Ancient Rome is closely associated with the rule of emperors. But long before the first emperor ever appeared, the Romans erected a representative republic, which they managed to maintain for nearly 500 years.

Indeed, this republican era of Rome was no small source of inspiration to seminal figures throughout the American and French Revolutions. Today, representative governments abound, and we tend to think of them as part of a political phenomenon exclusive to modern times. It is easy to forget that this modern tradition is actually rooted deep in the past.

It is not uncommon to hear reference to the fall of Rome, but that occurred about 400 years after the end of the republican era. So how did the republic fall? If our modern political world owes a debt to the existence of the republic, then surely its collapse is especially worthy of being understood.

In answering this question, historians point to the political maneuverings/impact/ activity of a man whose name is unfamiliar to most of us, a man named Tiberius Gracchus.

Cited as the man responsible for kick starting the century-long process that pulled the Roman republic apart, Tiberius Gracchus was intending to do no such thing.

This period of political turmoil has come to be known as the "Roman Revolution".

The Senate

The Roman Senate was Rome's oldest deliberative body. Technically speaking, lawmaking in ancient Rome did not require the involvement of the Senate. However, by the second century B.C., tradition established by generation after generation had served to firmly embed the Senate into the legislative process. Defacto, lawmakers were expected, firstly, to introduce their bill to the Senate for debate, and secondly, were expected to abide by the senatorial conclusion which resulted from said debate.

Any lawmaker who attempted to buck this tradition, though they had not broken the law, could expect to face no small amount of political and social push back, such as being suspected of harboring dictatorial ambition, for example. Thus, lawmakers were technically entitled, but strongly discouraged not to craft laws without the senate.

Such was the state of Roman politics in the second century B.C.In retrospect, this would seem to be a recipe for conflict. In 133BC, Tiberius Gracchus was one of ten elected tribunes of the plebeians. The tribunate was a primary lawmaking body that represented the plebeian class.Gracchus was preparing to introduce a bill that addressed the growing problem of landless war veterans.

Some background.

At this time in Rome, it was the case that wealthy Romans, including senators, had been amassing large amounts of land, often employing gangs of slaves (captured in war) to work the fields on these lands. Many Roman soldiers, returning from long military campaigns, found that they had little choice but to sell their farms, unable to compete.

It happened, however, that there had been a law on the books, established back in 367BC, which had limited the amount of land that any one citizen could possess, and many of these wealthy landowners were in violation of that law. This law had been largely ignored, but Gracchus now proposed to enforce it. His bill then also proposed to confiscate the excess landholdings of those in violation, and to redistribute this excess land among the landless "capite censi" class.

There is debate as to the extent to which Gracchus was motivated out of idealism versus opportunism. Whatever his personal motivations, his proposed law did seem to address a real societal issue for Rome, since the growing number of the landless "capite censi" class were ineligible for military service, and thus represented a problem.

Furthermore, it was also true that his bill was largely based on the enforcement of a previous law, and would therefore seem to be less vulnerable to charges of political malfeasance. Nevertheless, Tiberius Gracchus determined that his legislation was not going to be popular among the senators. As a result, Gracchus, made the fateful decision to bypass the Senate altogether.

The Senate was predictably outraged over being marginalized from the process. On such a consequential piece of legislation, this was a precedent they could not allow, since they feared, it would lead to the diminishment of their legislative role. They were not going to be pushed aside without a fight. But because Gracchus's actions were not illegal, the Senate had a limited number of options for recourse at its disposal.

What followed was a rather riveting game of political cat and mouse. First, the Senate attempted to undermine the land bill by coercing one of Gracchus's tribunal colleagues, into exercising his veto power. But Gracchus parried this attempt by motioning to have this same tribune removed from his post, on the argument that to stand in the way of this land bill was tantamount to abandoning of his basic tribunal obligation to serve the people. Gracchus held it to a vote, and the veto-ing tribune was removed.

In the process of eluding this attempt by the Senate, Gracchus took on more controversy, however, since the power of veto, was a sacrosanct facet of the tribunate. To circumvent this veto power was seen as an arrogation of power.

Gracchus finally managed to pass the bill, but the Senate still would not acquiesce. The Senate controlled the governmental pocketbook, and now they obstructed Gracchus by approving a deliberately inadequate amount of funding for the project.

But Gracchus circumvented the attempts of the Senate once again. Without the necessary funding, Gracchus passed a separate bill, which found funding elsewhere, since it had just so happened that a dying king had recently donated his kingdom and treasure to Rome. Additionally, Gracchus decided to run for a second term as tribune, with his term running out, in order to properly implement the land bill. This too, added controversy, as tribunes traditionally served only a single term.

Again and again, Gracchus had frustrated the senatorial attempts to undermine his legislation, but not without also continuing to attract controversy onto himself.

Anger and desperation was now reaching a fever pitch in the Senate. In their effort to derail Gracchus, and to prevent him from setting a political precedent that would shift influence away from the Senate, they now resorted to violence, and they themselves set what proved to be the most irreversible and devastating precedent of all. On the pretense that Gracchus was calling for dictatorship, the Senate mobilized, and had Gracchus cut down in the public, murdering 300 of his followers along with him in the streets of Rome.

Gracchus's body was ignominiously dumped in the Tiber. The fateful precedent was set. This justification, to murder one's political opponents, would prove to be an instrument that would not leave Roman politics for the next hundred years; it would turn Roman politics upside down.

A new tradition of political violence was beginning. As intimidation and violence was added to the political toolkit, the republican connective thread would be loosened. Generals would mobilize their troops on the city. In 49BC, Julius Ceasar crossed the Rubicon, and the era of emperors had begun.

Source: Fagan, Garrett G. Pennsylvania State University. The History of Ancient Rome. The Great Courses, 1999.

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