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Jewish History From The Babylonian Captivity To The Birth Of Christ

The Antediluvian World

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Grecian Civilization Before The Persian Wars

Rome In Its Infancy Under Kings

The Conquest Of Canaan To The Establishment Of The Kingdom Of David


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Jewish History From The Babylonian Captivity To The Birth Of Christ

The Antediluvian World

The Hebrew Race From Abraham To The Sale Of Joseph

The Civil Wars Between Caesar And Pompey

Grecian Civilization Before The Persian Wars

Rome In Its Infancy Under Kings

The Conquest Of Canaan To The Establishment Of The Kingdom Of David





The Reform Movement Of The Gracchi








A new era in the history of Rome now commences, a period of glory and
shame, when a great change took place in the internal structure of the
State, now corrupted by the introduction of Greek and Asiatic refinements,
and the vast wealth which rolled into the capital of the world.

"For a whole generation after the battle of Pydna, the Roman State
enjoyed a profound calm, scarcely varied by a ripple here and there upon
the surface. Its dominion extended over three continents; all eyes rested
on Italy; all talents and all riches flowed thither; it seemed as if a
golden age of peaceful prosperity and intellectual enjoyment of life had
begun. The Orientals of this period told each other with astonishment of
the mighty republic of the West. And such was the glory of the Romans,
that no one usurped the crown, and no one glittered in purple dress; but
they obeyed whomsoever from year to year they made their master, and there
was among them neither envy nor discord."

So things seemed at a distance. But this splendid external was
deceptive. The government of the aristocracy was hastening to its ruin.
There was a profound meaning, says Mommsen, in the question of Cato: "What
was to become of Rome when she should no longer have any State to fear?"
All her neighbors were now politically annihilated, and the single thought
of the aristocracy was how they should perpetuate their privileges. A
government of aristocratic nobodies was now inaugurated, which kept new
men of merit from doing any thing, for fear they should belong to their
exclusive ranks. Even an aristocratic conqueror was inconvenient.

Still opposition existed to this aristocratic regime, and some
reforms had been carried out. The administration of justice was improved.
The senatorial commissions to the provinces were found inadequate. An
effort was made to emancipate the Comitia from the prepondering influence
of the aristocracy. The senators were compelled to renounce their public
horse on admission to the Senate, and also the privilege of voting in the
eighteen equestrian centimes. But there was the semblance of increased
democratic power rather than the reality. All the great questions of the
day turned upon the election of the curule magistracies, and there was
sufficient influence among the nobles to secure these offices. Young men
from noble families crowded into the political arena, and claimed what
once was the reward of distinguished merit. Powerful connections were
indispensable for the enjoyment of political power, as in England at the
time of Burke. A large body of clients waited on their patron early every
morning, and the candidates for office used all those arts which are
customary when votes were to be bought. The government no longer disposed
of the property of burgesses for the public good, nor favored the idea
among them that they were exempted from taxes. Political corruption
reached through all grades and classes. Capitalists absorbed the small
farms, and great fortunes were the scandal of the times. Capital was more
valued than labor. Italian farms depreciated from the conversion of
tillage into pasture lands and parks, as in England in the present day.
Slavery inordinately increased from the captives taken in war. Western
Asia furnished the greatest number of this miserable population, and
Cretan and Cilician slave-hunters were found on all the coasts of Syria
and Greece. Delos was the great slave-market of the world, where the
slave-dealers of Asia Minor disposed of their wares to Italian
speculators. In one day as many as ten thousand slaves were disembarked
and sold. Farms, and trades, and mines were alike carried on by these
slaves from Asia, and their sufferings and hardships were vastly greater
than ever endured by negroes on the South Carolinian and Cuban
plantations. But they were of a different race--men who had seen better
days, and accustomed to civilization--and hence they often rose upon their
masters. Servile wars were of common occurrence, Sicily at one time had
seventy thousand slaves in arms, and when consular armies were sent to
suppress the revolt, the most outrageous cruelties were inflicted. Twenty
thousand men, at one time, were crucified in Sicily by Publius Rupilius.

At this crisis, when disproportionate wealth and slavery were the
great social evils, Tiberius Gracchus arose--a young man of high rank,
chivalrous, noble, and eloquent. His mother, Cornelia, was the daughter of
Scipio Africanus, and therefore belonged to the most exclusive of the
aristocratic circles. Tiberius Gracchus was therefore the cousin of Scipio
AEmilianus, under whom he served with distinction in Africa. He was
seconded in his views of reform by some stern old patriots and
aristocrats, who had not utterly forgotten the interests of the State, now
being undermined. Appius Claudius, his father-in-law, who had been both
consul and censor; Publius Mucius Scaevola, the great lawyer and founder of
scientific jurisprudence; his brother, Publius Crassus Mucianus; the
Pontifex Maximus; Quintus Metellus, the conqueror of Macedonia--all men of
the highest rank and universally respected, entered into his schemes of
reform.

This patriotic patrician was elected tribune B.C. 134, at a time
when political mismanagement, moral decay, the decline of burgesses, and
the increase of slaves, were most apparent. So Gracchus, after entering
upon his office, proposed the enaction of an agrarian law, by which all
State lands, occupied by the possessors, without remuneration, should
revert to the State, except five hundred jugera for himself, and two
hundred and fifty for each son. The domain land thus resumed was to be
divided into lots of thirty jugera, and these distributed to burgesses and
Italian allies, not as free property, but inalienable leaseholds, for
which they paid rent to the State. This was a declaration of war upon the
great landholders. The proposal of Gracchus was paralyzed by the vote of
his colleague, Marcus Octavius. Gracchus then, in his turn, suspended the
business of the State and the administration of justice, and placed his
seal on the public chest. The government was obliged to acquiesce.
Gracchus, also, as the year was drawing to a close, brought his law to the
vote a second time. Again it was vetoed by Octavius. Gracchus then, at the
invitation of the consuls, discussed the matter in the Senate; but the
Senate, composed of great proprietors, would not yield. All constitutional
means were now exhausted, and Gracchus must renounce his reform or begin a
revolution.

He chose the latter. Before the assembled people he demanded that
his colleague should be deposed, which was against all the customs, and
laws, and precedents of the past. The assembly, composed chiefly of the
proletarians who had come from the country--the Comitia Tributa--voted
according to his proposal, and Octavius was removed by the lictors from
the tribune bench, and then the agrarian law was passed by acclamation.
The Commissioners chosen to confiscate and redistribute the lands were
Tiberius Gracchus, his brother Gaius, and his father-in-law Appius
Claudius, which family selection vastly increased the indignation of the
Senate, who threw every obstacle in the way.

The author of the law, fearing for his personal safety, no longer
appeared in the forum without a retinue of three or four thousand men,
another cause of bitter hatred on the part of the aristocracy. He also
sought to be re-elected tribune, but the Assembly broke up without a
choice. The next day the election terminated in the same manner, and it
was rumored in the city that Tiberius had deposed all the tribunes, and
was resolved to continue in office without re-election. A tumult,
originating with the Senate, was the result. A mob of senators rushed
through the streets, with fury in their eyes and clubs in their hands. The
people gave way, and Gracchus was slain on the slope of the capitol. The
Senate officially sanctioned the outrage, on the ground that Tiberius
meditated the usurpation of supreme power.

In regard to the author of this agrarian law, there is no doubt he
was patriotic in his intentions, was public-spirited, and wished to revive
the older and better days of the republic. I do not believe he
contemplated the usurpation of supreme power. I doubt if he was ambitious,
as Caesar was. But he did not comprehend the issues at stake, and the shock
he was giving to the constitution of his country. He was like Mirabeau,
that other aristocratic reformer, who voted for the spoliation of the
church property of France, on the ground, which that leveling
sentimentalist Rousseau had advanced, that the church property belonged to
the nation. But this plea, in both cases, was sophistical. It was,
doubtless, a great evil that the property of the State had fallen into the
hands of wealthy proprietors, as it was an evil that half the landed
property of France was in possession of the clergy. But, in both cases,
this property had been enjoyed uninterruptedly for centuries by the
possessors, and, to all intents and purposes, was private property. And
this law of confiscation was therefore an encroachment on the rights of
property, in all its practical bearings. It appeared to the jurists of
that age to be an ejection of the great landholders for the benefit of the
proletarians. The measure itself was therefore not without injustice,
desirable as a division of property might be. But the mode to effect this
division was incompatible with civilization itself. It was an appeal to
revolutionary forces. It was setting aside all constitutional checks and
usages. It was a defiance of the Senate, the great ruling body of the
State. It was an appeal to the people to overturn the laws. It was like
assembling the citizens of London to override the Parliament. It was like
the French revolution, when the Assembly was dictated to by the clubs.
Robespierre may have been sincere and patriotic, but he was a fanatic,
fierce and uncompromising. So was Gracchus. In setting aside his
colleagues, to accomplish what he deemed a good end, he did evil. When
this rich patrician collected the proletarian burgesses to decree against
the veto of the tribune that the public property should be distributed
among them, he struck a vital blow on the constitution of his country, and
made a step toward monarchy, for monarchy was only reached through the
democracy--was only brought about by powerful demagogues. And hence the
verdict of the wise and judicious will be precisely that, of the leading
men of Rome at the time, even that of Cornelia herself: "Shall then our
house have no end of madness? Have we not enough to be ashamed of in the
disorganization of the State?"

The law of Tiberius Gracchus survived its author. The Senate had
not power to annul it, though it might slay its author. The work of
redistribution continued, even as the National Assembly of France
sanctioned the legislation of preceding revolutionists. And in consequence
of the law, there was, in six years, an increase of burgesses capable of
bearing arms, of seventy-six thousand. But so many evils attended the
confiscation and redistribution of the public domain--so many acts of
injustice were perpetrated--there was such gross mismanagement, that the
consul Scipio AEmilianus intervened, and by a decree of the people, through
his influence, the commission was withdrawn, and the matter was left to
the consuls to adjudicate, which was virtually the suspension of the law
itself. For this intervention Scipio lost his popularity, unbounded as it
had been, even as Daniel Webster lost his prestige and influence when he
made his 7th of March speech--the fate of all great men, however great,
when they oppose popular feelings and interests, whether they are right or
wrong. Scipio, the hero of three wars, not only lost his popularity, but
his life. He was found murdered in his bed at the age of fifty-six.
"Scipio's assassination was the democratic reply to the aristocratic
massacre of Tiberius Gracchus." The greatest general of the age, a man of
unspotted moral purity, and political unselfishness, and generous
patriotism, could not escape the vengeance of a baffled populace, B.C.
129.

The distribution of land ceased, but the revolution did not stop.
The soul of Tiberius Gracchus "was marching on." A new hero appeared in
his brother, Gaius Gracchus, nine years younger--a man who had no relish
for vulgar pleasures,--brave, cultivated, talented, energetic, vehement. A
master of eloquence, he drew the people; consumed with a passion for
revenge, he led them on to revolutionary measures. He was elected tribune
in the year 123, and at once declared war on the aristocratic party, to
which by birth he belonged.

He inaugurated revolutionary measures, by proposing to the people a law
which should allow the tribune to solicit a re-election. He then, to gain
the people and secure material power, enacted that every burgess should be
allowed, monthly, a definite quantity of corn from the public stores at
about half the average price. And he caused a law to be passed that the
existing order of voting in the Comitia Centuriata, according to which the
five property classes voted first, should be done away with, and that all
the centuries should vote in the order to be determined by lot. He also
caused a law to be passed that no citizen should enlist in the army till
seventeen, nor be compelled to serve in the army more than twenty years.
These measures all had the effect to elevate the democracy.

He also sought to depress the aristocracy, by dividing its ranks.
The old aristocracy embraced chiefly the governing class, and were the
chief possessors of landed property. But a new aristocracy of the rich had
grown up, composed of speculators, who managed the mercantile transactions
of the Roman world. The old senatorial aristocracy were debarred by the
Claudian ordinance from mercantile pursuits, and were merely sleeping
partners in the great companies, managed by the speculators. But the new
aristocracy, under the name of the equestrian order, began at this time to
have political influence. Originally, the equestrians were a burgess
cavalry; but gradually all who possessed estates of four hundred thousand
sesterces were liable to cavalry service, and became enrolled in the
order, which thus comprehended the whole senatorial and non-senatorial
noble society of Rome. In process of time, the senators were exempted from
cavalry service, and were thus marked off from the list of those liable to
do cavalry service. The equestrian order then, at last, comprehended the
aristocracy of rich men, in contradistinction from the Senate. And a
natural antipathy accordingly grew up between the old senatorial
aristocracy and the men to whom money had given rank. The ruling lords
stood aloof from the speculators; and were better friends of the people
than the new moneyed aristocrats, since they, brought directly in contact
with the people, oppressed them, and their greediness and injustice were
not usually countenanced by the Senate. The two classes of nobles had
united to put down Tiberius Gracchus; but a deep gulf still yawned between
them, for no class of aristocrats was ever more exclusive than the
governing class at Rome, confined chiefly to the Senate. The Roman Senate
was like the House of Peers in England, when the peers had a
preponderating political power, and whose property lay in landed estates.

Gracchus raised the power of the equestrians by a law which
provided that the farming of the taxes raised in the provinces should be
sold at auction at Rome. A gold mine was thus opened for the speculators.
He also caused a law to be passed which required the judges of civil and
criminal cases to be taken from the equestrians, a privilege before
enjoyed by the Senate. And thus a senator, impeached for his conduct as
provincial governor, was now tried, not as before, by his peer, but by
merchants and bankers.

Gracchus, by the aid of the proletarians and the mercantile class,
then proceeded to the overthrow of the ruling aristocracy, especially in
the functions of legislation, which had belonged to the Senate. By means
of comitial laws and tribunician dictation, he restricted the business of
the Senate. He meddled with the public chest by distributing corn at half
its value; he meddled with the domains by sending colonies by decrees of
the people; he meddled with provincial administration by overturning the
regulations which had been made by the Senate. He also sought to
re-enforce the Senate by three hundred new members from the equestrians
elected by the comitia, a creation of peers which would have reduced the
Senate to dependence on the chief of the State. But this he did not
succeed in effecting.

It is singular that he could have carried these measures during his
term of office, two years, for he was re-elected, with so little
opposition--a proof of the power of the moneyed classes, such, perhaps, as
are now represented by the Commons of England. The great change he sought
to effect was the re-election of magistrates--an unlimited tribuneship,
which was truly Napoleonic. And he knew what he was doing. He was not a
fanatic, but a Statesman of great ability, seeking to break the oligarchy,
and transfer its powers to the tribunes of the people. He desired a firm
administration, but resting on continuous individual usurpations. He was a
political incendiary, like Mirabeau. He was the true founder of that
terrible civic proletariate, which, flattered by the classes above it, led
to the usurpations of Sulla and Caesar. He is the author of the great
change, which in one hundred years was effected, of transferring power
from the Senate to an emperor. He furnished the tactics for all succeeding
demagogues.

Great revolutionists are doomed to experience the loss of
popularity, and Gracchus lost his by an attempt to extend the Roman
franchise to the people of the provinces. The Senate and the mob here
united to prevent what was ultimately effected. The Senate seized the
advantage by inciting a rival demagogue, in the person of Marcus Livius
Drusus, to propose laws which gave still greater privileges to the
equestrians. The Senate bid for popularity, as English prime ministers
have retained place, by granting more to the people than their rivals
would have granted. The Livian laws, which released the proletarians from
paying rent for their lands, were ratified by the people as readily as the
Sempronian laws had been. The foundation of the despotism of Gracchus was
thus assailed by the Senate uniting with the proletarians. An opportunity
was only wanted to effect his complete overthrow.

On the expiration of two years, Gracchus ceased to be tribune, and
his enemy, Lucius Opimius, a stanch aristocrat, entered upon his office.
The attack on the ex-tribune was made by prohibiting the restoration of
Carthage, which Gracchus had sought to effect, and which was a popular
measure. On the day when the burgesses assembled with a view to reject the
measure which Gracchus had previously secured, he appeared with a large
body of adherents. An attendant on the consul demanded their dispersion,
on which he was cut down by a zealous Gracchian. On this, a tumult arose.
Gracchus in vain sought to be heard, and even interrupted a tribune in the
act of speaking, which was against an obsolete law. This offense furnished
a pretense for the Senate and the citizens to arm. Gracchus retired to the
temple of Castor, and passed the night, while the capitol was filled with
armed men. The next day, he fled beyond the Tiber, but the Senate placed a
price upon his head, and he was overtaken and slain. Three thousand of his
adherents were strangled in prison, and the memory of the Gracchi remained
officially proscribed. But Cornelia put on mourning for her last son, and
his name became embalmed in the hearts of the democracy.

Thus perished Gaius Gracchus, a wiser man than his brother--a man
who attempted greater changes, and did not defy the constitutional forms.
He was, undoubtedly, patriotic in his intentions, but the reforms which he
projected were radical, and would have changed the whole structure of
government. It was the consummation of the war against the patrician
oligarchy. Whether wise or foolish, it is not for me to give an opinion,
since such an opinion is of no account, and would imply equally a judgment
as to the relative value of an aristocratical or democratic form of
government, in a corrupt age of Roman society. This is a mooted point, and
I am not capable of settling it. The efforts of the Gracchi to weaken the
power of the ruling noble houses formed a precedent for subsequent
reforms, or usurpations, as they are differently regarded, and led the way
to the rule of demagogues, to be supplanted in time by that of emperors,
with unbounded military authority.





Next: The Wars With Jugurtha And The Cimbri

Previous: Roman Civilization At The Close Of The Third Punic War And The Fall Of Greece



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