As a child learning history at school, I often wondered why the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire. Had the people had enough of voting? Was this forced upon them? If so, why didn’t they revolt, especially given how awful emperors like Caracalla were?
I mean, Caracalla was hated by most Romans for killing his brother in front of their mother, going from town to town and literally torturing money out of people, and pillaging Alexandria after a play parodying the murder of his brother was shown in the streets.
To me, this was particularly vexing. Given that Rome had sworn never to have a King, how did they accept a monster like Caracalla?
Ian Vatco has shared a great answer on Quora explaining how it all came about. It makes for a great story, one that I’d love to share with you.
The Gracchi brothers
It all started with the Gracchi brothers.
Tiberius Gracchus the elder was a giant of Roman history. And he had two sons, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus.
Both Tiberius and Gaius were brilliant. They were also very different. Tiberius was calm, careful, and calculating. He spoke calmly and slowly to the people – always using logic and reason.
Gaius was the opposite. He was angry, intense, and loud. He yelled and rained insults upon his enemies. He ripped his toga and inspired those around him to anger easily.
The Numentine War
In ancient Rome, there was this cultural idea that you could inherit nobility from your bloodline but you had to prove it then as an adult. If you had a great dad, you had a head start but little more. You could not live off the accomplishments of your father. You had to become great yourself.
Growing up in the shadow of his father, Tiberius Gracchius Jr joined the legions and was sent away to Spain to fight in the Numantine War.
The campaign was a disaster. The Roman general led his men into blunder after blunder. When all was lost, Tiberius negotiated a deal with the Iberian tribes. They allowed the Romans to leave with their lives, saving thousands.
When Tiberius returned, the Senate went after him for cowardice, saying he sacrificed his honor for his life.
The wives, sons, fathers, and mothers of the soldiers who returned alive, however, worshipped Tiberius for saving the soldiers’ lives.
Instead of letting the Senate punish Tiberius, Romans elected him Tribune of the Plebs.
What was a Tribune of the Plebs?
A Tribune was a political office occupied by only plebians. Whereas the Senate was Rome’s hereditary legislative body, akin to the UK’s House of Lords, Tribunes were directly elected by the people. This makes them similar to a Parliament, except there were only ten of them and only had power for a year. After that, they had to step down, unable to ever become Tribunes again.
Tribunes could propose legislation to the Senate. Crucially, they could also veto anything the Senate did. Their veto was meant to force the Senate to reflect on how their actions affect the every-man.
Tribunes were sacrosanct and any violence committed against one was a death penalty offense.
Tiberius the Tribune
Tiberius had a remarkably ambitious policy he wanted to pursue during his one-year term. He wanted to fix Rome’s biggest problem – land ownership.
In the second century BC, the legions were not professional soldiers. They were land-owning citizens who bought their own equipment and fought for free.
However, these citizen soldiers were not fighting in Italy but rather were spending years off in Spain or Greece. After they returned home they found their farms were either fallow or outcompeted.
With so many farms empty, rich Romans bought up all the land from these veterans and used the armies of slaves the legions captured to farm it. Ex-land-owning veterans were flooding Rome – poor and desperate.
Tiberius aimed to fix this injustice. He had every right to do so, as there was a law preventing the rich from doing this very thing. The law said no man could own more than 500 acres. So, Tiberius proposed a law that would purchase back all the land over that 500-acre mark and give it to Roman citizens.
Octavius the killjoy
Unfortunately for Tiberius, the Senate owned a fellow Tribune named Octavius. He vetoed the legislation and killed it dead.
Tiberius, undeterred, introduced another, harsher piece of legislation. Again, Octavius vetoed it.
At this stage, Tiberius should have bidden his time. The legislation was popular. As soon as Octavius stepped down, a future Tribune would probably pass it. Tiberius should have built up his base and seen to it.
Instead, he became frustrated and began to veto everything. Every vote, debate, troop deployment, discussion, and meeting. As the government ground to a halt he found that still the Senate and their pet Tribune would not relent.
Exasperated, and with time running out, Tiberius did something unprecedented. He proposed that Octavius was violating his duty by not protecting the people from the Senate and thus should be deposed. He called for a vote to be conducted by the Plebians of Rome. Predictably, they followed Tiberius and voted Octavius out of office (it should be noted that Appian offers a different version of events, in which the removal of Octavius was done legally by the tribal vote).
With Octavius gone, the bill was passed and Tiberius got his way.
As his term as Tribune ended most hoped the government would return to normal. The whole “removing a Tribune from office for practicing his legal power” thing sat well with no one.
A fatal misunderstanding
But Tiberius was ambitious. And he feared, not without reason, that the Senate would back off and change his precious legislation: they had given minimal funds to the agrarian commission that had been appointed to execute Tiberius’ laws. And they took every opportunity to hamper, delay and slander Tiberius.
So, Tiberius did something unheard of: he ran for a second term, capitalizing on his enormous popularity. He ran on a platform to shorten the term of military service, allow other social classes to act as jurors (at the time, only senators could do so), and admit allies to Roman citizenship, all moves popular with the Assembly.
Right away, the political environment became toxic. The Senate, backed by the rich and powerful, rallied against him. A growing number of senators were afraid that Tiberius was claiming too much power for himself. They feared that Tiberius was seeking to become King of Rome, a loathed office which had been dismantled with the ousting of the Tarquins and the establishment of the Republic.
On the other hand, the people rightly distrusted the Senate to look after their interests. They fully supported Tiberius, especially when he took to the streets, lamenting that he feared for his safety and begging the People to protect him.
On the day of the vote, Tiberius showed up with a group of bodyguards to oversee the voting.
At one point, shouting to be heard above the clamor, Tiberius pointed to his head to signal his bodyguards that his life was in danger.
Someone who saw this then ran to the Senate and told then Tiberius was asking for a crown.
Led by Tiberius’ conservative cousin, Nasica, several senators stormed out and attacked Tiberius and his supporters with their bodyguards. They killed Tiberius and over 300 of his supporters. They then dumped their bodies in the Tiber River, thus denying them a proper burial.
But Gaius Gracchus, Tiberius’ brother, now had a score to settle.
A few years after Tiberius was killed, Gaius ran for Tribune.
As soon as he was elected, Gaius made it a death penalty to harm a Tribune. But he made this a retroactive law that applied to anyone who ever hurt a Tribune. Needless to say, this chased Tiberius’s killers out of Rome rather quickly.
With his opposition scattered, Gaius then moved to pass significant reforms in favor of the people.
- He expanded his brother’s land redistribution law
- He proposed every Latin person be given citizenship
- He proposed they give the soldiers of the legions more clothing and shorter service terms.
These reforms were hugely popular and successful. Pretty soon, Gaius was a renowned man.
Unlike his brother, Gaius had no intention of running for Tribune again. As soon as his term was over, he stepped down, planning to retire and enjoy his family.
However, fate intervened. No one got enough votes to fill the tenth Tribunship spot. The new Tribune got to select anyone to full the role. He selected Gaius, thus accidentally electing him Tribune for a second time.
Back in office, Gaius continued his reforms. The Senate, however, had had enough of him. They began to oppose him at every turn and they put their propaganda machine into high gear.
Eventually, the Consul for that year moved against Gaius by trying to repeal every single reform Gaius had passed. Gaius refused to allow this and practiced his veto.
This reopened the wound that had began to heal after the death of Tiberius. The mob, furious at the Senate, took to the streets in their support of Gaius and occupied the Aventine hill.
When Gaius joined them, the Senate swiftly gathered an army and marched down to the Aventine. They massacred the citizens and beheaded Gaius.
A divided house
This second killing entrenched the two political factions in Rome and it made them mortal enemies.
The people had supported politician that fought for them, and they were killed for it. They formed a new party of the people, calling themselves the Populares.
The Senate, not realizing the power of the mob, rallied around their own conservative party called the Optimates.
After the death of Gaius the Republic was a mess. The generation that lived between the 120s-90s probably lived the worst lives in Roman history.
Gaius was killed in 121 BC. Here’s what happened next:
- In the 80s BC, 40 years after the death of Gaius, the Optimates and Populares fought a bloodied civil war. Each side would take Rome for a time and brutally rape, kill, and steal from their political opponents. First, the Populares massacred senators and Optimate supporters. Then, Sulla captured Rome and killed tens of thousands of Populares.
- In the 60s BC, the Populares tried to overthrow the Republic. The violence that followed was extensive. Cicero thankfully saved the day, but again had to kill Senators and Populares without a trial to do so.
- In the 50s BC, both the Populares and Optimates had bands of armed thugs patrolling the streets, killing opposing voters and politicians.
- In the 40s BC, Caesar and the Populares fought another civil war against the Optimates. Spain, Africa, Greece, and Rome would all be consumed by conflict.
- In the mid-40s, BC Mark Antony massacred thousands of Romans who had rallied about specific policies.
- In 43 BC, Mark Antony fought a civil war against the Republicans in the Senate.
- In 42 BC, the remaining Republican Senators fought a civil war against Mark Antony and Octavian, Caesar’s heirs.
- From 42 BC to 35 BC, famine gripped Rome as the remaining Optimate forces, who still controlled the Navy and Siciliy, blocked Italy, cutting off the grain supply.
- In 32 BC, Octavian and Antony would fight another civil war. This would mark the final war of the Republic.
Rome had never seen this level on instability. War seemed like a constant state for the generation that followed the Gracchi. Not less than 4 civil wars and 5 periods of extreme political violence would break out in the 80 years following the deaths of the Gracchi.
With so much chaos, turmoil, and fear the people of Rome happily traded their rights for their safety and accepted their new emperor.
Fall of the Republic
The Romans were educated people, similar to modern Westerners in that they were very proud of their Republic.
They were proud of their fair legal system and their representative democracy.
They hated Tyrants and praised the virtues of honor, honesty, and duty.
Yet after almost a century of fear and violence, they were willing to give up everything they loved for peace and stability. Thus the Republic broke and the Empire was born.
To me, the tale of the Gracchus brothers brings home three key lessons:
One, that justice is the cornerstone of democracy. Had Tiberius been able to take the rich to court for disobeying the law that forbade them from owning over 500 acres of land, none fo this would have happened. That is why attempts to politicize the justice system shock me. Without an independent Judicial branch of government, we are doomed to repeat history.
Two, that a divided house cannot stand. Anyone who opens up rifts in a society does so at their own peril – and that of their country.
And three, that income inequality and social injustice inevitably lead to trouble. When that happens, all social and economical classes suffer. Nasica left Rome for Pergamos, where he was assassinated – possibly by Tiberius’ supporters. Countless senators and thousands of plebians died violent deaths. And when the Empire was formed, patricians lost their power and became prey to brutal emperors. It is in the interest of both poor and rich to ensure that income is as equal as possible and that society has minimal injustices.
Unfortunately, few seem to remember any longer the lessons taught by the Gracchi, the fateful and tragic handmaidens of the Roman Empire.