Fighting against the odds

In the third article in his series on the Roman empire, Chris Gray looks at the efforts of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus to defeat the landowning oligarchy

In the second half of the 2nd century before the christian era (BCE) there was a serious attempt to push through a number of reforms in Rome, whose effect would be to reduce the power of the landowning oligarchy. This attempt was led by the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. The struggle was fought out in the years 134-133 and 123-121 - the years in which first Tiberius (163-133) and then his younger brother Gaius (158-121) held the office of tribune. Tiberius’s tribunate coincided with a major slave revolt in Sicily (135-132), which helped to precipitate the political crisis of 133.

As described in the previous article, one of the effects of Roman imperial expansion was the growth of large agricultural estates (latifundia) formed using slave labour; as the number of these properties expanded, free peasants were driven off the land and forced to seek employment in the towns of Italy. This state of affairs tended to undermine the effective basis of the Roman army. As a noted historian of Rome’s army explains, “the Roman legions still remained an annual levy, and as yet there was no professional army. The property qualification, if reduced, and in a crisis even temporarily suspended, was not yet formally abolished, and the army continued in theory a citizen militia of peasant proprietors.”1

Pay had been introduced - this occurred initially in the campaigns against Veii in the early 4th century BCE - but the assumption was that the vast majority of Roman soldiers would provide their own equipment. Recruitment of proletarii (men of no property) on a large scale would obviously entail increased costs to the state. Moreover, such penurious recruits would lack any obvious material incentive for the necessary sacrifice involved. Surely it was advisable to retain, if at all possible, the citizen-peasant basis of the legions.

The classical scholar, Moses Finley, has written eloquently on the struggle of such men to wrest a living from the land:

“Not surprisingly, the ancient peasant was always at the margin of safety ... The one normal source of subsidiary income for peasants was seasonal labour on larger neighbouring estates, especially during the harvest: the Roman agricultural writers assume, and indeed require, the presence of such a reserve labour force in all their calculations. Beyond that, in a pre-industrial society, the opportunities for part-time employment were few and unreliable. The Athenian navy in the 5th and 4th centuries BC was the great exception, and the key to Athenian freedom from agrarian troubles during the whole of that period. The Roman armies, in that period before they became involved in long service outside Italy, were perhaps another exception, but a less significant one.”2

Another potential shock-absorber in this situation was the demand for labour-power in Rome, as the city grew and its amenities and luxury trades expanded. Henry C Boren has drawn attention to these factors:

“During most of the first two thirds of the 2nd century Rome was a busy place, requiring large numbers of labourers and artisans. There was much construction, financed by indemnities [eg, that paid by the city of Carthage], booty, tribute and the income from mines. The armies were supplied, and ships were built; numerous shops supplied the needs of the city’s growing population. The extensive colonisation programmes of the 180s and 170s may indicate that during this period not all emigrating peasants could be assimilated into the urban population. Conversely, the cessation of colonisation at mid-century (no Latin colonies were established after 181 and no Roman colonies between 157 and 122) indicates that for many years before the Gracchi the migrating Romans and Italians were readily absorbed into the swelling, bustling metropolis.”3

However, Boren notes the onset of a sharp decline in building and government expenditure before 133, a decline whose effects were intensified by the Sicilian slave revolt, which interfered with Rome’s vital grain supplies and led to a steep rise in the price of bread (pp55, 62).

Tiberius Gracchus

Plutarch, the Greek historian who specialised in writing biographies of famous Greek and Roman statesmen, notes that once Tiberius Gracchus’s interest in these questions, and his sympathies, became known, the people themselves called on him to take action, as they “posted writings on porticoes, house walls and monuments, calling upon him to recover for the poor the public land.”4

Tiberius rose to the occasion: he made a speech which the biographer has preserved for us: “The wild beasts that roam over Italy have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in; but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their generals exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchres and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has a hereditary altar, not one of all of these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury and, though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.”5

Stirring stuff. But his attitude to the Sicilian slaves was very different: “He expressed hostility to the slaves, because they made no military contribution and were never loyal to their masters, and blamed them for the recent calamity of the landowners in Sicily, which had been caused by slaves whose numbers had been swelled by the demands of agriculture, and for the war conducted by the Romans against them, which had been neither simple nor short, but had dragged on with all sorts of dangerous twists of fortune.”6

Having established his reformist credentials - he could hardly do otherwise in seeking citizen support - Tiberius then put forward a policy proposal. A limitation on the amount of public land that could be farmed by any one individual was already laid down in the Lex Licinia of 367, which fixed it at 500 iugera.7 Additionally, it was a longstanding plebeian demand that the ager publicus, the public land, should be available to individual Roman citizens in the form of allotments that would become their private property:

“In the period from 486 to 367 the sources record around 25 separate attempts by the plebeian leaders to have public land redistributed in this way. Some of these reports may be unhistorical, but it is arbitrary to reject the entire tradition, as some modern scholars have done.”8

Accordingly Tiberius proposed the following measure: “Everyone holding more ager publicus than the legal limit of 500 iugera … must give up the surplus, but should retain the 500 iugera (and possibly also 250 iugera for each son, up to a maximum of 1,000 iugera) which should become the possessor’s in perpetuity and should not be subject to rent (vectigal); probably no further compensation was offered. The fertile ager Campanus was not included in the scheme. The land so reclaimed was to be distributed to Roman citizens in small allotments, with perhaps a maximum size of 30 iugera; the new holders were not allowed to alienate them and were to pay a small rent.”9

To make sure that the law’s provisions were not evaded, Tiberius included in it the establishment of a land commission consisting of three men subject to annual re-election; the first three commissioners elected were Tiberius himself, his younger brother, Gaius, and his father-in-law, Appius Claudius Pulcher.10

The plan was greeted with howls of protest from those who had benefited from the Lex Licinia’s lack of enforcement: “They gathered in groups, deploring their situation and supporting their case against the poor by pointing to the work they had put in over many years, their planting, their building. Some had bought land from their neighbours - were they to lose the money as well as the land? Some had family tombs on the land or said that holdings had been treated as fully owned and divided up on inheritance. Others claimed that their wives’ dowries had been invested in such land, or that it had been given to their daughters as dowry, and moneylenders could show loans made on this security. In short, there was a babel of protest and lamentation.”11

To stop Tiberius the senatorial oligarchs, who considered themselves “the best people” - optimates, a word first occurring in the historical record, as we have it, with Cicero in the following century, but the conception itself is far older - persuaded one of the tribunes, a certain Marcus Octavius, to veto the bill (any tribune could veto a proposal and thereby invalidate it). This veto was clearly not in line with the will of the people and Tiberius, having unsuccessfully appealed to Marcus Octavius to withdraw his veto, moved that he be deprived of his office. The people elected another tribune, and the bill was carried.12

Plutarch calls this procedure illegal; it is hard to see why, in view of the Lex Hortensia of 287 which recognised any decision of the plebs as having the force of law, but Gracchus’s opponents were quick to accuse him of having insulted the sacred office of a tribune. This sacrosanctity was analogous to modern parliamentary immunity, and Tiberius was likely to be prosecuted once he had stood down as tribune, so he put himself forward for re-election.

The election assembly on the Capitol led to a fracas. The accounts in Plutarch and Appian suggest Tiberius either anticipated or was then advised of a plan by his opponents to use force against him and his supporters, but it seems clear that the Gracchans spontaneously armed themselves and made ready to fight. This was straightaway reported to a meeting of the Senate, from which a party of senators and their attendants made a bee-line for the Capitol, where they proceeded to attack Gracchus and his followers. The reactionaries won the battle and Tiberius and some 300 of his supporters were killed and their bodies thrown into the Tiber.13

The optimates could not repeal the agrarian law, but they could obstruct its operation, and they did their best in this regard.14 But these rearguard actions ultimately only succeeded in arousing a yet more determined counterattack by their opponents, which began with the election as tribune of Tiberius’s younger brother, Gaius, in 123BCE, which was the signal for the opening of round two in the contest.

Gaius Gracchus

Gaius Gracchus as tribune did not confine himself to advocating further measures designed to tackle the agrarian problem, but advanced a number of other proposals as well. His programme seems to have been designed to create the broadest possible coalition of support. Gaius’s policies are conveniently analysed by David Stockton in his book The Gracchi.

On the agrarian front Gaius put forward an additional piece of legislation. As Stockton sees it, “… he gave the commissioners power to deal with public land, ager publicus populi Romani, outside Italy, and also empowered them to plant colonies as well as to make individual (viritim) assignments.”15

Accordingly he proposed the creation of a number of citizen colonies - two in southern Italy to start with, then one at Capua, and one in the former territory of Carthage. The last two ventures were not successful - Carthage was not in fact refounded following its obliteration in 146 until 29BCE. Other measures included a lex de abactis (law on those forced to resign), enjoining that anyone forced to quit by the people should be disbarred from holding any further public office - this was designed to deter anyone from following in the footsteps of the senate’s creature, Octavius; a law on consular provinces, designed to let the people know which provinces were fixed for outgoing consuls before they elected the said consuls; a lex militaris obliging the Roman state to provide free clothing and equipment for soldiers, together with a ban on enlisting youths aged under 17; and a lex de vectigalibus et portoriis (law on state rents and customs duty), which increased state income from these sources.

In this connection it should be borne in mind that the Roman state under the republic was virtually without a bureaucracy: apart from what could be organised by independent provincial governors in this field it relied for the collection of state income on ‘undertakers’: ie, those individuals who were prepared to take up contracts for the collection of state revenue issued by the censors.

These men were known as publicani (from publicum, the word for state revenue). They were an important part of the Roman capitalist class, which increased in size and influence with the expansion of Rome’s empire in the 2nd century BCE. The upper sections of this class were known as equites (literally ‘horsemen’, traditionally translated as  ‘knights’), because their income was sufficient for them to equip themselves as cavalry in the Roman army; the equites formed a separate ‘order’ just below the senators, and there was friction between them and the Roman aristocrats, because the latter tended to look down on anyone engaged in such an ignoble occupation as ‘trade’. Gracchus exploited this by pushing through a number of measures which directly benefited the commercial interest.

One of these concerned the courts, which had been established in 149BCE to protect provincials from some of the worst ravages of Roman imperialism - namely extortion by Roman governors and their agents; under the lex Calpurnia de repetundis aggrieved provincials could sue for the return of monies wrongly taken from them, and what Gaius Gracchus’s subsequent law did was to get rid of juries composed of senators and replace them with equites. He also put through a lex de provincia Asia, which ensured that contracts for the collection of revenues of the Roman province of Asia were awarded to Roman publicani (the idea presumably was that the tribunes would keep an eye on proceedings in order to check any flagrant corruption, but if so this check proved ineffective).

Gaius Gracchus also carried a lex frumentaria (corn law), under which “The state was to practise bulk-buying of corn, build warehouses to store it and then sell a monthly ration to any Roman citizen at a price slightly below the market-rate … This would reduce the variation in price from year to year caused by good and bad harvests, and prevent private profiteering in lean years”.16

By these means Gaius Gracchus was able to put together a potentially very powerful coalition of interests against the oligarchy. But the optimates, despite having sustained a series of defeats, refused to give up the fight. Instead they set to work to undermine Gaius’s coalition. Their principal tactic at this point was an attempt to outbid Gaius for popular support (this tactic is one of the favourites of the British ruling class - for example, Disraeli’s Reform Act of 1867, which gave the upper section of the working class the right to vote). Their agent here was a tribune called Marcus Livius Drusus, who brought forward a number of proposals with senatorial support.

As Plutarch describes, “In this way the senate showed most plainly that it was not displeased with the public measures of Gaius, but rather was desirous by all means to humble or destroy the man himself. For when Gaius proposed to found two colonies, and these composed of the most respectable citizens, they accused him of truckling to the people; but when Livius proposed to found 12, and to send out to each of them 3,000 of the needy citizens, they supported him. With Gaius, because he distributed public land among the poor for which every man of them was required to pay a rental into the public treasury, they were angry, alleging that he was seeking thereby to win favour with the multitude; but Livius met with their approval when he proposed to relieve the tenants even from this rental. And further, when Gaius proposed to bestow upon the Latins equal rights of suffrage, he gave offence; but when Livius brought in a bill forbidding that any Latin should be chastised with rods even during military service, he had the senate’s support.

“And indeed Livius himself, in his public harangues, always said that he introduced these measures on the authority of the senate, which desired to help the common people; and this in fact was the only advantage which resulted from his political measures. For the people became more amicably disposed towards the senate; and, whereas before this they had suspected and hated the nobles, Livius softened and dissipated their remembrance of past grievances and their bitter feelings by alleging that it was the sanction of the nobles which had induced him to enter upon his course of conciliating the people and gratifying the wishes of the many.”17

By these means Livius Drusus succeeded in eroding Gracchus’s support to a considerable extent. Gaius Gracchus also seems to have fallen out with his fellow tribunes over an affair concerning stand seats at a gladiatorial show constructed by some of the Roman magistrates, which they were offering for payment; Gaius Gracchus ordered these to be demolished so that poor citizens could enjoy the show free of charge, and then, when such action was not taken, he collected the workmen he was himself employing on public contracts and dismantled the stands during one night. His colleagues took umbrage, and as a result, according to Plutarch, he failed in his bid to gain re-election for a third annual term as tribune.18

The oligarchs followed this up by ensuring the election of one of their number, Lucius Opimius, as consul for 121, on a platform of revoking a number of the laws introduced by Gaius. The round of political activity that this caused led to an outbreak of violence on the Capitol, in which one of the supporters of the optimates, a certain Qunitus Antyllius, was killed. This murder gave the reactionaries the excuse they needed, and the senate voted to give Opimius as consul discretionary powers to deal with the situation - the so-called ‘final decree of the senate’ (senatus consultum ultimum) - which was used several times in the subsequent years of the republic.

“The consul therefore ordered the senators to take up arms, and every member of the equestrian order was notified to bring next morning two servants fully armed.”19

M Fulvius Flaccus, one of Gaius’s principal supporters, organised a counterforce, and the Gracchans seized control of the Temple of Diana as a strongpoint, but they were overwhelmed; realising the hopelessness of further resistance, Gaius Gracchus, determined not to be taken alive by the reactionaries, ordered his slave attendant to kill him.

Criticisms of the Gracchi

Stockton in his book questions the advisability of resettling impoverished peasants under adverse economic circumstances; he points to the eventual solution of the problem via spontaneous emigration from Italy and the establishment of citizen colonies.20 This criticism is directed specifically at Tiberius; Gaius clearly grasped the importance of founding colonies. Even so, there was no reason for Gaius to disavow his brother’s original policy, and the optimates, however much they were opposed to it, nonetheless felt unable to attack it head on. The effects of this particular Gracchan initiative lingered on until 111BCE, when a settlement of sorts was reached in a further agrarian law, part of the text of which survives on a bronze tablet.

Scullard notes: “By it all ager publicus dealt with by the commissioners, whether used for individual allotments or for colonies or left to the possessores, was converted into private property, the system of squatting (possessio) was abolished and rent was cancelled. The general effect was to consolidate and maintain the work of the Gracchi, but one result was that there was little ager publicus now left in Italy for further distribution.”21

Criticism of a very different kind can be found in a book - it is quite a short book, definitely worth reading - by Daniel De Leon entitled Two pages from Roman history.22 De Leon was an avowed Marxist well known in international socialist circles at the beginning of the last century as leader of the (US) Socialist Labor Party and exponent of the trend known as syndicalism.

De Leon’s historical exposition is not entirely accurate as regards detail, but the general thrust of his work is on target. His aim is to argue for socialism, and therefore he compares the role of the leaders of the Roman plebs with their contemporary labour movement counterparts: the comparison is accurate and instructive:

“Just as with the plebs leader, the labour leader sees no way out of the existing social system. He will admit the evils of capitalism; it is profitable that he should; but no more than did the plebs leader of old does the labour leader of today aim at the extinction of the flames that devour the wage-slave class.

“Just as with the plebs leader, the labour leader accepts the social economy of the ruling class: ‘Poverty always was; poverty always will be.’

“Just as the plebs leader looked down upon the plebeian proletariat and middle class as a hopeless, helpless element, fit only to be used, and brought his religion to sanction the exploitation of these classes, so the labour leader places no faith whatever in the capacity of the working class to emancipate itself.

“Finally, and by reason of all this, just as the plebs leader sought to secure himself against plebs distress, and, in doing so, propped up both the economic power and the political privileges of patricianism at the expense of the plebs masses, so the labour leader of today limits his aspirations to the feathering of his own nest, and, in pursuit of this purpose, turns himself, at the expense of the working class, into a prop of capitalism.”23

It would take too long to explore fully De Leon’s detailed criticisms of the Gracchi here.24 The core of his criticism is that the Gracchi were not revolutionaries, they were reformists. Unfortunately the political and economic circumstances of the time were such that they could hardly be otherwise - a consideration ignored by De Leon. The Athenian hoplites could win political power for themselves at Athens in the 6th and 5th centuries before the christian era because slavery was not then fully entrenched as the dominant form of exploitation and because Athens had not fully embarked on an imperial course (as it was to do under Pericles). In contrast, by the second half of the 2nd century BCE the Roman empire was already a fact and the Roman possessing classes were very strongly entrenched. An alliance between the subordinate free classes and the slaves was theoretically possible, but a necessary condition for its success was the (at least partial) collapse of the Roman state in the requisite geographical regions - which occurred only in the period when the western empire fell.

De Leon is on more solid ground when he specifically attacks Gaius Gracchus for his measures in the equestrian interest, and for allowing himself to be outflanked on the question of colonial settlements. As Herbert Hill shows,25 the members of the equestrian order were unreliable allies of any lower-orders movement: they were quite ready to accept help against the oligarchy if that would advance their economic interests, but they did not care a jot for the fate of those sections of the population who were less well off.

As for the question of colonies, there was no reason to limit the demands in order not to upset the senate: the senate was upset by the challenge to its authority anyway. It would have been better, in the case of the extortion courts, to have advocated an arrangement more on the Athenian model, whereby a panel of jurors would be selected from the whole citizen body by lot and paid for judging. We have no means of knowing whether such an approach would have been approved by the comitia, but it was surely worth a try.

All in all, though, it is hard to resist the conclusion that Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were, to use an American expression, up against a stacked deck. The odds were against them. All the more honour to them that they fought even so.


1. HMD Parker The Roman legions Chicago 1980 (originally published 1922), p20.
2. M Finley The ancient economy London 1973, pp107-08.
3. HC Boren in R Seager (ed) The crisis of the Roman republic Cambridge 1969, p57.
4. Plutarch Tiberius Gracchus VIII, 7, Loeb edition Vol 10, pp162-63.
5. Ibid IX,5.
6. Appian The civil wars I,9, Penguin translation, p6.
7. TJ Cornell The beginnings of Rome London 1995, pp270, 329.
8. Ibid p270.
9. HH Scullard From the Gracchi to Nero London 1982, pp25-26. See also note 9, pp379-80.
10. Ibid p27.
11. Appian The civil wars I,10, Penguin translation, p6.
12. Ibid I,13.
13. See HH Scullard From the Gracchi to Nero London 1982, p28.
14. See Appian I,18; also HH Scullard op cit pp29-31.
15. D Stockton The Gracchi Oxford 1979, p132.
16. HH Scullard From the Gracchi to Nero London 1982, p33.
17. Plutarch Gaius Gracchus IX, 1-4.
18. It appears that the electoral return was disputed: see Plutarch Gaius Gracchus XII,5.
19. Plutarch Gaius Gracchus XIV, 4. There was no Roman police force of any size in existence in those days; one was established only in the reign of the emperor Augustus.
20. D Stockton The Gracchi Oxford 1979, pp50-51.
21. HH Scullard From the Gracchi to Nero London 1982, p43. See also p394, note 6.
22. Originally published 1903; reprinted by New York Labor News Company, 1962.
23. D De Leon Two pages from Roman history New York 1962, pp56-57.
24. Ibid pp77-105.
25. H Hill The Roman middle class in the republican period Oxford 1952.