The Gracchi Brothers- Part I- Tiberius
The two Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, were significant players in Roman History because of what they fought and died for. Their deaths marked the first blood spilled in the Roman civil wars that led to the end of the Roman Republic. They came of age at a time when the Republic was unsteady and their deaths marked the beginning of its end.
The brothers were born to Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a member of the plebeian branch of the Sempronia family who was consul twice and censor in 169. He died when the brothers were young leaving their education to their mother, Cornelia Africana. She was the daughter of Scipio Africanus, who was the general who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War. She was considered the foremost example of womanly virtue at that time in Rome. She taught them to love justice, truth and their country. Tiberius, the older brother, went on to serve as an officer in the Third Punic War and was the first to scale Carthage’s walls. He was also skilled in diplomacy having saved an army of 20,000 men without a fight. With their background and connections to the ruling elite, the Gracchi were going somewhere.
At this time the Roman people were divided into clear classes- the senatorial order, the equestrian order, the city population and country farmers. Outside of Rome were the Latin colonist, who were settled on conquered lands in Italy, and unlike their Roman counterparts did not have citizenship. Beyond that were the provincials, who lived outside Italy. At the very bottom of the order were the slaves. As it has been since time immemorial, those at the top got greedy and began helping themselves to the spoils of office and war rather than looking after the welfare of the common citizens, especially those who could not vote. Those of the senatorial class had large estates in Italy worked by slave labor. This left scores of poor farmers who could not make a living. When Tiberius Gracchus came home from the war, he was shocked to find all the farmland being worked by gangs of slaves while thousands of free citizens were living in poverty without a way to support themselves. It was time for a change, and Tiberius Gracchus decided he was the one to do it.
In 133 BCE, Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune of the people. This was an office that could only be held by a member of the plebeian order, and was set up to propose legislation, intervene on behalf of plebeians in legal matters. However, the most powerful power the tribune had was the veto. Any action of a consul or other magistrates could be vetoed by a tribune. As a result, the tribune was considered sacrosanct, which means any assault on them was prohibited by law. It was a powerful position and Tiberius Gracchus decided to use the power he had. His first act was to revive the so called Licinian laws, which would limit the holding of public land to five hundred iugera, which would be three hundred acres. Although the land was technically public, these were the large senatorial estates worked by slaves. After these estates were broken up, the leftover land would be rented to the poorer class of citizens. The senate was horrified. They made a tidy profit off those estates and it would be taking a lot of gold out of their pocket if these laws were passed. They courted the favor of the other tribune of the people, Marcus Octavius, to veto this law, which he did. However, Tiberius was not done yet.
Although the law stated that the election of a new tribune was to be held a year from that time, Tiberius called upon the people to deprive Octavius of his office. Octavius was illegally deposed, and his veto was thrown out. The new laws were passed in the assembly of the tribes, and three commissioners were chosen to divide up the estates- Tiberius, his brother Gaius and his father in law. The Senate was in an uproar and were determined to prosecute Tiberius for his illegal action to depose Octavius. However, as a tribune he was immune to prosecution while he was in office. Again, Tiberius went outside the law. Although there was supposed to be a space of ten years between terms of office, Tiberius ran again for the office of tribune.
This only deepened the gulf between the aristocratic party, called the optimates, and the popular party, called the populares. Tiberius was denounced as a traitor by the optimates and hailed as a patriot by the populares. On the day of the election, two tribes had already voted for Tiberius when a band of armed senators headed by Scipio Nasica appeared in the Forum. They attacked and a riot ensued, and Tiberius Gracchus and three hundred of his followers were killed in the bloodshed. This was the first blood of the Roman civil wars. The senators thought they had quieted the winds of rebellion with the death of Tiberius Gracchus. What they did not realize was his brother Gaius was waiting in the wings.
Sources available on request