- The people’s tribune Tiberius Gracchus launches a comprehensive land reform program;
- Gracchus’ proposal for a Lex Sempronia agraria is vetoed by his colleague, the tribune Marcus Octavius;
- After a second version of his land reform bill is again vetoed by Octavius, Gracchus issues a blanket veto on all public activity;
- In an unprecedented move, Gracchus has the concilium plebis remove Octavius from office;
- With Octavius out of the way, the assembly finally adopts the Lex Sempronia agraria;
- Tiberius Gracchus, his brother Gaius and his father-in-law Claudius Pulcher become members of a committee of three to oversee the eviction of landholders and the redistribution of the land among the poor;
- King Attalos III of Pergamum dies and bequeaths his kingdom to the Roman Republic;
- Tiberius Gracchus seeks election for a second term as people’s tribune, which his opponents claim is illegal under the constitution;
- In an unprecedented bout of electoral violence on the Capitol, Tiberius Gracchus is clubbed to death by a mob lead by the pontifex maximus Scipio Nasica;
- Gracchus’ supporters are persecuted, but Scipio Nasica is sent away to Asia on an unspecified mission;
- Aristonikos claims to be a son of King Eumenes II and therefore claims the throne of Pergamum.
The year discussed here was a genuinely turbulent one. The consul Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi fought against the rebellious slaves on Sicily but failed to end the war there. In Spain, Scipio Aemilianus pressed the siege of Numantia and ultimately forced the town’s inhabitants, desperate and starving, to surrender. These events have already been discussed elsewhere. This post focuses on events in the city of Rome itself, which saw the worst outbreak of political violence in its history so far.
A reformer: Tiberius Gracchus
Tiberius Gracchus was the son of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a former consul (in 177 BCE and again in 163 BCE) and censor (in 169 BCE) who had won fame for his victories in Spain and on Sardinia. His mother Cornelia was a daughter of the great Scipio Africanus. She had born her husband twelve children, but only three of them reached adulthood: Tiberius, his younger brother Gaius and his older sister Sempronia, who married the Scipio Aemilianus already mentioned above. It was probably through this family connection that Tiberius followed Scipio to Africa during the Third Punic War. Plutarchus writes that the young nobleman “shared his commander’s tent”, which suggests that he was a contubernalis or ‘tent mate’. Since Roman boys became eligible for military service when they turned 17, Tiberius Gracchus must have been born in 164 BCE at the latest, but perhaps a few years earlier. Plutarchus also claims that the young Tiberius fought bravely and was the first man over the wall during the final assault on Carthage. This means he would have been awarded a mural crown or corona muralis.
Tiberius served as a quaestor in 137 BCE and accompanied the consul Gaius Hostilius Mancinus on his ill-fated expedition against the town of Numantia in Spain. His role in saving the Roman army from destruction ensured him of immense popularity back in Rome, even though the treaty that had been made thanks to his efforts was rejected by the Senate. In 134 BCE, Tiberius did not follow his brother-in-law Scipio to Numantia, choosing to stay in Rome instead and run for the office of people’s tribune (tribunus plebis). The office had originally been created to protect the common people against abuses by patrician magistrates. In Tiberius’ days, however, it was in many cases just a normal step in the career of young plebeian noblemen and a stepping stone to other, more prestigious offices of the cursus honorum. The fact that there were ten people’s tribunes – compared to, for instance, just two consuls – ensured that getting elected was relatively easy, but also that the power of an individual tribune was somewhat limited. The office was still important because tribunes were sacrosanct (sacrosanctus) and could veto the decisions of other magistrates (including fellow tribunes). They could also table bills in the concilium plebis, the assembly of the Roman plebs. And that was exactly what Tiberius Gracchus was going to do.
Thanks to his large popularity, Tiberius was duly elected as people’s tribune, and on the traditional date of 10 December of the year 134 BCE, he entered upon his new office. As tribune, he launched a comprehensive land reform program. As a result of the Roman conquests in the past, much of the land in Italy was owned by the state, at least on paper. It was so-called ager publicus, ‘public land’. Anyone was allowed to occupy and cultivate it in exchange for paying a small sum. Already in the Early Republic, the Romans had passed legislation limiting the amount of public land a citizen could occupy to 500 iugera (a little more than 300 acres). This legislation was ineffective in practice. It was either circumvented or ignored by members of the Roman nobility, and it probably did not even apply to Italians who did not possess Roman citizenship. Wealthy Roman and Italian aristocrats had occupied huge swathes of public land and had combined these to form large industrially worked and highly productive estates called latifundia. The fields of these huge estates were generally worked by slaves. Rome’s success in foreign wars ensured that slaves were cheap and available in great quantities.
The actual distribution of public land in Italy was most unfair and in many cases simply illegal. Scipio Aemilianus’ great friend Gaius Laelius had tried to remedy this situation with new legislation when he was consul in 140 BCE. He had, however, withdrawn his bill in the face of stiff opposition from the landholders and their supporters. Tiberius Gracchus would be more assiduous. The reasons behind his land reform bill were probably mixed. We cannot rule out that he was a sincere social reformer who sought justice for the poorer sections of Roman society. His biographer Plutarchus cites a pamphlet by Tiberius’ brother Gaius, who wrote that Tiberius was travelling through Etruria on his way to Spain when he saw the poverty of the local inhabitants and the large latifundia worked by foreign slaves. Plutarchus also claims that poor Roman citizens themselves pleaded with the newly elected tribune to recover the public land for those who needed it the most. And finally, when the bill was discussed in the popular assembly, Tiberius is supposed to have remarked that even wild animals had a cave to dwell in, but that the men who had won the Roman Empire merely had air and sunlight, and nothing else.
So Tiberius’ Gracchus’ motives may indeed have been noble. But his actions, which were very popular with the poor, also ensured him of the public support he needed to further his political career. It was clear that Tiberius, like most young Roman noblemen from illustrious families, was ambitious. A large batch of clients would be useful for reaching some of the higher magistracies and following in his father’s footsteps. It should be noted that Tiberius was not a lone wolf. He may have been somewhat of a political maverick, but he had some powerful allies among the Roman nobility as well. The most important was probably his father-in-law Appius Claudius Pulcher, who had been consul in 143 BCE and censor in 136 BCE. Pulcher was currently serving as the princeps senatus, a position that carried great prestige. Another supporter was the incumbent consul Publius Mucius Scaevola, a noted lawyer (the other consul was away on Sicily fighting the slaves). He may have helped Tiberius draft his bill. Scaevola’s adopted brother Publius Licinius Crassus Dives Mucianus was also among Tiberius’ powerful friends. He was a famous lawyer as well and would later become consul and pontifex maximus. Clearly the attempt at reform came from within the Roman nobility.
But there was another motive for Tiberius Gracchus’ land reforms, and it may in fact have been the most important one: there were massive problems with recruiting enough soldiers for the Roman army. These were traditionally drawn from the propertied classes. The wealthiest citizens served in the cavalry, while the middle class farmers served in the infantry of the legions. Citizens with little to no property could only serve as rowers in the fleet (for more information about the Republican Roman army, see here and here). The Roman army was a conscript army, and this system worked well in the Early Republic, when Rome’s wars were brief and fought close at home. During the Mid-Republic, however, Rome had carved out an empire which she needed to defend and police. More and more troops were needed for longer periods of service, and this put a heavy burden on the middle classes. Serving in the army became less popular, especially if a campaign abroad did not come with the promise of rich booty. There had already been problems with the levy in 193 BCE and 169 BCE. These had been resolved, but more recently, in 151 BC and 138 BC, the consuls conducting the levy had even been arrested by people’s tribunes when these could not get exemptions for their friends and clients.
Tiberius Gracchus was well aware of the seriousness of the situation. In the past, the Romans had relied on occasionally lowering the property qualifications for serving in the legions. Citizens who did not meet the requirements had sometimes been issued with weapons and armour mass-produced in state-owned fabricae. The traditional Roman soldier had been required to bring along these items himself, but men who had little property could hardly ever afford a high-quality sword or helmet. Tiberius’ land reforms offered a more permanent solution to the recruitment problems. By evicting the rich landholders and redistributing the land among the poor Romans, the latter became part of the propertied classes again and were thus eligible for service in the legions. In other words, Tiberius’ land reform act enlarged the pool of manpower from which the Romans could draw fresh soldiers. So to sum up, Tiberius Gracchus was presumably motivated by the desire to bring about social justice, to boost his own reputation and career and to redress the problem of a serious shortage of manpower for the Roman legions, the backbone of Roman dominion in Italy and the provinces.
The Lex Sempronia agraria
The first version of Tiberius’ land reform bill seemed just, fair and proportionate. The centuries old limit of 500 iugera per citizen was confirmed, and Tiberius added a provision that stipulated that sons of landholders could only own 250 iugera of public land (using sons was probably a way to circumvent the original law and to keep land in the family). The Roman and Italian landholders were ordered to abandon the land they held illegally, and in return, they were offered compensation. Previously, rich landholders had often bought up land from small farmers whose farms were no longer profitable. To prevent this, Tiberius added a clause to his bill that prohibited citizens who had been granted public land to sell it. Although it is not explicitly mentioned in any source, it seems likely that if citizens abandoned their farms, the land was simply returned to the state and allotted to someone else.
So all in all, the Lex Sempronia agraria was a solid piece of legislative work. Nevertheless, the bill was widely resented and Tiberius Gracchus was vilified by his opponents. These quickly realised that the most effective way to neutralise the actions of a people’s tribune was to simply use another tribune. After all, tribunes could veto each other’s actions and this included the possibility of a veto against bills. Tiberius found himself opposed by one Marcus Octavius. According to Plutarchus, Gracchus and Octavius had previously been good friends, but the latter was a rich landholder himself and therefore a supporter of the conservative nobility. Octavius vetoed Gracchus’ land reform bill, and Appianus even claims he prevented the bill from being read out in the assembly by a clerk. Gracchus then tabled a second version of the bill which was much more severe. Now landholders would be evicted without compensation. Octavius again used his veto and a deadlock seemed inevitable.
The situation got out of hand when Tiberius retaliated by issuing a blanket veto on all public activity. The magistrates were prohibited from performing official business, the markets and law courts were closed and the Temple of Saturnus on the Forum Romanum was sealed so that the quaestors could not take any money from the treasury. Public life in Rome came to a standstill. Tiberius now received death threats and – according to Plutarchus – started wearing a short sword underneath his tunic to defend himself if necessary. The Senate tried to mediate in the conflict, but it was dominated by the conservative landholders and their supporters, so the attempt came to nothing. Then Tiberius did something that was unprecedented: he tabled a proposal in the assembly of the plebs to strip Octavius of his office. Not only was this an extraordinary step, it was also most likely illegal, as it violated the sacrosanctity of a tribune. Nevertheless, the concilium plebis voted on the proposal and Octavius was removed from office. The former tribune was dragged from the rostra and in the ensuing scuffle, one of Octavius’ servants was severely wounded.
As might have been expected, Gracchus was severely criticised by his enemies for his action. The tribune defended his deeds by arguing that the Roman people were sovereign. They could elect magistrates in office and, as a consequence, could remove them again too, especially if these magistrates abused their powers and acted against the people’s interests, for instance by disproportionate use of the power of veto. This may be true, but Gracchus’ action had created a dangerous precedent and contributed to the opinion of later tribunes that the sovereign Roman people could in principle take every decision it wanted. A simple majority of votes was sufficient, as the Romans did not have a written constitution which required an enhanced majority to amend it.
With Octavius out of the way, the assembly now quickly adopted the Lex Sempronia agraria. As was traditional, a committee of three men was set up to oversee the eviction of the landholders and the redistribution of the land among the poor. They were called the triumviri agris iudicandis adsignandis. The committee comprised Tiberius himself, his father-in-law Appius Claudius Pulcher and his brother Gaius. This move made it blatantly clear that Tiberius was using his new law to further his own political interests and those of his relatives. This was certainly not unusual in Roman politics, but it is a clear indication that the Lex Sempronia agraria was not an entirely selfless measure. The new landowners would of course be indebted to the three commissioners and therefore become part of their batch of clients.
Asia and a second tribuneship
An important event this year was the death of King Attalos III of Pergamum. Pergamum had been a firm Roman ally since the Second Punic War (see 211 BCE). Attalos had only been in his early teens when his father King Eumenes II passed away in late 159 or early 158 BCE. The king had therefore been succeeded by his brother Attalos II Philadelphos, who himself died in 138 BCE. Attalos III then ascended throne, but outlived his uncle for just a few years. Since he had no children, or at least no male heir, he had stipulated in his will that his kingdom was to be left to the Roman people after his death.
Pergamum had been a rich kingdom. When news of the king’s death reached Rome, Tiberius Gracchus came up with the idea to have the king’s treasury shipped to Rome and to distribute the money in it among the poor citizens who had just been granted a piece of public land. The tribune prepared a bill for the assembly about this distribution of cash and about the incorporation of the former kingdom into Rome’s ever expanding empire as a formal province. By doing this he was bypassing the Senate, which traditionally dealt with Roman foreign policy. Tiberius therefore quickly made a few more enemies.
It is not entirely clear whether Tiberius’ bill was passed by the assembly. In any case, the Romans do not seem to have been in a hurry to claim their inheritance in Asia Minor. Tiberius’ term of office would expire on 10 December and that meant that he would soon lose his sacrosanctity. This would make it easier to assassinate him, as his sacrosanct status was presumably keeping potential murderers in check. Tiberius therefore decided to run for the office of people’s tribune again. It was a logical step, but again unprecedented, as holding the same office twice in consecutive years was frowned upon in the Roman constitutional system. His opponents certainly claimed that it was illegal, but according to Plutarchus, Tiberius was unimpressed and canvassed actively. He also promised more reform bills. One of these centred on admitting members of the equestrian order to juries, which were now exclusively manned by senators (see 149 BCE for the so-called Lex Calpurnia de repetundis). All of the bills that Tiberius promised were intended to curry favour with certain sections of the Roman population, not just the poor, but the wealthy equites as well.
A tribune murdered
The opposition against Gracchus was now led by Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio, who had been serving as the pontifex maximus since the death of his father who had previously held the position. Scipio Nasica was also a distant relative of Tiberius from a different branch of the gens Cornelia, the clan to which Tiberius’ mother Cornelia belonged. The elections for the tribunes took place in the summer. The assembly had gathered on the Capitol, where the voting would take place in front of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Tribunes that supported Gracchus quarrelled with tribunes that opposed him about the presidency of the assembly. Soon skirmishes broke out between Gracchus’ supporters and his opponents. By this time the tribune was protected by a large bodyguard of armed clients. These men had even confiscated the fasces of the lictors that were present and had smashed them to pieces, using the rods as sticks.
Gracchus’ men managed to chase away the opposition, but then the Senate responded. Appianus writes that the Senate was in session in the nearby Temple of Fides, which was a small temple just south of the much larger Temple of Jupiter. There Scipio Nasica denounced his kinsman and accused him of aspiring to obtain a regnum. Seeking royal power – for that is what a regnum entailed – was anathema to the Roman constitution. If the accusation was correct, it certainly justified swift and determined action by the state. However, in spite of Scipio Nasica’s demands and entreaties, the consul Publius Mucius Scaevola refused to intervene. This should not come as a surprise, as Scaevola was an ally of Tiberius (see above).
Scipio Nasica now took matters into his own hands. As pontifex maximus, his prestige was immense. He ordered his supporters among the senators to follow him and called up their clients and his own, freedmen and slaves. At the head of a mob armed with clubs, sticks and the legs of benches, Nasica advanced on the Temple of Jupiter and clashed with Tiberius’ supporters. The latter were quickly overwhelmed. Tiberius tried to flee, but he tripped and fell. Unable to get up, he was clubbed to death by Nasica’s men, along with some 300 of his supporters. The bodies of the dead were unceremoniously dumped into the river Tiber. The murder of an inviolable tribune marked one of the darkest days in the history of the Roman Republic so far. Stripping a sacrosanct tribune of his office had been bad, but murdering a sacrosanct tribune set a precedent that was far worse.
After the murder, friends and followers of Gracchus were banished or executed. However, this cannot have amounted to a full-scale purge of the tribune’s supporters. There were simply too many of them, and Gracchus had had friends in high places. Most likely only some of the followers that had participated in the fighting were punished. The consul Scaevola was not harmed and Gracchus’ land reform act was not repealed. Tiberius Gracchus’ place on the committee of three was taken by Publius Licinius Crassus Dives Mucianus, not exactly an enemy of Gracchus. There were still plenty of supporters of the slain tribune in the city and in the country, and these now threatened to prosecute Nasica for his leading role in the murder. The Senate decided to send him away to Asia on an unspecified mission, perhaps connected to the acquisition of the former kingdom of Pergamum.
Nasica’s trip to the East was unprecedented. He was still the pontifex maximus, and in this capacity he was under a legal and religious obligation to stay in Italy. It was an obligation that the Romans had always respected, even at the height of the Second Punic War (see 205 BCE). But now they were quickly breaking with all kinds of traditions. Turning the former kingdom of Pergamum into a Roman province would, by the way, prove to be quite difficult, as by now a pretender by the name of Aristonikos had emerged. He claimed to be a son of the late King Eumenes II. Aristonikos proclaimed himself king and would give the Romans a hard time.
The conflict between Gracchus and his supporters on the one side and Nasica and his allies on the other was clearly not a conflict between the people and the nobility. It was in fact a conflict within the Roman élite between reformers and conservatives. The first century CE historian Velleius Paterculus used the terms boni and optimates to describe Nasica and the senators who supported him. That would make Gracchus, whom Velleius considered a renegade, a popularis, a man of the people. Even though the terms would only be introduced a few decades later, the conflict described above can indeed be seen as a clash between the populares and the optimates. These two groups should not be seen as political parties in the modern sense of the word. Political parties did not exist in Ancient Rome. Roman politics were strongly candidate-centred. There were certainly loose alliances between Roman politicians and their families, based on services (officia) and influence (gratia), but these alliances could easily be dissolved again.
In this context, the optimates were the social conservatives. In spite of their internal differences and lack of formal organisation, they shared a common ideology of wanting to preserve the status quo. They were opposed by the populares, a loose group of social reformers who tended or at least pretended to serve the interests of the common people. This they did by proposing land and grain laws, and by introducing legislation about provocatio (the right of the people to appeal magistrates’ decisions) and secret ballots (see the examples of 139 BCE and 137 BCE; there would be another ballot law in 131 BCE). A common characteristic of all populares was the strategy of using the popular assembly and the tribunate to achieve their goals. In doing so, they usually skipped discussion in the Senate, which – with some justification – they considered a bulwark of the conservative aristocracy. In fact, the populares basically turned the popular assembly into an alternative Senate, which could decide on just about any matter, ranging from the appointment of a military commander to the settlement of affairs in a Roman province. It goes without saying that this lead to tensions with the real Senate.
- Appianus, The Civil Wars, Book I.7-17;
- Florus, The Epitome of Roman History, Book 1.35;
- Livius, Periochae, Book 58;
- Plutarchus, The Life of Tiberius Gracchus;
- Velleius Paterculus, Roman History, Book II.2-4.
- Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 173-175;
- Philip Matyszak, Chronicle of the Roman Republic, p. 126-132.
 His full name was of course Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, but I will call him Tiberius Gracchus or just Tiberius to avoid confusion with his famous father.
 Velleius Paterculus II.2-3.
 They have been in use since the 80s BCE, but may be older. See Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 173.