Tiberius Gracchus

June 24, 2019
51 mins read

Editor’s note:  The following comprises the second chapter of Seven Roman Statesmen of the Later Republic, by Sir Charles Oman (published 1902).

II.  Tiberius Gracchus

By the third quarter of the second century before Christ, the contradiction between the new conditions of Roman life and the old forms of Roman government had grown so glaring, that even the conservative Roman mind saw that the present state of things could not endure much longer. The two problems which had forced themselves to the front needed solution. What was to be done to adapt the constitution to the new needs of empire? — Was the Senate or the Public Assembly to rule the world, and by what machinery? And, secondly, how was the state to deal with the unfortunate fact that the new commercial conditions of the Mediterranean countries, brought about by the Roman conquests, were beginning to ruin Italian agriculture and to thin out the farmers who formed the backbone of the old Roman race?

A single man was fated to bring forward both these questions, to formulate them in the most contentious shapes possible, to confuse their issues in the most inextricable fashion, and to leave a heritage of strife behind him for the next three generations of Romans.

Tiberius Gracchus is one of the most striking instances in history of the amount of evil that can be brought about by a thoroughly honest and well-meaning man, who is so entirely convinced of the righteousness of his own intentions and the wisdom of his own measures, that he is driven to regard any one who strives to hinder him as not only foolish but morally wicked. The type of exalted doctrinaire who exclaims that any constitutional check that hinders his plans must be swept away without further inquiry, that every political opponent is a bad man who must be crushed, has been known in many lands and many ages, from ancient Greece down to the France of the Revolution. But in Rome such a figure was an exception; the stolid conservatism, the reverence for mos majorum, the dislike for abstract political speculation which marked the race, were against the development of such a frame of mind. The reformers of the past had been content to work slowly, to introduce changes by adding small rags and patches to the constitution, or by inventing transparent legal fictions, which gained the practical point, while leaving the theory of the law that they were attacking apparently untouched. The earnest doctrinaire, all in a hurry and perfectly regardless of ancestral landmarks, was as incomprehensible as he was distasteful to the average Roman mind. It is well to remember the delightful comment of the elder Cato, who having been induced in his old age to read some of Plato’s political dialogues, gravely remarked “that this Socrates seems to have been a prating seditious fellow, who suffered, rightly enough, for having tried to undermine the ancient customs of the state, and to teach young men to hold opinions at variance with the laws.”

Cornelia and her sons

Tiberius Gracchus was one of those unfortunate persons who are from their earliest years held up as models, and serve to point the moral and adorn the tale for their young contemporaries, till they are led on to entertain the strongest views as to their own impeccability and infallibility. The cluster of stories which Plutarch gives us to illustrate the youth of the Gracchi are almost enough by themselves to explain Tiberius’s after career. He was born with every advantage of rank and wealth; he had a quick intelligence and a handsome face. But he was cursed with a mother (a very superior woman, said every voice in Rome), who was always reminding him that he was the grandson of Scipio the elder, and asking, “How long am I to be called the daughter of Africanus and not the mother of the Gracchi?” All the domestic circle marked him off from early youth as one from whom something great was expected. His very tutor made him his moral touchstone. “If Tiberius said that a thing was right,” observed this good man, “right of course it must be.” When he grew up, the world conspired to do him honour. He was made an augur far below the usual age. The most respected member of the Senate, chancing to lie next him at a dinner-party, offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage without waiting to be asked. When Appius came home that night, he called out to his wife, as soon as he was inside the door, that he had betrothed their daughter. “Why in such a hurry,” asked the lady, “unless indeed you chance to have got Tiberius Gracchus for her?” Clearly public opinion, among the matrons of Rome who were blessed with marriageable daughters, looked upon the young man as the most eligible parti in the city.

Tiberius saw his first military service in Africa during the Third Punic War. He was taken out under the best possible auspices, as one of the aides-de-camp of his brother-in-law, the younger Scipio Africanus. The general’s kinsman was offered and took every opportunity for distinction. He returned with the decoration of a mural crown, and the esteem, as we are told, of the whole army. When he first obtained a magistracy and went to Spain as quaestor to the Consul Mancinus, chance gave him an utterly unexpected opportunity of saving a Roman army from destruction (B.C. 137). The Numantines having defeated and surrounded the consul, offered to treat for a definitive peace, not with Mancinus, but with Gracchus, the reason being that the young quaestor’s father had enjoyed a great name for good faith and justice among the Spaniards. Tiberius drew up an equitable treaty, which was sworn to by both sides, and the army was allowed to depart. It was no fault of his if the Senate afterwards refused to ratify the agreement, and sent Mancinus in chains to Numantia. He was only remembered as the saviour of the lives of the defeated legions, and all the ignominy of the defeat was laid upon the consul.

If Tiberius had been merely fortunate and virtuous, he might have gone through life with honour and success, have gained his consulship, celebrated his triumph, and have been buried in peace in the tomb of his ancestors. Unhappily for himself and for Rome, he had enough brains to see that the times were out of joint, enough heart to feel for the misfortunes of his countrymen, enough conscience to refuse to leave things alone and take the easy path to success that lay before him, and enough self-confidence to think that he was foreordained by the gods to set all to rights. Such was the genius of the first of Rome’s many self-constituted saviours of society.

The particular evil which had struck the eye of Tiberius, and which started him upon his crusade, was the terrible and rapid decline in the numbers of the free agricultural population which had been setting in for the last thirty years. He had at first no constitutional reforms in his head, but merely economic ones. Passing through Etruria on his way to Spain, as we are told, he saw no one working in the fields but slaves; tillage seemed to be dying out and the free farmer to have disappeared. The sight shocked him, and he pondered deeply over it during the leisure hours of his Spanish campaign. He learnt by inquiry that the same thing was to be seen in many other parts of Italy. Doubtless the discontented conscripts whom he had to command, told him all the woes of the poor freeholder in the days when farming had ceased to pay. At any rate, when he settled down once more in Rome, he imagined that he had probed to the bottom the existing distress and its causes, and that he had hit upon the necessary remedies.

The evils from which Italy, or rather Roman Italy, was suffering in B.C. 134 were much the same as those through which rural England has been passing during the last twenty years — the phenomenon that is vaguely called “agricultural depression.” It was marked by a permanent decrease in the selling value of corn, a widespread turning of arable land into pasture, so that tillage seemed almost to have ceased in certain districts, and a slow but sure shrinkage in the numbers of the free farming population who “lived by the land.”

It is usual for historians to trace the decline of Italian agriculture to various causes which began to operate as far back as the Second Punic War — to the ravages of Hannibal, the awful drain of life during his continuance in the peninsula, and after his departure to the tribute of blood levied for the never-ending and disastrous Spanish campaigns.

On the whole, too much is made of these causes. If farming is really paying, it suffers less than might be expected from a protracted war, unless indeed that war is waged within the country-side itself. Hannibal had departed seventy years before, and in a healthy state of agriculture the traces of his sojourn would long have disappeared. The Spanish and other wars of the next generation, waged far away, would not have sufficed to ruin rural Italy. As a matter of fact, the drain of life did not, for two generations after Zama, even affect the natural increase of population. The number of land-holding Roman citizens fit to bear arms went rapidly up from the end of the Punic Wars down to B.C. 159. Attaining its maximum in that year, it began very slowly but steadily to decrease. In 159 there were 338,000 assidui; in 154 there were 324,000; in 147, 332,000. If Hannibal did not succeed in permanently bringing down the number of Roman freeholders, we shall not be persuaded that Viriathus and the Numantines succeeded in doing so. It was really economic changes, in a time of comparative peace, that were doing the mischief. Otherwise the Roman farmer, like the British farmer in the golden days of the struggle with Napoleon, might have prayed for “a bloody war and a wet harvest,” as the things most likely to send up wheat to 120s. the quarter.

Again, it is often said that the free farming class was beginning to decline because of the growth in Italy of great landed estates — the latifundia, worked by chain-gangs of Eastern slaves, of which we hear so many complaints. We are assured that the freeholders decayed because of the perverse wickedness of the great capitalists, who insisted on buying out their smaller neighbours, or on ousting them by means of litigation, or even by that rougher sort of process which Ahab of old applied to Naboth, All this, we are told, they did in order that they might supplant the freeholder by their gangs of Asiatic slaves. Any theory based on the hypothesis that rich men are gratuitously and perversely wicked has found eager acceptance in certain quarters ever since history began. When the land is suffering from poverty and depression, it is always popular to lay the blame on the backs of tangible and obvious individuals, rather than to search for obscure economic causes.

To us it seems that the growth of the latifundia and the slave-gangs was the effect, and not the cause, of the decay of the free population in the Italy of B.C. 155-135. The fact simply was that under the stress of foreign com- petition corn-growing was ceasing to pay in many parts of the peninsula. There is a point at which the freeholder, even if he be as frugal as the old Roman farmer, and even if he lives mainly by the consumption of his own produce, will refuse to stop any longer on the soil, more especially when the alternative is not emigration to the Far West, but removal to the capital, with all its urban pleasures, its cheap food, and its opportunities of living without the back-breaking toil of plough and mattock.

Those who wish to persuade us that the latifundia drove out the freeholder have always neglected to explain one well-known economic fact. Cultivation by slave labour is notoriously wasteful and dear. The yeoman and his family, working for themselves, will get much more out of a farm than will a gang of slaves. The compulsory labourer, even under the lash, always succeeds in putting in much less rapid, willing, and thorough work than the freeman. Why then should the capitalist be so eager to buy out the farmer, if immediately on purchase the productive value of the purchased land went down? Surely he would have found better use for his money.

The truth seems to be rather that the yeoman was beginning, about the year B.C. 160, to find that his farm no longer paid, and was eager to get rid of it. He sold it to the capitalist at a ruinous sacrifice, since he was simply anxious to move on at any price. If the buyer threw several farms together, and worked them by cheap slaves in a ruthless way, he might make a profit for a time. Slave-labour on the Roman system had just one advantage—that the slave was the only unit in the population; he had no wife or children to keep, and every pair of hands represented only one mouth. Moreover, he had no standard of comfort whatever; he had to live as his master chose, herded together in dungeon-dormitories, half clothed and half starved, and sold, or left to die, the moment that he showed signs of wear and tear. The dispossessed yeoman had, at any rate, lived on a higher scale than this; he had wife and family to keep, and, however frugal his fare and garb, they were at least better than those of the slave. The farm, if bought at a sufficiently low figure, might be able to pay the capitalist long after it had ceased to pay the freeholder.

But it was only exceptionally that the new acquirers of the yeomen’s homesteads tried to keep the land under tillage. It was much more common to throw many small holdings into a vast ranch or sheep-farm, worked by a few slave-herdsmen. Cattle and sheep, kept on a large scale, could pay, long after com had become a hopeless failure. For while the Roman market was flooded with foreign wheat, there was no such competition in the matter of livestock. Ancient merchant ships were not large, swift, or commodious enough for the transport of beasts on an extensive scale. Hence the Italian cattle-breeder need not fear provincial or foreign competition in the local market. Beef and mutton, hides and wool, might still be grown at a profit, long after barley and wheat had been given up. Hence came the rise of the great ranches of Southern Italy which figure in so many descriptions.

That Italian agriculture was flagging in the middle years of the second century, even in quarters where the capitalist did not intervene, is quite clear. Cato in his younger days had practised farming for profit; in his old age he had to confess that it had become more interesting than lucrative ; he kept up his farms by way of amusement, but put his spare capital into the purchase of house property, factories, woods, and baths. When Rome had once become acknowledged as the capital of the Mediterranean world, merchandise of all kinds had begun to come to her market on a scale that had been unknown in the third century. And of the imports that were poured in from abroad, corn was one of the most prominent. The city was only a few miles from the sea, and nothing was simpler than to deliver this easily-packed commodity at Ostia, or even to send it up the Tiber to the very doors of the urban granaries. There were many countries where wheat could be grown at a far cheaper rate than in Central Italy. But it was not merely with the speculative importer from Spain, Africa, or Egypt, that the farmers of the Latin and Etruscan Campagna had now to compete. Simple free trade was not their only bane. They had also to face the state as a rival seller; the tithe-corn of Sicily from the civitates decumanae, who paid their tribute in kind instead of in money, was annually shot upon the Roman market, and the state had to get rid of it at what price it could. Experience shows that a Government which sells always receives less than the ruling rate for the commodity of which it is trying to get rid. The Sicilian corn was purchased by the rich grain dealers of Rome at a quotation which enabled them to put it upon the market at an absurdly low figure. The Senate and the urban populace did not care; there was a vague notion abroad that if the corn did go cheap, it was Roman citizens who bought it, and Roman citizens ought to get as much as possible of the profits of Empire out of the “praedia populi Romani.” Indeed, the city mob were already clamouring for distributions of corn when any excuse, adequate or inadequate, could be found.

It is scarcely necessary to point out the effect on the agricultural classes of Central Italy of the appearance of such huge masses of cheap corn in the great central market of the capital. Mere foreign competitions would have been very bad for them, but the interference of the state as a seller made things hopeless. It is true that the Roman farmer grew corn for his own consumption no less than for the purpose of selling it in the local market. This fact tended to make the working of the economic crisis slower. But the permanent fall in prices descended like a deadly blight on all the regions which had been wont to supply the city. It is necessary to remember, however, that it was not all Italy which was affected. The economic crisis mainly touched those regions which in older days had been the home-farm of the Roman people — the Latin and South-Etruscan lands. But it was felt also in Apulia and Lucania, where the majority of the soil was in Roman hands, owing to the confiscations that had followed the Hannibalic War. And Northern Etruria seems also to have suffered; it was a district which even in early days had been in the hands of great landholders who worked their farms with serfs, and now the serfs were being replaced by foreign slaves.

On the other hand, we must bear in mind that there were many parts of Italy where the agricultural depression does not seem to have been so much felt. Forty years later the Social War reveals to us the existence of a numerous free agricultural population all over the mountain regions of the Apennines — Samnium, Picenum, the Marsian territory, and the rest. The Po valley in the north, too, was so fertile that it could compete in its own markets with any foreign seller. This region seems to have remained in a satisfactory economic condition long after depopulation began farther south. Roughly speaking, we may say that the economic crisis affected the land immediately round Rome, and certain other regions which were mainly in Roman hands. The Italian allies as yet suffered comparatively little ; if they were sufficiently remote from the suzerain city, in a region of mountains and bad roads, they suffered not at all: for the fatal foreign corn could not creep among them on mule-back over the passes, so as to compete with the local produce. In many states the old economic conditions of the third century continued to prevail even down to the Social War. Rome’s policy unconsciously helped them to survive; she jealously kept the Italians isolated, and excluded them from the profits of the Empire, with the result that they remained torpid but well preserved in their remote valleys.

Under the stress of the competition of cheap foreign corn, the rural population of the regions round Rome had to displace itself, much in the same way as the rural population of nineteenth-century England. Nowadays such folks take refuge in emigration to America or Australia, or still more frequently drift citywards and are absorbed into the industrial classes. These ways of escape were not so obvious to the Roman of the second century. The idea that the citizen might permanently remove himself from Italy, and settle down on better soil in Spain or Africa — the America and Australia of the ancient world — had not yet become familiar. It seemed abnormal and unpatriotic to a race who still cherished the notion formulated in the statement omnis peregrinatio sordida est et inhonesta.[1] Unlike the Greek, the Roman was not content to go abroad forever; the first great transmarine colony (as we shall see) perished of sheer superstition, and traditionary dislike for a settlement outside the sacred soil of the Peninsula.

Nor could the industrial remedy be fully utilised, owing to the inveterate prejudice against citizens taking to handicrafts — the special portion of the slave and f reed- man according to Roman ideas. The ruined farmers drifted to Rome, to live on the cheap corn, the doles of patrons, the frequent largesses of the state, and the distributions of candidates for magistracies. These migrants by themselves would have been enough to form the basis for a dangerous mob, but in Rome they mingled with and were demoralised by a far worse element, the great mass of manumitted slaves. The freedmen of the city were precisely the least promising section of the governing people. The slaves who made themselves acceptable to their masters, and won their freedom, were the clever subtle Greeks and Syrians who had served in the house holds of the nobility, not the barbarian field-hands, whom their owners never saw or regarded. There was a serious danger that Rome might become a Levantine city some day, though she was still far from the generation when men could truly say that “in Tiberim defluxit Orontes.” [2]

For agricultural depression, such as there existed in Italy when Tiberius Gracchus first took to politics, there is only one certain remedy. If the citizens will neither emigrate nor turn themselves from agriculture to handicrafts, and if it is absolutely necessary that the farming class should be kept up, there must be Protection. The foreign corn must at all costs be kept out, so that the yeoman may make a margin of profit, and stay by his land. Here lay the one chance for preserving the old balance of classes in the Roman state. But unfortunately for those who had the interests of the farmer at heart, the constitution of Rome rested on a public assembly of citizens massed in the Campus Martius. On any ordinary day of meeting the assembly was entirely composed of the urban populace ; it would require some very great matter to induce the farmers of the Campagna to trudge in many miles in order to exercise the franchise. The more distant voters in remoter corners of Italy were practically out of touch with politics altogether. Accordingly, the statesman who wished to carry his law before the Comitia had normally to face only the plebs urbana. On rare occasions the outvoters might alter the composition of the assembly, but the everyday audience of the orator would consist only of the citizens who dwelt on the spot. How was it possible to propose Protection to such a body? They had come to Rome precisely in order to enjoy the cheap loaf, and they were already clamouring to have it larger and yet cheaper. They would have laughed to scorn any proposal to impose a heavy tax on their corn for the benefit of the rural voters. High patriotic appeals would have had little effect on them. Already, thirty years back, the elder Cato, declaiming in vain against a proposal for an unnecessary distribution of corn, had exclaimed in his wrath, “Citizens, I perceive that it is a difficult task to argue with the belly, because it has no ears.” The city mob would never vote for the dear loaf.

The hopeless side of the agrarian problem, then, in ancient Rome, was that all legislation to support the farming class must be useless without Protection, and Protection could not be got. We do not hear even of an attempt to bring it into the sphere of practical politics.

Tiberius Gracchus was a perfectly honest and genuine enthusiast, who believed that he had a mission — the rehabilitation of Italian agriculture — and that he was quite competent to carry it out. It might be that his mission would lead him into trouble, and he was prepared to face the fact. He had had enough schooling in political philosophy from his numerous Greek friends to have freed his mind from the traditionary Roman horror of violent constitutional change. No doubt all the tags of Aristotle’s school on chreon apokope and ges anadasmos[3] were familiar to him. It may not be out of place to remember that his tutor, Blossius, ultimately died an anarchist, fighting at the head of a band of revolted slaves. Yet, in spite of his studies in comparative politics and Greek philosophy Tiberius, by a strange contradiction, remained so much a Roman legalist, that he held that what had once been made lawful must be morally justifiable, and that if the Comitia passed a law there could be no appeal to equity or common-sense against it.

Tiberius saw Italian agriculture languishing, the countryside occupied more and more every year by the huge estates of the capitalists, while in the city was accumulating the idle, half-starved mass of paupers who had once been Roman freeholders. His problem was, how to get the people back to the land. The end was laudable, the means which he adopted were astounding.

All over Italy there were large tracts of territory which were legally and theoretically the property of the state. Ever since the Republic became a conquering power, it had been wont to confiscate part of the soil of vanquished enemies. Sometimes this land was divided up into small farms for Roman citizens who engaged to settle thereon, sometimes a colony was planted on it, sometimes it was sold. But very often the state did not cede it in full property to any new owner, but simply proclaimed that any citizen who chose might “squat” upon it as a tenant at will, on condition of paying a rent. If it was arable, he was supposed to give the state a tithe; if it was open pasture, he was to pay a small capitation fee (scriptura) for every head of cattle turned out upon it. There existed a nominal check upon the accumulation of too much of this public land in the hands of single individuals, for the old Licinian laws had provided that no one should hold more than 500 jugera of tillage, or turn out more than 100 oxen or 500 sheep upon the pasture. But by the second century this ancient regulation was deliberately ignored ; indeed, it had not been well observed even at the time of its enactment, and of late was only occasionally raked up by legalists like Cato the elder.

In the fourth century, and even in the third, the tendency of the Roman state had been to divide up the larger part of conquered land viritim, or to put colonies upon it. But from B.C. 250 onwards the amount of new soil placed at the disposal of the Republic had been so enormous that it was not possible to find settlers ready to occupy it. A larger and larger proportion after each conquest had to be thrown open to the licensed squatter. This was more especially the case with the vast tracts that were confiscated in Southern Italy from the states that adhered too long to Hannibal. These had been the last of the distributions. Since B.C. 210 they had ceased; no new Italian land being available. Once and again there had been some talk of the inconvenience caused by the want of fresh soil, and the celebrated Laelius had thought for a moment of proposing a resumption by the state of part of the broad acres of the squatters. But he dropped the project after discovering its practical difficulties, and gained thereby his nickname of Sapiens.

The simple idea of Tiberius Gracchus was that the state should resume possession of all this land held by tenants at will — possessores was their legal name, and possessio their tenure — and distribute it up among the lately dispossessed farmers who were sitting idle in the streets of Rome. He announced that, as a matter of grace, and not of right, he should propose that the present occupiers might be allowed the terms granted by the Licinian Rogations. Each, that is, should be allowed to select and retain 500
jugera out of the land that he was holding ; he might also (this was a new provision) set aside 250 acres more for each of two sons. The small estate thus created should be granted to the old occupier as private property, but the rest must at once be surrendered to the state. In the first draft of the law which Tiberius drew up, there would seem also to have been a clause providing for some compensation for unexhausted improvements on the surrendered land, such, we may suppose, as houses or farm buildings erected by the outgoing tenant. It was practically certain that the Senate would refuse its sanction to any such bill, but for that hindrance the reformer cared nought. He intended to carry it through the Comitia in spite of the Fathers.

Early 20th century depiction of the election of a Roman tribune

With this, apparently, as his sole programme, he stood for the tribunate in B.C. 134, was easily elected, and entered into office in the succeeding year. The first announcement of his intention roused an opposition that he cannot but have foreseen, though he displayed considerable indignation at it. The eviction of all the possessores from the public land was not such a simple matter as it looked. When an estate has been occupied by the same family for many generations, without any reminder on the part of the landlord that they may one morning be requested to depart, ties both practical and sentimental grow up between the tenant and the soil, which it is idle for the lawyer to disregard. Of the public land held by possessio, some had been granted out as far back as the Samnite and Pyrrhic wars, and none had been distributed at a later date than Hannibal’s expulsion from Italy. It had been held, therefore, by the tenants for terms ranging from seventy to two hundred years, without any interference on the part of the state. They had naturally expected that the system would endure, and had behaved as if they had a perpetual lease instead of a precarious license to squat.

The moment, therefore, that the bill was brought forward, Tiberius found that he had roused a hornets’ nest about his ears. There was probably hardly a senator or a knight in Rome who did not hold some of his land by the mere tenure of possessio, and the fact that the tenure was precarious had (through the state’s own fault) been completely forgotten. It was not merely the financial loss that angered the squatters, but the sentimental grievance. On the lands from which they were to be evicted lay, as they complained, their old family villas and the tombs of their ancestors. They did not want compensation for disturbance; nothing could make up to them for the loss of such things. Moreover, the legal difficulties that would be raised were unending; some had borrowed money on the security of such lands — were the creditors to lose the sum advanced ? Others had charged upon them the dowries of their wives, or the portions of their daughters. Many had bought soil held by possessio at its full market value, under the impression — confirmed by the practice of two hundred years — that it was to all intents and purposes held under a perpetual lease. Some, occupying estates of this kind alongside of others held in full freehold, had pulled down the boundaries between them, and inextricably confused the holdings.

In short, the proposal of Tiberius to leave the possessores some remnant of their old acres, and to grant them a certain compensation for unexhausted improvements, failed (as was natural) to content them. How could it, when they were to be evicted from the main part of their land entirely in opposition to their own desire? Very reasonably, from their own point of view, they resolved to fight till the last gasp, and to fight in the old constitutional Roman fashion, by finding one of the tribunes who sympathised with them, and inducing him to put his veto on his colleague’s proposed Agrarian Law.

Now the tribunicial veto had by this epoch of the Republic’s history grown to be a mere nuisance and an anachronism; yet it was so much tied up in men’s memories with the ancient constitutional triumphs of the early centuries, that it was regarded much as the modern Englishman regards Trial by Jury or Habeas Corpus. To touch it seemed profane. Yet its employment had grown casual and spasmodic. It was no longer used (as had been originally intended) for the protection of the plebeian from the patrician. Indeed patrician and plebeian were now inextricably confused in blood, and most of the staunchest oligarchs and reactionaries of the last century before Christ were of plebeian name and race. Of late the tribunate and the veto had been utilised in the most irregular and haphazard way, quite as often by the Senate against the Democrats as by the Democrats against the Senate. Sometimes it was used for purely personal ends by any vain, or eccentric, or ambitious person who had succeeded in obtaining the office. The quaintest tales may be collected, by those curious in the subject, concerning the use of the veto in these latter days. But on the whole the constitution had been saved, by a rough system of give and take, from the ever possible deadlock which the veto might bring about. The powers of the office had never been pressed to their logical extreme, though it was always possible that an obstinate man might bring matters to a crisis. At this particular moment, in B.C. 133, Rome was blessed not with one, but with two obstinate tribunes who held diametrically opposite views.

At the earliest opportunity, therefore, after his election to office, Tiberius brought forward his bill. Its most important clauses we have already noticed ; but we must add that the confiscated land was to be cut up into farms of thirty jugera each, inalienable by the allottees, and charged with a small rent payable to the state. The former provision was intended to prevent applications by speculators, who might intend not to farm, but to sell at a profit ; the latter was to keep before the eves of the new settlers the fact that they were not freeholders, but tenants of the state. A permanent court of three commissioners “Triumviri agris dandis assignandis,” was to be created, not only to distribute land, but to sit as judges in all cases where there was a dispute as to what was and what was not state domain, or as to the fraction which the old tenant desired to retain, or as to any other point arising out of the law.

Both Plutarch and Appian have preserved scraps of the great speech with which Gracchus introduced his bill. They enable us to gauge perfectly the honest but emotional and high-strung temperament of the orator. “The wild beasts of Italy,” he cried, “have their holes and dens to retire to, but the brave men who spill their blood in her cause have nothing left, when they come back from the wars, but light and air. Without hearth or home, they wander like beggars from place to place with their wives and children. A Roman general does but mock his army when he exhorts his soldiers to fight for their ancestral sepulchres and their domestic gods. For in these days how many are there of the rank and file who possess an altar that their forefathers reared, or a sepulchre in which their ashes rest? They fight and die merely to increase the wealth and luxury of the rich; they are called the masters of the world while none of them has a foot of ground of his own.” Having thus painted the miseries of the present state of things, he began to explain his remedy for them. It was absolutely necessary that Rome should keep up the class from which her legions were drawn: land must be found for these landless men, and land was available. “Was it not most just to distribute the public property among the public? Had the slaves who now tilled the estate of the possessores more claims to consideration than citizens? Was not a soldier more valuable to the state than a man who could not fight, a Roman than a barbarian ? Accordingly it was his duty to call upon the rich men who now held the public land to take into consideration the dangerous State into which the Republic was drifting, and to yield up their holdings of their own accord, as a free gift, if need be, to men who could rear children for the future benefit of Rome. They must be patriotic enough to subordinate their own profit to the good of the state. Surely it would be sufficient compensation that each of them was guaranteed the perpetual possession without payment of 500 jugera for himself and half as much for each of his sons.”

The speech, as all our authorities agree, was moving and eloquent enough. It roused to enthusiasm the needy crowd of dispossessed farmers, who had never before heard their own case put so strongly. They fully believed that their ruin had come not from economic causes, but from the greed of the rich; they thought that, if started again with the state’s aid and protection, they might yet live off the land. The purely urban multitude was moved with the emotional fervour of the harangue, and had no objection to confiscatory measures directed against its old enemies, the governing classes. Clearly Tiberius would not lack supporters, and the angry capitalists soon saw that they would have to fight to the death, if they wished to retain the broad lands which they had so long regarded as their own. Accordingly they had got their instrument ready. A tribune was at hand, prepared to veto the law. He was named M. Octavius: all agree that he was a perfectly honest and upright man. He had been a personal friend of Gracchus, but was a thorough conservative, and (what no doubt did much to settle his politics) a considerable holder of land in possessio. When, by the order of Tiberius, the clerk began to recite the preamble of the Agrarian Law, Octavius rose and bade him desist. Tiberius from the first showed signs of temper; he turned on his colleague, we are told, and used harsh and insulting words to him Then he postponed the introduction of the bill to the next legal day of meeting, begging his friends to see that they came down in full force to the adjourned debate.

A vast crowd appeared on the appointed day, enough, as the reformer hoped, to overawe his recalcitrant colleague. But when the clerk again began to recite the preamble, Octavius again interposed his veto; then followed a violent scene, while the tribunes exchanged hard words and the mob raged and shouted. A most unhappy inspiration then came upon the reformer. Honestly unable to understand that his colleague could have any but selfish reasons for his obstinacy, he suddenly made a most offensive proposal to him. ” You are,” he said, “a considerable holder of public land. I will pay yon the full value of it out of my own pocket if you will withdraw your veto.” Naturally Octavius was deeply hurt, and put aside at once the insulting offer. His colleague had taken the very course which made it a point of honour for him to persist in opposition to the very last.

Again there was a deadlock. The condition of affairs raised wild anger in the breast of Tiberius. He was still convinced that only bad motives could lead men to oppose a law in which, as he considered, lay the sole hope of salvation for the Roman state. Accordingly he resolved that these enemies of the people should be chastised. He redrafted his bill, striking out the compensation clauses, and simply evicting the possessores as a punishment for their opposition. Moreover he resolved to show that if his adversaries could use the powers of the tribune, so could he. He determined to make all state business impossible, till his bill should have had a hearing. Using an undoubted constitutional right, but one which no man but a doctrinaire in a passion would have employed at such an early stage of the proceedings, he forbade all other magistrates to exercise their functions till the Agrarian Law should have been discussed. He sealed up the state treasury in the temple of Saturn, to prevent any payments being made from it. He gave notice to the praetors that they must close the law-courts, and that if they allowed a case to be tried they should be punished by a heavy fine. In a short time every department of government was in confusion: public servants could not draw their pay; contractors could not continue their works; every litigant found his lawsuit hung up. The confusion and anarchy caused was out of all proportion to the gravity of the provocation which Tiberius had received. The main result of it was to estrange from the reformer’s cause the greater part of his more moderate partisans. There were men who had thought that the law was desirable, if the possessores could be paid off and induced to depart without too much friction. But it was obviously iniquitous to abolish the compensation clauses merely because opposition had been offered. And to put a stop to all public business was mischievous and wrong-headed in the extreme. Tiberius, however, was wrought up to such a pitch of exasperation, that he utterly refused to press his scheme in a slower and less desperate fashion. He brought forward the new and harsher form of the bill, and laid it before the Comitia at the first opportunity.

Again Octavius interposed his veto. Rioting followed, and it is said that a gang of the clients and hangers-on of the possessores made a dash for the balloting urns, and tried to break up the Comitia in order to prevent the reformer from proceeding. They were routed, however, and the meeting continued. Two friends of Gracchus, a Manlius and a Fulvius, both consulars, are then said to have suggested to him that, before going further, he might ask the Senate to plead with his colleague to allow the bill a fair hearing. The proposal, if made in good faith, was not a very wise one, considering that most senators were holders, on a greater or lesser scale, of public land. Possibly, as Mommsen suggests, the more moderate men wished at all costs to give Gracchus time to get cool, and to allow him a chance of discussing his bill in a less electric atmosphere than that of the Comitia. It argues an honest simplicity on the part of the reformer that he accepted the suggestion, and hurried off to the Senate-house. Clearly he thought that his proposals must seem so reasonable to every good citizen, that the Senate would take sides in his favour, even against the private interest of the majority of its members. He was soon undeceived; there was much debate, but nothing was done. When he broached his request, he was met with insulting replies from prominent squatters, and finally the Senate refused to interfere with a tribune who was only exercising his undoubted constitutional privilege.

Convinced now that he would get nothing by quiet means, and that all the upper classes were leagued against him, Tiberius rushed into mere violence and illegality. At the next meeting of the Comitia he made one more appeal to Octavius, taking him by the hand, and imploring him not to stand between the people and their will. When the expected negative was given to his impassioned appeal, Tiberius suddenly produced a new and startling proposal. “Two colleagues of equal power,” he said, “when they differ on a capital point, cannot work together. They must always be engaged in hostilities, and the public weal must suffer. It would be better that one should be removed.” Accordingly he invited Octavius to take the sense of the meeting on their differences, with the understanding that the tribune found to be in a minority should abdicate from his office and withdraw. The notion was unprecedented and unconstitutional. Indeed, looking over the assembly, all clamorous for the Agrarian Law and new farms, Octavius must have considered it a mockery as well as a solecism. Of course he refused to have anything to do with such a scheme. Tiberius told him to look out for the worst, and dismissed the Comitia for that day.

On the following morning he put before the tribes a very simple issue — Could the magistrate who opposed the will of the people be the people’s true representative? If he was setting himself up in opposition to them, ought he not to be removed? Of course the argument was as illogical as it was unconstitutional, for “the will of the people ” in the mouth of Gracchus meant merely the snap-vote of some particular assembly, of the 20,000 or 30,000 citizens who chanced to be in the Campus Martius that day. There is an end to all government, if magistrates can be made and unmade at the whim of any mob that gets together on a day of excitement. According to the Roman constitution, the idea of deposing a tribune was unthinkable ; once elected, he represented the majesty of the people, and could not be touched ; to harm him was sacrilege. Voluntary resignation or death were the only ways in which his place could become vacant. To remove him by a vote of the tribes, before his time was out, was as impossible as (let us say) it would be for a mass-meeting of the electors of Westminster to declare their member of Parliament deposed, and then to fill up his place.

Nevertheless, when the adjourned assembly met, Tiberius put before them the motion that Octavius should be deposed from office. His colleague simply observed that the whole proceeding was impossible and illegal. But the voice of the multitude was with the reformer. Seventeen tribes, one after another, gave their votes for the proposal; before the eighteenth had come up, and an actual majority had been registered (the number of tribes was thirty-five at this period), Tiberius gave Octavius a last chance, telling him that if his veto were withdrawn the vote should proceed no further. But the Optimate was neither to be intimidated nor to be coaxed; he maintained his obdurate attitude until the voting was over. Then, when told to depart, because he had been deposed and was no longer a tribune, he clung to the rostra, vociferating that the whole proceedings were null and void — a statement which was undoubtedly true, if there remained any force in the Roman constitution. Completely losing control of his temper, Tiberius had him dragged off the platform and thrust away. The mob below got him down, and nearly pulled him to pieces. He barely escaped with his life, and a faithful retainer who tried to protect him had his eyes torn out.

After this scandalous scene, in which he had narrowly escaped the guilt of causing his colleague’s death, Tiberius proceeded to hold an illegal election meeting, and filled up the place of Octavius in the tribunicial college with an obscure client of his own, one Q. Mummius. There was now nothing to prevent the passing of the Agrarian Law, which was produced for the third time, and carried in its revised form, with the compensation clauses left out. We have already given its details. It only remains to add that when the three commissioners, agris dandis assignandis, had to be appointed, Tiberius showed a great want of political wisdom. He named himself, his younger brother, Caius — a youth of twenty — and his father-in-law, Appius Claudius. He aimed merely at securing stringent efficiency in action, and did not see how invidious it was to assign the grave and unpleasant work of confiscation to a mere family party.

There would have been a serious financial difficulty in starting the commission on its work, if it had not been for an unforeseen chance. Even if the domain lands were successfully torn from the possessores, and handed over to the would-be colonists, how were the latter to be fitted out for their experiment ? Thousands of cottages must be built for them, tens of thousands of yokes of oxen purchased, hundreds of thousands of agricultural implements procured. How Tiberius had originally proposed to find the very large sums of money necessary for this purpose we are not told. The raising of the funds would certainly have involved him in a bitter conflict with the Senate, who always made finance their special province. But fortune intervened. Just at this moment there died Attalus III, the last king of Pergamus. He was an eccentric and tyrannical prince, who divided his time between the study of the fine arts and the extermination of his relatives. When he died suddenly of sunstroke, it was found that he had left his whole kingdom as a legacy to the Roman Republic. Those who knew him averred that he had often pondered over the most effective way of making his subjects unhappy, and had concluded that he could devise no better manner of doing so than this. There was an enormous accumulation of ready money in the coffers of Attains. Tiberius resolved to seize upon it for his own purposes. Accordingly he brought forward a bill by which the Pergamene treasures were voted away to purchase ploughs and oxen, and to build barns and cottages for the new settlers. It mattered little that many districts of Asia broke out into rebellion rather than accept the Roman domination. The inland was up in arms under a certain Aristonicus (the son, it was said, of the daughter of an itinerant harper), who claimed to be a natural son of the father of Attalus III. But the capital, the coast cities, and, most important of all, the treasure, were safely made over to the Senate and People.

It was this ample stock which made it possible for Tiberius to set the Land Commission seriously to work. It is clear that before the end of his year of office a vast amount of land had been seized and distributed. But for one most important thing Tiberius made no provision. Evidently he had no conception of the need of it: — this was to secure that when the land was distributed, and stocked, and furnished with its barns and cottages, it should prove a paying concern. Yet one would have thought that even a rash experimenter might have reflected that if the older race of farmers, with all the accumulated experience of ages spent on the same soil, could not make both ends meet, it was decidedly unlikely that their successors — city-bred men, or at least men who had taken refuge in the city and lived there for some time estranged from rural pursuits — would be able to accomplish the feat. But it is clear that the fact that agricultural depression had its roots not in “the wickedness of the rich,” but in obscure economic changes, had never entered the reformer’s head. Of the friction that must have accompanied the confiscations our authorities tell us little. We only know that there were an immense number of complicated lawsuits, and that the bitterness of feeling among the expropriated possessores grew more bitter as the year rolled on. If they had raged at the threat of eviction, it was but natural that they should grow absolutely desperate as, man after man, they were actually expelled from their holdings. There is no reason to doubt the truth of the statement that plots were made to assassinate Tiberius. He himself certainly believed it; and when one of his friends died of an obscure distemper[4], he accused his enemies of having poisoned him, and made an inflammatory harangue at his funeral, in which he declared that he was obliged to place his life under the protection of the people.

Such a guarantee was not of much effective use, and Tiberius went about with the uncomfortable persuasion that he was a marked man. Bitter hatred followed him wherever he appeared. He had ruined too many prominent men to be able ever again to live in quiet. Angry senators insulted him in the streets, and asked him inconvenient constitutional questions on public occasions. No story was too silly or malignant to be told against him. One ridiculous Optimate solemnly declared that he had got from Pergamus, among the royal treasures, a crown and a purple robe, which he intended to use when he should proclaim himself king of Rome! The most threatening symptom, however, for Tiberius was that several resolute enemies announced that they intended to impeach him for majestas, — for unconstitutional conduct amounting to high treason, — the day that his office came to an end, because he had “diminished the majesty of the Roman people” by deposing a sacrosanct tribune from office. Tiberius, knowing that he was technically guilty, had no wish to face such a trial. He made an elaborate apologia for all that he had done in a speech which shows strong traces of his studies in the field of Greek political philosophy. “The person of a tribune,” he said, ” is no doubt sacred and inviolable, because he is the representative of the sovereign people. But if he manifestly opposes their interests and tyrannises over them, by refusing to allow them the liberty to vote on any project which they have at heart, he surely deprives himself by his own act of his sacrosanct character. If we were to find a tribune trying to pull down the temple on the Capitol, or to set fire to the arsenal, we should lay restraining hands on him in spite of his inviolability. And in a similar fashion, he who is doing his best to diminish the majesty of the Roman people must be stripped of the power to do so. Is it not shocking to think that the people should not have the right of deposing one who is using his privileges against those who gave them to him? The kings of old held the most awful of magistracies, yet Tarquin was expelled. Can anything be more holy and venerable than the Vestal Virgins who keep the perpetual fire; yet if one of them breaks her vows she is buried alive. So, too, a tribune who injures the sovereign people can no longer be sacred and inviolable because of the investiture which the people gave him. He has destroyed the power in which alone his strength lay.”

All this, and much more to the same effect, was eloquent and persuasive enough, but clearly it was not law, nor was it even common-sense. The whole argument rests on the assumption that a minority has no right to resist by the constitutional means which are at its disposal. It assumes that the verdict of the Comitia on some chance day of meeting is the same thing as “the will of the Roman people.” It also presupposes that what the people desires is necessarily for its own best interests. From such views any amount of intolerant trampling on minorities might be logically justified. If anything more is needed to make the reformer’s position absurd, it is that the body which he idealised into “the Roman people” was really the shifting urban multitude which his adversaries called “the mob ” — misera et sordida plebecula, to use the words of a later politician.

The time for the election of the tribunes for B.C. 132 was now drawing near, and it was suggested to Gracchus that if he wished to preserve himself from prosecution for high treason, and if he desired to be sure that his Land Commission should go on with its work, the best thing because he had “diminished the majesty of the Roman people” by deposing a sacrosanct tribune from office. Tiberius, knowing that he was technically guilty, had no wish to face such a trial. He made an elaborate apologia for all that he had done in a speech which that he could do would be to stand again for the tribunate, and to retain both his sacrosanct position and his power of dealing as a magistrate with the public assembly. By resolving to offer himself as a candidate for a second term of office Tiberius changed his whole political position. He had started as an enthusiast who had one single measure at heart, and merely desired to carry it through: the settlement of the Agrarian Question had seemed to him to be the one really pressing need of the Roman state. When his great bill had passed, he might logically have sung his nunc dimittis and retired into private life, to live down the hatred of the governing classes by proving that at least he had been wholly disinterested in all his actions.

But by asking for a second term of office Tiberius made himself into a permanent party leader. He saw this himself, and justified his position by putting forth a regular political programme. In the reforms which he announced that he intended to carry out in B.C. 132 we see foreshadowed the whole “Democratic platform ” of the next fifty years. The planks of it included (i) the relaxation of the terms of military service ; (2) the granting of a right of appeal from all law-courts to the sovereign people assembled in the Comitia ; (j;) the abolition of the monopoly, which the senators had hitherto enjoyed, of supplying all the jurors in the courts ; (4) (if Velleius is to be trusted) the introduction of a bill for extending the franchise to Latin and Italian allies. How far this last proposal was to go is unfortunately unknown ; indeed, we have only a very meagre outline of the whole set of schemes.

It would probably be doing Tiberius an injustice to suspect that the whole of this programme was drawn up in order to provide him with an excuse for asking for a renewal of his tribunate. He considered that his opponents had behaved so badly, that he was in duty bound to continue the campaign against them that had commenced with the Agrarian Law. He had gathered round himself a knot of partisans who looked upon him as their responsible leader, and would highly resent his retirement from public life. We may suspect also that the discovery of his own power to sway the multitude by his fervid eloquence had somewhat intoxicated him, and that he was not unwilling to accept the post of “friend of the people.” To accuse him of mere ambition and love of authority would be unfair. Though he was busily engaged in breaking up the old constitution of Rome, he does not seem to have been aware of the fact. By legislating on such important matters as the Agrarian Law and the appropriation of the Pergamene treasures by mere “plebiscites,” without the approval and consent of the Senate, he had practically ended the time-honoured compromise under which Roman politics had been conducted for the last two hundred years. If the state machine could be worked by an irresponsible tribune dealing directly with the sovereign people, the Senate became a useless wheel in the engine. But it seems probable that all these facts passed completely over the reformer’s head; he was under the impression that he was no revolutionary, but merely a good citizen carrying out his obvious duty.

The news that Tiberius was canvassing for a second tenure of office brought the more or less suppressed wrath of his enemies to boiling-point. They had supposed that they would be rid of him as legislator at the end of the year, and they had hoped to do their best to get him tried for majestas when he was once more a private citizen. The prospect of a second year of democratic agitation appalled them. Accordingly they bent all their efforts to the end of frustrating his election. Owing to the season of the year, it was certain that very few rural voters would be present; they would not leave the vintage even to support their best friend. The matter would lie, as usual, in the hands of the urban populace, and the enemies of Gracchus were not without hopes that a combination of influence, intimidation, and bribery might secure them a majority in that very unsatisfactory body of voters. But when the reformer devoted himself for many days to a desperate personal canvass, it soon became evident that his popularity was too great, and that his triumph was more than probable. As a last resort his foes resolved to raise a constitutional question on a disputed point of election law.

When, among immense excitement, the poll began, the first two tribes gave their suffrages for Gracchus. It was so customary for the remaining tribes to follow the lead of those who had the “prerogative” of the first vote, that the return of the reformer seemed secure. But then the objection was made that it was not legal for the same person to hold the tribunate for two years in succession. This was a doubtful point of constitutional law; so much so, that a few years later the Democratic party took the trouble to pass a bill formally affirming its legality. But in B.C. 133 the question could still be debated. There were many precedents for a re-election; the case of Licinius, the author of the old Agrarian Law of b.c. 367, was especially apposite, as the people had returned him for ten successive years before he finally got his scheme carried out. On the other hand, there was an old law, dating from the generation after Licinius (B.C. 342), which discouraged re-election. It had not been invariably observed, but it was still on the Statute Book. Moreover, there was a constitutional theory that the practice was to be deprecated, because it prevented a magistrate from being made responsible for the acts of his year of office. A person who was perpetually re-elected could never be called to account This theory was still worth defending if the Optimates wished for a fight.

When the point was brought up, the partisans of Tiberius raised loud cries of dissent, and such a tumult arose that the presiding tribune, one Rubrius, grew scared and refused to proceed. Then Mummius, the successor of the deposed Octavius, tried to take over the charge of the meeting, declaring that he saw no difficulty, and was prepared to go on with the election. But other tribunes intervened, declaring that either Rubrius must carry out his day’s work, or else there must be a fresh casting of lots for the selection of a fresh president. While the magistrates wrangled, the people grew more and more turbulent, and when the meeting had degenerated into a riot it had finally to be adjourned.

This unexpected hitch in the proceedings struck dismay into the heart of Tiberius. He thought that he was lost if he should fail to secure his re-election, considering the fierce spirit which his enemies were displaying. Clothing himself in black, and leading his little son by the hand, he went round the Forum appealing to the multitude to save their friend from imminent peril of death. His indignant partisans closed around him, vowing that he should be preserved at all costs, and for the next few days he went about with a sort of bodyguard armed with staves and bearing torches after nightfall. This mob was a splendid mark for the satire and invective of the Optimates. Had there ever been before, they asked, a citizen of Rome who could not stir without a huge gang of bravos at his heels? What could such assemblies mean? If Greek precedents went for anything, the “friend of the people,” who declared his life in danger and went about with an organised band of satellites behind him, would some day blossom out into a tyrant, seize the Capitol, and massacre the Senate.

We may be perfectly certain that Tiberius had no thought of emulating Cypselus or Peisistratus, but it must be confessed that his actions bore a most singular resemblance to theirs. Even those who sympathised with his ends were scared at his reckless proceedings, for in this last crisis of his life he showed a complete lack of coolness and self-restraint. On the night before the adjourned election meeting he collected a great crowd of his adherents, many of whom encamped before his house and slept in the street. He harangued them, told them that violence would probably be used against them, and added that in that case they must meet force by force. He arranged that his partisans should mass themselves in the front of the place of assembly before the Capitol, and keep off their opponents by their serried ranks. Appian adds that he agreed to give them a signal, if he considered himself in danger, by raising his hand to his head, as a token that his life was at stake. If they saw the sign, they must prepare to fight. All this was a deliberate provocation of civil war: to endeavour to pack a meeting and to come down prepared for violence means rioting and not politics. It was quite enough to give an excuse to men much less angry and unscrupulous than the opponents of Gracchus.

On the eventful day the tribune set out, accompanied by a mass of his supporters. We are told that all the omens were very dismal that morning; the sacred chickens had refused to eat; Tiberius stumbled on his own doorstep and cut his foot; crows scuffling on the roof dislodged a tile which fell almost on his head. His satellites muttered that ill-luck was in the air; but his old tutor, the philosopher Blossius, cried out “that the son of Gracchus and the grandson of Scipio, the protector of the people of Rome, would never be held back by any omen from going forth to help that people in the day of their need,” and the cortège forced its way through the crowded streets toward the Capitol.

At first it seemed as if the reformer were about to carry all before him. His faithful tool Mummius had obtained the presidency for the day, and began to call over the roll of the tribes. There was a solid mass of democrats at the front, who received Gracchus with the loudest acclamations, and formed round him in a sort of battle array when he took his place with his. colleagues. But presently it was seen that there was also a hostile element present; the possessores had sent down their clients and retainers, and scuffling and quarreling began at half-a-dozen points, till all was clamour and disorder, and the voices of the tribunes could not be any longer heard. At this moment Tiberius descried a friend of his own, a senator named Fulvius Flaccus, making frantic signs and beckonings to him, over the head of the crowd, from a point of vantage on to which he had climbed. Flaccus, one of the few really warm partisans of reform in the Senate, had news for his leader. When he had been with difficulty thrust to the front, he gasped that danger was imminent, for the possessores were trying to induce the Senate to declare Tiberius a public enemy, and since they could not move the consul to action, were threatening to arm their friends and servants and to sally out into the streets to murder him. Without waiting to see whether or no the report was exaggerated or the enemy really at hand, Tiberius gave the signal for hostilities by making the preconcerted sign of raising his hand to his head. In an instant all was in confusion; his friends girt up their gowns, broke up the fasces of the lictors, and any other woodwork they could find, to make bludgeons, gathered in a compact mass and drove the partisans of the possessores out of the field with bruises and broken heads. The other tribunes fled, the priests hastened to shut up the temples, and all peaceable citizens ran home to get out of the trouble, spreading various absurd rumours as they fled.

While all this was in progress, the Senate had been sitting in the temple of Fides, receiving from time to time more or less accurate accounts of what was going on before the Capitol. The news that Flaccus had carried to the assembly seems to have been somewhat highly coloured, for though the possessores had been denouncing Tiberius in the bitterest terms, they had not succeeded in moving the consul Scaevola to take any action against him, nor had the Senate shown any willingness to pass a decree of outlawry. There were still many moderate men in it, who shrank from the responsibility of commencing civil strife. The debate in the Senate was only brought to a head when the clamour of the multitude who were fleeing from the scene of riot was heard. Inquiries made of the fugitives elicited the wildest statements; some said that Gracchus was deposing all the other tribunes from office (as he had once deposed Octavius); others cried that he was appointing himself without election tribune for the ensuing year. The most absurd version was that, when he had been seen raising his hand to his head, he was asking for the kingly crown.

The opponents of Gracchus were already wrought up to such a pitch of wrath by the financial ruin that he had brought upon them, that they readily believed — or professed to believe — even the wildest of these rumours. Their spokesman, L. Cornelius Scipio Nasica, a consular who had been a great holder of domain land, leapt to his feet and once more adjured Scaevola to take up arms against the “tyrant.” But the imperturbable magistrate merely announced that if Gracchus was persuading or forcing the people into irregular courses, he should take care to annul his proceedings, but that he would not be the first to have recourse to violence, nor would he ever put any citizen to death without a trial. Then Nasica cried aloud that since the consul refused to defend his country, he adjured all who wished to save Rome and her laws to follow him to the Capitol. So saying he girt up his toga, and cast the purple border of it over his head, that all might see his rank. He rushed into the street followed by many scores of the younger senators, who were joined outside by a crowd of their clients and attendants. They soon made their way to the Capitol, where they found Gracchus haranguing his partisans; the multitude was thinning out after the election proceedings had come to an end, and it is said that the reformer had now no more than 3000 or 4000 men around him.

Without any attempt at parley, Nasica charged at the Democrats, with his followers streaming in a wedge behind him, the senators at their head. Neither side was armed, save with staves and broken chairs and benches. Quite contrary to what might have been expected, the Optimates cleft through the mob of Gracchus’s partisans without much difficulty. It is said that many instinctively gave way before the rush of furious senators, out of inbred reverence for the purple stripe. This much is certain, that, belabouring their opponents with their improvised weapons, Nasica and his followers cleared the Capitol, driving the Democrats before them and casting some over the cliffs of the ascent. The fray was very bloody, for the assailants knocked on the head every man that fell; nearly 300 persons were killed; not one, it is recorded, by an edged weapon, but all by sticks and stones. Among the victims was Gracchus himself, who had been thrown down near the door of the Capitoline temple, in front of the statues of the ancient Roman kings. He had stumbled over a corpse, and as he strove to rise, a senator named Publius Satureius beat out his brains with a footstool.

Thus miserably perished a young man of excellent intentions and perfect honesty, who thought himself destined to be the regenerator of Rome, and merely succeeded in launching the state upon a hundred years of bitter civil strife. No man is fit for a party leader who combines an emotional temperament, an impatience of opposition, and a complete inability to look at contested questions from his opponent’s point of view as well as his own. It is probable that Tiberius was attempting an impossible task: without the introduction of Protection agriculture was doomed in Central Italy, and Protection could not be got, because it was against the interests of the urban multitude. But the agrarian question had to be fought out, and the contest, if waged with the usual gravity and self-restraint of ancient Roman politics, need not have ended in confiscation without compensation on the one side, or riot and massacre on the other. For the course that events took Gracchus himself must bear the responsibility: his enemies were greedy and narrow-minded, but he himself was harsh, reckless, and provocative beyond measure. When, in a moment of pique, he struck out the compensation clauses from his bill, he challenged the possessores to a fight to the death. Morally speaking there can be no doubt that they were entitled to some sort of amends for being evicted, without warning, from estates which they and their fathers had occupied for several generations. Having ruined many men of mark and impoverished many more, Tiberius had secured for himself an enmity that was bound to end either in his death or exile, or in his being compelled to seize autocratic power. His means were even worse than his ends: no statesman has a right to pull down the constitution about the ears of the people, the moment that he finds himself checked in his designs. However bad a constitution may be, the man who upsets it, before he has arranged for anything to put in its place, is a criminal and an anarchist, if he knows what he is doing, a mischievous madman if he does not. It would seem from the general bent of the reformer’s character that it is to the latter class that he must be consigned. He had many private virtues, — but so had Robespierre: a man may be eloquent, incorruptible, and thoroughly convinced of his own good intentions, but if he is sufficiently reckless, vain, and autolatrous, he may blossom out into the worst sort of tyrant — the philosophic doctrinaire. Looking at the emotional and impatient character of Tiberius, it is quite possible to conceive that, if that scuffle on the Capitol had had another result, he might ultimately have become that which his enemies declared that he wished to be — the tyrant of Rome.

[1] Latin: “Everything foreign is dirty and ugly.” [ed.]
[2] Latin: “[The Syrian] Orontes has flowed into the Tiber.”  The Roman satirist Juvenal’s comment on the influx of Near Eastern immigrants into Rome. [ed.]
[3] Greek:  “Cancellation of debts” and “redistribution of land.” [ed.]
[4]  The man died with symptoms which his friends could not understand, and spots broke out on his body. This in Roman folk-lore was supposed to betoken poison, but to us it has the opposite meaning, and would tend to show that he died of some sort of eruptive fever. Poisons do not (in spite of ancient tradition) manifest themselves by eruptions. [Original footnote by the author.]

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Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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