan revolution had fundamentally destabilized the traditional Roman establishment. The Republic was now inexorably in decline and its final death throes would prove to be violent ones.

            There were some immediate and lasting results of the Gracchan reforms for the people that they were intended to benefit. For example, In 111 BCE the work of the land reform commission was completed and resettlement of the public land became a reality for some people.  However, many of the reforms were eventually repealed. Nevertheless, the lasting legacy of the Gracchi is more far reaching than simply the legislation they attempted to pass. In the end, many of their reforms were simply reactionary attempts to return Rome to its past. The measures taken by the Senate to stop the Gracchi however were unprecedented in their scope of both violence and demagoguery. The fact that the senate would go so far as to bludgeon to death a sacrosanct tribune elected to represent the will of the people in order to prevent agrarian reform marks a turning point in the life of the Republic.  The Rome that would emerge in the century following the Gracchi was one plagued by political intrigues, personal ambition, strong rivalries, and unmitigated violence. Politicians who had seen the Gracchi’s populist use of the mob as a tool of power began to use the language of social reform to manipulate the masses into becoming pliant agents of their wills. The political arena thus quickly thereafter became the playground of demagogues with a knack for mobilizing and manipulating the city’s poor. The Senate, which had already become a decadent and reactionary oligarchy now, had to contend with the power of the tribunes of the plebs who were using their positions as voices of the people to garner for themselves independent seats of power.   This trend would only become more pronounced as time went on, eventually contributing to the precipitous decline and collapse of the Republic itself.


Bringmann, K. (2008). A History of the Roman Republic. Malden, MA: Polity.

Garland, M. D. (2005). Ancient Rome: From the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius
Caesar. London: Routledge.

Perry, M. (2004). Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, & Society (7th ed.). Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Plutarch. The Life of Tiberius Gracchus. In The Parallel Lives.

[1] Perry, M. (2004). Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, & Society (7th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. (pp.132-135)
[2] Ibid., pp. 133
[3] Public Land controlled by the Roman State; largely confiscated from Italians who sided with Hannibal during the Carthaginian invasion of the Second Punic War. (Garland, 2005, p. 406)
[4] This is similar to the Senate’s attempt to use Marcus Octavius in such a capacity to undermine the work of Tiberius Gracchus. However, their efforts failed in this regard because Tiberius had the Plebian Council depose Octavius of his seat as tribune for contravening the wishes of his constituents. 

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