Tiberius and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

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Tiberius and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

Tiberius Sempronius (ca. 163-133 B.C.) and Gaius Sempronius (ca. 154-121 B.C.) Gracchus, commonly known as the Gracchi, were Roman political reformers who, through their use of the plebeian tribunate, set Roman politics on a course that ended in the collapse of the republic.

Sons of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, twice consul and censor, and Cornelia, daughter of Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal, the Gracchus brothers belonged to one of the most distinguished families in Rome with wide connections among the nobility. But their liberalism and overzealous desire to correct existing abuses brought them into collision with senatorial conservatives who killed them.

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus

Tiberius began his political career in 147/146 B.C. on the staff of his brother-in-law Scipio Aemilianus at Carthage, where he was the first Roman soldier over the wall. In Spain, as quaestor to the consul C. Hostilius Mancinus in 137 B.C., Tiberius saved a Roman army of 20,000 men from destruction at the hands of the Celtiberi because of the trust of the Spaniards in his good offices.

Tiberius ran for the tribunate of 133 B.C. as the representative of a large liberal faction in the Senate which included Q. Mucius Scaevola, consul in 133 B.C.; Appius Claudius Pulcher, the father-in-law of Tiberius and ranking senator; and P. Licinius Crassus, father-in-law of Gaius and one of the leading lawyers of the day. This group helped Tiberius draw up his land reform bill, the purpose of which was to distribute land held by the state to city and rural poor while recognizing the rights of existing renters.

Tiberius's general aim was to increase the number of small farmers in Italy, who alone were liable for conscription into the legions. While the measure was eminently fair, Tiberius angered traditionalists by taking his bill directly to the people without consulting the Senate. He then violated constitutional practice by impeaching Marcus Octavius, a conservative tribune who had vetoed the bill, on the grounds that a tribune who thwarted the will of the people was no true tribune. After passage of the bill he further outraged the Senate by threatening to appropriate for the purpose of land settlement revenues from the province of Asia. He thus tread on senatorial prerogatives in provincial affairs. When, again contrary to accepted practices, he ran for a second term as tribune, his opponents took direct action against him. Led by his cousin Scipio Nasica, they killed Tiberius and some 300 followers in bloody riots over the election.

Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

Plutarch says that while Tiberius had a mild and temperate disposition Gaius was impulsive and volatile. Gaius was also an electrifying orator and a more astute politician than his brother.

Gaius served with Scipio Aemilianus at Numantia in Spain. He returned from there in 133 B.C. to become, along with his brother and Appius Claudius, one of the land commissioners under Tiberius's bill. In 126 B.C., while still commissioner, he went to Sardinia as quaestor to the consul L. Aurelius Orestes. There, because of his influence with the Sardinians, Gaius persuaded them to help relieve the plight of the Roman soldiers stationed on the island.

Gaius left Sardinia in 124 B.C. to run for the tribunate of 123 B.C. with a full program of reform in mind and broad support among the people and liberal senators. But so strong was conservative opposition to him that he came in only fourth at the polls. As tribune, he introduced some 15 reform measures.

Gaius benefited the people and tied them to him politically by passing a stronger land bill, regulating the grain supply to the city of Rome, undertaking ambitious road-building and other public-works projects, and establishing colonies in Italy and abroad. He drove a wedge between the equites (equestrians) and the Senate by transferring the juries in extortion cases to the equites and auctioning off the tax contract for Asia in Rome. As a result, he stood at the head of the polls when he ran for a second tribunate for 122 B.C.

When Gaius went to Africa at the beginning of 122 B.C. to organize his new colony on the site of Carthage, the opposition rallied against him. A conservative tribune, M. Livius Drusus, outbid Gaius among the city poor by proposing 12 new colonies in Italy rather than abroad and split Gaius's Italian and Latin supporters by offering special benefits to the Latins. Returning from Africa, Gaius rashly insisted on introducing his citizenship bill. But the Senate had his Italian supporters expelled from the city, and the mounting opposition of the plebeians led to its defeat. In consequence Gaius also failed in his bid for a third tribunate.

Opposition continued even after Gaius left public office. When riots broke out in 121 B.C. over repeal of the bill to found the colony at Carthage, the Senate gave emergency powers to the consul Lucius Opimius to deal with the situation. In the armed action which followed, Gaius committed suicide rather than fight, but Marcus Fulvius Flaccus, his colleague in the tribunate and violent proponent of Italian citizenship, together with 3,000 of his followers, was killed.

Gaius Gracchus showed how a tribune with the backing of the city poor and the equestrians could maneuver successfully against the senatorial leadership. But, in defending its position, the Senate taught popular leaders a lesson in violence which eventually undid the republic.

Further Reading

The principal ancient sources for the Gracchus brothers are Appian and Plutarch. D. C. Earl, Tiberius Gracchus: A Study in Politics (1963), is a penetrating analysis of the political issues at stake in Tiberius's tribunate. There is no separate study of Gaius in English. Scholarly and detailed, although an inadequate portrayal of the brothers' character, is Henry Charles Boren, The Gracchi (1969). See also J. B. Bury and others, eds., The Cambridge Ancient History (12 vols., 1923-1939), and Howard H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68 (1959; 2d ed. 1963). □

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