Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Gracchi: Gaius

I know that everyone is waiting with bated breath for the exciting conclusion of my series of posts on the Gracchi, so without further ado let's move on to the life of Gaius Gracchus...

Comparing Tiberius and Gaius

Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (159-121 BC) was nine years younger than his brother Tiberius. Plutarch tells us that whereas Tiberius' speeches were eloquent, subdued, and persuasive -- vying for his audience's sympathies --, Gaius' rhetoric was more fiery, impassioned and sometimes coarse. Gaius was the first Roman orator to face the crowd rather than the Senate house when delivering speeches in the forum, as well as the first to tear off his toga mid-speech. All this makes sense when one considers that, in addition to his concerns about social justice and democracy, Gaius was also motivated by grief for his brother and a desire for revenge against those responsible for his assassination.

Paradoxically, Gaius was more cautious about the actions he took (no doubt because he remembered the fate which befell his brother), and a modern observer might declare that many of the reform measures he proposed were more practical than those introduced by Tiberius.

Early career

Gaius was only 26 in 133 BC, the year of Tiberius' tribuneship. You may remember that at the time he was serving in the military in Spain under Scipio Aemelianus and that he was appointed in absentia to the land reform commission established by his brother's lex sempronia. After Tiberius' assassination, Gaius seems to have stayed quiet and to have largely avoided public life for seven years or so.

It's worth noting that during this period, in 129 BC, Scipio Aemelianus died under mysterious circumstances. Despite his ties to the Gracchi by blood and marriage, Aemelianus had supported the optimates (the party representing the rich and powerful) and many people suspected some member of the populist party (like M. Fulvius Flaccus or G. Papirius Carbo, the tribune whose measures he had blocked) or even a member of the Gracchi clan (perhaps his wife Sempronia or mother-in-law Cornelia) had had a hand in the great general's death.

In 126 BC, then, Gaius was appointed as quaestor to serve under the consul in Sardinia. Plutarch also tells us that Gaius used his growing popularity with the masses -- no doubt due in part to his brother's legacy in addition to the reputation he was building for himself -- to help get fellow populist Marcus Fulvius Flaccus elected as consul for the next year.

As Tribune

Gaius was elected Tribune of the People for 123 BC. He was also voted into the same office for the next year even though Plutarch tells us that he did not actively campaign for reelection. As I said in my post on Tiberius, the Roman constitution originally required incumbent magistrates to wait a number of years before they could be reelected. G. Papirius Carbo had apparently tried and failed to get a law passed allowing incumbent tribunes to run for reelection in 131 BC (when he was tribune), so I'm unsure whether this term limit had been repealed by 122 BC or whether it just wasn't being enforced.

During his two years as tribune, Gaius undertook many reforms. First, he passed judicial reforms aimed at checking the power of the senatorial class and at punishing family enemies. One measure provided for 300 members of the equestrian class to sit as judges beside the senators who had previously controlled the court system. The equestrians were the second highest order of Roman citizens after the senators: they were wealthy and enjoyed certain privileges and rights, but many of their families probably had humble, provincial, or non-Roman Italian origins. A law was also enacted stating that courts trying senators for corruption should be presided over by equestrian judges.

Gaius also outlawed the execution or banishment of Roman citizens without a public trial, making magistrates who did so subject to prosecution. This law presumably had retroactive effect, and thus it could be used against members of the commissions set up to execute and banish Tiberius' supporters after his assassination (because that happened). Chief among these was Publius Popilius Laenas who had been consul in 132 BC; he fled Rome rather than stand trial and was declared banished in absentia. Gaius also proposed a bill which would bar those removed from office by the people from running for public office in the future. The clear target of this law would have been Tiberius' old enemy Marcus Ocatvius. However, Gaius voluntarily withdrew this proposal before it was voted upon.

Economic reforms

Gaius also resumed his brother's work towards economic and agrarian reform in favor of the poorest citizens. He continued dividing the public land among the poor and, to further this goal, he proposed the establishment of new Roman colonies in conquered lands. This would mean citizens would be granted parcels of land in areas where they'd be less likely to run afoul of the land-grabbing elite.

Another of Gaius' laws provided that grain from Rome's overseas territories should be stored and sold to the poor at a subsidized price. This was the beginning of what would become the grain dole.

Extending the franchise

Votes for Italian allies would become perhaps the single most important political issue in decades to come. So who were these people? When the city Rome was founded, Italy was home to a number of different ethnic groups. Alongside the Romans there were the Etruscans, the Sabines (as in the legendary "Rape of the Sabine Women"), and the Samnites to name just a few. By the 2nd century BC, however, the Romans dominated not only all of Italy south of the Alps, but also large chunks of Spain, Greece, Asia Minor and Tunisia. The Italian allies were members of tribes who fought alongside the Romans; although in theory they each had their own government, in practice Rome called all the shots at least when it came to foreign affairs and military decisions. Thus, the lives of these people were shaped by the government in Rome but as non-citizens they had no say. He may not have been the first man to address this inequity, but Gaius proposed a law extending citizenship and the vote to Italian allies .

Reaction by the optimates
The optimates had labelled Gaius Gracchus as their enemy even before he assumed the office of Tribune in 123 BC. Thus they arranged for him to be tried for misconduct in connection with his quaestorship in Sardinia, but he easily escaped conviction due to his popularity and oratory skills. Over time their fear and resentment of Gaius would only grow.  For one thing, he personally undertook to execute many of the laws he proposed: appointing the new equestrian judges, handing out parcels of land, etc. Good Republicans distrusted any one man who personally wielded so much power and influence.

One way they hoped to counter Gaius' popularity was by having their own man Marcus Livius Drusus (died 108 BC) installed as tribune, and having him put forward his own rabble-rousing proposals. Thus, Plutarch tells us that whereas Gracchus suggested two new colonies, Drusus called for twelve colonies with 3,000 settlers each. Drusus also proposed that poor citizens granted public land be relieved of the burden of paying rent, and -- as a concession for opposing the franchise -- he moved that Italian allies serving in the army could not be subjected to corporal punishment by Roman generals. Because Drusus represented the Senate, the measures he proposed may have helped heal the rift between the common people and the ruling class (at least temporarily).

The tides turn

The work of fellow tribune M. Livius Drusus helped curtail Gaius' personal influence. Another reason why Gaius' popularity among the Roman people might have waned was because many of them resented his proposal that they share their power as voters with the Italian allies. And then there was the "Let's rebuild Carthage" debacle...

Plutarch tells us that Gaius travelled to Northern Africa in order to help lay the foundation for a new colony called "Junonia" which would be built on the ruins of Carthage. It's unclear whether the idea for this colony originated with Gaius himself or with his rival Drusus. When the Romans defeated the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War it was decided to totally wipe the city off the map in what I would like to call an act of "genocide lite." Cato the Censor (234-149 BC), a cantankerous old man, was especially famous for calling for Carthage's destruction. Thus it's no suprise that rebuilding the city engendered controversy.

While Gaius was abroad, his enemies spread rumors of ominous portents in Africa which showed that supernatural forces were fighting against the project. For example, it was said that wolves dug up the posts showing where the walls would be erected and dragged them off into the wilderness. Wolves! Like the she wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus! Don't you see, the Goddess Rome herself is telling us not to rebuild Carthage. Gaius' involvement with this ill-fated colony probably didn't do much to aid his reputation. Oh, and there are no wolves in Tunisia.

Gaius' demise

Gaius was again put up as a candidate as tribune for 121 BC, but this time he lost the election. Plutarch suggests that Gaius' popularity with the people had waned, but then he tells us that his enemies resorted to fraud in counting the ballots so as to remove him from office. The optimates also had elected as consul for 121 BC one Lucius Opimius. Once he took office, Opimius immediately announced that he would annul all the laws that Gaius had passed. When they learned of this, Gaius Gracchus, Marcus Fulvius and their supporters organized a mass protest centered on the Aventine Hill. Things turned ugly when Opimius' servant Antyllius (a real asshole, according to Plutarch) was attacked and killed by the mob.

Opimius had mourners carry Antyllius' body to the forum in order to incite the senators to action against the unruly mob. The people thought that this was bullshit: when Tiberius Gracchus, a tribune from a noble family, was killed his body was unceremoniously chucked into the Tiber, and here the senators were making such a big deal out of the death of a lowly servant (who kind of had it coming)?! But, anyway, the Senate was sufficiently moved by the display that they voted to declare marshal law and grant Opimius authority to quash the uprising.

In the ensuing fracas, M. Fulvius and his sons were killed and Gaius Gracchus took his own life. We're told that Opimius offered its weight in gold to whomever brought him Gaius' head and that the dishonest man filled Gaius' brain cavity with lead in order to fetch a higher price. When all was said and done, 3,000 supporters of the populists were put to death: their bodies were thrown in the river, their assets were seized by the state, and their wives were forbidden from mourning.


Lucius Opimius was convicted of taking bribes from the Numidians in 116 BC, and he died in disgrace. The Italian allies were eventually given the vote after some of them revolted in 91 BC. Carthage was rebuilt as a Roman city under Julius Caesar around 49-44 BC.

Meanwhile, the people of Rome would erect statues in the memory of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus and the spots where they fell to their enemies were declared hallowed ground. Cornelia would pass the remainder of her life in her villa on the Bay of Naples where she would proudly recount the story of her sons' lives and careers to her illustrious guests; Plutarch says she'd never let tears betray her emotions, but rather she would speak of them as if they were already figures out of the annals of Roman history.

Images: Cenotaph of the Gracchi by Eugene Guillaume on display in Paris' Musée d'Orsay (pic posted on flickr by user Carlos Pinto 73); lithograph of Gaius Gracchus found on

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