Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was a scion of one of the most illustrious families in Rome. He was grandson of Scipio Africanus, conqueror of Hannibal in 202 BC; son of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, who had ended the Second Spanish War in 179 BC and secured a quarter century of peace; and son-in-law of Appius Claudius Pulcher, the Senate’s most senior member, ‘the father of the house’. His brother Gaius, a close political ally, had also married well: his father-in-law was reckoned the richest Roman of his age. Tiberius the father, moreover, had earned a reputation as a stickler for traditional values when serving as censor, while the son had pursued a conventional yet distinguished career in the army – he had been first over the wall at the capture of Carthage, and later, in Spain, playing on his father’s good name, had negotiated an agreement with the Celtiberians that saved a Roman army from destruction. Nothing, in fact, about Tiberius Gracchus, his family or his connections gave any indication that he was other than a typically conservative member of the Roman ruling class. Yet, elected tribune of the plebs in 133 BC, he so enraged his senatorial opponents with the radicalism of his politics that within barely a year they had murdered him in the streets.
His principal offence had been to propose a land reform bill, and, anticipating opposition in the Senate, to have taken it direct to the Assembly of the Tribes, where a large turnout by poor citizen-farmers had ensured its passage. The Senate had then persuaded another tribune to veto the bill (this being the constitutional right of any tribune); but Gracchus had reconvened the Assembly, secured his fellow-tribune’s deposition, and then set up a land commission to implement the new law, its members being himself, his younger brother Gaius, and his father-in-law Claudius.
Crisis point was reached when Gracchus, determined to maintain the political momentum, decided to stand for election as tribune for a second year. Argument flared over whether this was constitutional, and it was the struggle around Gracchus’s disputed candidacy that became violent. A leading senatorial conservative, the ex-consul and chief priest Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, mobilized his supporters and led a vicious armed attack on the land-reform party. Tiberius Gracchus and 300 of his followers were clubbed to death. A special senatorial commission executed many more in the weeks that followed.
In the space of a year, Roman politics had been transformed by street violence, political assassination, and a bloody assize. Nothing like it had happened since the Struggle of the Orders over 200 years before. A deep fracture had suddenly opened in the Roman body-politic. This fracture would widen in the years to come and eventually destroy the Republic in a series of civil wars. Attempts to dismiss the conflicts of 133 to 30 BC as little more than factional infighting among rival aristocratic houses are unconvincing. The social forces mobilized on each side were different, and two opposing ideologies and sets of policies were in dispute. The events of this period cannot be understood except as the expression of a rising ferment of discontent and struggle in Italian society as a whole.
The crisis was rooted in war and growth of empire. ‘War and conquest transformed the economy of Italy,’ explained Brunt, ‘and helped at first to resolve, later to exacerbate social conflict. Internal struggles and foreign wars were often entangled, and reacted on each other. Expansion in itself distorted the working of political institutions, the machinery would-be social reformers had to use. It even changed the very meaning of the term “Roman”.’(1)
The demands on Italian military manpower had remained high since the war against Hannibal. There had been wars of conquest in Africa, Spain, Gaul and the East, often followed by wars of subjugation when the recently conquered rose against their new masters. Rome faced national revolts in Cisalpine Gaul, Sardinia and Corsica, Macedonia and Greece, and, above all, Spain.
The guerrilla war in Lusitania (Portugal) lasted more than ten years. In 141 BC, Viriathus, having defeated five successive annual invasions, trapped the sixth Roman army to be sent against him and extracted a peace agreement in return for its release. The Romans broke the agreement the following year, but remained incapable of defeating Viriathus. Instead, they bribed some of his men to murder him in his sleep, whereupon Lusitanian morale collapsed and the Romans were finally able to annex the territory in 139 BC. Elsewhere in Spain resistance continued, centred on the Celtiberian fortress of Numantia, which defied the Romans for nine years. The site is well known to students of the Roman army because both the fortress and nearby Roman siege-camps have been explored by archaeologists, while the Greek historian Appian offers a full account of the military operations in his Iberica (Spanish History).
Numantia occupied a strong natural defensive position on a hilltop overlooking ravines and rivers: too strong to be taken in direct assault. Its defenders may have numbered about 8,000, the Roman siege forces – judging by the size of the succession of camps built between 142 and 133 BC – perhaps twice that. Despite the effort invested, the Romans made little progress; indeed, on one occasion, in 137 BC, the Numantines went on to the offensive, laid siege to the main Roman camp, and secured the surrender of the Roman army (this being the occasion when Tiberius Gracchus negotiated the army’s safe passage). Popular clamour secured an extraordinary command for a member of the Scipio family: Rome’s foremost soldier, Scipio Aemilianus, victor in the Third Punic War, was now sent to Spain. He restored army morale, reduced the outlying Celtiberian forts, and then, to seal Numantia off from the world and starve it out, surrounded the fortress with a 10 km-long stone wall and ditch, strengthened with 100 wooden interval towers and seven forts placed along the perimeter. Numantia surrendered after a few months in 133 BC. Its buildings were razed, its people enslaved.
Though there was eventual victory over both Lusitanians and Celtiberians, the Third Spanish War (154–133 BC) had incurred terrible costs – in casualties, in wasted resources, in diminished imperial prestige, and, not least, in its effects on Italian peasant agriculture and the cohesion of Roman society. Ever since Rome first acquired interests there during the Second Punic War, Spain had needed a permanent garrison of first two, then four legions, totalling (when allied forces are included) between 17,000 and 34,000 men. For much of the time these men were bogged down in long sieges or fruitless counter-insurgency sweeps. The soldiers faced boredom, discomfort, a sense of futility, years away from home – and the real fear that they might perish, tortured and mutilated, in a remote ravine. Tiberius Gracchus, serving as a junior officer at Numantia, was shocked by the poor morale of Roman troops.
At home, recruitment demands were necessarily high, and the draft was unpopular. The average size of the combined Romano-Italian army levied each year during the 35 years after the Second Punic War is estimated at 130,000 men. Overall, in the last two centuries of the Republic, an average of perhaps 13 per cent of adult male Roman citizens was serving in the legions at any one time. Thus, a majority of adult male Roman citizens must have spent at least seven years of their lives on campaign. In the 2ndcentury, moreover – in contrast to earlier practice, when armies campaigned in the summer and were demobilized in winter – troops were sent abroad and kept in the field without leave for years at a time.
This level of mobilization was disastrous for Italian peasant agriculture. Family farms were deprived of essential manpower for long periods – or permanently if men were killed or disabled – and many went to ruin. War accelerated the long-term tendency of small farmers to lose out to big landowners. I discussed this above – in relation to the Struggle of the Orders – as a function of the small farmer’s lack of surplus to tide him over hard years, making debt, the mortgaging of farms, and the alienation of peasant land chronic features of rural life. Collective action – through the institutions of the city-state – was necessary to counteract this tendency. In the case of 2nd century BC Rome, however, a key mechanism had fallen into disuse. Brunt estimates that as many as 50,000 small farms may have been created in the generation after 200 BC, either in new colonies (coloniae) or through ‘viritane’ allotments (where farms were given to new settlers on an individual basis in existing communities). But after the 170s, agrarian resettlement virtually ceased; certainly there were no further colonies until the time of the Gracchi. So the draft was impacting on a situation where economic forces ruled unchecked. To have a man at the front could be just as devastating as drought, flooding or crop blight. Some peasants sold up and drifted into the city. Others struggled on but got into debt and were then evicted. Contemporary sources claim force was sometimes used to drive people off their land. So peasant land passed into the hands of the rich, sometimes speculators exploiting an emerging market in Italian real-estate, more commonly established local landowners keen to enlarge their holdings. The result was a profound change in the Italian countryside. In place of small land-units worked by peasant families for their own subsistence, there were now large estates (latifundia) producing cash crops or stock for a burgeoning market.
The flood of new wealth into Italy from the empire fed this growth of estates. It had the direct effect of inflating land prices and creating an active real-estate market; and the abiding prejudice of Roman society for land as the only proper expression of elite status reinforced it. Generals, officials, tax-farmers, merchants, slave-dealers, anyone making money in the empire, wanted to invest in land at home. Italian estates conferred respectability. They were also profitable. A further consequence of imperial wealth was that it generated demand for agricultural produce by fuelling the growth of the army, the towns, the construction industry, and the luxury trades. Small, mixed subsistence-farms were replaced by extensive orchards, vineyards, olive groves, sheep pastures and cattle ranches. Agriculture became a business. Economies of scale on specialized latifundia conferred decisive advantages. Big operators could wield political influence to gain market access and secure public contracts. There were even manuals on estate management. Those by Cato, Columella and Varro have survived.
Cato’s manual was aimed at the proprietors of medium-sized farms run for profit. The ideal was a holding of between 24 and 60 hectares – at least three times the size of a substantial peasant farm – which may have been fairly typical of the new commercial farms. It would have been difficult to build up single parcels of land substantially larger, and most top landowners probably had multiple holdings rather than one great estate. There were, anyway, limits to specialization and economies of scale: too violent a disruption of the traditional regime that kept the land in good heart risked undermining productivity. There was security, too, against the hazards of fortune in scattered holdings. When Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61–113), a rich senator with multiple holdings, wrote a letter to a friend seeking advice about a possible land purchase, he set out the pros and cons. The estate for sale adjoined his own – ‘the land runs in and out of mine’ – but the principal economy of scale he envisaged involved not greater specialization, but administrative downsizing: it would be necessary to maintain only one manager, household and work-force, he explained. The implication was that, if the purchase went ahead, the agricultural regime would remain much the same: ‘The land is fertile, the soil rich and well-watered, and the whole made up of fields, vineyards and woods which produce enough to yield a steady income if not a very large one.’(2)
The chronology of Italian villa archaeology confirms the change. The town and territory of Cosa on the Etruscan coast 145 km north-west of Rome have been explored in detail. Though founded as a colony in 273 BC, and reinforced with a further draft of colonists in 197 BC, evidence for rural settlement up to this point is sparse, and, as far as can be judged, urban buildings were modest in scale. Only during the 2nd century BC did this begin to change, with more elaborate houses in Cosa itself, and the first appearance of substantial residences in the countryside. A building excavated at Giardino Vecchio was 25 metres square, with some rooms grouped around a courtyard, including living-rooms with cement floors and plastered walls. The house at Giardino Vecchio was not, however, a true villa. It may have been the house of a rich peasant, and it is perhaps significant that it did not outlast the Republic. True villas appeared only in the early 1st century BC. A famous example is that at Settefinestre, probably built around 75 BC, its location on a low hill overlooking a valley and its façade of a wall decorated with miniature turrets designed to assert the status of the owner. The main residence measured 44 metres square and comprised an atrium (front court), a peristyle (colonnaded court), each with grand rooms leading off, and a loggia that ran the length of the house and commanded splendid views. Most rooms were decorated with sumptuous mosaics and frescoes. Settefinestre may have belonged to a well-known senatorial family, the Sestii, and if the estate, possibly in excess of 120 hectares, had specialized in viticulture, as seems likely, the yield could have been as high as 1.2 million litres a year; wine-amphorae stamped SES have been found at the port of Cosa just over two miles away. The Settefinestre estate is known to have been one of about a dozen on this scale in the territory of the town.
The transformation of Roman agriculture may have been limited – more often multiple holdings than single great estates – but its social consequences were traumatic for the body-politic. ‘When Tiberius [Gracchus] went through Tuscany to Numantia,’ wrote Plutarch, ‘and found the country almost depopulated, there being hardly any free husbandmen or shepherds, but for the most part only imported barbarian slaves, he then first conceived the course of policy which in the sequel proved so fatal to his family.’(3) Here was the essence of a supreme contradiction. As Keith Hopkins pointed out, in effect, Roman peasant soldiers were fighting for their own displacement: their victories supplied the slaves, their ruined farms the land, and the two combined made possible thelatifundia. The change, in other words – it might be called ‘the villa revolution’ – rested on the simultaneous dispossession of the Italian peasantry and the flooding of the market with cheap slaves, both consequences of continual warfare and imperial expansion. The economy and society of Italy were being transformed by war. The rich, explained Appian, the Greek historian of the Late Republic, ‘used persuasion or force to buy or seize property which adjoined their own, or any other smallholdings belonging to poor men, and came to operate great ranches instead of single farms. They employed slave-hands and shepherds on these estates to avoid having free men dragged off the land to serve in the army.’(4) The process was not complete – many small farms did survive – but the shift in land-ownership was sufficient to alter the character of Italy and plunge Rome into political crisis. A distinctive form of permanent war economy had created new social conditions, and, because the traditional institutions of an Italian city-state could not accommodate these conditions, mass struggles and civil wars erupted.
Gracchus’s immediate concern was army recruitment and internal security. The problem was acute: previous tribunes, responding to popular clamour against conscription, are recorded impeding the levy in 151, 149 and 138 BC. The burden was falling too often on too few people – on a shrinking population group. The dispossession of the peasantry was draining Italy of its military manpower. Not only did slaves not fight, nor at the time did the free poor, notably the fast-growing population of Rome’s slums. Military service in the city-state was linked to the economic independence and social status afforded by property-ownership. Only at moments of extreme crisis – after Cannae, for example – had the capite censi (those counted only by head in the census) been enrolled in the legions. The reasons were simple enough. Originally, soldiers had supplied their own equipment, and the full panoply of a heavy infantryman had been expensive. In recent times, when the state supplied all or most equipment, the concern had been political: small farmers had a stake in the system, whereas the landless poor were a potential threat to property and were therefore best kept militarily and politically inert. The size of the citizen-farmer class – the assidui as they were sometimes called at the time – was therefore critical to military recruitment. Moreover, as the numbers of ‘stakeholders’ declined, and the proportion of slaves increased – reaching perhaps a third of the population in Italy as a whole, and perhaps half in Sicily and parts of the south – the countryside became dangerously insecure. There are scattered references to small localized slave revolts at various times during the 2nd century; then, in 136–132 BC, the resistance exploded. A hundred and fifty slaves staged an uprising in Rome itself; 450 were crucified after another outbreak at Minturnae; no less than 4,000 are reported participating in a third at Sinuessa. These abortive risings on the mainland were probably inspired by events on Sicily. Here, two independent but simultaneous risings, one at Enna in the centre of the island, the other at Agrigento on the south coast, spread rapidly and fused into full-scale slave revolution.
The First Sicilian Slave War (136–132 BC) began on the estate of Damophilus, a leading citizen of Enna, ‘who surpassed the Persians in the sumptuousness and costliness of his feasts’. The brutality of Damophilus drove his slaves to the desperate decision to kill their master. The conspirators sought advice from a Syrian miracle-worker and prophet called Eunus. Encouraging the revolt, he led 400 slaves into Enna, where they were joined by much of the urban population and quickly seized control of the city. Damophilus was brought from his villa, tried before a large crowd in the theatre, and summarily executed. His yet more vicious wife was handed over to her former female slaves, who first tortured her and then tossed her from the battlements. (The daughter, by contrast, who had always attempted to shield slaves from her parents’ brutality, was given safe passage to the coast.) Other slave-owners were either executed or put to work manufacturing arms for the slave army that now began to form. Eunus was proclaimed king. He made the Syrian slave woman with whom he lived queen. And Enna itself – a towering natural fortress never taken in direct assault – made an excellent base. The army of the embryonic slave state soon numbered 10,000. Meantime, a slave herdsmen from Cilicia in Asia Minor called Cleon had raised a second revolt at Agrigento. When Eunus invited him to assume command of the combined slave army, he accepted and united his 5,000 men with those massing at Enna.
The revolution spread across much of the island. Eunus won control of Morgantina, which, like Enna, is near the centre of the island, and, more spectacularly, Taormina and possibly Messina on the east coast. His army is said to have numbered 60 or 70,000 at the height of the revolt, defeating several local Roman armies sent against it. The slave state was highly organized. It seems to have been modelled on the Hellenistic monarchies with which most of the slaves were familiar in their former homes: Eunus called himself ‘Antiochus’, the most popular name among the Seleucid monarchs; he wore a diadem and other regal insignia; and he minted coins depicting the corn goddess Demeter (who was especially revered at Enna) and inscribed with an abbreviation of his assumed name. Cleon, his commander-in-chief, was styled strategos, the Greek word for general; and there was a royal council, a royal bodyguard, and a royal household complete with butcher, baker, bath-attendant and buffoon. Sound orders were issued for the conduct of the war and the administration of liberated territory: not to burn down farmhouses, for example, or destroy agricultural tools and crops, or kill farm labourers. We should resist, therefore, the temptation to dismiss the Hellenistic trappings of the slave regime as mere farce. Revolutionary slaves had little choice but to construct a state, since the act of rebellion plunged them into war with their oppressors. The Sicilian slaves, faced with this task, simply used the only alternative to the Roman model that they knew. Form – that of a Hellenistic monarchy – and content – a struggle against slavery – may have been in contradiction, but the two could have co-existed well enough for the short period that the revolution lasted.
A third feature of the slave movement – for which we have only the most shadowy hints – was perhaps some sort of messianic-nationalist religious ideology. Our sources describe Eunus as a prophet of the Syrian goddess Atargatis. She was a primeval fertility deity, a great Earth Mother, and it seems likely that Demeter, the Greek corn-goddess worshipped at Enna and depicted on Eunus’s coins, was equated with her. In the East, the cult of Atargatis, like other eastern ‘mystery’ cults, involved ecstatic forms of worship. Apuleius, in The Golden Ass, gives a vivid description of a troupe of her eunuch priests parading through a village in Thessaly, ‘all dressed in different colours and looking absolutely hideous, their faces daubed with rouge and their eye-sockets painted to bring out the brightness of their eyes. They wore mitre-shaped birettas, saffron-coloured chasubles, silk surplices, girdles, and yellow shoes. Some of them sported white tunics with an irregular criss-cross of narrow purple stripes.’(5) The priests went about with bared shoulders, wielding great swords, wailing to the sound of pipes and horns, throwing their bodies about like dervishes, lacerating themselves with sharp knives, and lashing their own backs with whips strung with knuckle-bones. It is easy to imagine how the frenzy of the fertility cult that Apuleius describes could fuse with the mystical vision of a land cleansed of oppressors and restored to those who worked it – the devotees of Atargatis-Demeter, the followers of the prophet-king Eunus.
Eventually the Romans sent a consular army powerful enough to crush the revolt, first driving the slaves from the open field, afterwards taking the fortresses of Taormina and Enna by treachery. Thousands were tortured and executed in the aftermath. When Tiberius Gracchus was first elected tribune of the plebs, however, the matter still hung in the balance: the Sicilian slave revolution raged as a beacon of liberation that might yet set all Italy alight, its victories over Roman troops further evidence of the inadequacies of the Republic’s army. An inscription from Polla in Lucania records the participation of runaway slaves in the Sicilian war – clear evidence of the links between slaves on opposite sides of the straits implied by the outbreaks at Rome, Minturnae and Sinuessa. It was the class struggle of slaves, therefore, and the direct threat it posed to Italian and Sicilian property, that split the senatorial aristocracy in 133–132 BC, with a minority around Gracchus convinced that land reform was essential to maintain the army and guarantee order in the countryside, an opposing minority deeply hostile to any redistributive measures that threatened the integrity of estates, and a mass in the middle confused by the crisis but conservative by instinct. Thus, when Gracchus proposed his bill, he had no confidence it would pass the Senate. He did not reach this judgement out of the blue. A number of recent popular measures – the appointment of Scipio Aemilianus to the Spanish command, the tribunes’ resistance to the draft, laws introducing a secret ballot – had provoked strong opposition. Even land reform had been proposed not long before – by Laelius ‘the Prudent’, who, significantly, had earned his epithet by bowing to senatorial pressure to back down. Rather than have his bill burdened with a formal senatorial rejection, Tiberius Gracchus took it straight to the People without consulting his peers.
The proposed land reform was neat and moderate. It concerned all ager publicus – land taken from disloyal allies and converted into ‘publicly owned farmland’ – seized since the Second Punic War. Much of it had passed into the hands of the rich, who had come to regard it as their own, building villas and family tombs on it, and using it in dowries, mortgages and sales, such that any claim by the state to repossess it would be regarded by them as expropriation. But many of them were technically in breach of the law, and the Gracchan bill aimed to release parcels of ager publicus by enforcing the original statutory limit on the size of holdings: 500 iugera (120 hectares) per person, plus 250 more for each child. A land commission was to investigate all claims on ager publicus, to confiscate excessive holdings, and to redistribute the excess to new occupants (possibly in units of 30 iugera). The big land-holders were to be compensated with a rent-free hereditary lease on the land they retained. The new small-holders were to pay a small quit-rent and agree not to alienate their land for a fixed period of years.
Scholars have debated why opposition to this bill was so embittered and finally violent. Noteworthy is the fact that the land commission continued to function after the defeat of the Gracchan party in 132 BC. The Senate majority had probably been won to moderate reform by a combination of Gracchan arguments and the pressure of events – the slave revolt, popular agitation, the problem of army recruitment, the illegality of large holdings of ager publicus, the potential benefits of reform. But it had also been terrified by the eruption of mass struggle on the streets of the capital: whereas land reform by a senatorial commission was gradual and measured, the street demonstrations and packed popular assemblies were potentially uncontrollable. Where would it all end? After all, Gracchus had sidelined the Senate at the outset by taking his bill direct to the People. He had revived the traditional role of the tribune of the plebs as defender of the common citizen – or rather, had accelerated a worrying trend that was apparent since at least 151 BC. And in raising himself up as a popular leader – by making himself a commissioner under his own law, and by seeking a second term as tribune – he threatened the convention by which offices were rotated among senators as a way of controlling competition and maintaining cohesion within the ruling class. Was this the beginning of a new popular politics that might reduce the Senate to irrelevance?
Particular concern arose when King Attalus III of Pergamum bequeathed his entire kingdom to the Romans in 133 BC. Gracchus seized on this extraordinary windfall – Pergamum was very rich – by proposing that the royal treasures should be distributed to the beneficiaries of the land reform to assist them in stocking their farms. The Senate was outraged by this further threat to its traditional prerogatives, which included virtually untrammelled control over diplomacy and finance. It was not, it seems, reform as such that the Senate feared, but the popular movement necessary to bring it about. There was no contradiction, therefore, between the senators’ support for the pogrom and assize court which shattered the Gracchan party, and their tolerance of the land commission’s work thereafter.
This, though, was not enough to end the crisis. Without the pressure of the popular movement, the Senate’s support was lukewarm, and the obstructiveness of big landowners slowed the pace of reform. The potential for political filibustering and legal challenges was immense. A number of inscribed boundary stones have been found which record Gracchan land allocations – so we know the commission was working. But there is no reliable way of quantifying the transference of land, and we have at least one clear example of deliberate obstruction – in 129–128 BC, when the land commission’s responsibilities were shifted to one of the consuls, who promptly departed to the provinces, causing all work to be temporarily suspended. By 123 BC, the Gracchans appear to have resolved upon a new political offensive to drive forward reform. Gaius Gracchus, Tiberius’s younger brother and one of the land commissioners, stood successfully for election as tribune of the plebs on a radical platform. Since, moreover, he would be elected again the following year, when another Gracchan would also be elected to one of the two consulships, this amounted to a more serious – and, to its opponents, more threatening – bid for governmental power than that of ten years before. The experience of Tiberius’s tribunate and the struggles of the intervening years had taught sharp lessons. What emerged in 123 BC was nothing short of a full manifesto – in effect, an entire programme for government: something unprecedented in Roman politics, and revolutionary in its implications. Moreover, careful political calculation was implicit in the range of policies offered: there was a deliberate attempt by the Gracchans to construct a broad, popular, anti-senatorial coalition – a coalition powerful enough, it may have seemed, to defeat reaction, marginalize the Senate, and transform Roman politics and Italian society.
Gaius Gracchus is often assumed to have been a greater orator and popular leader than his brother, and to have been the more creative and audacious reformer. He is described as such by ancient writers, and modern scholars have been inclined to agree. The truth is that we know too little about either of the brothers to be sure. Political programmes – and the leaders and parties that carry them – take time to crystallize. The tribunate of Gaius Gracchus took place in the context of that of his brother ten years earlier: it was the experience of reactionary violence, and the time since spent debating the politics of crisis and change, that determined the far more radical course the reformers now followed. Four sets of policies, each reflecting the interests of a key social group, constituted the new Gracchan programme.
First, the original land law was revised, and the work of the commission was then pushed forward with renewed vigour. There may have been a new stipulation that ager publicus could – perhaps should – be distributed in relatively large plots of up to 200iugera(48 hectares). Small farms created under earlier allocations may have failed. Brunt has commented, ‘There was an inherent contradiction in the Gracchan objective of increasing the number of Rome’s peasant soldiers, when it was soldiering that did much to destroy the peasantry.’(6) Why should new smallholdings have been any more successful than old, given high conscription, the growth of commercial agriculture, and the perennial marginality of the subsistence farmer? It may have made sense to increase the size of holdings. The Gracchans also revived the long-lapsed policy of founding colonies. Though their scheme for one at Capua fell through, colonies were founded at Tarentum and Scolacium in the far south of Italy, and, more controversially, at Carthage, the first example of a Roman colony overseas. The aim of colonies was different from before: instead of providing military security, Gracchan settlements were intended to provide farms for needy Roman citizens. Finally, to facilitate the marketing of agricultural produce, a new programme of road-building began.
Roads were not the only public works initiated by the Gracchans; they also built new granaries in the city of Rome. These were necessary for the state corn-supply, another Gracchan initiative – one pregnant with implications for the future – whereby the government purchased and stored corn in bulk, releasing it on to the market when necessary to support the bread price, which was fixed at an affordable rate. Both policies – public works and the corn supply – were designed to benefit the landless poor, mainly the huge population of Rome itself, perhaps already close to half a million. The urban crowd was probably decisive in most votes in the popular assemblies, because votes were cast in person. Though voting was by tribe (in the Assembly of the Tribes) or by century (in the Assembly of the Centuries) – the popular assemblies were therefore electoral colleges – the decision of these constituent groups was made by counting the votes cast by individual members. City-dwellers dominated for the obvious reason that countrymen had to make an exceptional effort to vote. Tiberius Gracchus had been attacked and killed at harvest time – that is, when most supporters of land reform were away from the city. Gaius Gracchus was consciously attempting to build a firm base of support in Rome itself.
Land for the assidui (the small farmers). Jobs and cheap bread for the proletarii (the landless poor). To these was added a third raft of reforms designed to attract the support of the equestrians. The Roman aristocracy was divided into three groups: senators, equestrians and decurions. At the top were the senators, a group of 300 or so of the richest men in the Empire, who had seats in the Senate and qualified for election to the most senior state offices. The equestrians formed a second division. They also were rich, some of them exceptionally so, but the basic property qualification was only 100,000 denarii, less than half that of a senator, and it is likely that the equestrian order had come to number many thousands. The numbers, wealth and influence of equestrians had grown enormously with the rise of empire. They were army officers, business contractors, slave-dealers and money-lenders. Most were also landowners: without land as security, few could have established themselves in business in the first place; and because of the Roman prejudice against commercial property, profits from business were frequently ploughed into new land purchases. Of particular importance were the publicani (public contractors). Probably the easiest way for an equestrian to become really rich was to secure a public contract to provide a specific commodity or service – perhaps to supply military equipment to the army, to run state-owned mines, or, most lucrative of all, to ‘farm’ taxes in the provinces. This was ‘private-public partnership’: the state avoided expenditure and responsibility; the contractors were rewarded with a hefty rake-off. A company of tax-farmers, for example, would undertake to collect the taxes due from one or more cities in a province, and their reward would be a proportion of the takings – plus whatever extra they could extort along the way.
Relations between senators and equestrians were sometimes tense. They might come into conflict in the provinces, perhaps in a clash of economic interests, if a senatorial governor was promoting a company in which he had an interest, or where a governor concerned with maintaining good order sought to check extortion. This sense that equestrians were under the thumb of senators – that economic success was dependent on currying favour – fed a wider political frustration. Although some equestrians gained admittance to the Senate as ‘new men’ (novi homines) – the Equestrian Order has been described as the ‘seed-bed’ of the Senate – the numbers involved were too few to satisfy aspirations. Equestrian empire-builders found themselves pushing at a barrier of senatorial privilege. Most failed to break through and were denied access to the highest offices (and rewards) in the state. A social group with new economic weight found itself politically confined. The Gracchans set out to exploit the tension between the two orders, and to build up equestrian power as a counterweight to that of the Senate. Gracchus’s aim, according to one ancient commentator, was to make the state ‘two-headed’.
The treasury of Pergamum – now the province of Asia – had already been tapped for funds to stock new farms created by Gracchan land allotments. It seems, however, that the cities of Asia were not at first subject to taxation, revenue being drawn only from the former royal estates, from customs dues, and from a tax on cattle. Gaius Gracchus ended the immunity of the cities and gave responsibility for collecting the taxes to companies of publicani, whose operations were governed by contracts let at Rome and renewable every five years. Gracchus’s policy for Asia – the richest of Rome’s provinces – was to exploit it both to enrich the equestrians and to fund land reform, public works and welfare measures. It is a policy that illustrates perfectly the politics of ‘democratic imperialism’. Left-wing historians have sometimes been rather dewy-eyed about the reformers of the Late Republic, so it is necessary to stress that the conflict between reformers and conservatives – populares and optimates as they came to be called by contemporaries – was a dispute over the division of spoils. The issue at stake in Asia was whether senators, equestrians or common citizens would benefit most from the exploitation of native peasants. For a measure of the hatred with which foreign tax-collectors were viewed, we need go no further than The New Testament, which makes frequent disparaging reference to publicani. Jesus could be vilified by his enemies as ‘a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax-collectors and sinners’. Jesus’s advice to tax-collectors who sought salvation was to ‘collect no more than the amount prescribed’; presumably they commonly extorted more. The popular view – in ancient Palestine at least – was that publicani were corrupt and on a moral level with prostitutes. The Gracchi were as much imperialists as the most reactionary senator; indeed, their whole programme was designed to strengthen the Roman Empire, and its realization depended upon efficient exploitation of the provinces and the deployment of accumulated surpluses in Italy.
A second key measure was an attempt to shift the balance of political power in Rome from the Senate to the Equestrian Order. Gracchus’s aim was to strip the Senate of its role as a high court, abolishing its authority to set up special tribunals with capital powers (of the kind used against the Gracchans in 132 BC), and removing its right to investigate charges of corruption brought against its own members during their service as provincial governors – a notorious abuse that had led to a series of cover-ups. Though some details are obscure because the ancient sources do not agree, Gracchus’s main concern seems to have been to create a new high court with juries formed exclusively of equestrians. This had major implications. Senators in imperial service had been almost invulnerable to prosecution for abuse of power. Now, by contrast, senators who clashed with the publicani were in grave danger: Roman justice was highly politicized, and it would have been easy enough to concoct a case to destroy an obstructive provincial governor.
The final strand of Gracchan reform proved the most problematic. In 125 BC, Marcus Fulvius Flaccus, an associate of the Gracchi, a replacement member of the land commission, and in that particular year one of the two elected consuls, had proposed a franchise bill which would have granted Roman citizenship to all free members of Latin and allied communities in Italy. The reformers favoured an extension of citizenship as a way of consolidating Rome’s Italian manpower base. Up to two-thirds of a Roman army might be formed of Latins and allies. Yet it was Romans, those with voting rights in the imperial city, who got the main share of booty, land, public contracts, and government posts. The regular army tax (tributum) had been abolished in 167 BC, so that Romans – unlike other Italians – now paid no direct taxes. The Gracchan land commission had almost certainly sometimes redistributed ager publicus from non-Romans to Romans. The equestrian publicani favoured by Gracchan policy were all Roman. Elevation to the Senate was impossible for a Latin – however rich. The Roman courts protected their own – not simply because they were corrupt (though they were), but because the whole justice system was rooted in the citizen community. Roman magistrates were accountable to ‘the Senate and People of Rome’, not to Latins and allies: their decisions therefore reflected Roman interests.
These imbalances between contribution and reward had mattered little in the 3rd century BC. Romans, Latins and allies had fought side-by-side in defence of their homeland against Gauls, Samnites, Greeks and Carthaginians; there had been great sacrifice, but only modest gains. The wars of the 2nd century BC, by contrast, were foreign wars of conquest in which Latins and allies could have no interest unless they shared fully in the now ample rewards. This fracture line between Romans and non-Romans not only compromised military recruitment and morale, but also, by dividing the ranks of the free, undermined the security of property in a countryside now filled with slaves.
Such was the opposition to Flaccus’s franchise bill, however, that it was never even put to the vote. Learning from this failure, in 122 BC Gaius Gracchus proposed a more moderate franchise bill, offering Roman citizenship to Latins, and Latin citizenship to allies, the latter as a halfway-house towards full enfranchisement. Even this was so controversial, however, that it shattered Gracchus’s own popular base. Most senators were hostile because the flooding of the Roman political system with new, pro-Gracchan citizens threatened to swamp their own networks of clients and supporters. As the ups and downs of Gracchan populism demonstrated, power in the popular assemblies was finely balanced. Because voting in person restricted political activity largely to those wholived in or close to the city, many tribes and centuries – the units that delivered the block votes in the Assemblies of the Tribes and the Centuries respectively – were probably controlled by small caucuses; some, no doubt, were little more than pocket boroughs for great families. Even where attendances were larger, many in the city mob were enrolled as clients (clientes) in one or another aristocratic retinue and could be relied upon to vote in their patron’s interests. Tiberius Gracchus’s supporters had been overpowered when the small farmers were out of the city at harvest time: the Roman mob was far from being solidly Gracchan.
But for the first time the conservatives were able to reach beyond their own networks and build a wider opposition to the reformers. The senatorial leaders engineered a sophisticated two-pronged attack. First, they opposed the franchise bill on the grounds it would dilute citizen privileges – not least the very welfare reforms the Gracchans themselves had introduced. Second, they set up another tribune, Marcus Livius Drusus, to outflank the Gracchans on the left by proposing to abolish the rent imposed on new land-holders and to increase the number of new colonies to twelve. The aim was to drain support from the Gracchans – the genuine party of reform – on both the left and the right, so that they could be isolated and destroyed.
The attack was highly successful. Whereas Gracchus had secured a second term as tribune in 122 BC, he failed at his third attempt, a political defeat which opened the way to a generalized onslaught against his supporters. Fearing a repeat of the violence of 132 BC, the Gracchans armed themselves for self-defence and took refuge on the Aventine Hill, a predominantly plebeian part of Rome and traditional centre of radical protest. The Senate then declared martial law (issuing a senatus consultum ultimum), on the basis of which the consul Lucius Opimius proclaimed a general levy of the citizens of Rome and raised a force sufficient for an assault on the Aventine. Gaius Gracchus, Fulvius Flaccus and many others were cut down in the streets, and then mass arrests and executions, amounting to some 3,000 victims, completed the destruction of the revived Gracchan party. Much Gracchan legislation was also swept away by the tide of reaction: the colony at Carthage was annulled; the grain law was amended; a free market in public land was restored; the land commission was wound up.
In the turmoil of 123–122 BC, a reform movement led by aristocratic radicals and supported by crowds of common citizens had begun to grow over into full-blown democratic revolution. But it had run into an impenetrable barrier of reaction and privilege. A majority of aristocrats – both senators and equestrians – were either nervous or hostile, perceiving the popular movement as a potential threat to the traditional order and the rights of property. Many ordinary citizens became hostile once persuaded that their privileges would be diluted by an extension of the franchise; many were confused by the fake reformism of Drusus; and many were so rooted in the retinues of aristocratic patrons that they had never been open to Gracchan arguments in the first place. In sum, the numbers of Roman citizens consistently committed to all-out reform were too small – the cross-currents of self-interest too strong – to achieve the critical mass necessary to bring about a democratic revolution from below. Even the limited reforms achieved were reversed in the years after Gaius Gracchus’s death; and the growth of the latifundia proceeded thereafter unchecked. The Gracchan route to a resolution of the crisis of the Late Republic was blocked. Another would have to be found.