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The Reforms of the Gracchi Brothers
The Gracchi Brothers were a significant part of history because of what they fought and died for. Both brothers used their upper-class status to help the poor population have a voice; it was through them that allowed the hard working plebian community to be heard. It was the beginning of the end of social hierarchy in Roman civilization. For so long, Roman aristocracy has practically owned the majority of land in the Empire. It really wasn’t until the Gracchan reforms that Rome saw any benefits for the plebian population.
Many consider the assassinations of the Gracchi Brothers to be the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic. It was a time when Rome was unstable, at the brink of falling apart, when her citizens were divided. A complete understanding of the background of the story of the Gracchi Brothers is crucial.
Optimates vs. Populares
Rome’s citizens were divided between the poor and rich. Due to the ever so expanding nature of the empire, many aristocratic families were becoming richer. As Rome’s reaches grew, so did the aristocracy’s wealth. These families became known as the Optimates, and they wouldn’t change anything about the government from its current form (Heaton). In a very Robin Hood-esque nature, the rich were getting richer, and the poor were getting poorer. Luckily for the plebeians, not all aristocrats were in favor of a total elitist driven Senate. The Populares heard the voice of the common man and used the large numbers of their supporters to give the poor a chance to be heard (Heaton). However, it must be noted that not all of the plebeians were poor; in fact some were richer than the aristocracy, but thanks to the birth right, it was almost impossible for a rich plebian to have the same rights and political power as a natural born citizen (“Brothers Gracchi”).
Both Gracchi brothers had similar goals: they wanted to give the common man their rights. Also, they both saw that very little land was in the possession of the plebian population. They sought to counter this by a series of land reforms (Papanek, 158).
The elder brother, Tiberius, knew that the poor were suffering, but did not want anything to interfere with the development of Rome. He, however, was not afraid of challenging the senatorial order, which was a move no tribune wanted make (Haywood, 218). Although he was mocked and tested by many of his aristocratic peers, Tiberius insisted that his intentions were legitimate. Many believed that the reason why Tiberius was making land reforms in favor of the peasants was so he could advance his own career by taking advantage of popular unrest. Tiberius countered by saying that land reforms would essentially aid the Roman military by protecting the peasant farmer class. (Haywood, 218). Tiberius first noticed the real importance of slaves when he traveled in Italy’s countryside and saw that the only way large estates could really function was by slaves (“Brothers Gracchi”). He understood the necessity of the lower class and wanted to help them because they played such a crucial part in the operation of Roman society. He believed that the plebian population deserved more land for what they did for Rome.
In 133 BC, Tiberius proposed a land law that prevented rich aristocrats from buying an excess of land (“Brothers Gracchi”). The peasants were being driven from their farms in the country, which were then bought for large estates which utilized slave labor (Cornell, 57). He proposed that the excess of land that the higher class population owned should be reclaimed and redistributed among the non-land-owning peasants. Tiberius sought the approval of this law by the Tribal Assembly, as the Senate did not support his proposition. The Senate persuaded a fellow tribune, Octavius, to veto the bill. The Assembly sided with Tiberius and deposed Octavius, under the argument by Tiberius that Octavius was thwarting the will of the people (“Brothers Gracchi”).
Although Tiberius’ bill was passed, the source of funding was undetermined. As chance would have it, the King of Pergamum, King Attalus the III, died in the same year as the passing of the bill. The king willed that his fortune be divided among the people (“Brothers Gracchi”). Tiberius proposed that the King’s fortune be used to fund the bill that the Assembly passed. This, however, was supposed to be under senatorial right. At the same time, Tiberius ran for a second term as tribune, which was unheard of at the time. The boldness of Tiberius became too much for the Senate to handle. However, before the election, he and his supporters were assassinated by Optimates (“Brothers Gracchi”).
Gaius was much like his older brother; he too wanted to help the poor. When he was elected consul, and after spending two years in Sardinia, he was elected Tribune of the Plebs after getting elected twice in 122 and 123 BC. As tribune, he had many issues he wanted to cover, such as political reforms and social equality issues. (“Gaius Gracchus”). He followed in his brothers revolutionary footsteps and wanted colonies in which poor farmers could own land. The city of Carthage eventually became one of the colonies which Gaius proposed (“Brothers Gracchi”).
When he was in power for the first time, he had his eyes on revenge for his assassinated brother, Tiberius. He suspected Consul Populius of involvement in the murder of his brother, so he developed a law that restricts magistrates of the law who have been deposed by the will of the people by not allowing them to serve in the future at all. He passed a law that cut down the cost of grain by half, to make it more affordable for the less fortunate (“Brothers Gracchi”). This law also brought back his brother’s old agrarian law which had been revoked when Tiberius was assassinated (“Gaius Gracchus”). He also wanted to make colonies for the poor, so they could finally possess land (Cornell, 57). It has been said that Gaius Gracchus, during his prime involvement in government, succeeded his older brother when it came to public influence and community service.
Not only did he help keep his older brother’s reforms in motion, he also brought about his own legislation changes. He was a true champion of the people; in addition to the government work he was dedicated to, he did not forget the main purpose of what his brother and he were essentially fighting for: equality. Gaius passed several new motions that prevented the aristocratic population from seeping the few funds and resources that the plebian population worked so diligently for. He also redirected the funding of the various luxuries that was reserved solely for the aristocracy for the benefit of the plebian population.
Not only was he an unforgettable member of Roman government, known for his support of plebeians with his political reforms, but he was also a wonderful orator, complemented by the great Cicero. However, as one may imagine, all of these reforms benefiting the plebeians did not fair well with the majority of the aristocracy, especially with the Senate, which felt that it was being challenged with Gaius reforms. While he was away at a colony, the Senate deliberated and determined to depose Gaius. Gaius refused and tried to fight back, which resulted in an all out brawl which resulted in a dead senator. The Senate used this death to their full advantage and declared martial law on Rome. Gaius was assassinated by one of his own slaves instead of the senators’ soldiers (“Brothers Gracchi”).
Although both brothers were eventually assassinated, their efforts were not futile: it weakened the Senate, which eventually rose back to power, once again helping the rich. However, it was point that only two men could cripple the reining Roman aristocracy that really echoed in history’s halls forever.
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“Brothers Gracchi.” MCCSC. 9 Nov. 2007 <http://www.mccsc.edu/~blaw/.htm>.
Cornell, Tim. Atlas of the Roman World. NY, NY: Facts on File. Inc., 1982.
Haywood, John. “The Gracchan Reforms.” The Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations of the Near East and Mediterranean.
Heaton, Chris. “Gaius Gracchus.” UNRV. 1 Jan. 2007. 4 Jan. 2008 <http://www.unrv.com//gracchus.php>.
- - -. “Gracchi Brothers.” UNRV. Ed. Chris Heaton. 1 Jan. 2007. 2 Jan. 2008 <http://www.unrv.com//brothers.php>.
Papanek, John L. Rome: Echoes Of Imperial Glory. Alexandria: Time-Life, 1994.
Gracchi Brothers Statues:
Painting of the Gracchi Family:
Statue of the Gracchi Family:
Land Reforms Parts of Italy: