Saturday, March 7, 2015

Tiberius Gracchus and the Origins of the Roman Revolution

The Roman Republic was expanding quickly during the mid 2nd century B.C. But at the same time their armies were conquering Syria, Spain, Gaul, and Africa, the Romans were bitterly divided against each other over questions of property, justice, and liberty. The generations of civil strife that ended with the ascent of Augustus began with the career of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, Tribune of the Plebs (c. 168 - 133 BC)

He was born into one of the oldest and most powerful clans of the Republic. As a young man he distinguished himself during the siege of Carthage, where he was the first man over the walls when the city fell (c. 147.) When an army he was accompanying was ambushed during the Numantine war, he negotiated a peace which saved it from certain destruction.

The wars of the Republic were becoming unpopular with the small landholding farmers who made up the bulk of the Roman armies. For the aristocracy wars were profitable. They yielded booty, added the luster of military glory to their family names, and added to Roman territory. For the soldiers who fought them, they were ruinous even if they survived. The Roman army had not yet been professionalized - citizens had to provide their own arms and equipment, and long campaigns meant long absences from home and family. Farms were frequently in a state of neglect bordering on ruin when they returned, and many soldiers fell into debt as a result. Meanwhile newly-conquered territories flooded the markets with cheap grain. Plunging prices forced many farmers off their land and into the city, where they were transformed from proud and independent citizens into rootless urban proles.

Tiberius recognized in these developments a burden to the state, and an opportunity for his own career. He stood as Tribune of the Plebs in 133, promised to distribute state land to the farmers to relieve their distress. "You are called the masters of the world," he said to his supporters, "but you don't have a foot of ground to call your own."

The aristocracy was aghast at his Lex Sempronia Agraria. They had turned much of the public land into cattle ranches, and felt that they were its legal possessors, although the law made the land the property of the entire people. When Tiberius began to push his bill in the assembly, the Senators had their own tribune, Marcus Octavius, physically obstruct the voting. According to Roman Law no man could remove him - to lay hands on a Tribune of the Plebs was punishable by death. In retaliation Tiberius employed the same tactic on all other bills, effectively bringing all official state business to a grinding halt.

Tribunes served for a single year, after which they had to wait a year before they could stand again. As the stalemate dragged on, Tiberius realized that he would soon be out of office. Once out he would lose his immunity, his bill would go nowhere, and his enemies in the Senate would employ every device to ruin him. Very likely he would never get another chance in office. Recognizing that he had to act quickly, he resolved to break the impasse. With broad popular support he initiated a vote in the Assembly to depose Marcus as tribune, on the theory that he had betrayed his office by defying the popular will. Marcus obstructed the vote. Tiberius had him physically removed, and the vote confirmed his deposition.

This violation of the law ratcheted up tensions on both sides. Tiberius resolved to stand for a second term in order to safeguard his land reform bill. The Senate was outraged by this second violation of precedent and the constitution. They denounced him as an ambitious tyrant and openly declared their intention to put him to death in order to save the Republic. Henceforth he was surrounded by an armed guard wherever he went. Their protection proved inadequate, however - a group of Senators led by Scipio Nasica ambushed him in the streets, and he was killed during the struggle.

From this time on the Republic was beset by the specter of revolution. The Senate denounced every new proposal for reform as a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic, and refused to address the grievances of the popular party. As they became fantastically wealthy on the plunder of their newly-won Empire, the soldiers who won it sunk further into poverty and debt. When Tiberius' brother Gaius followed in his footsteps, they killed him as well. When Catiline attempted to revive the issue three generations later, Cicero denounced him in the Senate, and he was killed shortly afterward. Marius and Caesar, learning from the downfall of their predecessors, kept armies at their backs. Henceforth the most important issues in Roman politics would be settled in the streets and on the battlefield. The prestige of the Senate collapsed as patricians and plebs alike turned to powerful warlords, like Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, and Marius, to advance their interests. When the dust cleared the Republic was dead. The last warlord standing proclaimed himself Augustus, and the age of the Empire began.

More information on Tiberius Gracchus and the Roman Revolution:

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