The Revolutions of the Gracchi

'A fatal effect,' says M. Mérimée, 'of the Roman domination was the impoverishment and depopulation of Italy. At Rome, where commerce and industry were despised, only one way led to wealth - a career of public service. On his return from his government, a Roman official bought lands, built villas, and all at once became a great proprietor. If he chanced to have in his neighborhood an estate to his taste, he caused it to be ceded to him; sometimes he seized it while the lawful owner was fighting far away under the Roman eagles. By degrees all the small proprietors were despoiled, in order to form vast estates for the privileged class of public functionaries. Parks, gardens, and expensive fish-ponds took the place of cultivated fields. Laborers disappeared, and the country was peopled with slaves, dangerous by their numbers, and also by their robber habits, which they practised with impunity. Some masters, it is said, shared the profits of robbery with these wretches.'

The great social evils of the day the extinction of the old peasant proprietors of Italy; and the vast increase of slaves, the danger of which had been already manifested by several servile revolts in Sicily; and the congregation in the towns, and especially in Rome, of vast masses of population, not living as the artisans and traders in modern towns do, by honest industry, but living in noisy idleness upon the alms of the provinces and the sums they received for their votes - these social evils must have struck many generous hearts among the Romans. The man, however, on whom they produced so decided an impression as to lead him to devote his life to their removal, was Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the son of a plebeian of rank who had attained distinction in the Spanish wars, and of Cornelia, the daughter of the great Scipio. Abandoning, in its first stage, the more tempting career which led through the quaestorship, edileship, and praetorship to the consulship, Tiberius chose rather the office of tribune of the people, which was more suitable for the purposes of political agitation. Elected to this office B.C. 133, in the twenty-ninth year of his age, he propounded his schemes of reform. His grand project was a revival, with some modifications, of the famous agrarian law of Licinius, which had long fallen into tacit desuetude. All citizens who were in possession of a larger extent of the state land than the 500 jugera allowed by the Licinian law (unless in the case of fathers of two sons, who were to be allowed 250 jugera in addition for each of them), were to be deprived of the surplus; the buildings, vine-presses, etc., which were erected on these surplus lands to be purchased at a fair valuation; and the whole land thus seized was to constitute a stock out of which the pauper plebeians of the city were to be furnished with little farms for the honest support of themselves and families, these farms to be incapable of alienation by the persons to whom they should be allotted. Utterly revolutionary as this measure would seem in modern legislation, and sufficiently sweeping as it was, even in a Roman point of view, considering that however unjustly the ancestors of many of the large proprietors had come by their lands, yet long possession and frequent transference had in many cases sanctified the ownership - still the measure was strictly in the spirit of Roman law, and one of the supporters of Gracchus in proposing it was the eminent jurist Mucius Scaevola. Tiberius and his associates probably thought that the ends proposed - the removal of the venal mob out of Rome, and the restoration in Italy of a population of hard-working peasant proprietors, instead of the gangs of bandit slaves were difficult enough to require, and glorious enough to justify, somewhat revolutionary means. Accordingly, advocating by his eloquence in the Forum the scheme which he had matured in private, he did not cease until, in spite of the most obstinate resistance on the part of the senators, who used as their instrument against him one of his own colleagues in the tribuneship, he had gained his end. Three commissioners were appointed to superintend the execution of the law - Tiberius himself, his father-in-law Appius Claudius, and his younger brother Caius. Loud and deep were the vows of vengeance on the part of the senators; and Tiberius saw that his only chance of life lay in being reelected to the tribuneship, the dignity of which was an inviolable protection. To prevent this, the senatorial party mustered all their strength; and a tumult ensuing on one of the days of election, Tiberius, along with about 300 of his followers, was killed.

For about ten years the excitement caused by the law of Gracchus continued. Fulvius Flaccus and Papirius Carbo acting as his successors in the popular interest, and carrying on the struggle against the nobles, who raised up obstacles to the execution of the law. But in the year B.C. 123, Caius Gracchus, who now felt himself old enough to assume the career which his brother had left him as an inheritance, claimed and obtained the tribuneship. Caius was a man of more vehement character and more comprehensive views than his brother, and the schemes which he proposed embraced a great variety of points, besides a reenactment of his brother's agrarian law. In fact, a reformer by reputation and education, he made it his business to find out abuses, and either declaim against them or propose remedies for them. Perhaps the most objectionable of his measures was a law enacting a monthly distribution of corn among the city population at a nominal price a poor-law, for such it may be called, which had the effect of attracting all the paupers of Italy to Rome. A more valuable measure was his transference of the judicial power from the senators, who had hitherto held it, and who had been guilty of great corruption in the exercise of it, to theequites, or wealthy capitalists, intermediate between the senators and the poorer classes of the community. He also proposed and carried the establishment or various colonies in different parts of the empire, which afforded room for enterprise, thus relieving Rome of part of its overgrown population. More fortunate so far than his brother, he held the tribuneship for two years, and thus had time for more extensive action. Deserted, however, by the people at the end of the second year, in consequence of the policy of his opponents, who adopted the plan of outbidding him for popular favor, he lost his office. The senators, having him at their mercy, spared no means of revenge; and Gracchus, and his friend Fulvius Flaccus, having recourse to the armed assistance of their supporters to preserve their lives when they appeared in public, this was construed into a design of sedition. The consul was empowered to resort to force against them; a terrible fray occurred in one of the quarters of the town, 3000, it is said, being slain and Gracchus was killed while trying to escape into the country (B.C. 121). He was then only in the thirty-third year of his age.

The aristocracy thus triumphed for the time, and the recent measures of reform were suffered to fall into disuse; but certain portions of the policy of the two brothers had taken full effect, and the agitation which they had originated was not lulled for many years. The seeds of much that afterwards appeared in storm and bloodshed, were sown during these movements of B.C. 133-121; and as long as the world takes an interest in Ro man history, or respects disinterested political courage, it will remember the Gracchi.