Little-Known Ancient History Facts
Little-Known Ancient History Facts

Little-Known Ancient History Facts

Khalid Elhassan - September 2, 2019

Little-Known Ancient History Facts
The Gracchi brothers. Ancient Rome

2. The Gracchi: The Reformer Brothers Who Tried to Save the Roman Republic

Rome’s legions were originally drawn from those who could afford to arm and equip themselves – mostly a middle class of independent farmers. However, the independent farmer class steadily shrank over the generations, as public lands were illegally seized and consolidated into vast estates controlled by the patrician senatorial classes. In addition to illegality, those large estates, worked by massive slave gangs, drove small farmers off their lands and into poverty, diminishing the pool of prospective legionaries. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (circa 164 – 133 BC) was a Roman tribune of the plebes and a populares politician – a faction that supported plebeians against the conservative aristocratic patricians. He sponsored agrarian reforms to help small independent farmers, who were being driven into extinction by the concentration of public lands into illegal giant estates controlled by a small elite of the patrician senatorial class.

Tiberius Gracchus proposed to break the giant estates and redistribute the lands in small parcels to lower class Romans. He was vehemently opposed by the senatorial class, and when he pushed through legislation that began redistributing land, he was murdered by a senatorial mob during a riot organized by optimates – conservatives who sought to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the tribunes, while extending that of the pro-aristocratic Senate. It was the Roman Republic’s first act of organized political violence, and it broke a double taboo: that against political violence in general, and that against visiting violence upon a tribune of the plebes, whose persons had been deemed inviolate for centuries. Tiberius Gracchus’ cause was carried on by his younger brother, Gaius, who as seen below, met a similar fate at the hands of Rome’s conservatives.

Little-Known Ancient History Facts
The flight of Gaius Gracchus from a Roman mob. Eon Images

1. Gaius Gracchus Ended Up Like His Older Brother

Tiberius Gracchus’ younger brother Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154 – 121 BC) followed in his older brother’s footsteps. He became a tribune of the plebes, a populares politician advancing the cause of the plebeians, an advocate of agrarian reform, and finally, a victim of political violence when the conservative Roman Senate and the optimates murdered him. Elected a tribune of the plebes in 123 BC, Gaius Gracchus used the popular assemblies to push through his brother’s agrarian reforms, and advocated other measures to lessen the power of the senatorial nobility. He also pushed through legislation to provide all Romans with subsidized wheat, and was reelected tribune in 122 BC. In 121 BC, the Senate again organized a riot to go after a turbulent tribune. After one of his supporters was killed, Gaius Gracchus and his followers retreated to the Aventine Hill, the traditional asylum of plebeians in an earlier age.

The Senate ordered the consuls to go after Gaius, which they did with a mob. Gaius committed suicide, and the mob massacred hundreds of his followers, then threw their bodies into the Tiber river. In the long run, the murders of the Gracchi brothers backfired upon the optimates and the patrician class. The patricians were virtually exterminated during rounds of proscriptions that claimed the lives of thousands, first by the dictator Sulla going after populares following his victory in Rome’s first civil war, only for the pendulum to swing a generation later when Octavian and Mark Antony went after the optimates in an even bloodier and more thorough proscription following their victory in a civil war against Julius Caesar’s assassins. What relatively few patricians survived were gradually killed off later as they were caught up in or were falsely accused of conspiracies against various emperors, until they became virtually extinct.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Aird, Hamish – Pericles: The Rise and Fall of Athenian Democracy (2004)

Ancient History Encyclopedia – The Roman Funeral

Bright Side – 10 Things Ancient People Did That Would be Totally Weird Today

Burn, A. R. – The Pelican History of Greece (1982)

Casius Dio – Roman History, Book LXVIII

Encyclopedia Britannica – First Jewish Revolt

Encyclopedia Britannica – Greek Tyrants

Factinate – 42 Bizarre and Disturbing Facts About the Ancient World

Gonick, Larry – Cartoon History of the Universe: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

Harvey, Brian K. – Daily Life in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook (2016)

Herodutus – The Histories

Holland, Tom – Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (2004)

Madden, John, Classics Ireland, University College Dublin, Vol. 3, 1996 – Slavery in the Roman Empire: Numbers and Origins

Mayo Clinic – Lead Poisoning

Medical Daily, October 7th, 2016 – The Use of Poop in Medical Treatments Throughout History

Moseley, James – The Mystery of Herbs and Spices: Scandalous, Romantic, and Intimate Biographies of the World‘s Most Notorious Ingredients (2006)

Live Science – Mummified Kitten Served as Egyptian Offering

Nature, May 24th, 2016 – The Secret History of Ancient Toilets

Office of NIH History – A Timeline of Pregnancy Testing

Plutarch – Parallel Lives: Life of Crassus

Sherrow, Victoria L. – Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History (2006)

Suetonius – The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Tacitus – Histories

Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War

Washington Post, February 17th, 2016 – Lead Poisoning and the Fall of Rome


Roman Hairstyles

Valerian (Emperor)