Who Were the Brothers Gracchi, Why Were They Popular and How did They Die?

The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius were the two sons of Cornelia who was the daughter of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, and her husband Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus.

Cornelia gave birth to twelve children, but only three of them survived to adulthood, Tiberius, Gaius and a daughter, Sempronia.

The elder by about ten years, Tiberius joined the Roman army in his late teens and served in the third Punic War (destruction of Carthage, 146 B.C.) under his brother-in-law Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (Scipio minor) who was married to Sempronia.

Later, he served as Quaestor in Spain under Consul Hostilius Manlius in a campaign against the Numantines. When the Numantines got 20,000 Roman legionaries trapped in a defile, Tiberius negotiated a treaty with them in which they released the Romans unharmed in exchange for a favorable treaty of peace. Unfortunately, the Senate in Rome, led by his brother-in-law Scipio Aemilianus, was incensed at the thought of giving the barbarians any kind of victory. The refused to honor the treaty and sent Manlius naked and in chains to Numantium. Tiberius was not punished because he was only following orders, but it created ill feeling between him and his brother-in-law.

Three years later, in 134 B.C. Tiberius ran for Tribune of the Plebes and won. He had observed the fact that many of the soldiers he had served with were now homeless, having lost their land to wealthy Roman speculators. Since a condition of being in the Roman army required a man to be a property owner, he worried that Rome in the future would struggle to fill the ranks of their legions when so many citizens were landless. His solution to the problem was to distribute public lands (ager publica) to landless families. He proposed such a law to the Roman Assembly. In a famous speech he said:

“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 them to defend their graves and shrines against the enemy. For not one out of so many Romans has a family tomb or altar. They fight, yes, they die. But for the luxury of someone else. They are called master 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 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 in the service of the state. Do not sacrifice a great thing while striving for a small.”

The wealthy Senators who were benefiting from the use of the ager publica were furious at the prospect of distributing these lands. They bribed one of Gracchus’ fellow tribunes to veto the reading of the bill. In response, Tiberius got the assemblies to dismiss the tribune and the assemblies voted in favor of the law to distribute the ager publica to landless Roman families.

The Senators under the leadership of Gracchus’ cousin, the Pontifex Maximus Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio, made clubs from the benches in the Senate house and went out and killed Tiberius and three hundred of his followers. But the law remained in effect and a committee was set up to distribute land. One member of the committee was Tiberius’ younger brother Gaius. The committee, although not properly funded by the Senate settled tens of thousands of Roman families on the lands of the ager publica.

Giaus Gracchus served with Scipio Aemilianus in Spain during his campaign in 133 B.C. to destroy Numantium. Upon hearing of his brother’s death, he returned to Rome. He served on the committee to redistribute the lands of the ager publica and later he served as a military tribune in Sicily. After his service in Sicily, he came home and was elected Tribune of the Plebes. He proposed a number of reforms that, like those of his brother, angered wealthy and powerful Senators. After an incident in which a Consul’s servant was killed by one of Gaius’ followers, the Senate declared a Senatus Consultus Ultimum which allowed the Senate to empower their soldiers to execute anyone they chose. Gaius Gracchus and three thousand of his followers died in the subsequent mayhem.

If interested in the story of the Gracchi, read my book Sempronia the Sister of the Gracchi. It’s available on Amazon.

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