The brothers Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (163–133 b.c.e.) and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154–121 b.c.e.) were Roman politicians who tried to wrest power from the oligarchy that dominated the Roman Republic.
Both were to introduce reforms aimed at giving more power to the "common man", and political enemies killed them both. The Gracchi brothers came from one of the noble families of Rome.
Their great-grandfather Tiberius Gracchus had been consul in 238 b.c.e.; a great-uncle, also called Tiberius Gracchus, was consul in 215 and 213 b.c.e.; and their father, also called Tiberius Gracchus, was consul in 177 and 163 b.c.e.
In addition, their mother, Cornelia, was the daughter of Publius Scipio "Africanus", the general who defeated the Carthaginian general Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 b.c.e., ensuring Roman domination of the Mediterranean Sea.
In a story told by Plutarch, the father of the two Gracchi brothers, an elderly man with a young wife, found two snakes on his bed. Seeking advice from priests, he was told that if he killed the male snake, he would die, whereas if he killed the female snake, his wife would die.
He was not allowed to kill them both or to let them both go free. Deeply attached to his wife, the elderly politician killed the male one and died soon afterward, leaving his widow to bring up the 12 children. Only three of them survived adolescence—the two brothers Tiberius and Gaius, and a sister, Sempronia.
Tiberius, the older of the two surviving brothers, was described by his biographer Plutarch as "gentle and composed", and he spoke in a "decorous tone". With his background and upbringing it was only natural that he would enter the political scene. In order to hold office in the Roman Republic it was obligatory for a man to have served in the army or navy for 10 years.
Tiberius Gracchus entered the military early and served at Carthage under his cousin Scipio Aemilianus (who was also the husband of his sister, Sempronia). He was then a quaestor in Spain in 137 b.c.e. under Gaius Hostilius Mancinus. Soon after this Tiberius Gracchus entered Roman politics.
Tiberius Gracchus, elected tribune in 133 b.c.e., had a political platform by which he would reallocate government land and also enforce an old law that restricted the holding of arable land to a maximum of 500 iugera (about 335 acres) per person.
There would then be a commission that would confiscate land from people who had holdings in excess of the law and hand it over in small parcels of land to army veterans and other loyal subjects. This would increase the agricultural base of the economy, reduce the "drift" of people moving to the cities, and help alleviate any possible food shortages.
Furthermore, it would massively increase the number of Roman citizens in the countryside dominated by slaves (making a slave revolt a very real concern), and the rural population could also provide sons for Rome’s armies—city dwellers being more reluctant to enlist.
As this would involve breaking up large estates that had sprung up on government land, the idea was hated by many of the senators whose families owned these estates. The idea raised by Gracchus was not entirely new, but he was the first member of the elite to try to push it through and make it law.
Some have seen this action as a cynical one to entice large numbers of people to vote for him and repopulate with his supporters areas where some of the small tribes lived.
Others have viewed it as an economic necessity to provide a food supply for a burgeoning city. Many writers have hailed it as a process of land reform and referred to Tiberius Gracchus and his brother as protocommunists.
It was abundantly clear that the Senate would not support any new law that would reduce their landownership, wealth, and power, and opponents of Tiberius Gracchus rallied their forces. However, Tiberius offered as a compromise that each child could hold an additional 250 iugera. The senators flatly refused to consider this.
As a result, Tiberius Gracchus decided not to put the matter to the Senate for debate but to put the bill for the new law to a people’s assembly. This was not illegal but broke some traditions going back several centuries by which the Senate could deliberate in the same way as U.S. congressional committees work.
The move to take the bill to the People’s Assembly was vetoed by Marcus Octavius, one of the tribunes. Tiberius Gracchus then resubmitted it, and Octavius again vetoed it. This second veto was unprecedented and went against the legal customs of the period, and to get it to the People’s Assembly, Tiberius Gracchus had Octavius removed from office, which was also unprecedented.
The bill became law, and redistribution began with the brother of Tiberius, Gaius, and also his father-in-law elected to the commission that oversaw the redistribution.
At that point a quite separate scandal emerged. King Attalus III of Pergamum in modern-day Turkey died. He had probably been staying with the Gracchus family, and in his will the king left his estate to Rome.
Tiberius Gracchus proposed acceptance of this, the Senate having the traditional right to foreign policy matters. Tiberius planned to distribute the property to Roman citizens, especially his supporters and the new landowners.
Plans were made to bring charges against Tiberius Gracchus, and to escape conviction he decided to seek reelection as tribune. Immediately his enemies claimed that he was trying to become a dictator. With accusations of tyranny leveled against Tiberius Gracchus, many of his political allies deserted him.
Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio, a former consul and at that time the ponitfex maximus, and a few other senators, gathered together a large mob of supporters with the mission of "saving the Republic".
Serapio was a third cousin of Tiberius Gracchus but was also married to his mother’s sister, making him an uncle. Family ties, however, counted for nothing as the mob turned on Tiberius Gracchus on the Capitol.
Tiberius Gracchus was beaten to death and his body flung into the Tiber River. Many of his supporters were also clubbed to death on the spot or died of their wounds. Publius Popillis Laenas became consul in 132 b.c.e.
The death of Tiberius Gracchus is highlighted as the first time in the Roman Republic that a political dispute had led to the murder of one of the major politicians of the period. Tiberius Gracchus had certainly been very popular with many people, including much of the elite, but the fear of him becoming a tyrant led to the revolt.
The younger brother of Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, had emerged on the political scene as a member of the land commission established in 133 b.c.e. He served as a quaestor in Sardinia. Gaius Gracchus set about rehabilitating the memory of his brother, punishing those who worked against him and introducing security measures to ensure he did not suffer the same fate.
That done, he set about starting land redistribution again. Furthermore, he tried to establish colonies overseas, including one in Carthage, which would serve as loyal bases of Roman citizens in times of emergency.
Gaius Gracchus was anxious to ensure that corn continued to be sold in Rome at subsidized prices, ensuring better public services in Rome, and regulating army service. He was also eager to reduce the administrative decision-making ability of the Senate.
He proposed making all Latins and people from Latin states allied to Rome Roman citizens. This would, on the one hand, allow them the protection of Roman magistrates but would also make far more people eligible for land in the redistribution.
His opponents were divided, and one, Gaius Fannius, whom Gaius Gracchus had supported as consul, rejected the ideas. Marcus Livius Drusus, on the other hand, suggested an even more radical policy involving the land in all colonies, almost in an attempt to "outbid" Gaius Gracchus.
The bill to introduce these reforms was rejected, and Gaius Gracchus was not reelected. In 121 b.c.e. he and his key supporter Fulvius Flaccus decided to stage an armed insurrection, but the Senate issued a declaration of emergency powers.
Flaccus was murdered, but Gaius Gracchus was able to escape with a trusted servant. As the two were cornered, Gaius Gracchus had his servant kill him, before his servant committed suicide. About 1,000 men who had supported him were arrested and executed, with their estates confiscated.
The deaths of Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus were said to mark the start of the Roman revolution, during which the power of the Roman Republic’s elite was challenged and finally ended.