Tiberius Gracchus: The First Socialist

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Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus remains an iconic figure in Rome’s political history whose land re-allotment schemes were revolutionary by any standards. His actions marked the first time that the rights of ‘the Roman people’ – the populus Romanus – had been firmly asserted, yet his support for the common man ultimately led to his death in 133 BC, as he was assassinated by a posse of displeased senators.

Born into a distinguished Plebeian family, Tiberius had an impressive pedigree: he was a grandson of Scipio Africanus, the famed general responsible for the Roman victory over Hannibal, and a brother-in-law of Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman conqueror of Carthage. Despite the death of his father early in his life, Tiberius enjoyed a happy childhood. As the historian Plutarch wrote, Tiberius owed his virtues more to the nurture of his dedicated mother (Cornelia) than his fine ancestry.

As with many Roman statesmen, Tiberius had a distinguished military career before entering politics. Whilst there is a popular myth that Tiberius was the first Roman to scale the wall at the siege of Carthage (149-146 BC), his first important post was as quaestor (public official) in 138 BC, and he was soon assigned to Spain where he served under the then consul Gaius Mancinus.

Despite a humiliating Roman defeat to the Numantines in Spain in 136 BC, Tiberius was able to negotiate a truce with the Spanish tribesmen, which, according to Plutarch, saved the lives of 20,000 Romans. Nevertheless, on returning to Rome, the transaction was denounced as a disgrace by the Roman senate. Plutarch claimed, however, that many families and friends of the soldiers involved came to thank Tiberius for his actions. In this way, his popularity with the masses began.

According to a pamphlet written by his younger brother Gaius, Tiberius was first struck by the need for reform as he rode through Etruria (to the north of Rome in what is now Tuscany). Gracchus resented the loss of small-scale family farms – once the backbone of Italian agriculture – in favour of vast land holdings worked by foreign slaves.

The reasons for this displacement of peasant farmers are unclear, but modern historians have suggested that the demands of military service meant that these farms were left without essential workers. The rich took advantage of their absence, buying up these farms with the bountiful wealth acquired from military campaigns abroad, creating vast land holdings for themselves.

Plutarch, by contrast, claimed that the displacement of these poor farmers by the rich arose due to disputes over the allocation of Rome’s public land. Traditionally the land which the Romans won in conquest was made public land – ager publicus. This land would then be divided up and assigned to the poor of Roman society who in return were required to pay a small amount of rent. The rich, however, could afford much higher rents, thus driving out the poor. Even when a law was enacted to set a cap on the amount of land any individual could possess, the problem remained, as the rich took fake names and transferred the land to themselves.

Why exactly the poor were displaced from public land remains a source of debate, but what is certain is that Gracchus viewed this as a problem which had to be dealt with.

Thus, it was on this issue that Tiberius focused his attention after being elected plebeian tribune – a defender of the common people – in 134 BC. Tiberius’s motives for embarking on such a difficult and contentious project  – the reallocation of farmland – are heavily disputed. The consensus is that he was encouraged to do so by Diophanes of Myteline, a rhetorician and philosopher who had taught Tiberius. Others have postulated that Cornelia, Tiberius’s own mother, was responsible as she hoped that Tiberius could make a name for himself and so for her family as a whole.

Plutarch’s accounts do not dwell on the details of Tiberius’s agrarian reform – the lex agraria – but most scholars agree that the proposed reforms were not overly radical. The land owned by the Roman State would be distributed in small lots to the Roman poor, while only a small proportion of the public land usurped by the rich would be taken away and surrendered to the state. The rich were still permitted to hold onto 500 iugera (around 326 acres), a sizeable amount.

Inevitably, there was fierce opposition to the lex agraria. Most of this hostility emanated from rich and influential politicians who stood to have their land confiscated. Nevertheless, this could be seen as an understandable response: their primary argument was that Gracchus’s proposed reforms punished landholders who had typically procured land by methods thought to be legal Thus, they poured money into their farms, planting vast olive groves and buying the very best machinery to harvest their newly grown produce – an investment whose value would be lost to them.  

The first of a series of bitter controversies arose when another plebeian tribune, Marcus Octavius, under pressure from men of influence, began to oppose Tiberius’s reforms, and promptly vetoed the law – a privilege of any tribune. The two engaged in almost continuous debate thereafter. Tiberius was even supposed to have offered to pay compensation to Octavius out of his own pocket for the land he would lose as a result.

Such actions were fruitless as Octavius exercised his veto for a second time. At this point, Tiberius’s actions shifted from moderation to revolution. He decided on Octavius’s expulsion by means of a recall election, justifying his decision on the basis that either he or Octavius did not truly represent the people of Rome and therefore one had to step down. It was a clever argument and one heavily stacked in his favour. The outcome of the vote was hardly surprising: Octavius was easily defeated and stripped of his office.

A three-man commission was promptly set up to put the lex agraria into effect, consisting of Tiberius’s father-in-law and his younger brother, the aforementioned Gaius Gracchus. The Senate, however, angered by the proceedings prevented any progress from being made by allocating the meagre sum of six sesterces per day for the carrying out of the plan. Such an amount was far below what was necessary, especially given the magnitude of Tiberius’s task. Plutarch added that the Senate did not even grant the customary tent for conducting the business, despite Tiberius’s protests that tents had been granted by the senate for far less honourable and important causes.

Tiberius’s mission, without the necessary funding, was on the brink of collapse. However, at this moment, a golden opportunity presented itself. King Attalus III of Pergamum died in 133 BC and, by a shocking coincidence, left his kingdom in Western Asia Minor to the Roman people. Tiberius seized the opportunity and, claiming that it was the populus Romanus who were Attalus’ true heirs, declared that he would use the money available to fund his land reform schemes. Tiberius had essentially bypassed the senate.

The following year Tiberius sought re-election – a violation of traditional constitutional practices. Immediately, the cry was raised that the constitution was in danger and the aristocrats who had earlier argued that Tiberius had too much power felt that their worries and concerns had been confirmed. Previously, Tiberius’s opponents while enraged by his actions, were reassured that the time when Tiberius would return to being a private citizen was approaching. This comfort was completely undercut by Tiberius’s aim at re-election, and more than any other time before, the ruling classes were unified in their opposition towards him.

Above all, the senate feared that Tiberius’s lex agraria would be the first of a long series of increasingly radical reforms that might threaten their own livelihoods. Plutarch claimed that Tiberius proposed a set of fresh laws to win the favour of the people that included reducing the time of military service and allowing non-senators to become judges. Such proposals only heightened the fears of the aristocrats.

By the day of the election, tensions had reached their zenith. Plutarch described the bad omens that Tiberius felt were directed at him, and thud he was reluctant to set foot outside the comfort of his threshold. Nevertheless, spurred on by the presence of his loyal followers, he set out for the Capitol. The consul at the time, Mucius Scaevola, stayed put despite demands from the most opposed senators that he put an end to the elections. One such senator, Scipio Nasica, the pontifex maximus – high priest – and, according to Plutarch, a great landholder, mobilised the senate in opposition to Tiberius by starting a rumour that Tiberius sought to be king. The senators – spurred on by personal enmity and a desire to protect the Roman Republic – were horrified. Setting out for the Capitol, they grabbed any makeshift weapons they could find and beat Tiberius to death with a chair leg.

Due to his untimely death at 29, Tiberius failed to fully achieve his reforms. However, his historical legacy remains significant due to his revolutionary vision of land reforms. Perhaps anachronistically, he has thus been given the title of the world’s first socialist, and his death serves as a reminder of the potent force of vested interests in opposing reform.

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Earl, D.C., 1963. Tiberius Gracchus: a Study in Politics. Latomus.

Holland, T., 2013. Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic. Abacus.

Scullard, H.H., 1964. From the Gracchi to Nero: a History of Rome from 133 BC to AD 68.