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The Montreal Review, January, 2010


Tiberius Gracchus and Caius Gracchus. Two brothers from a prominent Roman family.

Tiberius's life finished prematurely. He was killed with a piece of chair on the Capitol, close by the statues of the kings; his body was thrown in Tiber River. Tiberius death marks the beginning of political violence in Rome. With his death Pandora's box was open in the Roman republic.

About ten years later, Caius Gracchus, Tiberius's younger brother, committed suicide assisted by a slave.

The brothers were political reformers. They wanted to reform Rome, to restore the balance of power in the republic - to limit the power of Roman Senate through raising the influence of popular assembly as it was in the old times. They had an ambitious program for land reform through which the impoverished in the recent decades Roman citizens could become again owners of middle size farms. They wanted to take land from the big plots of the Senatorial class and to divide it among the landless Romans. Their supposed goal was the returning of Roman military and political greatness that, during their lifetime, was in decline; and they saw in restoring social equality and balance of power the only way through which the Roman power can be rebuild.

Their political ambitions led to their death. It was late for bloodless reforms. The Roman Senate was too powerful, too rich, and too greedy to accept returning of the old status quo when the popular assembly and the tribunes (Gracchus brothers were tribunes or peoples' representatives in the Senate) had the power to influence political decisions. There were too many poor citizens and a small, powerful group of patrician families with great wealth. The Roman political and social system was already too rigid to return to its old flexibility. Political and social flexibility, checks and balances - these were the internal powers that led Rome to the top of the Ancient world and during the years of foreign expansion they had been lost.

Gracchus brothers believed that they could restore the greatness of the Roman political system. They tried to convince the aristocrats that they do not fight for a new political order; rather, Gracchus insisted, they wanted a return of Rome to its old tradition. In return the Senate charged them with accusations of populism and attempts for imposing tyranny. The Senate accused them in unconstitutional actions and eventually killed them.

The reader can easily find information about the details of Gracchus' political activities, their story and the results from their efforts. Some of the best historical sources - the writings of Appian, Livy, Plutarch, and Velleius Paterculus,- are available online and at the university libraries.

What did happen with the Roman republic after the death of Gracchus brothers?

The Gracchus' project did not succeed and the Senate anyway lost its political power shortly after the end of the conflict (the so called "social wars"). The Senate lost its leadership in favour of a new powerful player on the Roman political scene - the generals. The military reform, combined with political and economic measures that aimed to produce Roman citizens (not subjects) and soldiers - the reform that Gracchus imagined -, did not realize. Instead the army fell in the hands of ambitious generals (strong personalities)- first Marius, later Sulla, Pompeius and Caesar, and these leaders were both relying and dependant on a new-formed class of ambitious and often violent soldiers disregarding the old, republican civic rule. The generals do revived the greatness of Roman military machine and power, but they also changed the republican core of the Roman political system. These powerful individuals, leaders of loyal armies, crushed the power of the Senate. For first time in nearly 700 years of ascending Roman history Roman soldiers marched into Rome with the intention to conquer it. The real tyrants, the generals, grabbed the power without asking the Senate for constitutional reform simply because they weren't political reformers, but military usurpers. And the story of this transformation was quite interesting (see "Augustus and The End of Roman Republic")

It wouldn't be a mistake if we conclude that the Roman republic died with the death of Gracchus brothers.

Shortly after Gracchus' unsuccessful social revolution, Rome becomes a kingdom ("Principate"), an empire led by Emperor. It is true that Rome had never been a democracy, it was an oligarchy - a republican aristocratic society that resepcted people's voice and that was in political and moral decline at the time of Gracchus; and with the coming of Caesar, the first leader aiming unlimited power, more than 500 years of republican, aristocratic tradition were canceled.

The first political lesson from this story is that the balance of power and the relative social equality in democratic societies should be sacred political goals. It is in the interest of all political parties and groups social equality and the equality under the law to be preserved. Political flexibility, which is a feature only of democratic societies, would be lost without equality and justice - if the majority become impoverished and the opportunity for enrichment and personal growth based on merit cease, and a tiny minority amass and control the wealth and the politics of a nation, then we can expect either a revolution or tyranny. Poor and angry citizens cannot support democratic institutions, they don't build great societies. Once the social equality and justice (and freedom) are destroyed, then comes the time of political populists and usurpers.

The second lesson is that the reforms - social, economic and political - should be made while the problems are still "hot." They should be made with energy and boldness. There is always a risk in the immediate political action, but the late response is even more dangerous. In the case of Rome, namely the slow reaction or rather inaction, the long lasting unwillingness of the Roman elite (and society in general) to make changes in its distorted social and political order, was the source of all troubles and eventually the biggest reason for the destruction of the great ancient Roman republic.  

Written by T.S.Tsonchev


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