Imagine a world where the wealthy elite hold all the land, the poor struggle to survive, and politicians are deeply divided over how to address these injustices. This was the world of Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, a passionate reformer who fought for the rights of the people in ancient Rome, and paid the ultimate price for his convictions.
In the middle of the second century BC, Rome was relatively stable, but brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus did much to alter the political and social landscape of the late Roman Republic. Their attempts to reform Roman society and politics challenged the power of the Senate and the traditional aristocracy, and paved the way for more radical and authoritarian leaders to seize power.
Indeed some historians point to the life and death of the two brothers as a precursor to the fall of the Republic and the emergence of the Empire.
During this time, the Roman political system was divided between the Optimates and the Populares. The Optimates (‘best ones’ or ‘aristocrats’) were the wealthy and powerful families of Rome who wanted to preserve the status quo that had served them so well. However a new voice was emerging in the form of the Populares (‘supporters of the people’), politicians who were fighting for the people’s rights.
One of the most famous Populares was Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, reportedly an orator of such persuasive skill, he was admired even by Cicero. After his older brother was killed in 133 BC, he took up the fight. Read on to discover how the fight ended with the murder of Gaius Gracchus.
The Early Life of Gaius Gracchus
Born in approximately 154 BC, Gaius Gracchus was destined for a life in the upper reaches of Roman politics and society. His father, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, was a highly-regarded politician and his mother, Cornelia, was the daughter of legendary general Scipio Africanus.
He received an education befitting his family’s status and served in the army under Scipio Aemilanus. It’s believed that during his military service he became interested in politics.
When Gaius’ older brother Tiberius was serving in Spain, he became increasingly aware of the stark inequalities of the Roman world: a few wealthy families owned most of the land, leaving many poor citizens with no means of making a living. Tiberius proposed a radical solution to this problem: a limit on land ownership. His plan called for no individual to hold more than 500 jugerum, with any excess land to be held by the government and distributed among the needy.
Naturally, the rich landowners weren’t in favour of this idea. After a further suggestion to redistribute the wealth of King Attalus III of Pergamum, an idea viewed with similar disdain. In 133 BC, Tiberius was brutally murdered alongside many of his supporters, marking a tragic end to his crusade for social justice. A decade later, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus stepped into his brother’s shoes.
The Gracchus Law Reforms
After being elected as a tribune in 123 BC, Gaius Gracchus wasted no time in taking up his brother’s mantle and pursuing his vision for a fairer and more equitable society.
He assembled a coalition of like-minded politicians and citizens who shared his passion for reform, convincing them of the urgent need to address the root causes of poverty and inequality in Rome. With this loyal following, Gracchus began pushing for a series of sweeping reforms that would change the face of Roman politics and society forever.
Gracchus now created a law that provided for state-controlled granaries providing free grain to the poor and a regular sale of grain to the population of Rome. He also introduced measures to make the law courts more transparent, including stopping deposed magistrates running for office and prosecuting magistrates that had transgressed. In addition, he put forward legislation to protect people in the provinces against the avarice and corruption that led to exploitative taxation from high-ranking city officials.
But it was his agrarian policies that Gaius Gracchus – and his brother before him – became most famous for.
Roman conquests in the first century BC had increased the amount of land controlled by the Republic, but barely increased the number of people who owned it. The rich were buying up small farms and replacing Italian farmers with imported slaves. Thousands of people became both landless and jobless.
As fewer farms were worked, there was inevitably less food. With high unemployment came debt, corruption, mismanagement and social unrest. That’s where Gaius Gracchus came in.
It’s possible that the Gracchus law reforms weren’t entirely selfless. A number of historians suggest Gaius saw an opportunity not only to work on behalf of the Populares, but to further his own political and personal ambitions. Indeed it’s believed many of these reforms were intended to curb the abuses of power and damage the economic effectiveness of the Senate by handing increasing powers to the equestrian classes. This may also have been in retribution for the death of his brother.
The Murder of Gaius Gracchus
In 122 BC, tribune Gracchus was re-elected unopposed, though the Senate was said to be unsure as to his real intentions. He proposed policies about the establishment of new colonies and reforms to citizenship laws but they were all rejected.
In 121 BC, Gracchus sought a third term as Tribune of the Plebs, hoping to continue his bold agenda of social and political reform. However, he faced strong opposition from the Senate-backed candidate Marcus Livius Drusus, who sought to undermine Gracchus’ support by proposing even more populist measures, despite their dubious feasibility. Ultimately, Drusus won the election, dealing a devastating blow to Gracchus’ political career and paving the way for the tragic events that would soon unfold. The end was nigh.
An angry mob of Gracchus’ supporters gathered on Aventine Hill. Consul Lucius Opimius, backed by the law of senatus consultum ultimum – the ‘ultimate decree of the Senate’, which said that action against anyone deemed to be an enemy of the state was permitted without due process – sent troops to force Gaius Sempronius Gracchus back into the city. However Gracchus knew he wouldn’t receive a fair trial.
Opimius, with the backing of the Senate, sent troops to subdue the rebels, leading to a bloody massacre that claimed the lives of Gracchus and many of his supporters.
There are a number of conflicting stories about the end of his life. One tells of the murder of Gaius Gracchus as taking place during the clashes on the Aventine Hill, another suggests Gracchus ordered one of his slaves or supporters to stab him to death and a third says he committed suicide.
It’s believed that after his death, thousands of his supporters were killed in a purge.
Historians have debated for centuries whether the deaths of the influential yet controversial Gracchus brothers were the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic. It’s true that their reforms – and the violent opposition they faced – contributed to a breakdown of trust and cooperation within the Roman political system, paving the way for civil wars and the rise of powerful military leaders.
In the years that followed until the death of Julius Caesar and the rise of the first Roman emperor Augustus, the republic was beset by internecine struggles and led by violent mob rule.
Rome would never be the same again.