Tiberius Gracchus

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus
Bornc. 163 BC
Died133 BC (probably aged 29)
Cause of deathAssassination
Known forAgrarian reforms
Parent(s)Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Cornelia
RelativesGaius Gracchus (brother)
Sempronia (sister)
Scipio Nasica Serapio (cousin)
Scipio Africanus (grandfather)
Military career
RankMilitary tribune and quaestor

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (c. 163 – 133 BC) was a Roman politician best known for his agrarian reform law entailing the transfer of land from the Roman state and wealthy landowners to poorer citizens. He had also served in the Roman army, fighting in Africa the Third Punic War and in Spain during the Numantine War.

His political future was imperilled during his quaestorship when he was forced to negotiate a humiliating treaty with the Numantines after they had surrounded the army he was part of in Spain. Seeking to rebuild that future and reacting to a supposed decline in the Roman population which he blamed on rich families buying up Italian land, he carried a land reform bill against strong opposition by another tribune during his term as tribune of the plebs in 133 BC. To pass and protect his reforms, Tiberius unprecedentedly had the tribune who opposed his programme deposed from office, usurped the senate's prerogatives over foreign policy, and attempted to stand for a consecutive tribunate. Fears of Tiberius' popularity and his willingness to break political norms led to his death, along with many supporters, in a riot instigated by his enemies.

His land reforms survived his death; family allies, including his younger brother Gaius, took places on the land commission set up by the law and distributed over 3,000 square kilometres (1,200 sq mi) of land over the next few years. A decade later, Gaius too was plebeian tribune and proposed in his year much more wide-ranging reforms that also led to his death. He and his brother Gaius are known collectively as the Gracchi brothers. The date of Tiberius' death marks the traditional start of the Roman Republic's decline and eventual collapse.


Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was born in 163 or 162 BC. He was, from birth, a member of the Roman Republic's aristocracy.

His homonymous father was part of one of Rome's leading families. He served as consul for 177 and 163 BC, and was elected censor in 169. He also had celebrated two triumphs during the 170s, one for the victorious establishment of a twenty-year-long peace in Spain. His mother, Cornelia, was the daughter of the renowned general Scipio Africanus. His sister Sempronia was the wife of Scipio Aemilianus, another important general and politician. Tiberius was brought up by his mother, who dedicated herself after the elder Tiberius' death to her children's education.

Tiberius married Claudia, daughter of the Appius Claudius Pulcher who was consul in 143 BC. Appius was a major opponent of the Scipios, a family with which Tiberius was related in his maternal line. The date of the marriage is uncertain; it could have been related to a plan to reconcile the two families. His marriage to Pulcher's daughter, however, did cement an intergenerational friendship between their two families.

Military career

Ruins of Carthage in modern-day Tunisia. Tiberius served as an officer in the army under Scipio Aemilianus that razed the city during the Third Punic War.
Rome expanded into Spain and came into conflict with Numantia in the middle of the 2nd century BC.

Tiberius began his military career in 147 BC, serving as a legate or military tribune under his brother-in-law, Scipio Aemilianus during his campaign to take Carthage during the Third Punic War. According to Plutarch, Tiberius – along with Gaius Fannius – was among the first to scale Carthage's walls. He served through to the next year. Some time in his youth, perhaps before his Numantine campaign, he was co-opted into the augural college.

In 137 BC he was quaestor to consul Gaius Hostilius Mancinus and served his term in Hispania Citerior (nearer Spain) during the Numantine War. The campaign was unsuccessful; Mancinus and his army lost several skirmishes outside the city before a confused retreat in the night led to the army being surrounded. Mancinus then sent Tiberius to negotiate a treaty of surrender.

The Numantines had previously signed a treaty with Rome a few years earlier under Quintus Pompeius, but Rome had reneged on its terms; the senate refused to ratify the treaty on the grounds that its terms were too favourable to the Numantines. Tiberius' negotiations were successful in part because of the influence with the Numantines he inherited from his father's praetorship in the area in 179–78 BC. During the negotiations, Tiberius requested the return of his quaestorian account books which were taken when the Numantines had captured the Roman camp; the Numantines acquiesced.

The new treaty brought back in defeat was also rejected: the Romans rejected the terms as humiliating, revoked Mancinus' citizenship, and sent him stripped and bound to the Numantines. However, by the time the terms of this agreement were being debated in the senate, Numantine ambassadors had also arrived and Mancinus likely argued in favour of his own ritual surrender, felt confident in his safety, and wanted to look towards making a soft landing for his career. Tiberius offered no forceful support for the treaty and seems to have distanced himself from it; it was proposed to send Tiberius in chains along with Mancinus, but that proposal was defeated.


Tiberius was elected as plebeian tribune for 133 BC. While Livy's depiction of the domestically placid middle republic is an overstatement, the political culture in Rome at this time still was able to find solutions through negotiation, peer pressure, and deference to superiors.

There was substantial demand among the poor for land redistribution; Tiberius enjoyed unprecedented levels of popularity in bringing the matter before the assemblies. Tiberius' unwillingness to stand aside or compromise broke with political norms. A similar land reform proposal by Gaius Laelius Sapiens during his consulship in 140 BC was withdrawn after bitter opposition and its defeat in the senate. Tiberius' stubbornness, however, was motivated in part by his need to recover politically from the affair with the treaty.

Moreover, victory on the matter of the lex agraria would have, for Tiberius, won him considerable support among the people and buttressed his prospects for higher office. His refusals to compromise or withdraw his proposals led to suspicion among the elite that the bill was for his personal and familial political interests instead of his stated objectives. The complex motives of Tiberius and his ally and father-in-law Appius Claudius Pulcher were not limited to pro-natalist policymaking and its concomitant effects for army levies; they also may have calculated that land distributions would co-opt the loyalties of the soon-to-return Numantine war veterans. Passage would have served to balance against Aemilianus' political influence – he was the commander in the final campaign of the Numantine war – after his expected victory.

Roman land in the second century

Roman land – the ager Romanus – in red on the eve of the Social War, some forty years after the events of Tiberius' tribunate. What this later map shows, however, is that Roman land was distributed in patchy areas across the peninsula and intermingled near the lands of Rome's Italian allies.

At the time of Tiberius' tribunate in the late 130s BC, there were a number of economic issues before the Roman people: wage labour was scarce due to a dearth of public building, grain prices were likely high due to the ongoing slave rebellion in Sicily, population growth meant there were more mouths to feed, and declining willingness to serve on long army campaigns had increased migration to the cities. Altogether, these trends reduced urban workers' incomes, driving them closer to subsistence. Most of the population remained outside the cities in the countryside but similar issues plagued the rural poor as well. The end of colonisation projects caused an oversupply of rural free labour, driving down wages.

The Roman state owned a large amount of public land (ager publicus) acquired from conquest. The state, however, did not exploit this land heavily. While it was theoretically Roman property, Rome had allowed allies to work and enjoy it after its de jure seizure. In the traditional story, derived from Appian and Plutarch (two historians writing during the imperial period), the ager publicus had been occupied by rich landowners operating large latifundia staffed largely by slaves, driving poor farmers into destitution between military service and competition with slave labour. This narrative is both incompatible with two republican censuses and the ancient necessity for productive lands to be close to market. Illegal occupation of the ager publicus for commercial production was unlikely due to the ager's inaccessibility by urban markets; if displacement consistent with the ancient sources happened, it likely occurred only in farmlands areas close to Rome. Slave-staffed estates, the driver for displacement in that narrative, also did not become common until the first century BC, after the lex Sempronia agraria.

It is more likely that the expanded population of Italy through the second century BC had led to greater demands for land redistribution and pressure on food supplies. Due to partible inheritance, modest farms had become divided into plots too small to feed a family. This led to underemployment of farmers; close to Rome, where demand for land was high, those farmers sold their lands to richer men and engaged in wage labour, which was a major source of employment around harvest time. Some of those farmers also found wage work in the cities, such as jobs in public works, itinerant manual labour, and selling food; their material livelihoods declined, however, after 140 BC when a pause in monumental building projects caused wage rates to fall.

Alternate occupations included the army, but by the late 130s BC, army life was hard; the plunder of the early 2nd century's armies had ended and Rome was instead engaged in sanguinary and unprofitable wars in Hispania. There are many contemporaneous reports of endemic desertion, draft evasion, and poor morale. A recent census also recorded a fall in Rome's population and, therefore, the number of leviable citizens; modern archaeology, however, has shown that this apparent decline was illusory. Nobody at the time connected unwillingness to serve in Spain with evasion of conscription by avoiding censorial registration. The Romans eventually righted their census undercount in the census of 125/4 BC, which showed the population had actually increased.

Lex agraria

Tiberius Gracchus canvassing. Image by John Leech, from The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott à Beckett. The top hat worn by Tiberius is a deliberate anachronism intended to compare him to 19th-century British politicians.

Tiberius believed that a previous law – commonly identified by modern scholars as the Licinio-Sextian rogations of the early fourth century BC – had limited the amount of public land that any person could hold to 500 jugera (approximately 120 hectares). This legal maximum on land holdings, if it actually existed, was largely ignored and many people possessed far more than the limit, including Marcus Octavius, also serving as tribune in that year, and Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio, then pontifex maximus.

The accounts of Appian and Plutarch are largely based on Tiberius and his supporters' political rhetoric and argumentation. Modern scholars have argued that those arguments were tendentious and did not reflect contemporaneous conditions objectively. Source difficulties also emerge, inasmuch as some modern scholars also doubt whether the Gracchan narratives in Plutarch and Appian are based more on tragic dramas about their deaths rather than credible historical narratives.

According to Plutarch, referencing a pamphlet attributed to Tiberius' brother Gaius, Tiberius developed his measures after being moved by the dearth of free Italians tilling the fields in Etruria on the march to the Numantine war. The poor, without land, became unavailable for military service and stopped reproducing, causing population decline. A quote from Tiberius Gracchus is preserved in Plutarch:

The wild beasts that roam over Italy... have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in; but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their [commanders] exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchres and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.

To resolve what he identified as the problem, Tiberius' law would enforce a limit on the amount of public land that one person could hold; surplus land would then be transferred into the hands of poor Roman citizens. Benefitting the poor was not the only goal of his legislation: Tiberius also intended to reduce the level of inflammation in the city by moving the poor into the countryside while also endowing those people with the necessary land to meet army property qualifications and reverse apparent population decline.

This agrarian policy, focusing on people with agricultural skills, led to much of his support coming from the poor rural plebs rather than the plebs in the city. Thousands reportedly flooded in from the countryside to support Tiberius and his programme. Tiberius was not, however, alone in his views: he was supported by one of the consuls for the year (the jurist Publius Mucius Scaevola), his father-in-law Appius Claudius Pulcher (who had served as consul for 143 BC), Publius Licinius Crassus Mucianus (elected pontifex maximus the next year), and other younger, junior senators.

The amount of land each beneficiary would have received is unknown. Thirty jugera is often suggested. That amount, however, is greatly in excess of the regular amount of land distributed viritim in colonisation programmes (only 10 jugera). There were also restrictions on alienation and possibly rents (a vectigal). While these conditions place the private ownership of the distributed land into question, and therefore also question whether an owner could be registered in the census as owning that land. Later laws indicate that it was legally treated as private with tenure maintained given payment of the vectigal. An unpaid vectigal would trigger reverter to the state, which would then be able to redistribute it again.

The law would also create a commission, staffed following elections by Tiberius Gracchus, his brother Gaius Gracchus, and his father-in-law, Appius Claudius Pulcher, to survey land and determine which illegally occupied land was to be seized for redistribution.

Passage of the lex agraria

People possessing more than 500 jugera of land opposed the law strongly. While previous laws had fined occupation in excess of the limit, those fines were rarely enforced and the land possession itself was not disturbed. This led them to invest into improvements to that land, with some protests that the land was part of wives' dowries or the site of family tombs. Tiberius Gracchus' law would seize the land explicitly, a novelty. According to Plutarch, Tiberius initially proposed compensation, but the compromise offer was withdrawn after opposition; his later proposal was to compensate by securing tenure over a cap of 500 jugera (with an additional 250 jugera for up to two sons).

The exact legislative history of the bill is disputed: Appian and Plutarch's accounts of the bill's passage differ considerably. At a broad level, the bill was proposed before the concilium plebis; Tiberius forwent the approval of the senate before a bill was to be introduced. In response, the senate secured one of his tribunician colleagues to veto the proceedings. Both versions agree on obstruction from Marcus Octavius, one of the other tribunes, and his deposition.

In Plutarch's account, Tiberius proposes a bill with various concessions, which is then vetoed by Marcus Octavius, one of the other tribunes. In response, he withdraws the bill and removes the concessions. This latter bill is the one debated heavily in the forum. Tiberius tries various tactics to induce Octavius to abandon his opposition: offering him a bribe and shutting down the Roman treasury, and thereby, most government business. When the Assembly eventually assembles to vote, a veto is presumed. They attempt to adjudicate the matter in the senate, to no avail, and the Assembly votes to depose Octavius from office when he maintains his veto. Following the deposition, Tiberius' freedmen drag Octavius from the Assembly and the Assembly passes the bill.

In Appian's account, however, there is only one bill: opposition from Octavius appears only at the final vote, leading to the dispute to be taken to the senate, and then Octavius' deposition followed by the bill's passage. Prior to the vote, Tiberius gives a number of speeches, in which Appian asserts that Tiberius passed the bill on behalf of all Italians.

The political dispute between Tiberius and Octavius lacked clear resolution because of the unwritten Roman constitution's flexibility. The system, which worked best when magistrates worked cooperatively, broke down when magistrates exploited the legal extent of their powers fully and contrary to existing norms. Both men, being tribunes, represented the plebs and their interests. Octavius insisted on maintaining his veto against his constituents; Tiberius' response was to unconstitutionally depose Octavius. Tiberius had extra-constitutionally bypassed the senate by bringing the lex agraria without its consent; Octavius similarly extra-constitutionally attempted to obstruct the manifest will of the people by veto.

Opposition and death

After passage of the bill, the senate allocated very little money for the commissioners, making it impossible for the commission to do its job when it needed to pay for surveyors, pack animals, and other expenses. After this meagre allotment, however, news arrived that Attalus III of Pergamum had died and that he had bequeathed his treasury and devised his kingdom to Rome. Tiberius proposed using the bequest to finance the land commission, which triggered a wave of opposition. The ancient sources disagree on what the bequest would be used for: Plutarch asserts it was to be used to buy tools for the farmers, Livy's epitome asserts it was to be used to purchase more land for redistribution in response to an apparent shortage. The latter is unlikely, as the process of surveying and distribution were incipient; it is also possible the money was to be used to finance the commission itself. After this proposal, Tiberius was attacked in the senate by Quintus Pompeius and accused of harbouring decadent regal ambitions. One of the former consuls also brought a lawsuit against Tiberius arguing the deposition of Octavius violated magisterial collegiality and was a dangerous precedent which a sufficiently powerful tribune could exploit to bypass all checks on his power.

Tiberius' proposal usurped senatorial prerogatives over finance and foreign policy, breaking a major political norm. Senators also feared that Tiberius intended to appropriate Attalus' bequest to hand out money to his personal benefit. This was compounded by his attempt to stand for re-election, claiming that he needed to do so to prevent repeal of the agrarian law or possibly to escape prosecution for his deposition of Octavius. Attempts at such consecutive terms may have been illegal. The bid, however, certainly violated Roman constitutional norms: magistrates were immune while in office and continuous officeholding implied continual immunity. Some ancient historians also report that Tiberius, to smooth his bid for re-election, brought laws to create mixed juries of senators and equites but this likely emerges from confusion with his brother's law to that effect. The deadly opposition to Tiberius Gracchus' reforms focused more on his subsequent actions than on the reforms themselves.

At the electoral comitia counting the votes for the tribunes for 132 BC, Tiberius and his entourage seized the Capitoline hill where the voting was taking place to dictate the result. At a senate meeting on the tribunician elections, Tiberius' first cousin Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio, the pontifex maximus, attempted to induce consul Publius Mucius Scaevola use force and stop Tiberius' re-election. When Scaevola refused, Scipio Nasica shouted a formula for levying soldiers in an emergency – "anyone who wants the community secure, follow me" (Latin: qui rem publicam salvam esse volunt me sequatur) – and led a mob to the comitia with his toga drawn over his head. In doing so, he attempted frame the killing as a religious rite (consacratio) taken to free the state from an incipient tyrant. Tiberius and supporters did not fight back; killed with stones and other blunt weapons, their bodies were thrown into the Tiber.

Aftermath of Tiberius' death

Map showing areas where Gracchan cippi have been found or are likely in consequence of Tiberius' lex Sempronia.

Tiberius' agrarian law was not repealed. His position on the agrarian commission was filled; the commission's business continued over the next few years: its progress can be observed in recovered boundary stones stating the commissioners' names. Most of those boundary stones bear the names of Gaius Gracchus, Appius Claudius Pulcher, and Publius Licinius Crassus. An increase in the register of citizens in the next decade suggests a large number of land allotments. But that registration could also be related to greater willingness to register: registration brought the chance of getting land from the commission. It also could have been related to lowering of the property qualifications for census registration into the fifth class from four thousand to 1.5 thousand asses.

The activities of the land commission started to slow after 129 BC. The senate pounced on complaints from Italian allies that the land commissioners were unfairly seizing land from Italians. Scipio Aemilianus, arguing on behalf of the Italians, convinced the state to move decisions on Italian land away from the land commissioners to the consuls; the consuls promptly did nothing, stalling the commission's ability to acquire new land to distribute. However, over the few years of the commission's most fruitful activities, the amount of land distributed was substantial: the Gracchan boundary stones are found all over southern Italy. They distributed some 1.3 million jugera (or 3,268 square kilometres), accommodating somewhere between 70,000 and 130,000 settlers. Shortly after this intervention, Scipio died mysteriously, leading to unsubstantiated rumours that his wife (also Tiberius Gracchus' sister), Gaius Gracchus, or other combinations of Gracchan allies had murdered him. These charges are not believed by modern historians.

Some Gracchan supporters were prosecuted in special courts established by the senate under the supervision of the consuls for 132 BC. The special court, however, was not some kind of political purge; it largely acted against politically unimportant people and non-citizens. Scipio Nascia, after being brought up on the charge of murdering Tiberius Gracchus, was sent on a convenient delegation to Pergamum, where he died the following year. The senate, in so doing, conveyed at least a tacit approval of Tiberius' murder.


Engraving of "Gracchus Babeuf", who took the name Gracchus from the reformist brothers. He advocated a significantly more radical land reform programme (in comparison with the Gracchan programme) in revolutionary France.

Tiberius' brother, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, continued his career without incident until he too stood for the tribunate and proposed similarly radical legislation, before also being killed with now explicit approval of the senate. Part of Gaius' land programmes was to start establishing Roman colonies outside of Italy, which later became standard policy in consequence of the more general realisation that Italy was insufficiently large to fulfil popular demands for agricultural land.

Personally, the killing of Tiberius also caused a greater break between Scipio Aemilianus and his Claudian and Gracchan relatives, especially after Scipio Aemilianus approved of Tiberius' murder.

Political impact

The impact of Tiberius' murder started a cycle of increased aristocratic violence to suppress popular movements. By introducing violent repression, the senatorial oligarchy created norms making future repression more acceptable. Political disputes in the middle republic were not resolved by killing political opponents and purging them from the body politic; before this point domestic political strife basically never resulted in violent death. Roman republican law, when passing ostensibly capital sentences, permitted convicts to flee the city into permanent exile.

His death also suggested that the republic itself was temperamentally unsuited for producing the types of economic reforms wanted or hypothetically needed, as in Tiberius' framing, by the people. However, Tiberius' actions did not mark him as an enemy of the senate seeking to destroy its authority: he sought a traditional career in the senate and irresponsibly engaged in excessive popular indulgences to further his career. Yet, his aggressive political tactics also showed that the republic's norms and institutions were far weaker than expected, that a non-existential political issue such as distributing public land to help with army recruitment, could overwhelm the republican constitution.

The senate's continued pursuit of Tiberius Gracchus' supporters also entrenched polarisation in the Roman body politic, while at the same time endorsing private use of violence to enforce or suppress a group, even a majority, of fellow countrymen. While the framing of Tiberius Gracchus' murder in terms of religious ritual sets it aside from the explicitly political killings of Gaius Gracchus and Marcus Fulvius Flaccus that were authorised by the senate, the use of violence in of itself subverted the norms of consensual republican government.


The death of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC has been viewed, both in the Roman period and in modern scholarship, as the start of a new period in which politics was polarised and political violence normalised.

In the ancient period, Cicero remarked as much in saying "the death of Tiberius Gracchus, and, even before his death, the whole character of his tribunate, divided one people into two factions". Modern historians such as Mary Beard, however, warn that Cicero's claim is "rhetorical oversimplification [and that] the idea there had been a calm consensus at Rome between rich and poor until [133 BC] is at best a nostalgic fiction".

More modern commentators also express similar views. For example, Andrew Lintott writes:

In this way Sigonio has helped to create the standard modern periodisation, whereby the Conflict of the Orders ends in 287 and the decline of the Republic begins in 133, the intervening period displaying the constitution at its best.

In the second edition of The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, Jürgen von Ungern-Sternberg similarly writes:

It was Tiberius' assassination that made the year 133 BC a turning point in Roman history and the beginning of the crisis of the Roman Republic.

Impact on the Italian allies

Contrary to Appian's claims about how Tiberius acted to give Rome's Italian allies land, there are no seeming indications that Tiberius Gracchus' reforms helped them in any way. Moreover, it was the Italian allies who launched the fiercest opposition to the land reform programme; Tiberius Gracchus' supporters also are never Italians in Appian's account, but only rural plebeians.

After Rome acquired its public lands via conquest, the Italians expected that their rights to use it continually were surety for their loyal conduct. While those who complained the most were likely rich over-occupiers, Appian also reports that the commission's work rushed and inaccurate. Furthermore, the land given in exchange for land taken per the lex agraria might have been of inferior quality, also stoking resentment.

By altering this implicit agreement, the loyalty of the Italian allies during the Punic Wars and other conflicts therefore had won nothing. In the end, Roman enforcement of its long-unexercised rights over the ager publicus, stoking resentment and removing disincentives to rebellion, contributed to the Social War between Rome and its Italian allies. This interaction between the Italians and land reform also brought up later proposals, including those of Tiberius' younger brother, to trade the Italian aristocracy's occupied lands for Roman citizenship or provocatio rights.

Modern legacy

The French revolutionary François-Noël Babeuf took up the name Gracchus Babeuf in emulation of the then-contemporary view of the Roman brothers as revolutionaries who were misinterpreted as seeking limitations on private property. He also published a newspaper, Le tribun du peuple ("the tribune of the people"). Modern perspectives see the comparison as unapt, as Babeuf intended abolish private land ownership entirely and overthrow the French republic, goals incompatible with Tiberius'.

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