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.