Gaius Gracchus

Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154–121 BC) was a populist Roman politician in the 2nd century BC and brother of the reformer Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. His election to the office of tribune in the years 123 BC and 122 BC and reformative policies while in office prompted a constitutional crisis and his death at the hands of the Roman Senate in 121 BC.

Gaius addressing the Concilium Plebis.


Gaius Gracchus was born into a family who had a strong tradition in the politics of ancient Rome. His father, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, was a powerful man in Roman politics throughout the 2nd century BC and had built up a large and powerful clientele largely based in Spain. His mother was Cornelia, daughter of Scipio Africanus, a noble woman who was a major influence on the Gracchi; as a widow, she refused the marriage proposal of Ptolemy VIII, the king of Egypt, preferring to devote her life to the upbringing of her sons.[1]

The family was attached to the Claudii faction in Roman politics despite his mother's background. It can be supposed, however, that both the Gracchi brothers would have come into contact with powerful members of both the Claudii and Cornelii Scipiones factions.[1]

Gaius Gracchus was the younger brother of Tiberius Gracchus by about nine years. He was heavily influenced both by the reformative policy of his older brother, and by his death at the hands of a senatorial mob. Plutarch suggests that it was "the grief he had suffered [that] encouraged him to speak out fearlessly, whenever he lamented the fate of his brother."[2] Certain aspects of his reforms, and especially his judicial reforms, seem to have been directed at the people responsible for his brother's death.

Early political careerEdit

The pursuit of Gaius Gracchus

Gaius's political career began in 133 BC when he served with Tiberius's land-commission. In 126 BC, he became a quaestor in the Roman province of Sardinia, where his merits advanced his good reputation. During his quaestorship, he honed his skills in oratory.[3]

In one particularly harsh Sardinian winter, the Legate of the local garrison requisitioned supplies from the nearby towns, despite their objections. When they appealed and won the Senate's approval to keep their supplies, Gaius made them a personal appeal for aid. Fearing this as a ploy for popular approval, the Senate rebuffed envoys sent by Micipsa, king of Numidia, who had sent grain to Gaius based on their mutual regard. The Senate ordered the garrison's replacement, but also ordered that Gaius remain in his post, in Sardinia.[3]

Gaius returned to Rome, to appeal the decision. He was accused of unlawfully abandoning his post but won popular support when he pointed out that he had served twelve years - two more than the basic requirement - and had been quaestor for two years though legally only required to serve one. Furthermore, he had used the Roman money that he had brought with him to this quaestorship to aid Sardinia, and had never used his position to line his own pockets.[3]

He was then accused of aiding in an Italian revolt at Fregellae, but little evidence supported this. His support for the reforms of Gaius Papirius Carbo and Marcus Fulvius Flaccus, his evident skills at oratory and his association with the reforms of his brother led the senatorial nobles to try him on charges plainly false or heavily exaggerated. He cleared himself with ease and in 122 was elected to serve as a tribune for the following year.[4]

Gaius used his celebrated oratory, considered to be the best in Rome, to attack his opponents at every chance and frequently lamented the fate of his brother Tiberius. He criticized the Senate's failure to emulate their ancestors' respect for the tribune, citing its decision to wage war on the Falerii for insulting the tribune Genucius, or how Gaius Veturius had been condemned to death for failing to make way for the tribune. He chastised the people for standing by while Tiberius and his supporters were beaten and cited the unlawful sentences of exile that followed because the accused were not permitted to stand trial.[5]

Tribuneship of 123–122 BCEdit

Reforms in 123/2 BCEdit

Gaius' social reforms were far wider reaching than the reforms of his brother Tiberius. Perhaps motivated by the fate of his brother, some of his earliest reforms dealt with the judiciary system. He set up two initial measures, the first of which prohibited a magistrate who had been deposed by the people from holding office a second time. Gaius's second bill established the right of the people to prosecute any magistrate who had exiled citizens without a trial.[6] These decisions were a direct response to the Senate's actions in the aftermath of his brother Tiberius's murder.[1]

Courts with capital punishment, not set up by the people, were now declared illegal by a retrospective measure which saw the former consul Popilius Laenas driven into exile. Further reforms to the judicial system were passed to check the acquittals by senatorial juries of senators charged with extortion; the Lex Acilia repetundarum placed extortion trials under the control of the equites class, and trial procedures were redesigned in favour of the prosecution.[1] Aside from benefiting the provincials by dispensing of the conflict of interests involved in Senators trying their fellow-Senators on crimes of which they were often guilty themselves, it was also a significant step in wrenching apart the long-standing alliance of the rich, Senators and Equites, in oppressing the poor proletariat, and bringing the Equites to his own side against the Senate.[7][8] A second measure which Gracchus passed to please the Equites was in changing the arrangements of the Senate for collecting the taxes from the recently acquired (133) province of Asia. Whereas the Senate had arranged for a fixed sum to be paid directly to the state, excluding the Equites, Gracchus passed a measure changing the tax to a 10% tax on the lands of the province, the right of collecting which was auctioned off at Rome, thus naturally placing it in the hands of the Equites, since the Senators were banned from commerce, and the provincials were too distant.[9] Although it has been stated that Gracchus' rearrangement was mere base pandering to the avarice of the Equites, who used the opportunity to extort fearful sums from the Asian provincials, it is also true that, on the other hand in a year of drought for instance, the 10% tax of Gracchus would be actually far more favourable to the province than a fixed amount.[10]

Though Tiberius' land measures had already accomplished their object by 129, when the Senate effectively froze it (by transferring jurisdiction regarding the right to proclaim land “Public” or “Private” from the land commission to the consuls), Gracchus symbolically returned jurisdiction over the land to the commission, gratifying popular sentiment.[11] As a substitute to the allotments, large overseas colonies were planned to provide for thousands of settlers which may have included some Italians as well as Roman citizens.[11] The Lex Frumentaria required that the state buy bulk grain from North Africa and Sicily and distribute it to citizens at a low price, as a monthly ration. Secondary roads were extended throughout Italy, to facilitate trade and communication. Rome's censors auctioned off contracts for tax collection in Asia.

Gaius's Lex Militaris provided for the free issue of clothes and equipment to soldiers, shortened the term of military service and forbade the draft of boys under the age of seventeen. These reforms were intended to raise army morale and to win the political support of soldiers, allies, and voters with small incomes.[12]

Gaius submitted a franchise bill that sought the extension of Roman citizenship to all Latin citizens, and of Latin citizenship to all Italian allies. The bill was rejected because the Roman elite had no wish to share the benefits of citizenship, including subsidised grain and public works. The rejection of this measure led, in part, to the disastrous Social War of 91-87 BC.[4][dubious ]

In a further slight to the power of the Senate, Gaius changed physically how speeches were delivered from the Rostra. Formerly, when a speaker delivered a speech in the Forum, he turned his face to the right in the direction of the curia, the Senate house, and the Comitium. Instead, Gaius would turn his face to the left, toward the direction of the Forum proper, effectively turning his back on the Senate.[13][14]

Gaius showed great efficiency in his administration. He oversaw the implementation of each new institution, and personally selected 300 equestrian jurists.[15] He helped Gaius Fannius win the consulship for 122, and was elected as tribune the same year by popular vote.[16]

Senatorial ResponseEdit

The senate interpreted Gaius' popularity and legislation as threats to its privilege and position. It backed another tribune, Livius Drusus. He was placed under strict orders not to incite violence; instead, he should propose legislation that would please the common people, and make it known that he had the Senate's backing. In the event, his proposed legislation was neither credible nor beneficial to the commons, and was intended merely to undermine Gaius.[17]

When Gaius proposed that two colonies be founded with reliable citizens, the Senate accused him of trying to win favor with the people before Drusus proposed twelve with three thousand citizens. When Gaius granted the most needy small plots of redistributed land on the condition they pay a small rent to the public coffers, the Senate accused him of trying to win favor with the people before Drusus proposed to do the same rent-free.[17]

When Gaius proposed that all Latins should have equal voting rights, the Senate protested, but approved of Drusus' measure that no Latin would ever be beaten with rods. Drusus went to great pains to ensure he was never seen as the beneficiary, politically or economically, of his legislation but rather that he proposed his measures, backed by the Senate, to further benefit the people. Drusus' constant referencing of the Senate worked and at least some of the people began to feel less hostility toward the Senate, marking the Senatorial plan a resounding success.[17] When a measure was passed to found a colony at Carthage, which had been destroyed in 146 BC by Scipio Aemilianus, Gaius was appointed to oversee the construction and left for Africa. Drusus immediately took advantage of Gaius' absence by attacking Gaius' ally, Fulvius Flaccus, who was known by the Senate to be an agitator and was suspected by some of stirring up the Italian allies to revolt.

A new candidate emerged for the consulship, one Lucius Opimius, who had opposed Fannius for the consulship in 122 BC and been stymied by Gaius' machinations. Opimius, a staunch conservative and oligarchical man who wanted to restore power to the Senate, had garnered a significant following and stood poised to challenge Gaius directly. Opimius had made it his sole mission to unseat Gaius.

Death of Scipio AemilianusEdit

When Scipio the Younger agreed to represent the Italian allies, who were protesting the injustices done to them which Tiberius Gracchus' land reform was supposed to remedy, he won the hostility of the people, who accused him of standing against Tiberius Gracchus and wishing to abolish the law and incite bloodshed.[18]

When Scipio died suddenly and mysteriously one day, Gaius was one of many political enemies implicated in his death. Carbo had just that day delivered a fiery speech against Scipio and he—like other Gracchan political allies such as Fulvius Flaccus—was widely known to be an outspoken enemy of Scipio's during this time as his Gracchan-backed proposal to formally allow tribunes multiple terms in office was ultimately defeated in large part due to Scipio's influence.[19] In fact, between the years of his return from Spain in 132 and his death in 129, Scipio "inexorably began to unite the ruling oligarchy against" Gaius.[20] Other members of the Gracchi family were also accused; Scipio had been in a loveless marriage to Sempronia, sister of the Gracchi brothers and daughter of their mother Cornelia - Scipio referred to his wife as 'deformed' and 'barren'.[21] Both women were suspected of murdering Scipio because of his perceived attempt to undo the reforms of Tiberius.

Return to Rome and outbreak of violenceEdit

The combined political positions of his fellow tribunes Lucius Opimius, Livius Drusus and Marcus Minucius Rufus, another political enemy of Gaius, meant the repeal of as many of Gaius' measures as possible.[4] Gaius now stood on increasingly shaky ground with the Senate, though his popularity with the people remained undeniable. Gaius' return to Rome from Carthage set in motion a series of events that would eventually cause him to suffer the same fate as his brother. Gaius' first action was to move from his home on the Palatine, where the wealthiest of Romans and the political elite lived, to a neighbourhood near the Forum, believing that in so doing he was keeping to his democratic principles and reaffirming his loyalty to the people rather than to the senatorial elite.[22]

Gaius then called together all of his supporters from Italy to put into motion his legislation. The Senate convinced Fannius, whose friendship with Gaius had run its course, to expel all those who were not Roman citizens by birth from the city. Gaius condemned the proposal, promising support for the Italians, but his image took a hit when he failed to uphold his promises and did not stop Fannius' lictors from dragging away a friend. Whether he did this because he was afraid to test his power or because he refused to do anything which would have given the Senate pretext to initiate violence remains unknown.[22]

Gaius further distanced himself from his fellow tribunes when he insisted that the seats for a gladiatorial show be removed to allow the poor to watch. When they refused, he removed them secretly at night. Plutarch claims this cost him a third term as tribune, because, although he won the popular vote, the tribunes were so upset that they falsified the ballots.[22] Opimius and his supporters began to overturn Gaius' legislation with the hope of provoking him into violence, but Gaius remained resolute. Rumours suggested that his mother Cornelia hired foreign men disguised as harvesters to protect him.[23]

Death of Quintus AntylliusEdit

On the day that Opimius planned to repeal Gaius' laws, an attendant of Opimius, Quintus Antyllius, carrying the entrails of a sacrifice, forced his way through a crowd. A resulting scuffle between the supporters of the two opposing groups on the Capitoline Hill led to his death. Plutarch maintains that Antyllius had rudely pushed his way through the crowd and gave an indecent gesture and was immediately beset upon by Gracchan supporters much to the disapproval of Gaius.[23]

Appian states that Gaius had arrived with an escort of body guards in a distressed state. When Antyllius saw Gaius, he laid a hand on him, begging him not to destroy the state. When Gaius cast his scorn on Antyllius, his supporters took it as a sign to act on his behalf and struck Antyllius down. Gaius and Fulvius failed to exonerate themselves of the deed and returned home under the protection of their supporters to await the day's outcomes.[24]

The death of Antyllius allowed a triumphant Opimius a pretext for action. On the following morning, with much showboating, the body of Antyllius was presented to the Senate as indicative of the measures Gaius would take. The senate passed a senatus consultum ultimum, granting Opimius the right to defend the state and rid it of tyrants. The Senate armed itself and commanded all the equestrians to arm themselves and two of their servants and assemble the next morning.[25]

Fulvius gathered his supporters and they passed the evening in a drunken and raucous manner. Gaius, much more sombre, paused in front of the statue of his father on his way out of the Forum, and, weeping, went homeward. His plight and obvious distress caused such sympathy among the people, who blamed themselves for betraying their champion, that a large party gathered outside his home to ensure his protection. Unlike Fulvius, Gaius' men were quiet and reflective of future events.[25]

Death of Gaius Gracchus and Fulvius FlaccusEdit

The following morning, Fulvius' men armed themselves with spoils from Fulvius' Gallic campaign and marched loudly to the Aventine. Gaius refused to guard himself with anything save a small dagger and his toga. As he left his home, his wife Licinia, daughter of Crassus, begged him not to go meet the same men who had murdered and dishonoured Tiberius Gracchus, knowing well enough that Gaius was to die that day. Gaius, without saying a word, gently pried himself from her arms and left her there, weeping, until her servants eventually came to pick her up and carried her to her brother Crassus.[26]

At Gaius' suggestion, Fulvius sent his youngest son Quintus to the Forum to speak to the Senate as a herald carrying a staff, which was only used when heralds approached enemies in times of war. Tearful, he pleaded for terms which many there were willing to hear, but Opimius insisted on speaking directly to Fulvius and Gaius, demanding they surrender themselves for trial. These terms were not negotiable. When Quintus returned to Gaius and Fulvius, Gaius was willing to acquiesce but Fulvius was not and sent the boy back.[27]

When the boy came back to the Senate and relayed what his father Fulvius stated, Opimius placed him under arrest and under guard and advanced on Fulvius' position with a contingent of archers from Crete. When they fired on Fulvius' men, wounding many, the crowd was thrown into chaos and fled. Fulvius hid in an abandoned bath or workshop with his eldest son and when discovered both were executed. Appian adds that when they initially hid, citizens were hesitant to give them away, but when the whole row was threatened to be burned down they were handed over to the mob.[27]

Gaius, taking no part in the fighting and despairing at the bloodshed, fled to the Temple of Diana on the Aventine where he intended to commit suicide but was stopped by his friends Pomponius and Licinius. Gaius knelt and prayed to the goddess, asking that the people of Rome be forever enslaved by their masters since many had openly and quickly switched sides when an amnesty was declared by the Senate.[28]

Gaius fled the temple and tried to cross the Tiber on a wooden bridge while Pomponius and Licinius stayed back to cover his retreat, killing as many as they could until they were themselves felled. Accompanied by only his slave Philocrates, Gaius fled, urged by onlookers though no man offered assistance despite Gaius' repeated requests for aid. Arriving at a grove sacred to Furrina, Philocrates first assisted Gaius in his suicide before taking his own life, though some rumours held that Philocrates was only killed after he refused to let go of his master's body.


The Death of Gaius Gracchus, by François Topino-Lebrun, 1792.

Gaius' head was cut off, as Opimius had announced that whoever brought back the head would be paid its weight in gold. When the head measured an astonishing seventeen and two-thirds pounds, it was discovered that Septimuleius, who brought the head, committed fraud by removing the brain and pouring in molten lead and therefore received no reward at all.[29] The bodies of Gaius, Fulvius and the three thousand supporters who also died were thrown into the Tiber, their property confiscated and sold to the public treasury. Appian adds that their homes were looted by their opponents.[27]

Their widows were forbidden to mourn their deaths. Licinia, widow of Gaius, was stripped of her dower. Fulvius' youngest son, who took no part in the fighting and merely acted as herald, was executed, though Appian holds that Opimius allowed him to choose his own manner of death. Most outrageous to the people was when Opimius celebrated his victory by building a temple to Concord in the Forum with the Senate's approval. The people felt that a victory bought with the massacre of so many citizens was exceptionally distasteful. According to Plutarch, one night an inscription was carved that read "This temple of Concord is the work of mad Discord."[29]

Plutarch maintains that Opimius was the first Roman to appoint himself dictator, kill 3,000 Roman citizens without trial, including the proconsul Fulvius Flaccus and the tribune Gaius Gracchus, a man renowned for his reputation and virtue. Ironically, this same Opimius then later committed fraud and accepted bribes from the Numidian king Jugurtha and, after being convicted, spent his days in disgrace. The people, realizing that their democratic cause was now dead, understood how deeply they missed the Gracchus brothers.[30]

Statues were erected in Rome, the locations where they fell were consecrated as holy ground and the season's first fruits were offered as sacrifice. Many worshipped them daily as if the Gracchi had been elevated to divine status. Cornelia honoured the memory of her sons' murders by constructing elaborate tombs at the spot of their deaths.[30] Appian adds that within 15 years, all of the progress done under the Gracchi had been overturned and the poor were in a much worse position than ever before, many reduced to unemployment.[31]

While many of Gaius' laws were repealed by his political opponents, the Lex Frumentaria remained. It set a precedent for the "Roman Bread Dole" which existed in one form or another until the fall of the Western Empire.[32]

Gracchus BabeufEdit

The French revolutionary François-Noël Babeuf took up the name "Gracchus Babeuf" in conscious emulation of the Roman brothers, and published a newspaper Le tribun du peuple ("the tribune of the people"). Ultimately he, like them, met a violent end.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d Bradley P., Ancient Rome: Using Evidence, Cambridge University Press, 2007
  2. ^ Plutarch, Makers of Rome, Penguin Books, 1965
  3. ^ a b c Plutarch, Gaius Gracchi. 2
  4. ^ a b c Cary M. and Scullard H., A History of Rome, PALGRAVE, 1989
  5. ^ , Plutarch, Gaius Gracchi. 3
  6. ^ Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 4
  7. ^ T. Mommsen, The History of Rome, (Meridian Books, 1958), ch. II., pp. 68, 69
  8. ^ A. H. Beesely, The Gracchi, Marius and Sulla Epochs of Ancient History, (Kindle edition), ch. II., p. 34
  9. ^ Mommsen, pp. 67, 68
  10. ^ Beesely, Ibid.
  11. ^ a b Mommsen, p. 62
  12. ^ Ward Allen, Heichelheim Fritz, and Yeo Cedric, A History of the Roman People, Prentice Hall, 1999
  13. ^ Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 5
  14. ^ David Fredrick (3 October 2002). The Roman Gaze: Vision, Power, and the Body. JHU Press. pp. 198–199. ISBN 978-0-8018-6961-7.
  15. ^ Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 6
  16. ^ Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 8
  17. ^ a b c Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 8-9
  18. ^ Appian, Civil Wars 1.19
  19. ^ Stockton 91-2
  20. ^ Stockton 85-6
  21. ^ Appian, Civil Wars 1.20
  22. ^ a b c Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 12
  23. ^ a b Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 13
  24. ^ Appian, Civil Wars 1.25
  25. ^ a b Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 14
  26. ^ Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 15
  27. ^ a b c Appian, Civil Wars 1.26
  28. ^ Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 16
  29. ^ a b Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 17
  30. ^ a b Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 18
  31. ^ Appian, Civil Wars, 1.27
  32. ^ "LacusCurtius • the Roman Welfare System (Smith's Dictionary, 1875)".

External linksEdit

At the Internet Classics Archive, MIT: