Ancient History & Civilisation



In 154 BC the grand public funeral of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a hero of the Roman republic, took place. His corpse was carried into the Forum dressed in the clothes of a triumphant general: the purple toga was covered in silver stars and accompanied by the rods and axes of office that befitted his exceptional career. The noblemen in the procession, unshaven as a mark of respect, wore black and their heads were veiled; the women beat their breasts, tore at their dishevelled hair and cut their cheeks with their fingernails in grief. There were also professional mourners in attendance, as well as dancers and mime artists imitating the dead man with exaggerated gestures. The most haunting feature of many men in the procession, however, was the funeral mask they wore, each one moulded from beeswax to an eerie likeness of Gracchus and his ancestors, each one faithful in colour and shape. In this way the men who wore them bore a striking family resemblance to the dead man now propped up on the speaker’s platform of the Forum before the onlooking rich and poor of Rome.

As the ancestral representatives of the family took their ivory seats on the platform, one of them delivered an oration celebrating the dead man’s achievements in life. There was much to commemorate. Gracchus had twice achieved the office of consul, the highest post in the republic, as well as the distinguished and influential office of former consuls, that of censor. As a soldier, he had led successful campaigns on behalf of the republic in Spain and Sardinia. For both of these he had been awarded a triumph, the name given to the famous procession in which a conquering general crossed the sacred limits of the city and returned to civilian life in Rome. Yet despite the achievements that had covered his name in glory, Gracchus was not reputed to be someone who looked to personal success. His funeral was a public celebration of one virtue above all. The Romans liked to think of him as having put the service of the republic before his own ambitions, for making the welfare of the Roman people his first and foremost guide. The funeral speech would therefore have had the same effect as the wax masks. It reminded the onlookers that ‘the glorious memory of brave men is continually renewed; the fame of those who have performed any noble deed is never allowed to die; and the renown of those who have done good service to their country becomes a matter of common knowledge to the multitude and part of the heritage of posterity’.1

But the renewing of Gracchus’s achievements, both through the masks of his family and the speech in his memory, had another, more specific function. It served as a reminder for his sons, grandsons and subsequent descendants to live up to those achievements. The desire to honour the glory of one’s father by emulating his success in the service of the republic, whether in war, empire-building or politics, was among the key motivations of the Roman aristocratic élite. It is easy to imagine that nowhere did this desire burn more brightly than in the heart of a nine-year-old boy, Gracchus’s son, also named Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus.

The boy would have stood alongside his mother and the leading aristocratic senators before the blazing pyre outside Rome; it was here that, after the public funeral orations, his father’s body would have been cremated. As he watched the ceremonies come to an end, the boy would have been instilled with the desire to endure hardship and even death to earn a eulogy similar to that accorded his father. He now carried the responsibility of upholding the paternal name and glory. It was a burden outstripped only by the obligation to uphold the prestige of another family: his mother Cornelia’s.

Through both his mother and father, the young Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was related to three of the great aristocratic dynasties of the Roman republic. Together, in the space of less than a hundred and fifty years, these families had led the way in turning the republic from its position as master of Italy to master of the entire Mediterranean. By the time of Gracchus the elder’s funeral, the Romans referred to that expanse of sea as mare nostrum (our sea) because of their undisputed dominion over it and the lands surrounding it.

And yet this boy’s path in life would radically diverge from the pattern established in his family. The young Tiberius himself would have no grand funeral like his father’s: just twenty-two years later his mutilated corpse would be slung unceremoniously into the river Tiber. The men who would carry out his murder would not be foreign enemies of Rome on the battlefield, but the same aristocratic senators who had lined up behind him watching his father’s funeral pyre burn. For Tiberius’s short, controversial life intersected with a key turning point – a crisis – in the history of the Roman republic. This crisis centred on the question of who would benefit from the empire Rome had so quickly acquired – the rich or the poor? The aristocratic architects of Rome’s empire or the ordinary citizen-soldiers who had built it? It was a question that would lead to a soul-searching investigation into the nature of Rome’s empire and what the process of acquiring it had done to the moral character and values of Romans. Extraordinarily, this crisis would see the young Tiberius take not the side of his own family and the aristocratic élite, but the side of the poor.


After the funeral the wax masks of the elder Gracchus and his ancestors were laid in a shrine in the family home. They would serve as an ‘inspiring spectacle for a young man of noble ambitions and virtuous aspirations. For can we conceive anyone to be unmoved by the sight of all the likenesses collected together of the men who have earned glory, all, as it were, living and breathing? What could be a more glorious spectacle?’2 Yet in 154 BC no one would have imagined what a revolutionary path the young Tiberius, in seeking to match the example represented by those masks, would take, or how it would change Rome for ever.

The great convulsion in Roman history epitomized by Tiberius’s career is a morality tale. In becoming a superpower, Rome, so it was said, abandoned the very values with which it had won its supremacy. At the pinnacle of its achievement, the virtues that had made the Roman republic so successful failed it and were lost for ever. To understand the significance of this turning point, however, one must begin with an account of how Rome reached it.


The Greek historian Polybius, detained as a prisoner in Rome between 163 and 150 BC, wrote a history aimed at helping Romans to answer one question: how did Rome achieve supremacy over the Mediterranean in the space of just fifty-two years (219–167BC)?3Although Polybius’s work fed Roman myths and legends about this period in their history, this should not diminish the extraordinary success of Rome. The Romans’ mastery of the Mediterranean was so complete that by 167 BC the Senate was able to abolish direct taxation in Italy, replacing it with the riches that the republic received in revenue from its provinces abroad.

The leading politicians in Rome who had achieved this feat were a small clique of aristocratic families. Although access to these families – through the practice of adoption, for example – was more open than the Romans liked to think, between 509 and 133BCjust twenty-six families were said to have provided three-quarters of those elected to the consulship, the highest annual office in the republic. A mere ten had provided half of them. The young Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was related to the three interconnected families who had blazed a trail during the great period of Roman expansion: the Sempronii Gracchi through his father, and both the Cornelii Scipiones and the Aemilii Paulli through his mother (see family tree, page 48). By tracing a brief history of Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean, we can see how all the young Tiberius’s relatives spearheaded Rome’s empire-building abroad. This extraordinary story begins in North Africa and with the challenge posed by a rival.

In 265 BC the ancient city of Carthage was the most significant power in the Mediterranean. It was founded by Phoenicians (from what is now Lebanon) around 800 BC. Their skill lay in seafaring, and it was their single-minded pursuit to control the trading routes of the western Mediterranean that, by 265 BC, made Carthage the wealthiest, most culturally advanced city of the region. Its trading posts stretched from the coasts of Spain and France to Sicily and Sardinia, and from there south across the whole of North Africa. While Carthage had come into conflict with other maritime peoples, particularly the Greeks, in the process of establishing these trading routes, its relations with the city-state of Rome and the seafaring peoples of Italy had been friendly: treaties protecting Carthage’s trade routes were established with Rome in 509 BC and 348 BC. Now in 265 BC, however, all that was about to change, although no one knew it at the outset.


Rome’s first great war with Carthage, known as the First Punic War (Punic being the Latin word for ‘Phoenician’), began in 264 BC. The moment of incitement was when Rome was called upon to help resolve a small dispute on the island of Sicily, a Carthaginian province (see map, previous page). The city of Messina, controlled by mercenaries from Campania in Italy, was being attacked by soldiers from the city of Syracuse. Rome took the side of Messina; Carthage took the side of Syracuse. The war by proxy blew up into a direct confrontation between Rome and Carthage after the consul in charge of the Roman army not only succeeded in relieving Messina, but also forced Syracuse to accept his generous terms, defect from Carthage and become an ally of Rome. Anxious to protect its province, Carthage joined battle in earnest by sending a large army to the island in 262 BC. So began a war that would last more than twenty years. At stake was the control of Sicily.

As the conflict escalated, so too did Rome’s war aims. Rome realized that to win the war it needed to drive Carthage out of Sicily altogether; to do that it needed to weaken Carthage’s control of the seas around Sicily. This would be no mean feat, for it required developing a weapon Rome had not yet tried out, let alone built: a navy. According to Polybius, the Romans seized the opportunity to build a war fleet for the first time in their history when a Carthaginian ship harrying the crossing of Roman troops to Sicily ran aground on the coast of southern Italy.4 The Romans seized it, copied its design and within a year produced a navy of one hundred oared warships. They even took the opportunity of enhancing the ships with a secret weapon: a rotatable, spiked boarding bridge. Thus armed, the Romans, led by their admiral Gaius Dulius, won their first sea battle at Mylae in 260 BC.

Despite some major setbacks, including an ill-advised invasion of North Africa, the destruction of their fleet by storms no less than three times, and near financial ruin, the Romans responded to adversity in typical, never-say-die fashion: they rebuilt their ships. Crucially, they were given a much-needed breathing space when, in 247 BC, the Carthaginians chose to focus not on defeating the Romans, but on restoring the loyalty – wavering towards Rome – of the Numidians and the Libyans in the interior of North Africa. When, on 10 March 241 BC, Rome won a decisive victory over a Carthaginian relief fleet off the Aegates Islands to the north of Sicily, the Romans finally achieved mastery of the sea. At that time the Carthaginian general Hamilcar was conducting a successful guerrilla war against the Roman army on Sicily. Even though he himself had not been beaten, he was instructed by the political leaders in Carthage to come to terms.

The undefeated general’s submission to the Romans symbolized the unresolved nature of the first war. If striking the peace treaty rankled the Carthaginian leadership, there were more bitter pills to swallow. In the immediate aftermath of the war Carthage evacuated Sicily and, with the exception of the kingdom of Syracuse, which remained an ally, the island became Rome’s first overseas province. Harsh conditions were imposed, principally the indemnity that Carthage had to pay Rome: 3200 talents of silver, the equivalent of 82,000 kilograms (80 tons), to be paid over ten years. Rome then took advantage of Carthage’s weakness to expel Carthaginians unceremoniously from both Sardinia and Corsica. In the space of a few years Rome had moved seamlessly from a position of seeking to ‘defend’ its allies in the region by excluding the Carthaginians from ‘Italian’ waters to exploiting the three wealthy islands for its own enrichment. Corn, as well as other riches, flowed into Rome from the islands. And yet despite this naked show of imperialism, the question of who controlled the Mediterranean had still not been answered.

The region of contention between the established Carthaginian empire and Rome’s fledgling overseas empire now became Spain. The general Hamilcar headed up an expeditionary force and went there in 238 BC with the express purpose of building a new empire to make up for the loss of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. The mines of Spain were rich in gold and silver, a new army could be recruited from the local tribes there, and the country’s grain supply could compensate for the loss of Sardinia’s. Through a combination of campaigns, treaties and alliances, Hamilcar with his sons expanded their control of Spain, while Carthage continued to supply his expeditionary force with officers, elephants and colonists to populate the new cities being built. Nervous of the growing power base that Carthage was building in Spain, Rome sent envoys in 226 BC to New Carthage (modern-day Cartagena), asking the Carthaginians to limit their expansion to the river Ebro (see map, page 49). They agreed, but the peace was only temporary because Rome then strategically established an alliance with the independent city of Saguntum on the Mediterranean coast north of New Carthage. By making an ally of a city on the periphery of Carthage’s expanding Spanish empire, Rome could eventually justify a war once again by claiming to come to Saguntum’s defence. A time bomb for a future war was thus set ticking.

The man who was prepared to take on Rome for a second time and try to reverse the result of the first war was Hamilcar’s younger son, Hannibal. In 221 BC he had assumed command of the Carthaginian forces in Spain. When he was nine, went one famous story, his father had dipped his hand in the blood of a sacrifice and sworn him to an eternal hatred of Rome. Now the twenty-seven-year-old general had his excuse to vent that wrath. To his mind the city of Saguntum, which had begun harassing neighbouring Carthaginian towns, was a threat, an impediment to their control of Spain and the security of the western empire. So, with authorization from the leaders of Carthage, Hannibal crossed the river Ebro and took the city by storm. War had been declared.

The Romans expected the Second Punic War to be fought in Spain. They were utterly wrong-footed. This conflict, which lasted from 218 to 201 BC and was the greatest of the wars between the two rival empires, is legendary for Hannibal’s extraordinary decision: to invade Italy and march on Rome. In the spring of 218 BC he set out on the 1600-kilometre (1000-mile) journey across hostile territory with 12,000 cavalry, 90,000 infantry and thirty-seven war elephants. Such a feat demanded courage and resourcefulness. At the river Rhone, 500 metres (1650 feet) wide and too deep to wade across, the elephants were enticed on to rafts by mahouts. The animals were deceived by a covering of soil laid on the rafts to make them look like solid ground. Once two females had floated across, the others, despite some casualties, overcame their panic and followed. However, the greatest challenge to Hannibal was not a river, but the snowcapped mountains of the Alps.

Enduring ambushes, falling rocks and boulders, steep, slippery tracks, low food supplies and freezing temperatures, Hannibal headed his army through the narrow passes with ingenuity and inspired leadership. When his men were cold he spent the night in the open with them; when a road was blocked by a landslide he rallied them to heat up sour wine, pour it over the obstructing rocks and thus break them up; when his army was flagging from exhaustion he raised their spirits by reminding them of the opportunities for glory and loot that lay ahead: ‘You are passing over the protective barrier of Italy – nay more, you are passing over the very walls of Rome!’5 After four weeks crossing the whole Alpine range, Hannibal walked into Italy in the company of (at the lowest estimate) 20,000 infantry, 6000 cavalry and a minority of the elephants. The infantry might have been double that size. He rested them all for two weeks before proceeding to match the great feat of reaching Italy with another: destroying every Roman force he met there.

Between the winter of 218 BC and the summer of 216 BC, at the battles of Ticinus, Trebia and Trasimene (see map, page 49), the young general Hannibal surpassed the Romans in military flair, strategy and daring to consistently crush armies far larger than his own. The climax to his Italian campaign, however, was the battle of Cannae, a place that became synonymous with Roman tragedy. At this confrontation in the region of Apulia he succeeded in surrounding an army double the size of his own with both flanks of his superior African cavalry. As the encircling Carthaginian alliance closed in, a prolonged period of butchery ensued; 45,500 Roman and allied infantry were killed, along with 2700 cavalry. The battle cut a massive swathe through the officer corps of the aristocratic élite too: no fewer than eighty senators died on the battlefield. Indeed, it is said that perhaps no Western army has suffered higher casualties in a single day of fighting before or since than the Romans did at Cannae. The defeat sent shock waves through southern Italy, where many of Rome’s allies and colonies now defected to Carthage. This had always been Hannibal’s plan, and now it was paying off. To all appearances, Rome, the precocious fledgling empire, was doomed to be short-lived.

And yet, in the immediate aftermath of the battle, one man would show the never-say-die spirit of defiance with which Rome would turn events around. His name was Publius Cornelius Scipio and he was the man who was to become the grandfather of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Although the then nineteen-year-old junior magistrate had just witnessed his father-in-law killed on the battlefield, he rallied the surviving officers. Scipio’s energy and authority checked the impulse of the terrified soldiers who were threatening to flee. In fear now of Scipio, they promptly pulled themselves together and swore their loyalty to the Roman republic. The same indomitable spirit was echoed at the gates of Rome too. Here the victorious Hannibal sent a delegation to sue for terms in the expectation that his enemy would capitulate. The Romans responded by refusing to allow the Carthaginians even to enter the city. When Hannibal himself subsequently drew up his army outside the city walls, so the story goes, the land on which they camped happened to be for sale. Such was the confidence of the Romans that, before Hannibal and his army left, a buyer for it was found.6 The message was clear: the Romans were determined to fight on and fight to win.

The man who would lead their comeback between 216 and 202 BC was Scipio. The key to his success in reversing Hannibal’s achievement was the Romans’ ability to draw on a seemingly endless supply of high-quality manpower. Although the Italian allies of Rome in the south defected to Hannibal, many others remained loyal, and it was from these and other allied communities throughout Italy that Rome created new armies. With them at their disposal, the Romans now adopted a different tactic altogether. They allowed Hannibal free rein in the south of Italy to try to raise a coalition of new forces, and meanwhile set out to defeat the Carthaginians in Spain. The plan was to prevent a second invasion and to stop Hannibal from acquiring much-needed reinforcements from abroad. At the age of just twenty-six, Scipio took New Carthage, won over many Spanish tribes and drove the Carthaginians out of Spain altogether. Such was his popularity that, despite opposition from the Senate in Rome, the charismatic and highly motivated young general was then able to raise another army of volunteers and set his sights on the one feat the Romans had not achieved during the First Punic War: an invasion of North Africa.

With Hannibal and his army recalled to Carthage to help defend the country, Scipio finally came to face to face with the great Carthaginian general at Zama, about 120 kilometres (75 miles) from Carthage, in 202 BC. At a meeting with his adversary, Hannibal attempted to negotiate a peace. Scipio refused. The Roman knew that the advantage was now with him. As the lines of the battle drew up, he and his army knew too what to expect from a fight with the Carthaginians. When, for example, Hannibal released the elephants the Romans, under orders from Scipio, stood firm and allowed them to pass through clearly marked lanes in their formation. Then, when the two sides joined battle, the envelopment tactic was used, but this time it was Hannibal and the Carthaginian army who were trapped inside. With some 20,000 Carthaginian deaths and only 1500 Roman losses, the battle of Zama brought about a stunning Roman victory and concluded the Second Punic War beyond all expectation. Rome’s extraordinary comeback was capped by the terms of the peace. Carthage was allowed to retain the territory in Africa that it had held before the war, but its overseas empire was taken away for ever. It was forced to surrender its fleet and its elephants, to pay 10,000 talents (250,000 kilograms or 245 tons) of silver in indemnity and, crucially, to agree, in a way similar to a nuclear non-proliferation treaty today, never to re-arm or declare any war without permission from Rome.

Zama marked a key turning point. While Carthage lost a western Mediterranean empire, Rome – now master of the two new provinces of Spain and the sole power in the region – gained one. For his inspired leadership and brilliance in warfare Publius Cornelius Scipio was honoured with the name ‘Africanus’. He was not the only one who bathed in glory. For their instrumental part in winning the west the ancient aristocratic family of the Cornelii Scipiones shot to pre-eminence among the Roman élite. So, one branch of young Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus’ family tree was thus established. However, it was another of his ancestors who would go on to match Scipio’s conquest of the western Mediterranean. He would do so by concluding the conquest of the Greek east.

The strategy by which Rome came to dominate the east between 197 and 168 BC was a little different from that used in the west. In the aftermath of the Punic Wars, the signs of an empire were plain to see. Roman garrisons and standing armies were now dotted around Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and Spain; taxes from these provinces were being raised; and the annually elected Roman office holders allotted to govern those provinces immediately began to exploit their mineral wealth for the benefit of Rome. In the east, by contrast, the Roman Senate took a slightly more subtle, gradual and diplomatic path to asserting Rome’s supremacy.

The eastern Mediterranean was at this time made up of a series of kingdoms. They were known as the ‘successor kingdoms’ of Alexander the Great, because the dynasties that ruled them were founded by Alexander’s Greek generals when the great conqueror died and his vast but brief empire collapsed. One of these kings, Philip V of Macedon, had already incurred the anger of Rome. He had taken advantage of the republic’s weakness after Cannae and made an alliance with Carthage. By 197 BC, with Carthage subdued, Rome was in a position to declare war proper on Philip. The excuse it chose was a familiar one: the defence of its Greek friends who were being tyrannized by him. Within the year Philip was defeated at the battle of Cynoscephalae and Rome had won the right to dispose of his kingdom as it saw fit. Instead of making the kingdom of Macedon a province of the republic, however, the Roman commander in the region attended the Isthmian Games at Corinth, received the rapturous welcome normally accorded to Greek kings, and cleverly declared Greece now to be ‘free’. Then he withdrew his army.

Another opportunity for such Roman generosity soon presented itself. When the Greek king, Antiochus of Syria, expanded his Seleucid kingdom with attacks on Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and northern Greece, the Roman army returned to the region again with the stated purpose of aiding the Greek cities under threat. Antiochus was defeated at the battle of Magnesia in 190 BC, his kingdom was returned to its former limits and the Greek lands he had overrun were allocated to Rome’s loyal allies in the war. Then, once again, the Roman troops were evacuated. Although both these brief wars gave the impression that freedom and autonomy remained with the Greek cities of the east, the reality was quite different. The consequence of Roman intervention was that the Greek cities were now bound by an unspoken obligation to Rome. In exchange for their ‘freedom’ the Greek cities of the east owed Rome their loyalty.7

The actions of one king, however, would provoke Rome into letting the mask of its benevolent eastern policy slip. When Philip V’s son Perseus came to the throne he sought to re-establish the prestige and authority of the Macedonian kingdom in the region. Through interventions in the local wars of Greece, he duly won influence and widespread popular support among the Greek city-states. His gain in influence, however, was to the cost of Rome’s and in the eyes of the Roman Senate that was simply unacceptable. A new excuse for a ‘just war’ was devised and hostilities were declared in 171 BC.

At first Perseus’s Macedonian phalanx was successful. By June 168 BC, however, the close-packed battle formation of infantry soldiers that had conquered the known world under Alexander the Great was fighting its last battle. At Pydna on the northeast coast of Greece the Roman legions of Lucius Aemilius Paullus won a decisive victory; 20,000 Macedonians were killed and 11,000 were taken prisoner. The once-mighty Greek kingdom was broken up into four republics loyal to Rome; it was only a matter of time before Macedonia became a Roman province in its own right. King Perseus himself, the last royal descendant of Alexander, was captured and taken to Rome. Here he was paraded as a trophy of Rome’s dominion in the eastern Mediterranean. The stage on which the prisoner walked was the triumphal procession of Lucius Aemilius Paullus; the triumphant general was the future great-uncle of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus the younger.

For the glorious part they played in Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean, in the wars won and in the numbers of the enemy killed, the family of the Aemilii Paulli joined the Cornelii Scipiones at the forefront of the Roman élite. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus the elder ensured that his family too rivalled them for glory and prestige. His own father had been a consul and a hero from the war against Hannibal. Now he too injected the family name with new glory. In 180 BC Gracchus senior subjugated northern Spain, and three years later crushed an 80,000-strong rebellion in Sardinia. For these achievements Gracchus was considered worthy to marry Cornelia, the most eligible noblewoman in Rome. She was the daughter of Scipio Africanus and the niece of Lucius Aemilius Paullus. In Cornelia the three illustrious families united. They were the three wings of the ancestry of Cornelia’s son, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus the younger, and they came together at Gracchus’s funeral in 154 BC. But despite the families’ extraordinary success in conquering the Mediterranean a question mark loomed over their achievements.

It centred on the uncertainty of what the empire they had built was doing to Rome. Were the wars they had waged really defensive and just, as many claimed, or were they simply naked expressions of the desire for gain? Who really benefited from that gain? The Roman republic as a whole or just a few aristocrats who had profited while holding office? Above all, what effect did winning an empire have on the moral character of Rome? Was it encouraging virtue in its soldiers and leaders, or simply greed and corruption? Indeed, were personal ambition and the pursuit of glory now being set above the interests of the republic and the Roman people? This was the great debate that the conquest of the Mediterranean had ignited. In 146 BC one single event would fan its flames to a roaring blaze.


By the end of the year 148 BC, the Third Punic War was going badly for the Romans. The consuls leading the attack on Carthage and the neighbouring countryside had initiated rash assaults, resulting in defeat and failure, while the soldiers themselves were growing idle, greedy and selfish.8 Of the three wars against Carthage, the third was the most controversial and, to many minds back in the metropolis, the Romans were now paying the price. The historian Polybius, who was an eyewitness to the later stages of this war, addressed the nature of the controversy. Opinion in the Mediterranean world, he said, was divided over the Romans’ decision to go to war with their old rival for a third time:

There were some who approved the action of the Romans, saying that they had taken wise and statesmanlike measures in the defence of their empire. For to destroy this source of perpetual menace [Carthage] . . .was the act of intelligent and far-seeing men. Others took the opposite view, that far from maintaining the principles by which they had won their supremacy, they were, little by little, deserting it for a lust of domination.9

The war had been controversial from the very start. Before any decision to launch hostilities was taken, heated arguments divided the Senate. On one side were the doves: they argued vehemently that, far from seeking to destroy Carthage, Rome needed a strong Carthage to act as a counterbalance of power in the Mediterranean. In this way, went their argument, Carthage would actually restrain Rome from becoming so powerful that it gave way to the ‘avarice’ that destroyed ‘honour, integrity and every other virtue’.10The hawks countered this line of argument by playing on old Roman fears. Carthage, they said, was resurgent and wealthy and would always pose a threat until it was absolutely destroyed. Led by Cato the Elder, this side glossed their case with bright rhetorical brush strokes. The Carthaginians were untrustworthy, degenerate and effeminate child-sacrificers.The suggestion was that they were, in effect, subhuman and should be treated as such. Relentlessly keeping the issue at the top of the agenda, Cato ended every speech hemade in the Senate on whatever subject with the statement ‘Delenda est Carthago’ (Carthage must be wiped out).11 In this way he ground down the opposition, and eventually the hawks swayed the majority of the Senate in favour of war. Now all the senators needed was a justification. Establishing this would only make the controversy worse.

A pretext was soon found. Following an inspection of the city of Carthage and surrounding countryside, a Roman commission reported to the Senate an ‘abundance of ship-building materials’ and alleged that Carthaginians had built up their fleet beyond the legal limits set by the treaty of the Second Punic War.12 However, the archaeological and historical evidence for the development of these ancient weapons of mass destruction is inconclusive even to this day. Then, when the Carthaginians did eventually break the treaty in an irrefutable way (by going to war with their neighbour Numidia without the permission of Rome), even here the case against Carthage was far from convincing. There was one simple reason: Rome, acting behind the scenes, had been the one to incite Numidian aggression against Carthage in the first place. But this was by no means the last instance of Roman cynicism. In its diplomacy, too, Rome would bring the controversy of the decision to go to war to an even fiercer pitch of intensity. For the Roman senators were about to violate one of the republic’s most ancient and divine virtues: fides or ‘reliability’ – the ability in political affairs to keep one’s word.

As the Roman war machine geared up for action, with ships shuttling between Italy and North Africa and the number of troops and cavalry deployed swelling to over 80,000, the Carthaginians sent no fewer than three embassies to the Romans in 149 BC. Each of them offered their surrender, each was a desperate bid to prevent war. On the first occasion the Roman consul agreed to peace and to give Carthage its freedom under Roman rule. There was, however, one condition: that the Carthaginians surrender three hundred hostages, specifically the sons of their noblest families. The Carthaginians, in good faith, agreed. Then, when this was done and the flower of their élite had sailed for Rome, the Roman consul in Africa, Lucius Marcius Censorinus, stipulated a further condition: the surrender of 200,000 sets of armour and 2000 catapults. Distraught, the ambassadors returned to Carthage and oversaw the arms being collected by the wagonload and taken to the Roman camp. However, the wily Censorinus had one more trick up his sleeve.

A final condition was stipulated before peace could be agreed: the removal of the city of Carthage from the coast to 16 kilometres (10 miles) inland. Censorinus’s argument for this was an extraordinary piece of hypocrisy. The sea, he said, with its prospects for trade, had corrupted Carthage. It had given it ‘a grasping disposition’. Carthage needed to be more like Rome: ‘Life inland,’ he claimed, ‘with the joys of agriculture and quiet, is much more equable.’13 Dumbstruck, the ambassadors broke down in tears of frenzy and mourning. It was impossible to meet this condition without, in effect, destroying the city for ever. It now dawned on them that the Romans had never sincerely intended to come to terms. They had simply sought to gain an advantage in a war that was now – and had always been – unstoppable.

Two years later, the treachery of the Romans at the outset of the war was deemed by many to be the reason for their lack of success in it. The Roman people paid great attention to the rightness of their wars in the building of the empire. ‘When the inception of war seems just,’ ran the logic, ‘it makes victory greater and ill success less perilous, while if it is thought to be dishonourable and wrong, it has the opposite effect’.14 So it was proving to be at the end of 148 BC. But, with the arrival in Africa of a new and iconic general in the spring of the following year, all that was about to change.

To resolve the miserable, grinding stalemate in Carthage, the Roman people and the Senate had turned to a young aristocrat. The credentials of Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus were impeccable. He came from the patrician family of the Cornelii Scipiones; he was the grandson of the consul who fell at the battle of Cannae; the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus, the victor of the Second Punic War; and the son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, the vanquisher of Perseus in the war against Macedon (see family tree, page 38). Aemilianus had proved his own abilities in the early stages of the war against Carthage. Indeed, leading the fourth legion, he was the only officer who had achieved any significant victories. Now, even though he was thirty-seven, five years below the official age for the office of consul, the demand among the Roman people for him to be elected was so overwhelming that the Senate eventually agreed to make an exception to the traditional laws of the republic and allowed him to stand. Once elected to the consul-ship, his responsibility was simple: to take charge of the war in Carthage and win it.

With that aim in mind, Aemilianus returned to North Africa, brought discipline back to the army and adopted a new strategy for the war. He ordered the Roman campaigns in the interior to be abandoned. All Roman units were now to focus on taking the city first by siege, then by assault. During the summer of 147 BC he created an impregnable seal around Carthage to prevent any reinforcements and provisions from reaching the city. On the land approaches, he ensured that a double wall of earthworks was built across the isthmus in just twenty days. On the harbour side, he was no less ambitious. In order to block up the entrance to the port, a barrier was created by depositing 15,000 cubic metres (52,000 cubic feet) of rocks and boulders. Siege engines were then placed on top of the wall rising out of the sea. Despite some brave Carthaginian resistance and attacks, the city was effectively made watertight by the winter. Aemilianus spent the next few months clearing up pockets of resistance in the country, and when spring came again in 146BC, he and his army were ready to take the city. To help them, new recruits arrived from Italy. One of those green soldiers was Aemilianus’s seventeen-year-old cousin, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus.

As a close relative, Tiberius shared Aemilianus’s tent and table. The boy was, after all, not only Aemilianus’s cousin, but also his brother-in-law; earlier Aemilianus had married Tiberius’s elder sister Sempronia. But the two men had more in common than family. The war presented both of them with a unique opportunity to prove themselves. For Aemilianus, holding the annual consulship gave him a limited window of time to silence his critics. In his youth he had avoided taking the proper route to success in politics and had once confided in his friend and tutor, the historian Polybius: ‘Everyone regards me as a quiet and lazy person with no share in the energetic character of a Roman because I do not choose to plead cases in court. They say that the family does not need the sort of representative that I am but someone just the opposite. That is what hurts me most.’15 His single year as consul and general in charge of the war in Carthage was his one shot at the big time, his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove himself worthy of his family, to renew the fame of the Cornelii Scipiones. Glory was there for the taking so long as the weight of expectation did not get to him first.

Much too was expected of his cousin. Since his father’s death, Tiberius, along with his sister and younger brother, had been brought up by their renowned mother Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio Africanus. She had ensured that Tiberius had received the best Greek education in rhetoric and philosophy; it suited the young man’s intelligent, generous and idealistic nature. But she had also fired him with ambitions for a glorious career and a desire to excel in the Roman virtues of self-discipline and courage. As a result, although gentle, thoughtful and by no means a natural fighter like his cousin Aemilianus, Tiberius was a fiercely determined young man.16 This latter quality would prove an asset during his summer in Carthage.

Tiberius joined Aemilianus’s staff to learn the art of war, to study his actions and follow his example. However, this war also presented him with a chance to get his foot on the political ladder known as the cursus honorum, the annual electoral competition for honours. Since in ancient Rome political and military careers were not separate as they usually are today but entwined as one, ambitious young men needed to have served in a number of campaigns before they could stand for even the lower offices in the hierarchy of magistracies. But there was much more to building a political career than simply notching up one military campaign after another. As Aemilianus himself was known to observe, power in Rome began with earning integrity. An ancient aristocratic code followed on from this: ‘Dignity of rank,’ said Aemilianus, ‘arises from integrity, the honour of holding office from dignity, supreme authority from holding office, and freedom from supreme authority.’17 Liberty to do what one wished was the value most cherished by Roman aristocrats. It was the very essence of the free republic. But how to set foot on such a daunting, political path? How to begin building such character? How to emulate one’s ancestors? As Aemilianus and his officers made the final preparations for the assault on Carthage, Tiberius found out.

There is no record of what Aemilianus told his officers before battle, but it is easy to imagine that it centred on an old theme. The battle ahead was about liberty and justice winning out over tyranny. It was about decent Roman values surpassing the treachery and deceitfulness of the Carthaginians. It was, in short, about civilization vanquishing decadence and corruption. With the final assault on Carthage, 120 years of war, hatred and suspicion would come to an end. The questions of who controlled the ancient world and how it was to be run would at last be unambiguously answered. As incentives for his officers to show valour in a conflict of such proportions, perhaps Aemilianus reminded his entourage too of the usual decorations. Ancient Romans awarded acts of bravery not primarily with medals but with crowns, bracelets, necklaces and miniature spears. Depending on the nature of the achievement, the crowns took different names and forms. Some were of grass, some of oak leaves, others of gold. Only one, however, fitted this momentous occasion. The Mural Crown was to be awarded to the first person to scale the walls of the city.

Perhaps with this in mind, Tiberius and his unit waited in the dawn light for the horns to blare. With his thirst for glory contending with terror, Tiberius was about to experience his first taste of war. Then the signal came. The Romans broke cover, quickly set timbers, scaffolding and siege engines against the city wall, and took on the 30,000 Carthaginian defenders. Against the shower of arrows, spears and weighted nets trapping the Roman climbers below, Tiberius’s unit began the long scramble up the city wall some 9 metres (30 feet) wide and 18 metres (66 feet) high. Despite the swathes of Roman casualties crashing to the ground around him, Tiberius achieved what perhaps had seemed impossible: he became the first to lead his detachment to the top of the wall of Carthage. But as soon he and his men were over, they would have realised that the fight had only just begun. They now faced the enemy in gruelling, mechanical hand-to-hand combat. In the moment of his great triumph Tiberius found himself in hell.

The horrific conflict lasted six days and nights. Once inside the city, killing squads advanced house by house, narrow street by narrow street. They cut and stabbed their way from the Forum of Carthage along three streets and forced the enemy back on to Byrsa, the citadel. When the determined Carthaginians, fighting for survival, began attacking the Romans with missiles from the roofs of their close-packed houses, the Romans captured the first few tenements, murdered their occupants and mounted the roofs too. Throwing planks over the narrow alleyways, they continued to wage the war from rooftop to rooftop, leaving a trail of mutilated corpses in their wake or tossing them to the streets below. Then, amid the cries, shrieks and animal-like groans, Aemilianus raised the intensity of the brutal assault and ordered the streets to be set on fire. The booming noise stepped up the confusion. Houses came crashing down and the elderly, the wounded, women and children were forced out of their hiding places.18

Squads of Roman ‘cleaners’ now attempted to bring order to the scenes of frenetic activity. They cleared away the bodies of the dead and wounded alike, mixing them with the rubble and sweeping them into holes in the ground. The streets needed to be clear to make way for the cohorts of army and cavalry charging forward. Horses trampled over the dismembered limbs and severed heads that remained in their way. This warfare was a far cry from the bloody field engagements of Hannibal, or the naval clashes of the First Punic War. It took the horror to another level. At all costs, however, Roman discipline had to be sustained. Although the troops were rotated in order to maintain the ferocity of their attack, Aemilianus, snatching morsels of food and sleep whenever he could, worked around the clock.19

By the seventh day the Romans’ efforts had paid off and 50,000 exhausted, starving Carthaginians approached Aemilianus bearing garlands of the god of healing, Asclepius, a signal that they wished to surrender in exchange for their lives. Aemilianus agreed. After the respite, the Roman army focused its full force on the sacred Temple of Eshmoun. This was situated at the height of the citadel and it was the fortified bolt-hole to which Hasdrubal, the Carthaginian general, and a defiant army of nine hundred defenders had retreated. The Romans surrounded it and for some time were unable to penetrate the temple’s natural defences. The grind of war – fatigue, want of food and fear – eventually forced the Carthaginians on to the roof. There was nowhere left to turn. When Hasdrubal, realizing that they were doomed, secretly deserted, Aemilianus was quick to drive home the advantage. In full view of the rebels, he staged the abject surrender of their cowardly leader before him. After that demoralizing spectacle it was only a matter of time before the rebels, including Hasdrubal’s wife and children, gave up hope and threw themselves to their deaths in the fire enveloping the temple below.20

The Romans had sealed their victory. What was utterly striking about the aftermath of the ruthless sack of Carthage, however, was the reaction of Aemilianus. The moment was not cause for thoughtless, impulsive celebration but pessimism, doubt, even guilt. Polybius, an eyewitness to the events, recorded it. Aemilianus took him into his confidence, climbed to a point where he could survey the spectacular devastation below and burst into tears. He even quoted some lines from the Iliad, the ancient Greek poem of Homer:

A day will come in which our mighty Troy,

And Priam and the people over whom

Spear-bearing Priam rules, shall perish all.21

When Polybius asked him what he meant, Aemilianus replied that one day Rome would meet the same fate as Troy and its king, Priam. The ancient city of Carthage, after all, had been the centre of an empire that had lasted seven hundred years. It had ‘ruled over so many lands, islands and seas, and was once as rich in arms and fleets, elephants and money as the mightiest empires’.22 Now, however, it lay in ruins. It is astonishing that a Roman general should respond so differently from his all-conquering ancestors. He reflected not on the glory of Rome, not on the success of the just and free republic but on its future and inevitable demise. The echo of Homer’s poem was poignant for another reason. The sack of Troy was the moment that had provoked the flight of the Trojan Aeneas. That flight had resulted in the legendary foundation of Rome. The ‘Trojan’ Romans, said Aemilianus, would go the same way not just as the Carthaginians but as their distant ancestors too.

Over the next few days, Aemilianus reserved much of the city’s gold, silver and sacred objects for the Roman state. He made sure too that none of his friends and associates participated in excessive looting so that neither he nor they could be accused by their political rivals in Rome of privately profiting from the war. Such behaviour would be tantamount to dishonour, the great mistake of putting one’s own interests above those of the republic. Only after the richest slice of the plunder had been saved for Rome, did Aemilianus turn over the remainder of the city to the grasping hands of the Roman soldiers.

Ten commissioners soon arrived from Rome with one final request for the great conqueror. Nothing of Carthage, they said, should remain. So, after the city was burnt for ten days and demolished stone by stone, brick by brick, the Roman army concluded the most comprehensive, painstaking eradication of a city and its culture in all of ancient history. Archaeological evidence of the burning and demolition can be seen to this day. From a city of approximately a million inhabitants, the surviving 50,000 Carthaginians were sold into slavery. The towns that had supported the city were likewise destroyed, while those that had sided with Rome were rewarded. The new Roman province of North Africa was now established. It was, however, becoming harder to see where were those ancestral virtues of piety, justice and honour and what role, if any, they played.

In the same year as Carthage was razed to the ground, the rich city of Corinth in Greece was also methodically sacked by the Romans. It was punishment once again for challenging their power in the region. The two events took place within months of each other and for this reason the year 146 BC would prove a major watershed in Roman history. Across the breadth of the Mediterranean Sea, from the Atlantic coast of Spain to Greece’s border with Asia Minor, Rome was now the supreme master. It could do anything it wanted to whomever it chose and it could do so without fear of reprisal. It did not even have to keep its word. In the war with Carthage, the ancient virtue of fides had been violated and yet, in spite of this, Rome was still victorious. The Roman gods still seemed to smile with favour and grant success.

Before leaving North Africa, Aemilianus attended to one last duty. Tiberius had been popular and held in affection by the soldiers. Now the young man’s success in the war was capped when Aemilianus awarded his cousin the Mural Crown for his courage in being the first over the walls of Carthage.23 In years to come, however, the consequences of destroying Carthage would haunt those who had carried it out, both the doubting general and the seventeen-year-old, decorated soldier. Indeed, with time, the cost of this Roman atrocity would tear the cousins apart.


When Tiberius returned to Rome he stepped into glory. Wearing his golden Mural Crown, the young idealist walked through the main streets of the city as one small part of a grand procession. All the temples were open and filled with garlands and incense. Sunlit rose petals streamed down from the rooftops, and the attendants of officials did their best to control the tide of the crowds. For pouring into the streets, cheering, laughing and embracing each other, was the multitude of the Roman people.24 All this excitement and celebration was in honour of one magnificent event: Aemilianus’s triumph, the illustrious prize awarded by the Senate to honour the general’s victory in Carthage.

Trumpeters led the way, sounding out the same martial music with which they had previously roused the soldiers to war. Oxen, their horns gilded and bearing garlands, were present too. Some soldiers, in their finest armour, held aloft models, plans and pictures depicting the city they had conquered and critical scenes from the war. Behind them others carried a forest of placards inscribed with the names of foreign places now subdued. After the parade of captive Carthaginians, the spoils of their city and the piles of their armour, came Aemilianus on his chariot. He wore a purple toga into which silver stars had been woven, and his face was daubed with red paint. Thus attired, he was the personification of Jupiter, the greatest of the gods who protected Rome. However, there was no question about the conqueror’s quasi-divinity. The state slave, standing behind him, may have held a heavy gold-leaf crown over Aemilianus’s head, but every time the crowd cheered, he murmured to the general: ‘Remember you are only a man.’

The procession ended with a ceremony at the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, the place from where Aemilianus had set out the year before. The chief prisoners from Carthage were dragged to the prison at the foot of the hill and executed. Once their deaths were confirmed, Aemilianus supervised the sacrifice. He climbed the temple steps, poured wine over an ox’s brow, sprinkled its back with salted flour, then traced a knife slowly along its spine. Then, as a signal to the attending slaves to slit the animal’s throat, he pulled a loose fold of his toga over his head in the manner of a priest, and the beast was duly killed. The sacrifice was perhaps a way of giving thanks to Jupiter for Aemilianus’s success in Africa, something he had promised to do before he left Rome. That promise now fulfilled, the triumphal procession came to a close with celebratory banquets and feasting.

With her heroic son Tiberius now safely back in Rome, Cornelia would have encouraged him to accompany her to the dinner parties and social gatherings hosted by the élite. To help his career progress, the young man now needed to network voraciously, gain more military experience in the company of great generals like his cousin Aemilianus, and build on the prestige of the Mural Crown he had won at Carthage. A political ‘career’ for a young aristocrat in the Roman republic of the second century BC was not in any sense like a modern career. There was no salary for holding office. There was no nine-to-five routine or basic five-day week. All prospect of success in a Roman aristocrat’s political life depended on one narrow window of opportunity: winning an election for an annual public office.

Once successful in discharging the duties of that office, the holder found that rewards flowed freely – fame, glory, prestige and the possibility of great wealth. As a result, the competition was intense, and increased even further as the offices higher up the chain of magistracies became fewer and thus harder to obtain. Aemilianus had reached the top. Now it was the turn of Tiberius. Indeed, Cornelia was so famous for reproaching both her sons that she was still referred to as the mother-in-law of ‘Scipio Aemilianus’ rather than as the mother of ‘the Gracchi’.25 However, while his networking and nascent political career may have been on his mother’s mind, there was one debate in Roman high society that would perhaps have interested the young Tiberius a great deal more. It centred around the wealth that everyone had just witnessed flowing into Rome.

The booty from the cities of Carthage and Corinth, the tribute from the new provinces of Sicily and Sardinia, and the income from the mines of Spain brought a massive injection of money into the city, so Rome was flourishing. The city became a hive of industry and expenditure: new docks and markets were constructed, the water supply was doubled, and large building projects sprang up. And yet, despite Rome’s new-found prosperity, not all sections of the population shared in its wealth. The city that Tiberius found on his return to Rome reflected the ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

Rome during this period was not yet the glorious, marbled city of the high empire, of organized public spaces and cool colonnades. It was a city of extremes and contradictions. As soon as Tiberius strayed from the Forum, temples and public assembly areas, leaving behind the main thoroughfares of the Via Sacra and Nova Via, he could easily have got lost in the warren of chaotic, claustrophobic streets. Alleys were so narrow that houses with balconies and upper floors almost touched; from their windows people would throw out waste and sewage. In very poor districts, such as the Esquiline, houses built from cob and wattle were so rickety that they often stood up only by leaning against each other for support. As a result, they regularly collapsed or burnt down when fire spread rapidly from building to building. The sight of a charred house standing next to a temple beautifully restored by a wealthy aristocrat was nothing out of the ordinary.

In spite of their poor quality, the houses were divided into apartments so that tenants could crowd into attics, basements and even shacks on flat roofs. Romans advertised rental property by painting ‘For Rent’ on the outside of the building, and the rents they charged were increasingly exorbitant. Those who could not afford to pay them set up lodgings in the nooks and crannies of public buildings, under stairs or even in large tombs. As there were no kitchens in the cheap tenement housing, the activity of Rome’s poor citizens and slaves spread out to the streets, and the numerous bars and restaurants heaved with people. And all this activity took place against a background of mayhem and constant noise from carts, wagons, litters and horses. Rome at the end of the second centuryBC really was a city that never slept.

Into the pulsing metropolis the majority of Rome’s population, which was approaching one million, was crammed. The aristocratic élite, however, in whose circles Tiberius moved, had a very different experience of the city. While the air was suffocating down in the crowded, messy streets, up on the Palatine Hill it was fresh and clean. It was to these exclusive heights that the wealthy and aspirational, borne aloft in litters, retreated to their luxurious villas and colonnaded gardens. The style of these new residences was strikingly innovative. Empire-building had not only made the élite lots of money, but it had opened their eyes to foreign influences. Greek style had the greatest cachet, as Roman aristocrats admired Greece’s ancient, sophisticated and aesthetic civilization.

Befitting Rome’s position at the heart of the new empire, the city now became the centre through which Greek art and influence circulated and gained value. The conquering aristocrats beautified not just the city, but also their homes with Greek-influenced monuments, temples and porticoes. Keeping up with the Fabii or the Claudii or any of the aristocratic families was a trick accomplished only by the conspicuous display of an exotic mural of Hellenistic inspiration, or a chic marble statue from Greece. Tiberius’s mother caused quite a sensation when she inherited from her uncle Lucius Aemilius Paullus, the conqueror of Macedon, Rome’s largest library of Greek manuscripts.

Such conspicuous displays of prosperity and success served a dangerous purpose. They were not only a manifestation of a nobleman’s prestige and political standing. They were a spur, an incitement to others too. When, for example, an aristocrat such as Aemilianus returned from conquest abroad, he might put his new wealth towards a grand monument, a luxurious work of art, or use it to influence his political associates and woo the Roman people. A new benchmark was set. Now other aristocrats had to play catch-up or else lose status. The only way for them to achieve that was to run in elections and win further office. A praetorship might win the successful candidate a chance to profit personally from administering a province. Winning a consulship, of course, was to hit the jackpot. It provided the chance to command the republic’s armies and clean up by conquest. Only by holding such an office did an aristocrat stand a chance of matching his rival’s success; only in this way could he hope to put his family’s status on a par with theirs. Where the families of the Cornelii Scipiones, the Aemilii Paulli or the Sempronii Gracchi blazed a trail, their aristocratic rivals had to follow.26 By the 140s BC, however, the pattern of self-serving competition was, so it was said, corrupting the republic.

For the more the élite vied with each other for office and prestige, the blinder they became to the growing poverty in Rome. The gap between rich and poor grew wider and wider as the spoils of the empire were unevenly divided. Some feared that the élite would become ever more selfish and grasping, and that the mob of Rome would run riot, frustrated by their own grievances and offended by the greed of the rich.27 In other words, the great and noble ‘free’ republic was on the verge of a precipice. It was about to tear itself apart. How had it come to this?

The single inflammatory issue on which the rich and poor were growing increasingly divided was land. It was a source of tension closely connected to the problem of military service. In the second century BC the Roman army was not, as modern armies have become, a professional standing army paid for by the state. It was a temporary militia made up of Roman citizens and allies from Italian communities throughout the peninsula. Participation in the army was the key obligation of being a Roman citizen, and as Rome conquered Italy, it imposed this obligation on those outside the city too. To qualify for service in the army, a citizen had to be able to meet a minimum property requirement. The logic behind this qualification was that ownership of property gave you a stake in the republic, which, as a free-born citizen, it was your duty to protect through service in the army. As a result, the army was made up principally of smallholding farmers.

While Rome fought short, local campaigns in Italy, the system of citizen-soldiers worked well because it allowed the men to return to their farms at regular intervals. However, with the conquest of the Mediterranean, the Roman armies found themselves serving for long periods of time in Spain, Africa or the east. Commanders of the armies also made the problem worse by continually choosing the most experienced soldiers. As a result, these soldiers were kept in the army year after year. Some eventually returned to their land, but many others never did. Inevitably, the farms suffered: they fell into disuse and neglect, and the family members still living on them faced accumulating debt and starvation. To alleviate the pressure, small landowners or their families were forced to sell or abandon their holdings.

The smallholders’ loss became the aristocrats’ gain. In the Roman republic the safest investment for capital was land. As the élite grew rich from the spoils of conquests and the subsidiary businesses of empire-building (such as state contracts for roads, sewers, buildings and aqueducts, arms manufacture, provisioning of the army and navy, the leasing of mines and quarries), they used their wealth to take advantage of the desperate smallholders and acquire their land ‘partly by purchase, partly by persuasion and partly by force, cultivating wide estates instead of single farms’.28 Exacerbating the problem was another hard fact of empire-building: it made financial sense for the élite to employ gangs of slaves imported from all corners of the Mediterranean as herdsmen and fieldworkers. As a result, even the possibility of work as hired hands on the large estates was closed to free-born smallholders.

Deracinated and dispossessed, some peasants survived on small, marginal plots of land, eking out an existence from what they could produce and from seasonal work, such as harvesting. Others, however, drawn by the prospect of employment in an arms manufactory, in construction or in shipbuilding, increasingly went to where they believed the streets were paved with gold: Rome. They were to be rapidly disappointed. The industries were not big enough to absorb the large influx of peasants, while other potential avenues of employment were off limits too: the expert work of the potter, the textile worker and the artisan was better accomplished by the slaves who came from the skilled, sophisticated societies of the east, and who could provide Rome cheaply with desirable and fashionable goods for the consumer market. For these reasons the unemployed mob of Rome began to swell. The real trouble, as Tiberius would quickly find out during his time back in Rome, was that the aristocratic élite were utterly divided on how to resolve the growing crisis.

Take Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, a cousin of both Aemilianus and Tiberius. Waspish, arrogant and a highly practised politician, he was in his fifties and a leading senator of the day. As one of the Roman élite’s largest landowners, he was interested in maintaining the status quo. His view was clear. Material benefits flowed through to the lower orders just as they had always done: through the goodwill and generous patronage of the élite. The traditional system worked perfectly well.29 Aristocratic patrons, he argued, provided the lower orders with large gifts of money for public buildings, food schemes and entertainment, such as gladiatorial games and chariot races. What more could they possibly want?

Others took quite the opposite stance. What was required to resolve the problem, they said, was not the laissez-faire attitude of the conservatives in the Senate. The remedy was active reform and new laws. One advocate of this approach was the senator Appius Claudius Pulcher. He was a passionate, philosophical and ambitious elder statesman, as well as a descendant of one of the oldest patrician families in Rome. The republic, he said, depended upon the concord between the orders, between the Senate and the people. The crisis over land was destroying that concord, and action was now urgently needed. In 140 BC the two factions came to blows. A senator called Gaius Laelius was appointed consul for that year, and in this capacity he put forward a proposal for land reform in an attempt to redress the grievances of the increasing number of landless peasants. When he took it before the Senate, however, the bill was met with such outrage by the majority whose interests were threatened that Laelius abandoned it. For this decision he was rewarded with the name Laelius the Wise.

By 138 BC, with Nasica’s conservative faction outmanoeuvring the reformers led by Pulcher, there were clear signs that the crisis over land was not about to go away; in fact, it was getting much worse. A rebellion of 200,000 slaves broke out in Sicily, and, with the Roman army at full stretch elsewhere, a grain shortage consequently struck Rome. In the same year too, Roman soldiers deserted en masse from campaigning in Spain, frustrated at their length of service and absence from their lands. Many were caught and punished by Nasica himself: they were flogged in public and then sold into slavery for one humiliating sesterce.30 However, it would not be long before the crisis was witnessed at first hand by another man. Tiberius would soon see for himself quite how bad the situation had become.

While 138 BC may have been a year of political turmoil for Rome, for Tiberius it was the year in which his political career took off. In the summer he was elected to his first junior office, that of quaestor, an office connected mainly with state financial activities. However, his duties would not detain him in the metropolis, but take him off to war once again, this time in Spain. In the northeast of Rome’s Iberian province, the republic had been struggling for some years to put down resistance from the semi-independent Celtiberian tribes of the Numantines. The Spanish warriors had shown amazing physical courage and fierce determination. The geography of the land too was something of a metaphorical quagmire; the fighting had been confined to defiles, dangerous ravines and precarious mountain passes. For these reasons, a string of Roman commanders had tried and failed to make any headway in finishing off this nagging, dogged war. In a new expedition Gaius Hostilius Mancinus, the consul for 137 BC, was determined to crush the rebels once and for all. As his financial officer, he took along with him the twenty-five-year-old Tiberius.

With his official account books in hand, and his foot set firmly on the ladder of political office holding, Tiberius was living up to the memory of his father’s glorious career. En route to war, however, he saw something that would prove to be his real political awakening. It would also prove crucial to the legend of Tiberius. As his detachment marched through Etruria, the Italian countryside north of Rome, he was able to see for himself how Roman empire-building had transformed it for the worse. What he saw was not industrious single farms of Roman citizens, but large estates worked by gangs of foreign slaves.31 It is possible that en route he even met peasants who had been forced off their land through the death of their males, or whose farms had simply fallen into disuse through neglect and shortage of help. The ancient sources certainly make clear that Tiberius’s experience in Etruria inspired the dramatic course his life took when he returned to Rome. The events in Spain, however, would be the trigger.


Mancinus’s expedition was ill-omened from the start. The chickens that he meant to sacrifice to the gods escaped from their cage; then, as he boarded a ship for Spain, he heard a haunting shout go up, ‘Mane Mancine’ (Remain, Mancinus); after changing ships and choosing to set off from another port altogether, the unlucky general was set back once again when he spied a snake on board, which fled before it could be captured.

As the expedition began, so it continued. In Spain, against the Numantines, Mancinus lost engagement after engagement. The only note of hope was struck by his young quaestor. ‘Amid the various misfortunes and military reverses that marked the campaign Tiberius’s courage and intelligence shone out all the more brightly.’32 In addition, the young aristocrat showed his strength of character by always maintaining ‘respect and honour’ for his commander, in spite of the general’s miserable progress. One disaster in particular, however, would prove especially testing for both of them.

One night Mancinus received a false rumour that significant reinforcements from some neighbouring Spanish tribes were about to join the Numantines. Panic-stricken, the Roman general decided to break camp under cover of darkness and move his army to more advantageous ground. As fires were extinguished and the quiet retreat began, the Numantines learnt of his plan and responded with lightning speed: they captured the Roman camp, then attacked the army as it fled. The rearguard infantry bore the brunt of the casualties, but there was worse to come. The 20,000 soldiers of the Roman army soon found themselves trapped in difficult terrain and encircled by an enemy force less than a quarter of their number. There was no escape.

Mancinus had no option but to send envoys to the Numantines and come to terms for peace. The Spanish enemy declared itself unwilling to negotiate with anyone except Tiberius. Such was their respect for his personal qualities and their high regard for his father that he alone would be acceptable. Their reason for this went back to 178 BC, when Tiberius’s father had made peace with the Numantines: he had put them in his trust, had become the protector of their interests in Rome, and had staked his own name and honour on the obligation to maintain the peace. Above all, the elder Gracchus ‘had always ensured that the Roman people kept the terms of the peace with the strictest justice’. On the basis of his family’s prestige, therefore, the young Tiberius now negotiated with the Numantine leaders and eventually, after giving way on some points and extracting concessions on others, he agreed a truce that established ‘terms of equality between Numantines and the Romans’.33 The peace was solemnized by an oath.

With this act, Tiberius saved the lives of 20,000 Roman soldiers, as well as those of their many slaves and camp followers. The army was set free and sent on its way back to Rome, but not before the Numantines had stripped them of its arms and property, and had asked Mancinus also to swear an oath to honour the peace. Once the Roman army had departed, however, Tiberius showed his conscientiousness in executing his duties as quaestor. He went alone to Numantia and asked for the return of his account books, which had been confiscated. The Numantine leaders were delighted to see him again, asked him to enter the city and made it clear that he could now trust them as friends. After dining at their table, Tiberius also left for Rome, his ledger books safely in his custody once more. Given his successes, perhaps he anticipated a hero’s welcome. The reality could not have been more different.

In the Senate the Roman treaty with the Numantines was greeted with vitriolic disdain. A savage debate was sparked. Nasica, the cousin of Tiberius and Aemilianus, voiced the dominant hawks’ point of view: this was no peace, but a pathetic, ignominious surrender. Indeed, the Numantines were not ‘equals’; they were not even an enemy worthy of a peace treaty. Rather, they were rebels in a Roman province and should be crushed at all costs. Mancinus was called to stand trial. He defended himself as best he could: what about the lives saved? If the treaty was not a success in absolute terms, surely it was in the circumstances? Tiberius, standing beside Mancinus, stepped into the debate, using all his rhetorical skill and education to defend his commander. But the Senate was not remotely swayed from its belief in Roman invincibility. Since the destruction of Carthage, Rome was now the only superpower, the master of the Mediterranean. It could do what it wanted to whomever it chose. If the price of defeating the rebellious Numantines was the glorious death of 20,000 soldiers in the service of the republic, so be it!

In response, Mancinus begged the Senate to consider the poor quality of the soldiers he had at his disposal in Spain. The levy had produced an inexperienced, ill-disciplined and ill-provisioned army that the previous commander in Spain, a man called Quintus Pompeius, had failed to improve in any way. But again, this defence was not enough to help his case. One reason was prestige. Pompeius had powerful friends within the Senate, whereas Mancinus’s family had far less political clout. A commission, led by Aemilianus and his friends, was appointed to conduct a thorough investigation. Following this, the Senate, to the horror of Mancinus and Tiberius, tore up the treaty.

The rejection was not strictly illegal because all treaties made in the field needed to be ratified by the Senate in Rome. The problem, however, was more a moral one: repudiating the treaty was, in effect, to trounce the Roman republic’s reputation for fides – good faith and keeping true to oaths. Such a violation would be sure to incur the wrath of the gods. In order to atone for this wrong, the commission put forward two proposals for the Roman people to vote on: either that Mancinus, as the general responsible in Spain, be surrendered to the Numantines, or that his staff be offered in his stead. Aemilianus now entered the ring. He used his powerful influence among the senators to help his cousin and, accordingly, the first proposal won support in the Senate and was ratified by the Roman people. It was decreed that Mancinus alone was to pay the penalty. In a revival of an old military custom, the former consul was stripped naked, bound in chains, taken under military escort back to Spain and handed over to the Numantines. The Celtiberians refused to accept the offering, and Mancinus returned to Rome in shame.

Although Tiberius had been saved from condemnation, this was scant consolation. The young man’s life now lay about him in ruins. The first blow was personally wounding. Not only had his own cousin, his brother-in-law and the man who had been his role model in Carthage, failed to save Mancinus. Aemilianus had also been the one to cast the deciding vote against Tiberius’s treaty. The bonds of friendship and family between the two cousins were thus broken apart. Only anger and recrimination were now left.

The second blow was more pummelling still. The Senate’s rejection of the treaty had effectively destroyed Tiberius’s career. He had staked not just his own integrity and dignity on the treaty, but also that of his dead father. Certainly, the loyalty of the Numantine people had been utterly betrayed. The implications of this, however, went much deeper, much closer to home. With his peace treaty spurned by the senators, Tiberius had irrevocably damaged his family’s reputation, his father’s and his own. Prestige had always been the essential ingredient of a political career in the Roman republic, the key to getting to the top. Aristocratic families had accumulated it over hundreds of years, driven on by the desire of sons to match the achievements of their noble fathers. Now Tiberius’s ability to command the respect and loyalty of allies, associates and the Roman people had been snatched away for ever. Or so it seemed.

The fate of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus the younger might have become just a footnote in history. Indeed, there are probably dozens of ‘Tiberiuses’, brilliant young aristocrats who never fulfilled their potential, about whom we know nothing. One simple fact, however, spectacularly altered the course of Tiberius’s life: his personal disaster intersected with the crisis enveloping Rome. This coincidence sparked the greatest upheaval in the republic’s long history thus far. Single-handedly, it turned Tiberius against the Senate, against the friends and allies of his family and forebears, and emblazoned his name in the history books. An illustrious, honourable career in the manner of his father’s and mother’s ancestors was now out of the question; that road to fame was closed. Another, however, lay waiting for him.

As Tiberius left the Senate House in disgrace, he received a very different reception from the Roman people. The wives, mothers, fathers, children and grandparents of the 20,000 Roman citizens whose lives he had saved in Spain now thronged the Forum, cheered his name to the skies and fêted him like a hero. Almost inadvertently, he had won the love and respect of the plebs. Perhaps in this moment the seed of an idea was planted. Tiberius’s path to winning prestige, his chance to channel his intelligence, idealism and political skills, and his opportunity to honour the achievements of his father now lay not with the Senate but with ‘the cause of the common people’.34 The ambition of an aristocrat had found another outlet.

Between the summers of 136 and 133 BC events moved quickly. Breaking constitutional precedent, Aemilianus was elected to a second consulship in order to head up the campaign in Spain. Only he, it was fervently believed by the Roman people, could bring this sticky war to a victorious end. As a result, under massive popular pressure, the Senate temporarily waived the constitutional obstacles once again, and Aemilianus became consul for a second time, leaving for Spain in 134 BC. Showing the same military genius, discipline and utter determination he displayed at Carthage, by 133 BC Aemilianus had subdued Numantia after another brutal siege. It lasted eleven months, saw only a handful of Numantine survivors (many of whom had chosen suicide over capitulation) and ended with the razing of that city too.

During the same period of time in Rome, his cousin’s life took a radically different path. The first overt sign of Tiberius’s change in direction was his marriage to the daughter of Pulcher. This signalled that he was making a clean break with the faction of his cousins Aemilianus and Nasica, who bitterly opposed Pulcher, and was now allied to the reforming faction of the Senate. This group included an eminent lawyer and the revered head of a college of priests – Publius Mucius Scaevola and Publius Licinius Crassus. Tiberius was happy to be associated with these new, high-powered allies. They suited his political outlook and the crisis to which he addressed his ambition. What he had witnessed on his way to Spain had been his political awakening. Now, catalysed by his political humiliation, that consciousness bloomed. According to Plutarch, what motivated Tiberius above all to join forces with Pulcher was the plight of the landless mob in Rome. It was they who ‘aroused Tiberius’s energies and ambitions by inscribing slogans and appeals’ on walls, porticoes and monuments across the city.35 But the question facing the reformers was how to improve their lot.

The plan for reform was simple: Tiberius would stand in elections for the office of tribune of the people. This was a magistracy that since the early days of the republic had been devoted to protecting the interests of the plebs. Crucially it was also empowered to propose legislation before the Plebeian Assembly, the sovereign body in which the plebs voted. The strategy that would follow his hoped-for election was also straightforward: the reformers would propose a new law. In it a commission would be empowered to work out where state-owned public land had become illegally occupied by landowners in excess of their allotted limit of 125 hectares (300 acres); in addition they would also be granted the authority to redistribute this public land by lot to landless Roman citizens. The fairness of the proposal lay in the fact that it did no more than revive an old law that specified the same limit, but had been ignored for centuries. For the plan to work, all Tiberius needed to do was succeed in the election. After campaigning vigorously and passionately, he was voted into office. For the year 133 BC Tiberius thus became one of the ten tribunes of the people.

The conservative members of the Senate were quick to see danger. Many of them were large holders of public land beyond the legal limit. The man who stood to lose the most from Tiberius’s proposed land reform, however, was Nasica himself. Under his leadership, the conservatives in the Senate rallied together and prepared to retaliate. In the same elections for tribune, they too put forward their man to represent their interests in the Plebeian Assembly. Marcus Octavius, a childhood friend of Tiberius, had at first declined to help Nasica’s faction and stand in the election. It would have taken a stout, hardy soul, however, to resist the strong-arming of a large clique of aristocrats. Perhaps all that was required was to make it plain to him that he would have no political career in Rome unless he did as he was told. What is certain is that Octavius eventually stood in the election for tribune and also won.

When both men took office at the start of 133 BC, Rome was about to be rocked by the greatest political showdown in the history of the republic. For the first time there would be daggers in the Forum.


At the start of 133 BC the glorious flow of wealth that had followed the defeat of Carthage thirteen years earlier must have seemed as though it belonged to another age altogether. The aristocrats’ building programmes to commemorate their victories in war ground to a halt; the price of grain doubled, then doubled again; and the expensive war in Spain, still unresolved, had drained the state treasury dry. Meanwhile, with the landless swelling the numbers, unemployment in the city rose ever higher.

Into this feverish, tense year the land bill of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, tribune of the people, was written on a whitened wooden board and posted in the Forum of Rome. A day for voting was named and at that appointed time the votes were to be cast by the thirty-five tribes (or electoral colleges) of the plebs. Four tribes represented the urban plebs of Rome, seven the outskirts of the city, and twenty-four the countryside. While the senatorial élite could exert some influence over the urban plebs by virtue of their rank, money and connections, Tiberius needed as many rural voters as possible to come to the city to ensure that his bill would be passed.

The votes would be cast either by word to an official, or by writing on a small wooden tablet covered in wax and presented to the presiding magistrate on a raised wooden bridge – a system designed to prevent voters from being intimidated by any outside harassment. The Plebeian Assembly itself occupied the slope to the north of the Forum. It was made up of a series of concentric stone steps which led up to and abutted the Senate House. From this advantageous perch the senators were able to watch over and cheer or jeer all plebeian business being conducted there.

An opportunity for just such behaviour was not long in coming. Before the appointed day of voting, a series of public meetings was arranged for Tiberius to explain the land bill and allow for views to be expressed. When he mounted the rostra, the inflammatory nature of the bill became apparent in his very first action: he turned his back on the Senate and directed his proposal straight to the assembled plebs. This flew in the face of republican tradition. It was customary to consult the Senate and seek its approval on every piece of legislation before it was proposed. Yet Tiberius’s flouting of legislative custom could not have been detected from his utterly composed manner. He stood still, chose his words carefully and then proceeded to speak in an eloquent, courteous tone.

The wild beasts that roam over Italy have their dens and holes to lurk in, but the men who fight and die for our country enjoy the common air and light and nothing else. It is their lot to wander with their wives and children, houseless and homeless, over the face of the earth. And when our generals appeal to their soldiers before a battle to defend their ancestors’ tombs and their temples against the enemy, their words are a lie and a mockery, for not a man in their audience possesses a family altar; not one out of all those Romans owns an ancestral tomb. The truth is that they fight and die to protect the wealth and luxury of others. They are called the masters of the world, but they do not possess a single clod of earth that is truly their own.36

Tiberius’s speech was a tour de force that built to a passionate crescendo. It posed one simple question: who should benefit from Rome’s empire? ‘Was it not right,’ he demanded to know, ‘that what belonged to all should be shared by all? Did not a citizen always deserve more than a slave? Was not the man who served as a soldier more useful than the man who did not? Was not the man who had a stake in his country more loyal to its common interests?’37 The loudness of the applause and cheers from the plebs drowned out the vitriolic heckling from the onlooking conservatives of the Senate. Tiberius had detonated a political time bomb.

To the smallholders gathered in the assembly the benefit of Tiberius’s proposal to the Roman republic was clear: by redistributing public land, the land bill would not just share the wealth more equally. Crucially, it would re-enfranchise the plebs, make them eligible once more for military recruitment and inject new energy into Rome’s army. And the small price that the wealthy landowners had to pay for this? The surrender not of their privately owned land, but simply of the state-owned public land above the limit of 125 hectares (300 acres) that they had acquired over the last few centuries. Yet the core of the landowning aristocrats would not hear of it, and protested loudly.

This insolent revolutionary with a personal grudge to bear, they said to each other, was undermining the very foundation of the republic. Evicting them from the land they had long occupied and taking away their wealth would surely strip the state of its prime defenders, its leaders in war. Others argued that they and their forefathers were the ones who had invested so much in the public land. Most of it had been ravaged in the Second Punic War, they claimed, and it was their hard toil, constancy and application – not to mention money – that had returned it to productivity. Their ancestral homes had been built on that land, their noble fathers laid to rest in it.38 The hard truth facing the senators, however, was that the Roman people were sovereign. Only they could vote on laws in the assembly. Now they had found a magistrate who was prepared to break with the customary cooperation between the Senate and the people, defy the aristocrats and put the plebs’ interests first. The aggrieved senators could do nothing about it. Or could they?

On the day of the vote, the senators deployed their secret weapon: Marcus Octavius. Before dawn the auspices were taken by the presiding magistrate in order to ensure that the gods looked with favour on the proceedings. Then the heralds took to the streets and the city walls with their tubas, summoning the throngs of voters who had come to Rome in their thousands. Finally, the tribunes mounted the rostra and, amid the air of excitement, the presiding magistrate called the voting to begin. But when the land bill was announced, Octavius stood up and shouted, ‘Veto’. The crowd growled their disapproval. Tiberius knew full well that the most effective way to stop the passage of the bill was through the power of veto accorded to all ten tribunes of the people. He never imagined, however, that any tribune would veto what was plainly in the interests of the very people he was elected to represent. Nonetheless, Octavius stood his ground and the voting was temporarily suspended.

Thus began a stand-off between two old friends, now turned adversaries. Day after day the assembly was called, and Tiberius would attempt once again to win over his opponent, but under the threatening gaze of the conservatives on the steps of the Senate House, Octavius persisted in obstructing the bill. The senators had chosen their man well. Octavius was in his late twenties, from an undistinguished family eager to make a name for itself in the Senate, and an owner of much public land himself. So, although discreet and of good character, Octavius stood to lose not just some of his land, but any prospect of a career among the aristocracy he had so recently joined should he fail them.

The highlight of the two tribunes’ public struggle came when Tiberius offered to compensate Octavius for any loss of land. To the delight of the crowd, he said he would do so from his own pocket. On another occasion, Tiberius discarded the carrot for the stick, and suspended all state business until the land bill was voted on. As a result, the city came to a standstill. The hearing of court cases was forbidden, the markets were closed and the state treasury shut down. Tiberius’s gang of supporters, their blood boiling, were quite prepared to use threats and intimidation to ensure that no one broke the suspension. Yet still the impasse went on; the mob became more agitated and enraged, Tiberius all the more desperate and determined. In total frustration, he finally hit on a solution to the problem of Octavius’s veto that would raise the temperature in Rome even higher.

When the masses of riled plebs next assembled and Octavius vetoed again, Tiberius put forward a new motion that no one had ever tried before. He stood up on the rostra and calmly asked the people to cast their votes at once on whether Octavius should be stripped of his office for the simple reason that he was not fulfilling his duty as a tribune of the people. The crowd, baying for blood, let out a loud cheer and immediately began casting their votes. One by one, each tribe voted in favour of deposing Octavius, the presiding magistrate calling out, ‘The Tribe of Palatine casts its vote: against Octavius. The Tribe of Fabia casts its vote: against Octavius,’ and so on. It soon dawned on Tiberius that after weeks of increasing tension, the mob was about to reach boiling point. Any more heat and it would erupt into a riot.

Tiberius called an urgent halt to the voting and pleaded earnestly and passionately with his old friend. Embracing and kissing him, he begged Octavius to give way and allow the people what they were rightly owed. In response, the young tribune, ‘his eyes filled with tears, for a long while did not utter a word’.39 However, as he looked up to Nasica and his faction observing from the steps of the Senate House, the fear of losing their good opinion gripped him. With this emotion overriding all others, Octavius persisted in his stance one last time and the voting resumed. Just before the final vote was cast, Tiberius, alert to the impending danger, urged his own immediate gang of supporters to drag Octavius from the rostra and protect him. Sure enough, when the voting was complete and Octavius was deposed, the mob rushed headlong at the former tribune. His allies failed to repel them, but under the protection of the bodyguard, Octavius escaped with his life. His servant was less lucky: his eyes were gouged out.

That same day the land bill finally became law with an overwhelming vote. The law stipulated the immediate appointment of three commissioners charged with surveying, recovering and reallocating public land. The three were Tiberius, his younger brother Gaius and his father-in-law, Appius Claudius Pulcher. After the elation of having their bill passed, however, the reformers were stymied from the start. The showdown with Octavius had served only to make the aristocratic faction more hardline and entrenched. Whenever the commissioners requested funds to carry out their work, the Senate successfully sabotaged any progress by refusing to finance it. It is also possible that even Tiberius’s allies felt that he had gone too far in exploiting the power of the office of tribune.

Mutterings in the Senate House spread to the streets of Rome, and a smear campaign now gained momentum: Tiberius was not interested in the people, but only in power; he was simply using the plebs to assert his personal ambition and dominion over the apparatus of the republic. In short, went the word, he was a tyrant who wanted to be king. His violent removal of Octavius from the sacrosanct office of tribune proved as much!40 As the rumours grew apace, Tiberius, cresting a wave of popular acclaim and dizzy with direct action, played into the hands of his opponents. Early in 133 BC came news that Attalus, the king of Pergamum, a wealthy Greek city in Asia Minor loyal to Rome, had died. In his will he named the Roman people as his heirs. At a stroke, Rome acquired a rich, cultured economy. But this was not how Tiberius took the news. He saw it as a windfall, the very injection of cash that his land commission urgently needed. He immediately brought another bill before the Plebeian Assembly, proposing to use the royal money to finance the land reform. Since the Roman people were the nominated heirs of Attalus, ran Tiberius’s argument, they should be able to dispose of the money as they wished.

Once again, the bill drove Nasica and the conservatives in the Senate to fury. Control of foreign and economic affairs had always belonged to the Senate, and the Senate alone. Tiberius’s enemies immediately seized on his action as further proof of his naked ambition for absolute power. In the Senate one of Nasica’s faction, Pompeius, stood up and threw fuel on the flames. As Tiberius’s neighbour, he said, he had witnessed how envoys from Pergamum had come to the tribune’s house, bringing with them a crown and a purple robe from the royal treasures ‘in the expectation that he would soon be king of Rome’.41 The senators erupted in horror. However, there was another reason why Tiberius’s controversial bill had played into his enemies’ hands: it was grounds for prosecution. No criminal case could be brought against a magistrate while he was still in office, but Tiberius’s tenure of the Tribunate was quickly running out. At last, believed the senators, they had their man.

Constantly in fear of his life, Tiberius was now accompanied by a bodyguard wherever he went. Death threats and rumours of plots to kill him had so rattled him that his associates and supporters now guarded his house by camping outside it day and night. Inside, he took advice from them. The only way to avoid prosecution, they said, was to remain in office: why not stand for tribune for the following year? Running for the same office for two consecutive years was unconstitutional by custom, but a vote in the people’s assembly could create a new precedent. Fired by this idea and the encouragement of his immediate coterie, Tiberius entertained grand ideas for a new manifesto on which to campaign, a new set of proposals designed to curb the power of the Senate even further.42 Increasingly, the rumours and slanders against Tiberius and his motives were beginning to wear the look of truth. Was this indeed a quest for personal power, a vendetta of revenge against the very men who had so humiliated him, a quest that was, in the end, out of step with what even the people wanted?

There were certainly signs that his own faction in the Senate was estranged from him, for the ancient sources now go increasingly silent on the role of the eminent politicians who had once backed him. Furthermore, the rural voters whose support had been so critical in passing the land reform bill had returned to the countryside for the harvest. They could not be counted on to come back to the city for the vote on Tiberius’s re-election. Nonetheless, the young man went ahead with his crusade and the greatest gamble of his life. The decision would set him on the ultimate collision course with the Senate.

At daybreak on the morning of the elections the auspices were taken. They did not bode well. The birds, although enticed with food, would not even leave their cage. Other bad omens followed. When Tiberius left his house he stubbed his toe so hard on the threshold that it split his toenail. Then a raven dislodged a stone from the roof of a house he was passing on his way to the Forum, which landed on his foot. The signs shook his resolve so much that he thought about abandoning the election. But one of his Greek tutors, who had been influential in shaping his political thought since he was young, told him that ‘it would be a shame and an unbearable disgrace if Tiberius, the son of Gracchus, a grandson of Scipio Africanus and a champion of the Roman people, should fail to answer his fellow-citizens’ call for help because he was afraid of a raven’.43

When Tiberius reached the Forum and climbed the Capitol Hill, he walked into mayhem. Amid the cheers and applause for him, the rival gangs of supporters for the tribune of the people and for the aristocratic élite were jostling and pushing each other around. As the voting got under way, a senator loyal to Tiberius threw himself into the mêlée and made his way towards him with a warning: the Senate, he said, was in session, and Nasica and his faction were at this very moment rallying their colleagues to kill Tiberius. Alarmed, Tiberius passed on the word to his nearby supporters, who prepared themselves for a fight. Some of them, however, were out of earshot, caught up in the swarms of people. To them Tiberius signalled that his life was in danger by putting his hand to his head. His enemies took this gesture to mean something else entirely. They rushed to the steps of the Senate House and made an announcement: Tiberius was calling for his crown!44

In the Senate, Nasica used this news to drive home his case. He shouted at the consul to save the republic and kill the tyrant. The consul, however, stood his ground and defended the principle of justice on which the republic was founded: he would authorize neither the use of violence in politics, he said, nor the execution of a man without trial. At this point, in frustration and fury, Nasica jumped to his feet and declared a state of emergency: ‘Now that the consul has betrayed the state, let every man who wishes to uphold the laws follow me!’ Then, in the manner of a priest before a sacrifice, Nasica pulled his toga around his head and left the Senate House.45

Joined by their slaves and associates who had come armed with clubs, the hundreds of senators following Nasica now tied their togas around their waists to free up their legs, armed themselves with whatever they could find en route – broken staves or legs of benches – and marched towards the Capitol. Many of the crowd gave way out of respect to their rank and seniority, and fear at the sight of so many noblemen bent on a single, violent purpose. Others, even Tiberius’s supporters, panicked and trampled over each other in their attempts to disperse. In the confusion and chaos, Tiberius too tried to run. At first someone caught hold of his toga, so he threw it off. Then, dressed only in his tunic, he tried once again to get away, but tripped over some bodies. He fell down and was promptly clubbed to death.

No fewer than three hundred people were killed in this way: not honourably with swords, but ignobly and brutally with clubs, sticks and stones. In the aftermath, Tiberius’s younger brother Gaius requested that his dead brother’s body be returned to him. But the aristocratic senators refused Tiberius the dignity of a proper burial and threw his bludgeoned corpse into the Tiber that same night, along with those of his supporters and friends. It was the first time in the history of the republic that a political conflict had ended in murder.


In foreign wars, campaigns and battles spanning 150 years between 275 BC and 132 BC, the aristocratic élite of Rome had led the republic to victory across the length and breadth of the Mediterranean. They had generated amazing wealth, both for themselves and for Rome; in the process they had won an empire and become a superpower. But the price they paid for this, so a conservative commentator of the time might have said, was the loss of the very principles of justice, decency and honour that they had used to justify their conquests and that had helped to make the republic so powerful in the first place.

Following the destruction of Carthage, the nobles’ pursuit of military excellence, riches and prestige served only to intensify the rivalry and competition for office between the families of the aristocracy. As a consequence, they turned in on themselves and, through greed and self-interest, ignored the developing social and economic problems that empire-building had brought in its wake. As a result, they alienated many sections of society – sections that, in the 130s BC, crystallized into a power base for Tiberius and his associates to use in their bid for reform.

Although Tiberius took a controversial political path in championing the cause of the people against the interests of his own milieu, the aristocratic élite, his aim was essentially conservative: to save the republic by alleviating the problems of the needy. Constitutionally too, Tiberius had been well within his rights as tribune in proposing the land bill without the Senate’s approval and in deposing Octavius. But in setting the people against the Senate in such a directly confrontational manner, Tiberius was damaging the customary respect that the élite liked to think underpinned the relationship between the Senate and the sovereign Roman people. In the nobles’ eyes such behaviour was utterly offensive. Ever since the expulsion of the kings from Rome, concord and cooperation between the political orders had been seen as cornerstones of the republic, its unique source of strength, power and dynamism. For this reason alone it was easy for enemies, such as Nasica, to paint Tiberius as a revolutionary, to pick at the sensitive nerve of the Romans’ fear of domination by one man and to suggest that he was capitalizing on the people for his own ends.

In reality, though, Tiberius and his land bill sought only to restore things to the way they had been centuries earlier before Rome had won the riches of its empire abroad. That aim continued after Tiberius’s death. The land commission carried on its work for three more years. Six years later, in 123 BC, his proud younger brother Gaius picked up the baton, was also elected tribune and introduced an even more ambitious and comprehensive programme of reform. He too was branded an enemy of the republic by the conservatives in the Senate and murdered. As with his brother, they despised what he stood for. To the mass of the Roman people, however, Tiberius and Gaius were heroes. In their eyes at least, the two sons of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus the elder and Cornelia had honoured the funeral masks of their father and their dead aristocratic ancestors. Those ghostly likenesses were displayed in cases in the atrium of their family home. The glorious memory of the men they represented had been renewed.

What really motivated Tiberius and Gaius – whether ideological drive or simple ambition – will always remain debatable. What is clear is that, behind the mud-slinging and the eruption of blood-letting in politics, there was a genuine principle at stake. This was the crucial issue of who benefited from the empire, the rich or the poor, and it was one that Tiberius addressed in the most thrilling, explosive fashion. No one before him (certainly no one who was supposed to be ‘one of us’) had so extravagantly antagonized the political élite or so bravely exposed their hypocrisy. In doing so, he did much more than stretch the constitution of the republic to its very limit. He also unleashed the potential of an untapped and highly combustible political force – the mob. The sleeping giant of the Roman republic had been awoken.

But where Tiberius’s character was by turns idealistic and gentle, stubborn and ambitious, it would take an altogether more meticulous, cold and ruthless mind to harness the power of the people and drive it to its logical conclusion. Such a mind would use the people not simply to take on the conservatives in the Senate, but to rise to power entirely outside the legal apparatus of the republic; it would use them not for the sake of land reform, but to achieve sole mastery of the Roman world. That mind belonged to Julius Caesar.

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