3. Plutarch’s Lives – Tiberius Gracchus & Gaius Gracchus

“Political and social ideas which may have been remote abstractions for us now take on life. From Plato we got the image of an ideal state, from Aristotle the insight that the conflict of the rich and the poor is a permanent feature of political life. In the present reading, we see what actually happened in Sparta when two young, idealistic kings tried to restore the virtue, austerity, and glory of olden times. Their efforts to divide land equally and cancel debts met the implacable opposition of the wealthy classes. The lives of both kings ended in tragic and violent deaths, one by legal lynching, the other by suicide. Plutarch also tells us the parallel story of two brothers from a noble family in Rome who became leaders of the common people and sponsored a program of social reforms. They, too, met the opposition of the wealthy and well-born. One of them was lynched by a mob of senators. The other escaped a similar fate by suicide.” (“Plutarch: The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Woolf, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 31-32)

My reading about the two Roman brothers, Tiberius and Gaius (Caius in Plutarch) Gracchus, in Plutarch’s Lives was not my first encounter with them. I’d previously met them in Ancient History in university and possibly even earlier in Ancient and Medieval History in high school. However about all that I remembered about them from those earlier encounters was that they met their deaths trying to win rights for the ordinary people. Besides reading Plutarch’s accounts of their lives (guided by Adler and Woolf), I read the articles about them in Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.

Tiberius and Gaius were born about 163 and 153 B.C., respectively, in a distinguished patrician (upper class) family. Tiberius served with distinction as a junior officer in the Third Punic War (147-146 B.C.), the last of three wars between Rome and Carthage in northern Africa. In 137 B.C. his personal integrity and family reputation enabled him to save the Roman army in Spain from destruction by signing a peace treaty with the Numanites.

In 133 B.C. Tiberius was elected to the office of tribune, a position designed to protect the rights and interests of the plebeians (the lower class) from the patricians. Immediately he began pushing for a program of land reforms. Much land acquired by the Roman state in its conquest of Italy had fallen into the hands of large landholders, who drove peasants off their farms and worked the land with slaves. The peasants were often forced into idleness in Rome, having to subsist on handouts due to a scarcity of paid work. Tiberius invoked an old law that limited the amount of land that could be owned by a single individual and established a commission to oversee the redistribution of illegal land holdings from the large landowners to the poor and homeless in Rome in plots large enough to support themselves and their families. The large landowners would be paid for the land that they had to forfeit.

Knowing that the Senate (composed of patricians) wouldn’t approve the proposed land reforms, Tiberius took them directly to the Popular Assembly, which was legal but insulting to the Senate and thus alienated senators who might otherwise have supported him. The Senate persuaded another tribune, Marcus Octavius, to use his veto to prevent the submission of the bill to the Assembly. Tiberius got the Assembly to vote to remove Octavius from office. The bill then passed, but the expulsion of Octavius alienated many of Tiberius’ supporters, their feeling that it undermined the authority of the tribunate.

Another complication arose in effecting the land reforms–the Senate allocated trivial funds to the commission that had been appointed to carry them out. However when the king of Pergamum died, he left his kingdom and fortune to Rome and Tiberius used his power as tribune to assign the fortune to the land commission. His doing so challenged the Senate’s traditional control of public finances and foreign affairs and increased its opposition to Tiberius and his policies. It threatened to prosecute him at the end of his term as tribune for his actions against Octavius.

Tiberius responded by standing for a second term in 132 B.C. Unsuccessful in getting a consul (chief magistrate) to stop the elections by force, the senators started a riot. Although it may have begun as an attempt to disperse the electoral meeting, it ended with the clubbing to death of Tiberius and about 300 of his supporters and the throwing of their bodies into the river. Following the massacre many more of Tiberius’ followers were punished. However to mollify the people, the Senate allowed the land commission to continue.

Gaius’ political career began in 133 B.C. when he was one of the three members of Tiberius’ land commission (the others were Tiberius and his father-in-law). In 126 B.C. he became a quaestor, an official concerned mainly with finance, in the Roman province of Sardinia. In 123 B.C. he was elected to be a tribune. Besides reviving his brother’s land reform program, he proposed laws providing free clothing for the common soldiers, giving all Italians the right to vote in elections, setting lower prices on corn, and joining three hundred knights with the three hundred senators who sat as judges; Plutarch says that he gained his greatest reputation by the last of these. Most of his legislation passed and he was elected to a second tribunate in 122 B.C.

Feeling threatened by Gaius’ popularity and legislation, the Senate backed another tribune, Marcus Livius Drusus. He was told not to incite violence but instead to propose legislation that would please the common people and make it known that he had the Senate’s backing. His doing so made some people more kindly toward the Senate. As well, not wanting to share the benefits of Roman citizenship, even the plebians didn’t approve of Gaius’ franchise bill that sought to extend Roman citizenship to Latin-speaking allies and the status of Latin allies to other Italic people. The bill was rejected and Gaius failed to secure election to a third term as tribune.

A new consul (chief administrator), Lucius Opimius, a strong conservative who wanted to restore power to the Senate, made it his mission to unseat Gaius. Aided by Drusus, he set out to repeal as many of Gaius’ measures as possible. On the day that he planned to repeal them, a scuffle arose between the supporters of the two opposing groups on the Capitoline Hill which led to the death of an attendant of Opimius. This gave him a pretext for action and he got the Senate to pass a bill giving him the right to protect the state and suppress tyrants. He organized a heavily armed force and the next day a massacre followed. Knowing that he’d be executed if he were arrested, Gaius committed suicide. 3000 of his supporters were subsequently arrested and put to death. All of his reforms were undermined except the grain laws.

However the people, “though humble, and affrighted at the time, did not fail before long to let everyone see what respect and veneration they had for the memory of the Gracchi. They ordered their statues to be made and set up in public view; they consecrated the places where they were slain, and thither brought the first-fruits of everything, according to the season of the year, to make their offerings. Many came likewise thither to their devotions, and daily worshipped there, as at the temple of the gods.” (Plutarch, The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, volume 14 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 689)

Following their introduction to Plutarch’s accounts of the lives of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus (and of the two Spartan kings referred to in the quotation with which I opened this post) in The Great Ideas Program Adler and Wolff pose some questions to provoke thought about them. One that prompted thought in me was, “Were the demands of these reformers just?” Adler and Woolf begin their response to the question by observing that taking property from the very rich and giving it to the poor may have had a worthy end and been good for the state but go on to ask if it accorded with the just rights of the rich. “Is what these men proposed and executed not expropriation? Is employing such a means justified by their end?” (“Plutarch: The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Woolf, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 40)

Reading about the lives of Tiberius and Gauis Gracchus prompted me to reflect on the contemporary situation in the United States. Like them its president, Donald Trump is a member of the upper class acting (or claiming to be acting) for the lower class; like them he has sparked opposition from those wanting to maintain the status quo and their position in it; and like them he has responded aggressively. Hopefully his life won’t end the way that their lives did.

The quotation from The Great Ideas Program with which I introduced this post refers to two Spartan kings as well as to two Roman brothers. The kings were Agis IV and Cleomenes III and, in doing the The Great Ideas Program reading, I read encyclopedia articles on them as well as Plutarch’s accounts of their lives. However I decided to consider in this post just the Roman brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, whom as I observed above I’d encountered earlier.


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