Text #9523"Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus", in .
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (born c. 169–164 – c. 133 BC) was a Roman Popularis politician of the 2nd century BC, together with Gaius Gracchus, one of the Gracchi brothers. As a plebeian tribune, he caused political turmoil in the Republic with his reforms of agrarian legislation that sought to transfer wealth from the wealthy, patricians and otherwise, to the poor.
These reforms threatened the holdings of rich landowners in Italy. He was murdered, along with many of his supporters, by members of the Roman Senate and supporters of the conservative Optimate faction.
Tiberius was born between 168 and 163 BC (his birthdate cannot be confirmed); he was the son of Tiberius Gracchus the Elder and Cornelia Africana.
His family, the Gracchi branch of the gens Sempronia, was one of the most politically connected in Rome. Tiberius’ maternal grandparents were Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus and Aemilia Paulla, Lucius Aemilius Paulus Macedonicus’ sister, and his own sister Sempronia was the wife of Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, another important general. Tiberius was raised by his mother, with his sister and his brother Gaius Gracchus. Later he married Claudia Pulchra, daughter of Appius Claudius Pulcher.
Tiberius’ military career started in the Third Punic War, as military tribune appointed to the staff of his brother in law, Scipio Aemilianus. During his tenure as military tribune under Aemilianus, Tiberius became known for his bravery and discipline, recorded as the first to scale the enemy walls. In 137 BC he was appointed quaestor to consul Gaius Hostilius Mancinus and served his term in Numantia (Hispania province). The campaign was part of the Numantine War and was unsuccessful; Mancinus’s army suffered major defeats and Mancinus himself had tried disgracefully to withdraw at night and caused his rearguard to be cut to pieces and the Roman camp looted.
Tiberius, as quaestor, saved the army from destruction by signing a peace treaty with the Numantines, an action generally reserved for a Legate. In the negotiations, Tiberius recalled the exploits of his father Tiberius, who had also waged war in Spain but had struck a peace agreement with the Numantines. The Numantines so respected Tiberius that when they learned he had lost his ledgers when they had despoiled the Roman camp, they invited him back to their city, offering him a banquet and allowing Tiberius to take back not only his ledgers but anything else he wanted from the spoils. Tiberius, however, refused to take anything else save some incense used for sacrificial rituals.
Tiberius’ actions stirred up a frenzy in Rome; his opponents argued that Tiberius’ negotiation made Rome appear weak and the losers of the war, while his proponents maintained that the general Mancinus was several times defeated and had tried to ignobly retreat and Tiberius’ actions saved the lives of many citizen-soldiers.
The people voted to have Mancinus sent back to the Numantines in chains, a proposition Mancinus himself accepted, though later the Numantines refused to accept him as a prisoner. Scipio Aemilianus played a significant role in supporting Tiberius and his officers, but failed to prevent further punishment meted out to Mancinus nor did he support the ratification of Tiberius’ treaty. Despite this, Plutarch mentions that this caused little friction between the two men, and even posits that Tiberius would have never fallen victim to assassination had Scipio not been away campaigning against the very same Numantines given the amount of political clout that Scipio wielded in Rome.
Rome’s internal political situation was not peaceful. In the last hundred years, there had been several wars. Since legionaries were required to serve in a complete campaign, no matter how long it was, soldiers often left their farms in the hands of wives and children. Small farms in this situation often went bankrupt and were bought up by the wealthy upper class, forming huge private estates.
Furthermore, some lands ended up being taken by the state in war, both in Italy and elsewhere. After the war was over, much of this conquered land would then be sold to or rented to various members of the populace. Much of this land was given to only a few farmers who then had large amounts of land that were more profitable than the smaller farms. The farmers with large farms had their land worked by slaves and did not do the work themselves, unlike landowners with smaller farms.
According to Plutarch, “when Tiberius on his way to Numantia passed through Etruria and found the country almost depopulated and its husbandmen and shepherds imported barbarian slaves, he first conceived the policy which was to be the source of countless ills to himself and to his brother.”
When the soldiers returned from the legions, they had nowhere to go, so they went to Rome to join the mob of thousands of unemployed who roamed the city. As only men who owned property were allowed to enroll in the army, the number of men eligible for army duty was therefore shrinking; and hence the military power of Rome. Plutarch noted, “Then the 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 dearth 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.”
In 133 BC Tiberius was elected tribune of the people. Soon he started to legislate on the matter of the homeless legionaries. Speaking before a crowd at the Rostra, Tiberius said, “The wild beasts that roam over Italy have their dens, each has a place of repose and refuge. But the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy nothing but the air and light; without house or home they wander about with their wives and children.”
Seeking to improve the lot of the poor, Tiberius Gracchus proposed a law known as Lex Sempronia Agraria. The law would reorganize control of the ager publicus, or public land; meaning land conquered in previous wars that was controlled by the state. Previous agrarian law specified that no citizen would be allowed to possess more than 500 jugera (that is, approximately 125 hectares) of the ager publicus and any land that they occupied above this limit would be confiscated by the state. However this law was largely ignored and rich landowners continued to acquire land through fictitious tenants initially before transferring the land directly to themselves. They then began to work it with slave labour, giving rise to latifundia, alienating and impoverishing free Roman citizens.
The 500 jugera limit was a reiteration of previous land laws, such as the Licinian Laws passed in 367 BC, which had been enacted but never enforced. As it stood in Tiberius Gracchus’s time, a good deal of this land was held in farms far in excess of 500 iugera by large landholders who had settled or rented the property in much earlier time periods, even several generations back. Sometimes it had been leased, rented, or resold to other holders after the initial sale or rental.
Tiberius saw that reform was needed. He met with three prominent leaders: Crassus, the Pontifex Maximus, the consul and jurist Publius Mucius Scaevola, and Appius Claudius, his father-in-law. Together, the men formulated a law which would have fined those who held more of their allotted land and require them to forfeit illegal possessions to the ager publicus, for which they would be compensated. The people simply wanted assurances of future protection, but the senatorial elites opposed the law, claiming Tiberius was seeking a redistribution of wealth, thereby shaking the foundations of the Republic and inciting social revolution. He proposed his law in 134 BC, and to mollify these landowners, they would be allowed to own their land rent free, and would be entitled to 250 jugera per son, above the legal limit. They would also be paid for the land they had to forfeit.
Furthermore, Tiberius Gracchus called for the redistribution of the re-confiscated public land to the poor and homeless in Rome, giving them plots of 30 iugera upon which to support themselves and their families, not to mention that the redistributed wealth would make them eligible for taxation and military service. Thus the law sought to solve the twin problems of increasing the number of men eligible for military service (thereby boosting Rome’s military strength) and also providing for homeless war veterans.
The Senate and its conservative elements were strongly against the Sempronian agrarian reforms, with most of their hostility due to Tiberius’ highly unorthodox method of passing the reforms. Because Tiberius clearly knew the Senate wouldn’t approve his reforms, he sidestepped the Senate altogether by going straight to the Concilium Plebis (the Popular Assembly) which supported his measures. This was neither against the law or even against tradition (Mos Maiorum), but it was certainly insulting to the Senate and it alienated Senators who otherwise might have shown support.
However, any tribune could veto a proposal, preventing it from being laid before the Assembly. In an effort to stop Tiberius, the Senate persuaded Marcus Octavius, another tribune, to use his veto to prevent the submission of the bills to the Assembly. Gracchus then moved that Octavius should be immediately deposed, arguing that Octavius as a tribune acted contrary to the wishes of his constituents. Octavius, Tiberius reasoned, violated a basic tenet of the office of the tribune, which was to ensure the protection of the people from any political or economic oppression by the Senate. Octavius remained resolute. The people began to vote to depose Octavius, but he vetoed their actions as was his legal right as tribune. Tiberius, consigning himself to the worst situation, had him forcefully removed from the meeting place of the Assembly and proceeded with the vote to depose him.
These actions violated Octavius’ right of sacrosanctity and worried Tiberius’ supporters, and so instead of moving to depose him, Tiberius commenced to use his veto on daily ceremonial rites in which Tribunes were asked if they would allow for key public buildings, for example the markets and the temples, to be opened. In this way he effectively shut down the entire city of Rome, including all businesses, trade and production, until the Senate and the Assembly passed the laws. The Assembly, fearing for Tiberius’s safety, formed a guard around Tiberius and frequently escorted him home.
Tiberius justified the expulsion of Octavius by stating that a tribune was “sacred and inviolable, because he was consecrated to the people and was a champion of the people… If, then he should change about, wrong the people, maim its power, and rob it of the privilege of voting, he has by his own acts deprived himself of his honourable office by not fulfilling the conditions on which he received it; for otherwise there would be no interference with a tribune even though he should try to demolish the Capitol or set fire to the naval arsenal. If a tribune does these things, he is a bad tribune; but if he annuls the power of the people, he is no tribune at all… And surely, if it is right for him to be made tribune by a majority of the votes of the tribes, it must be even more right for him to be deprived of his tribuneship by a unanimous vote.”
According to Appian, a slightly different version of events is presented. Tiberius Gracchus only moved to have Marcus Octavius removed from office after a vote was put to the Assembly. In Appian’s version, after 17 of the 35 tribes voted in favor of Tiberius, Tiberius implored Octavius to step aside lest he be deprived of his office. When Octavius refused, the 18th tribe voted in favor of Tiberius, giving him the majority and the resolution, which included both his land law and the abrogation of Octavius’ office. It was only after this, according to Appian, that Octavius slinked away unnoticed and was replaced as tribune by Quintus Memmius. This version effectively mitigates the accusation that Tiberius ever laid hands on an inviolate person such as Octavius, instead showing that Tiberius won his support with full legality.
Having passed his law, Tiberius was lauded as a founding hero not just of a single city or race, but as the founding hero of all the Italians, who had come to endure immense poverty and deprivation, denied of their rightful land because of their military services and having lost work because of the influx of slaves, who were loyal to no man while citizens were loyal to the state. In Appian’s account, Tiberius Gracchus is seen as a popular hero, and there is not any account given regarding Tiberius’ justification for deposing Octavius.
The Senate gave trivial funds to the agrarian commission that had been appointed to execute Tiberius’ laws. This commission was composed entirely of members of Tiberius’ family, including Appius Claudius, his father-in-law, Tiberius and his brother Gaius. This, of course, did little to soothe the bitterness between the Gracchi and the Senate, and the Senate and conservatives took every opportunity to hamper, delay and slander Tiberius. However, late in 133 BC, king Attalus III of Pergamum died and left his entire fortune (including the whole kingdom of Pergamum) to Rome. Tiberius saw his chance and immediately used his tribunician powers to allocate the fortune to fund the new law. This was a direct attack on Senatorial power, since the Senate was traditionally responsible for the management of the treasury and for decisions regarding overseas affairs. The opposition of the Senate to Tiberius Gracchus’ policies increased. Quintus Pompeius addressed the Senate and said that he “was a neighbour of Tiberius, and therefore knew that Eudemus of Pergamum had presented Tiberius with a royal diadem and a purple robe, believing that he was going to be king in Rome.” Pompeius’s fears were reflective of a growing number of senators who were afraid that Tiberius was claiming too much power for himself. They feared that Tiberius was seeking to become King of Rome, a loathed office which had been dismantled with the ousting of the Tarquins and the establishment of the Republic. Such fears tipped the Senate from hatred and paranoia into committing the first outright bloodshed in Republican politics.
Tiberius Gracchus’ overruling of the tribunician veto was considered illegal, and his opponents were determined to prosecute him at the end of his one-year term, since he was regarded as having violated the constitution and having used force against a tribune. In one standoff between Tiberius and Titus Annius, a renowned orator, Annius argued that if a colleague of Tiberius stood to defend him and Tiberius disapproved, he would simply in a passion physically remove the man. Tiberius realized that his actions against Octavius had won him ill repute among the Senate and even among the People.
After the death of a friend of Tiberius, rumors circulated that the man had been poisoned. Seizing the opportunity to win sympathy with the People, Tiberius dressed in mourning clothes and paraded his children in front of the Assembly, pleading for the protection of him and his kin. He sought to repair the perception of his error against Octavius by arguing that the office of the tribune, a sacrosanct position, could be acted upon if the holder violated his oath. To support this he posited that other sacrosanct office holders were seized when they violated their duties, such as Vestal Virgins or the Roman kings, done so the state would benefit from their removal. To protect himself further, Tiberius Gracchus won re-election to the tribunate in 133 BC, promising to shorten the term of military service, abolish the exclusive right of senators to act as jurors and include other social classes, and admit allies to Roman citizenship, all moves popular with the Assembly. Tiberius continued to plead with the People, lamenting that he feared for his safety and that of his family, and moved them so much that many camped outside his house to ensure his protection.
When the People assembled on the Capitol, Tiberius set out, despite many inauspicious omens. While the tribes were being assembled, a skirmish broke out on the outskirts of the crowd as Tiberius’ supporters were attempting to block a group of his opponents from entering into the area to mingle about. A sympathetic senator, Fulvius Flaccus, was able to make his way to Tiberius to warn him that the Senate was seated and plotting to kill him, having armed slaves and their men since they could not convince the consul to do the deed. Tiberius’ men then armed themselves with clubs and staves, prepared to meet any violence in kind. Tiberius, trying to shout above the din, gestured to his head to signal his life was in danger, but his opponents took this as a sign requesting for a crown and ran back to the Senate to report the signal.
When the Senate heard this, outrage spread among them. Tiberius’ cousin, Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, the newly elected Pontifex Maximus, saying that Tiberius wished to make himself king, demanded that the consul take action. When he refused, Nasica girded his toga over his head, shouting “Now that the consul has betrayed the state, let every man who wishes to uphold the laws follow me!” and led the senators up towards Tiberius. In the resulting confrontation, Tiberius was beaten to death with clubs and staves made from benches which lay strewn about. His fellow tribune, Publius Satyreius, dealt the first blow to his head. More than 300 supporters, including Tiberius, were slain by stones and staves, but none by sword, and their bodies thrown into the Tiber. Such an act denied them a proper funeral. This, according to Plutarch, was the first outbreak of civil strife in Rome.
Following the massacre, many of Tiberius’ supporters were sent into exile without a trial, while others were arrested and executed, including being sewn up in a bag with poisonous vipers. The Senate attempted to mollify the People by allowing the agrarian law to go into effect and a vote to replace Tiberius’ place on the commission; the job fell to Publius Crassus, father-in-law of Tiberius’ brother Gaius. When threatened with impeachment, Nasica was reassigned to Asia to remove him from the city. The People made no attempt to conceal their hatred of him, accosting him publicly, cursing him and calling him a tyrant. Nasica wandered, despised and outcast, until he died shortly later near Pergamum. Even Scipio Africanus the Younger, who had formerly enjoyed the love of the People, incurred their wrath when he said he disapproved of Tiberius’ politics, and was thereafter frequently interrupted when giving speeches, causing him to only lash out more at them.
Later, following the murder of his brother, statues of both were placed throughout the city in prominent locations, where they were worshiped as heroes of the People, sometimes even being sacrificed to as if they were gods.
The Senate sought to placate the plebians by consenting to the enforcement of the Gracchan laws. An increase in the register of citizens in the next decade suggests a large number of land allotments. Nonetheless, the agrarian commission found itself faced with many difficulties and obstacles.
Tiberius’ heir was his younger brother Gaius, who shared Tiberius’ fate a decade later, while trying to apply even more revolutionary legislation.
Appian, The Civil Wars
Life of Caius Gracchus by Plutarch
Life of Tiberius Gracchus by Plutarch
Goldsworthy, Adrian (2006). Caesar: Life of a Colossus. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 26. ISBN 0-300-12048-6.
Scullard, H. H. (1982). From the Gracchi to Nero. U.K.: Taylor Francis.