Gaius Gracchus

Gaius addressing the Concilium Plebis.

Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154–121 BC) was a Roman Popularis politician in the 2nd century BC and brother of the reformer Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. His election to the office of tribune in the years 123 BC and 122 BC and reformative policies while in office prompted a constitutional crisis and his death at the hands of the Roman Senate in 121 BC.


Gaius Gracchus was born into a family who had a strong tradition in the politics of ancient Rome. His father, Tiberius Gracchus the Elder, was a powerful man in Roman politics throughout the 2nd century BC and had built up a large and powerful clientele largely based in Spain. His mother was Cornelia Africana, daughter of Scipio Africanus, a noble woman who was a major influence on the Gracchi; as a widow, she refused the marriage proposal of Ptolemy VIII, the King of Egypt, preferring to devote her life to the upbringing of her sons.[1]

The family was attached to the Claudii faction in Roman politics despite his mother's background. It can be supposed, however, that both the Gracchi brothers would have come into contact with powerful members of both the Claudii and Cornelii Scipiones factions.[1]

Gaius Gracchus was the younger brother of Tiberius Gracchus, by about nine years. He was heavily influenced both by the reformative policy of his older brother, and by his death at the hands of a senatorial mob. Plutarch suggests that it was "the grief he had suffered [that] encouraged him to speak out fearlessly, whenever he lamented the fate of his brother."[2] Certainly aspects of his reforms, and especially his judicial reforms, seem to have been directed at the people responsible for his brother's death.

Early political career

The political career of Gaius Gracchus prior to 123 BC started with a seat on his brother Tiberius's land-commission upon its formation in 133 BC. He served, in 126 BC, as a quaestor in the Roman province of Sardinia, where he advanced quickly in reputation thanks to his merits. During his quaestorship in Sardinia, Gaius began to hone his legendary oratory skills.[3]

One particularly harsh winter caused the Legate to requisition supplies from the local towns for the Roman garrison. When they appealed and won the Senate's approval to keep their supplies, Gaius personally made a tour of the towns to appeal for their aid. Fearing Gaius was making a ploy to gain popular approval, the Senate rebuffed envoys sent by Micipsa, king of Numidia, who had sent grain to Gaius out of his personal regard for him. The Senate further decreed that the garrison should be immediately replaced but that Gaius would remain with the general to ensure he stayed out of Rome.[3]

Enraged, Gaius returned to Rome to appeal. Initially he was treated with suspicion for abandoning his post, but quickly won popular support when he argued that he had served twelve years, two beyond the requirement, and had served as quaestor for two years though legally only required to serve one. Further, he argued, he used the Roman money to aid Sardinia and never heavily extorted from the province to line his own pockets.[3]

He was then accused of aiding in an Italian revolt at Fregellae, but little evidence supported this. His support for the reforms of Gaius Papirius Carbo and Marcus Fulvius Flaccus, his evident skills at oratory and his association with the reforms of his brother led the senatorial nobles to try him on charges plainly false or heavily exaggerated. He cleared himself with ease and in 122 was elected to serve as a tribune for the following year.[4]

Gaius used his celebrated oratory, considered to be the best in Rome, to attack his opponents at every chance and frequently lamented the fate of his brother Tiberius. He criticised the Senate's failure to emulate their ancestors' respect for the tribune, citing its decision to wage war on the Falerii for insulting the tribune Genucius, or how Gaius Veturius had been condemned to death for failing to make way for the tribune. He chastised the People for standing by while Tiberius and his supporters were beaten and cited the unlawful sentences of exile that followed, because the accused were not permitted to stand trial.[5]

Tribuneship of 122–121 BC

Reforms in 122 BC

Gaius' social reforms were far wider reaching than those of his brother Tiberius. Perhaps motivated by the fate of his brother, some of his earliest reforms dealt with the judiciary system. He set up two initial measures, the first of which prohibited a magistrate who had been deposed by the People from holding office a second time. Gaius's second bill established the right of the People to prosecute any magistrate who had exiled citizens without a trial.[6] These moves were a direct response to the Senate's actions in the aftermath of his brother Tiberius's murder.[1]

Courts with capital punishment, not set up by the people, were now declared illegal by a retrospective measure which saw the former consul Popilius Laenas driven into exile. Further reforms to the judicial system were passed to check the practice of senatorial juries in the acquitting members of their own class of extortion. Control of the court dedicated to the trials of extortion, the Lex Acilia, was given to the equites and the procedure was rewritten to favor the prosecutors.[1] Gaius passed legislation that required juries for criminal cases to be drawn from the 300 members of the Senate as well as 300 members of the equites.

Economically, Tiberius' land reforms were continued and broadened, providing for larger allotments so free labourers could be employed. Large overseas colonies were planned to provide for thousands of settlers which may have included some Italians as well as Roman citizens. The state was also required by the law, Lex Frumentaria, to buy grain supplies imported from North Africa and Sicily and to store them in bulk to allow the distribution of a monthly ration to all Roman citizens at a low price. The construction of a widespread secondary road system was enacted to facilitate communication and trade across Italy and the contract to collect taxes in Asia was auctioned off in Rome by the censors.

Gaius also made a few reforms to the military through the passing of the Lex Militaris. This law required the government to clothe and equip Roman soldiers without deductions from their pay, shortened the term of military service, and forbade the draft of boys under the age of seventeen. The intent of these reforms was to improve army morale and to win the political support of soldiers, allies, and voters with small incomes.[7]

Politically Gaius' most farsighted proposal was the 'franchise bill', a measure which would have seen the distribution of Roman citizenship to all Latin citizens and the extension of Latin citizenship to all Italian allies. This proposal was rejected because the Roman plebeians had no wish to share the benefits of citizenship, including cheap grain and entertainment. The rejection of this measure led, in part, to the disastrous Social War of 90 BC.[4]

In a further slight to the power of the Senate, Gaius changed physically how speeches were delivered. Formerly, when a speaker delivered a speech in the Forum, he turned his face to the right in the direction of the curia, the Senate house, and the Comitium. Instead, Gaius would turn his face to the left, toward the direction of the Forum proper, effectively turning his back on the Senate.[8]

Gaius amassed a monumental amount of political power. In each of his reforms, he personally oversaw each new institution, selected the 300 equestrian men to serve on the juries and acted as director for each new project with such skill that even his opponents were stunned at his efficiency.[9] Gaius did not campaign for political office the following year, but instead threw his support behind Gaius Fannius for the consulship. Gaius' favor for Fannius won Fannius the consulship and Gaius was elected to be tribune in 122 BC despite having neither been a candidate nor having campaigned for the office, winning it on the sheer will of the People.[10]

Senatorial Response

Seeing how wildly popular Gaius was with the People, the Senate decided to fight fire with fire and endeavored to win the People's favor and thereby pull Gracchan supporters to the side of the Senate. A fellow tribune of Gaius, Livius Drusus, was backed by the Senate as an alternate voice to Gaius'. He was under strict orders to not incite violence but rather to use his position to propose legislation pleasing to the People under the auspices of the Senate. Drusus proceeded to draft legislation that was neither credible nor beneficial to the People but was intended merely to undermine Gaius.[11]

When Gaius proposed two colonies to be founded with reliable citizens, the Senate accused him of trying to win favor with the People before Drusus proposed twelve with three thousand citizens. When Gaius granted the most needy small plots of redistributed land on the condition they pay a small rent to the public coffers, the Senate accused him of trying to win favor with the people before Drusus proposed to do the same rent-free.[11]

When Gaius proposed that all Latins should have equal voting rights, the Senate protested, but approved of Drusus' measure that no Latin would ever be beaten with rods. Drusus went to great pains to ensure he was never seen as the benefactor, politically or economically, of his legislation but rather that he proposed his measures, backed by the Senate, to further benefit the People. Drusus' constant referencing to the Senate worked and at least some of the People began to feel less hostility toward the Senate, marking the Senatorial plan a resounding success.[11] When a measure was passed to found a colony at Carthage, which had been destroyed in 146 BC by Scipio Africanus the Younger, Gaius was appointed to oversee the construction and left for Africa. Drusus immediately took advantage of Gaius' absence by attacking Gaius' ally, Fulvius Flaccus, who was a known agitator to the Senate and was suspected by some for stirring up the Italian allies to revolt.

A new candidate emerged for the consulship, one Lucius Opimius, who had opposed Fannius for the consulship in 122 BC and been stymied by Gaius' machinations. Opimius, a staunch conservative and oligarchical man who wanted to restore power to the Senate, had garnered a significant following and stood poised to challenge Gaius directly. Opimius had made it his sole mission to unseat Gaius.

Death of Scipio Africanus the Younger

When Scipio the Younger agreed to represent the Italian allies, who were protesting the injustices done to them which Tiberius Gracchus' land reform was supposed to remedy, he won the hostility of the People, who accused him of standing against Tiberius Gracchus and wishing to abolish the law and incite bloodshed.[12]

When Scipio died suddenly and mysteriously one day, Gaius was one of many political enemies implicated in his death. Carbo had just that day delivered a fiery speech against Scipio and he—like other Gracchan political allies such as Fulvius Flaccus—was widely known to be an outspoken enemy of Scipio's during this time as his Gracchan-backed proposal to formally allow tribunes multiple terms in office was ultimately defeated in large part due to Scipio's influence.[13] In fact, between the years of his return from Spain in 132 and his death in 129, Scipio "inexorably began to unite the ruling oligarchy against" Gaius.[14] Other members of the Gracchi family were also accused; Scipio had been in a loveless marriage to Sempronia, sister of the Gracchi brothers and daughter of their mother Cornelia - Scipio referred to his wife as 'deformed' and 'barren'.[15] Both women were suspected of murdering Scipio because of his perceived attempt to undo the reforms of Tiberius.

Return to Rome and outbreak of violence

The combined political positions of Lucius Opimius, Livius Drusus and Marcus Minucius Rufus, another political enemy of Gaius, to tribune meant the repeal of as many of Gaius' measures as possible.[4] Gaius now stood on increasingly shaky ground with the Senate, though his popularity with the People remained undeniable. Gaius' return to Rome from Carthage set in motion a series of events that would eventually cause him to endure the same fate as his brother. Gaius' first action was to move from his home on the Palatine, where the wealthiest of Romans and the political elite lived, to a neighborhood near the Forum, believing that in so doing he was keeping to his democratic principles and reaffirming his loyalty to the People rather than to the privileged elite.[16]

Gaius then called together all of his supporters from Italy to put into motion his legislation. The Senate convinced Fannius, whose friendship with Gaius had run its course, to expel all those who were not Roman citizens by birth from the city. Gaius condemned the proposal, promising support for the Italians, but his image took a hit when he failed to cash in on the promises and did not stop Fannius' lictors from dragging away a friend. Whether he did this because he was afraid to test his power or because he refused to do anything which would have given the Senate pretext to initiate violence remains unknown.[16]

Gaius further distanced himself from his fellow tribunes when he insisted that the seats for a gladiatorial show be removed to allow the poor to watch. When they refused, he removed them secretly at night. Plutarch claims this cost him the office of the tribune for the third time, because although he won the popular vote, the tribunes were so upset that they falsified the ballots.[16] Opimius and his supporters began to overturn Gaius' legislation with the hope of provoking him into violence, but Gaius remained resolute. Rumors suggested that his mother Cornelia hired foreign men disguised as harvesters to protect him.[17]

Death of Quintus Antyllius

On the day that Opimius planned to repeal Gaius' laws, an attendant of Opimius, Quintus Antyllius, carrying the entrails of a sacrifice, forced his way through a crowd. A resulting scuffle between the supporters of the two opposing groups on the Capitoline Hill led to his death. Plutarch maintains that Antyllius had rudely pushed his way through the crowd and gave an indecent gesture and was immediately beset upon by Gracchan supporters much to the disapproval of Gaius.[17]

Appian states that Gaius had arrived with an escort of body guards in a distressed state. When Antyllius saw Gaius, he laid a hand on him, begging him not to destroy the state. When Gaius cast his scorn on Antyllius, his supporters took it as a sign to act on his behalf and struck Antyllius down. Gaius and Fulvius failed to exonerate themselves of the deed and returned home under the protection of their supporters to await the day's outcomes.[18]

The death of Antyllius allowed a triumphant Opimius a pretext for action. On the following morning, with much showboating, the body of Antyllius was presented to the Senate as indicative of the measures Gaius would take. The senate passed a senatus consultum ultimum, granting Opimius the right to defend the state and rid it of tyrants. The Senate armed itself and commanded all the equestrians to arm themselves and two of their servants and assemble the next morning.[19]

Fulvius gathered his supporters and they passed the evening in a drunken and raucous manner. Gaius, much more somber, paused in front of the statue of his father on his way out of the Forum, and weeping went homeward. His plight and obvious distress caused such sympathy among the People, who blamed themselves for betraying their champion, that a large party gathered outside his home to ensure his protection. Unlike Fulvius, Gaius' men were quiet and reflective of future events.[19]

Death of Gaius Gracchus and Fulvius Flaccus

The following morning, Fulvius' men armed themselves with spoils from Fulvius' Gallic campaign and marched loudly to the Aventine. Gaius refused to gird himself with anything save a small dagger and his toga. As he left his home, his wife Licinia, daughter of Crassus, begged him not to go meet the same men who had murdered and dishonored Tiberius Gracchus, knowing well enough that Gaius was to die that day. Gaius, without saying a word, gently pried himself from her arms and left her there, weeping, until her servants eventually came to pick her up and carried her to her brother Crassus.[20]

At Gaius' suggestion, Fulvius sent his youngest son Quintus to the Forum to speak to the Senate as a herald carrying a staff, which was only used when heralds approached enemies in times of war. Tearful, he pleaded for terms which many they were willing to hear, but Opimius insisted on speaking directly to Fulvius and Gaius, demanding they surrender themselves for trial. These terms were not negotiable. When Quintus returned to Gaius and Fulvius, Gaius was willing to acquiesce but Fulvius was not and sent the boy back.[21]

When the boy came back to the Senate and relayed what his father Fulvius stated, Opimius placed him under arrest and under guard and advanced on Fulvius' position with a contingent of archers from Crete. When they fired on Fulvius' men, wounding many, the crowd was thrown into chaos and fled. Fulvius hid in an abandoned bath or workshop with his eldest son and when discovered both were executed. Appian adds that when they initially hid, citizens were hesitant to give them away, but when the whole row was threatened to be burned down they were handed over to the mob.[21]

Gaius, taking no part in the fighting and despairing at the bloodshed, fled to the Temple of Diana on the Aventine where he intended to commit suicide but was stopped by his friends Pomponius and Licinius. Gaius knelt and prayed to the goddess, asking that the People of Rome be forever enslaved by their masters since many had openly and quickly switched sides when an amnesty was declared by the Senate.[22]

Gaius fled the temple and tried to cross the Tiber on a wooden bridge while Pomponius and Licinius would stay back and cover his retreat, killing as many as they could until they were themselves felled. Accompanied by only his slave Philocrates, Gaius fled, urged by onlookers though no man offered assistance despite Gaius' repeated requests for aid. Arriving at a grove sacred to Furrina, Philocrates first assisted Gaius in his suicide before taking his own life, though some rumors held that Philocrates was only killed after he refused to let go of his master's body.


The Death of Gaius Gracchus, by François Topino-Lebrun, 1792.

Gaius' head was cut off, as Opimius had announced that whoever brought back the head would be paid its weight in gold. When the head measured an astonishing seventeen and two-thirds pounds, it was discovered that Septimuleius, who brought the head, committed fraud by removing the brain and pouring in molten lead and therefore received no reward at all. The bodies of Gaius, Fulvius and the three thousand supporters who also died were thrown into the Tiber, their property confiscated and sold to the public treasury. Appian adds that their homes were looted by their opponents.[21]

Their wives were forbidden to mourn the death of their husbands and Licinia, wife of Gaius, was stripped of her dowry. Fulvius' youngest son, who took no part in the fighting and merely acted as herald, was executed, though Appian holds that Opimius allowed him to choose his own manner of death. Most outrageous to the People was when Opimius celebrated his victory by building a temple to Concord in the Forum with the Senate's approval. The People felt that a victory bought with the massacre of so many citizens was exceptionally distasteful. According to Plutarch, one night an inscription was carved that read "This temple of Concord is the work of mad Discord."[23]

Plutarch maintains that Opimius was the first Roman to appoint himself dictator, kill 3,000 Roman citizens without trial, including the proconsul Fulvius Flaccus who celebrated a triumph and the tribune Gaius Gracchus, a man renowned for his reputation and virtue. Ironically, this same Opimius then later committed fraud and accepted bribes from the Numidian king Jugurtha and, after being convicted, spent his days in disgrace. The People, realizing that their democratic cause was now dead, understood how deeply they missed the Gracchus brothers.[24]

Statues were erected in Rome, where they fell was consecrated as holy ground and the season's first fruits were offered as sacrifice. Many worshiped them daily as if the Gracchi had been elevated to divine status. Cornelia honored the memory of her sons' murders by constructing elaborate tombs at the spot of their deaths.[24] Appian adds that within 15 years, all of the progress done under the Gracchi had been overturned and the poor were in a much worse position than ever before, many reduced to unemployment.[25]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Bradley P., Ancient Rome: Using Evidence, Cambridge University Press, 2007
  2. Plutarch, Makers of Rome, Penguin Books, 1965
  3. 1 2 3 Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 2
  4. 1 2 3 Cary M. and Scullard H., A History of Rome, PANGRAVE, 1989
  5. Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 3
  6. Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 4
  7. Ward Allen, Heichelheim Fritz, and Yeo Cedric, A History of the Roman People, Prentice Hall, 1999
  8. Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 5
  9. Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 6
  10. Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 8
  11. 1 2 3 Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 8-9
  12. Appian, Civil Wars 1.19
  13. Stockton 91-2
  14. Stockton 85-6
  15. Appian, Civil Wars 1.20
  16. 1 2 3 Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 12
  17. 1 2 Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 13
  18. Appian, Civil Wars 1.25
  19. 1 2 Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 14
  20. Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 15
  21. 1 2 3 Appian, Civil Wars 1.26
  22. Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 16
  23. Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 17
  24. 1 2 Plutarch, Gaius Gracch. 18
  25. Appian, Civil Wars, 1.27

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