Gaius Gracchus: Impact on Rome

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Niccolo Machiaveli, one of the well-known political theorists, stated in his book “The Prince” that a leader must possess at least one of the following to acquire power: virtu and fortuna (Gracia et al. 2003, 193). Gaius Gracchus had these attributes. Virtu denotes skills, abilities and rational thinking. Plutarch highlighted that Gaius had good oratorical skills. Specifically, Plutarch mentioned that Gaius developed his skills in oratory, “as if these were the wings that would carry him to the heights of public life”. In terms of fortuna or luck, Gaius had an edge since he was a member of a family that already had an established influence over the public. His father, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, had been the governor of Spain and is well-known for his sense of justice (Nelson 2001, 92).

His mother, Cornellia, was the famous daughter of Scipio Africanus known for the fall of Hannibal (Plutarch 1965, 154). Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius’ older brother, was an elected tribune in 133 B.C.E. who proposed a law to distribute the lands to landless Romans (Nelson 2001). Unfortunately, this action enraged the senate that led to Tiberius’ death. Gaius developed his own style by using the power of persuasion conveyed through rhetorical speeches while continuing the ideals that were formerly laid down by his brother. Gaius Gracchus used his oratorical skills to advance his beliefs and political agendas.

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Upon achieving political power he proposed several laws and reforms aimed at uplifting the status of the lower class. The actions made by Gaius Gracchus acquired popular support and opposition from the senate. Gaius Gracchus’ achievements and public popularity led to the acknowledgement of the role of the plebian in legislation under the Roman Republic, which divided the “the Roman Politics into optimates and populares” (Nelson 2001, 92) and started the series of civil wars that led to the failure of the Roman Republic.

The rise of Gaius into power started when he was sent as a questor to Sardinia. During the winter, the soldiers were deprived of clothing, Gaius “made a tour of the cities and persuaded the citizens of their own free will to send clothing and relieved the army’s plight” (Plutarch 1965, 177). This made the senate worried that Gaius might get the attention and support of the masses. Thus, they decided to prolong his stay with Consul Lucius Aurelius Orestes in Sardinia. Nonetheless, Gaius decided to go back to Rome and abandoned his post. He was accused by his enemies, mainly the senate, regarding his abandonment of post and other conspiracy but he defended himself and “won the sympathies of his hearers… and proved his innocence” (Plutarch 1965, 177). When he declared his candidacy for the position of the tribune he was welcomed and immensely supported by the masses.

Upon winning the election, he started to dominate the other tribunes naturally through his oratory. In most of his speeches, he stressed what had happened to his brother and what had happened in the past. The first two laws he laid down concerns disqualifying deposed magistrate and “empowering the people to prosecute any magistrate who had banished a citizen without trial” (Plutarch 1965, 178). Both of these laws are meant to challenge the legitimacy of Senate’s actions regarding the death of Tiberius and his supporters.

The laws that are introduced by Gaius favored the ordinary citizens especially the poor and constrained the authority of the Senate and the aristocrats. Some of the laws that were mentioned by Plutarch include the proposals such as to divide the public lands among the citizens, to supply clothing for soldiers, to limit the age of conscription of soldiers to seventeen and above, to extend the voting rights of Italians, to create a ceiling price for grains and to regulate the appointment of jurymen. Boatwright and colleagues argued that the “large number of laws, covering a wide range of matters” (2004, 161) suggest that Gaius had a clear legislative agenda.

When speaking to the Forum, Gaius developed a habit of speaking towards the Forum proper instead of facing towards the Senate-house which was the established practice. This action, as Plutarch assessed, implied “that the orators should address themselves to the people and not to the Senate” (1965, 180). Other legislations introduced by Gaius centers on the founding of colonies –such as that in Carthage, the construction of roads which run across the country and the establishment of public granaries (Plutarch 1965, 181-182).

To this end, the enemies of Gaius, especially those who hold position in the Senate “adopted a method of competing with Gaius for the favour of the masses and granting their wishes regardless of the best interest of the state” (Plutarch 1965, 183). The aristocrats invited Livius Drusus, an effective speaker himself, to attack and oppose Gaius. Gaius policy proposals are attacked by the Senate but Livius Drusus’ reconstruction and modification of the proposals are highly favored. The decline of Gaius’ popularity started when he proposed a law “which would give Roman citizenship to all Latins, and the privileges of Latins to all the Italian allies” (Boatwright et al. 2004, 163). Such law was not popular among the citizens of Rome. Gaius went to establish the colony of Carthage while Drusus continued to attract supporters.

The Senate, on the other hand, proceeded to repeal Gaius laws. When Gaius returned to Rome for the election of tribunes in 121 B.C.E he was defeated allegedly through manipulation of votes (Boatwright et al. 2004). Riots between the supporters of the aristocrats and the Plebian sprung. Opimius, the consul, declared martial law under the Final Decree of the Senate or senatus consultum ultimum which gives the consul the authority to ensure that the state suffers no harm (Boatwright et al. 2004, 164-165). The riots ended with the death of Gaius and approximately three thousand supporters.

A sharp distinction between the political styles of the Roman politicians perpetuated after the death of Gracius Gracchus. Those who followed the traditional methods of alliance within the senators and the nobles were known as optimates while those who sought popularity among the citizens to advance their agendas were called populares. The empowerment and the awareness of the Plebian and the masses along with the introduction of popular leaders resulted to the advent of civil wars or riots that marked the decline of the Roman Republic.

Works Cited:

  1. Boatwright, Mary T., Gargola, Daniel J., and Talbert, Richard J.A. The Romans: from village to empire. Oxford University Press US, 2004, pg. 175-193.
  2. Gracia, Jorge J.E., Reichberg, Gregory M., and Schumacher, Bernard N. The Classics of Western Philosophy: a reader’s guide. Wiley-Blackwell, 2003, pg. 193.
  3. Nelson, Eric. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Roman Empire. Alpha Books, 2001, pg. 93-94.
  4. Plutarch, Scott- Kilvert Ian,  Makers of Rome, Penguin Classics: England, 1965, pg. 155, 176-182.


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