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The Gracchi: Moving (Political) Boundaries in the Roman Republic

Date of news: 10 March 2022

The Late Roman Republic was a time of political instability. After the defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War (146 BC) Rome had eliminated its most formidable rival for control of the Mediterranean. With no foreign power in its way, Roman politicians found a plenitude of enemies within the state. The basic groundwork for the civil wars that would eventually lead to the republic's demise, would be laid by the Gracchi. The Gracchi Brothers are most famous for their time in office as people’s tribune between 133 and 121 BC, during which they vowed for drastic reforms. Their political ideologies were a true nuisance for the Senate, as they would bear the grunt of changes such as land reform, the main policy of Tiberius Gracchus, the elder of the two. Both Gracchi eventually met their demise at the hands of these senators. Tiberius in 133 BC after seeking an unprecedented second term as Tribune. Gaius, after succeeding his brother a few years later would commit suicide in 121 BC to prevent the humiliation of trial when seeking an even more unprecedented third term in office (Duncan 2010).

Since the Gracchi were not universally loved, only a few material sources on the Gracchi have survived. The source inscription we present here, was placed between the Roman towns of Pisanum and Fanum in 82 or 81 B.C. by the later consul Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus. According to the writing Lucullus supervised the ‘reestablishment of boundary stones where Publius Licinius, Appius Claudius and Gaius Gracchus, […], established them’ in their function of ‘Board of Three for granting, assigning, and adjudging lands’ (CIL, vol. I, 719).

These few words tell a lot about both the legacy of the Gracchi brothers and the troubled times that followed under the reign of Sulla (82 to 79 BC). Sulla’s dictatorial regime needed an ideological foundation to legitimise its rule. Lucullus himself was a supporter of Sulla, who held the senate under tight control. Sulla and his regime tried to share in the Gracchi’s popularity among the people by presenting themselves as reenactors of the Gracchan reform politics. Additionally, they emulated the Gracchi by ignoring ancient customs of government. Accordingly, much of their own power was based around populist policies (Konrad 2006). Moreover, it's clear that the Gracchi remained alive in public memory through the surviving legacy of their legislation. Indeed, the senate - responsible for their death – feared the Gracchi as individuals that had collected too much power within the state. Yet, many aspects of their laws, especially their land reforms and Gaius’ grain handouts, remained important, as the existence of the boundary markers in Sullan times shows (Konrad 2006). However, the Gracchi remained a negative reference point for many others. After all, Lucullus needed to restore the boundary stones set by Gaius Gracchus’ land commission, that had apparently been removed.

The Gracchi remained controversial in their reception. However, their importance for the development of propaganda in the ancient world is immense. Tiberius Gracchus was the first Roman politician to identify the potential political opportunities that would present themself by appealing directly to the people, Gaius followed suit. Thus, making the general populace a more active player in the political process, both in positive and negative ways. Such as Tiberius’ supporters’ armed occupation of the Capitoline Hill in a last-ditch effort to guarantee his election to a second term (Konrad 2006). A sight not so far removed from the modern-day political climate, as one might recall.

By: Sjuul Rutten and Jakob Jung
(students of the course Populism and Propaganda in the Roman World)



Secondary works:

  • Duncan, Mike. Gaius Grachus. The History of Rome. Apple Podcast. February 28, 2010.
  • Duncan, Mike. Tiberius Grachus. The History of Rome. Apple Podcast. February 28, 2010.

  • Konrad, Christoph F. "From the Gracchi to the First Civil War (133-70)." In A Companion to the Roman Republic, edited by Nathan Rosenstein & Robert Morstein‐Marx, 167-189. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470996980.ch8

    Ancient Rome was a militaristic culture, at war annually throughout the period of the republic. A Companion to the Roman Republic offers an account of the Roman army, from its beginnings to its transformation in the later Roman Empire. It examines the recruitment, training, organization, and weaponry that contributed to Rome's effectiveness as a fighting machine.

  • Rich, John W. "Tiberius Gracchus, land and manpower." In Crisis and the Roman Empire, edited by Olivier Hekster, Gerda de Kleijn, and Daniëlle Slootjes, 155–166. Leiden, The Netherlands and Boston: Brill, 2007. https://doi.org/10.1163/ej.9789004160507.i-448.36


    Crisis and the Roman Empire brings together ancient historians, archaeologists, and classicists to focus on the impact that crises had on the development and functioning of the Empire.

  • Roselaar, Saskia T. "The Gracchi Brothers". In Oxford Bibliographies in Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0221 (free preview of first pages)

  • Stockton, David. The Gracchi. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

    DG254.5 - .S76 1979

    Study on the influence of the two Roman politicians Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (c.163/162-133 BC) and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (153-121 BC) on life in Rome.