The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 2/The Gracchi and Their Reforms
THE GRACCHI AND THEIR REFORMS
(Cornelia, whose father was Scipio Africanus, preferred to be called "Mother of the Gracchi" rather than daughter of the conqueror of Numantia. Tiberius and Caius Gracchus, her sons, were born at a time when the social condition of Rome was rank with corruption. The small farmer class were deprived of holdings, the soil was being worked by slaves, and its products wasted on pleasure and debauchery by the rich; the law courts were controlled by the wealthy and powerful, while oppression, bribery, and fraud were generally rampant in the city.
On December 10, B.C. 133, Tiberius Gracchus entered upon the office of tribune, to which he had been elected, and pledged himself to the abolition of crying abuses. His first movement was in the direction of agrarian legislation. He proposed to vest all public lands in the hands of three commissioners [triumviri], who were to distribute the public lands, at that time largely monopolized by the wealthy, to all citizens in needy circumstances. The bill met with bitter opposition from the rich landholders, but was eventually passed, and Gracchus rose to the summit of popular power. He also brought forward a measure limiting the necessary period of military service; a second bill was drawn up by him for the reformation of the law courts, and a third established a right of appeal from the law courts to the popular assembly. These measures were afterward carried by his brother Caius. Tiberius Gracchus was killed in a tumult which was raised in the Forum by the nobles and their partisans, and three hundred of his followers lost their lives in the fray.
Caius Gracchus, his brother, returned to Rome B.C. 124 from Sardinia, where he had been engaged in subduing the mountaineers. For ten years he had kept aloof from public life, but was at once elected tribune, in the discharge of which office he showed distinguished powers as an orator. He brought forth the important measures known as the Sempronian Laws, the provisions of which were quite revolutionary in character. The first of these laws renewed and extended the agrarian laws of his brother and instituted new colonies in Italy and the provinces. By the second Sempronian law the State undertook to furnish corn at a low price to all Roman citizens.
Other measures aimed at diminishing the great administrative power of the senate, which had so far monopolized all judicial offices. By the law of Gracchus the administration of justice was entirely transferred to a body of three hundred persons who possessed the equestrian rate of property. The Sempronian law for the assignment of consular provinces, which hitherto had been left to the senate, made the allotment of two designated provinces to be decided by the newly elected consuls themselves. The power of the senate was also crippled by the law of Gracchus in which he transferred to the tribunes the burden of improving the roads of Italy, contracts for which had hitherto been awarded by the censor under the approval of the senate. These movements were all in the direction of increasing popular and democratic power, and the work of the Gracchi tended to the extension of political freedom. In the history of politics these social struggles are among the most important events illustrative of the gradual dawn of civil liberty among a people which had been dominated and oppressed by a selfish aristocracy.)
The power of Gracchus rested on the mercantile class and the proletariat; primarily on the latter, which in this conflict—wherein neither side had any military reserve—acted, as it were, the part of an army. It was clear that the senate was not powerful enough to wrest either from the merchants or from the proletariat their new privileges; any attempt to assail the corn laws or the new jury arrangement would have led under a somewhat grosser or somewhat more civilized form to a street riot, in presence of which the senate was utterly defenceless. But it was no less clear that Gracchus himself and these merchants and proletarians were only kept together by mutual advantage, and that the men of material interests were ready to accept their posts, and the populace, strictly so called, its bread, quite as well from any other as from Caius Gracchus.
The institutions of Gracchus stood, for the moment at least, immovably firm, with the exception of a single one—his own supremacy. The weakness of the latter lay in the fact that in the constitution of Gracchus there was no relation of allegiance subsisting at all between the chief and the army; and, while the new constitution possessed all other elements of vitality, it lacked one—the moral tie between ruler and ruled, without which every state rests on a pedestal of clay. In the rejection of the proposal to admit the Latins to the franchise it had been demonstrated with decisive clearness that the multitude in fact never voted for Gracchus, but always simply for itself. The aristocracy conceived the plan of offering battle to the author of the corn largesses and land assignations on his own ground.
As a matter of course the senate offered to the proletariat not merely the same advantages as Gracchus had already assured to it in corn and otherwise, but advantages still greater. Commissioned by the senate, the tribune of the people, Marcus Livius Drusus, proposed to relieve those who received land under the laws of Gracchus from the rent imposed on them, and to declare their allotments to be free and alienable property; and, further, to provide for the proletariat not in transmarine, but in twelve Italian, colonies, each of three thousand colonists, for the planting of which the people might nominate suitable men; only Drusus himself declined—in contrast with the family complexion of the Gracchan commission—to take part in this honorable duty. Presumably the Latins were named as those who would have to bear the costs of the plan, for there does not appear to have existed then in Italy other occupied domain land of any extent save that which was enjoyed by them.
We find isolated enactments of Drusus—such as the regulation that the punishment of scourging might only be inflicted on the Latin soldier by the Latin officer set over him, and not by the Roman officer—which were to all appearance intended to indemnify the Latins for other losses. The plan was not the most refined. The attempt at rivalry was too clear; the endeavor to draw the fair bond between the nobles and the proletariat still closer by their exercising jointly a tyranny over the Latins was too transparent; the inquiry suggested itself too readily.
In what part of the peninsula, now that the Italian domains had been mainly given away already—even granting that the whole domains assigned to the Latins were confiscated—was the occupied domain land requisite for the formation of twelve new, numerous, and compact burgess communities to be discovered? Lastly, the declaration of Drusus that he would have nothing to do with the execution of his law was so dreadfully prudent as to border on sheer folly. But the clumsy snare was quite suited to the stupid game which they wished to catch. There was the additional and perhaps decisive consideration that Gracchus, on whose personal influence everything depended, was just then establishing the Carthaginian colony in Africa, and that his lieutenant in the capital, Marcus Flaccus, played into the hands of his opponents by his vehement and maladroit acts. The "people" accordingly ratified the Livian laws as readily as it had before ratified the Sempronian. It then as usual repaid its latest by inflicting a gentle blow on its earlier benefactor, declining to reëlect him when he stood for the third time as a candidate for the tribunate for the year B.C. 120. On this occasion, however, there are alleged to have been unjust proceedings on the part of the tribune presiding at the election, who had been offended by Gracchus.
Thus the foundation of his despotism gave way beneath him. A second blow was inflicted on him by the consular elections, which not only proved, in a general sense, adverse to the democracy, but which placed at the head of the State Lucius Opimius, one of the least scrupulous chiefs of the strict aristocratic party and a man firmly resolved to get rid of their dangerous antagonist at the earliest opportunity. Such an opportunity soon occurred. On the 10th of December, B.C. 121, Gracchus ceased to be tribune of the people. On the 1st of January, B.C. 120, Opimius entered upon his office.
The first attack, as was fair, was directed against the most useful and the most unpopular measure of Gracchus, the reëstablishment of Carthage, while the transmarine colonies had hitherto been only indirectly assailed through the greater allurements of the Italian. African hyenas, it was now alleged, dug up the newly placed boundary stones of Carthage, and the Roman priests when requested certified that such signs and portents ought to form an express warning against rebuilding on a site accursed by the gods. The senate thereby found itself in its conscience compelled to have a law proposed which prohibited the planting of the colony of Sunonia. Gracchus, who with the other men nominated to establish it was just then selecting the colonists, appeared on the day of voting at the Capitol, whither the burgesses were convoked, with a view to procure by means of his adherents the rejection of the law.
He wished to shun acts of violence that he might not himself supply his opponents with the pretext which they sought, but he had not been able to prevent a great portion of his faithful partisans—who remembered the catastrophe of Tiberius, and were well acquainted with the designs of the aristocracy—from appearing in arms, fearing that, amid the immense excitement on both sides, quarrels could hardly be avoided. The consul Lucius Opimius offered the usual sacrifice in the porch of the Capitoline temple, one of the attendants assisting at the ceremony. Quintus Antullius, with the holy entrails in his hands, haughtily ordered the "bad citizens" to quit the porch, and seemed as though he would lay hands on Caius himself; whereupon a zealous Gracchan drew his sword and cut the man down. A fearful tumult arose. Gracchus vainly sought to address the people and to disclaim the responsibility for the sacreligious murder; he only furnished his antagonists with a further formal ground of accusation, as, without being aware of it in the confusion, he interrupted a tribune in the act of speaking to the people—an offence for which an obsolete statute, originating at the time of the old dissensions between the orders (I. 353), had prescribed the severest penalty. The consul Lucius Opimius took his measures to put down by force of arms the insurrection for the overthrow of the republican constitution, as they were fond of designating the events of this day. He himself passed the night in the temple of Castor in the Forum. At early dawn the Capitol was filled with Cretan archers, the senate house and Forum with the men of the government party (the senators and that section of the equites adhering to them), who by order of the consul had all appeared in arms, each attended by two armed slaves. None of the aristocracy was absent; even the aged and venerable Quintus Metellus, well disposed to reform, had appeared with shield and sword. An officer of ability and experience acquired in the Spanish wars, Decimus Brutus, was intrusted with the command of the armed force; the senate assembled in the senate house. The bier with the corpse of Antullius was deposited in front of it, the senate as if surprised appeared en masse at the door in order to view the dead body, and then retired to determine what should be done.
The leaders of the democracy had gone from the Capitol to their houses; Marcus Flaccus had spent the night in preparing for the war in the streets, while Gracchus apparently disdained to strive with destiny. Next morning when they learned of the preparations made by their opponents at the Capitol and the Forum, both proceeded to the Aventine, the old stronghold of the popular party in the struggles between the patricians and the plebeians. Gracchus went thither silent and unarmed. Flaccus called the slaves to arms and intrenched himself in the temple of Diana, while he at the same time sent his younger son Quintus to the enemy's camp in order if possible to arrange a compromise. The latter returned with the announcement that the aristocracy demanded unconditional surrender. At the same time he brought a summons from the senate to Gracchus and Flaccus to appear before it and to answer for their violation of the majesty of the tribunes.
Gracchus wished to comply with the summons, but Flaccus prevented him from doing so, and repeated the equally weak and mistaken attempt to move such antagonists to a compromise. When instead of the two cited leaders the young Quintus Flaccus once more presented himself alone, the consul treated their refusal to appear as the beginning of open insurrection against the Government. He ordered the messenger to be arrested and gave the signal for attack on the Aventine, while at the same time he caused proclamations to be made in the streets that the Government would give to whomsoever should bring the head of Gracchus or of Flaccus its literal weight in gold; and that they would guarantee complete indemnity to everyone who should leave the Aventine before the beginning of the conflict. The ranks on the Aventine speedily thinned; the valiant nobility in conjunction with the Cretans and the slaves stormed the almost undefended mount, and killed all whom they found—about two hundred and fifty persons, mostly of humble rank. Marcus Flaccus fled with his eldest son to a place of concealment, where they were soon afterward hunted out and put to death. Gracchus had at the beginning of the conflict retired into the temple of Minerva and was there about to pierce himself with his sword when his friend Publius Laetorius seized his arm and besought him to preserve himself, if possible, for better times.
Gracchus was induced to make an attempt to escape to the other bank of the Tiber, but when hastening down the hill he fell and sprained his foot. To gain time for him to escape, his two attendants turned, and facing his pursuers allowed themselves to be cut down. As Marcus Pomponius at the Porta Trigemina under the Aventine; Publius Laetorius at the bridge over the Tiber—where Horatius Cocles was said to have once withstood, singly, the Etruscan army—so Gracchus, attended only by his slave Euporus, reached the suburb on the right bank of the Tiber.
There, in the grove of Furrina, afterward were found the two dead bodies. It seemed as if the slave had put to death first his master, and then himself. The heads of the two fallen leaders were handed over to the Government as required. The stipulated price, and more, was paid to Lucius Septumuleius, a man of quality, the bearer of the head of Gracchus; while the murderers of Flaccus, persons of humble rank, were sent away with empty hands. The bodies of the dead were thrown into the river, and the houses of the leaders were abandoned to the pillage of the multitude. The warfare of prosecution against the partisans of Gracchus began on the grandest scale; as many as three thousand of them are said to have been strangled in prison, among whom was Quintus Flaccus, eighteen years of age, who had taken no part in the conflict, and was universally lamented on account of his youth and his amiable disposition. On the open space beneath the Capitol, where the altar consecrated by Camillus after the restoration of internal peace (I. 382), and other shrines—erected on similar occasions to Concord—were situated, the small chapels were pulled down, and out of the property of the killed or condemned traitors—which was confiscated, even to the portions of their wives—a new and splendid temple of Concord, with the basilica belonging to it, was erected in accordance with a decree of the senate by the consul Lucius Opimius.
Certainly it was an act in accordance with the spirit of the age to remove the memorials of the old and to inaugurate a new Concord over the remains of the three grandsons of Zama, all of whom—first, Tiberius Gracchus, then Scipio Aemilianus, and lastly the youngest and the mightiest, Caius Gracchus—had now been engulfed by the revolution. The memory of the Gracchi remained officially proscribed; Cornelia was not allowed even to put on mourning for the death of her last son; but the passionate attachment which very many had felt toward the two noble brothers, and especially toward Caius, during their life, was touchingly displayed also after their death, in the almost religious veneration which the multitude, in spite of all precautions of the police, continued to pay to their memory and to the spots where they had fallen.