Who Were the Gracchi Brothers of Ancient Rome?

Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi worked to provide for the poor and destitute.

Cornelia Mother of the Gracchi
Cornelia Mother of the Gracchi. Clipart.com

Who Were the Gracchi?

The Gracchi, Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus, were Roman brothers who tried to reform Rome's social and political structure to help the lower classes, in the 2nd century B.C. The brothers were politicians who represented the plebs, or commoners, in the Roman government. They were also members of the Populares, a group of progressive activists interested in land reforms to benefit the poor. Some historians describe the Gracchi is the "founding fathers" of socialism and populism.

Events surrounding the politics of the Gracchi led to the decline and eventual fall of the Roman Republic. From the Gracchi to the end of the Roman Republic, personalities dominated Roman politics; major battles were not with foreign powers, but civil. The period of the decline of the Roman Republic begins with the Gracchi meeting their bloody ends and ends with the assassination of Caesar. This was followed by the rise of the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar.

Tiberius Gracchus Works for Land Reform

Tiberius Gracchus was eager to distribute land to the workers. To achieve this goal, he proposed the idea that no one would be allowed to hold more than a certain amount of land; the remainder would be returned to the government and distributed to the poor. Not surprisingly, Rome's wealthy landowners resisted this idea and were antagonistic toward Gracchus.

A unique opportunity arose for redistribution of wealth upon the death of King Attalus III of Permamum. When the king left his fortune to the people of Rome, Tiberius proposed using the money to purchase and distribute land to the poor. To pursue his agenda, Tiberius attempted to seek re-election to the tribune; this would be an illegal act. Tiberius did, in fact, receive enough votes for re-election--but the event led to a violent encounter in the Senate. Tiberius himself was beaten to death with chairs, along with hundreds of his followers.

The Death and Suicide of the Gracchi

After Tiberius Gracchus was killed during rioting in 133, his brother Gaius stepped in. Gaius Gracchus took up the reform issues of his brother when he became tribune in 123 B.C., 10-years after the death of brother Tiberius. He created a coalition of poor free men and equestrians who were willing to go along with his proposals.

Gaius was able to found colonies in Italy and Cathage, and instituted more humane laws surrounding military conscription. He as also able to provide the hungry and homeless with grain provided by the state. Despite some support, Gaius was a controversial figure. After one of Gaius's political opponents was killed, the Senate passed a decree that made it possible to execute anyone as an enemy of the state without trial. Faced with the probability of execution, Gaius committed suicide by falling on a slave's sword. After Gaius's death thousands of his supporters were arrested and executed.

The ongoing legacy of the Gracchi brothers included increased violence in the Roman Senate, and ongoing oppression of the poor. In later centuries, however, their ideas spawned progressive movements in governments around the world.