Saturday, January 5, 2013

Roman Progessivism Part 2: Gaius Gracchus

Earlier I did a post about Tiberius Gracchus, the times he lived in, and how many of his actions were detrimental to the republic in the long term.  His younger brother would prove to be an even bigger force in the eventual collapse of the republic.  And while it would be disingenuous, and not entirely fair, to portray Gaius as the sole villain, he does bear much of the blame. Yes the senate was equally corrupt, spurned the roman constitution, and helped devolve the rule of law into rule by thuggery, but the simple fact is that many of Tiberius' rivals are now unknowns, while his name is still remembered.

While Gaius may have helped the demise of the republic along; in the social obligation and customs of Roman society left him little recourse. His older brother would have been the paternis familiar of the family, the head of the household, and his death, arguably the caused by his political opponents, demanded revenge.  Moreover his elder brother was the head of a new political group and his supporters were anxious to cast Gaius in the same cloak as Tiberius.  Knowing this, much of Gaius' actions may have been largely out of his control.

It is also an interesting turn of fate that the very law Tiberius had helped championed and successfully passed would be the cause of new grievances for the people of Rome, and Italy.  The corrupt senate, and those who had the senate in their pocket, were abusing the land reforms to further enrich themselves.  Political activists should take note, that even if you are able to get your wanted law or act through there is a near certainty that it will be abused by the elites; in effect you are only aiding them.

Gaius first made his own mark while he was a questor in Sardinia, it was a matter of course that the Roman nobility would serve throughout the empire, and history, legend, or perhaps propaganda, tells us that he forced the local legion stationed there to return grain that they had absconded with during a particularly harsh winter. True or not, it was virtually assured that he would be elected as a tribune to the people when he first became eligible, which was in 123 BC.

Much had passed since the nine years of his brothers death, most of it for the changes were for the worse. Things were so bad that when Gaius proposed to reaffirm his brothers land law, and in addition establish small holdings in Roman territory abroad, it was passed. The new sempronian laws another round of Roman colonization throughout the Italy.  This was how the Romans maintained control of their lands, and kept their allies in check.  The senate, for all its corruption, was not a body of fools and they new that there was growing resentment among their non-Latin allies. The scattering of Roman colonies, and the colonists who had all served their time in the legions, served as a way to remind their allies that no matter how much they might resent Rome, they couldn't beat Rome. However, this law also proposed something that the Romans had never done before. Establish a colony outside of Italy.

The first colony would be found upon the ruins of Carthage, not only to send a message across the Mediterranean, but also because of its great maritime location and ample farmland; Rome was increasingly becoming more dependent on overseas grain.  Gaius new this, and since he was planning to double down in his brothers populism, and seized upon it. One of his first series of legislation that he enacted was essentially an open bribe to the people, from now on the city of Rome would offer corn to the people at half its market price. Of course the difference was going to come from the coffers of the senate and the city of Rome.

The second law he based was nothing less than a shot across the bow at the Senate itself. He then proposed, and passed, a measure that would allow the equestrian class, think upper middle class today,to hold judgement in court cases over provincial governors accused of wrong doing.  This was a double broadside aimed at the Senate. Firstly because it was a reduction over senatorial power over the provincial governors. Secondly because provincialism governors were always ex-consuls and ex-praetors; praetors were members of the senate elected to take some of the duties and powers of the consul. These proconsuls and propraetors were, be definition of having held the two highest offices in Rome, members of the senatorial class.

Gaius was not finished however, he further sought the favor of the equestrian class. Using his great powers as tribune to the people he awarded them the right to collect the tax dues from the newly created province of Asia. In ancient Rome tax collectors collected a percentage of all taxes collected. And he also pushed through Roman era stimulus by commission more expenditures of public works, which benefited the equestrian business men.

Gaius did all this because he had learned a lesson from his brother. That lesson was, that while the patricians and the senators of Rome wielded vasts amounts of power throughout the empire, within Rome itself it was dwarfed by the power of the mob of the plebeians.  Their sheer numbers alone could overpower almost all of the patrician families and their hired guards. Moreover, Gaius realized that the lesser administrators of the city, and the empire abroad, were the equestrians. For every Quaestor or Aedile with in the city of Rome, and the empire at large, held by a patrician, there were dozens of lesser magistrates that would assist the Quaestor or Aedile, and these were the equestrians of Rome. Gaius sought their power and influence in order to further his political agenda, punish those who were his brothers opponents, and protect his person

It is a mark of his success as a politician when he ran again, unopposed, for the tribune of the people, he won. An action that had cost his brother his life was his with little vocal opposition despite that fact that it running for reelected was expressly prohibited.  This single action more than anything shows how much Tiberius' actions had changed Rome.  Nine years ago breaking the Constitution  and violating many unwritten rules of Rome, caused near rights and serious political infighting. Nine years later when Gaius did the same thing, there was nary a peep.  This was largely due to the massive following, by promising ever expansive entitlements, of the common people that Gaius had built around himself. However, Gaius did misstep  and it was a costly one.

Gaius misstep was the result of a real, and very serious, issuing that was growing in Rome. The issue was the growing resentment of Romes Latin and Italian allies.  I will go into further detail went I discuss the Social War in my next post about Rome, but for many decades, and some instances centuries, the other Italian and Latin cities were in a series of alliances with Rome herself.  The there alliances were far more complex then what I will describe, there was in fact a citizenship tier that separated Latins from Italians, the long and short of is that the cities were free to manage their own lands but Rome was responsible for all treaties and dealings with non-Italians.  Moreover, during a time of conflict, the allies had to muster as many legions as Rome, and these legions would be put under Roman command. To add insult to the arraignment in the eyes of the allies the spoils of war were not divided up equally. Eventually a war would break out, as it did, and perhaps Gaius saw this eventuality. What he did not anticipate was the hostility he would receive.

Gaius proposed a franchise bill that would see Romes allies become full fledged citizens of Rome. This would mean that the allied cities would now have to receive equal spoils from any military conquest, and have equal say in the Senate of Rome.  The senate, not unexpectedly, was hostile to this measure, however, it was the plebeians themselves who were most opposed. The Roman plebeians were not open to the idea of sharing their new found entitlements with the rest of Italy. This is something modern day populists and progressives should take note of as this fractured his support base.

The Senate had not sat idly during all of this. They had also learned from the tribunalship of Tiberius and were now engaging in populism themselves. Finding sympathetic, or bribable, Tribunes the obstructed, delayed or in some cases co-opted Gaius platforms.  For example, when Gaius had granted the most needy small plots of land the senate accused him of buying the people, and then turned around had one of their tribunes propose a measure were the most needy would receive plots of land for free.  And so this game of tit for tat went throughout Gaius' time as a tribune.

Gaius downfall started with the death of his powerful political rival Scipio Africanus the Younger. Scipio Africanus, though not an staunch conservative, was decidedly opposed to the laws and political movements of the Gracchi brothers. This is rather significant considering that his wife was the sister of the two brothers.  Ancient Roman traditions of family dictated that Africanus and the Gracchi brothers should have been political allies, or at the very least, not publicly opposed to each other.  This was not the case though, as Scipio was decidedly unsympathetic when he heard about the murder of Tiberius (it is rumor he quoted a line from Homer's Odyssey "So may all who engage in such lawless conspiracies perish). Scipio was found dead, allegedly with marks on his body, while Gaius was off in Carthage overseeing the establishment of a new colony.  Gaius trip, and Scipios death, proved ill for the young politician.

Rumors were abound, some said that Gaius had paid an assassin to kill his political opponent, while others thought that Sempronia had murdered her husband. The truth will never be known, though I personally doubt that Gaius had ordered the murder. Gaius was a political super star, even with the recent fracturing of his political base, and I doubt Gaius would have seen much upside to the sudden death of his brother in law. Gaius, knowing the ill-rumors being spread about him, rushed back to Rome to ameliorate the damage, and more importantly, ensure his safe keeping.

Gaius term was coming to a close, and he stood on increasingly shaky ground. Lucius Opimius, a staunch foe of Gaius, was elected to the consulship.  A fierce foe of Gaius now occupied the position in Rome that made him a temporary king in all but name. Moreover, another Gaius foe, Minucius Rufus, was also elected to the tribunalship.  There now steed three men, known foes of Gaius, who held political power to not only obstruct Gaius but also reverse his achievements.  But that was not all, like Tiberius before him, a long line of aggrieved individuals were waiting for Gaius to end his term as Tribune. The senate put forward their own candidate for Gaius position, Livius Drusus, who put forwarded proposals more populistic than even Gaius with the sole aim of unseating him.  The senate was successful, because while Gaius was still very popular with the people, his failed measures, and the actions of Drusus, eroded his support enough that he failed to secure a third term as tribune.

At the news of Gaius loss his supporters marched upon Aventine hill, some of them made the mistake of carrying weapons.  This was exactly the type of event the senate needed, they gave the Consul Opimus the senatus consultum ultimum (final degree of the senate), that was only exceeded by the position of dictator in terms of power. Opimus moved quickly and decidedly to to put down the demonstration.  Militia and legionary infantry were brought to bear on the demonstrates, and a bitter, but one sided fight ensued.

The result of the fight was never in doubt though. Gaius did not enjoy the universal support among the plebeians he once had, so while he could command a large contingent of supporters, the numbers were too few to stand up to armed soldiers.  Many of Gaius erstwhile supporters also changed their allegiances, populist support is only good so long as you can provide entitlements, and he soon found himself without an ally. Legend has it that he cursed the people of Rome to be forever enslaved by their masters because of their betrayal and then committed suicide. Opimus had his head cut off and his body, along with hose of his supporters, thrown into the Tiber. (Opimus would see his own fortunes fade as he will be convicted of accepting bribe from the Numidian Jugurtha years later.)

Gaius short time in consulship is notable, like his brother  continued many of the ill-fated policies, and committed some of the same actions, that would further erode the republic. Though I do have to weigh in and say that he was probably less Machiavellian than his brother and more naive.  Gaius correctly identify issues that would plague Rome in the future, the status of the Latin and Italian allies, and attempted to take actions that he hoped would prevent war.  We can debate whether or not his course of action was the proper one but he did correctly identify the issue that would consume Rome forty years later. Moreover some of his reforms were not ill-conceived. Some of his measures were aimed to reduce the burden of military service upon the small land holding Romans, such as making the senate responsible for the arming and equipping of the military. Still some of his laws, such as the reduced grain, were obviously little more than open bribes to the public.

Lastly, Gaius illustrates the dangers of populism.  While Gaius was loved by the plebeian masses when he offered entitlements and new privilege their support did not extend to Gaius when he sought to remove their privilege position in the empire, via the franchise bill, or when he could no longer provide entitlements. Once his ability to grant them cheap grain was gone his support faded and he was quickly deposed. Gaius mistake was to not recognize the fickle nature of the people but future ambition men would learn from Gaius mistake. Gaius, and his older brother, Tiberius, actions opened the door for even more unscrupulous men. Frankly, in my opinion, the republic died with the the Gracchi brothers. All respect for republican convention had been destroyed, and Rome was no longer effectively ruled by a senate. But by strongmen, the mob, and those with armies at their back.

And this is what we see today in America. Politicians have increasingly relied on populism and a fickle mass to garner temporary short term support.  Social Security, medicaid, housing credits, and a whole host of other incentives 'provided' by the government are analogous to the the grain subsidies that were created by the Gracchi brothers.  Though it is often overlooked by historians, the grain subsidies are important as it became increasingly important for Rome to not only acquire the funds needed to purchase them, which required increased taxes and conquest, but also additional lands were grains could be grown cheaply, which resulted in increased conquest and the spreading of Roman colonies outside of the Italian Peninsula.  This issue will be re-raised during the Social War of the early 1st century BC some 40 years later, and the rise of Marius and Sulla.

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Seattle resident whose real name is Kevin Daniels. This blog covers the following topics, libertarian philosophy, realpolitik, western culture, history and the pursuit of truth from the perspective of a libertarian traditionalist.