Gaius Gracchus: The Years 124-123 BCE


  • Gaius Gracchus is elected people’s tribune (124 BCE);
  • The consul and later proconsul Gaius Sextius Calvinus defeats the Salluvii and the Vocontii of Southern Gaul and founds the colony of Aquae Sextiae (124-123 BCE);
  • Gaius Gracchus launches an ambitious legislative program that includes bills about land reforms, grain prices, conditions of military service, the founding of colonies, the construction of roads and judicial reforms (123 BCE);
  • The Lex Acilia repetundarum, probably part of Gracchus’ legislative program, grants equites the exclusive right to serve on juries of the permanent extortion court (123 BCE);
  • Gaius Gracchus is re-elected people’s tribune (123 BCE);
  • The consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus annexes the Balearic Islands and founds the colonies of Palma and Pollentia on Mallorca (123-121 BCE).

In 124 BCE, the censors Gnaeus Servilius Caepio and Lucius Cassius Longinus completed the census. They registered a grand total of 394.736 citizens. Gaius Gracchus returned from Sardinia this year and was at first criticised by the censors for leaving the island before his commander, the proconsul Lucius Aurelius Orestes. However, Gracchus defended himself so well against the accusation that the whole affair actually bolstered his reputation. He next decided to be a candidate in the elections for people’s tribune. His biographer Plutarchus claims that, in spite of the massive support that Gaius had managed to drum up, he was only elected fourth (there were ten tribunes in total). Nevertheless, when Gaius Gracchus took up his new office on the traditional date of 10 December, he had great plans for Rome.

Gracchus’ tribunate

The famous people’s tribune Gaius Gracchus, illustration by Silvestre David Mirys (1742-1810).

In early 123 BCE, Gaius Gracchus submitted his first bills to the popular assembly (the concilium plebis to be precise). Although Gracchus is known to posterity as a reformer, his first two bills were part of a campaign of vengeance. The first bill stipulated that politicians that had been stripped of their office were not allowed to run for other public offices. This bill was clearly directed at Marcus Octavius, the tribune who had opposed Tiberius Gracchus and had subsequently been deposed by the people. Plutarchus claims that Gaius retracted this bill at the request of his mother Cornelia, who apparently held no grudge against Octavius. The second bill made Roman magistrates who banished Roman citizens without a proper trial liable to prosecution. It was clear to everyone that the bill, which was speedily passed[1], was directed at Publius Popilius Laenas and Publius Rupilius, the consuls of 132 BCE who had persecuted Tiberius Gracchus’ supporters. Especially Laenas had been heavily involved in these persecutions (Rupilius had been sent to Sicily to end the First Servile War). Fearing a trial in which he would certainly be convicted, the former consul left Italy to live in exile.[2]

Now it was time for some proper legislation. It is rather unlikely that Gracchus worked in isolation. He closely cooperated with some of the other popularis tribunes, one of whom was Manius Acilius. In fact, Gracchus’ most famous piece of legislation does not even carry his name. The Lex Acilia repetundarum dealt with the permanent extortion court that had been set up in 149 BCE. This court was a milestone in Roman constitutional law, but in practice it did not function very well. The court was presided over by a praetor and the decisions were taken by jurors who were exclusively drafted from the senatorial class. There had been incidents in which former provincial governors had been acquitted even though their guilt was obvious. The former governor of Asia, Manius Aquilius, had for instance been declared not-guilty of extortion in 124 BCE and it was widely rumoured that he had simply bribed the jurors. Gracchus and his supporters strongly felt that senators judging their social peers was not a good idea. The law needed to change.

Remains of the Basilica Julia on the Forum.

Plutarchus claims that equites were added to the album of jurors, so that from now on both senators and equites (who ranked just below the senators) served on juries. However, Appianus and Velleius Paterculus assert that Gracchus’ new law stipulated that from now on only equites could serve as jurors in the extortion court. Since we actually have the text of the Lex Acilia repetundarum and there is a fair amount of certainty that it dates to 123-122 BCE[3] and was part of Gracchus’ legislative program, we can conclude that Plutarchus was wrong and Appianus and Velleius were right. The right to sit on juries judging repetundae cases was exclusively granted to the equites, while magistrates, senators and their clients were barred from these juries altogether. Each year, the praetor presiding over the court – actually the praetor peregrinus – was charged with selecting an album of 450 jurors, from which 50 were selected by the parties involved for judging specific cases. Decisions were taken by simple majority.

Obviously the new law, which was duly passed by the assembly, was not popular with the senators. If they served as provincial governors and were charged with maladministration and extortion, they would now be judged by their social inferiors. More importantly, there would certainly be cases in which the equites abused their new powers.[4] The composition of the juries of the quaestio perpetua de repetundis would remain a contentious issue right up until the end of the Roman Republic.

Equipment of a Republican military tribune.

There can be no doubt that Gracchus worked zealously and submitted bill after bill to the popular assembly. We do not know whether all of these were adopted, but our sources certainly suggest that most of them were. Among the bills the tribune presented was one dealing with land reforms and another with maximising the price for grain so that poor Romans could still afford it. Other bills were military in nature. One stipulated that the state had to provide soldiers with clothing at the public coast, a bill that was no doubt inspired by Gracchus’ own experiences as a quaestor on Sardinia (see 128-125 BCE). Another bill strictly prohibited magistrates from recruiting soldiers under the age of seventeen. This measure suggests that the Roman army was once again desperately short on manpower. In the past, sixteen-year-olds had been drafted into the legions before, but this had usually only happened in extremely precarious situations, such as after the Roman defeat at Cannae in 216 BCE.

Perhaps as part of his land reform program, Gracchus also had the assembly adopt bills about the founding of new colonies and the construction of roads.[5] Things were looking bright when Gracchus was elected tribune for a second term. Whether this was legal is up for debate. A bill tabled by the popularis tribune Gaius Papirius Carbo that stipulated that candidates could be elected people’s tribune as often as they wanted had been defeated in 131 BCE, but this was a time when the Roman people were eager to break with tradition. Both Plutarchus and Appianus claim or at least suggest that Gracchus was not even a candidate, but that the plebs elected him anyway. This sounds a little unlikely, but perhaps Gracchus was so certain of victory that he decided not to formally run for office. As tribune for a second term, he retained his sacrosanctity and his right to introduce new draft legislation. As a bonus, his ally Gaius Fannius was elected as one of next year’s consuls.

Military campaigns

In 124 BCE and 123 BCE, the consul and later proconsul Gaius Sextius Calvinus continued the military campaigns against the Salluvii and the Vocontii of Southern Gaul. These campaigns were successful and Sextius was allowed to celebrate a triumph upon his return to Rome. More importantly, the Roman victories gave Rome a firm foothold in Southern Gaul. An opportunity now presented itself to link the Roman territories in Italy to those in Spain by land, whereas previously the Spanish provinces could only be safely reached by sea. To consolidate their gains, the proconsul founded the colony of Aquae Sextiae (modern Aix-en-Provence) just north of Massilia (modern Marseilles). The next few years would see more Roman expansion in the region.

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

In 123 BCE, Quintus Caecilius Metellus, the son of the man who had defeated the Macedonian pretender Andriskos in 148 BCE, sailed to the Balearic Islands to annex these for Rome. The islands were located between the Spanish provinces in the west and Sardinia and Corsica in the east, so it was only a matter of time before the Romans would decide to add them to their ever-growing empire. The concrete reason for Metellus’ campaign seems to have been the piratical activities of the Baleari or Balari. The Romans had actually fought against the Balari before. In the 170s BCE, the Balari had sailed to Sardinia and had joined forces with the local Ilienses in a rebellion against Roman rule. The Romans had sent Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus – the father of the Gracchi – against them, who needed several years to defeat the insurgents.

The Balearic Islands (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

Metellus sailed to the Balearic Islands with a large fleet and the islanders gathered their own fleet to meet him. The Balari were famous for their slingers and the Roman ships were greeted with a hail of slingstones. This may have caused some confusion, but Metellus ordered his crew to ram the enemy ships and pepper the Balari sailors with javelins. Soon the Balari fleet was scattered and the islanders fled back to the shore. Metellus now landed his army and started a campaign that is badly documented, but that would last the better part of two years. In 121 BCE, he returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph for his victories. The victorious commander was henceforth known as ‘Balearicus’. Before he left, he founded the Roman colonies of Palma and Pollentia (modern Pollença) on Mallorca.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 158-159.


[1] It became known as the Lex Sempronia de capite civium; see Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 92 and p. 295.

[2] He would be recalled three years later.

[3] Plutarchus (ca. 46-120) suggests the law was adopted during Gracchus’ first tribuneship, Appianus (ca. 95-165) that it was passed during his second. I follow the slightly older source here.

[4] For instance in the case of Publius Rutilius Rufus (ca. 158-78 BCE), who as governor of Asia tried to curb the practices of the rapacious publicani (tax collectors) in his province. Since the publicani were also from the class of the equites, they made sure Rufus was condemned for extortion in 92 BCE, even though the charges were obviously false. He lived out the rest of his live in Asia, the same province he was claimed to have looted.

[5] Most likely secondary roads, as no Via Sempronia is known.


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