The Gracchi brothers, while championing causes for the common people, were themselves members of the highest Patrician order of Rome. Their father was a consul and their mother was of the distinguished Scipio family. Tiberius started his political career under the wings of C. Scipio Amelianus but later was to be opposed by the powerful Senatorial elite. As a quaestor in Spain, Gracchus got his first bitter taste of the Optimates (the Patrician elite party in Rome). The Roman army had suffered miserably against the Celtic tribes and he proposed a treaty that was written to spare the lives of up to 20,000 Roman soldiers. The treaty was firmly rejected in that it had an air of admitting defeat and Tiberius was terribly disappointed. The incident marked his break from the Optimates and the beginning of his opposition to the elite authority as a member of the Populares party.
The Populares party was convinced of the need for reform in many facets of Roman society. Some members, perhaps Tiberius included, simply liked to oppose the established authority, and he may have been used in his early days by the more prominent members. Whether Tiberius himself was sincere in his reforms to benefit the common man is impossible to ascertain, but regardless, he developed into an icon of equality for all people of Rome. Badly tarnished by the rejection of his treaty, Tiberius took up the challenge of reform with zeal previously un-encountered in the Roman forum.
Election as a Tribune of the Plebs in 133 BC was the beginning of his fight for reform. He likely had little intention to cause the sort of upheaval that followed, as economic security and stability was a real concern. The Plebeians had long struggled for social equality and a magisterial office in which to voice their concerns. The introduction of slave labor in mass quantities and loss of plebeian farms from the previous wars left the Italian farmers in dire straights. Patrician and upper Equestrian families acquired vast stretches of new lands in the recent wars, while the Plebeians gained none. In fact many farms were lost simply because men were killed or wounded in the wars and unable to work their lands. According to Roman law, land gained in such a manner was to be shared equally among the masses, and not simply distributed to the Patricians. The inability to compete with the huge slave labor farms of the wealthy certainly played a part in Plebeian dissatisfaction.
As Tribune, Tiberius now had the power and position to begin the process of change. He introduced legislation, a concilium plebes, for a creation of land allotments to the Plebes out of the public lands won in the Punic Wars. In this case the bill may have in complete good faith and intentions. It stated that those currently living on the land would be restricted to the legal limit of ownership (500 acres plus 250 acres each per son, limited by 2 sons.) and would be compensated by being granted a hereditary rent-free lease. This would restore land ownership to more Plebes and satisfy a variety of social needs. The ranks of land-owning citizens would be increased, making more people eligible for service in the legions, while putting more people to work and balancing the social scale if even a small amount.
Gracchusí bill, as sound and perfectly legal as it may have been, was immediately opposed by the Senate. Not only would the bill have a direct effect on the benefits they themselves could receive, but Gracchus flagrantly opposed them by taking the bill directly to the citizen assemblies, rather than to the Senate first. Octavius, the other Tribune for that year, and apparently as a pawn of the Senate, used veto powers to undermine this reform land bill and Tiberius was stymied. In opposition, Tiberius raised the ante by disrupting every form of legislation and governing of any sort. He used his own veto right to put down every proposed law or bill effectively shutting down the government, until his own bill could be dealt with.
At the next citizen assembly, he was sure that he had taught a lesson to Octavius and that his bill would pass without incident. Octavius, however, vetoed the Agrarian bill once again. Attempts to have Octavius removed from the Tribunate all failed, but the assembly voted for the bill, despite Octaviusí veto. The bill passed into law, as the Senate had little choice, regardless of the illegally ignored veto attempt. Perhaps facing open rebellion, they allowed its passage, but relations with Tiberius were badly strained.
Upon the billís approval, three men were commissioned to oversee its institution. Tiberius, his brother Gaius Gracchus and Appius Claudius Pulcher, a leading Senator and Tiberiusí father-in-law. As many as 75,000 small farms may have been created with the bill and handed to small farmers. There was a noticeable improvement in social conditions, but the plan proved an expensive project to implement. Money allotted to oversee the introduction of the law was running low and Tiberius proposed to take money from the rich and newly acquired land of Pergamum. The Senate once again opposed the concept, but was not willing to risk Tiberius taking the matter before the Plebes. Reluctantly, this issue was passed, and Gracchus with his direct challenge to Senatorial authority, was backing himself into a corner. He used the people as his mob, threatening the Senate into supporting his bills. All the while, Tiberius was immune from retaliation as long as maintained his position as Tribune.
Hostility between the 2 factions continued and the relationship deteriorated. Gracchus was in real danger of court trial or even assassination if he couldnít get re-elected as Tribune. However, the law stated that no man could stand for election without interval. Therefore it was illegal for Tiberius to run for election again. Tiberius, with the popularity among the people behind him, ignored Senatorial objections and carried forward with his election campaign anyway.
Once again, the Senate was powerless to stop the rising star of the popular Tiberius Gracchus. Without recourse, and enraged by Tiberius constant mocking of Roman law and tradition, the Senators took up arms against him. Led by Tiberiusí own cousin, Scipio Nasica, a group of them charged an election rally breaking up the affair. In the ordeal Tiberius was clubbed to death, thus ending the short but tumultuous political career.
In the aftermath, Scipio Aemilianus was called in to restore order and the political situation slowly settled down. As it turned out, however, the political fever introduced by Tiberius Gracchus would pale in comparison to that of his younger brother Gaius Gracchus, just a few years later.
Gaius Sempronius Gracchus
After the death of his brother Tiberius, Gaius Gracchus would make an even bigger splash on the Roman political scene. Following a similar path, he served under Scipio Aemilianus, and then was elected Consul, in which he spent two years governing Sardinia. Returning to Rome he was elected to two consecutive terms as Tribune of the Plebes in 123 and 122 BC. In the position of harnessing the power of the Roman masses, Gaius had far wider reaching plans for administrative reforms and social equity issues.
Initially, he exiled the Consul Popolius for his involvement against his brother Tiberius and his supporters. To cement his action, he initiated a law stating that any magistrate who had been deposed from office by the will of the people would, in the future, be ineligible to ever serve in any capacity at all. Avenging the murder of Tiberius, he then set about a new strategy of popular political legislation. His next proposal was a direct strike against the Gracchi enemies in the Senate. Through another Tribune, Glabrio M' Acilius, the Lex Acilia provided for judices to be chosen from the Equestrian class rather than Patricians. Damaging both the prestige of the Optimates party and its potential for revenue through the court system, and giving more power to the Equestrians, he then looked to implement direct policies aiding the lower classes.
The taxation of Asia Minor, which had recently become a province through the will of King Attalus III of Pergamum, was then completely overhauled to cause further economic damage to the Senate. Equestrians were awarded the right to contract for the collecting of the enormous taxes due from there, rather than Patrician agents. The mob was won over further when he next proposed a state subsidized grain law, which allowed every citizen to buy grain at half the market price, directly from the Roman state. His brotherís agrarian law, which was revoked after Tiberiusí death, was then re-adopted to allow the Plebes more access, once again, to available public land. Additional legislation was put forward to protect provincial residents from the greed, corruption and excessive taxation by local governors and other officials. Furthermore, Gaius forced through huge expenditures on public works, such as roads harbors and baths, which once more mainly benefited the equestrian business community. An orator of great magnitude, later admired by one of historyís great oratorís, Cicero, his laws and proposals were far more successful than those of his brother. While surpassing the success of Tiberius, he redeemed the legacy of the Gracchus name and forever put the family into the annals of history.
By 122 BC, Gaius was firmly entrenched as the champion of the people, but one piece of legislation proved to be his eventual undoing. Complaints from Italian Latin rights citizens that the agrarian laws were helping the lower classes of Rome, while leaving the Italians behind didnít fall on deaf ears. Through his political ally, M.Fulvius Flaccus, who was fresh back from the conquest of Gallia Narbonensis, Gauis next proposed a law to incorporate all the Latin rights citizens into full citizenship. Unfortunately for Gaius and his allies, this move was extremely unpopular with not only the Senate, but the head count of Rome as well. The lower classes of Roman citizenship would be forced to share their land allotments with the Italians, and the Senate saw an opportunity to strike at Gaius. A senate backed Tribune, Livius Drusus, began to propose laws far more liberal and beneficial to the Roman head count, while decisively against the Italian allies. This was at least not as harmful to the Senate, while keeping the Roman mob happy, with the added benefit of replacing the Gracchus status of popular champion with Drusus. The laws of Drusus, however, were never intended to be permanent, and were only supported by the Senate long enough to do damage to Gracchus. Rapidly losing popularity, Gaiusí attempt for a third straight election to Tribune failed in 121 BC.
Realizing the tactics of the Senate too late to counter them, Gracchus, along with Flaccus and thousands of their supporters, led a protest in the streets of Rome. A large angry mob turned out in favor of Gracchus on the Aventine Hill, but unfortunately, the protest escalated into an armed revolt. The Consul Lucius Opimius, an obvious political enemy of the populares party, was all too happy to see this occur. The carrying of weapons by Gracchusí supporters was all the excuse needed for the Senate to act out. Charging Opimius with the first ever, and soon to be regular occurring, Senatus Consultum Ultimatum (the ultimate decree of martial law), he set out after the protestors with an armed militia of legionary infantry and auxilia archers. Swooping down on the Aventine, all hope was lost for the Gracchus party. Ordering his own slave to stab him to death, the political career of the famous Gracchi came to a violent end. In the end, thousands of the mob were killed outright, and later, up to 3,000 more Gracchus supporters were rounded up, arrested and strangled.
The legacy of the Gracchi brothers was one of social upheaval and the eventual disintegration of the Roman political and governing system. Their violent deaths were the first of many more political riots and executions to come over the next 100 years. Traditional powers of the Senate and the people were being torn apart, rebuilt and torn apart again. Ambitious politicians now had many new ways to exploit a system teetering on collapse and powerful men and political parties began to develop in extreme polar opposites. The voice of violence, riots and mob tactics was quickly to become the mainstay throughout the perilous era in Roman history. The Senate even, once steadfast in cooperation against the Tribunes of the Plebes, now themselves even began to splinter off against one another. With the fast rise and fall of the Brothers Gracchi, the stage was set for the rise of Marius, Sulla, Pompey and the eventual last dictator, Gaius Julius Caesar.