Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Gracchi

[On to my first-year Classics (Roman History) essays... This one's for Tiberius.]

In your opinion, were the Gracchi political opportunists or genuine reformers?

The Gracchi were politicians – it would be naïve to assume that their policies and actions were motivated purely by altruism, with no regard for their own political interests. But it would be just as foolish to dismiss their wide-ranging and effective reforms as mere ‘opportunism’. There are many factors we may examine to try to differentiate between the two extremes, and find the most accurate balance. One must compare the reforms’ expected benefits to the politicians, with the benefits to Roman society as a whole. The consistency of the Gracchi brothers’ policies and actions should be carefully assessed. Finally, the actual consequences of their reforms could provide the most obvious evidence for the brothers’ integrity – especially when contrasted with the reforms of their contemporaries.

The most significant of Tiberius Gracchus’ reforms as tribune in 133 BC was the Lex Agraria, enforcing the redistribution of public land to the poor. The first thing to note is the precedent of Laelius who proposed a similar reform a few years earlier, but withdrew due to intense aristocratic opposition.[1] Tiberius no doubt recognised that the reforms would make him powerful enemies,[2] but depended on the support of the people – and indeed, the measure did make him “immensely popular”.[3] However, it cannot be said that popularity was the sole motivation for his agrarian law, because it did address genuine social, economic and military problems which plagued Rome at this time. The amassing of vast amounts of land in the hands of a few rich landlords (who used slaves rather than employing free men) had decimated the traditional class of small farmers, who instead flooded into Rome, creating a large unemployed urban population.[4] Tiberius’ land reform directly rectified this social problem. It was also the indirect solution to an even more pressing problem: Rome’s shortage of military manpower,[5] upon which its world dominance depended.

Although Tiberius’ land reform was clearly in the best interests of Rome, his heavy-handed methods eventually led to fears that he had tyrannical aspirations. Rome had three major safeguards against tyranny: collegiality, the influence of the senate, and annual succession.[6] Tiberius threatened all three. His first big ‘mistake’ was deposing Octavius, a fellow (supposedly inviolable) tribune, for repeatedly vetoing the agrarian law. Plutarch calls this deposition “neither constitutional nor just”, yet later provides us with Tiberius’ reasoning, that “if he (Octavius) annuls the power of the people, he ceases to be a tribune at all”.[7] Badian supports Tiberius here, arguing that the truly unconstitutional action, opposing custom (mos maiorum), was Octavius’ veto of the popular assembly.[8] One may then conclude that Tiberius’ deposition of a fellow tribune was quite acceptable, as a novel response to an unprecedented problem. Less excusable, in Badian’s eyes, was the way in which Tiberius seized Attalus’ wealth (which had been bequeathed to the Roman state) to fund his programme – for both finance and foreign affairs were traditionally left to the Senate.[9] The Senate’s financial opposition to his land reform effectively drove Tiberius to take this measure though, and it does not seem entirely unreasonable that the Roman people should have some say in how the wealth of their empire was to be used. The threat of prosecution for his actions led Tiberius to seek re-election, and that proved to be the final straw.[10] While these proceedings make it clear that Tiberius had grown quite powerful, and the fears of tyranny were certainly understandable, one must bear in mind that he was but a tribune of the people, and his power ultimately depended on them. The republic risked being replaced not by autocracy, but by democracy.

Genuine reformers would presumably be consistent in their reforming policies, whereas political opportunists could be expected to be more fickle and merely follow public opinion. This being so, it appears highly damaging when Plutarch describes Tiberius’ late attempts at winning urban support, including an alleged reform reducing the period of military service for Roman citizens[11] (seemingly at odds with the motivation behind his agrarian reform). However, most modern scholars have serious doubts about the accuracy of that passage of Plutarch’s.[12] Some rather more positive evidence suggests that Tiberius realised the need for land reform back in 137 BC (noting the numerous slaves and lack of free peasants working the large estates he came across as he was travelling through Eturia),[13] though this tradition originates from a political pamphlet written by his younger brother, so cannot be entirely trusted. We may also question Gaius Gracchus’ integrity in breaking a promise to support any allies who ignored a law expelling them from Rome, though he later explained his inaction as being because he was unwilling to give his enemies any excuse to “bring about open conflict”.[14] However, his long-term consistency cannot really be denied, since Gaius is known to have opposed (though unsuccessfully) a harsh anti-immigration law passed in 126 BC.[15]

The proposal of Italian enfranchisement was the most ambitious of Gaius’ attempted reforms – and eventually cost him his support (and hence his life). Just a few years earlier, Fulvius Flaccus had tried and failed to institute similar reforms.[16] Gaius must have realised it was an unpopular proposal and that the Romans were not particularly keen to share their exclusive rights. The ancient sources paint Gaius as being very opportunistic here – Appian suggests Gaius sought to give allies the vote “in order to have their help in the enactment of laws”.[17] Indeed, it seems reasonable to assume that if successful, the measure would have gained Gaius a substantial new support base. What is less reasonable, is to assert that this gamble was the only motivation behind it. Allied resentment was a major source of conflict in late Republican Rome, and as Richardson observes, Italian enfranchisement would “massively strengthen the republic”.[18]

Gaius’ earlier reforms had been much more popular, leading to accusations that he had “bought the plebeians”[19] through his measures to subsidise corn and found new colonies. Again, these reforms – though certainly increasing his popularity – also had definite advantages for the Roman state and people. The founding of new colonies no doubt relieved urban overpopulation and unemployment, in much the same vein as Tiberius’ land redistributions. As for the corn subsidies, these were (at this time) very moderate, and served to stabilise price variations during lean years and prevent profiteering.[20] Gaius’ reforms regarding the equestrian order were much more significant – giving them control of the taxation of Asia, and (some) jury courts of Rome (replacing senators). Here Appian accuses Gaius of trying to win the favour of the equestrian class.[21] However, in the face of contemporary bribe-taking scandals, the more ‘genuine’ purposes of “curbing errant senators, improving the administration of justice, and securing the public revenues”[22] (proposed by Richardson), seem rather more convincing. Gaius passed other laws restricting the Senate’s powers, including one which forced them to assign consular provinces before the elections, to ensure consuls were assigned to the provinces where they were most needed, whether the Senate liked them or not. Significantly, he also prevented tribunes from vetoing this allocation[23] – thus weakening the powers of his own office, for the good of the Roman state.

The Senate responded by enlisting another tribune, Livius Drusus, to “outbid his opponent in flattering and gratifying the people”, on behalf of the Senate.[24] We are told that the Roman populace gained confidence in Drusus because he took care to avoid personal involvement (especially regarding control over public funds) in the administration of his reforms, whereas Gaius tended to do exactly the opposite.[25] Yet few of Drusus’ policies were actually implemented (for example, the colonies he proposed were never founded), suggesting that his purpose was “primarily to undermine Gracchus’ position rather than to accomplish genuine economic reform”.[26] In contrast, both Gracchi brothers fought hard to ensure that their policies were carried out, and so their reforms resulted in genuine progress being made. Unemployment was to some degree relieved (since many urbanites were settled as small farmers or colonists), and we have evidence of successful economic recovery, as financial activity sharply increased soon after Gaius’ reforms were implemented.[27]

The Gracchan reforms tackled genuine issues troubling Roman society, and had genuine results. In light of this, it would be difficult to then deny that the Gracchi themselves were genuine reformers. As politicians, they were no doubt influenced to some degree by their own interests, by ‘opportunism’, but as it was in accordance with what they perceived as meeting the needs of their society, this was hardly blameworthy. Their actions were almost always consistent with the ideals of their reform; ideals which can be traced back several years before they came to power. Serious conflicts arose due to their intense personal involvement and determination to see their reforms through. This very determination could be taken as further evidence of the integrity of their reforms; determination which eventually cost both brothers their lives. As such, one would be justified in considering them not just reformers, but also martyrs.


Appian, Civil War 1.7-27, tr. Horace White.

Badian, E., ‘Tiberius Gracchus and the Roman Revolution’, in Vogt, J., Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (vol.1 pt.1), Berlin : W. de Gruyter, 1972.

Plutarch, ‘Gaius Gracchus’, in Makers of Rome: Nine Lives. tr. Ian Scott-Kilvert. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1965.

Plutarch, ‘Tiberius Gracchus’, in Makers of Rome: Nine Lives. tr. Ian Scott-Kilvert. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1965.

Richardson, K., Daggers in the Forum, London : Cassell, 1976.

Scullard, H., From the Gracchi to Nero (5th ed.), London : Methuen, 1982.

Shochat, Y., Recruitment and the Programme of Tiberius Gracchus, Bruxelles : Latomus, 1980.

[1] Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus, tr. Ian Scott-Kilvert (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1965) 8.

[2] Indeed, it becomes clear that at later stages of his Tribuneship, Tiberius recognised that his life was at risk. See Plutarch, Ti. Gr. 13, 16.

[3] Appian, Civil War, tr. Horace White, 1.13. Note, however, that the law simultaneously eroded his support base, as those who benefited from it would (as a result) be tending to their farms instead of voting in the assemblies, when Tiberius later needed their support (see Appian, Civil War, 1.14).

[4] Plutarch, Ti. Gr. 8, see also Y. Shochat, Recruitment and the Programme of Tiberius Gracchus, (Bruxelles : Latomus, 1980) p.89.

[5] There is no doubt that the reform was designed to address this military shortage, as is clear from Appian, Civil War, 1.8-9. However, there is some question as to how it did so – the traditional answer being that there was a shortage of assidui, so the land reform would solve this by ensuring that more people attained the minimum property requirement needed to serve in the army – see E. Badian, ‘Tiberius Gracchus and the Roman Revolution’, in Vogt, J., Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (vol.1 pt.1), (Berlin : W. de Gruyter, 1972), pp 680-1. Contrasting this is the argument of Shochat, throughout Recruitment and the Programme of Tiberius Gracchus, who asserts that Rome’s problem was citizens’ reluctance to the join the army, rather than a lack of those who potentially could, and hence Gracchus planned to solve it by recruiting more Italian allies, recompensing them through the land scheme (in which case land going to Roman poor must have had purely social, not military, aims).

[6] Badian, p.722.

[7] Plutarch, Ti. Gr. 11, 15. It is also worth noting here that Tiberius did all he could to convince Octavius to change his mind and thus avoid the need for drastic action – even offering to personally recompense him for the land he would lose from the reforms (Plutarch, Ti. Gr. 12)

[8] Badian, pp.697-701, 709-710. Note that H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero (5th ed.), (London : Methuen, 1982), p.29, offers a distinctly different view of the customary role of the Roman tribune - asserting that tribunes were useful tools for the nobility, “often using their veto to check the popular assemblies”. However, he does not appear to have any evidence to support this claim.

[9] Badian, p.713.

[10] Before the election could take place, Tiberius was lynched by a mob led by the Pontifex Maximus, Cornelius Scipio Nasica, in order to ‘save the Republic’. As K. Richardson, Daggers in the Forum (London : Cassell, 1976) p.86, points out, for a tribune to seek re-election may not have been strictly illegal, but it was certainly without recent precedent. For justification of my assertion that is was purely the threat of prosecution which motivated Tiberius to seek re-election, see Badian, p.716: the primary sources are unanimous in this regard, only modern apologists invent more altruistic motives.

[11] Plutarch, Ti. Gr. 16.

[12] Badian, p.730, rejects it outright. Scullard, p.382, expresses more moderate doubts. Interestingly, Shochat (p.85-6) accepts the passage, arguing that it demonstrated Tiberius’ awareness of the public distaste for military service, and was actually not inconsistent, because Tiberius’ land reform aimed not to enlist more Roman citizens in military service, but rather, more Italian allies (see note 5 above).

[13] Plutarch, Ti. Gr. 8, see also Scullard, p.24.

[14] Plutarch, Gaius Gracchus, tr. Ian Scott-Kilvert (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1965) 12.

[15] Scullard, p.31.

[16] Appian, Civil Wars, 1.21.

[17] Appian, Civil Wars, 1.23.

[18] Richardson, p.163.

[19] Appian, Civil Wars, 1.22.

[20] Scullard, p.33.

[21] Appian, Civil Wars, 1.22.

[22] Richardson, p.145.

[23] Richardson, p.157.

[24] Plutarch, Gaius Gracchus, 9.

[25] Plutarch, Gaius Gracchus, 10.

[26] Scullard, p.35.

[27] Richardson, p.159, emphasises their economic success, whereas Scullard, p.38, notes the social improvements resulting directly from Tiberius’ land redistribution and Gaius’ colonies.


  1. I do hope you get a good mark for this essay - very well written. I say A+...

  2. Ha thanks, though I actually wrote it two years ago. I can't even remember for sure what mark I got, though I think it was an even 'A'.


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