Jump to content

Gracchi brothers

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Depiction of the two brothers made during the 19th century by Eugene Guillaume, today located at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. The brothers lay their hands on a document titled "property", consistent with then-current interpretations of their lives.[1][2]

The Gracchi brothers were two brothers who lived during the beginning of the late Roman Republic: Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus. They served in the plebeian tribunates of 133 BC and 122–121 BC, respectively. They have been received as well-born and eloquent advocates for social reform who were both killed by a reactionary political system; their terms in the tribunate precipitated a series of domestic crises which are viewed as unsettling the Roman Republic and contributing to its collapse.[3]

Tiberius Gracchus passed legislation which established a commission to survey Roman public land, reassert state claims to it, and redistribute it to poor rural farmers. These reforms were a reaction to a perceived decline in Italy's rural population. A decade later, Gaius Gracchus' reforms, among other things, attempted to buttress Tiberius' land commission and start Roman colonisation outside of Italy. They also were far more broad, touching on many topics such as assignment of provincial commands, composition of juries for the permanent courts, and letting of state tax farming contracts. Both brothers were killed during or shortly after the conclusion of their respective tribunician terms.

More recent scholarship on the Roman economy has viewed the Gracchi agrarian reforms as less impactful than claimed in the ancient sources.[4] It is also clear that the vast majority of their reformist legislation was left intact rather than repealed. Some modern scholars also connect the agrarian reforms to degrading Rome's relations with its Italian allies and the Social War, as the reforms were a reassertion of Roman claims on public land that had been for decades largely occupied without title by Rome's Italian allies.[5] Gracchan claims of Italian rural depopulation also are contradicted by archaeological evidence. The impact of the violent reaction to the two brothers, however, is of substantial import: it set a dangerous precedent that violence was an acceptable tool against political enemies.[6]

The Gracchi exerted a substantial influence on later politics. They were viewed alternately as popular martyrs or dangerous demagogues through the late republic. They were also portrayed as social revolutionaries and proto-socialists during the French Revolution and afterwards; in that vein, they motivated social revolutionaries such as François-Noël "Gracchus" Babeuf and opposition to enclosure in Britain. Scholars today view these socialist comparisons as unapt.[7]


It used to be standard view that through the second century BC, the number of free farmers in rural Italy suffered a precipitous decline.[8] This traditional view, transmitted from the ancient sources, "has been much overstated"; the narrative connecting military service to the decline of the yeomanry, moreover, "has to be rejected".[9] The main driver for this reevaluation is archaeological evidence of Italian settlement patterns from the 1980s onwards: "impressive methodological advances that have been achieved in survey archaeology have ... done much to undermine the credibility of earlier claims concerning the spread of slave-staffed estates and the survival or otherwise of subsistence-oriented smallholders".[10]

Rural conditions, 159–33 BC[edit]

Through the second century, there is documented some difficulty in raising men and some resistance against levies. This starts in the Third Macedonian War and continues through Roman campaigns in Spain from 151 BC.[11] Roman censuses – which were conducted largely to tally men for conscription – starting in 159 BC also began to note a reduction in the free population of Italy, falling from 328,316 in 159–58 BC down to a low of 317,933 in the census of 136–35 BC.[12] Politicians reacted to these constraints by securing volunteers for service; the reforms of the Gracchi were related to solving this problem and also minimising the impacts of conscription.[13]

However, state difficulties in raising men for war did not mean that there were actual quantitative reductions in the populations of rural Italy. While the census reported a reduction in the republic's citizen population through the 130s BC, these population reductions were not at the time connected to unwillingness to serve in Rome's unpopular campaigns in Spain.[14] Because the easiest way to dodge the draft was to avoid registration by the censors, no actual decline in population is necessary to explain censorial reports thereto.[15] The later results of the censuses of 125–24 BC and 115–14 BC, indicate large increases which are incompatible with any actual decline in Italian rural populations.[16][17]

Archaeological evidence of small farms attested all over Italy in the second century and the general need for free labour during harvest time has led scholars to conclude that "there are no good grounds for inferring a general decline of the small independent farmer in the second century".[18] The Gracchan narrative of rural population decline through 133 BC – "long since... shown to be false"[19] – likely emerged not from a general and actual decline in rural free-holding, but rather, generalisation from a local decline in coastal Etruria where commercial slave plantations were dominant.[20] And while Gracchan observations of rural poverty were likely true;[20] this, however, was not a result of slave-dominated plantations crowding out poor farmers, but overpopulation under Malthusian conditions.[21]

In rural areas closer to Rome, expanding population and partible inheritance led to the splitting of previously modest farms into plots too small to support families.[22] Many of these small farms were not economically viable. Coupled with the high price of land near Rome, many of these farmers sold their lands to rich men and engaged instead in wage labour. "There is ample evidence to show that the temporary labour of free men was very important to large estates" especially around harvest-time.[23] In the years before 133 BC, a pause in construction of large public monuments also reduced demand for urban labour,[24] triggering a prolonged period of poor labour market conditions. This general economic downturn was likely compounded by years of high food prices due to the ongoing slave revolt in Sicily, an island from which substantial amounts of grain were shipped to Rome.[25]

Public land[edit]

This map shows Roman lands – the ager Romanus – on the eve of the Social War, some thirty years after the death of Gaius Gracchus. The anachronism notwithstanding, the ager was largely intermingled with allied lands and required substantial surveying work to disentangle.

Through the conquests of Italy in the fourth and third centuries BC, the Roman state had acquired legal rights to large amounts of land ceded by the subjugated Italian allies. Their former lands, the ager publicus, were not heavily exploited by the Roman state. Rather, the land "had been regarded as a sort of beneficium to the allies, who had been allowed to continue to work the land which had been confiscated from them".[26] Through Roman conquests, the Italians who were allied to Rome were de facto confirmed in their lands and also gained substantially from the influx of booty and wealth from Roman conquest.[27]

The traditional narratives in the ancient sources which described the emergence of commercial latifundia (enormous slave-staffed plantations owned by the elite) on the public land itself is also largely unattested to by the archaeological evidence in this period.[28] Moreover, evidence indicates that the ager publicus was largely located outside of the traditional farmlands close to Rome and instead located in non-Roman Italy closer to the Italian allies.[29] Public land redistribution was therefore necessarily at the expense of the allies, who would be evicted from ancestral lands still occupied.[30]

Early life of the Gracchi[edit]

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was born c. 163 BC.[31] His younger brother Gaius was born c. 154 BC.[32] They were the sons of the Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus who had been consul 177[33] and 163 BC[34] as well as censor in 169 BC.[35][36] He had triumphed twice in 178 and 175 BC.[37] Their mother was Cornelia, the daughter of the renowned general Scipio Africanus, the hero of the Second Punic War.[38] Their sister Sempronia also was the wife of Scipio Aemilianus, another important general and politician.[39] Later Roman historians painted Cornelia as an "archetypical Roman matron", "heavily idealised and inevitably quite distance from the historical Cornelia", which may be a product of her son Gaius' own political presentation.[40]

Tiberius' military career started in 147 BC, serving as a legate or military tribune under his brother-in-law, Scipio Aemilianus during his campaign to take Carthage during the Third Punic War.[41] Tiberius, along with Gaius Fannius, was among the first to scale Carthage's walls, serving through to the next year.[42] A decade later, in 137 BC, he was quaestor under the consul Gaius Hostilius Mancinus in Hispania Citerior.[43] The campaign was part of the Numantine War and was unsuccessful; Mancinus and his army lost several skirmishes outside the city before a confused night-time retreat that led them to the site of a camp from a former consular campaign in 153 BC where they were surrounded.[44] Tiberius negotiated a treaty of surrender, aided in part by his father's positive reputation built during a praetorship in 179–78 BC; Tiberius' treaty, however, was later humiliatingly rejected by the senate after his return to Rome.[45][46]


Various reforms had been attempted in the years prior to 133 BC. One of the ones that was successful was the establishment of a secret ballot in 139 BC by the tribune Aulus Gabinius. The circumstances of the reform are no longer known: it was probably presented as an expansion of public liberty and a check against corruption (no longer would those who bribed be able to ensure that recipients voted as instructed).[47] Legislation extending the secret ballot was passed in 137, the lex Cassia, extending the secret ballot to capital cases after Scipio Aemilianus convinced an opposing tribune to heed the people and withdraw his veto.[48]

The introduction of secret ballot was probably one of the necessary conditions for the later Gracchan programme since it insulated the popular assemblies from elite control.[49] For this reason, the historian Harriet Flower, in the 2010 book Roman republics, demarcates a political watershed and new phase of the Roman republic at 139 BC.[50] Shortly before Gabinius' law, in 140 BC, agrarian reforms were proposed by the consul Gaius Laelius Sapiens; but he withdrew his proposals after an invasion (he was assigned as consul to lead the response) and the opposition of the senate, earning him the cognomen Sapiens.[51]

The ancient historians, especially Plutarch, viewed the Gracchan reforms and brothers as a single unit. Modern scholars have started to view them separately and in their own political contexts.[52]


Views on Gracchus' motives differ. Favourable ancient sources attribute his reforms to spirited advocacy for the poor. Less favourable ancient sources, such as Cicero, instead attribute his actions to an attempt to win back dignitas and standing after the embarrassing treaty he was forced to negotiate after defeat in Spain.[48] It cannot be doubted that, even if he was a true believer in the need for reform, Tiberius hoped to further his fame and political standing among the elite.[53]

Agrarian reforms[edit]

Map of Gracchan land distributions. In red, distributions are attested to by archaeological finds of the boundary stones (cippi). In yellow, cippi are very likely.
Denarius of Gaius Minucius Augurinus, 135 BC, depicting the columna Minucia, which itself showed a grain distribution by Lucius Minucius Augurinus. It shows that grain distribution was already a hot topic several years before Tiberius' tribunate. He or his brother Tiberius probably replaced Octavius as tribune in 133.[54]

The main goal of Tiberius' agrarian proposal was three-fold:

  • establish a commission to investigate, survey, and catalogue the land owned by the state,
  • limit the amount of public land any one possessor could hold to about 500 jugera, possibly up to 1,000 jugera for those with two children,[55] and
  • privatise all remaining land by distributing it to poor Roman citizens (Italians were excluded).[55][56]

The purpose of the reform was to stimulate population growth and expand the number of people who would meet the property qualifications for service in the Roman army.[57] The inclusion of the limit of 500 jugera was for the purpose of painting the law as a return to mos maiorum and the Sextian-Licinian rogations so to avoid any charges of novelty.[58] Whether the Sextian-Licinian rogations in fact had such a clause is unclear; what mattered to Tiberius and his allies was that they believed it did.[59]

Land distributed was likely done so with a prohibition on alienation and a vectigal (rent). Alienation was prohibited to prevent recipients from simply reselling the land. The vectigal served to allow the land to revert to the state if a citizen walked away from the allotment; reversion would then allow the state to settle someone else on the land.[60] The veteres possessores (old possessors) also would receive security of tenure over their lands, up to the 500 or 1,000 jugera limit.[61]

Tiberius was supported in his endeavour by likeminded aristocrats who also viewed the perceived problem of rural depopulation seriously – among those in support of the proposal were the consul of 133 BC, Publius Mucius Scaevola, and Scaevola's brother, Publius Licinius Crassus Dives Mucianus, – he may have been put up to pass the proposals by those allied statesmen.[62] He was also successful in rallying large numbers of rural plebs to Rome to vote in favour of the plan.[63] The proposals were likely not appealing to the urban plebs, who would not have had the agricultural skills necessary to capitalise on the programme.[64]

He was opposed in the assembly by one of the other tribunes, Marcus Octavius. There were largely three grounds for opposition: first, the dispossession would harm the ruling classes of both Rome and the Italian allies; second, the law unfairly dispossessed people who had put money into the improvement of the land; third, that dispossession also would unsettle dowries pledged against the land and inheritances made under the assumption tenure was secure.[65] When the vote arrived and Octavius interposed his tribunician veto, the matter was brought before the senate, but no settlement was reached. Unwilling to back down, Tiberius – unprecedentedly – had the assembly depose Octavius from office and vote the legislation through.[66]


Violent opposition to Tiberius' agrarian policy did not come to a head until he moved legislation to use the inheritance of Attalus III of Pergamon for the land commission. The ancient sources differ on the question of what Attalus' bequest was to be dedicated: Plutarch claims it was to be used to help land recipients purchase farm equipment; Livy, via epitome, claims that it was to be used to purchase more land for distribution after there turned out to be little land available.[67]

This second proposal infringed on senatorial prerogatives over foreign policy and public finances. Senators also feared that these financial handouts would give Tiberius substantial personal political power.[68] Tiberius then announced his intention to stand for re-election; according to Livy, this was illegal, due to a law which forbade holding the same magistracy within ten years.[69] The sources allege that Tiberius also announced plans for a significantly more broad set of reforms, but these may be retrojections of his brother Gaius' later-consummated proposals.[70] On the day of the election, Tiberius seized the Capitoline hill, possibly to intimidate the voters; Tiberius' opponents accused him of having kingly aspirations and attempted to induce the consul in the senate to use force to stop his re-election.[71] The consul refused to act extralegally, but one of the other senators, Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio, found this reply unacceptable and led an impromptu military levy of senators, which included one of Tiberius' colleagues in the plebeian tribunate; with Nasica, who was pontifex maximus, reenacting an archaic sacrificial ritual, they then stormed the Capitoline and bludgeoned Tiberius and a number of his supporters to death.[72]

It was largely constitutional issues which impelled the violent reaction, not the agrarian laws. The reaction was motivated in part by Greek constitutional thought which created a narrative of popular mobilisation leading inexorably to popular tyranny.[73] Such beliefs were compounded by the recent example of tyranny in Sparta, led by Nabis, which had come to power with a reform programme of cancelling debts and redistributing lands.[74]


Tiberius' lex agraria and the commission survived his death. Opposition was to Tiberius' methods rather than his policies; it is likely that most senators agreed with the reform programme in principle.[75] Archaeologists have recovered the commission's boundary stones (cippi), which largely name the three commissioners from 133–30 BC.[76] The boundary locations and descriptions imply the distribution over just a few years of some 3,268 square kilometres of land to Roman citizens, concentrated in southern Italy and benefitting some 15,000 households.[77]

The cippi largely name Tiberius' younger brother Gaius, Appius Claudius Pulcher, and Publius Licinius Crassus.[78] Tiberius appointed himself to the commission, but after his death, Crassus was elected in his place.[79] After the natural deaths of Appius Claudius and Crassus by 130 BC, Marcus Fulvius Flaccus and Gaius Papirius Carbo were elected in their place.[80]

Because one of the commission's goals was in reasserting Roman claims to land which by that time had long been occupied by the Italian allies, the allies started to complain of unfairness and inaccurate rushed surveying.[81] In 129, those complaints were heard by the senate, who also took the opportunity to limit the agrarian commission's powers.[68] Scipio Aemilianus proposed and received from the senate a decree which assigned the power to determine contested ownership to the consuls. By 129 BC, the commission had over some three years already distributed all the available uncontested land. Archaeological finds of Gracchan cippi largely stop after 129 BC.[82]


Discontent among the Italian allies had grown between Tiberius' land commission and the later 120s BC.[83] One of the land commissioners elected in the early 120s BC, Marcus Fulvius Flaccus had served as consul in 125 BC and – according to Appian – proposed a compromise giving the allies Roman citizenship in exchange for acquiescence to Roman reassertion of claims to the ager publicus. This proposal, however, fell through when Flaccus was dispatched to war in Transalpine Gaul; relations with the allies were also not helped by the revolt and destruction of the Latin colony of Fregellae when Flaccus' proposals were withdrawn.[84]

Gaius positioned himself politically as the inheritor of Tiberius' popularity and political programme. After a quaestorship, he was elected fourth in the tribunician elections of 124 BC;[85] after his election, he cast his brother's death as "a failure by the plebeians to maintain their tradition of defending their tribunes".[86] Unlike his brother, Gaius' proposals largely did not relate to land.[87] Over two years, he proposed broad legislation touching all parts of Roman government, from tax collection to senatorial provincial assignments.[85]


Denarius of Marcus Marcius minted in 134 BC. The modius on the obverse and the corn-ears on the reverse refer to his ancestor Manius Marcius, plebeian aedile c. 440 BC, who made a distribution of grain at a cheap price of 1 as per modius.[88]

During his first tribunate, he proposed a number of laws. First, he proposed legislation to bar anyone who the people had deposed from office from further office. This was, however, dropped at the instigation of his mother Cornelia. The proposal was likely meant to intimidate the other tribunes so they would not exercise their vetoes.[89] He then passed legislation reaffirming provocatio rights and retroactively extending them to the sentences of exile which the consular commission in 132 BC had passed against Tiberius' supporters. Publius Popillius Laenas, the consul who had led the commission and was thereby opened to prosecution for violating those rights, immediately left the city for exile in Campania.[90]

Gaius also moved legislation which would benefit the rich equestrians, especially those who served as Rome's public contractors (the publicani):

  • Gaius changed the bidding location of public tax farming contracts from the provinces to Rome, which increased oversight and favoured high-ranking equites in the capital rather than provincial elites.[91]
  • He also passed legislation to build roads, which he would oversee, with contracts let out to the equestrians.[92]
  • He also made equites the dominant body for juries for the permanent court on corruption. After, however, the acquittal of a corrupt consul that year, Gaius, with the support of an allied tribune, made the equites the sole class staffing the juries.[93]

Gaius also recognised the weakness of Tiberius' coalition, which relied only on the rural plebs, and therefore sought to expand it.[94] To do so, he courted the urban plebs with legislation establishing Roman colonies both in Italy and abroad at Carthage.[95] He also carried legislation to stop deduction of soldier pay for equipment and to establish a minimum age for conscription at 17.[96] In this package, Gaius also introduced the grain subsidy which allowed all citizens to purchase grain at a subsidised price of six and two-thirds sesterces per modius.[97][98]

Further legislation also regulated the magistrates and the senate. Even though the ancient sources generally cast these reforms as part of "an elaborate plot against the authority of the senate... he showed no sign of wanting to replace the senate in its normal functions".[99] Nor were his reforms meant to undermine the senate indirectly or establish a democracy.[100] Rather, Gaius was seeking to have the senators act more in the public interest rather than in their own private interests.[97] To that end, with an ally in the tribunate, Manlius Acilius Glabrio, he also moved legislation reforming the provincial corruption laws.[101] Also importantly, he passed the lex Sempronia de provinciis consularibus, which required the senate to assign consular provinces prior to the elections of the consuls and insulated this decision from tribunician veto.[102]

Some ancient sources claim that Gaius wanted to change voting procedures in the timocratic comitia centuriata to make it more democratic.[103] However, this claim is dubious and largely rejected.[104]

Gaius made an extremely controversial proposal to improve the state of the Latins and the other Italian allies: the Latins would receive full Roman citizenship with the Italians upgraded to Latin rights. Doing so further extended to Italians, via Latin rights, the right to vote if present in Rome during elections. This proposal died: the specifics are not entirely clear, it may have been vetoed or otherwise simply withdrawn;[105] recent scholarship now trends towards a veto from Livius Drusus.[106] Gaius, after taking some leave to set up a colony near Carthage, attempted to stand for a third tribunate, but was unsuccessful. It is said that he had sufficient popular support to have been elected, but was not returned because the ten tribunician offices had already been filled.[107]


Early in the year 121 BC, attempts were made to repeal portions of Gaius' legislation. The main point of repeal, however, was not agrarian legislation or his subsidised grain bill, but the comparatively minor question of the proposed colony at Carthage.[108] After an attendant was killed in the streets by Gaius' supporters, Gaius and his ally Flaccus were summoned to defend themselves before the senate; they refused and barricaded themselves with armed followers on the Aventine hill. Their refusal was tantamount to rebellion.[109] A senatus consultum ultimum was then moved, instructing the consul Lucius Opimius to ensure the state came to no harm and urging him to suppress Gaius and Flaccus on the Aventine. With a force of militia and Cretan archers, Opimius stormed the Aventine, killing Flaccus and his sons; Gaius was either killed or forced to commit suicide. Opimius then presided over drumhead courts investigating and executing many of Gaius and Flaccus' supporters.[110]

In the end, most of Gaius' reforms were preserved; archaeology has discovered evidence of Gracchan land colonial activities in Africa c. 119 BC and the land commission remained in operation until 111 BC. By that point, almost all land available to distribute had already been distributed.[111][112] In the whole, "the aristocracy's reaction resembled that of a general dealing with a mutiny, who accedes to most of the demands but executes the ringleaders to preserve discipline".[113]


Gracchan leges agrariae[edit]

Tiberius' reforms were focused on the rural peasantry. They were not, however, "so much oppressed as eager (quite justifiably) to share in the increased economic prosperity brought by Roman imperialism".[114] In general, more recent scholarship has stressed that the ancient sources have exaggerated the extent to which the Roman yeoman farmers were in fact in decline.[115] Tiberius' reform law was not revolutionary, but his tactics in pursuit of it were, especially when they mobilised the assemblies which gave some genuine expression of the popular will.[116] Those tactics threatened "to break the oligarchic stranglehold on Rome's political system, thus leading to his demise".[114] This was exacerbated by Tiberius' use of social justice rhetoric, which further set him aside from his aristocratic brethren.[117]

While substantial acreage was distributed as a whole, more than 3,268 square kilometres in the first few years of operation,[77] there is some debate to the extent to which the Gracchan land allotments were actually economically viable for the families placed atop them.[118] However, there are some indications that the lands distributed were used for pasture rather than intensive agriculture, even if they were suitable for farming.[119]

Gaius' role in land reform is more obscure; the sources are largely unclear on it except in mentioning offhandedly that he brought legislation on the matter.[120] By the time of his tribunate, the census results of 125–24 BC had been published and belief in a depopulation crisis had disappeared.[121] His agrarian reforms likely did little more than grant the agrarian commission – of which he was still a member – the necessary jurisdiction stripped in 129 BC.[122] He was, however, sufficiently visionary to see that further land exactions from Rome's allies would seriously damage their interests (and be politically infeasible).[123] This led him, "one of the first to realise that the amount of land in Italy was insufficient to provide for all inhabitants of the peninsula", to pursue extra-Italian colonisation. This change in scope proved long-lasting and by the time of Caesar, it would be standard policy to establish citizen colonies outside the Italian peninsula, which "would in time prove the only adequate method of finding enough land" for Italy's growing populations.[124]

The Gracchan leges agrariae continued in operation through their deaths until 111 BC, which again overhauled Roman policy with public lands. Much of this law survives to the present.[125] Building upon those laws, it abolished the rents that Tiberius' law passed, making the lands fully private and alienable. By 111 BC, most of the lands that could be distributed already had been; what was left over was "mostly pasture or land which had been assigned to specific people" through long-term leases or set aside for the purpose of providing money for road maintenance.[126] The continuing increase of the Italian population, however, would trigger later proposals for land redistribution; especially notable is Caesar's lex agraria during his consulship in 59 BC, which gave away the ager Campanus to some 20,000 settlers, albeit on less generous terms. After this, it became increasingly clear that there was simply insufficient land in Italy to accommodate demand.[127]

Reassessments of the causes of the Social War have also trended toward viewing the lex agraria as a major contributing factor. Land holdings in Roman-dominated Italy gave the Roman state a latent title to large swaths of land which had never been formally surveyed. While the Gracchan land commission quickly parcelled and redistributed lands in southern Italy that had been confiscated from the allies that had defected to Hannibal during the Second Punic War, the older lands had been occupied for centuries.[128] Attempts, through to the start of the Social War, to press Roman claims on those lands – which "the allies assumed that they would be able to keep... as long as they did not rebel" – may have greatly undermined allied support for Roman hegemony.[129]

Gaius' urban and administrative reforms[edit]

Gaius' reforms were broad and covered large portions of the republic's administration. Their main purpose was to advance the quality of Roman government, reducing extortion and corruption among the senatorial governors while acting within the bounds of what his contemporaries would have considered due process.[130]

One of the elements best attested to is Gaius' lex repetundarum, which reformed the quaestio perpetua on provincial corruption with an equestrian jury to check senatorial governors. The law is preserved on a bronze tablet once owned by Cardinal Pietro Bembo.[131] While, in the long run, the equestrian jury would prove a political issue for the next half century, these reforms were not meant to set the senate and equites into conflict.[132] Nor were they some kind of programme at true popular oversight, as moving the jury from the senators to the equites "merely reallocated influence from one section of the elite to another".[133] Ernst Badian, writing in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, gave the assessment:

A proud aristocrat, [Gaius] wanted to leave the senate in charge of directing policy and the magistrates in charge of its execution, subject to constitutional checks and removed from financial temptation, with the people sharing in the profits of empire without excessive exploitation of the subjects. The ultimate result of his legislation was to set up the publicani as a new exploiting class, not restrained by a tradition of service or by accountability at law. But this did not become clear for a generation, and he cannot be blamed for not foreseeing it.

His lex frumentaria, which created a subsidised grain supply at around what he considered to be a "normal" price, set up an influential model for welfare in Rome.[134] It was a reaction to corn disruptions in recent times that likely developed from army service, but his idea to have the Roman state smooth much of the variability of agriculture put the population less at the mercy of speculators and less dependent on magisterial largesse. The lowered incentives for magistrates giving food away for popularity at home had the added effect of reducing their proclivity to extort corn from provincials.[135] These provisions continued in force after the death of Gaius, suggesting an emerging consensus at Rome that there was a "right of the people to enjoy the rewards of the empire [and that] frumentationes [were useful] to divert the interest and support of the urban plebs from the prospect of agrarian reform".[136] After a period of abrogation by Sulla, the dole in the future would expand, however, both in cost and generosity, as later generations of politicians acted with or without senatorial support to do so.[137]

Gaius' lex de provinciis consularibus was a similar policy to reduce senatorial corruption and was "far from being revolutionary":[136] his purpose with the law "was to prevent sitting consuls from using their position to influence provincial assignments improperly (and perhaps to Rome’s detriment)" by requiring provinces to be assigned before the consuls took office.[138] To further insulate such decisions from political meddling, he even made senatorial decisions on consular provinces immune from tribunician veto.[139]

Political violence[edit]

The impact of Tiberius' murder started a cycle of increased political violence: "the oligarchy had introduced violence into the political system with the murder of Tiberius Gracchus and over the years the use of violence became increasingly acceptable as various political disputes in Rome led to more and more bloody discord".[140] The use of force to suppress reform also suggested that the republic itself was temperamentally unsuited for producing the types of economic reforms wanted or needed, as in the Gracchi's framing, by the people.[141]

In terms of periodisation, the death of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC is widely viewed as the start of the "late republic" and the beginning of the republic's eventual collapse.[142] For example, in The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, Jürgen von Ungern-Sternberg writes:

It was Tiberius' assassination that made the year 133 BC a turning point in Roman history and the beginning of the crisis of the Roman Republic.[143]

Even in ancient times, Cicero remarked as much in saying "the death of Tiberius Gracchus, and even before that the whole rationale behind his tribunate, divided a united people into two distinct groups". However, scholars such as Mary Beard also warn that Cicero is exaggerating for rhetorical effect and that "the idea there had been a calm consensus at Rome between rich and poor until [133 BC] is at best a nostalgic fiction".[144]

The death of Gaius as well inaugurated a new tool for the senate in upholding the current order by force: the so-called senatus consultum ultimum. Opimius was prosecuted in 120 BC for violating Gaius' law against extralegal punishment. The ex-consul, however, was able to successfully defend himself by appealing to the senate's decree and by arguing that Gaius and Flaccus deserved to be treated as seditious enemies rather than citizens.[110] Opimius' acquittal set the precedent that the senatus consultum ultimum – which was merely advice from the senate: "the senate could pass any decree it liked, it was the magistrate who was responsible for any illegal actions"[110] – was an acceptable ground to vitiate citizen rights extralegally.[113]

Reception and historiography[edit]

A 1794 engraving of the French agitator and revolutionary, François-Noël "Gracchus" Babeuf. Babeuf also wrote a newspaper called Le tribun du peuple (Tribune of the People). Babeuf was executed in 1797 for attempting to overthrow the French Directory.[145]

Views of the Gracchi have changed over time. In the ancient world, the two brothers were largely viewed as an organised force acting in concert.[51] During the early modern period, the Gracchan land programme was widely misconstrued as a socialistic restructuring of Roman society where public and private land ownership would be capped.[146] Modern historians, however, largely view the two brothers' political activities as separate[147] and dismiss their identification as social revolutionaries.[7]

Ancient reception[edit]

There was a positive and a negative tradition related to the Gracchi brothers. Many of the ancient sources are late – there is a lack of contemporary sources – and are coloured by the positive tradition: many scholars believe that Plutarch's biographies of the two men, along with Appian's Civil wars, are largely based on Gaius Gracchus and his supporters' narratives; in this, most of what is known of Tiberius is filtered through his brother's self-presentation. Plutarch's narrative, guided by his literary agenda, "drastically simplifies the [complex] history of this period". On the whole, Appian's narrative is more reliable, but is still marred with significant anachronisms,[148] clear inaccuracies, and schematic features – that the agrarian reform eventually fails and that Tiberius and Gaius pursued the same objectives – which emerge from Appian's historiographical agenda.[149]

Some modern scholars speculate that these Gracchan narratives were transmitted through the centuries to the imperial authors by plays which dramatised the tragedy of their deaths. Two major themes stand out. First, the specifics of Gaius' death are "a dog's breakfast" of varying details and involve a Lucius Vitellius, which was a common name during the republic for traitors (according to legend, the Vitellii were the first to betray the republic to the Tarquins shortly after the expulsion of the kings).[150] Second, the stress on friendship and betrayal in these last hours is seen as replacing a more anodyne political drama for heightened pathos.[151] Other scholars, however, disagree, arguing that the hypothesis of lost tragedies is too speculative and instead credit Plutarch or his sources with the dramatisation of the narrative.[148] Regardless, in later generations, the death of the Gracchi became a common rhetorical topos in Roman oratorical schools.[152]

The negative tradition, however, is transmitted through other sources, such as Cicero and Valerius Maximus. In these narratives, the Gracchi are painted as seditious tribunes who inaugurated the use of force and intimidation which then required the Roman state to use violence to re-establish order.[153] The confluence of these traditions was common in late republican politics. For example, Cicero modulated his opinions on the Gracchi brothers to meet his audience. Before the senate, he spoke of them negatively and focused on their alleged attempts to take over the republic; before the people, he instead praised their good faith, moral virtues, and quality as orators (especially in comparison to the popularis tribunes of his day).[154][155]

Modern reception[edit]

By the 17th and 18th centuries, many books on ancient history repeated a false notion that Rome had limited all men to only 500 jugera of land.[156] The incorrect understanding emerged in 1734 with the publication of Montesquieu's Considerations on the causes of the greatness of the Romans and their decline, which furthered this mistaken notion of large scale land reform rather than redistribution of state-owned lots.[157] This led to the characterisation of the Gracchi as "socialists".[158][159] Through the later 18th century, the waters became further muddied, until the matter was largely re-cleared by Barthold Georg Niebuhr in his History of Rome.[2]

During the French Revolution, the revolutionary François-Noël Babeuf named himself "Gracchus" after the Gracchi brothers, in an attempt to connect his desire for large scale land redistribution with the Gracchan programme for agrarian reform. Babeuf's plans, however, differed substantially from the Gracchan programme in ways that exemplify how the reception of the Gracchi had deviated from their actual historical policies. First, Babeuf envisioned the nationalisation and communal ownership of lands, which was incompatible with the Gracchan programme of privatising already state-owned lands. Second, Babeuf's choice of name was made under the prevailing assumption at the time that the Gracchi acted to place a limit on private land holdings. Finally, Babeuf's name demonstrated his belief that a comparison was apt, consistent with contemporary beliefs that the Gracchi were revolutionaries. However, "the truth of the matter was otherwise[:] the Gracchi sought to strengthen and uphold the Roman republic; Babeuf wished to overthrow and radicalise the French republic".[160]

During the 19th century, the use of the Gracchi in then-current politics continued. The process of enclosure in England, for example, led to the formation of a large body of poor urban workers; many of their leaders were likened to the Gracchi and proposed reforms were compared with reference to the Roman land crisis as described in the ancient sources.[161]

Some 19th and early 20th century scholarship argued that the Gracchi were to some extent influenced by Greek political philosophy, especially in the extent to which Greek democratic principles could be applied at Rome.[162] These influences are largely attributed to Tiberius' interactions with Stoic egalitarian philosophy through Blossius of Cumae.[163] This is no longer believed, however, as there is little evidence for Tiberius being a Stoic or for Stoicism justfying democratic policies.[164][165]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Sturgis, Russell (1904). The appreciation of sculpture: a handbook. New York: Baker. p. 146.
  2. ^ a b Ridley 2000, p. 466.
  3. ^ Mitchell 1980, p. 83.
  4. ^ Launaro 2011, p. 240.
  5. ^ Launaro 2011, p. 241.
  6. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 221; Flower 2010, ch. 5.
  7. ^ a b Roselaar, Saskia T (2015-01-15). "The Gracchi brothers". Oxford Bibliographies. doi:10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0221.
    • "The Gracchi, especially Tiberius, are still occasionally used as examples of social revolutionaries; works by Marxist ancient historians indeed sometimes take this line. Modern Marxist websites... present Tiberius as a popular champion in the same vein as later Marxist or communist activists, although scholarship does not support this interpretation."
    • "In the French revolution they were championed as heroes of the people... François-Noël Babeuf (1760 – 1797) called himself Gracchus Babeuf and represented himself as a champion of the people. His ideas included the abolition of private property... hardly proposals that either Gracchus would have advocated."
    • "The Gracchi were also (ab)used as examples of popular champions in other parts of Europe, e.g. in Ireland."
  8. ^ Nicolet 1994, pp. 618–19.
  9. ^ Erdkamp, Paul. "Army and society". In Rosenstein & Morstein-Marx (2006), pp. 289–90.
  10. ^ de Ligt 2006, p. 598.
  11. ^ Lintott 1994a, p. 36.
  12. ^ Nicolet 1994, p. 603.
  13. ^ Lintott 1994a, p. 37.
  14. ^ Roselaar 2010, pp. 217, 227–28.
  15. ^ de Ligt 2006, p. 602.
  16. ^ de Ligt 2006, p. 603. "If the census figures of 125/124 and 115/114 are correct, then we must conclude that the theory of a drastic decline in the number of free country-dwellers is completely untenable".
  17. ^ Cf Cornell, T J (1996). "Hannibal's legacy: the effects of the Hannibalic war on Italy". Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. 41: 97–117. doi:10.1111/j.2041-5370.1996.tb01916.x. ISSN 0076-0730. Pace Cornell, Santangelo 2007, p. 475: "[Cornell 1996] is surely off the mark".
  18. ^ Lintott 1994b, p. 57.
  19. ^ Potter 2014, p. 68.
  20. ^ a b de Ligt 2006, p. 603.
  21. ^ Potter 2014, p. 77 n. 59.
  22. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 215.
  23. ^ Roselaar 2010, pp. 215–16.
  24. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 216.
  25. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 223.
  26. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 222.
  27. ^ Patterson 2006, p. 611.
  28. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 180.
  29. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 202.
  30. ^ Patterson 2006, p. 613.
  31. ^ Astin, A.E. (1958). "The Lex Annalis before Sulla". Latomus. 17 (1): 49–64. ISSN 0023-8856. JSTOR 41518780.
  32. ^ Scullard, HH (2011) [1958]. From the Gracchi to Nero: a history of Rome from 133 BC to AD 68 (4th ed.). London: Routledge. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-203-84478-6. OCLC 672031526.
  33. ^ Broughton 1951, p. 397.
  34. ^ Broughton 1951, p. 440.
  35. ^ Broughton 1951, p. 423.
  36. ^ For ancestry of both brothers, see Zmeskal 2009, pp. 246–48.
  37. ^ Degrasssi, A (1954). Fasti Capitolini. J. B. Paravia. p. 103 – via Attalus.org.
  38. ^ Zmeskal 2009, p. 99.
  39. ^ Zmeskal 2009, pp. 246–46.
  40. ^ Santangelo 2007, p. 469.
  41. ^ Broughton 1951, p. 464.
  42. ^ Broughton 1951, pp. 464, 468.
  43. ^ Brennan 2014, p. 39.
  44. ^ Goldsworthy 2016, p. 119.
  45. ^ Brennan 2014, p. 42.
  46. ^ Baker, Gabriel David (2021). Spare no one: mass violence in Roman warfare. Lanham, Maryland. p. 179. ISBN 978-1-5381-1220-5. OCLC 1182021748.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  47. ^ Lintott 1994b, p. 60.
  48. ^ a b Lintott 1994b, p. 61.
  49. ^ Flower 2010, p. 73.
  50. ^ Flower 2010, pp. 72 et seq.
  51. ^ a b Flower 2010, p. 72.
  52. ^ Flower 2010, p. 72. "More is gained by looking at the Gracchi brothers separately and in their own particular political contexts, rather than treating them as a unit in the way that has become increasingly common and that dates back to the paired biographies written by Plutarch".
  53. ^ Lintott 1994b, p. 65.
  54. ^ Crawford 1974, pp. 273–76.
  55. ^ a b Roselaar 2010, p. 230.
  56. ^ Mackay 2009, p. 39. "These clauses apparently make it clear that land was distributed only to Roman citizens and not to the Italian allies", also dismissing Appian's claims to the contrary.
  57. ^ Roselaar 2010, pp. 227, 231.
  58. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 231.
  59. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 100 documents scholarly disagreement as to when a 500 jugera maximum was in fact implemented. Suggested dates range from 300–133 BC, with the last date implying that no such prior law existed.
  60. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 235.
  61. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 236.
  62. ^ Mackay 2009, p. 38.
  63. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 224; Lintott 1994b, p. 66, "Gracchus' proposal brought him enormous public support. A contemporary historian... claimed that he was escorted by not less than 3,000—4,000 men".
  64. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 224.
  65. ^ Mackay 2009, pp. 40–41.
  66. ^ Mackay 2009, pp. 41–43.
  67. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 239, siding, in this instance, with Plutarch's account.
  68. ^ a b Roselaar 2010, p. 240.
  69. ^ Lintott 1994b, p. 68.
  70. ^ Lintott 1994b, p. 69.
  71. ^ Mackay 2009, pp. 48–49.
  72. ^ Mackay 2009, p. 50.
  73. ^ Boren, Henry C (1961). "Tiberius Gracchus: the opposition view". American Journal of Philology. 82 (4): 358–69. doi:10.2307/292017. ISSN 0002-9475. JSTOR 292017. It appears extremely likely that Nasica and the rest were actually convinced [Tiberius] was aiming at demagogic tyranny. These nobles feared that the deterioration predicted by Polybius was upon them ... the murderers genuinely thought they had saved the state by killing a would-be tyrant ... whose actions were bound to result in the ruin of the republic.
  74. ^ Lintott 1994b, p. 66.
  75. ^ Mackay 2009, p. 55; Lintott 1994b, p. 73.
  76. ^ Roselaar, Saskia T (2009). "References to Gracchan activity in the liber coloniarum". Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 58 (2): 198–214. doi:10.25162/historia-2009-0009. ISSN 0018-2311. JSTOR 25598462. S2CID 160264713. See also CIL I, 642; CIL X, 289.
  77. ^ a b Roselaar 2010, pp. 252–54.
  78. ^ Roselaar 2010, pp. 240–41; Broughton 1951, p. 495.
  79. ^ Broughton 1951, p. 495.
  80. ^ Broughton 1951, p. 503.
  81. ^ Roselaar 2010, pp. 240–41.
  82. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 241.
  83. ^ Mackay 2009, p. 58.
  84. ^ Mackay 2009, p. 59; Lintott 1994b, p. 76.
  85. ^ a b Mackay 2009, pp. 59–60.
  86. ^ Lintott 1994b, p. 77.
  87. ^ Roselaar 2010, pp. 241–42. "[T]he sources are rather vague about the agrarian activities of Gaius ... His recorded agrarian activity is quite limited; Appian and Plutarch describe in some detail [colonial programmes] but for viritane distributions Gaius could simply revive his brother's law".
  88. ^ Crawford 1974, p. 277.
  89. ^ Mackay 2009, pp. 61–62; Broughton 1951, p. 513.
  90. ^ Mackay 2009, pp. 62–63.
  91. ^ Mackay 2009, p. 65; Broughton 1951, p. 514.
  92. ^ Mackay 2009, p. 65.
  93. ^ Mackay 2009, pp. 66, 70–71.
  94. ^ Mackay 2009, p. 66.
  95. ^ The bill to establish a colony at Carthage was moved by his ally in the tribunate, Gaius Rubrius. Broughton 1951, p. 517.
  96. ^ Mackay 2009, pp. 66–67.
  97. ^ a b Mackay 2009, p. 68.
  98. ^ Garnsey & Rathbone 1985, p. 20, noting also that the claim that the grain was provided for nothing at App. BCiv., 1.21, is incorrect and contradicted by Livy and a surviving commentary on Cicero's Pro Sestio.
  99. ^ Lintott 1994b, p. 78.
  100. ^ Badian 2012; Mackay 2009, p. 68; Lintott 1994b, p. 78.
  101. ^ Mackay 2009, pp. 71–72.
  102. ^ Mackay 2009, pp. 72–73.
  103. ^ Eg Broughton 1952, pp. 517–18, citing Ps.-Sall. Ad Caes. sen. 8.1.
  104. ^ Badian, E. (1962). "From the Gracchi to Sulla". Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 11 (2): 244–45. ISSN 0018-2311. JSTOR 4434742.
  105. ^ Lintott 1994b, pp. 82–83.
  106. ^ Santangelo 2007, p. 481.
  107. ^ Lintott 1994b, p. 83.
  108. ^ Lintott 1994b, pp. 83–84.
  109. ^ Badian, Ernst (1984). "The Death of Saturninus". Chiron. 14: 118. doi:10.34780/1497-zt32. ISSN 2510-5396. [C. Gracchus'] own case, two years later, was quite different. He was himself privatus, and he had responded to a summons to the Senate by joining his armed followers on the Aventine. This was rebellion, and it would be widely accepted that emergency action was the only answer.
  110. ^ a b c Lintott 1994b, p. 84.
  111. ^ Lintott 1994b, pp. 85, 87.
  112. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 278.
  113. ^ a b Lintott 1994b, p. 85.
  114. ^ a b Gruen 1994, p. 877.
  115. ^ Perelli 1993, p. 21.
  116. ^ Perelli 1993, p. 28.
  117. ^ Perelli 1993, pp. 32–33.
  118. ^ Perelli 1993, pp. 92–94, 148; Lintott 1994.
  119. ^ Uggeri, Giovanni. "Le divisioni agrarie di età graccana: un bilancio". In Alessandrì, Salvarore; Grelle, Francesco (eds.). Dai Gracchi alla fine della Repubblica. pp. 31–60.
  120. ^ Roselaar 2010, pp. 241–42, citing Livy Per., 60.8; Vell. Pat., 2.6.2; Flor.
  121. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 228.
  122. ^ Roselaar 2010, pp. 241–42.
  123. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 243.
  124. ^ Roselaar 2010, pp. 242–43.
  125. ^ Eg a critical edition of the 111 BC lex agraria in Crawford, Michael (1996). "Lex agraria". Roman Statutes. Vol. 1. Institute of Classical Studies. pp. 113–80. ISBN 978-0-900587-67-2.
  126. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 278; Santangelo 2007, p. 474.
  127. ^ Roselaar 2010, pp. 286–87.
  128. ^ Mouritsen, Henrik (1998). Italian unification. BICS Supplement 70. London: Institute of Classical Studies. pp. 148 et seq. ISBN 0-9005-8781-4.
  129. ^ Roselaar 2010, p. 289.
  130. ^ Sherwin-White 1982, p. 28.
  131. ^ Sherwin-White 1982, p. 18.
  132. ^ Gruen 1994, p. 878.
  133. ^ Mouritsen 2017, p. 149.
  134. ^ Garnsey & Rathbone 1985, p. 20.
  135. ^ Garnsey & Rathbone 1985, pp. 24–25.
  136. ^ a b Santangelo 2007, p. 480.
  137. ^ Eg Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Marcus Porcius Cato's bills in 78 and 62 BC expanding the grain distributions with senatorial support and little opposition. Mouritsen 2017, p. 113.
  138. ^ Drogula 2015, p. 260.
  139. ^ Drogula 2015, p. 298.
  140. ^ Mackay, Christopher S (2007). Ancient Rome: a military and political history (1st ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 129. ISBN 978-0-521-71149-4. OCLC 165407940.
  141. ^ Flower 2010, p. 84.
  142. ^ Flower 2010, pp. 61, 13, 62 n. 1.
  143. ^ von Ungern-Sternberg 2014, p. 81.
  144. ^ Beard 2015, pp. 226–7.
  145. ^ Sydenham, M J (1979). "Gracchus Babeuf: the first revolutionary communist, by RB Rose". Canadian Journal of History. 14 (2): 303–305. doi:10.3138/cjh.14.2.303. ISSN 0008-4107.
  146. ^ Ridley 2000, pp. 459, 463.
  147. ^ Flower 2010, p. 72. "More is gained by looking at the Gracchi brothers separately".
  148. ^ a b Santangelo 2007, p. 486.
  149. ^ Santangelo 2007, p. 486, citing Gargola 1997.
  150. ^ Beness & Hillard 2001, pp. 136–37.
  151. ^ Beness & Hillard 2001, pp. 137–38.
  152. ^ Santangelo 2007, p. 488.
  153. ^ Pina Polo 2017, p. 5.
  154. ^ Murray, Robert J (1966). "Cicero and the Gracchi". Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. 97: 291–298. doi:10.2307/2936013. ISSN 0065-9711. JSTOR 2936013.
  155. ^ Yakobson, Alexander (2010). "Traditional political culture and the people's role in the Roman republic". Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 59 (3): 282–302. doi:10.25162/historia-2010-0017. ISSN 0018-2311. JSTOR 25758311. S2CID 160215553.
  156. ^ Ridley 2000, p. 459.
  157. ^ Ridley 2000, p. 463.
  158. ^ Katz, Solomon (1942). "The Gracchi: an essay in interpretation". The Classical Journal. 38 (2): 65–82. ISSN 0009-8353. JSTOR 3291626.
  159. ^ Less academically, Cassar, Claudine (2022-06-12). "Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus - the earliest 'socialists' in recorded history". Anthropology Review. Retrieved 2023-07-05. Tiberius Gracchus is often described as the one of the first socialists in history.
  160. ^ Russell 2008, p. 57; Ridley 2000, p. 459.
  161. ^ Butler, Sarah (October 2013). "Heroes or villains: the Gracchi, reform, and the nineteenth-century press". In Hardwick, Lorna; Harrison, Stephen (eds.). Classics in the modern world: a democratic turn?. Oxford University Press. pp. 300–18. ISBN 978-0-1996-7392-6.
  162. ^ Eg Stobart, John Clarke (1912). The Grandeur that was Rome. Sidgwick & Jackson Limited. p. 86.
  163. ^ Santangelo 2007, p. 483.
  164. ^ Perelli 1993, pp. 52 et seq.
  165. ^ Santangelo 2007, p. 484.




Further reading[edit]