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Grac-chi [grak-ahy]: 'Great-guys' or nah?


   Eugene    Guillaume.  The Gracchi . 2 June 2015. Public domain.

Eugene Guillaume. The Gracchi. 2 June 2015. Public domain.

Plebeians 17in the 2nd century BCE Rome were making desperate calls amidst numerous wars and the republic’s political and social conflicts. Due to slaves and land attainment, the Roman republic grew tremendously, leading to a segregated Roman political structure. On one side of the divide lies the Optimates,1 who preserve the current Roman state so they could constantly reap advantages from the republic’s expansion. On the other hand, the powerless plebeians were subjected to inequality due to debt, slavery and dispossession in Rome. 15
Hence, the position of tribune of plebs was instituted to protect the plebeians’ rights. In order to ensure equality, two influential tribunes – Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus - stepped up and initiated reforms to improve the plebeians’ lives.2 As tribunes, the Gracchi brothers introduced land reform and other populist legislations which served as a sign of awakening for the Romans. Therefore, the Gracchi brothers transformed Rome by alleviating the corrupted Roman republic which was suffering from social and economical deterioration. However, in exchange for implementing the reforms, the brothers lost their lives, marking a turning point in history.


To kickstart, here’s a little biography: The Gracchi’s parents were Cornelia Africana .14 and Tiberius Gracchus the Elder.3It is said that Cornelia played a role in developing the Gracchi brothers’ character, and ultimately, had a significant impact on their political careers. Hailing from a lineage of prominent leaders and raised with Roman arts knowledge, it was almost certain that the Gracchi Brothers would grow up to dabble in politics.


 Guillaume Rouille.  Tiberius Gracchus . 18 December 2009. Public domain.

Guillaume Rouille. Tiberius Gracchus. 18 December 2009. Public domain.

Calm and gentle in nature, Tiberius won popular votes through reason and the reforms he proposed. The lex sempronia agraria,4 was his most popular and influential reform.
So, what caused Tiberius to be a tribune of the plebs? Well, in 137 BCE, when Tiberius returned to Rome after a successful negotiation with the Numantines, he noticed that no Romans were tilling the lands. Instead, all he saw were slaves which made him realize the farmers’ problems as they went for wars. At that time, the Roman army wasn’t professional as it comprised of ‘part-timers’.5 So, what happened to these farmers and their lands during wars? The farmers eventually went bankrupt due to an inability to sell crops and were forced to sell their lands to rich landowners. In addition, the ‘part-time’ soldiers weren’t paid much. This was how the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. Was this the way to treat valiant soldiers? Definitely not! Tiberius thought likewise and thus, proposed the land reform - to help poor citizens regain rights and have a land to call home.
The wild beasts that roam over Italy have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in, but men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children.
— Tiberius Gracchus

The Lex Sempronia Agraria

Elected as tribune of the plebs in 133 BCE, Tiberius proposed the land reform. In one of the law, it states that no citizen can own more than 300 acres of land. This wasn’t ‘revolutionary’ as Licinian Rogations was already proposed. However, the rich landowners were displeased as they had to forfeit their land (income source) and they felt that their wealth was being robbed. Any excess land seized, together with land earned through wars were reallocated to the poor and homeless Romans. Though his reform was initially rejected, it was ultimately passed.6Tiberius' reform significantly changed Rome as it solved social issues like homeless Romans and the lack of soldiers.


We have seen the benefits of Tiberius’ reform. Yet, not everyone saw eye to eye with him and even plotted ways to get rid of him. Why? Despite Tiberius’s reform being relatively objective, he offended the Senate by enforcing the land reform without seeking their acknowledgment. He went on to criticise Marcus Octavius 7for not portraying characteristics of a ‘true tribune’ as he obstructed the Romans’ pursuit of a better and equitable living. Before one of the laws Tiberius implemented, the nobles had domination over public spending and that was their direct income. However, with Tiberius’s interference, a huge proportion of public spending now goes to benefit lower class Romans.8What added fuel to the flames was that Tiberius went against precedents and tried running for tribune again. By doing so, he was no longer just protecting the plebeians’ rights but casting the tribune’s role as a state leader. Previously, the provincial governors were coordinating state issues but with the tribune taking over, it was plausible that Tiberius called upon greater political and financial control of the state. All these resulted in the Senate regarding him as a tyranny who wanted to establish a revolution.
The mind-blowing part is that Tiberius’ murder was led by his cousin, Scipio Nasica. Nasica brought supporters of the Senate who “seized sticks, stones, and ..., routing Tiberius’ supporters”, eventually subduing and killing Tiberius and his 300 supporters (Henry C. Boren, 1961). Having mentioned these, one thing to note is that in the oppositions’ eyes, Tiberius was not a nice leader. As mentioned by Boren (1961), Tiberius abused his powers as a tribune to halt public business and even threatened those who went against him.9
When Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus sought to establish the liberty of the common people and expose the crimes of the oligarchs, the guilty nobles took fright and opposed their proceedings by every means at their disposal.
— Marcus Tullius Cicero


 Silvestre David Mirys.  Gaius Gracchus, tribune of the people, presiding over the Plebeian council . 1 March 2014. Public domain.

Silvestre David Mirys. Gaius Gracchus, tribune of the people, presiding over the Plebeian council. 1 March 2014. Public domain.

Tiberius’ death influenced his younger brother, Gaius, to follow his footsteps in alleviating the plebeians’ plights through politics.16 However, the difference between them is that Gaius won the crowd’s votes with passion and emotional appeals, not reasonings. Elected as tribune of the plebs in 123 BCE, Gaius proposed many laws, with some unwelcomed by the Romans. He was a smart man who gained wide support by proposing reforms that appealed to all society classes.
Lex Militaris dealt with military problems. With this reform, soldiers’ uniform and equipment will be paid for and supplied by the state, making it possible for more people to join the army, thus increasing troop size. This unintentionally laid the groundwork for Rome’s transition from citizen soldiers to a professional fully-paid army.10
Lex Frumentaria was proposed when Rome experienced grain shortage and the poor were unable to afford grains. So, Gaius instituted a price ceiling - forcing the state to buy grains and resell them at a lower price to the citizens. Some tension was sparked as those employed felt that Gaius was encouraging the unemployed to live off the government.11


After Gaius’ trip from Africa, he demanded to establish colonies in Italy even when the Senate opposed. Therefore, as a warning to Gaius for going against the Senate, they threw Gaius’ Italian supporters out of Rome. During that same period, Gaius failed to be elected as a tribune for the 3rd time. Hatred for Gaius did not end when his election failed, but rather it sparked murder against his associate, Fulvius Flaccus 12and himself. Lucius Opimius, member of the Senate, capitalized on an incident where Gaius’ supporters killed his assistant, making a mountain out of a molehill (Russell, 2008). The next day, Opimius brought armed supporters and started a riot with Gaius and his supporters. In the midst, Fulvius was captured and executed. Seeing his associate and 3000 other supporters killed, Gaius ended the conflict and prevented further deaths by committing suicide. It is evident that the Gracchi brothers exchanged their lives in pursuit of providing equitable living for the Romans.

BBCWorldwide. Murder of Tiberius Gracchus - Ancient Rome - BBC. (15 June 2010) Youtube.


Although the Gracchi Brothers were important figures in the past, they are equally significant in the modern world we live today. Political leaders and commentators use them to promote their own causes and agendas. They were examples for dependable political leaders. Social reformers found the brothers exemplified how ‘slavery, festering poverty, demagoguery and elites threaten a republic’. John Adams, the United States president, considered Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus as demagogues aiming to incite the Roman masses in an attempt to boost their own power in republic of Rome. However, by 1830s, the brothers were considered heroes of the middle class. Antebellum Americans represented the gracchi story as a struggle between corrupt and righteous individuals, challenging to shape their country’s direction. In 19th century, the gracchi episode was the moral platform for social and economical populist movements instead of a more ethically equivocal story. According to McInnis (2015), “Rather than a conflict between corrupt and virtuous individuals, these more recent historians tend to view the Gracchi episode as a historical event driven largely by economic and political forces”. Although they failed to accomplish justice against the political forces, their actions were more than enough to impact our current society. Gracchi brothers taught us the significance of controlling power within the government in order to maintain justice, fairness and order.13


Boren, Henry. (1961). Tiberius Gracchus: The Opposition View. The American Journal of Philology. 82(4), 358-369. DOI:10.2307/292017 Retrieved 20 February 2017, from

Cristofori, Alessandro. (2002). Grain distribution in late Republican Rome. The Welfare State: Past, Present, Future. 141-54. Retrieved 23 February 2017, from

Fife, Steven. (2012). The brothers gracchi: The tribunates of Tiberius & Gaius Gracchus. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 24 February 2017, from

Henderson, M. (1968). Tiberius Gracchus and the Failure of the Roman Republic. Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory. (31), 51-64. Retrieved 14 February 2017, from

Lendering, Jona. (2002). Tribune - Livius. Retrieved 24 February 2017, from

McInnis, Edward. (2015, Spring). The Antebellum American Textbook Authors' Populist History of Roman Land Reform and the Gracchi Brothers. Journal of educational media, memory, and society. 7(1) p.25+. DOI:10.3167/jemms.2015.070102. Retrieved 22 February 2017, from

Russell, Peter. (2008). Babeuf and the Gracchi: a comparison of means and ends. Melbourne Historical Journal. (36), 41+. Retrieved 23 February 2017, from

Tiberius and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus. (2004). In Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed, 6(1) p. 479 - 480. Detroit: Gale. Retrieved 18 February 2017, from

Tsonchev, Tsoncho. (2010). Preserving Democracy. The Montreal Review. Retrieved 10 March 2017, from

Wasson, Donald. (2016). Roman RepublicAncient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 10 March 2017, from

  1. Optimates consisted of patricians and established equestrian families. They were the dominant and influential group in the Senate.
  2. These two brothers were commonly known together as Gracchi (pronounced 'Grak-ahy')and they were elected as tribune of the plebs.
  3. Cornelia was a patrician women and Tiberius a plebeian man who was elected consul twice. Even though Tiberius died early, Cornelia never remarried and even rejected the pro posal of Ptolemy. She put all her effort in making sure that the brothers had a good education with some of the best Greek teachers.
  4. It is also commonly known as the land reform
  5. Farmers and citizens who would be called in only during times of war.
  6. Tiberius was able to achieve this by deposing his opponents, namely Marcus Octavius, who we will talk about in the next paragraph. On numerous occasions, Octavius had used his power as another tribune to veto Tiberius’ reforms. This prompted Tiberius to remove Octavius from office by getting the assembly to vote on this matter. With no opposition left, he was able to pass his reform.
  7. who rejected Tiberius’ land reform
  8. This indicated less revenue for the nobles
  9. The fact that Tiberius employed such resorts could have played a part in the opposition's murder against him.
  10. Which was necessary for Rome, as they were often at war
  11. This could eventually deplete public finances.
  12. who was also an advocate for establishing colonies in Italy
  13. Referring to McInnis (2015), “These forces - such as the increased use of war captives as a labor force, a growing shortage of unused farmland for soldiers, a growing republic, and an outdated political structure - shaped the actions of key players in the Gracchi episode”. This Gracchi episode have shown the modern world about the relationship between the corrupt and the influential elites as well as the loss of freedom.
  14. If you are interested in knowing more about Cornelia, please refer to this awesome blog post that another group of students has written.
  15. If you're feeling confused and need more information, please check out this blog post
  16. Gaius renewed Tiberus land reform and his laws appear to have been directed toward the people responsible for his brother's death.
  17. Plebeians were essentially the working class and the commoners in Rome.