Disclaimer – although the facts and arguments below are well researched, this blog post is not meant to be used as anything other than a short introduction to a very complex episode in Roman history. Students are therefore strongly discouraged from referencing this blog post in their work but are invited to use it as a springboard into the subject. A select bibliography is available at the end of the post.
In 133 BC, a young Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was elected as one of the ten Tribunes of the Plebs, an ancient office allegedly set up soon after the establishment of the Republic to secure and preserve the interests of the Roman plebeians and to defend them from the unjust actions and abuses of power by the far more privileged patrician class. Tiberius Gracchus used his popularity with the masses and exploited lacunae in the constitutional laws of the Roman republic to see a controversial land bill through the popular assembly, despite strong senatorial opposition. When Tiberius Gracchus sought re-election as tribune for 132 BC in order to secure immunity from prosecution by disgruntled land owners, a senatorial faction led by Cornelius Scipio Nasica butchered Tiberius together with a large number of his supporters and dumped their bodies in the Tiber.
Tiberius’ Land Redistribution Bill – Precedent and Opposition
Whenever Rome managed to subdue a hostile city or people in Italy and elsewhere, the defeated enemy was usually punished by having a fraction of its land confiscated by the Roman republic and declared ager publicum, that is ‘public land’. This public land could then be used to settle Roman or Latin colonies, or distributed to landless Roman people or rented by other Roman citizens or Italian allies for a small contribution to the public treasury or through payment in kind. Mismanagement by the Republic led to a situation where the richer members of society could make use of large swathes of undistributed land to their great profit, while poor record keeping made accurate assessment and collection of rent due extremely difficult. In 367BC, the tribunes Gaius Licinius Stolo and Lucius Sextinus Lateranus passed a bill limiting tenure and use of public land by any single person at 500 iugera (roughly 325 acres). This limit was, however, largely ignored, while the administration of justice by a few wealthy senatorial families made prosecution of any of their members hard and ineffectual.
Tiberius’ proposed bill was therefore largely unoriginal. It simply argued for the setting up of a commission for the enforcement of the 367BC bill and a redistribution of the freed-up land to Rome’s increasing urban poor. His first draft even allowed for the retention of a further 250 iugera in excess of the originally allowed 500 for each son in order to alleviate concerns by wealthy fathers that their sons would face tougher competition from rival families with less sons, leading to a decrease in prestige and power. Tiberius also aimed at a long-term preservation of this new land-ownership structure by forbidding the sale of redistributed land, avoiding the danger of land once again funnelling into the hands of a select few.
“Whenever the Romans annexed land by military means from one of the nations whose territories bordered theirs, they used to sell some of it and keep the rest in state ownership… But the rich began to drive the poor off the land… until a law was passed forbidding anyone from owning more than five hundred plethra of land… No sooner had Tiberius been appointed tribune, however, than he made a determined assault on the heart of the problem…And it is generally held that, especially considering the extent of the injustice and rapacity it was designed to combat, no law was ever more moderately or mildly worded.”
Plutarch, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus 8-9 (Robin Waterfield)
Opposition to this bill was harsh. Just seven years before Tiberius’ tribunate, that is in 140BC, the consul Gaius Laelius “Sapiens” (the wise) had been forced to abandon a similar proposal in the face of harsh opposition by his fellow senators. The same senators, together with a new developing class of rich landowners, were equally hostile to Tiberius’ bill and were committed to resisting it as best as they could.
It is, of course, impossible, to fully understand the motivations of any historical character, especially when they are the product of a society so fundamentally different from our own. However, an assessment of the historical circumstances in which they operated might bring us close to understanding their possible motivations.
According to Tiberius Gracchus’ own brother, Gaius, who later succeeded him as a tribune of the plebs and who will be the topic of the next historical blog-post on this website, remarked that Tiberius had been inspired to effect some kind of redistribution of public land while traveling north through the Italian peninsula on his way to his military service in Spain.
Tiberius had allegedly been shocked by the fact that so much land was not being worked by small-scale farmers working to support their family but had been converted into large estates owned by the Roman upper classes and worked almost-exclusively by imported slaves. These new estates presented any remaining small-scale farmers with a stiff market competition they simply couldn’t hope to compete with and eventually forced them to sell their lands and move to the cities in search of other forms of work. This problem was further exacerbated by the lengthy campaigns that Rome’s non-professional army of volunteer and conscripted landed gentry had to fight far from Italian shores. These soldiers would either die in the field, leaving their families of widows and orphaned children with no alternative but to sell their unmanageable farms and leave for the cities, or return years later with whatever spoils they could manage to gather to manage a farm which, due to a long period of relative abandon, would require considerable investment to be returned to its former efficiency.
Some soldiers who participated in lucrative campaigns, especially in the East, would manage to return with sufficient wealth to not only get their own farms in working order but also to buy into surrounding property and invest in their own slave work-force, thus propelling them into the ranks of the newly-forming landed middle class.
Others believed that Tiberius was motivated by a desire to avenge himself on the senatorial class for the offhand treatment he had received after his involvement in the Spanish wars. Following a series of setbacks in its war against the Numantian tribes, the Roman army under Hostilius Mancinus was trapped in a gorge in 137 BC, and Tiberius managed to secure a peace treaty with the tribal chiefs, saving the lives of every soldier in that cornered army in the process. The news and the treaty were welcomed by the people and especially the families of the soldiers he had saved, but the senate refused to ratify a treaty that seemed to consider barbaric tribes on a par with Roman citizens. Mancinus was surrendered to the Numantians together with the news that the senate refused to acknowledge the ceasefire. Tiberius himself only escaped the same fate thanks to the intervention of his brother-in-law, Scipio Aemilianus, the famous sacker of Carthage.
Later, it would be said that Tiberius had meant to make himself a king. There is no reason to believe this was true, especially considering that this was the excuse that Scipio Nasica had used to justify his massacre of Tiberius and his supporters.
A Changing Tribunate for a Changing Rome
Many historians, modern and ancient alike, have looked back to Tiberius’ tribunate in 133 BC as a turning point in Roman history and the beginning of the decline of the Roman republic and its eventual change to an autocratic empire. This view, some others might argue, ignores other instances of civil unrest in Rome before this period and periods of peace after it, and that to seek to assign a single cause or starting-point to a historical reality so complex it can hardly be called an event is almost absurd. That Tiberius Gracchus revolutionised the image and scope of the office of the tribunate is, however undisputable, and his actions in history reflect something far more important which underpinned his story: the changing reality of Rome.
With the passing of the Lex Hortensia in 287 BC, the decisions of the popular assembly presided over by the tribunes acquired the force of law. This, together with other developments during the so-called Struggle of the Orders, changed the social aspect of Rome – the traditional distinction between patrician and plebeian was gradually replaced by social stratification based on wealth and political power, with influence gradually accumulating in the hands of a few families that managed to get their members elected to the highest offices of the state. Families like the Cornelia, the Metella, and the Claudia became known as the ‘nobiles’ and true power rested in their hands. Roman politics became one determined by private negotiations between these foremost families backed in the voting booths by a strong system of patron-client relations sponsored by these families’ great wealth. Rival factions within the senate protected their interests by ensuring the election of parties favourable to them throughout the constitutional setup, and the system of checks and balances inherent to it ensured that no one faction could destroy the other and seize control. This political situation ensured a century of relative stability.
The period also coincided with the exponential expansion of Rome’s empire. Rome’s victory over Carthage in the First Punic war earned it its first province in Sicily, soon followed by Sardinia, whereas the favourable termination of the Second Punic War saw the addition of large parts of Spain and modern Tunisia to the empire. Further victories expanded Rome’s control in Spain, southern Gaul (modern day France), northern Italy, Macedonia and Greece, whereas the destruction of Carthage and the annexation of mainland Greece into the empire in 146 BC made Rome the undisputed mistress of the Mediterranean. These conquests, as well as more rigorous contact with the affluent east, brought great wealth and innovation to Rome, swelling the coffers of the rich and sometimes trickling down to the poor. The wealthy invested their wealth in pockets of land throughout the Italian peninsula which they turned into estates worked by slaves. These far-flung interests and the displacement of urban communities weakened the traditional patron-client relationships that had allowed for a stable political system held firmly in the hands of a select few families.
The loyalties that had kept the popular assembly’s power in checks had been eroded and Tiberius had the will and the rhetorical skill to rouse that sleeping giant in support of his bill and against the forces of the senate that had for so long been pulling all the strings.
Tiberius the Revolutionary
Although Tiberius’ land bill was passed and his land commission set up, the problems that beset the commission’s work rendered it largely ineffectual. His dream to create an Italy worked by a multitude of families that could be called upon to supply Rome with the soldiers for her future campaigns ultimately failed, and the issue of Rome’s dwindling supply of conscripts would only be adequately addressed by the Marian reforms some few decades later.
Tiberius’ constitutional legacy was far more significant. When Tiberius managed to depose Octavian, the senate-supporting tribune who had vetoed his bill, Tiberius had effectively removed that component of the Roman constitutional system that had kept it stable and prohibited any one faction, regardless of its popularity, to hijack the state and seize absolute power. The inability of the senate to counter this move, simply because there was no law that actually made such an act illegal, betrayed the weakness not only of the largely unwritten constitution that depended mainly on the will of the participants to play by long-established implicit understandings of what was allowed and what wasn’t, but also of the senate itself that, if hard-pressed, couldn’t provide any law or statute to justify its disproportionate influence in Roman politics. The senate’s influence was grounded in a tradition that saw it as the protector of the Roman people, but its inability to cater for the needs of the people had caused for a breakdown in this understanding, which Tiberius exploited.
This weakness had already been made evident when Tiberius proceeded to present his bill directly to the people despite senatorial disapproval and was reemphasised when, following the bequest of Pergamum to the Roman people, Tiberius passed a bill providing for the Pergamene treasury to be used to finance the work of the land commission. Foreign and fiscal policy had always been managed by the senate and its magistrates, and this action was seen as another assault on the senate’s traditional powers.
Ultimately, it took violence of dubious legality to put an end to Tiberius’ career. His death was quickly followed by a witch-hunt of his most vociferous supporters yet even in death Tiberius’ pull on the people was such that the senate did not dare dismantle the Land Commission or harm Tiberius’ younger brother, Gaius, who would follow in his footsteps in the following decade.
Champion of the People or Destroyer of Political Harmony
“Thus Gracchus, son of Gracchus who had been twice consul and of Cornelia, daughter of Scipio who had wrested supremacy from the Carthaginians, lost his life on the Capitol, while holding the office of the tribune, as a result of an excellent scheme which he pushed forward by violent means. And this foul crime, the first perpetrated in the public assembly, was not the last, but from time to time something similar would always occur.”
Appian, The Civil Wars 1.17 (John Carter’s Translation)
Tiberius has forever been and will probably remain a highly controversial character in Roman history, Some viewed him as a champion of the people who was willing to brave all in order to secure a better deal for the disadvantaged in Roman society, others see him as a political realist who recognised that the political system of Rome was far too reluctant to adequately address the issues facing the Republic, while others still see him simply as a power-hungry demagogue who forced him way through with no concern for the safety of the Republic.
Whatever his intentions, his actions certainly set a series of dangerous precedents that were followed by Tribunes and politicians to come. Ultimately, however, it would be wrong to blame Tiberius for the fall of the Republic or for the development of political violence in Rome. The problems that Rome was facing and was going to be facing throughout the following century existed independently of Tiberius’ actions and his proposals were by far the closest to an adequate response to them the Roman system would come for a few decades. The wealthy elite’s reluctance to even recognise the problems facing the Republic and their concerted efforts to block Tiberius’ actions at every turn forced him towards more radical action. In that sense, they are as much to blame for the breakdown of political harmony as Tiberius himself.
The next historical blog-post will deal with the political career of Tiberius’ younger brother, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, and with the short and long-term effects of the brothers’ political careers on the fate of the Roman republic at home and abroad.
– Plutarch, Lives of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus
– Appian, The Civil Wars, Book 1. 9-17
– Riddle, J. (1970) Tiberius Gracchus – Destroyer or Reformer of the Republic? Lexington: D.C.Heath & Company [a collection of essays espousing different views on Tiberius Gracchus and his actions]
– Beard, M. and Crawdord, M. (1999) Rome in the Late Republic, 2nd ed. London: Bloomsbury [this book considers the various changes that led to this point in history and determined the decades following from it. The book espouses a thematic approach that considers the problem on a cultural, an economic, and a socio-political level]
– Earl, D. (1963) Tiberius Gracchus – A Study in Politics, Brussels: Revue d’Etudes Latines,
– Greenidge, A. (1970) ‘The First Signs of a Great Awakening’ in Riddle, J. Tiberius Gracchus – Destroyer or Reformer of the Republic? Lexington: D.C.Heath & Company
– Kondratieff, E. (2003) Popular Power in Action: Tribunes of The Plebs in The Late Republic. Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania,
– Maddox, G. (1982) ‘Responisble and Irresponsible Opposition: The Case of the Roman Tribunes’ in Government and Opposition, Vol. 17
– Scullard, H. (1982) From the Gracchi to Nero, 5th ed. London: Routledge
– Steel, C. (2013) The End of the Roman Republic – 146 to 44 BC, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
– Williams , P. (2004) ‘The Roman Tribunate in the ‘Era of Quiescence’ 287-133BC’ in Latomus, T.63, Fasc. 2