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The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, were Roman Plebian noblemen who both served as tribunes in 2nd century BC. They attempted to pass land reform legislation that would redistribute the major patrician landholdings among the plebeians. For this legislation and their membership in the Populares party they have been considered the founding fathers of both socialism and populism [1]. After achieving some early success, both were assassinated for their efforts.


[edit] Early life

The brothers were born to a plebeian branch of the old and noble Sempronia family. From their mothers side the boys were also related to the Scipios – their mother being the Patrician Cornelia Africana, daughter of Scipio Africanus. The boys' father died while they were still young, so responsibility for their well being fell to their mother. Cornelia ensured her sons had the best available Greek tutors, teaching them oratory and political science, from which they were taught the progressive view that in a democracy all the power rightly belongs to the people. The brothers were also well trained in martial pursuits; in horsemanship and combat they outshone all their peers. The older brother Tiberius was the most distinguished of the young officers in the third Punic war, Rome's last campaign against Carthage. He was the first to scale Carthage's walls and had previously saved an army of 20,000 men by skilled diplomacy As the boys grew up they developed strong connections with the ruling elite. [2]

[edit] The Gracchi reforms

[edit] Background

Central to the Gracchi reforms was an attempt to address economic distress. Recent trends had seen peasants pushed off their farms by rich landowners. The peasants were often forced into idleness in Rome where they had to subsist on hand outs due to a scarcity of paid work, with their old lands being worked by slaves.

A related issue concerned the demand for troops overseas. There were recruitment difficulties - wars were being fought in the east and in Spain, with mutinies aggravating the shortage of manpower. Traditionally one of the rewards for military service was to be granted an allotment of public land – in return the new farmers and their descendants would be subject to legionary service. The difficulty was that public lands had already been divided out to large landholders or speculators, causing protests. The Gracchi aimed to address these problems by reclaiming lands from the patricians that could then be granted to soldiers; by restoring land to displaced peasants; by providing subsidized grain for the needy and by having the Republic pay for the clothing of its poorest soldiers.[3]

[edit] The efforts of Tiberius Gracchus

Tiberius was elected to the office of tribune in 133 BC. He immediately began pushing for a programme of land reform, partly by invoking an old Licinian law that limited the amount of land that could be owned by a single individual. Using the powers of Lex Hortensia, Tiberius established a commission to oversee the redistribution of land holdings from patricians to peasants. The commission consisted of himself, his father in law and his brother Gaius. Even liberal senators were agitated, fearing their own lands would be confiscated. Senators arranged for other tribunes to oppose Tiberius's reforms, and he responded with an appeal to the people, and an argument that a tribune who opposes the will of the people in favour of the rich is no true tribune at all. The senators were left with only one constitutional response – to threaten prosecution once Tiberius's term as a tribune came to an end. This necessitated Tiberius to stand for a second term [2] . The senators obstructed the re-election and after gathering together an ad hoc [4] force, several personally marched to the forum where they had Tiberius and some 300 of his supporters clubbed to death. This was the first time blood had been openly shed in Roman politics for nearly four centuries [5] .

Tiberius's land reform commission continued distributing lands, albeit at a much slower pace than Tiberius had envisaged, as Senators were able to eliminate more of its supporters by legal means.

[edit] The efforts of Gaius Gracchus

Gaius addressing the Plebeians

Ten years later in 123 BC Gaius took the same office as his brother, as a tribune for the plebeians. Gaius was more practically minded than Tiberius, and therefore considered more dangerous by the patricians. As well as gaining support from the agrarian poor by reviving the land reform programme and from the urban plebeians with various popular measures, Gaius sought support from the second estate, those equestrians who had not ascended to become senators. Many equestrians were publicans, in charge of tax-collecting in Asia and of contracting for construction projects. The equestrian class would get to control a court that tried senators for misconduct in provincial administration. In effect, the equestrians replaced senators already serving at the court. Thus, Gaius became an opponent of senatorial influence. Other reforms implemented by Gaius included fixing prices on grain for the urban population and granting improvements in citizenship for Latins and others outside the city of Rome.

With this broad coalition of supporters, Gaius was able to secure and hold office for two years, with much of the prepared legislation passed. This included winning an unconstitutional re-election to the one year office of Tribune.[3] However Gaius's plans to extend rights to non Roman Italians were eventually vetoed by another Tribune. A substantial proportion of the plebeians, jealous of their privileged Roman citizenship, turned against Gaius.[2] With Gaius's support from the people weakened, the consul Lucius Opimius was able to crush the Gracchan movement by force – Gaius lost his life [6] and about 3000 of his supporters died in the fighting or in emergency execution shortly afterwards.

[edit] Reasons for failure

According to the classicist J. C. Stobart, Tiberius's Greek education had caused him to overestimate the reliability of the people as a powerbase, causing him to overplay his hand. In Rome, even when led by a bold Tribune the people lacked anywhere near the influence they enjoyed at the height of the Athenian polis.[2]

Another problem for Gaius's aims was that the Roman constitution, specifically the Tribal Assembly, was designed to prevent any one individual governing for a sustained period of time – and there were several other checks and balances to prevent power being concentrated on any one person. Another reason for the efforts' failures was the Gracchis' idealism; they were deaf to the baser notes of human nature and failed to recognize how corrupt and selfish all sections of Roman society had become. According to Oswald Spengler, the characteristic mistake of the Gracchan age was to believe in the possibility of the reversibility of history [7] – a form of idealism which according to Spengler was at that time shared by both sides of political spectrum – Cato had sought to turn back the clock to the time of Cincinnatus, and restore virtue by returning to austerity.[2]

[edit] Aftermath

The new forces of urban factions, rural voters, and equestrian class members meant that the problem of effective governance awaited resolution.

[edit] Notes and references

  1. ^ Though others assign this honour to Spartacus or the latter Populares such as Julius Caesar
  2. ^ a b c d e Stobart, J.C. (1964). "chp. III". in W.S Maguinness and H. H. Scullard. The Grandeur That was Rome (4th edition). Book club Associates, 1978. pp. 75–82. 
  3. ^ a b Tom Holland (2004). Rubicon. Abacus. pp. 28–30. ISBN 0349 11563. 
  4. ^ Latin: literally "to this" - the force being assembled for the specific purpose of deposing Tiberius as a tribune.
  5. ^ Nigel Rodgers, Hazel Dodge (2005). Rome: The Greatest Empire. Southwater. p. 24. ISBN 1844761509. 
  6. ^ According to rumour he committed suicide (awaiting source)- though according to historian Tom Holland in Rubicon he was slain by agents of the Patricians.
  7. ^ Spengler, Oswald (1922). The Decline of the west(An abridged edition). Vintage Books, 2006. p. 384. ISBN 1400097002. 

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