the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Grace Yuan ’23
Although the reform implemented by Tiberius Gracchus failed, it is of great historical importance because it reveals the corrupted nature of the Roman republic while taking socioeconomic background into consideration to predict the downfall of Rome. The downfall of Tiberius Gracchus has primarily resulted from the majority of the senators whose interests were against the reform measures because the benefits for the majority were built on the loss of the senators. As a result, the Senate refused to accept changes of any sort and rejected an opening advancement proposed to improve the welfare of the people, leading to the tragedy of the death of Tiberius Gracchus. It is noteworthy to reexamine the legacy in addition to the reform of Tiberius Gracchus because it resembles the mistrust and clash between different social classes in contemporary society.
Tiberius Gracchus is the elder amongst the two Gracchus brothers who was the first to implement reform. Before embarking on the discussion of Tiberius’s reform, it is necessary to understand his career and the power he possessed. Tiberius Gracchus was elected as the plebian tribune in 133 BCE. Namely, these tribunes were representatives of the plebians, the commoners, who could barely compete with nobles and landholders who composes the majority of the Senate. As a plebian tribune, Tiberius Gracchus possessed the responsibility of protecting the rights of the commoners by intervening the legal matters on behalf of the commoners. Tribunes can “veto” the proposals of other tribunes, thus preventing the law from being implemented.
With the issues of the Roman Republic having been mentioned, one could easily understand the incentives of Tiberius as he desired to resolve the issue of military recruitment and help the plebians who could not compete with the powerful landowners. During the Italian War, some lands were gained by the Roman Republic. Although they were called the “ager publicus,” the public land, they were usually seized by the nobles. Such circumstances led to three serious problems. Firstly, the city was overcrowded by the poor because they could not claim their lands from the wealthy. Secondly, lands seized by the nobles were mainly used to cultivate cash crops which could provide huge profits for the landowners but could not supply the daily need of food for the plebians. The third point, which is perhaps one of the most important issues that roused Tiberius to implement the land reform, was the declining morale of the Roman society. As Boren claimed, “immediate crisis was less agrarian than urban, less concerned with land than with people.” In other words, Boren argues that as the disparity between the wealthy and the poor was exacerbated, poor people became less concerned about land issues and more despaired of changing the status quo, thus leading to the decline of participation in military service through which they could gain more land. In addition to Bore, Plutarch noted such circumstances in his work as well:
“[T]he poor, who had been ejected from their land, no longer showed themselves eager for military service, and neglected the bringing up of children, so that soon all Italy was conscious of a death of freemen, and was filled with gangs of foreign slaves, by whose aid the rich cultivated their estates, from which they had driven away the free citizens”
Plutarch agreed with Boren that the military participant rate was one of the most serious consequences of unequal land distribution. If Rome remained in their contemporary status quo, the rapacity of the landowners who “employed” slaves to work for their profits would lead to the destruction of the cities and the demise of the citizens.
Tiberius’ goal was not only to formally enforce a land law dealing with excess land that was frequently ignored in the past to protect the interests of the plebians, but also to reduce the shortage of recruit as per mentioned by historians: “it is generally to be agreed that the reform program of Tiberius Gracchus was designed to remedy a major crisis, a shortage of recruits for the legion.” To come to that end, Tiberius specifically appealed to the land law. As Plutarch mentioned in his book, “forbid by each individual of more than 500 iugera, about 300 acres of ager publicus.” Although this law initially appeared as a check to the rapacity of the wealthy, the neighboring rich men finally “transferred rentals to themselves” and “held most of the land openly in their names.” The inactivity of the government in the Roman Republic was manifested through the words of Plutarch: since the Senate was mainly composed of the landowners who enjoyed their affluence, they do not wish to pass the law because it would harm their interests. Here, one could find that even before the dictatorship of Caesar, Rome was already haunted by the corruption within the government, which foreshadowed its downfall.
In 132 BC, Tiberius Gracchus attempted to reelect the Tribunate to continue his work with the land law. However, to many other Senators, the re-election of Tiberius Gracchus implied his desire to become a tyranny, especially when they recalled how Tiberius accused the deposition of Marcus Octavius. As the Senate misinterpreted the gesture of Tiberius as the intention for ruling the whole republic, Pontifex Maximus Cornelius Scipio Nasica initiated the murder of Tiberius to “protect the country”. In the account of Appian, Nasica “wound the border of his toga about his head.” As Plutarch wrote, “This is said to have been the first sedition at Rome, since the abolition of royal power, to end in bloodshed and the death of citizens.” The death of Tiberius not only marked the first time when violence was used for political purpose but also indicated the loss of the morality and the dominance of nobility of the Roman Republic because a tribune who fought for the commoners were killed unjustly.
The oppositions that the Gracchi brothers encountered during their revolution and their downfalls, the parallels between the two are obvious. Firstly, both attempted to solve the political conundrum resulted from the Senate in which the nobility utterly ignored the welfare of the People. Secondly, both received opposition from other tribunes who were supported by the Senate to undermine the proposals of the Gracchi. As a result, the corruption of the interest group within the Senate appeared as the determining factor to end both of their reforms, and such conditions lasted until the dictatorship of Caesar. That is to say, the era of the Gracchi foreshadowed the downfall of Rome because the nature of the government had not ever been changed since then because the extraordinary actions of the two in the service of the multitude of Rome set the stage for the conflict that would continue to haunt the society and challenge the structure of the Republic.