Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus

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The Gracchus brothers, by Jean-Baptiste Claude Eugène Guillaume

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (* 162 BC ; † 133 BC ) was a politician of the Roman Republic . He wanted to push through far-reaching reforms as a tribune of the people , but failed due to violent resistance from the Senate majority and was murdered together with his supporters. With the failure of the Gracchian Reform , the age of the Roman Civil Wars began . After his death, Tiberius Sempronius was stylized as a symbol of the fight against the arbitrariness of the upper class.


The Gracchi family was one of the most powerful and respected of the Roman nobility . The younger Tiberius was the eldest son of the older Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus , the consul of 177 BC. BC and 163 BC BC, and Cornelia , a daughter of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus , the victor over Hannibal . Tiberius was married to Claudia Pulchra, they had no children.

Political beginnings

At the age of fifteen, the young Tiberius Gracchus accompanied the then consul Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus to the Third Punic War (147 BC) and went into the Third Punic War in 137 BC. BC with the consul Gaius Hostilius Mancinus as quaestor in the province of Hispania citerior . Ever since the Romans captured large parts of the Iberian Peninsula as the province of Carthage after their victory in the Second Punic War , the Roman troops have faced stubborn resistance from the Iberian tribes that led to decades of war.

Gracchus experienced the surrender of the Roman army to Numantia , one of the most severe defeats of a Roman army up to that point. He was jointly responsible for the surrender and, as quaestor , played a key role in the formulation of the contract; therefore, when the Senate refused to ratify the agreement, he was almost handed over to the enemy. Only his noble origins and powerful friends saved him from the shameful extradition to the Numantines, as happened to Mancinus. He was sent naked and with his hands tied to the enemies, who in turn refused to accept him in order to avoid having to acknowledge the nullity of the contract. Mancinus was dishonored and politically finished.

His experiences on the Iberian Peninsula and the reaction of the Roman Senate brought Tiberius into conflict with parts of the Senate and their politics for the first time. As Jochen Bleicken was able to work out, he was now politically with his back to the wall and urgently needed a spectacular success. Already on his trip to Numantia he traveled through Etruria and allegedly recognized there abuses caused by the slave economy and the strain on the peasant population through military service. According to Plutarch , it was in him that a first plan to reform the Roman state matured . But Plutarch also reports on other motives that are said to have influenced Tiberius in his political project. He writes that Tiberius was persuaded by his two Greek advisors Diophanes von Mitylene and Blossios von Kyme to take up the project of a land distribution again. As further possible motives, Plutarch cites Cornelia, the mother of Tiberius, on the one hand, who is said to have incited her son to excessive ambition with her complaints, and on the other hand, Tiberius had to discover that a competitor of about the same age far overtook him in terms of reputation and fame why he embarked on a daring but promising political undertaking. However, Plutarch sees Tiberius' efforts to gain popularity as the main motive for the Farm Law, as the people asked him in graffiti on public buildings and monuments to return the land to the poor.

The attempt of the consul Gaius Laelius , who lived in 140 BC , shows that his political project was not new, but was also pursued by other members of the nobility . Wanted to pass an agricultural law. But due to opposition from many other senators, he dropped his plan. Nevertheless, it is clear that, on the one hand, Tiberius Gracchus 'idea of ​​agricultural reform was not unknown in Rome, and on the other hand, Gaius Laelius' previous failed attempt shows that Tiberius had to reckon with strong resistance in the Senate.

The reform circle

After returning to Rome, Tiberius Gracchus joined the reform circle around the princeps senatus Appius Claudius Pulcher , who also became his father-in-law. Despite his young years, Tiberius soon became its most active member. The circle included respected members of the Roman nobility , such as Publius Mucius Scaevola and Publius Licinius Crassus Dives Mucianus . Tiberius' brother-in-law Scipio Aemilianus was also initially one of his supporters. The main aim of the reformers was to redistribute the ager publicus , the land owned by the Roman state. While Alvin Bernstein sees these men as the original authors of the law, who Tiberius was able to win over for their cause, the two main sources Plutarch and Appian only indicate that they only stood by Tiberius as advisers. This view is also held by David Stockton, who describes Tiberius as a forward-looking politician who was sure of the resistance of the large landowners and who therefore consciously sought to win over influential men from the nobility in advance. No conclusions can be drawn from Plutarch's and Appian's reports about the size of the group of reformers. Klaus Meister, like PA Brunt and Christian Meier, assumes a small circle of isolated nobles, while Donald C. Earl defines the circle of supporters considerably larger and this with the connection of Tiberius with the other influential family members of the Claudii , Pulchrii and Mucii Scaevolae established. Recent research has also suggested that Greek intellectuals who were in Rome also had a major influence on the reform program.

The agricultural economy as an object of reform

The ager publicus had grown enormously in Italy through the wars of Rome, because the Romans annexed up to a third of the area of ​​the Italian tribes they had defeated and incorporated this land into their national territory. At the beginning of the Italian expansion, these soils were still given to their own citizens as colonists in individual farms . The practice of occupying these lands through. This meant that the ager publicus - against reimbursement of a fixed, one-time payable basic fee - could be taken possession of by anyone for management. Above all, the wealthy classes of the Roman population benefited from this, i.e. the senators and knights and the top census classes . An occupation was usually impossible for the common people due to the lack of the necessary financial and material means. An upper limit had been set for the land occupation; However, this was extremely generous and meant that the members of the ruling and wealthy classes had a part of the ager publicus at their disposal, rather than that the lower strata got a chance. But even the richest members of the nobility were not dependent on the use of the ager publicus and seem - contrary to what was previously believed - hardly to have resorted to it.

The public lands allocated in this way were thus practically in private ownership, and this situation soon solidified in such a way that the ager occupatorius was inherited, loaned and given away like private property.

Many historians follow the interpretation of the ancient sources and therefore offer the following reconstruction: According to the reformers, a new and fair division of the ager publicus should achieve two things. On the one hand, it was supposed to liberate large parts of the Roman population from poverty and lack of property, which made them dependent on state grain deliveries and drew them to the overpopulated poor districts of the city; on the other hand, the existence-threatening shortage of able-bodied men was to be remedied. Since the end of the Third Punic War , the number of Roman citizens recorded in the census had fallen from 337,000 to below 318,000, with the result that there were no longer enough soldiers available for the legions to fight the exhausting and grueling wars against the uprisings in the Provinces (especially in Spain) to lead. Since, according to the military constitution at that time, only those citizens were drafted into the Legion who had sufficient assets to provide their equipment and armament themselves, one could not fall back on the dispossessed citizens ( capite censi ), who in masses in moved to the city of Rome. A corresponding change in the military constitution was only to be introduced a good thirty years later through the army reform of homo novus Marius .

More recently, ancient historians such as Klaus Bringmann have expressed doubts about this version: Barely 50 years before Tiberius Gracchus there was so much ager publicus and so few landless interested parties that the opportunity to simply occupy the land was even granted and at the same time the establishment of civil colonies had initially set. As a rule, it was not peasants who were drafted, only their younger sons; the wars could hardly have led to an agricultural crisis, since on the contrary, those who died in the field tended to die in the fields that were superfluous on the farm. Most of the people would have given up their farms voluntarily, because they hoped for a better life in the rapidly growing city of Rome; land reform could not have changed that much. The outcome of the research discussion is open. Jürgen von Ungern-Sternberg , for example, formulated objections to Bringmann's thesis .

In addition, the real motives of the reformers are increasingly being questioned: It is emphasized that behind Gracchus there were several particularly powerful senators. According to some researchers such as Ulrich Gotter , they wanted to use the reform to weaken those rivals who had occupied a lot of the ager publicus in recent years , since they themselves - all members of the richest families - had other forms of property. This could explain the unusual uncompromising attitude on both sides. According to this hypothesis, it was not about relieving the poor, but about aristocratic disputes within the nobility ; it is then misleading to interpret the conflict as a dispute between the people and the Senate.

The People's Tribunate in 133 BC Chr.

In any case, the reformers succeeded in finding a solution for the year 133 BC. To have some of its members elected to influential offices. Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune of the people for this year , Publius Mucius Scaevola even consul . It was agreed that the most promising way of implementing the reform would be through the plebeian assembly ( concilium plebis ) . Although there was no majority in the Senate for the Gracchian plans, the tribune brought the law, which probably took up an older one ( lex Licinia Sextia ) , directly before the people. This was extremely unusual, as usually a consensus had to be reached within the aristocracy, i.e. in the Senate, before asking the people for consent: Since the Roman constitution provided numerous instruments with which a minority could prevent decisions, you basically were need to come to an agreement. From a purely legal point of view, however , the concilium plebis was not bound by the recommendations of the Senate and was able to vote them down - this happened in the course of further history, for example in the Yugurthine War , when the senatus consultum decided to extend the term of office of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus as commanding general which the concilium plebis rejected with the appointment of Gaius Marius. In any case, Gracchus did not try to reach a consensus in the Senate - with far-reaching consequences.

The lex Sempronia agraria

Originally, the law drawn up to implement the reforms, the lex Sempronia agraria , provided that the ager publicus was to be re-awarded. The current owners of the ager publicus should be allowed to keep 500 iugera of land for themselves, but the rest should be used for confiscation and redistribution to the dispossessed citizens. The new farmer positions to be allocated should each comprise 30 iugera and be allocated for a fee payable to the state. The sale of the land was forbidden to the new farmers, this was to ensure that the land was not bought back by large landowners within a short time.

To implement these requirements, a three-man commission should be set up, which the reformers intended to fill from their ranks. This consisted of Tiberius Gracchus, his father-in-law Claudius Pulcher and Tiberius' younger brother Gaius Gracchus . Since the work of the commission would require a considerable amount of funds, they seized the opportunity of the hour presented by the death of King Attalus of Pergamon . He had bequeathed his empire to the Roman state, and the reformers wanted the inheritance to be used to finance the work of the commission.

The body of law was changed during the proceedings in order to meet the concerns and objections of the landowners concerned and to avoid major injustices. According to Appian , the occupiers were allowed to keep up to 1000 iugera land (500 iugera for the pater familias and 250 iugera each for the first two sons) as private property. Expenses or investments that they would have made in the land to be returned should be reimbursed according to their value.

The struggle in the popular assembly

As mentioned, the usual legislative procedure at that time provided for the - theoretically non-binding, but in fact indispensable - consent of the Senate to be obtained before the draft was submitted to the people for a vote. Gracchus now provoked his opponents among the senators by bringing the law to the people without the prior consent of the Senate. With great eloquence and verve, he defended and justified the agricultural law, which Tiberius Gracchus presented to the people's assembly ( concilium plebis ) for discussion and approval. In his double biographies, Plutarch lets him have the following words:

“The wild animals that populate Italy have their burrows, and for each of them there is a shelter, a refuge. But the men who fight and die for Italy have nothing but air and light; unsteady, without a house or home, they roam the country with children and women. The generals lie when they call their soldiers in battle to defend graves and sanctuaries against the enemy: none of these poor Romans has a fatherly altar, none a grave of his ancestors. They fight and die for the well-being and wealth of others. They are called masters of the world - but in reality not a single crumb of earth belongs to them. "

It is not only controversial whether Plutarch is really quoting Gracchus here, but also whether arguments of this kind, which were certainly put forward, did not disguise the actual intentions of the tribune. In any case, the law met with bitter resistance from wide circles of the Senate. The opponents of the reform therefore resorted to one of the means of prevention that the constitution gave them for such cases: A colleague of Tiberius Gracchus in the office of the tribune, Marcus Octavius , on behalf of the opponents, prevented the reform law from being passed by the popular assembly of his veto ( intercession ). This step was hardly surprising. But Gracchus had failed. As I said, he couldn't possibly afford to do that, as it would have ended his career and brought shame to his family. He had put everything on one card and couldn't give up now.

What followed was therefore the first open breach of the constitution. Tiberius Gracchus and his followers allowed themselves to be carried away to the unique and unconstitutional step of removing the tribune Octavius ​​by plebiscite (resolution of the concilium plebis ). Gracchus argued that a tribune who uses the power given to him by the people and for the good of the people against the declared will of the people must also be able to be removed by the people's assembly. In doing so, however, he radically questioned the consensus principle of Roman domestic politics, which had long been a matter of course, since he was undermining the right of veto. It was no longer just about land reform, it was now about the question of how politics should be made in Rome in the future.

In the short term, Gracchus had success. After the plebiscite on the deposition of Octavius ​​was successful, the reformers were able to enforce their agricultural law, and the agricultural commission to be appointed was initially composed of Tiberius Gracchus, the princeps senatus Appius Claudius Pulcher (one of the richest men of his time and the driving force behind Gracchus) and occupied by a third reformer. Years later, Tiberius's younger brother, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, followed suit . The implementation of the reform law was initially made more difficult by the majority of the Senate because they refused to provide the financial means necessary to set up the agricultural commission. Tiberius Gracchus circumvented this resistance by means of a likewise illegal act, in that he unauthorizedly released the Attalos property, which had recently been bequeathed to the Roman state, for use - the Senate should actually have decided on this. So Gracchus broke the Constitution one more time and provoked his opponents even more.

The failure of the reform movement

At the election meeting in the middle of 133 BC Tiberius Gracchus finally ran for a second term of office as the people's tribune , fearing that without this office the work of the agricultural commission would be made impossible by its opponents and - more importantly - he himself would be defenseless against the charges for the breach of the constitution he had committed (under Roman law, an office conferred immunity against prosecution). This represented a third serious breach of law, since there was usually always an unofficial period between two offices or terms of office in order to enable legal action against magistrates at all. It seemed to his enemies that Gracchus wanted to establish a tyranny based on the crowd. The reform opponents in the Senate therefore demanded that the consul arrest Gracchus. When the latter refused, they decided, under the leadership of his cousin Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio, to forcibly put an end to the activities of the tribune itself, since beyond the actual reform, a permanent shift of power from the Senate to the assembly or tribune was feared . As a sign that the Senate saw the republic in danger, its members put on mourning robes. Tiberius, on the other hand, only appeared in public as an armed response. A further escalation of the situation was therefore already predetermined. A peaceful solution had long been ruled out.

The violent and tumultuous clashes between rival parties and groups, which are not uncommon at popular assemblies, were intensified by the deliberately spread rumor that Tiberius Gracchus was striving for the royal crown, to such an extent that there was an armed conflict between the supporters of the Senate majority and those of the reformers. Scipio Nasica and his followers armed themselves with chair legs and stormed the popular assembly; Tiberius Gracchus and about 300 of his followers were slain. The body of Tiberius Gracchus was thrown into the Tiber. The reform opponents had won. Surviving supporters of Tiberius Gracchus were later prosecuted by a special court.

Thus the reforms of Tiberius Gracchus were doomed to failure in the medium term. Although most of his laws were not immediately revoked, they were no longer promoted in his favor. In the following years the parceling of ager publicus was ended, the agricultural commission set up for it lost its jurisdiction and was finally in 111 BC. Dissolved by another lex agraria . Incidentally, Tiberius's plan contained a grave flaw that was revealed in the course of the implementation of the law: Tiberius had always insisted that the parcels be distributed only to Roman citizens. This fueled a conflict between Rome and its allies in Italy, who fought side by side with the Roman legionaries in the war. The fact that Gracchus did not take them into account, but only thought of the Romans who were eligible to vote in the People's Assembly, who formed his power base vis-à-vis the Senate, underscores the selfishness and domestic focus of his actions.

Tiberius' younger brother Gaius Gracchus attacked the murdered man's plans in 123 BC. BC again, but was 121 BC. Forcibly driven from Rome and let himself be killed by a slave while trying to escape . Ten years after the death of his brother, the partial successes achieved by the two were completely ruined; instead, with the Gracches, breach of the constitution and violence had entered Rome, and an incurable rift had emerged within the nobility .

After-effects and significance

The brief political activity of Tiberius Gracchus, which must always be assessed in the overall context of the politics of his brother Gaius, is of enormous importance for the further development of the Roman Republic, as it led, as Cicero noted, to the division of Roman society. The terms optimates and populars , which appeared for the first time in this context , as a designation for the supporters and representatives of a policy of the Senate majority or a policy through plebiscites of the concilia plebis , were to form the defining pair of opposites in inner-Roman politics in the next few decades. In the memory of the Roman population, the Gracchi, the charismatic Tiberius even more than his younger brother, received an honorable memory. The exemplary posture and lifestyle of Cornelia after the death of her sons also contributed to this, and she was soon venerated as a model of a matrona . An impostor who pretended to be the son of Tiberius Gracchus also managed to use the reputation of the Gracches to gain political influence among the plebs and to stir up unrest (tribune in the year 99 BC).

The older ancient science (such as Theodor Mommsen ) has the year 133 BC. BC, in which Tiberius Gracchus held the tribunate, rated as an epoch year and with it dates the beginning of the Roman Revolution . In more recent research (such as Karl Christ ), this view is often rejected because of its terminology ( revolution ) and the apparent disregard of the social preconditions. The failed reforms of the Gracchi , however, undoubtedly form the first open outbreak of the crisis (according to Karl Christ), which is often referred to as the age of the Roman civil wars and that of the dictatorship of Sulla , the great extraordinary commands ( empires ) of Pompey , Caesar and of Crassus led to open struggle and the end of the republic and transition to the principle of Augustus .


  • Plutarch : Great Greeks and Romans . Volume 6, Tiberius Gracchus, pp. 237-259.
  • Appian : Bellum Civile I, 7-17, in: Appian of Alexandria. Roman History, Part Two, The Civil War (Library of Greek Literature, Vol. 27), Translated by Otto Veh , Stuttgart 1989, pp. 17–24.


  • Hans von Rimscha : The Gracchen. Character image of a revolution and its characters . Winkler, Munich 1947.
  • Jochen Bleicken : Reflections on the tribunate of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. In: Historical magazine . Volume 247, 1988, pp. 265-293.
  • Klaus Bringmann : The agrarian reform of Tiberius Gracchus. Legend and Reality (= Frankfurt historical lectures. Volume 10). Steiner, Stuttgart 1985, ISBN 3-515-04418-3 .
  • Kai Brodersen : Tiberius and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus - and Cornelia: The res publica between aristocracy, democracy and tyranny. In: Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp , Elke Stein-Hölkeskamp (ed.): From Romulus to Augustus. Great figures of the Roman Republic. Beck, Munich 2000, ISBN 3-406-46697-4 , pp. 172-186.
  • Karl Christ : Crisis and Fall of the Roman Republic. 4th, revised and updated edition. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2000, ISBN 3-534-14518-6 .
  • Ulrich Gotter : Competition and Conflict. The crisis of the Roman aristocracy in the 2nd century BC Chr. In: Josef Matzerath, Claudia Tiersch (Ed.): Aristoi - Nobiles - Adelige. European aristocratic formations and their reactions to social upheavals . LIT, Münster 2020, pp. 65–90.
  • Herbert Heftner : From the Gracchen to Sulla. The Roman Republic at the crossroads 133–78 BC Chr. Pustet, Regensburg 2006, ISBN 3-7917-2003-1 .
  • Claude Nicolet (ed.): Les Gracques ou Crise agraire et révolution à Rome (= Collection Archives. Volume 33). Gallimard / Juillard, Paris 1990, ISBN 2-07-022917-3 .
  • Raimund Ottow: The Gracchen and their reception in the political thinking of the early modern times. In: The State . Volume 42, 2003, pp. 557-581.
  • Karen Piepenbrink : Gracchen. In: Peter von Möllendorff , Annette Simonis, Linda Simonis (ed.): Historical figures of antiquity. Reception in literature, art and music (= Der Neue Pauly . Supplements. Volume 8). Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2013, ISBN 978-3-476-02468-8 , Sp. 459-468.
  • Hermann Rieger: The afterlife of Tiberius Gracchus in Latin literature. Habelt, Bonn 1991, ISBN 3-7749-2510-0 (also dissertation, University of Münster 1990).
  • David Stockton: The Gracchi. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1979, ISBN 0-19-872105-6 (also reprints).
  • Fritz Taeger : Studies on Roman history and source studies. Tiberius Gracchus. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1928.
  • Jürgen von Ungern-Sternberg : Considerations on the social program of the Gracchen. In: Ders .: Roman Studies. Historical consciousness - age of the Gracches - crisis of the republic (= contributions to antiquity . Volume 232). Saur, Munich / Leipzig 2006, ISBN 3-598-77844-9 , pp. 245-263.

Web links

Commons : Tiberius Gracchus  - Collection of Images

Individual evidence

  1. a b Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus 8
  2. ^ Alvin Bernstein: Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Tradition and apostasy , Ithaca 1978, p. 119.
  3. Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus 9
  4. Appian, Bellum civile I, 13, 55.
  5. ^ David Stockton: The Gracchi , Oxford 1979, pp. 40f.
  6. Klaus Meister: Introduction to the interpretation of historical sources, focus on antiquity , Vol. 2 Rom, Paderborn 1999, p. 134
  7. Donald C. Earl: Tiberius Gracchus. A study in politics , Brussels-Berchem 1963, pp. 7-15.
  8. John eature: Greek cultural influence and the revolutionary policies of Tiberius Gracchus . In: Studia Historica 22, 2004, pp. 63-69.
  9. quoted from Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp (ed.): From Romulus to Augustus. Great figures of the Roman Republic . Beck, Munich 2000, p. 177
  10. ^ Karl Christ : Crisis and Fall of the Roman Republic. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1979, p. 131 f.
  11. ^ Karl Christ: Crisis and Fall of the Roman Republic . 4th edition, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2000, p. 117.