Quora Question:Why did Tiberius Gracchus Promote Land Reform in the face of Roman Senatorial Opposition?

Tiberius Gracchus was the son of Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi, and the grandson of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal and ended the sixteen year long Second Punic War.

Cornelia was married to Tiberius Gracchus the Elder. She bore twelve children, but only three of them, Tiberius, Gaius, and Sempronia, survived to adulthood. When Tiberius was about ten, the elder Tiberius Gracchus died. Cornelia never remarried and she saw to the education of her three surviving children.

One of Tiberius’ tutors was the Stoic philosopher Blossius of Cumae. He is one of the very few ancient notables to express opposition to slavery. I suspect that he had a profound influence on young Tiberius and steered him in the direction of social consciousness.

According to Plutarch, who wrote biographies of both Tiberius and his brother Gaius, Tiberius was passing through Etruria on his way to military service in Spain, and he noticed that there were very few family farms in the region anymore. Most had been sold and the landholdings had been consolidated by wealthy aristocrats. He must have noticed that there were a large number of landless Romans and Italians congregated in Rome. At that time, one of the requirements for joining the Roman Military was land ownership, so it became clear to Tiberius that the process of pushing farming families off the land was making it more difficult for Rome to recruit soldiers. (These property requirements would be abolished a few decades later by the Marian reforms.)

When Tiberius Gracchus returned from service in Spain, he ran for Tribune of the Plebes. His highest priority was land reform. The Italian peninsula had large tracts of land called the ager publica which were technically owned by the Roman state. He wanted this land to be distributed to landless former peasants so they could farm it as family farms.

Rome already had a precedent for limiting land holdings. The Lex Licinia limited holdings to 500 iugera. This law was technically still in effect. Tiberius wanted it enforced, and any excess given to the landless.

The Roman plebes were overwhelming in favor of this land redistribution, but, as one might imagine, those aristocrats who had estates consisting of far more than 500 iugera, were mortified. The leader of this faction was Tiberius’ own cousin, the Pontifex Maximus, Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio.

Plutarch quotes one of Tiberius’ speeches promoting his land reform law: “The beasts of Italy have their special lair and their hideaway;-every one of them has its fold or hold, while the men who fight and die for Italy have nothing but the air and light to call their own, but wander with their wives and children, without home or shelter. They’re completely out of touch with reality, those generals who appeal to the soldiers on the battlefield, calling on them to defend their graves and shrines against the enemy. For not one out of so many Romans has a family tomb or alter.They fight, yes. They die. But for the luxury and wealth of someone else. They are called masters of the world, but they haven’t so much as a clod of earth to their name.

“Is it not just that what belongs to the people should be shared by the people? Is a man with no capacity for fighting more useful to his country than a soldier? Is a citizen inferior to a slave? Is an alien,or one who owns some of his country’s soil, the best patriot? You have won by war most of your possessions, and hope to acquire the rest of the habitable globe. But now it is but a hazard whether you gain the rest by bravery or whether by your weakness and discords you are robbed of what you have by your foes. Wherefore in prospect of such acquisitions, you should, if need be, spontaneously, and of your own free will, yield up these lands to those who will rear children for the service of the State. Do not sacrifice a great thing while striving for a small, especially as you are to receive no contemptible compensation for your expenditure on the land, in free ownership of five hundred iugura secure forever, and in case you have sons, of two hundred and fifty more for each of them.”

The Senators opposing the measure persuaded one of Tiberius’ fellow tribunes, one Octavius, to veto the reading of the law. Tiberius persuaded the plebes to dismiss him from his office, and the law was read and the vote taken. It passed overwhelmingly.

In ancient Rome, Tribunes of the Plebes were sacrosanct in their persons, but when Tiberius ran for re-election, Scipio Nasica Serapio organized the Senators and led them into the crowd carrying clubs. Tiberius and three hundred of his followers were killed.

Ironically, the law, passed by the Assemblies of the Plebes, could not be overturned and went into effect. Tens of thousands of Roman families actually were resettled on the land and for a time the population of Romans eligible for military service increased.

If you want to know more about the Gracchi, read my book Sempronia, the Sister of the Gracchi. It’s available on Amazon and Kindle.

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