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  • James D. Shipman

The Gracci Brothers: the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic



I was recently listening to Dan Carlin's "Death Throes of the Republic." The first episode covers the lives of Tiberius and Gauis Gracchus. The Gracchus brothers were from the Patrician class, Rome's nobility. Both of the brothers however attempted to gain power and prestige by appealing to the Plebian class, the regular class of Roman Citizens. This was not necessarily a nefarious effort on their part. There were important issues of inequality in Rome at the time, particularly the transfer of the vast majority of real property, over the previous century or so, from the middle class to the wealthiest class.


This transfer of property was a real problem for not only those who lost their land, but also for Rome itself. Up to this time, the Republic's fighting men, their legionnaires, were required to own land. This system worked well when Rome was fighting other Italian cities close to home, but as the Republic expanded it's influence around the Mediterranean and beyond, the soldiers were often gone for years at a time. Their farms, unattended, were then lost to the wealthy landowners that could by them up when they were in default. This created not only a significant class of landless citizens living in Rome, who were more and more dependent on subsidized or free grain, but it also greatly reduced the number of men available to serve in the army.


Tiberius Gracchus tried to deal with this issue but creating a land reform, that would return some of this land to the people. The problem was, Rome was run by the 300 man Patrician Senate, who either owned these lands, or were friends or benefactors of those who did. They blocked every effort to resolve this issue. Tiberius undercut this process by utilizing powers as a Tribune of the Plebs, a lower position in Roman politics that represented the People's Assembly directly. Up to this time, the Tribunes generally followed the Senate's lead, and only would exercise a veto occasionally to stop particularly unpopular laws. Tiberius became a Tribune, and brought his land reform directly to the people. This was an unprecedented action on his part, and took the Senate by surprise. The Senators ultimately rebelled against this use of power, and Tiberius was killed. His brother Gaius, took a similar approach a decade later, and he too was ultimately killed for his efforts.


The motives of the Gracchi brothers have been debated by historians for two thousand years. On the one hand, they may be seen as reformists, who had the people's interests at heart, and were trying to solve substantial problems in the Roman system. On the other side, they are seen by some historians as demagogues, who played to the peoples interests in order to gain power, and eroded the Roman system by using power in a way it had never been used before. No matter which way you see their role, it is true that from this time forward, two significant and escalating events occurred in the Roman Republic. First, political leaders were more and more willing to break the traditions of the political system, and either use current political power in a way it had not been utilized before, or worse, to outright break the traditions. Second, from the time of the Gracchi brothers on, there was escalating violence in the politics of Rome. Once this taboo was broken, nobody was able to put it back into the locker.


There are parallels to our American system today. Our political leaders, both Democrat and Republican, have in the past twenty five years or so, shown an increasing willingness to stretch our long time traditions for short term political gains. The increased use of executive orders, the failure to pass budgets and the manipulation of timing on judicial appointments, and the erosion or the "Filibuster" power in the Senate, are all actions that will have long term consequences that are adverse to the interests of democracy in our country. Violence, something that I would never have believed could be widespread in the political process in the United States, seems to be drawing alarmingly close as the two parties and their followers become more polarized and tribal. Is there a way to unring these bells? The Romans couldn't figure out a way. They increasingly broke their traditions and increased their violence until there wasn't a Republic at all, and they converted into an Empire that maintained the hollow forms of the past. This happened about a century after the Tiberius first came onto the stage. It is to be hoped we will be able to find a better solution in this country. But there are no guarantees. Let us hope and pray for mutual respect, respect for our traditions and the idea that all people's voices in our nation should be heard and represented.

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