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 (217–154 BCE), and his patrician wife, Cornelia Africana (195–115 BCE), who saw that the boys were educated by the best available 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.

Gaius Gracchus and Grain Stores

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.

In the mid 120s, the three main sources of Rome's grain outside Italy (Sicily, Sardinia, and North Africa) were disrupted by locusts and drought, impacting Romans, civilians, and soldiers. Gaius enacted a law that provided for the construction of state granaries, and a regular sale of grain to the citizens, as well as feeding the hungry and homeless with state-owned grain. Gaius also founded colonies in Italy and Carthage and instituted more humane laws surrounding military conscription.

The Death and Suicide of the Gracchi

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 ended with the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. That assassination was followed by the rise of the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar.

Based on the existing record, its difficult to know the motivations of the Gracchi: they were members of the nobility and nothing they did dismantled the social structure in Rome. There is no doubt that the upshot of the Gracchi brothers' socialist reforms included increased violence in the Roman Senate and ongoing and increasing oppression of the poor. Were they demagogues willing to incite the masses in a bid to increase their own power, as U.S. President John Adams thought, or heroes of the middle classes, as portrayed in American textbooks in the 19th century?

Whichever they were, as American historian Edward McInnis points out, 19th century textbook narratives of the Gracchi supported American populist movements of the day, giving people a way to talk and think about economic exploitation and possible solutions.

Sources and Further Reading