Tiberius Gracchus was born with just about as noble a pedigree as a Roman could. The Gracchi were an old and wealthy family. His grandfather was Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the Punic War hero who finally defeated Hannibal Barca. He was married to another blue-blooded noble, Aemilia Pulcher, and the future looked good for young Tiberius Gracchus.
In 137 BCE, the young noble was appointed quaester, chief quartermaster and financial officer, for his brother-in-law, Scipio Aemilianus, in a campaign in Hispania (Spain). The war did not go well, and the entire Roman army was trapped. With his brother-in-law dead, Tiberius took charge and managed to negotiate a peace treaty with the local tribes that saved the lives of thousands of skilled Roman legionnaires. But rather than praising his efforts, many Senators condemned Gracchus, and the body even voted to nullify the treaty. It was the beginning of a battle between Gracchus and the Roman Senate that changed, and damaged, the empire forever.
Feeling alienated from the nobles who controlled Rome’s Senate, Tiberius Gracchus turned to the common people. What he saw angered him. For years the noble families had been grabbing up all the small farms. Often these were the farms of soldiers who were serving in the empire’s wars of conquest. With no male to work the land, many went into debt or were unable to pay the rising taxes. Then the farms were snatched up by the nobles, many of them Senators, and the people became slave labor to work the estates. This meant that when a soldier returned from the wars he would likely find himself and his family homeless and destitute. These penniless and unemployed former soldiers then flocked into the cities, especially Rome, hoping for work.
So in 133 BCE, a bitter and idealistic Tiberius Gracchus campaigned for and was elected to one of the two positions of tribune of the people. It was his job to represent the needs of the people to the Senate. He immediately began agitating for land reform. He tried to limit the amount of land any one person or family could hold. The attempt failed since there was simply no one to tell the Senators they could not acquire more land for themselves. He then called for all newly captured lands and any confiscated lands to be divided up between the former farmers. This, he explained, would both provide a living for the urban poor and create a pool of landowning farmers who could serve in the legions. It was a good idea, for the farmers and Rome, but not for the rich families controlling the empire.
The Senate refused to act on the proposed laws. On a personal level, the enmity between Gracchus, who constantly harangued for the lower classes in Rome and stirred them up, and the Senators, who benefited from the status quo, became vicious. When the Senators managed to pressure the other people’s tribune, Marcus Octavius, into vetoing the land reforms, Gracchus first forced his fellow tribune out of office, illegally, in most scholars’ opinions. Then he used his power, as the person who officially opened the temples and markets, to shut down the city. With what was effectively a strike supported by the people, Rome ground to a halt. Vital services were not maintained, and the food supply dwindled. Riots threatened, and the masses were angry.
The Senate reluctantly accepted the changes in the land laws and appointed an Agrarian Reform Commission to implement the new laws. Then they gave that commission a budget so low it could not actually do anything. It seemed a beautifully bureaucratic way to kill changes that would cost the Senator’s families a fortune. That ploy worked for a while until one of the client kings, Attalus III of Pergamum, died and left his kingdom and large personal fortune to Rome. Forcing leaders to do this was one of the main ways the empire took direct control of an area without having to conquer it. It was not an unusual bequest, but then Gracchus hijacked it. Against all law and precedent, because he felt the greater good required it, the tribune used Attalus’ fortune to implement his land reforms. The real problem for the Senate was not the loss of land or the illegal actions of the remaining tribune. What frightened them was that Gracchus then had a large and fanatic following among the common people. He had enough of a following to gain more control of the city of Rome than the Senators. Furthermore, he continued ranting against the Senate, declaring that it was acting only in self-interest.
There was a very real chance that Tiberius Gracchus could use the mobs of Rome combined with the reluctance of the legions to intervene against their fellow citizens to make himself dictator. Effectively, he already controlled most of the city through the mobs. Soon rumors were heard of Gracchus being seen wearing purple robes, such as the old kings had worn before the Senate replaced them. But the Senate had found a way to deal with the upstart tribune within the system. He had clearly broken the law in driving out Octavius so he could override the veto of the land reforms. As Gracchus’ one-year term as tribune (yes, just one year; he had been busy) ended, the young populist announced he planned to run for reelection. This was an unusual but not unprecedented event.
Soon, with the election in full swing and Gracchus appearing before large crowds all over Rome, his trial in the Senate began. The tribune began promising the crowds much more radical changes. These included shortening the time men needed to serve in the legions in order to get the free land; allowing common people, not just the Senators, to serve as jurors in major cases; and opening Roman citizenship to allied peoples who served in the legions or otherwise aided Rome. These ideas may not seem radical today, but when combined with the threat to the power of the Senate he already represented, this was truly radical stuff and a direct threat to their power and wealth.
On the day Rome voted, feelings were at a fever pitch as the trial continued. In the street in front of the Senate, a threatening crowd grew. Soldiers were called in. The trial became more of a series of threats and counterthreats, with tempers running high. Finally, dozens of Senators came off their benches and literally beat Tiberius Gracchus to death with the legs of their chairs. The Roman Senate was made up of some very tough men, and you can see they were willing to kill to protect themselves and their power. This was something Julius Caesar should have been aware of a century later when he usurped their power, but that was another mistake and not just his. The tribune’s body was thrown into the Tiber to prevent any embarrassing funeral, and the crowd in front of the Senate Building was violently dispersed by the army.
When word of Gracchus’ murder spread through Rome, many parts of the city rioted. In an ironic attempt to protect themselves, the Senate quickly approved almost all of Gracchus’ reforms. This helped to quell the riots and restore their support among the population. The mistake of murdering the populist leader effectively forced the Roman Senate to concede to everything the tribune had demanded. Because of these changes, power in Rome gradually shifted from the noble families to the masses and the army. The people who lived in Rome began to learn that they were more powerful than the Senators who ran their government, and the army learned that they could control who among different factions controlled the Senate. Because of Gracchus’ willingness to ignore the laws, combined with the Senator’s greed and then fear, Rome did not have a truly stable government for almost a century. And that century ended in the civil wars. In 49 BCE, Gaius Julius Caesar used the support of the mobs and his legions to take complete control of all of Rome, and the power of the Senate was lost forever.