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The Setting of the Reforms
Within the midst of the relative state of political stability that the Roman Republican system appeared to have experienced throughout the mid-2nd Century BC, underlying social and economic phenomena largely resulting from Roman expansion began to gradually compound, culminating in the political reform movements championed by Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus in the late 2nd Century BC. In their efforts to resolve issues including the systemic increases in agrarian land inequality, the critical shortage of land owning citizens for military service, and the displacement of Roman agricultural peasants by ever-growing numbers of slaves; the Gracchi radically pursued remedies that, while noble, were largely uncompromising and overly extensive, thereby making them unsuitable and ineffective within the then-Oligarchical Roman political and social climate. The Gracchi’s lack of complete success appears due to, not so much the basic concepts behind many of their agrarian reforms, but rather their intimidatingly, radical political methods and their overconfidence in the integrity of their largely populist-based supporters.
The Setting of the Reforms
In expanding upon the context of the problems then-currently beleaguering the Republic, Rome had reached a point in its expansion where small-holding, citizen farmers were rapidly declining in number as they were recruited and sent to fight uprisings of the Numantines in Hispania. As farmers left their rural properties, their holdings became financially vulnerable and were often bought out and, through legally dubious means, obtained by wealthy landowners who would then have the land worked by slaves and reap the profits from the agricultural yield. As the Roman Republic expanded, law was passed that limited the amount of public land that any individual Roman could own and set aside lands for the Roman lower classes’ benefit, but was often circumvented by the nobility. In time, the reality became that many nobles, in fact, possessed and profited from much more land than was legally allowed. The numbers of slaves available to the wealthy class too, increased as the Republic gained larger and larger dominion over conquered foreign peoples. The results of these phenomena in synergy led to the displacement of large numbers of Roman citizens who often resorted to living jobless and in poverty throughout urban areas on grain provided by the state.
The first of the Gracchus brothers, Tiberius Gracchus, was a successful Plebeian, who, as Tribune of the Plebs, in 133 BC, proposed legislation on the behalf of the Plebeians that would not only transfer lands away from the nobility possessed in excess of the legal limit to the lower classes, but establish a legal board for surveying and enforcement of land transfer measures headed by himself and members of his family. Although more hostile ancient sources would declare Tiberius as having largely selfish motivations for these motions, Mackay speculates that Tiberius may have simply been urged by an elder to forward the reforms, or otherwise, had simply been too naive to expect stalwart opposition from the Senate and land-owning nobility. In any event, Tiberius was able to gain significant populist based support from the Roman plebeians in furthering the reforms, but risked angering the Senate in the process. Perhaps the most dangerous move in his efforts to achieve land reform came from his unprecedented exercise of power as a Tribune. In order to prevent a veto of the legislation by an opposed People’s Tribune, Octavius, rather than seek to compromise and possibly achieve more modest reform in front of the Senate, Tiberius sought to legally depose Octavius as Tribune, arguing, according to Plutarch, that, “A man ceased to be a real tribune if he blocked the will of the plebs… and a tribune opposing their will should be deposed.”(Plutarch, Life of Tiberius Gracchus, 15) This action, taken by a tribal vote, effectively led to a removal of Octavius, and ensured the passage of the agrarian legislation. The further exacerbation of his relationship with the Senate and the landholding nobility proceeded as he took the radical step of organizing legislation that, in effect, secured the royal treasury of the kingdom of Pergamum in the east, whose ruler had died, to fund the agrarian project. Without this unexpected source of income, it seems doubtful that the Senate could have expected that Tiberius would have been able to finance the startup of farming operations on the land transferred to the Plebs, and the actual fruition of the process must have been shocking to some. Perhaps even more dangerously, from the perspective of the Senate, Tiberius had proven that he had the capability and the popular support to bend Rome’s fluid constitutional norms and take powers that traditionally were vested in the hands of the Senate, such as that of financial allocations and foreign policy dealings, into his own hands. It is not difficult to imagine that all of these powers being exercised strategically by one tribune in circumvention of the Senate, could have led to Tiberius as being perceived by the Senate to be attempting to establish a monarchic role for himself. Had Tiberius taken a more compromising, and cooperative role that did not suddenly remove authority from the Oligarchy, it seems realistic that many of his reforms could have been enacted more gradually over a longer period of time and that the senate may have not been so motivated to cut his life short, thereby potentially decreasing his longer term impact.
Following the death of Tiberius, 10 years later, in 123 BC, Gaius Gracchus, then elected as people’s tribune himself, proceeded in his brother’s footsteps by at first, reviving the land reform begun by Tiberius, and subsequently proceeding to enlist the support of the equestrian class in providing them with court control that allowed them to establish constraints on Senatorial misconduct, thus establishing himself directly as an antagonist of many senators. In a measure further increasing his influence, then proceeded to establish price ceilings on grain prices for the purpose of benefiting the urban poor, which further enlarged his populist pool of supporters. Where Gaius appears to have most egregiously overextended his exercise of power, and thwarted attempts for potential, more gradual reforms paralleling his brother, is in attempting to extend citizenship rights for subjects outside the city of Rome. This move, taken advantage of by the Senate, divided the Roman lower classes, who treasured their unique citizenship and provided an opening by which Consul Lucius Opimius was able to undermine the vast majority of his reforms.
 Mackay, Christopher S. The Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire. 2009. pg. 36
 Shotter, D. The Fall of the Roman Republic.1996. pg. 31,33
 Shotter, D. The Fall of the Roman Republic.1996. pg. 33
 Mackay, Christopher S. The Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire. 2009. pg. 38
 Mackay, Christopher S. The Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire. 2009. pg. 42,43
 Mackay, Christopher S. The Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire. 2009. pg. 45
 Shotter, D. The Fall of the Roman Republic.1996. pg. 35,36
 Mackay, Christopher S. The Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire. 2009. pg. 68
 Mackay, Christopher S. The Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire. 2009. pg. 75