Ancient Rome 133 BC to AD 14

Sample from Chapter 3

The Challenge of the Gracchi

Tiberius' land bill

  • The Lex SemproniaAgraria was an attempt to reassert the legal limit of 500 iugera.
  • Those landholders who held an excess were to surrender it.
  • This land was then to be distributed amongst the poor peasants, possibly in allotments not exceeding 30 iugera (20 acres).
  • These lots could not be alienated (sold as if it was private land) and were probably subjected to a token rent (vectigal).
  • It is possible that Italians and Latins as well as Roman citizen were eligible for lots.
  • Those required to surrender land were to be recompensed by a grant of a secure title to the 500 iugera, plus a possible further 250 iugera if they had children.
  • A commission of three men was to be elected.
  • Its role was to carry out the complex work with the authority to check, survey, delimit, recover, exchange and assign land.
  • The chairmanship was to rotate annually.
  • The first three commissioners were Tiberius Gracchus, his brother Gaius Gracchus, and Appius Claudius Pulcher, his father-in-law.

Tiberius' complex motives

  • Tiberius could have been intent on revenge against a Senate that had rejected his Numantine Treaty, causing him grave personal humility and offence to his dignitas.
  • Both his grandfather and father had made outstanding contributions to Rome.
  • He was as ambitious and as concerned as any Roman of his class for his dignitas and auctoritas and the quest for personal Gloria.
  • He was aligned by family and inclination to a powerful political faction in Roman public life.
  • Tiberius is considered by many as a genuine reformer.
  • The small number of landholders and the dependence on slaves to work the land in Etruria influenced Tiberius to introduce reform.
  • He was driven to improve the lot of ordinary Roman landholders, to alleviate the poverty and alienation of the landless and poor.
  • He also dealt with the problems of falling military recruitment which Appian suggests was his real motive.
  • In other words, Tiberius endeavoured to restore the small holders who were the backbone of the army of the Roman Republic.

His tribunician year

  • Tiberius was elected tribuni plebis and entered office on 10 December, 134.
  • Within weeks he was ready to promote his land bill.
  • He took his agrarian bill straight to the popular assembly of the Concilium Plebis without first submitting it to the Senate for discussion and consideration.
  • This was neither illegal nor unprecedented but was certain to make the Senate hostile.
  • Since the lex Hortensia (287) enacted that a law passed by the plebs (plebiscitum) was binding on all Roman citizens, it was not necessary for any plebiscita to have prior approval of the Senate.
  • Tiberius' action would have been seen as a clear reminder of the superior authority of plebiscita.
  • It is clear that his tactics were strategic and designed to gain as much public support as possible.
  • To take the bill to the Senate first, which was the expected practice, would certainly have courted rejection and would probably have been the end of the matter.

Contiones or public debates

  • The bill marked the start of a series of contiones or public debates, which was the usual practice.
  • The terms of the bill were open to public scrutiny and comment.
  • At first none of his fellow tribunes made any comments.
  • It seems that Tiberius' fellow tribune Marcus Octavius, at first kept his peace.
  • Octavius held large holdings of ager publicus.
  • Octavius buckled, according to Plutarch, under the "unremitting pressure of so many powerful and influential men" and engaged Tiberius in debate on a daily basis.
  • Tensions mounted and as news spread, streams of country people gathered in Rome in expectation of momentous happenings.
  • Tiberius "issued an edict" (Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus 10) which forbade, under threat of a fine, all magistrates from performing their duties until the vote on his agrarian bill was carried out.
  • He placed his seals on the doors of the Temple of Saturn, bringing the administration of the state to a halt - a calculated and provocative move.
  • Demanding and gaining the obedience of the magistrates clearly demonstrated the power that a tribune had at his disposal.
  • It was a reminder that political authority or legitimacy (sovereignty) in the state was derived from the People and exercised by the tribunes.
  • The implication was that Octavius had set himself against the interests of the People, whereas Tiberius was clearly the guardian of their interests.


  • The day of voting was turbulent and Tiberius agreed to refer his proposal to the Senate.
  • He received strong criticism and abuse and the Senate was also forced to demonstrate its opposition.
  • Later, when the bill was to be read out Octavius stopped it immediately by using his veto.
  • Tiberius managed to adjourn the assembly for a week, giving himself time to consolidate his support and pressure Octavius.
  • He attended the second meeting with a crowd of supporters, intending to intimidate, or at least overawe, Octavius.
  • Octavius again vetoed the order to recite the bill and the two men argued as the crowd became increasingly restless and rowdy.
  • Tiberius adjourned the proceedings again.

Nota bene:

  • The veto or intercessio was the right of a Roman magistrate to stop the motion carried by another magistrate, as long as the magistrate imposing the veto had a greater or equal potestas.
  • A tribune's power of veto was derived from the inviolability of his person which meant that a tribune could not be physically attacked.

Expulsion of Octavius

  • At the next meeting, Tiberius introduced a second and unexpected measure before dealing with the land bill.
  • The bill questioned whether a tribune should remain in office if his actions clearly thwarted the "will of the people".
  • Tiberius again emphasised the superiority of "popular sovereignty".
  • Octavius refused to change his stance.
  • The first seventeen of the thirty-five tribes voted for the bill to remove Octavius.
  • Tiberius interrupted the vote, giving Octavius one last chance to back down.
  • When he refused, the eighteenth tribe voted, passing Tiberius' bill and thus stripping Octavius of his office as tribune.
  • The land bill was duly passed and a land commission consisting of Tiberius, his brother Gaius and his father-in-law, the princeps senatus Appius Claudius Pulcher, was established.
  • Clearly, Tiberius was prepared to go to any length to achieve his will.
  • His action against a fellow tribune caused grave constitutional concerns.

The Senate's reaction and Tiberius' counteraction

  • The next step of the Senate was intended to cripple the workings of the Land Commission.
  • On a motion put by Tiberius' cousin, Nasica, who controlled considerable holdings of ager publicus, the newly appointed Commissioners were voted trivial sums of money.
  • This would have made it impossible for them to carry out the land confiscation and redistribution program.
  • In 134, Attalus III of Pergamum bequeathed his kingdom to the people of Rome (it was to be renamed the province of Asia).
  • Tiberius introduced a bill to use the money from the bequest to help the land commission function and provide funds to the new allottees.
  • He also proposed that the future administration of the Pergamese Kingdom not be left up to the Senate.
  • This stripped the Senate of its long held right of dealing with financial matters, as well as foreign affairs.
  • The dominant groups in the Senate were outraged.
  • An ex-senator, Annius, went on the attack by questioning the legality of Tiberius' actions in removing Octavius from office.

Tiberius' next and fateful step

  • Tiberius' opponents had gathered in strength to hear him announce his candidature for re-election as a tribune.
  • This was an unprecedented and extremely provocative move.
  • He had gathered around him a rowdy and clearly intimidating force of supporters.
  • The Senate was meeting in the nearby Temple of Fides.
  • Fulvius Flaccus, who had been in the Senate, warned Tiberius that his enemies were planning to kill him.
  • Tiberius' supporters armed themselves, breaking, "up the staves which officers use to keep back the crowds".
  • At one point, Tiberius raised his hand to his head and this gesture was immediately interpreted by his enemies as a call for a crown.
  • This caused an uproar in the Senate and Nasica called on the consul Scaevola (Tiberius' father-in-law) to take firm action and restore law and order.
  • Scaevola refused to use force, claiming that he would only do so when circumstances warranted it.
  • The mood within the Senate and in Rome was becoming very heated.
  • Nasica was not satisfied and accused Scaevola of cowardice.
  • He then called on his supporters to follow him and the situation deteriorated rapidly.
  • Nasica wrapped the hem of his toga over his head, the act of the pontifex maximus putting on the cinctus Gabinus, and led his supporters against those of Tiberius.
  • Tiberius sought to escape but was clubbed down by a fellow-tribune, P. Satureius, and his body was tipped into the Tiber, thus denying him a fitting funeral.
  • Some three hundred of his supporters were likewise killed.

Nota bene:

  • The cinctus Gabinus was a method of wearing the toga.
  • It is thought to have been first used in the town of Gabii and was a way of arranging the toga so that a man would not become entangled whilst working or fighting.
  • The main fold of the toga, the sinus, was drawn over the head while one of the free ends was wrapped around the waist and tucked in.
  • It was worn by persons offering a sacrifice or by the consul when he declared war.

End of sample