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


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


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.


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


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.