Ancient Rome


Gracchi And Their Reforms

Gary Edward Forsythe: Assistant Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago. Author of The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition.  Robert A. Guisepi:  Author of Ancient Voices

(Re-printed by permission)


"Remember, Roman, that it is for thee to rule the nations. This shall be thy task, to impose the ways of peace, to spare the vanquished, and to tame the proud by war." 


Author:      Mommsen, Theodor

B.C. 133




     Cornelia, whose father was Scipio Africanus, preferred to be called

"Mother of the Gracchi" rather than daughter of the conqueror of Numantia.

Tiberius and Caius Gracchus, her sons, were born at a time when the social

condition of Rome was rank with corruption.  The small farmer class were

deprived of holdings, the soil was being worked by slaves, and its products

wasted on pleasure and debauchery by the rich; the law courts were controlled

by the wealthy and powerful, while oppression, bribery, and fraud were

generally rampant in the city.


     On December 10, B.C. 133, Tiberius Gracchus entered upon the office of

tribune, to which he had been elected, and pledged himself to the abolition of

crying abuses.  His first movement was in the direction of agrarian

legislation.  He proposed to vest all public lands in the hands of three

commissioners (triumviri), who were to distribute the public lands, at that

time largely monopolized by the wealthy, to all citizens in needy

circumstances.  The bill met with bitter opposition from the rich landholders,

but was eventually passed, and Gracchus rose to the summit of popular power.

He also brought forward a measure limiting the necessary period of military

service; a second bill was drawn up by him for the reformation of the law

courts, and a third established a right of appeal from the law courts to the

popular assembly.  These measures were afterward carried by his brother Caius.

Tiberius Gracchus was killed in a tumult which was raised in the Forum by the

nobles and their partisans, and three hundred of his followers lost their

lives in the fray.


     Caius Gracchus, his brother, returned to Rome B.C. 124 from Sardinia,

where he had been engaged in subduing the mountaineers.  For ten years he had

kept aloof from public life, but was at once elected tribune, in the discharge

of which office he showed distinguished powers as an orator.  He brought forth

the important measures known as the Sempronian Laws, the provisions of which

were quite revolutionary in character.  The first of these laws renewed and

extended the agrarian laws of his brother and instituted new colonies in Italy

and the provinces.  By the second Sempronian law the State undertook to

furnish corn at a low price to all Roman citizens.


     Other measures aimed at diminishing the great administrative power of the

senate, which had so far monopolized all judicial offices.  By the law of

Gracchus the administration of justice was entirely transferred to a body of

three hundred persons who possessed the equestrian rate of property.  The

Sempronian law for the assignment of consular provinces, which hitherto had

been left to the senate, made the allotment of two designated provinces to be

decided by the newly elected consuls themselves.  The power of the senate was

also crippled by the law of Gracchus in which he transferred to the tribunes

the burden of improving the roads of Italy contracts for which had hitherto

been awarded by the censor under the approval of the senate.  These movements

were all in the direction of increasing popular and democratic power, and the

work of the Gracchi tended to the extension of political freedom.  In the

history of politics these social struggles are among the most important events

illustrative of the gradual dawn of civil liberty among a people which had

been dominated and oppressed by a selfish aristocracy.


The Gracchi And Their Reforms


     The power of Gracchus rested on the mercantile class and the proletariat;

primarily on the latter, which in this conflict - wherein neither side had any

military reserve - acted, as it were, the part of an army.  It was clear that

the senate was not powerful enough to wrest either from the merchants or from

the proletariat their new privileges; any attempt to assail the corn laws or

the new jury arrangement would have led under a somewhat grosser or somewhat

more civilized form to a street riot, in presence of which the senate was

utterly defenceless.  But it was no less clear that Gracchus himself and these

merchants and proletarians were only kept together by mutual advantage, and

that the men of material interests were ready to accept their posts, and the

populace, strictly so called, its bread, quite as well from any other as from

Caius Gracchus.


     The institutions of Gracchus stood, for the moment at least, immovably

firm, with the exception of a single one - his own supremacy.  The weakness of

the latter lay in the fact that in the constitution of Gracchus there was no

relation of allegiance subsisting at all between the chief and the army; and,

while the new constitution possessed all other elements of vitality, it lacked

one - the moral tie between ruler and ruled, without which every state rests

on a pedestal of clay.  In the rejection of the proposal to admit the Latins

to the franchise it had been demonstrated with decisive clearness that the

multitude in fact never voted for Gracchus, but always simply for itself.  The

aristocracy conceived the plan of offering battle to the author of the corn

largesses and land assignations on his own ground.


     As a matter of course the senate offered to the proletariat not merely

the same advantages as Gracchus had already assured to it in corn and

otherwise, but advantages still greater.  Commissioned by the senate, the

tribune of the people, Marcus Livius Drusus, proposed to relieve those who

received land under the laws of Gracchus from the rent imposed on them, and to

declare their allotments to be free and alienable property; and, further, to

provide for the proletariat not in transmarine, but in twelve Italian,

colonies, each of three thousand colonists, for the planting of which the

people might nominate suitable men; only Drusus himself declined - in contrast

with the family complexion of the Gracchan commission - to take part in this

honorable duty.  Presumably the Latins were named as those who would have to

bear the costs of the plan, for there does not appear to have existed then in

Italy other occupied domain land of any extent save that which was enjoyed by



     We find isolated enactments of Drusus - such as the regulation that the

punishment of scourging might only be inflicted on the Latin soldier by the

Latin officer set over him, and not by the Roman officer - which were to all

appearance intended to indemnify the Latins for other losses.  The plan was

not the most refined.  The attempt at rivalry was too clear; the endeavor to

draw the fair bond between the nobles and the proletariat still closer by

their exercising jointly a tyranny over the Latins was too transparent; the

inquiry suggested itself too readily.


     In what part of the peninsula, now that the Italian domains had been

mainly given away already - even granting that the whole domains assigned to

the Latins were confiscated - was the occupied domain land requisite for the

formation of twelve new, numerous, and compact burgess communities to be

discovered?  Lastly, the declaration of Drusus that he would have nothing to

do with the execution of his law was so dreadfully prudent as to border on

sheer folly.  But the clumsy snare was quite suited to the stupid game which

they wished to catch.  There was the additional and perhaps decisive

consideration that Gracchus, on whose personal influence everything depended,

was just then establishing the Carthaginian colony in Africa, and that his

lieutenant in the capital, Marcus Flaccus, played into the hands of his

opponents by his vehement and maladroit acts.  The "people" accordingly

ratified the Livian laws as readily as it had before ratified the Sempronian.

It then as usual repaid its latest by inflicting a gentle blow on its earlier

benefactor, declining to reelect him when he stood for the third time as a

candidate for the tribunate for the year B.C. 120.  On this occasion, however,

there are alleged to have been unjust proceedings on the part of the tribune

presiding at the election, who had been offended by Gracchus.


     Thus the foundation of his despotism gave way beneath him.  A second blow

was inflicted on him by the consular elections, which not only proved, in a

general sense, adverse to the democracy, but which placed at the head of the

State Lucius Opimius, one of the least scrupulous chiefs of the strict

aristocratic party and a man firmly resolved to get rid of their dangerous

antagonist at the earliest opportunity.  Such an opportunity soon occurred. On

the 10th of December, B.C. 121, Gracchus ceased to be tribune of the people.

On the 1st of January, B.C. 120, Opimius entered upon his office.


     The first attack, as was fair, was directed against the most useful and

the most unpopular measure of Gracchus, the reestablishment of Carthage, while

the transmarine colonies had hitherto been only indirectly assailed through

the greater allurements of the Italian.  African hyenas, it was now alleged,

dug up the newly placed boundary stones of Carthage, and the Roman priests

when requested certified that such signs and portents ought to form an express

warning against rebuilding on a site accursed by the gods. The senate thereby

found itself in its conscience compelled to have a law proposed which

prohibited the planting of the colony of Sunonia.  Gracchus, who with the

other men nominated to establish it was just then selecting the colonists,

appeared on the day of voting at the Capitol, whither the burgesses were

convoked, with a view to procure by means of his adherents the rejection of

the law.


     He wished to shun acts of violence that he might not himself supply his

opponents with the pretext which they sought, but he had not been able to

prevent a great portion of his faithful partisans - who remembered the

catastrophe of Tiberius, and were well acquainted with the designs of the

aristocracy - from appearing in arms, fearing that, amid the immense

excitement on both sides, quarrels could hardly be avoided.  The consul Lucius

Opimius offered the usual sacrifice in the porch of the Capitoline temple, one

of the attendants assisting at the ceremony.  Quintus Antullius, with the holy

entrails in his hands, haughtily ordered the "bad citizens" to quit the porch,

and seemed as though he would lay hands on Caius himself; whereupon a zealous

Gracchan drew his sword and cut the man down.  A fearful tumult arose.

Gracchus vainly sought to address the people and to disclaim the

responsibility for the sacrilegious murder; he only furnished his antagonists

with a further formal ground of accusation, as, without being aware of it in

the confusion, he interrupted a tribune in the act of speaking to the people -

an offence for which an obsolete statute, originating at the time of the old

dissensions between the orders (I. 353), had prescribed the severest penalty.

The consul Lucius Opimius took his measures to put down by force of arms the

insurrection for the overthrow of the republican constitution, as they were

fond of designating the events of this day.  He himself passed the night in

the temple of Castor in the Forum.  At early dawn the Capitol was filled with

Cretan archers, the senate house and Forum with the men of the government

party (the senators and that section of the equites adhering to them), who by

order of the consul had all appeared in arms, each attended by two armed

slaves.  None of the aristocracy was absent; even the aged and venerable

Quintus Metellus, well disposed to reform, had appeared with shield and sword.

An officer of ability and experience acquired in the Spanish wars, Decimus

Brutus, was intrusted with the command of the armed force; the senate

assembled in the senate house.  The bier with the corpse of Antullius was

deposited in front of it, the senate as if surprised appeared en masse at the

door in order to view the dead body, and then retired to determine what should

be done.


     The leaders of the democracy had gone from the Capitol to their houses;

Marcus Flaccus had spent the night in preparing for the war in the streets,

while Gracchus apparently disdained to strive with destiny.  Next morning when

they learned of the preparations made by their opponents at the Capitol and

the Forum, both proceeded to the Aventine, the old stronghold of the popular

party in the struggles between the patricians and the plebeians. Gracchus went

thither silent and unarmed.  Flaccus called the slaves to arms and intrenched

himself in the temple of Diana, while he at the same time sent his younger son

Quintus to the enemy's camp in order if possible to arrange a compromise.  The

latter returned with the announcement that the aristocracy demanded

unconditional surrender.  At the same time he brought a summons from the

senate to Gracchus and Flaccus to appear before it and to answer for their

violation of the majesty of the tribunes.


     Gracchus wished to comply with the summons, but Flaccus prevented him

from doing so, and repeated the equally weak and mistaken attempt to move such

antagonists to a compromise.  When instead of the two cited leaders the young

Quintus Flaccus once more presented himself alone, the consul treated their

refusal to appear as the beginning of open insurrection against the

Government.  He ordered the messenger to be arrested and gave the signal for

attack on the Aventine, while at the same time he caused proclamations to be

made in the streets that the Government would give to whomsoever should bring

the head of Gracchus or of Flaccus its literal weight in gold; and that they

would guarantee complete indemnity to everyone who should leave the Aventine

before the beginning of the conflict.  The ranks on the Aventine speedily

thinned; the valiant nobility in conjunction with the Cretans and the slaves

stormed the almost undefended mount, and killed all whom they found - about

two hundred and fifty persons, mostly of humble rank.  Marcus Flaccus fled

with his eldest son to a place of concealment, where they were soon afterward

hunted out and put to death.  Gracchus had at the beginning of the conflict

retired into the temple of Minerva and was there about to pierce himself with

his sword when his friend Publius Laetorius seized his arm and besought him to

preserve himself, if possible, for better times.


     Gracchus was induced to make an attempt to escape to the other bank of

the Tiber, but when hastening down the hill he fell and sprained his foot. To

gain time for him to escape, his two attendants turned, and facing his

pursuers allowed themselves to be cut down.  As Marcus Pomponius at the Porta

Trigemina under the Aventine; Publius Laetorius at the bridge over the Tiber -

where Horatius Cocles was said to have once withstood, singly, the Etruscan

army - so Gracchus, attended only by his slave Euporus, reached the suburb on

the right bank of the Tiber.


     There, in the grove of Furrina, afterward were found the two dead bodies.

It seemed as if the slave had put to death first his master, and then himself.

The heads of the two fallen leaders were handed over to the Government as

required.  The stipulated price, and more, was paid to Lucius Septumuleius, a

man of quality, the bearer of the head of Gracchus; while the murderers of

Flaccus, persons of humble rank, were sent away with empty hands.  The bodies

of the dead were thrown into the river, and the houses of the leaders were

abandoned to the pillage of the multitude.  The welfare of prosecution against

the partisans of Gracchus began on the grandest scale; as many as three

thousand of them are said to have been strangled in prison, among whom was

Quintus Flaccus, eighteen years of age, who had taken no part in the conflict,

and was universally lamented on account of his youth and his amiable

disposition.  On the open space beneath the Capitol, where the altar

consecrated by Camillus after the restoration of internal peace (I. 382), and

other shrines - erected on similar occasions to Concord - were situated, the

small chapels were pulled down, and out of the property of the killed or

condemned traitors - which was confiscated, even to the portions of their

wives - a new and splendid temple of Concord, with the basilica belonging to

it, was erected in accordance with a decree of the senate by the consul Lucius



     Certainly it was an act in accordance with the spirit of the age to

remove the memorials of the old and to inaugurate a new Concord over the

remains of the three grandsons of Zama, all of whom - first, Tiberius

Gracchus, then Scipio Aemilianus, and lastly the youngest and the mightiest,

Caius Gracchus - had now been engulfed by the revolution.  The memory of the

Gracchi remained officially proscribed; Cornelia was not allowed even to put

on mourning for the death of her last son; but the passionate attachment which

very many had felt toward the two noble brothers, and especially toward Caius,

during their life, was touchingly displayed also after their death, in the

almost religious veneration which the multitude, in spite of all precautions

of the police, continued to pay to their memory and to the spots where they

had fallen.

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* Because we believe primary sources of history far surpass secondary sources, most of the lives of the following individuals are taken from ancient historians such as Plutarch, Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus