The War against Aristonikos: The Years 130-129 BCE


  • The former censor Appius Claudius Pulcher dies (ca. 130 BCE);
  • The consul Marcus Perperna defeats and captures Aristonikos, but dies soon afterwards (130-129 BCE);
  • The populares Marcus Fulvius Flaccus and Gaius Papirius Carbo become members of the land reform committee (ca. 129 BCE);
  • The Lex Sempronia agraria leads to many lawsuits about ownership; the chief problem is the lack of a land registry (129 BCE);
  • The Italian allies are hit the hardest by the land reforms; they turn to Scipio Aemilianus for help (129 BCE);
  • Scipio Aemilianus is found dead in his bedroom; the circumstances of his death are slightly suspicious (129 BCE);
  • The consul Manius Aquillius mops up resistance to Roman rule in the former kingdom of Pergamum (129 BCE);
  • The Roman province of Asia is established (129 BCE);
  • The consul Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus campaigns against the Iapydes (129 BCE).

Of the three original land commissioners – triumviri agris iudicandis adsignandis – appointed in 133 BCE, only Gaius Gracchus was still alive. Tiberius Gracchus had been murdered, his replacement Publius Mucianus killed in the war against Aristonikos in Asia. The former censor Appius Claudius Pulcher, Tiberius Gracchus’ father-in-law, died in about 130 BCE, so he needed to be replaced as well. The two vacant positions on the land committee were assumed by Marcus Fulvius Flaccus and Gaius Papirius Carbo, both popularis politicians. Flaccus, Carbo and Gaius Gracchus set themselves to putting the Lex Sempronia agraria into practice. It soon became clear that the law may have been legally sound, but that did not mean that it was practicable as well.

The land reform fails

Farmland in Tuscany.

The Lex Sempronia agraria had confirmed the old limits to how much public land a citizen could hold. It did not apply to privately owned land, for which there were no legal limits. The biggest problem with the new law was that the Romans had never properly kept track of the status of all the land in Italy. In other words, what they lacked and now sorely missed was a land registry. There had been problems with fixing the boundaries between public land (ager publicus) and private land before. In 173 BCE, one of the consuls had been sent to Capua to decide on the status of the lands in the vicinity of that city. But now the problems were much bigger, as the Gracchan law applied to land all over Italy. It was completely unclear who held what land and on what title, and what the legal status of the land concerned was. Documents proving ownership were often missing or had simply been forged. This led to many lawsuits, which caused a great delay in the redistribution of the public land.

Although it was bitterly resented by conservative Roman landholders, it seems that the land reforms hit the Italian allies the hardest. Much of the land that was now claimed may in fact have been their private land, but they had no way to prove it. Perhaps it was indeed public land which had not previously been claimed by the Romans and had been cultivated by the Italians for decades. The Italian allies certainly had much to lose in this project, being coerced into abandoning thriving agricultural businesses because poor Roman citizens needed to be resettled there. Many lawsuits were started with the triumviri, and the Italians did not trust these men one inch. They therefore turned to Scipio Aemilianus for help. Scipio was no friend of the populares and held a speech in the Senate in which he argued that the Gracchan laws led to serious injustice in practice. The Senate turned out to sympathise with Scipio and the Italians and decided to curb the power of the triumviri. They were no longer allowed to decide on the status of disputed land themselves. That task was entrusted to the consul of 129 BCE, Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus.[1]

Baal Hammon, one of the chief deities in Carthage.

However, Tuditanus soon left Italy to fight the Iapydes (see below), with Appianus claiming that this war was a pretext because the consul had no taste at all for his new job. Having lost its power to judge cases, the land committee became a paper tiger and the whole redistribution program ground to a halt. Many Romans blamed Scipio and accused him of wanting to abolish the Lex Sempronia agraria altogether. One morning, Scipio’s dead body was found in his bedroom. Was it a natural death? That is certainly possible. Scipio was in his mid-fifties and the famous general Titus Flamininus had died at about the same age of natural causes (see 174 BCE). But in Scipio’s case, soon rumours about foul play began to circulate. Some blamed his wife Sempronia, the sister of Tiberius Gracchus. Their marriage had not been a happy one and had not produced any children. Perhaps Tiberius’ mother Cornelia was involved, or his brother Gaius or Scipio’s enemy Marcus Fulvius Flaccus. Had the victor of Carthage been strangled or poisoned, or had he taken his own life in desperation, because the expectations of the Italians far exceeded what he could do for them?

Whatever be the truth as regards Scipio Aemilianus’ death, one of the greatest Roman generals in history was no more. Scipio’s popularity having reached an all-time low, there was not even a formal investigation into his death. And to add insult to injury, he was not given a state funeral either.

Foreign wars

The Mamertine Prison or Tullianum (beneath the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami).

After losing an army and a consul in the war against Aristonikos, the self-proclaimed King Eumenes III of Pergamum, the Romans sent one of the consuls of 130 BCE, Marcus Perperna to Asia Minor with fresh troops. As his name indicates, Perperna was an Etruscan by birth. He quickly defeated the pretender in the first engagement and by the end of the year had managed to capture his opponent. Perperna could not enjoy his victory for long, as he seems to have died early in 129 BCE. His successor was one of the consuls of that year, Manius Aquillius. Perperna had basically already won the war, so Aquilius only needed to mop up a few remaining pockets of resistance. He was nevertheless awarded a triumph for his victories, although according to the Fasti, he only celebrated it three years later. Aristonikos may have been given the dubious honour of being paraded in that triumph before being put to death in the Tullianum. The Romans now had a firm grip on the former kingdom of Pergamum and could start converting it into the Roman province of Asia.

Also in 129 BCE, the consul Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus – already mentioned above – campaigned in Illyria against the Iapydes. There had been conflicts between Rome and this people in the past (see 170 BCE), but the nature of this new conflict is not known. Perhaps it was a response to tribal raiding against Roman allies, but perhaps it was the Roman thirst for further expansion (or perhaps it was a bit of both). Tuditanus got off to a bad start. In the first confrontation with the Iapydes his army was defeated. The defeat was probably more humiliating than serious, and in a second battle the consul won a victory over his opponents. Livius claims that Tuditanus had one of his subordinate commanders to thank for the victory, the former consul Decimus Junius Brutus who had won fame in Spain (see 138-136 BCE). Brutus presumably participated in the campaign as a legate or a military tribune.


Primary sources


[1] Having lost their judicial power, the triumviri agris iudicandis adsignandis simply became triumviri agris dandis adsignandis, and this is a term Tiberius’ brother Gaius Gracchus would later use. See Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 144.

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  1. Pingback:De Oorlog tegen Aristonikos: De Jaren 130-129 BCE – – Corvinus –

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