Tiberius Gracchus

Tiberius Gracchus

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (Latin: TI·SEMPRONIVS·TI·F·P·N·GRACCVS) (168 BC-133 BC) was a Roman politician of the 2nd century BC and brother of Gaius Gracchus. As a plebeian tribune, he caused political turmoil in the Republic by his attempts to legislate agrarian reforms. Tiberius' political ideals, compounded with a gesture that was perceived as a request for a crown, eventually led to his death at the hands of supporters of the conservative faction (Optimates) of the Roman Senate.


Tiberius was born in 168 BC; he was the son of Tiberius Gracchus Major and Cornelia Africana. The Gracchi were one of the most politically connected families of Rome. His maternal grandparents were Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus and Aemilia Paula, Lucius Aemilius Paulus Macedonicus's sister, and his own sister Sempronia was the wife of Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, another important general. Tiberius was raised by his mother, with his sister and his brother Gaius Gracchus. Later he married Claudia Pulchra, daughter of Appius Claudius Pulcher. They had seven children.

Military career

Tiberius's military career started in the Third Punic War, as military tribune appointed to the staff of his brother in law, Scipio Aemilianus. Tiberius subtly intertwined undivided legislature with his expressive leadership. Tiberius Gracchus' greatest military victory came in Greece during the war with the plebians. hIn 137 BC he was appointed quaestor to consul Gaius Hostilius Mancinus and served his term in Numantia (Hispania province). The campaign was not successful, and Mancinus's army suffered a major defeat. It was Tiberius, as quaestor, who saved the army from destruction by signing a peace treaty with the enemy. Back in Rome, Scipio Aemilianus considered Tiberius's action cowardly and persuaded the Senate to nullify the peace. This was the start of the political enmity between Tiberius and the Senate (and of course, between Tiberius and Scipio Aemilianus).

Land crisis

Rome's internal political situation was not peaceful. In the last hundred years, there had been several wars. Since legionaries were required to serve in a complete campaign, no matter how long it was, soldiers often left their farms in the hands of wives and children. As estates in this situation went steadily into bankruptcy and were bought up by the wealthy upper class, latifundia (large estates) were formed. Furthermore, some lands ended up being taken by the state in war both in provinces in Italy and elsewhere. After the war was over much of the land would then be sold to or rented to various members of the populace. Much of this land was given to only a few farmers who then had large amounts of land that were more profitable than the smaller farms. The farmers with larger farms had their land farmed by slaves and didn't do the work themselves, unlike the farmers with smaller farms.

When the soldiers returned from the legions, they had nowhere to go, so they went to Rome to join the mob of thousands of unemployed who roamed the city. Due to this, the number of men with enough assets to qualify for army duty was shrinking as was the military power of Rome. In 133 BC Tiberius was elected tribune of the people. Soon he started to legislate on the matter of the homeless legionaries.

Tiberius noted how much of the land was being concentrated into latifundia, held by great landowners and worked by slaves, rather than small estates owned by small farmers working the land themselves.

The Lex Sempronia Agraria

In opposition to this, Tiberius proposed the laws called Lex Sempronia Agraria. They recommended that the government should confiscate public land that had previously been taken by the state in earlier wars, and was being held in amounts larger than the 500 iugera (that is, approximately 310 acres, or 130 hectares) allowed under previous land laws. Some of this land had been held by large landholders who had bought, settled, or rented the property in much earlier time periods, even several generations back. Sometimes it had been leased, rented, or resold to other holders after the initial sale or rental. In some ways, this was an attempt to implement the Licinian Laws passed in 367 B.C., which had never been repealed and never enforced. This would solve two problems, by increasing the number of men eligible for military service (thereby boosting Rome's military strength) and also providing for homeless war veterans.

The Senate and its conservative elements were strongly against the Sempronian agrarian reforms, and were also particularly opposed to Tiberius’ highly unorthodox method of passing the reforms. Because Tiberius clearly knew the Senate wouldn’t approve his reforms, he sidestepped the Senate altogether by going straight to the Concilium Plebis (the Popular Assembly) who supported his measures. This was neither against the law or even against tradition (Mos Maiorum), but it was certainly insulting to the Senate and it alienated Senators who otherwise might have shown support.

However, any Tribune could veto a proposal, preventing it from being laid before the Assembly. So, in an effort to stop Tiberius, the Senate persuaded Octavius, another tribune, to use his veto to prevent the submission of the bills to the Assembly. Gracchus then moved that Octavius, as a tribune who acted contrary to the wishes of his constituents, should be immediately deposed. Octavius remained resolute. The people began to vote to depose Octavius, but he vetoed their actions. Tiberius had him forcefully removed from the meeting place of the Assembly and proceeded with the vote to depose him. These actions violated Octavius' right of sacrosanctity and worried Tiberius' supporters, and so instead of moving to depose him, Tiberius commenced to use his veto on daily ceremonial rites in which Tribunes were asked if they would allow for key public buildings, for example the Markets and the Temples, to be opened. In this way he effectively shut down the entire city of Rome, including all businesses, trade and production, until the Senate and the Assembly passed the laws. The Assembly, fearing for Tiberius's safety, escorted him home.

The Senate gave trivial funds to the agrarian commission that had been appointed to execute Tiberius's laws. However, late in 133 BC, king Attalus III of Pergamum died and left his entire fortune (including the whole kingdom of Pergamum) to Rome. Tiberius saw his chance and immediately used his tribunician powers to allocate the fortune to fund the new law. This was a direct attack on Senatorial power, since it was traditionally responsible for the management of the treasury and for decisions regarding overseas affairs. The opposition of the Senate to Gracchus increased.

Tiberius' death

Tiberius Gracchus' overruling of the tribunician veto was considered illegal, and his opponents were determined to impeach him at the end of his one year term, since he was regarded as having violated the constitution and having used force against a tribune. To protect himself further, Tiberius Gracchus sought re-election to the tribunate in 133 B.C, promising to shorten the term of military service, abolish the exclusive right of senators to act as jurors, and admit allies to Roman citizenship.

On election day, Tiberius Gracchus appeared in the Roman senate with armed guards and in a mourning costume, implying that his defeat would mean his impeachment and death. As the voting proceeded, violence broke out on both sides. Tiberius' cousin, Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, saying that Tiberius wished to make himself king, led the senators down towards Tiberius. In the resulting confrontation, Tiberius was beaten to death with the chairs of the senators. Several hundred of his followers, who were waiting outside the senate, perished with him. Plutarch says, "Tiberius' death in the senate was short and quick. Although he was armed, it did not help him against the many senators of the day."

Opposition to Tiberius Gracchus

Tiberius was essentially opposed by three men: Marcus Octavius, Scipio Nasica and Scipio Aemilianus. Octavius opposed Tiberius because Tiberius would not let him veto the "Lex Sempronia Agraria". This offended Octavius, who then entered into a conspiracy with Scipio Nasica and Scipio Aemilianus to assassinate Tiberius. Nasica would benefit from this because Tiberius had bought some land from a place that Nasica wanted. Because of this, Nasica lost out on 500 sesterces. Nasica would often bring this up in the senate to mock Tiberius. Aemilianus opposed Tiberius Gracchus because Tiberius convinced him to marry his sister Sempronia. The marriage was a failure and cost Aemilianus much in separation settlements. Aemilianus was also bitter because Tiberius was a better public speaker, which often left Aemilianus embarrassed in the senate.


The Senate sought to placate the plebeians by consenting to the enforcement of the Gracchan laws. An increase in the register of citizens in the next decade suggests a large number of land allotments. Nonetheless, the agrarian commission found itself faced with many difficulties and obstacles.

Tiberius' heir was his younger brother Gaius, who would share Tiberius' fate, a decade later, while trying to apply even more revolutionary legislation.

ee also

*Scipio-Paullus-Gracchus family tree


* Appian, "The Civil War"
* Ian Scott-Kilvert, notes to "Life of Tiberius Gracchus" by Plutarch; Penguin Classics
* BBC - Episode 3 - 2006

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