[Edited 9/1/14]

The Beginnings of the Roman Revolution: The Gracchi

You’ve all hear the line, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and, as you’ve seen in the last couple of lectures, it wasn’t.  Rome grew through centuries of almost constant warfare, wars in Italy, Spain, Africa, and Greece fought against Etruscans, Gauls, Macedonians and Carthaginians. 

Rome’s success in these wars had created a mighty empire: the Mediterranean was now a Roman lake, or, as the Romans called it “mer nostrum,” our sea.  The city of Rome was filled with booty: money, slaves, luxury goods.  Subject peoples had to pay tribute to Rome so that the Romans themselves were relived from the burden of taxation.  Not only that, Rome acquired land, land, and more land: a potentially great source of wealth.  Rome was rich and powerful: but there was a price to be paid.  In enslaving others, one often enslaves oneself, and, in depriving others of freedom, Rome sowed the seeds that would eventually lead to the destruction of republican government: the Romans would no longer be able to govern themselves.

It was a slow process, there were 100 years of sporadic civil war before the republic was finally toppled.  This period (133-31 BC) we call the Roman Revolution.

The revolution was largely the product of Rome’s many wars, particularly the Punic Wars.  But there was another cause as well, the selfishness and short-sightedness of the ruling class of Rome: the senators.  Perhaps the best example of this is the story of the Gracchi brothers.

Rome’s successes in warfare created a complicated political situation in Rome—and were beginning to affect Roman virtus as well. 

Rather than just two competing classes, Rome now had lots of competing interests.

1. A few of the most successful plebian families joined with the patricians and became what we call the Senatorial class.

2.  Other successful plebeians formed a slightly less privileged group, the Equestrians.

3.  Many plebeians, however, lost their farms, came to the cities, and found few opportunities for gainful employment.  These people constitute what we call the proletarians.

4.  Rome’s Italian Allies constituted yet another interest group, cities that had aided Rome in its victories over Carthage and in the Macedonian Wars.

5. Rome also governed many subject peoples, people who sometimes preferred Roman governors to their native rulers, but who might prefer independence as well.

6.  Finally, there were tens of thousands of often cruelly treated slaves who might stage a revolt at any time.

Perhaps Rome could have once again solved its problems peacefully as it did through the struggle of orders, but the Roman Republic had developed some problems. 

1.  Constant warfare had undermined the lex hortensia.  Plebeians were away fighting, so the assembly met seldom while the senate continued to meet all the time.

2.  Clients and freedmen distorted the political process as well, as did the beginnings of the “bread and circuses” policy.  The government sponsored six sets of games per year, and subsidized grain.

3.  Religious scruples could be used to check political action.  All it took was one priest to declare that the omens were unfavorable, and political meetings were cancelled.

4.  The senate was less open to new blood than it should have been.  There were “new men,” but typically offices went to those already in the senatorial class.

5.  The court system was badly distorted.  Roman citizens might get off with a slap on the wrist whereas provincials might be sentenced to death after a very perfunctory hearing.

6.  Rivalries among the elites became counter-productive.  The Roman search for fama, gloria, auctoritas, and dignitas should have been positive, but it led to bitter rivalries.

7.  The government system that worked for a small-city state and to be jerry-rigged to fit and empire.  This is done through “proroguing” an office.  After a year as consul, praetor, or quaestor, one became a proconsul, proprietor, or proquaestor.

8.  Probably greatest problem: decay of Roman character.  In their treatment of Carthage Rome showed a different face than it had earlier…and the destruction of Corinth was similarly harsh.  But to some, it was multiculturalism that was the problem: Rome’s *failure* to keep aloof from the corrupting influence of other culture--and perhaps this was partly so.

Cato (234-139 BC) is a good illustration of the worrisome nature of cultural change.  Cato constantly reminded the Romans of the danger Carthage posed to Rome and its culture.  He conclude all his speeches (no matter the topic) with the words “delenda est Carthago,” Carthage must be destroyed.  Cato worried likewise about the corrupting influence of Greece.  One text describes Cato this way:

As censor he attempted to preserve old Roman ancestral custom, the mos maiorum. He supported, in 181 BC, the law against luxury, lex Orchia, and in 169 BC, the law that limited a woman’s financial freedom, lex Voconia. He is also known as Cato the Censor due to his austere scrutinization of Senate officials in 184 BC and the removal of those who he considered too liberal or open to new foreign ideas, and those who were extravagant or who he felt lived luxurious, immoral lives.

Cato’s puritanical approach wouldn’t be terribly popular today, and it wasn’t popular with many affluent Romans.  But Cato won the admiration and support of many.  Plutarch says this:

The common people, however, liked Cato’s censorship. When they set up a statue in his honour, the inscription in it did not refer to his military triumphs, but simply to the fact that this was Cato the Censor, who, by his discipline and temperance, kept the Roman state from sinking into vice.

The following quotes from Cato give a pretty good sense of what this man is about:

·       After I'm dead I'd rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.

·       Anger so clouds the mind, that it cannot perceive the truth.

·       I think the first virtue is to restrain the tongue; he approaches nearest to gods who knows how to be silent, even though he is in the right.

·       Lighter is the wound foreseen.

·       Patience is the greatest of all virtues.

·       Wise men profit more from fools than fools from wise men; for the wise men shun the mistakes of fools, but fools do not imitate the successes of the wise.

·       Even though work stops, expenses run on.

As I say, in these days of cultural relativism, academics typically aren’t fans of Cato’s point of view. But Cato clearly believed that Roman society stood for something good, that Carthage stood for something evil, and the Greeks, if not evil were dangerous. And the truth of the matter that change is dangerous.  But trying not to change can also be dangerous.  “You are beset with dangers on every side, Gimli—and you yourself are dangerous.”

Well—can change be made carefully and correctly?  The men who (quite accidently) started the Roman Revolution certainly thought it could.

The Roman Revolution begins with the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.  The Gracchi were from one of the most distinguished patrician families of Rome.  Nevertheless, in 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus decided to run, not for Consul, but for Tribune, wanting to be one of the ten sacrosanct spokesman for the people of Rome as a whole.

 Once elected, T. Gracchus proposed a plan to restore the plebian small farmers.  He proposed taking public land and selling it to landless proletarians on good terms.  Why? Well, without land and a decent income, Roman soldiers couldn’t afford the proper equipment, and Gracchus had realized that an inadequate base from which to recruit soldiers was going to mean military disaster for Rome. 

His plan was a good one…but the senate said no.  Why?  Because senators were using that public land as if it were their own, and they simply did not want to give it up.

 Gracchus decided the issue was too important to give up on, and so he took the matter to the assembly which, by the lex hortensia of 287 had the right to pass legislation binding on the Roman state with our without the consent of the senate.

 After some political maneuverings (and some legally questionable actions on both sides), T. Gracchus got his legislation passed. Well begun—half done: but only half done. T. Gracchus decided to run for a 2nd term as tribune, and the senators just wouldn’t put up with this.  They armed their followers and chased Tiberius Gracchus through the streets, eventually clubbing him to death and killing some 300 of his followers.

 The senate was back in charge, and all was right with the Roman world.  Except that it wasn’t.  Tiberius Gracchus wanted his reforms for an important reason: restoring the Plebians was essential to the success of the Roman army, and some of his surviving supporters could see this.

 In 123 BC, Gaius Gracchus decided to take over where his brother had left off.  He ran successfully for tribune in 123 and 122, and carried out a series of reforms somewhat broader than his brother had championed him. He was unsuccessful in his third try for tribune, and, losing his sacrosanct status, he was all of a sudden vulnerable.  The senate took advantage: armed the followers for an attack.  The attempts of Gaius Grachhus and his supporters to defend themselves were all the excuse they needed. Gaius Gracchus was killed—and this time 3,000 of his followers.

The senate was in charge, and all was right with the Roman world. Except that it wasn’t.  The senators attempt to hang on to the status quo meant that fundamental problems weren’t addressed when they were still possible to solve peacefully.  And, ironically, the senators themselves were abandoning and important part of the mos maiorum, the tradition of resolving internal political problems through persuasion rather than violence.