The senate of the Roman Republic was predominantly oligarchy. Wealth and social status were important in Rome as it was in any society. The senate concentrated the wealth and power among its inner circles.
Continuous war, had seen an emergence of strong landlords, and an increasing number of poor citizens of Rome, who then flocked to the city. There was an added problem. At that time (pre-Marian reforms), Roman citizens had to own property to serve in the army. More poor, landless citizens (or those who couldn’t meet minimum property requirements) reduced the recruitment pool for the Roman armies. A bad scenario, for a Republic that was becoming more entangled in International conflicts and affairs.
Enter Tiberius Grachus.
Born to a prominent well-connected family, the young statesman recognized the issues of the Republic. He proposed a law which was Lex Sempronia Agraria. It would ensure no landowner, could own more than approx. 125 hectares of public land. The senate had decreed over 200 years ago, on the size holdings of land, but large landowners either ignored the restrictions or found means around the legislation. With no farm land, there was a lot of urban homeless and poor people in the city. This diminished the military potential of the Republic
In 133 BCE, Tiberius was elected a Tribune of the Plebeian council. One of the major powers of this office, allowed him to veto any legislation that would be passed by the senate, if it were against the interests of the masses.
With support from some senators, he proposed a redistribution of public lands. He also subsequently modified it, to partially appease the rich landowners, allowing them to own approx. 63 hectares per son, above the legal limit.
It should not be a surprise when the senate opposed such a legislation. The senatorial elite, rich equites were the ones who controlled most of the wealth, led the armies and held most administrative positions. In order to pass his legislation, he marked a trend that would dominate Roman politics for the next century.
He bypassed the senate, appealing to the Plebeian (common folks) assembly. This non-compliance of Roman legislative system was unprecedented. In the Plebeian assembly, he knew he would find support. The Plebeian assembly whole heartedly supported this measure. Unfortunately, Tiberius made a fatal political error here.
The leading conservative senators convinced another tribune of the plebeian council, Marcus Octavius to exercise his veto to block the passing of the wall. During the vote on the proposal, Grachus called on the people to forcibly remove Octavius, claiming the latter was breaching his statutory duty to the people. This move angered the senate, as they found a tribute taking legal matters into his own hands. Tiberius Grachus now lost the chance to win over moderate senators who might have been sympathetic to his cause.
Utilizing his Veto power, he effectively even halted the city of Rome, forbidding any business to be conducted. With his law finally passed, he received minimal funding from the senate. The final nail in his coffin came, when the King of Pergamon (in modern day Turkey), died and willed his kingdom and fortune to Rome. Tiberius tried to seize this for his agrarian law. Management of treasury and funds was the senate’s exclusive duty and doing so, he aroused the fear of becoming a King of Rome.
His end came towards the end of his year as Tribute. Roman officials were immune from prosecution during office, not afterwards. Realizing the senate will prosecute him, and knowing he had alienated the elites, he appealed to the people for help. Standing again for elections in 132BCE, he hoped to get elected and be immune from prosecution.
Day of elections, he and his men, hearing the senate planned to have him killed, armed himself. The senators, lead by his cousin, Scipo Nasica armed their supporters. In the ensuring fight with Staves and clubs (weapons inside Rome were prohibited), Tiberius Gracchus and over 300 of his supporters were slain.
To further enrage the plebs (to whom he was a champion), the senate threw their bodies in the Tiber, denying them a funeral. Other Gracchus supporters were exiled without trial. Scipio Nasica was sent to Asia minor for safety, but would die a few months later.
To placate the plebs, the laws passed by Tiberius were formally held. Land allotments increased as the next citizen charter had more registered citizens. Yet, land allotment to the urban poor and other Roman and Italian citizens struggled. The anger of plebs wasn’t sated.
The senate may have thought that was the end of the civil strife. Little did they know it was just the beginning of a century of civil strife and strongmen emerging. Tiberius’ death ensured his younger brother, Gaius Gracchus. The younger sibling, was influenced by his older sibling and had a vendetta against the senate.
The violence to follow, would pale in comparison to what occurred with Tiberius.
The decline of the Roman Republic had started.