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BC 133 - Tiberius Gracchus

The long wars abroad, the acquisition of provinces, the accumulation of large fortunes, and the development of slavery had driven Italian farmers into bankruptcy, and left the farm laborer and the free artisan without employment. The middle class which in the past had given the social organization its strength and stability was thereby blotted out of existence, and the movement which Tiberius Gracchus led in the period now under consideration had for its object to build this class up again.

Tiberius Gracchus was a man of the people by sympathy rather than by birth, because his family and his family connections were all aristocratic. To the sympathy which they and other powerful personal friends felt for the movement the reforms of Tiberius and Gaius owed in some degree that measure of success which they won. Many of the more progressive Romans, like Tiberius's grandfather Africanus, had shown their hostility to the new aristocracy of wealth, or had dreamed of lightening the burdens of the common people, but they lacked the ability to formulate measures of relief, or the energy to carry them through. It was left to Tiberius and his brother to translate their passive sympathy into action.

Tiberius Gracchus thought that he could relieve the distressed by assigning state lands to citizens. With this purpose in mind, he secured an election to the tribunate for the year 133, and at once proposed a reenactment of that clause of the Licinian law which limited the amount of public land to be held by an individual to five hundred iugera, with the modification that for each of two grown sons two hundred and fifty iugera in addition should be allowed. The land which would in this way be brought again under the control of the state was to be leased on the payment of an annual rental. A standing commission of three, whose members were to be chosen each year, was to carry out the provisions of the law.

This proposal was essentially different from earlier colonizing projects. It was clearly socialistic. Earlier colonies had been sent out to points of danger to hold and to Romanize newly acquired territory. The protection which they gave the state was a sufficient return for the land which the state gave them. The colonists of Tiberius were to be settled in peaceful sections of Italy; they were to receive land solely because of their poverty. It is clear that his measures could not have removed the real evil of the situation. That lay in the fact that the farmers and free farm laborers were ruined by the low price at which imported corn was sold and by the use of slave labor. Tiberius's bill did not touch these difficulties.

It met with violent opposition from the rich who were in possession of the land of which the state proposed to resume control, and they prevailed upon Octavius, one of the tribunes, to interpose his veto. This opposition drove Tiberius to adopt an extreme course. Declaring that a representative of the people ceases to be such when he acts out of harmony with the popular wish, he summoned the assembly and asked it to vote whether or not Octavius should be deposed from office. The people voted in the affirmative, and Octavius was deprived of the tribunate. The action which Tiberius took in this case was even more revolutionary and more at variance with Roman tradition than his agrarian measure had been. It was subversive of stable government, and rested upon the theory that the permanent institutions of the state were at the mercy of a temporary popular majority-a theory which ultimately took practical form in the democratic empire of Julius Caesar.

The agrarian law of Tiberius was adopted but he himself was killed while seeking reelection to the tribunate.

The efforts of Tiberius Gracchus, however, were not fruitless. From 135 to 124 BC, the number of citizens increased from three hundred and eighteen thousand to three hundred and ninety-five thousand, and a large majority of those whose names were added to the lists must have gained their right to be enrolled as citizens by becoming landowners under the new law. A less desirable outcome of the measure probably its author had not anticipated. By its operation the privileges which the Latins and other Italians had enjoyed in the public land were taken from them; they were made to feel more keenly than ever the drawbacks under which they suffered when compared with Roman citizens, and were soon driven, as we shall see, into open revolt against Rome.

But the most important result of the agitation which Tiberius Gracchus started was the development of a democratic opposition to the nobilitas. Economic conditions for a century or more had been putting wealth, social station, and political influence in the hands of the few at the expense of the many, and the ill-defined hostility which the poor felt against the rich in consequence of this state of affairs resulted in the struggle for agrarian rights. In this struggle the senate championed the cause of the wealthy landholder. This was only natural, because the senate was made up of rich men, but the turn which affairs thus took converted the economic into a political struggle, and arrayed the poor, with the comitia as their organ, against the rich nobles who were firmly entrenched in the senate.

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