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BC 122 - Gaius Gracchus

Gaius Gracchus, who succeeded his brother in the leadership of the democracy, and was elected to the tribunate in 123, saw clearly that the senate must be his point of attack. To succeed he must lessen its power, lower its prestige, and take from it its political and social privileges. But Gaius was not an idealist, as his brother had been. He was a practical politician of great constructive ability, and he knew that to secure from a powerful, compact body, like the senate, the political and economic rights of the people, it would not suffice to rely upon the justice of his cause-he must fight the senate with its own weapons. He must combine, too, all the elements in the state whose interests were opposed to those of the senate, and, to win the support of different classes of society, he must include in his political programme projects which would appeal to each of them. To this task he applied himself. The two classes upon whose backing he counted were the proletariat, or poor people, and the knights.

To win the adhesion of the former he secured the reenactment or reaffirmation of his brother's land law; he provided for the establishment of colonies for the needy in southern Italy and across the sea; he lightened the hardships of military service, and he had a lex frumentaria, or corn law, passed, which put grain at the disposal of the poor at a price lower than the market rate.

To secure the support of the knights, or the rich men who were not members of senatorial families, Gaius turned over the control of the courts to them, and gave them a monopoly in collecting the taxes in Asia. From this time on they formed a recognized order of nobility, and it was probably he who first indicated their aristocratic standing to the eye by allowing them to wear gold finger rings, and tunics with a narrow border, and by giving them separate seats at the games.

He secured the passage of a law prescribing the manner in which the senate should assign provinces to the consuls, and in this way lessened the senate's control of the chief magistrate. He also sought to give importance to the comitia, and to substitute their action for the decrees of the senate. In one important matter especially he secured a restatement of the principle that the senate was subordinate to the popular assemblies. After the death of Tiberius, the senate established a judicial commission to investigate the action of some of his followers. They were tried and executed. To protect himself and future democratic leaders from such a fate, Gaius secured the passage of a new law reaffirming a citizen's right to appeal to the people from a capital sentence.

To weld together into one political party two classes whose interests and sympathies were so opposed to each other as were those of the Roman populace and the knights was a problem requiring a clear insight into political and social conditions, extraordinary tact, and remarkable executive ability. That Gaius conceived the plan and carried it out successfully shows how able a politician he was. The democratic party was inspired by Tiberius, but was made an accomplished fact by Gaius. The movement to which he gave meaning and direction brought about in the end a complete change in the form of government. The system toward which he seemed to aim was a democracy expressing its will through the comitia, and carrying out its purpose through the tribunate. In such a form of government there was no place left for the senate and the nobles, and it is clear that the success of his cause meant a political revolution. The next century saw the natural development of his policy in the decline of the senate's power and the establishment of the democratic empire of Julius Caesar. This is not to say that Gaius aimed at a tyranny for himself or for his successors in the tribunate, but the circumstances, the forces which he set in motion could lead only to the humbling of the senate and the ascendency of one man.

The motives of Gaius were mixed. He sought to build up a democratic party, to reduce the senate to its constitutional position, to relieve the distress of the common people, and to avenge his brother. Some of his measures, therefore, like his land laws, his law of appeal, and his colonizing projects, were intended to promote the best interests of the people; other reforms, like the reorganization of the juries and the change made in the method of selecting provincial governors, Gaius perhaps thought would be salutary, but they were proposed mainly for political reasons, while still other bills, like the corn law, were either sincere, but unwise, attempts to relieve the poor, or were inspired solely by political motives, and were wholly pernicious.

This last measure, the corn law, accomplished its main purpose of detaching clients from the patrons upon whom they had relied for largesses in the past, and of attaching them to the democratic party, but its ultimate effects were disastrous. By providing for the sale of grain at prices lower than it could be grown in Italy, the law neutralized the efforts which were making to build up the farming industry; by giving the idle a chance to get food at unnaturally low prices it kept them in the city, attracted hordes of needy Italians to Rome, and so more than offset the attempt which was being made to draw the unemployed into the country by the establishment of colbnies. Worst of all, it accustomed the great mass of the Roman people to depend upon the state rather than on their own efforts for a livelihood.

In 121 BC it was this debased populace which deserted Gaius when he proposed the second part of his great scheme of reform -the bestowal of Roman citizenship upon the Latins, and Latin rights upon the other Italian allies. Selfishly unwilling to share their privileges with others, the people failed to elect him to the tribunate for the third time; an attack was made upon his laws; an armed conflict followed; Gaius was killed, and three thousand of his followers were condemned to death by a judicial commission-the very weapon which, by his law of appeal, he had tried to strike from the hands of the senate.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:28:32 ZULU