6. Roman Senators Assassinate a Popular Politician Accused of Tyranny, a Century Before Julius Caesar
Tiberius Gracchus (circa 164 – 133 BC) was a Roman tribune of the plebs and a populares politician – a faction that sided with plebeians against the conservative aristocratic patricians. He advocated land reforms to help small independent farmers, a class being driven into extinction by the concentration of public lands into illegal giant estates controlled by senatorial aristocrats.
Rome’s legions were drawn from those who could afford to arm and equip themselves, mostly independent farmers. However, the class of independent farmers had been shrinking, as public lands were illegally seized and consolidated into vast estates controlled by patricians. Aside from the illegality, it reduced military manpower: independent farmers driven off their land fell into poverty, shrinking the pool of potential legionaries.
Tiberius Gracchus proposed reforms to break the giant estates, and redistribute the land to lower class Romans. He was vehemently opposed by the senatorial class, and when he pushed through legislation to redistribute the land anyhow, the senators set out to assassinate him. During an election in 132 BC, a senatorial mob rushed the tribune and his followers while they were assembled to vote, and Tiberius Gracchus was beaten to death.
It was the Roman Republic’s first act of organized political violence, and it broke a double taboo: against political violence in general, and against visiting violence upon a tribune of the plebs, whose persons had been deemed inviolate for centuries. Violence begat violence, and Tiberius Gracchus’ political murder ushered in nearly a century of mounting turmoil as the Roman Republic tore itself apart in bouts of civil wars and bloody political purges. The toll fell disproportionately upon and virtually wiped out the very patrician and senatorial class whose interests Tiberius Gracchus’ assassins had sought to protect.