Wednesday 17 April 2024

Gracchi Brothers

The Brothers Grim

It is time to delve again into Roman history's murky depths. In this post, I'll examine the lives of two highly intriguing Roman brothers from the later Republican period, a time of great political turmoil and unrelenting struggle between the wealthy and the poor. 

Rome of the late republic had gained much wealth through acquisition and conquest. In 146 BC, Carthage (remember Hannibal?), Rome's greatest Mediterranean rival, was destroyed. The Greek city of Corinth was razed to the ground in the same year. The acquisition of such enormous amounts of gelt within a relatively short period was bound to have profound societal consequences. This was especially so as most of the wealth fell into the hands of the already wealthy elite patricians. However, the smug patricians languishing on their lavish estates were soon to experience a political backlash as the poor and landless were not without powerful representation in the Roman Senate. Enter the heroes of the story, stage left.

Tiberius (b. 163 BC) and Gaius Gracchus ( b. 154 BC) were born into privilege during the critical years of the late Roman Republic and would become pivotal figures at this turbulent time in Roman history. Both became champions of the poor and disenfranchised as they attempted to engage the powerful elite. Alas, both brothers lost their lives in their attempt to reorganise the political system. The senatorial patricians were not quite ready yet to devolve their power and, especially, wealth to the common folk. 

The elder of the brothers, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, served with distinction in the military before entering politics. Military service was an essential prerequisite for entry into a career in the tempestuous world of Roman politics. 

A Digression is Required

The Roman army of the late Roman Republic was a middle-class militia of small landowners. A destitute Roman could not be enrolled as a soldier at this time, but this would change by necessity. The system worked well when most wars were conducted close to home, and the soldiery was disbanded after the campaigning season to return to plough the land they owned. However, Rome's wars were entering into a phase of unrelenting aggression in lands far away from Itlay. No longer were Rome's wars local and confined to a single season. War was incessant, unrelenting, and now conducted outside Italian soil. Who would plough the field and tend to the crops and harvest?

Back to Tiberius        

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the elder of the two brothers, rose to prominence in the latter half of the second century BC. As a politician, Tiberius became increasingly aware of the dire conditions faced by Rome's rural poor. The problem stemmed from the rapid proliferation of large farms called latifundia. The Roman citizenry could no longer support small farms, resulting in the land being bought at a low price and amalgamated into large farms worked by slaves. As mentioned, the citizenry could no longer till the field as they fought in a foreign field far from home and for many a season. When they returned to the farm, the fields were barren and untilled. This societal disruption resulted in a growing population of poor and landless folk who naturally gravitated to Rome. The rise of the 'Latifundia' was due to a series of complex factors not described here. Nevertheless, the result was that a tiny minority of very wealthy people came to own large swathes of land both in southern Italy and abroad and consequently became wealthier. As Crassus once stated: ''You can't be considered wealthy unless you can afford to raise an army''.  

In 133 BC, Tiberius was elected as a 'Tribune of the People' for that year. This ancient political position was designed to protect the ordinary folk (plebians) from the rapacious abuse of the noble class, patricians. At this time, tribunes numbered ten and carried sweeping political power for the year they were elected. Not only were tribunes sacrosanct, but they had the power to veto the proposals of the head magistrates of the Roman Senate (consuls). As tribune, Tiberius proposed a land reform bill (Lex Sempronia Agraria). This law proposed the break-up and redistribution of public land owned by wealthy landowners for the use of poor citizens. This bill was received poorly by the senatorial class as if carried, it would no doubt reduce their own wealth and power. The influential members of the Senate were uncompromising in their opposition. In response, Tiberius rallied vociferous support from Rome's urban poor. Both sides began attracting supporters, which inevitably led to a violent confrontation in the streets of Rome. During the fight, Tiberius was slain together with hundreds of his supporters. Thus ended Tiberius' gallant attempt at significant land reform. His body was thrown into the Tiber to sleep with the fishes. 

In hindsight, Tiberius's attempt at land redistribution was way too ambitious for the Rome of the time. The wealthy elite were not going to hand over land without a struggle. They were well aware that the law was likely to pass, and therefore, in time-honoured tradition, they used violence to squash the issue. But this was not to be the end. Despite the risk, Tiberius' younger brother, Gaius, decided to carry on his brother's noble work. Like his brother before him, he was elected as 'Tribune of the People' (123 BC). Gaius was a skilled orator and agitator, and during his tenure, he proposed similar reforms but expanded their scope. Not only did he propose extensive land reform, but he also wanted to supply subsidised grain to the poor and grant Roman citizenship to Rome's allies. He also wanted to introduce a political counterpoise to the senatorial elite; he sought to introduce measures to bolster the power of the extensive equestrian class. The backlash from the patricians was, again, inevitable. In 121 BC, Gaius was seeking reelection as tribune, and during the count, Gaius and his supporters were killed by an angry mob of senators. Although some sources avow that he anticipated his murder and committed suicide by falling on his sword. There were no more Gracchi brothers to carry on the legal legacy, and, therefore, the ambitious reforms were not enacted. As an aside, it is to be noted that both brothers were killed after their period as tribunes. The arrogant patricians were not stupid enough to kill the brothers during their tenure. The law was very strict about the killing of an actively standing tribune.    

The legacies of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus are complex and multifaceted. On one hand, they are celebrated as champions of the common people, whose efforts laid the groundwork for later reforms in Roman society. Their advocacy for land reform and social justice resonated with generations of reformers and revolutionaries throughout history. On the other hand, their methods were controversial, and their actions ultimately led to political instability and violence.

The brother's saga was a culmination of centuries of conflict between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' of Roman society. This time, however, the stakes had never been higher. The surge of wealth due to conquest and the extensive destitution it indirectly caused did not bode well for societal cohesion. As usual, the wealthy senators were happy with things as they were and were not open to change. The Gracchi tried, by legal routes, to alleviate the suffering of the poor. The patricians were well aware that if the laws were passed, they would suffer financially. And so they funded and initiated violence to prevent the bills from being passed. Whilst this strategy was highly effective in the short term, it could never provide the basis for a solid long-term political system. The following 90 years would see profound changes in the political landscape of Rome. Rome would enter into the era of the 'Strong Men'. Men of military and political merit would dominate Rome in successive waves, beginning with Marius and culminating in Caesar's perpetual dictatorship in February 44 BC. One month later, he was dead. Civil war would follow as men fought to rule. This ended in 27 BC as the victor, Octavian, later Augustus, took hold of the rein/reign of political power. Emperors would rule Rome until the end. Although the Romans would never admit it, the hated rule of kingship had been reinstated. 


  1. thanks Flax to remind to these ancient Kennedys, who are very worth. politics of the roman emprire are pretty interesting and closely related to philosophy of those days too. Not pretty much interested in democratic ambitioned folks, the principates replaced ontology (Plato) by the stoa (Seneca) as the leading concept and realized much too late, that this opened gates wide for religious fanatics named the Christians, who didn´t hesitate to conquer the whole fckn bakery from inside. Sounds familiar to what we actually face too...? Well, no coincidence.

    1. The similarity to the Kennedys is interesting. I wonder what would have happened if there was a third Gracchi brother?

    2. Let´s hope they had no sister.

  2. Always wondered where Spartacus's slave army came from.

    I think it was George Santanaya who wrote that (I can't recall the exact figures) when less than 5% of the population hold more than 95% of the wealth that violent revolution is inevitable, something that, apparently, holds (has held) across time, culture and outward political system.

    I wonder how close we are to that figure? (I think his posit was that this was the basic driver of all such).

    Of course, the divide is not a sharp and rigidly defined barrier, there are always those who fall in between - the middle class.

    It is interesting how, in classless America, class - the middle class, the remorseless assault on it by the 5% masquerading as the virtuous and socially just - seems to be all you hear.

    Common feeling across the whole west, if couched in slightly different terms.

    Sounds like George really was onto something.

    But India with its caste system?

    1. Hi Mark, we certainly live in interesting times. Where is the bread and circuses? Day time telly is a poor excuse, unless you eat the bloody tele. Americas' middle class is being systematically destroyed. And what is left in its place.....The backbone of any country being broken- dosen't bode well for any society. I state this as being brought up in the grinding poverty of the 50s and 60s. There was me a thinking we won the fucking war. At least. I manageged to get off my arse and do something with my life. Not so sure the reprise is easy for the youth of today. Sorry for the rant Mark. Your comment struck a chord. My sad excuse is: 'I've been on the ale'. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow'.

    2. The middle class – which should include skilled artisans of course – is the technical/managerial class that actually ensure things run efficiently and smoothly – the NCOs of society as it were, and an army without decent NCOs is hardly an army at all.

      If you haven’t already, have a look at Victor Davis Hanson on youtube. A classicist by initial training, his thoughts on the origins of a middle class, its importance and what its destruction means for a society are interesting. Living in California, this is precisely what he is watching (the destruction of the Californian – wider US and wider western world - middle class is not the sole reason of course, but it pretty well guarantees that recovery – if possible – will be SO much more difficult).

      It can be argued that the presence of a British middle class, was a main driver for the industrial revolution. More numerous than the aristocracy of course, and not relying on land ownership for their respectable, but by the standards of the landed aristocracy, modest incomes.

      They were the market for the manufactured goods the transportation of which, and the travel around of this nascent middle class, was a major driver in the of the development of railways.

      And it could be further argued that the middle/artisan class – not living in grinding day to day poverty, nor so concerned with the dynastic continuation of the landed upper class – were the drivers and maintainers of actual civic society. It is the destruction of civic society which is the real long term consequence – purely economic recovery is relatively straightforward, but once civic society is gone……..(I wonder how much longer that has?)

      And the thing about a proper middle/artisan class with the concomitant civic society, is that those from the working class can enter it through education and opportunity (as I did myself – hell’s teeth, and if there was one thing I would boil the “woke in their own dysenteric diarrhea for is the destruction of the education systems that once made this possible!)

      And what is the end result of this year zero, net zero infantilized game of sim city? Destroy to build back better?

      And what is this “better”?

      We can see the fantasy, “the world not as it is, but how we’d like it” in any advert, or hollyweird propaganda: A genteel middle class lifestyle with everything there except white men!

      I genuinely feel for the youth of today and I really do understand their anger and ire.

      Of course, the degenerates are doing their damnest to direct this ire and anger against “boomers” (which includes thee, me and most of the readers of this blog I suspect).

      Empathise completely. The country I was born in and to which I feel great affection and loyalty is probably gone, or it exists today only with us old farts.

      I don’t think all is lost, far from it, as I do see signs of people waking up across the west. But what was is not really coming back and it will have been lost for no other reason than infantile spite.

      I don’t know how much longer I have, but if my twilight years are lit with fires of these “woke” cancer cells burning at the stake, I will die happy!

    3. I like the NCO analogy- very true. Perhaps we are beyond the 'tipping point'. If history has taught us anything, it is that all Civilisations eventually fail. The barbarians are certainly at the gate and the gate keeper is letting them in.