The Rise of Gaius Gracchus.After the death of Tiberius his law was for a time carried into execution. The commissioners proceeded with their work of re-dividing the land. But the people were for a time without a real leader. The cause of reform was then taken up by Gaius Gracchus, the brother of Tiberius, and the conflict was renewed. Gaius was in many respects an abler man than Tiberius. No more sincere and patriotic, he was yet a broader statesman and took a wider view of the situation. He did not confine his attention simply to relieving the poor citizens. He believed that to rescue Rome from her troubles, it was necessary to weaken the power of the senate, whose selfish and avaricious policy had brought on these troubles. He also believed that the Latins and the Italians should be protected, as well as the poor Roman citizens.
His Efforts to Benefit the People.When Gaius Gracchus obtained the position of tribune (B.C. 123) his influence for a time was all-powerful. He was eloquent and persuasive, and practically had the control of the government. From his various laws we may select those which were the most important, and which best show his general policy. First of all, he tried to help the people by a law which was really the most mischievous of all his measures. This was his famous “corn law.” It was intended to benefit the poor population in the city, which was at that time troublesome and not easy to control. The law provided that any Roman citizen could receive grain from the public storehouses for a certain price less than its cost. But the number of the poor in the city was not decreased; the paupers now flocked to Rome from all parts of Italy to be fed at the public crib. This corn law became a permanent institution of Rome. We may judge of its evil effect when it is said that not many years afterward there were three hundred and twenty thousand citizens who were dependent upon the government for their food. Gaius may not have known what evil effect this law was destined to produce. At any rate, it insured his popularity with the lower classes. He then renewed the agrarian laws of his brother; and also provided for sending out colonies of poor citizens into different parts of Italy, and even into the provinces.
His Efforts to Weaken the Senate.But Gaius believed that such measures as these would afford only temporary relief, as long as the senate retained its great power. It was, of course, impossible to overthrow the senate. But it was possible to take from it some of the powers which it possessed. From the senators had hitherto been selected the jurors (iudices) before whom were tried cases of extortion and other crimes. By a law Gaius took away from the senate this right to furnish jurors in criminal cases, and gave it to the equites, that is, the wealthy class outside of the senate. This gave to the equites a more important political position, and drew them over to the support of Gaius, and thus tended to split the aristocratic classes in two. The senate was thus deprived not only of its right to furnish jurors, but also of the support of the wealthy men who had previously been friendly to it. This was a great triumph for the popular party; and Gaius looked forward to another victory.
His Effort to Enfranchise the Italians.When he was reelected to the tribunate Gaius Gracchus came forward with his grand scheme of extending the Roman franchise to the people of Italy. This was the wisest of all his measures, but the one which cost him his popularity and influence. It aroused the jealousy of the poorer citizens, who did not wish to share their rights with foreigners. The senators took advantage of the unpopularity of Gaius, and now posed as the friends of the people. They induced one of the tribunes, by the name of Drusus, to play the part of the demagogue. Drusus proposed to found twelve new colonies at once, each with three thousand Roman citizens, and thus to put all the reforms of Gaius Gracchus into the shade. The people were deceived by this stratagem, and the attempt of Gaius to enfranchise the Italians was defeated.
His Failure and Death.Gaius did not succeed, as he desired, in being elected tribune for the third time. A great part of the people soon abandoned him, and the ascendency of the senate was again restored. It was not long before a new law was passed which prevented any further distribution of the public land (lex Thoria). Gaius failed to bring about the reforms which he attempted; but he may be regarded as having accomplished three things which remained after his death: (1) the elevation of the equestrian order; (2) the establishment of the Roman poor law, or the system of grain largesses; and (3) the extension of the colonial system to the provinces. He lost his life in a tumult in which three thousand citizens were slain (B.C. 121).
Thus in a similar way the two Gracchi, who had attempted to rescue the Roman people from the evils of a corrupt government, perished. Their efforts at agrarian reform did not produce any lasting effect; but they pointed out the dangers of the state, and drew the issues upon which their successors continued the conflict. Their career forms the first phase in the great civil conflict at Rome.
SELECTIONS FOR READING
Pelham, Bk. IV., Ch. l, “From the Gracchi to Sulla” (1).1
Beesly, Ch. 1, “Antecedents of the Revolution” (6).
Merivale, Gen. Hist., Ch. 28, “Tiberius Gracchus” (1).
Taylor, Ch. 9, “The Reformers” (1).
Ihne, Hist., Bk. VII., Ch. 1, “Political and Economical Condition” (2).
Mommsen, Vol. II., Bk. III., Ch. 12, “Management of Land” (2).
Mommsen, abridged, Ch. 20, “Reforms of the Gracchi” (2).
Ramsay and Lanciani, Ch. 7, “Public Lands and Agrarian Laws” (8).
Harper’s Dict. Antiqq., “Agrariae Leges” (8).
Plutarch, “Tiberius Gracchus,” “Caius Gracchus” (11).
THE ROMAN EQUITES.Liddell, p. 504 (1); How and Leigh, p. 315 (1); Shuckburgh, p. 560 (1); Ramsay and Lanciani, p. 98 (8); Gow, see index “Equites” (8); Mommsen, Vol. II., pp. 377-380 (2); Harper’s Dict. Antiqq., “Equites” (8).
1 The figure in parenthesis refers to the number of the topic in the Appendix, where a fuller title of the book will be found.