Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (circa 164 – 133 BC) was a Roman tribune of the plebes and a populares politician – a faction which upheld the cause of the plebeians against the conservative aristocratic patricians – who sponsored agrarian reforms to restore the class of small independent farmers that was being driven into extinction by the concentration of public lands into illegal giant estates controlled by a small elite of the patrician senatorial class.
Service in the military service during his youth drew his attention to a growing crisis of shrinking Roman military manpower: 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 over a generation as public lands were illegally seized and consolidated into vast estates controlled by the patrician senatorial classes. In addition to illegality, it drove small farmers off their lands and into poverty, diminishing the pool of prospective legionaries.
Tiberius Gracchus proposed agrarian reforms to break the giant estates and redistribute the lands in small parcels to lower class Roman in order to restore the independent yeoman class. 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 – in the Roman Republic’s first act of organized political violence. 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.
Violence begat violence, and Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus’ political murders ushered in nearly a century of mounting turmoil as the Roman Republic tore itself apart in bouts of civil wars and bloody political purges that fell disproportionately upon and virtually wiped out the very patrician and senatorial class whose interests the optimates sought to advance.