Many of us know the legend of the Roman Empire. What we might not know are some of the scandalous details. One was the story of the Gracchi murders.
Rome was expanding and taking over the Mediterranean basin. With these conquests, new problems arose for the Roman Republic. As the leaders tried to adjust to the expanded Republic, they also found themselves faced with problems rising up within the government. Men began to seek reforms that were both beneficial for the Republic, certain factions of people, and ultimately for themselves. The result was blood on the Senate’s hands. The death of reformers was deemed necessary for the survival of the Republic and the self-interest of the oligarchy.
The oligarchy could not handle the new issues. They had never seen anything like the vast need for land reform, which ultimately shaped the Roman military, and the desire of so many to be considered Roman citizens. Growing pains began to be felt. Each member of the oligarchy was searching for a solution where everyone won, especially them.
It was hard for the oligarchy as they had found themselves changing from within. They were linked through blood and marriage ties and had, historically, been tight. After the Second Punic War, “its formerly strong corporate sense had been overtaken by the ambitions of individuals and factional groups.” Self-interest began to take center stage as the two families of Scipiones and Claudii sought power. The result was drastic actions toward anyone deemed to be acting in a manner that would diminish any power of the oligarchy. Two men, in positions of Roman authority, tried to enact reforms that ultimately led the oligarchy to murder them and their supporters. The end of the Republic was underway.
The Right Partnership
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus were brothers who saw a chance to make reforms that would ease the pain from the new Roman acquisitions and advance their own careers. Between the two of them, they proposed reforms that would benefit the military and the economic status of the Republic. Each reform was met with resistance.
There were huge tracts of land that were confiscated after the Punic Wars that became public land. Over the years, the land was taken over illegally and farmed. Tiberius saw the public lands as a way to resolve the Roman military and land crisis. By giving this land to the landless, it would “enhance the body of manpower available for legionary recruitment.” This was because the military recruitment was based on the economic worth of a family. Those that fell under the minimum value did not have to serve the Republic.
When Gaius rose up as tribune, he sought reforms that also found opposition. His grain distribution law was aimed at fixing the grain at reasonable prices. In addition to this, he proposed citizenship changes that would give “full citizenship to half citizens and half citizenship to non-citizens.” Gaius established the minimum military age and tried to further his brother’s land distribution proposal.
All of these reforms were opposed heavily within the oligarchy. The loudest protester regarding the land redistribution was M. Octavius who felt that it was not fair to those that were farming the land and were using it as dowries and part of their property passed on in their wills. Trouble rose its head when Tiberius by-passed the Senate and went straight to the Assembly to get the land redistribution bill passed. Protests rose even further at this action. Tiberius was manipulating the situation for his own benefit. The bill would win him many supporters and weaken the authority of the Senate. This was the very first time that someone of the oligarchy used “popular discontent to further his own career.” His goal might have been reform, but it resulted in undermining the government. When Octavius objected, Tiberius used his power to remove Octavius from office. The bill was practically shoved through.
Fear Takes Over
The oligarchy saw the actions of the Gracchi brothers as a group “attempting to manoeuvre itself into a position where, by ‘stealing’ its opponents’ clientage and controlling an arm of government, it could control Rome in a quasi-regal fashion.” Fear rose up in the oligarchy as they saw the move toward a kingship. For many, the organization of the Republic was to prevent one person or family ruling over them. The interest of individuals was rising up above that of the Republic.
The brothers were considered manipulative and in the process of creating a base for their rise in power along with their supporters. The feelings of their opponents were so great that they attacked Tiberius and close to 300 of his followers. The chief priest, Scipio Nasica, claimed to have killed Tiberius himself because he felt justified with Tiberius wanting to become king. When Gaius found the same passionate opposition, he formed a bodyguard but still found his death on Aventine hill. Thousands would die in an attempt to protect the state.
A Forever Changed Rome
These murderous acts changed Rome forever. Everyone was out for themselves. The oligarchy declared that all their actions were to protect the Republic, and good arguments could be made to support this. Yet, all those actions also served to protect their own positions and status of power. What was done to save the Republic was what brought the Republic down and opened it up to the very regal rule that was feared. Self-interest and protection of the state became entwined and undistinguishable. In the end, the Senate acted in its own self-interest under the guise of protecting Rome.
- Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. New York: Cambridge, 2007.
- Shotter, David. The Fall of the Roman Republic. London: Routledge, 1994.