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The Fall of the Republic, Part 1: The Reforms of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus

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Author: Elizabeth Mazurek
The first lecture on the fall of the Roman Republic, highlighting the careers of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.

The Reforms of the Gracchi

Here we look at events of a crucial decade in Roman history:

  1. Tensions are at a boiling point and politicians are willing to bend the constitution as a result - thus the constitution is weakened.
  2. For us - a period that serves as a turning point for the study of Roman history, since now we look at the results of the empire and not the growth of it.

Conditions leading to reform:

  1. Latifundia - large estates worked by slaves and owned mostly by senatorial families.
  2. Manufacturing and trade managed by skilled Greeks and other non-Romans.
  3. Equestrians were in control of Rome's financial capital.
  4. The army was understaffed because fewer people were making the census cut-off required for military service.
  5. Rome's Allies became disgruntled with their poor treatment and lack of political and economic benefits.
  6. Slave Rebellions were a constant threat, and in Sicily one occurred in 135-131 BCE which disrupted Rome's grain supply.
  7. Economic crisis in Rome, because less money was coming in from foreign conquests; fewer public projects and fewer jobs.

Attempts at Reform Before the Gracchi

  1. Social Reformers were rare in Roman History.
  2. Laelius, consul in 140 proposesd a land reform bill
    1. Scipio Aemilianus supported it.
    2. Senate rejected it, but there was some support from Senators who might have benefited from it.

Tiberius Gracchus and his Reforms

  1. Tiberius' background
    1. Family: a good example of new Roman nobility.
      1. He was one of 12 children.
      2. Grandson of Scipio Africanus.
    2. Politics: Quaestor in 137 BCE, serving the governor in Spain.  While in Spain, he became embittered against the Senate:
      1. The city of Numantia was one of the last in Spain to hold out against the Romans.
      2. Tiberius participated in a costly siege against the Numantians who retaliated and captured a large Roman force.
      3. Rome and Numantia came to a treaty, to which Tiberius gave his word, as the main diplomat.
      4. Senate, however, rejected the treaty, claiming that they were not bound by Tiberius' word.
      5. Scipio Aemilius besieged Numantia and starved inhabitants to death.
  2. Possible Motives for Reforms: Tiberius wanted:
    1. To relieve the plight of the poor and relocate them in the country
    2. To relieve economic depression in Rome itself
    3. To build up the strength and morale of the army
    4. To get revenge against the senate for affair in Numantia
    5. Because he was frightened by slave uprising in Sicily
    6. And was influenced by Greek political thought, or democratic idealism.
  3. Tiberius had strong political support from influential families
  4. Tiberius became tribune and introduced a reform bill in 133 BCE
    1. He first sought land reform, because he saw this as root of the problem and/or the most effective way to rile up the Senate.
    2. He proposed a lex agraria (agrarian law), by-passing the Senate by enforcing the Sexto-Licinian Law which limited public land to 320 acres.
      1. All land in excess of this would be allotted to the poor for a small rent and would not be taken away for any reason.
      2. Campania was exempt from rule.
    3. Another tribune, Octavius, vetoed the law.
    4. Tiberius persuaded the People's Assembly to impeach Octavius and elect someone more sympathetic.
    5. New tribune and Tiberius passed their law and created a land commission with the power to enforce the law.
    6. The Senate refused to finance the commission.
    7. Tiberius bypassed the Senate by persuading the People's Assembly to vote to use part of the treasure bequeathed by Attalus, King of Pergamum.
  5. Tiberius' Finale
    1. Tiberius ran for re-election in 132, which was illegal according to the Lex Villia Annalis.
    2. At the People's Assembly, a riot broke out when it tried to pass a law allowing consecutive terms.
    3. A group of senators, led by Scipio Nasica, entered the Assembly and clubbed and stoned 300 Gracchans to death, including Tiberius.
  6. Ramifications of Tiberius' actions
    1. Some people claimed, regardless of the legality, that Tiberius was giving too much power to the People's Assembly.
    2. Tiberius' prolonged tribuneship frightened some because of its overtones of mob rule or a popularly supported dictatorship.
    3. Tiberius became the archetype for later Roman politicians, the populares, who opposed the traditional optimates.

Between Tiberius and Gaius: Effects of Tiberius' Reforms

  1. In the wake of the riots, the Senate tried to execute all other Gracchans, while Scipio Nasica was ignored, although he had killed an inviolate tribune.
  2. The Agrarian Commission continued its work.
  3. Census figures rose (more people eligible for military service), showing the progress of the bill.
  4. Allies complained that their land was being taken, causing tension, but the Senate refused to give allies citizenship (which would have helped the problem).

Gaius Gracchus and his Reforms

  1. Gaius was the younger brother of Tiberius, and was also a renowned orator.
  2. Gaius became tribune twice, avenging his brother by abolishing the power of capital punishment in any court not established by the people.
    1. Law was made retroactive, which greatly shamed the Senators who had tried the Gracchans in the senatorial court.
  3. Gaius continued the land reforms, proposing colonies on public land, especially in northern Africa.
  4. He proposed a grain law (lex frumentaria) which discounted the price of grain for the urban poor, and a public works program to increase employment.
  5. He may have tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to extend citizenship to all Latins, Rome's earliest allies.

Opposition to Gaius

  1. Gaius lost bid for re-election, and new tribunes repealed his reforms. Gaius responded by creating a bodyguard, or army of followers.
  2. Affairs in Rome became very tense after rioting, and so the Senate passed a Senatus consultum ultimum, declaring martial law and giving full authority to consuls.
  3. Optimus, a consul, and his army fought Gaius and his army on the Aventine, defeating them and leading Gaius to commit suicide.
  4. Gaius's reforms stood in place after his death.

The Importance of the Gracchi

  1. They were the first to introduce legislation to relieve economic difficulties.
  2. They exposed the weakness of the Roman constitution.
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