One of the most important, but surprisingly little known, events in Romes history is the rise of the Grachhi brothers. While class struggle had always existed in Rome and political games had always been played by politicians; their careers marked the beginning of militant populism, violent class warfare, bloody political intrigue, and the dismantling of the Roman constitution.
Many histories paint the Gracchi brothers as revolutionaries, reformers, and good men. This is all too simplistic view of these men and their actions. If you want a pretty balanced historical account of both men then I recommend listening this podcast for Tiberius, and this one for Gaius.
Tiberius Semporius Gracchus was born to similar conditions that so many activists were, privilege. His father was Tiberius the Elder, a prestigious states man who had held the office of tribune, consul, and censor, and also a member of the plebian class. His mother was Cornelia Africana, daughter of the famed Scipio Africanus the general and later statesman who defeated Hannibal, and a cross between Eisenhower's brilliance with the vanity of McArthur.
Now just because history mentions that his father was a plebeian it often causes individuals to stop right there in ascertaining why he became a ancient Roman progressive. The fact is that you can not divide patricians and plebeians into the wealthy and poor classes that so many individuals do. Plebeians could be incredibly wealthy, and powerful, and patricians could become impoverished. What patricians had over the plebeians was blood line. Patrician families were direct descendants of the founders of the Roman republic, and political privilege.
In America today the equivalent patrician class would be members the Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Bush and Kennedy families. Families that do have a lot of wealth, but more importantly have a highly regarded pedigree. Individuals like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs, and Donald Trump would be plebeian, incredibly wealthy and influential yes, but plebeian non the less. The best description of Tiberius mother and father would be likening Tiberius the Elder to Arnold Schwarzenegger and his mother Cornelia to Maria Shriver. It isn't the best comparison, but it is the closest one I can think of off of the top of my head.
Now unlike many children born to wealthy and powerful parents, he wasn't drawn to activism out of a sense of crusaderism. Roman cultures culture largely made this an impossibility, and crusaderism for crusaderism sake is very much a recent phenomena. No, he had much more personal, and Machiavellian reasons. Like many young Romans he served a stint in the military, during the 3rd Punic war, and served with distinction, though the story about him being the first soldier over the walls of Carthage is most likely a political fabrication by his political supporters. During the Numantine war he had the misfortune to being assigned to an army that was horribly defeated. In efforts to spare more bloodshed he brokered peace with the Numantines, using his family name and their respect for his father as leverage; unfortunately for Tiberius he broke Roman law, the first of many laws he would break in the future.
Only a legate, the equivalent to a modern day general, and his brokering of peace with the Numantines was a serious break of protocol. Even more horrifying to the patrician senators though was that the kind of peace he brokered, in their minds, made Rome look weak and losers of the war. Tiberius was called back to Rome, and the treaty he brokered never ratified. This was a major humiliation for Tiberius, and probably the impetus for his populism. Prior to the war he was a staunch supporter of the patrician class privilege, it was only after his recall from Spain that his politics took a populist bent.
At this point in time there was very many things wrong with the Roman empire. Much like today select patricians benefited greatly, acquiring more and more property, while most other plebeians suffered. There was a real need for land reform the economic situation for the common Roman was becoming increasingly dire, fewer manual labor jobs were available for non-land owners due to the influx of slaves after Romes victories over Greece and Carthage. Much of the recently acquired land, which was supposed to be rented to members of the populace, instead went to relatively few set of connected patricians. Adding salt on the wound, many of plebeians who had smaller land holdings, off fighting Romes numerous wars, . Add in the burdens of ever increasing taxation and you had a society that was on the brink of major civil unrest.
The bankruptcy of the Roman soldiers, and the subsequent loss of land, was the biggest potential problem. It was twofold issue. One was that eligibility for military service required that a person be a landholder. The idea in ancient Rome was that only those that had something to lose would fight to their fullest to protect Rome. There was some merit to that line of thinking as the professional soldiers of the later republic and empire had no compunction on turning their arms against their own, something that was much rarer in the early and middle republic. The shrinking size of the landholding class of Romans severely threatened Romes ability to muster the military that it required to defend its territories. The more immediate threat though was that instead of the mere rabble agitating against the patricians, you now had members of proper society baying for blood; and they knew how to fight.
It was under these conditions that Tibreius was elected as tribune to the people (Tribunis Plebis), a position that granted him with much power. The Tribune to the People was a position that was created after the conclusion of the many political battles between the plebeians and the patricians of Rome. Outside the consuls, the two executives of Rome and had executive power throughout the empire where the tribune of the people only had power within Rome itself, the tribune to the people enjoyed great power within Rome. They could summon the senate, propose laws, overrule magistrates, veto, and perhaps most important, he was sacrosanct. Which meant that laying hands on a tribune of the people was sacrilegious and the tribune could have the person executed.
Tiberius used the powers granted to him by his position decisively and aggressively. He proposed a land reform law known as the Lex Sempronia Agria, which aimed to strengthen previously ignored land reform laws that had been passed to ensure that public lands, lands conquered by the Roman state, did not end up in the hands of a few rich patricians. What made the law particularly controversial, is that it sought to confiscate the land of wealthy men who owned more than what was specified with in the various laws that had been passed through the centuries, though Tiberius did offer exceptions to allow for families with a lot of sons to own more than the legal limit as well as promises of payment to landowners that saw their property taken.
If Tiberius had simply tried to ensure that land distribution had gone out impartially, and in accordance with previous laws, then the law would not have been as controversial as it was. However, as controversial as his redistribution proposals were, it was how he pushed the law through that truly angered the Senate, and began the eventual dissolution of the Republic itself.
Laws were typically announced and passed within the senate halls. But Tiberius, knowing that the senate would never agree to his proposed law, decided to circumvent them altogether. He went to the plebeian council and proposed his bill. It was received enthusiastically. Now the ancient Roman republic had a myriad of legislative councils with varying degrees of authority and power, they had the senate, the plebeian council, century assembly, and the tribal assembly, but to keep things simple, the law was now about to be passed it the senate would be unable to overrule it.
What Tiberius did was not against any law, or even against any custom. But it did insult the senate, and potentially alienate what senate support he did have. Think of someone being elected president and then refusing to appoint certain cabinet positions because he felt that those particular departments should exist. There is nothing legally requiring the president to appoint those positions, but tradition has made such appointments a certainty.
Now the senate was not without a back up plan. Tiberius wasn't the only tribune to the people, and the senate was able to persuade Marcus Octavius, according to Plutarch Augustus was one of his direct descendants, to use his tribunal powers to veto the bill. Tiberius was incensed and moved to have Octavius deposed by popular vote. He argued that Octavius had violated his oath to be a representative of the people and therefore was unfit to be a tribune to the people. However, Octavius, using his tribunal power, vetoed the vote itself. There was nothing Tiberius could do legally, he had been out maneuvered by the senate. It is here that Tiberius crosses the point of no return. He had his supporters forcibly remove Octavius from the building and then called the vote to have him deposed.
It is here that the first major fissure that would eventually tore the republic apart appeared. Tiberius had violated the Roman constitution and had committed sacrilege, tribunes were sacrosanct, and he had just violated their sacrosanctity. Tiberius justified his
Now many of Tiberius supporters were fearful of what had just transpired and refused to vote on the deposition of Octavius. They had already broken Roman constitution and any further action would only be more outrageous. Instead, they convinced Tiberius to use his veto power to bring Rome to a halt. Every bill, proposal, or item, no matter how trivial was vetoed by Tiberius. This brought the civic, commercial, and even religious items that required passage by the assembly, to a complete halt. Tiberius was playing a game of chicken, one that he won.
The passage of the law made Tiberius a hero, however, the manner with which it was passed made him a hated man to many other Romans. This was not lost on Tiberius and his supporters as they formed a protective guard to escort him to and from the chambers of the Senate. Perhaps even worse was that there was no real working relationship between Tiberius and the Senate, each one taking every opportunity to antagonize the other. But it wasn't until the passing of Attlas of Pergamum, modern day western Turkey, that events boiled over.
King Attlas of Pergamum had been a long standing ally of Rome during his reign. He had no heirs, and sensing the risk of that his kingdom would be torn apart by civil war, so he willed his kingdom to the people of the republic of Rome. This would be the event that would lead to Tiberius downfall. When the will stipulated that the kingdom go to the people of Rome it wasn't all that entirely clear what he meant. Did he mean the actual people of Rome? Or did he simply mean the republic of Rome? The word republic is from the word res public, which translates to thing of the people, so the literal translation of res publica roma is the thing of the people of Rome. Tiberus and the Senates differing views on what Attlas intended lead to their final show down.
Tiberius saw the gifting of Pergamum to Rome as a literal gift of land to the Roman people. This meant, in his mind that the land should be distributed people of Rome. And using his tribunal power he tried to allocate the newly gifted land to fund his agrarian law. But this proved to be the last straw for the senate as this was a direct attack on powers reserved to the Senate, and moreover, outside the bounds of imperium for the Tribunis Plebis.
Traditionally the Senate had jurisdiction over the Roman treasury, which had caused Tiberius no small headache as this meant that the senate could fund his agrarian commission with as much, or as little, money as the senate wished. Because of Tiberius previous actions, circumvention constitutional law, and because of the many enemies he had made, the senate crippled his bill. Tiberius move to use the lands of Pergamum to fund his commission was a direct move against powers reserved for the Senate; however that is not what incensed them the most.
The Tribunis Plebis had many powers within the city of Rome, however, they only existed within the city of Rome. Tribunes were not consuls, who held executive authority over all the empire, and his decrees had no legal weight, or power, unless backed by senatorial mandates. His action had no legal legitimacy, both Tiberius and the Senate knew this. But Tiberius was counting on popular support to win him the day. But Tiberius had a problem, his term as tribune was coming to an end.
Tiberius had violated the sacrosanctness of a fellow tribune, aggravated the senate, and exceeded the bounds of his power. Despite his previous actions violating sacrosanctness of an elected tribune, which the senate had already publicly declared illegal, he was safe from prosecution as long as he held his office. Moreover, Tiberius realized that it was not just the senate he had angered. He had also alienated some of the plebeians as well by his actions. Senators publicly denounced Tiberius as a man who wished to reinstate himself as a king of Rome, and this left many Romans uneasy. And given the long line of men who would bring charges against him, and he current attitude many Romans had about him, he knew that he was in a precarious position
So Tiberius did the only thing that he could do to ensure his safety and avoid disgrace, he violating another Roman tradition and re-ran for a consecutive term. Tiberius won his second term, promising to shorten military service requirements for citizens, abolish the exclusive right of senators to act as jurors, and increase the ranks of Roman citizenship with the allies of Rome. His latest victory would be his last.
The political situation of Rome had deteriorated drastically. The two political groups of Rome, the populares lead by Tiberius and the optimates lead by the senate leaders, were openly coming to blows in the streets of Rome. In a preview of the later years of the republic and early empire riots were becoming more frequent. One day when Tiberius was traveling the Senate chambers, along with 300 of his supporters who acted as his body guard, were slain by a mob of senators and their supporters in the ensuing riot. A deadly preview of the murder of Caesar almost a century later.
It is tough to say whether Tiberius was simply a Machiavellian figure willing to grab the reigns of power through whatever medium was most available or if he truly believed in his populist causes and thought they would better Rome; it may have been a bit of both. But one thing is certain, the actions that he undertook, despite whatever intentions he had, were highly damaging to the Republic.
Tiberius, like many progressives, correctly identified many social ills that needed to be remedied. However, his proposed cures were worse than the ills he sought to solve. I wonder that if Tiberius had, instead of trying to take the lands of the wealthy patricians, had instead simply tried to ensure that future allotments would be distributed honorably and justly, that when he called for Pergamum to be distributed to the people of Rome that he wouldn't have been stymied by the senators. Not every patrician who possessed massive land holdings had earned through nefarious methods. But ultimately it wasn't the laws he tried to pass that hurt the republic, it was how he tried to pass them.
Tiberius had acted aggressively when pushing his agenda, so aggressive in fact, that he ended up circumventing the very laws that made republic, a republic. It is one of the reasons why I, unlike so many other students of history, have a rather dim view of the man. Like so many progressive he justifies his actions because, while breaking the very foundation laws of Rome, he sought to improve the lives of the people. Also like so many progressives, he arrogantly claimed that his actions were the will of the people he supported. Here is Tiberius, in a history written by Plutarch, justifying his actions of violating sacrosanctness.
"because he (Octavius) 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."Here, if these words are remotely true, we see the true arrogance and naivete of Tiberius, and progressiveness laid bare before us. The arrogance is shown from Tiberius argument that he represented the will of the people while his opponent, Octavius, did not. This is dangerous because even if Tiberius is right, it doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to realize how this concept could be abused. What happens if there is opposition to Tiberius, or any populist politician for that matter, purely on the grounds of principal? Is a man acting in accordance with what he believes is right, and within the bounds of societies laws, and votes against popular will, is he truly an enemy of the people? Just because a law is popular doesn't mean its prudent or just.
The naivete is from the inability of many progressives, or perhaps the utter lack of concern, about how dangerous such precedents are. Twisting the meaning of the constitution, from a sacred and eternal written laws to a base fluid living document opens up many terrible doors. The tactics used by the progressives in their fight for a more egalitarian and equal society can be used against them by men of great greed and little principal. Every time you give more power to government, and its agents, to try and create a just society you also give them the power to do exactly the opposite. I highly doubt progressives ever imagined that their actions would help create a state that would waste its resources busting groceries that sold unpasteurized dairy.
Lastly Tiberius, if he were a true reformer, did great damage to his cause because of the actions he took. Even if he were acting in the interest of the people, by violating Romes sacred laws he lost moral authority. You cannot say you act in the interest of the people, when you very actions lay those same people open to abuse by future despots. This is were progressiveness really loses itself. While preventing environmental degradation, abuse of the poor, and other causes of progressives are not inherently wrong, the actions they undertake are. What good is the victory if it only sets one up for greater defeat down the road?
This is why I have a rather dim view of Tiberius, as whatever his intentions were, they are overshadowed by his actions and the results of them. Tiberius alone wasn't the cause of the fall of the republic, the senate, patricians, and other politicians deserve their share of the blame as well. But if it were not for his actions, then his brother might not have even further eroded republicanism in Rome, and the crossing of the Rubicon may never have happened.
Crusaders, activists, progressives, and reformers take note. The beast that consumes our republic may be the beast that you unleash.