Who Were the Gracchi Brothers of Ancient Rome?

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

'The Mother of the Gracchi', c1780. Artist: Joseph Benoit Suvee
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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 BCE. 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 as the "founding fathers" of socialism and populism.

The boys were the only surviving sons of a tribune, Tiberius Gracchus the Elder, and his patrician wife, Cornelia Africana, who saw that the boys were educated by the best available of Greek tutors and military training. The elder son, Tiberius, was a distinguished soldier, known for his heroism during the Third Punic Wars (147–146 BCE) when he was the first Roman to scale Carthage's walls and live to tell the tale.

Tiberius Gracchus Works for Land Reform

Tiberius Gracchus (163–133 BCE) was eager to distribute land to the workers. His first political position was as quaestor in Spain, where he saw the tremendous imbalance of wealth in the Roman Republic. A very few, very wealthy landowners had most of the power, while the vast majority of people were landless peasants. He sought to ease this imbalance, proposing that no one would be allowed to hold more than 500 iugera (about 125 acres) of land and that any excess beyond that would be returned to the government and redistributed to the poor. Not surprisingly, Rome's wealthy landowners (many of whom were members of the Senate resisted this idea and became antagonistic toward Gracchus.

A unique opportunity arose for redistribution of wealth upon the death of King Attalus III of Pergamum in 133 BCE. When the king left his fortune to the people of Rome, Tiberius proposed using that 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 the rioting in 133, his brother Gaius (154–121 BCE) stepped in. Gaius Gracchus took up the reform issues of his brother when he became tribune in 123 BCE, ten 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 Carthage 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, like his brother, 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 identified 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 summarily executed.

Legacy

Beginning with the Gracchi brothers' troubles to the end of the Roman Republic, personalities dominated Roman politics; major battles were not with foreign powers, but internal civil ones. Violence became a common political tool. Many historians argue that the period of the decline of the Roman Republic began with the Gracchi meeting their bloody ends, and ends with the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. That assassination was followed by the rise of the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar.

There is no doubt that the initial upshot of the Gracchi brothers' socialist reforms included increased violence in the Roman Senate and ongoing and increasing oppression of the poor. However, In later centuries, their ideas spawned progressive movements in governments around the world.