163-133 B.C.

Roman reformer Gaius

154-121 B.C.

Roman reformer

Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were plebeian tribunes* during the late Roman Republic* who sponsored programs to distribute public land to poor citizens. The Gracchi brothers came from a respected Roman family, and their grandfather was Scipio Africanus, the man who defeated the great Carthaginian general Hannibal.

One of the major problems confronting the late Roman Republic was that most of the public land—land taken from Rome’s defeated enemies— was controlled by the wealthy at the expense of small landowners. Large slave plantations were common in Italy, and the decreasing number of small farms made it difficult for many citizens to make a living. Although the Roman Senate opposed most reforms, some Roman citizens saw the need for drastic action to reduce the inequality in their society.

The Career of Tiberius Gracchus. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the older of the two brothers, began his campaign for reform in 133 B.C. The recent expansion of the Roman Republic added to the wealth of Roman aristocrats*, enabling them to purchase much more land for their estates. Although there was a law that limited the amount of public land one person could own, this law was not enforced. Most of these large estates were worked by slaves who had been brought back from conquered territories. Slavery drove small farmers off the land, forcing many of them to Rome, where they joined the ranks of the city’s unemployed. As tribune in 133 B.C., Tiberius requested that public land be divided among landless citizens. In addition, he called for enforcing the law that limited the amount of land a person could own. He also proposed that excess land be distributed to poor citizens, a proposal that greatly angered Rome’s aristocrats.

Tiberius’s success seemed certain. He came from one of Rome’s leading families, and he had many friends among the senators. His plan was also popular with the people in the assembly. However, Tiberius’s unconventional methods angered many. When another tribune vetoed his plan, Tiberius had him removed from office. After the bill finally passed, Tiberius established a commission to put the new law into effect. When the commission required money, Tiberius redirected funds from one of Rome’s new territories, Pergamum in Asia Minor. These activities challenged the Senate’s traditional control of finances and foreign policy. Tiberius’s opponents despised these violations of custom. When Tiberius announced that he would run for reelection as tribune, a group of senators had Tiberius and 300 of his supporters murdered and their bodies thrown into the Tiber River.

The Career of Gaius Gracchus. Land reform did not die with Tiberius Gracchus. Ten years later, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, Tiberius’s younger brother, was elected tribune. A gifted public speaker, Gaius proposed reforms that were even more radical than those of Tiberius. He expanded his brother’s land law and streamlined grain distribution to the poor by building storage facilities for the grain and selling it at subsidized prices. Gaius called for the foundation of colonies that could be settled by landless Romans and sponsored extensive public works to provide work for the unemployed. Gaius’s support came from the rising equestrian order*, a class of well-to-do Romans with farming and commercial interests. Unlike senators, they did not aspire to elective office or seek direct participation in Roman government. Gaius tried to win their support by promising the equestrian class the right to collect the taxes of the province* of Asia and the right to sit on juries that tried Roman senatorial governors for crimes.

In 122 B.C., Gaius Gracchus called for the granting of citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies. His goal was to make them subject to his brother’s farm law. This proposal was defeated, and Gaius lost in his run for reelection as tribune. A year later, Gaius attempted to prevent repeal of his reforms with an armed band of supporters. He failed and was killed along with many of his followers.

The Legacy of the Gracchi Brothers. The murders of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus and their supporters introduced the use of violence to the politics of Rome. The harmonious agreement that had marked the politics of the Roman Republic thereby ended, and Rome entered a long period of violence and civil war, which eventually resulted in the fall of the republic.

* plebeian tribune in ancient Rome, one of ten officials who protected the rights of the general body of Roman citizens from arbitrary actions by the patricians, or upper classes

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

* aristocrat person of the highest social class

* equestrian order second rank of the Roman upper class, consisting of wealthy landowners whose social position entitled them to claim eligibility for service in the cavalry

* province overseas area controlled by Rome


Although Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus may have had similar political goals, according to the Greek biographer Plutarch, they had very different personalities. Tiberius was gentle, composed, and very mild-mannered. Gaius was passionate and had a terrible temper, frequently insulting his enemies in his speeches. While Tiberius was thrifty and lived plainly, Gaius had a more extravagant lifestyle. But no matter how different their styles were, Plutarch wrote, the Gracchi were alike in their great intelligence, their industry, and their love of Rome.

Historians debate the intentions of the Gracchi. Some think their land reforms were aimed at strengthening Rome’s military manpower, while others believe they were political opportunists who were willing to do anything to win a following. Some historians, however, believe that the brothers were acting out of genuine concern for the poor. (See also Civil Wars, Roman; Class Structure, Roman; Land: Ownership, Reform, and Use; Senate, Roman; Rome, History of.)

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