Last updated: May 25, 2019
Topic: LawGovernment
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“When Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus sought to establish the liberty of the common people and expose the crimes of the oligarchs, the guilty nobles took fright and opposed their proceedings by every means at their disposal” – Cicero. The Gracchi Brothers were revolutionary in both their goals and achievements, as they changed the politics, the economic situation and the social problems of the Roman Republic. During the Gracchi’s existence, Rome was facing a number of social, political and economic problems.

They were frustrated with the conservatism and selfishness of the oligarchy and so adopted methods that threatened the balance between the senate, the magistrates and the people, which had existed for a very long time – in this way they can be regarded as revolutionary. After the Second Punic War, the Senate became the supreme power and as a result, many changes occurred throughout Rome. The ruling Oligarchy abused their power, caring more for their own material interests than the welfare of the republic. As a result major problems occurred throughout Rome.

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Serious economic social problems occurred, both rural and urban, causing grave distress among many Roman citizens. There was a military crisis, with lack of eligible recruits for the legions, aggravated by the Spanish and Sicilian wars. There was tension in the oligarchy between leading factions as they struggled for political superiority. And amongst all these problems was the failure of the ruling nobility within the senate to deal with these problems. In 133BCE, Tiberius Gracchus attempted to solve Rome’s problems, specifically the land crisis.

He introduced the Lex Agraria, a bill for land reform, which proposed that a commission of three people should allocate smallholdings of land owned by the state to landless citizens. The bill was met with great controversy; however, it wasn’t the content of the bill that provoked the reaction, rather the means with which it was proposed. As Stockton notes “It ceased to be a struggle about the rights and wrongs of a particular land bill and became a fundamental question about the true nature of Roman politics. Tiberius met great opposition to the bill itself because the ruling Nobiles were those benefiting the most from the current situation. Therefore, Tiberius used his tribunate in an unprecedented manner, and in proposing his bill, bypassed the senate going directly to the concilium plebis. Whilst technically legal, this action threatened the senate’s authority, dignity, and their superiority with regards to legislation and matters concerning the state. Tiberius also went further in his provocation of the senate by deposing Octavius after the senate attempted to use Octavius to veto Tiberius’ land bill.

Again, Tiberius was perfectly within legal constraints, claiming that since the job of a tribune was to represent the people, he had done nothing illegal, and was justified in deposing Octavius. Previously, Tribunes such as Octavius had been used as tools of the senate but after the revolutionary manner in which Tiberius proposed his bill (as well as Gaius’ services), it became possible to use tribunes as instruments of change, undermining the traditional powers of the senate as well as providing potential for ambitious men to promote their own political careers.

As Scullard notes, “the original function of the tribunes had been to protect the people against patrician domination, but this need had long passed and they had become useful agents for the nobility, often using their veto to check the popular assemblies. ” The senate eventually killed Tiberius before he could pass his three other revolutionary reforms. Tiberius was an incredibly powerful tribune, and as Cicero notes “was not a mere plaything of oligarchic government. ” As stated by Cicero, “Tiberius Gracchus shattered the stability of the state”.

It is also important to note that Tiberius Gracchus laid the groundwork for his brother Gaius to achieve considerable success. In the year 123BCE, Gaius Gracchus became tribune, and took over his brother’s quest to solve the problems that plagued Rome at the time. However, Gaius learned from his brother’s mistakes in realising that in order to overcome the senate’s opposition, he would have to gain far more support than his brother Tiberius did, appealing to the classes of the equites, allies and plebs. Gaius was also a superb orator.

Plutarch notes, “he roused the people’s emotions with sentiments and he possessed a powerful voice and spoke with overwhelming conviction. ” Gaius Gracchus covered a broader area than his brother did, dealing with the subject of the Italian and Latin allies. Gaius attempted to further the Agrarian settlements initiated by Tiberius, to relieve the suffering of the urban unemployed and poor, to reduce the power of the ruling nobility and to resolve the increasing discontent of the Latin and Italian allies by offering them Roman citizenship. All the above-mentioned laws in one way or another weakened or undermined the power of the senate.

The harshest law was the Lex Acilia, which highlighted the Senate’s corruption and incompetence. According to Plutarch the law “more than any other reduced the power of the senate” and formed the basis for the struggle over law courts which was to continue in future years. Gaius also introduced the Equestrian class as a third political force, which would further balance the government and weaken the power of the senate, and within ten years of the Gracchi’s death they would ally themselves with either the senate or the people for their own political gain.

The continual undermining of the senate lead to their resorting to desperate measures, the passing of the senatus consultum ultimum, which was the first time violence was officially used as a political weapon. This became the start of violence in Roman politics, being used more frequently by the senate when they had no other means to resort to, and would drastically change the nature of Roman politics for the years to come. After Tiberius’ and Gaius’ deaths, the consequences of their actions were still in effect, most memorably in the example of Marius and Sulla.

The lowering of property qualifications in Gaius’ reforms led to the rise of a professional army creating a connection between the land, army and the commander. Soldiers no longer became dependent on the state for land grants, but on their commander. This led to commanders such as Marius and Sulla commanding powerful armies with political weight. Marius however can be considered a better example as Marius used the precedent set by the Gracchi to initiate his own reforms, particularly once again weakening the hold of senatorial aristocracy on Roman politics. By examining the Gracchi and their accomplishments, it becomes apparent that he Gracchi’s most significant contribution to Rome was recognising the flaws in the Republic. The Gracchi set out to expose these weaknesses, as well as attempting to solve many of Rome’s largest problems as a result of the senate’s inactivity, selfishness and negligence. This resulted in the Senate’s hostile reaction to the Gracchi, which therefore allowed the Gracchi to make revolutionary changes to the face of Roman politics including the notion of a tribune as an instrument of initiative and reform, and more importantly, the introduction of violence in Roman politics.

These changes could be felt long after the death of the Gracchi, which is evident in the powerful political armies of Marius and Sulla. The Gracchi were revolutionary in their goals and achievements as they changed the political, economic and social problems of Rome. They were perceptive, idealistic men who tried to change Rome for the greater good when it was atypical to do so.