1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gracchus

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GRACCHUS, in ancient Rome, the name of a plebeian family of the Sempronian gens. Its most distinguished representatives were the famous tribunes of the people, Tiberius and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, (4) and (5) below, usually called simply “the Gracchi.”

1. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, consul in 238 B.C., carried on successful operations against the Ligurian mountaineers, and, at the conclusion of the Carthaginian mercenary war, was in command of the fleet which at the invitation of the insurgents took possession of the island of Sardinia.

2. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, probably the son of (1), distinguished himself during the second Punic war. Consul in 215, he defeated the Capuans who had entered into an alliance with Hannibal, and in 214 gained a signal success over Hanno near Beneventum, chiefly owing to the volones (slave-volunteers), to whom he had promised freedom in the event of victory. In 213 Gracchus was consul a second time and carried on the war in Lucania; in the following year, while advancing northward to reinforce the consuls in their attack on Capua, he was betrayed into the hands of the Carthaginian Mago by a Lucanian of rank, who had formerly supported the Roman cause and was connected with Gracchus himself by ties of hospitality. Gracchus fell fighting bravely; his body was sent to Hannibal, who accorded him a splendid burial.

3. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (c. 210–151 B.C.), father of the tribunes, and husband of Cornelia, the daughter of the elder Scipio Africanus, was possibly the son of a Publius Sempronius Gracchus who was tribune in 189. Although a determined political opponent of the two Scipios (Asiaticus and Africanus), as tribune in 187 he interfered on their behalf when they were accused of having accepted bribes from the king of Syria after the war. In 185 he was a member of the commission sent to Macedonia to investigate the complaints made by Eumenes II. of Pergamum against Philip V. of Macedon. In his curule aedileship (182) he celebrated the games on so magnificent a scale that the burdens imposed upon the Italian and extra-Italian communities led to the official interference of the senate. In 181 he went as praetor to Hither Spain, and, after gaining signal successes in the field, applied himself to the pacification of the country. His strict sense of justice and sympathetic attitude won the respect and affection of the inhabitants; the land had rest for a quarter of a century. When consul in 177, he was occupied in putting down a revolt in Sardinia, and brought back so many prisoners that Sardi venales (Sardinians for sale) became a proverbial expression for a drug in the market. In 169 Gracchus was censor, and both he and his colleague (C. Claudius Pulcher) showed themselves determined opponents of the capitalists. They deeply offended the equestrian order by forbidding any contractor who had obtained contracts under the previous censors to make fresh offers. Gracchus stringently enforced the limitation of the freedmen to the four city tribes, which completely destroyed their influence in the comitia. In 165 and 161 he went as ambassador to several Asiatic princes, with whom he established friendly relations. Amongst the places visited by him was Rhodes, where he delivered a speech in Greek, which he afterwards published. In 163 he was again consul.

4. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (163–133 B.C.), son of (3), was the elder of the two great reformers. He and his brother were brought up by their mother Cornelia, assisted by the rhetorician Diophanes of Mytilene and the Stoic Blossius of Cumae. In 147 he served under his brother-in-law the younger Scipio in Africa during the last Punic war, and was the first to mount the walls in the attack on Carthage. When quaestor in 137, he accompanied the consul C. Hostilius Mancinus to Spain. During the Numantine war the Roman army was saved from annihilation only by the efforts of Tiberius, with whom alone the Numantines consented to treat, out of respect for the memory of his father. The senate refused to ratify the agreement; Mancinus was handed over to the enemy as a sign that it was annulled, and only personal popularity saved Tiberius himself from punishment. In 133 he was tribune, and championed the impoverished farmer class and the lower orders. His proposals (see {Agrarian Laws) met with violent opposition, and were not carried until he had, illegally and unconstitutionally, secured the deposition of his fellow-tribune, M. Octavius, who had been persuaded by the optimates to veto them. The senate put every obstacle in the way of the three commissioners appointed to carry out the provisions of the law, and Tiberius, in view of the bitter enmity he had aroused, saw that it was necessary to strengthen his hold on the popular favour. The legacy to the Roman people of the kingdom and treasures of Attalus III. of Pergamum gave him an opportunity. He proposed that the money realized by the sale of the treasures should be divided, for the purchase of implements and stock, amongst those to whom assignments of land had been made under the new law. He is also said to have brought forward measures for shortening the period of military service, for extending the right of appeal from the judices to the people, for abolishing the exclusive privilege of the senators to act as jurymen, and even for admitting the Italian allies to citizenship. To strengthen his position further, Tiberius offered himself for re-election as tribune for the following year. The senate declared that it was illegal to hold this office for two consecutive years; but Tiberius treated this objection with contempt. To win the sympathy of the people, he appeared in mourning, and appealed for protection for his wife and children, and whenever he left his house he was accompanied by a bodyguard of 3000 men, chiefly consisting of the city rabble. The meeting of the tribes for the election of tribunes broke up in disorder on two successive days, without any result being attained, although on both occasions the first divisions voted in favour of Tiberius. A rumour reached the senate that he was aiming at supreme power, that he had touched his head with his hand, a sign that he was asking for a crown. An appeal to the consul P. Mucius Scaevola to order him to be put to death at once having failed, P. Scipio Nasica exclaimed that Scaevola was acting treacherously towards the state, and called upon those who agreed with him to take up arms and follow him. During the riot that followed, Tiberius attempted to escape, but stumbled on the slope of the Capitol and was beaten to death with the end of a bench. At night his body, with those of 300 others, was thrown into the Tiber. The aristocracy boldly assumed the responsibility for what had occurred, and set up a commission to inquire into the case of the partisans of Tiberius, many of whom were banished and others put to death. Even the moderate Scaevola subsequently maintained that Nasica was justified in his action; and it was reported that Scipio, when he heard at Numantia of his brother-in-law’s death, repeated the line of Homer—“So perish all who do the like again.”

See Livy, Epit. 58; Appian, Bell. civ. i. 9-17; Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus; Vell. Pat. ii. 2, 3.

5. Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (153–121 B.C.), younger brother of (4), was a man of greater abilities, bolder and more passionate, although possessed of considerable powers of self-control, and a vigorous and impressive orator. When twenty years of age he was appointed one of the commissioners to carry out the distribution of land under the provisions of his brother’s agrarian law. At the time of Tiberius’s death, Gaius was serving under his brother-in-law Scipio in Spain, but probably returned to Rome in the following year (132). In 131 he supported the bill of C. Papirius Carbo, the object of which was to make it legal for a tribune to offer himself as candidate for the office in two consecutive years, and thus to remove one of the chief obstacles that had hampered Tiberius. The bill was then rejected, but appears to have subsequently passed in a modified form, as Gaius himself was re-elected without any disturbance. Possibly, however, his re-election was illegal, and he had only succeeded where his brother had failed. For the next few years nothing is heard of Gaius. Public opinion pointed him out as the man to avenge his brother’s death and carry out his plans, and the aristocratic party, warned by the example of Tiberius, were anxious to keep him away from Rome. In 126 Gaius accompanied the consul L. Aurelius Orestes as quaestor to Sardinia, then in a state of revolt. Here he made himself so popular that the senate in alarm prolonged the command of Orestes, in order that Gaius might be obliged to remain there in his capacity of quaestor. But he returned to Rome without the permission of the senate, and, when called to account by the censors, defended himself so successfully that he was acquitted of having acted illegally. The disappointed aristocrats then brought him to trial on the charge of being implicated in the revolt of Fregellae, and in other ways unsuccessfully endeavoured to undermine his influence. Gaius then decided to act; against the wishes of his mother he became a candidate for the tribuneship, and, in spite of the determined opposition of the aristocracy, he was elected for the year 123, although only fourth on the list. The legislative proposals[1] brought forward by him had for their object:—the punishment of his brother’s enemies; the relief of distress and the attachment to himself of the city populace; the diminution of the power of the senate and the increase of that of the equites; the amelioration of the political status of the Italians and provincials.

A law was passed that no Roman citizen should be tried in a matter affecting his life or political status unless the people had previously given its assent. This was specially aimed at Popilius Laenas, who had taken an active part in the prosecution of the adherents of Tiberius. Another law enacted that any magistrate who had been deprived of office by decree of the people should be incapacitated from holding office again. This was directed against M. Octavius, who had been illegally deprived of his tribunate through Tiberius. This unfair and vindictive measure was withdrawn at the earnest request of Cornelia.

He revived his brother’s agrarian law, which, although it had not been repealed, had fallen into abeyance. By his Lex Frumentaria every citizen resident in Rome was entitled to a certain amount of corn at about half the usual price; as the distribution only applied to those living in the capital, the natural result was that the poorer country citizens flocked into Rome and swelled the number of Gaius’s supporters. No citizen was to be obliged to serve in the army before the commencement of his eighteenth year, and his military outfit was to be supplied by the state, instead of being deducted from his pay. Gaius also proposed the establishment of colonies in Italy (at Tarentum and Capua), and sent out to the site of Carthage 6000 colonists to found the new city of Junonia, the inhabitants of which were to possess the rights of Roman citizens; this was the first attempt at over-sea colonization. A new system of roads was constructed which afforded easier access to Rome. Having thus gained over the city proletariat, in order to secure a majority in the comitia by its aid, Gaius did away with the system of voting in the comitia centuriata, whereby the five property classes in each tribe gave their votes one after another, and introduced promiscuous voting in an order fixed by lot.

The judices in the standing commissions for the trial of particular offences (the most important of which was that dealing with the trial of provincial magistrates for extortion, de repetundis) were in future to be chosen from the equites (q.v.), not as hitherto from the senate. The taxes of the new province of Asia were to be let out by the censors to Roman publicani (who belonged to the equestrian order), who paid down a lump sum for the right of collecting them. It is obvious that this afforded the equites extensive opportunities for money-making and extortion, while the alteration in the appointment of the judices gave them the same practical immunity and perpetuated the old abuses, with the difference that it was no longer senators, but equites, who could look forward with confidence to being leniently dealt with by men belonging to their own order; Gaius also expected that this moneyed aristocracy, which had taken the part of the senate against Tiberius, would now support him against it. It was enacted that the provinces to be assigned to the consuls, should be determined before, instead of after their election; and the consuls themselves had to settle, by lot or other arrangement, which province each of them would take.[2]

These measures raised Gaius to the height of his popularity, and during the year of his first tribuneship he may be considered the absolute ruler of Rome. He was chosen tribune for the second time for the year 122. To this period is probably to be assigned his proposal that the franchise should be given to all the Latin communities and that the status of the Latins should be conferred upon the Italian allies. In 125 M. Fulvius Flaccus had brought forward a similar measure, but he was got out of the way by the senate, who sent him to fight in Gaul. This proposal, more statesmanlike than any of the others, was naturally opposed by the aristocratic party, and lessened Gaius’s popularity amongst his own supporters, who viewed with disfavour the prospect of an increase in the number of Roman citizens. The senate put up M. Livius Drusus to outbid him, and his absence from Rome while superintending the organization of the newly-founded colony, Junonia-Carthago, was taken advantage of by his enemies to weaken his influence. On his return he found his popularity diminished. He failed to secure the tribuneship for the third time, and his bitter enemy L. Opimius was elected consul. The latter at once decided to propose the abandonment of the new colony, which was to occupy the site cursed by Scipio, while its foundation had been attended by unmistakable manifestations of the wrath of the gods. On the day when the matter was to be put to the vote, a lictor named Antyllius, who had insulted the supporters of Gaius, was stabbed to death. This gave his opponents the desired opportunity. Gaius was declared a public enemy, and the consuls were invested with dictatorial powers. The Gracchans, who had taken up their position in the temple of Diana on the Aventine, offered little resistance to the attack ordered by Opimius. Gaius managed to escape across the Tiber, where his dead body was found on the following day in the grove of Furrina by the side of that of a slave, who had probably slain his master and then himself. The property of the Gracchans was confiscated, and a temple of Concord erected in the Forum from the proceeds. Beneath the inscription recording the occasion on which the temple had been built some one during the night wrote the words: “The work of Discord makes the temple of Concord.”

Bibliography.—See Livy, Epit. 60; Appian, Bell. Civ. i. 21; Plutarch, Gaius Gracchus; Orosius v. 12; Aulus Gellius x. 3, xi. 10. For an account of the two tribunes see Mommsen, Hist. of Rome (Eng. trans.), bk. iv., chs. 2 and 3; C. Neumann, Geschichte Roms während des Verfalles der Republik (1881); A. H. J. Greenidge, History of Rome (1904); E. Meyer, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Gracchen (1894); G. E. Underhill, Plutarch’s Lives of the Gracchi (1892); W. Warde Fowler in English Historical Review (1905), pp. 209 and 417; Long, Decline of the Roman Republic, chs. 10-13, 17-19, containing a careful examination of the ancient authorities; G. F. Hertzberg in Ersch and Gruber’s Allgemeine Encyclopädie; C. W. Oman, Seven Roman Statesmen of the later Republic (1902); T. Lau, Die Gracchen und ihre Zeit (1854). The exhaustive monograph by C. W. Nitzsch, Die Gracchen und ihre nächsten Vorgänger (1847), also contains an account of the other members of the family, with full references to ancient authorities in the notes.  (J. H. F.) 

  1. These measures cannot be arranged in any definite chronological order, nor can it be decided which belong to his first, which to his second tribuneship. See W. Warde Fowler in Eng. Hist. Review, 1905, pp. 209 sqq., 417 sqq.
  2. It is suggested by W. Warde Fowler that Gracchus proposed to add a certain number of equites to the senate, thereby increasing it to 900, but the plan was never carried out.