The Gracchi Brothers 133BC

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.

[The Roman Revolution.]

It is not uncommon to hear reference to the fall of Rome in everyday life, but far less frequently mentioned is the fall of the Roman Republic, which occurred some 400 years prior. If indeed our modern political world owes such a debt to the Roman Republic, surely its collapse is worth understanding. So how exactly did the Roman Republic fall?

In answering this question, historians point to the political maneuverings of Tiberius Gracchus, a man whose name is surprisingly obscure, given the enormity of his political impact. Though the effects of his actions were not intentional, Tiberius Gracchus is cited as being the catalyst for the century-long slide that pulled the Roman Republic apart. This hundred-year 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 necessitate the involvement from the Senate. However, by the second century B.C., the Senate had been firmly embedded into the legislative process as a matter of tradition. Thus as a practical matter, lawmakers were firstly expected to introduce a bill to the Senate for debate, and secondly were expected to abide by the senatorial determination resulting from said debate.

Any lawmaker who attempted to buck this tradition, though not techinacally in breach of law, could expect to face no small amount of political and social pushback, 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 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.

[Background Context.]

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 Tiberius Gracchus now proposed to enforce it. His bill then also proposed to confiscate the excess landholdings of those who were 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. But 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 growing problem for the society.

Though his bill was based on the enforcement of a previous law, Tiberius Gracchus calculated that his legislation would not be popular among the senators, given that his proposals would come at the personal expense of so many senators. As a result, Gracchus made the fateful decision to bypass the Senate altogether.

To the surprise of no one, the Senate was outraged to find itself being marginalized from the legislative process. In addition to the threat posed to the personal fortunes of many sitting senators by this specific bill, the Senate feared the broader threat posed by allowing the circumvention of the Senate, a precedent which would surely lead to the reduction of the Senate's long-held legislative de facto authority. Thus the Senate was determined not to allow itself to be circumvented, at least not without a fight. But because Gracchus's actions had not only the virtue of being legal, but could also claim to be merely honoring previously approved law, the Senate had a limited range of options for recourse at its disposal, particularly if it hoped to win in the court of public opinion.

[Political Cat and Mouse]

What followed was a fascinating 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. Gracchus, however, parried this attempt by motioning to have that very tribune dismissed from his post, on the grounds that to stand in the way of this land bill was tantamount to abandoning the fundamental duty of a tribunal, namely to serve the interests of the people. Gracchus held it to a vote, and the veto-ing tribune was removed.

However, in the process of eluding this senatorial snare, Gracchus had managed to step into more controversy, since the power of veto had been regarded as a sacrosanct feature of the tribunate, and thus to circumvent this veto power was seen as an arrogation of power.

Gracchus finally did manage to pass the bill, but still the Senate refused to acquiesce. The Senate controlled the governmental pocketbook, and now they set out to obstruct Gracchus by approving only an inadequate amount of funding to effectuate his new law.

But once again, Gracchus slipped through the attempts of the Senate to contain him. Without the necessary funding, Gracchus passed a separate bill, which allowed for pulling funding from 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 bitterness and controversy to his situation, 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. It was at this point that matters began to spiral out of control. In their desperate efforts 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. In doing so, it would be the senators themselves who set a most devastating precedent of all, and one that would prove to be largely irreversible.

[Dangerous Precedent of Assassination.]

On the pretense that Gracchus was calling for dictatorship, the Senate covertly ordered Gracchus to be cut down while addressing a crowd in public. Three-hundred supporters of Gracchus were then hunted down and murdered along with him in the streets of Rome.

The body of Tiberius Gracchus was ignominiously dumped into the Tiber. The fateful precedent was set, and from this point forward, to murder one's political opponents would prove simply too useful an instrument to be discarded. For the next hundred years, political violence would increasingly become the norm in Rome. The resulting chaos would turn Roman politics upside down; a new tradition of political violence had begun. As intimidation and violence was added to the political toolkit, the connective thread of the Republic continued to be cut away. It would soon become all too common for Roman generals to mobilize their troops on the city, in pursuit of their political ends, and thus in 49BC, when Julius Ceasar crossed the Rubicon, the era of emperors had begun and the Roman Republic was no more.

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

Gracchi Brothers, Black T Shirt. Tiberius and Gaius.

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Gracchi Brothers, Gray T Shirt. Tiberius and Gaius.

Gracchi Brothers Tee / Black