Gaius Gracchus: The Years 122-121 BCE


  • The popular assembly adopts the Lex Sempronia de provinciis consularibus, which stipulates that the Senate selects the consular provinces before the consuls themselves are elected (122 BCE);
  • Gaius Gracchus is opposed by his colleague, the people’s tribune Marcus Livius Drusus (122 BCE);
  • Gaius Gracchus’ proposal to grant citizenship to the Latin and Italian allies is vetoed (122 BCE);
  • The popular assembly adopts a Lex Rubria which orders the founding of a colony in Africa at the site previously occupied by Carthage; Gracchus is one of the triumviri sent to Africa to mark out the boundaries of Colonia Junonia (122 BCE);
  • Gracchus is not re-elected as people’s tribune (122 BCE);
  • The Allobroges aid the Salluvii with raids on the Aedui, prompting a Roman intervention (122 BCE);
  • The new consul Lucius Opimius seeks to annul most of Gracchus’ legislation (121 BCE);
  • During a scuffle on the Capitoline Hill, one of Opimius’ servants is killed by Gracchus’ supporters (121 BCE);
  • The Senate orders the consul to protect the res publica (121 BCE);
  • Gracchus and his supporters entrench themselves on the Aventine Hill (121 BCE);
  • Opimius attacks and routs Gaius Gracchus and his supporters; Gracchus and his ally Marcus Fulvius Flaccus are killed and decapitated; Opimius subsequently persecutes their supporters and executes many of them without trial (121 BCE);
  • The Senate orders Opimius to restore the Temple of Concordia on the Forum Romanum (121 BCE);
  • Quintus Fabius Maximus and Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus defeat the Allobroges and Salluvii in Southern Gaul; both are awarded a triumph (121 BCE);
  • The Roman province of Gallia Transalpina is created (ca. 121 BCE).

Gaius Gracchus’ second term as people’s tribune in 122 BCE seems to have been somewhat less successful than his first. He did manage get the popular assembly to pass more legislation and some of these new laws were of genuine importance. Gracchus for instance submitted a bill for a Lex Sempronia de provinciis consularibus, which stipulated that the Senate had to determine the provinces for the new consuls before they were elected. Thus the Senate basically selected the principal theatres of war before knowing who would be the commanders. The consuls subsequently divided the provinces between themselves either by agreement or by lot. This bill was passed easily, but there were defeats as well.

Gracchus vs. Drusus

Equipment of a warrior from Picenum. The Piceni were Roman allies and served in the Roman armies. The famous general and politician Gnaeus Pompeius was from Picenum.

Conservative elements in the Senate had set up another people’s tribune, whose activities proved to be a serious threat to those of Gracchus. This tribune’s name was Marcus Livius Drusus. Drusus did not just bluntly use his right of veto, as Marcus Octavius had done against Gaius’ brother Tiberius Gracchus. He also offered alternatives to Gracchus’ plans that were either more popular or more moderate. This was a strategy that worked, as was demonstrated by the following case. Gracchus proposed to give full Roman citizenship to the Latin allies. The citizens of the Latin communities and colonies already had a few privileges. They had the right of intermarriage, and if they happened to be in Rome, they were also eligible to vote in the assembly of the tribes (they seem to have been temporarily added to one of the 35 tribus; see 212 BCE for an example). But they were not allowed to run for public office.

Gracchus wanted to change that: the Latins, Rome’s oldest allies, were to become full Roman citizens. His plan extended to the Italian allies as well. It is not entirely clear whether he wanted to give them full citizenship too or just Latin status and a limited right to vote, but it does not matter much: just like a previous bill submitted by his ally Marcus Fulvius Flaccus (the consul of 125 BCE), his plan turned out to be highly unpopular, especially with the optimates in the Senate. Gracchus lost the support of the consul Gaius Fannius, previously an ally, and the bill about citizenship was vetoed by Drusus. Drusus then trumped Gracchus’ proposal to found two new colonies by proposing to found twelve, and to send 3.000 poor Roman citizens to each of them. Drusus had the backing of the majority of the Senate and, even more importantly, he was seen as a most honest man, who – unlike Gracchus – never seemed to serve his own interests, but always those of the people. Drusus’ popularity now quickly surpassed that of Gracchus.

Etruscan Juno (Villa Giulia, Rome).

The popular assembly then adopted a controversial bill which had been tabled by the tribune Gaius Rubrius, one of Gracchus’ colleagues. The Lex Rubria stipulated that a Roman colony was to be founded on the site previously occupied by Carthage, Rome’s former archenemy which had been destroyed in 146 BCE. The land here was fertile, and the whole project of founding a colony on this location proves that the Romans had never ploughed the earth there with salt, a story that is just a silly myth. The usual committee of three men was set up to oversee the founding. Gaius Gracchus and his friend and ally Flaccus were elected as triumviri agris dandis adsignandis. Gracchus now left Rome and sailed for Africa. The new colony was to be called Colonia Junonia (after the goddess Juno) and Gracchus and his colleagues marked out the boundaries of the city, that was to house some 6.000 people.

The end of Gaius Gracchus

The new colony was not a success. Superstitious Romans believed that the location was cursed because Carthage had once stood there, and soon rumours began to circulate that the boundary marks had been destroyed by wolves. This was interpreted as a bad omen by the augurs. Gracchus returned to Rome after spending 70 days in Africa. Like most Roman noblemen, he lived on the Palatine Hill, but now moved to a house closer to the Forum Romanum, where he lived among the poorer Romans. In the summer of 122 BCE he actively canvased for a third term as people’s tribune. In this he failed, as he was not re-elected, although Plutarchus claims that this was because of blatant fraud.

Jupiter, in the guise of an eagle, abducting Ganymedes.

On 1 January of 121 BCE, the new consuls took up their offices. One of them was Lucius Opimius, the man who had destroyed the Latin colony of Fregellae after it had rebelled in 125 BCE. It was clear that Opimius supported the optimates and was not afraid to use force. The new consul also intended to get most or all of Gaius Gracchus’ laws annulled, including the law about the colony at Carthage. Opimius therefore convened the popular assembly at the Capitoline Hill, but Gracchus was not about to see his life’s work destroyed by one man in a single action. He and his friend Marcus Fulvius rallied their supporters, of which there were still hundreds or thousands, and marched to the Capitoline Hill as well. A scuffle broke out, and one of the consul’s servants – a plebeian named Quintus Antyllius – was killed with a dagger or a writing style. There could have been much more bloodshed that day, but according to Plutarchus, a violent rain shower caused the assembly to be dissolved.

The optimates in the Senate and Opimius now had a pretext to intervene. The consul was ordered to protect the State – the formula used on this occasion seems to have already been consul videret ne quid res publica detrimenti caperet. Unlike his predecessor Scaevola, who had refused to use force against Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters, Opimius was more than willing to resort to violence against Gaius Gracchus and his men. The consul did not mobilise any Roman soldiers; he seems to have mostly relied on bands of armed clients of senators and equites, complemented with units of mercenary Cretan archers. The consul had plenty of military experience and immediately had his men occupy the Capitoline Hill, while he himself made his headquarters at the Temple of Castor and Pollux on the Forum. The consul now controlled all the locations where legislative assemblies of the people could convene: the Capitoline, the comitium opposite the Curia or Senate House and the large open space in front of the Temple of the Dioscuri.

The remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux on the Forum Romanum.

Gracchus, Fulvius and their supporters fled to the Aventine Hill and entrenched themselves at the Temple of Diana, which was presumably located at the summit of the hill and commanded a ‘high, dominating position’.[1] Perhaps even more importantly, it was outside the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city, so carrying weapons was not illegal here. Both sides were prepared for a violent clash, but the populares still tried to avoid it. They were prepared to negotiate, so Fulvius sent his youngest son Quintus to the Forum as an envoy. The consul and the Senate, however, were only willing to negotiate with Gracchus and Fulvius in person and told Quintus that they should come down from the Aventine. There seems to have been some discussion among the populares about this demand, but in the end it was decided to send young Quintus again. He was now arrested by Opimius, who did not consider him an envoy anymore.

The consul subsequently advanced on the Aventine with his armed units. Plutarchus claims that the Cretan archers wreaked havoc among the supporters of Gracchus and Fulvius with their arrows. Resistance quickly crumbled. Fulvius tried to flee and hide, but was soon discovered in an abandoned bathhouse or workshop. He was dragged out, killed and decapitated. His eldest son was killed as well. Gracchus managed to escape from the Aventine and reached a wooden bridge across the Tiber. He crossed the bridge with just a single servant, and after reaching a grove, he ordered his servant to kill him. When Opimius’ troops found the deceased former tribune, they cut off his head as well. The consul now began a systematic purge of the followers of Gracchus and Fulvius. Plutarchus claims that 3.000 of them were arrested and executed without trial. Even though these numbers might be inflated, it was certainly true that a lot of blood ran through the streets of Rome again. Even young Quintus Fulvius, who was completely innocent, was killed.

Remains of the Temple of Concordia on the Forum.

In a supreme bout of hypocrisy, the Senate now ordered Opimius to restore the Temple of Concordia on the Forum, a temple dedicated to the goddess of harmony. The temple was traditionally attributed to the legendary Marcus Furius Camillus to celebrate the reconciliation of the patricians and plebeians in 367 BCE (more about that here). The message of the optimates was clearly that by suppressing Gracchus, Fulvius and their followers, they had restored the harmony of the state. But at the same time it was clear that many Romans were not buying this message it all. Opimius did not care: apart from restoring the temple he also had the Basilica Opimia built next to it, the fourth basilica on the Forum Romanum.[2]

Military campaigns

During the years discussed here, the Romans continued their expansion in Southern Gaul. They had found new enemies in the Gallic tribes of the Allobroges and the Arverni. In 122 BCE, the Allobroges were accused of having aided the Salluvii, the tribe the Romans had been fighting continuously since 125 BCE. They had allegedly offered asylum to a king of the Salluvii that Livius calls Toutomotulus and had helped him with raids against the tribe of the Aedui who lived further to the north. This is the first time we hear of this famous Gallic tribe. The excerptor of Livius’ work claims they were already Roman allies, but it is conceivable that it was the incursions by the Salluvii which drove the Aedui into the arms of the Romans. A Roman intervention was now inevitable.

Map of Southern Gaul (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

In 121 BCE, the proconsul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (one of the consuls of 122 BCE) arrived in the region. He was soon joined by the consul Quintus Fabius Maximus (Lucius Opimius’ colleague), while the Allobroges received support from the Arverni and their king Bituitus. It is difficult to reconstruct the events and battles in the Roman campaign. Our sources are hazy about the details, but it seems that at least two pitched battles were fought, one at a place called Vindalium, another near the river Isara (the modern Isère). The Romans seem to have made effective use of their elephants and both confrontations ended in resounding Roman victories, although we may dismiss out of hand Livius’ claim that 120.000 Gauls were killed.

Credit for the victory against the Allobroges went to Fabius, whether he deserved it or not (he outranked his colleague). He was henceforth known as ‘Allobrogicus’. The Fasti Triumphales indicate that he celebrated a triumph the next year for victories over both the Allobroges and the king of the Arverni. Ahenobarbus celebrated a triumph as well, but only for a victory over the Arverni (Suetonius claims he rode through the region on the back of an elephant in a sort of private triumph as well). King Bituitus surrendered to the Romans. According to Florus, he was paraded in the triumph and forced to ride in a silver chariot, the very same chariot he had previously used in battle. The king was subsequently imprisoned in Alba Fucens, while his son was sent to Rome. With the Allobroges and the Arverni under the Roman yoke, the Roman province of Gallia Transalpina – ‘Gaul across the Alps’ – was beginning to take shape. Ahenobarbus would soon (ca. 118 BCE) begin construction of the Via Domitia, the famous road linking the Roman territories in Italy and Spain over land.


Primary sources


[1] According to Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 393. Carandini c.s. assume that the temple was not located in the current Via del Tempio di Diana.

[2] The others were the Basilica Porcia, the Basilica Fulvia Aemilia and the Basilica Sempronia.


  1. Pingback:Political trials in Ancient Rome: the curious case of Gaius Rabirius – – Corvinus –

  2. Pingback:The Jugurthine War and the Great Threat from the North: The Years 113-112 BCE – – Corvinus –

  3. Pingback:Prelude to the Jugurthine War: The Years 118-114 BCE – – Corvinus –

  4. Pingback:The Jugurthine War and the Great Threat from the North: The Year 109 BCE – – Corvinus –

  5. Pingback:The legacy of the Age of Kings (753-509 BCE) – – Corvinus –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.