The class struggle in the Roman Republic

The rich senators, having killed Tiberius, found that that was not the end of the matter. Powerful class forces had been unleashed from below. Such was the strength of the movement that the senate was forced to accept at least a partial implementation of Tiberius’ reforms. But this was only a means of controlling the masses and eventually overturning those very same reforms. The destruction of the small free peasants and the concentration of land in the hands of the wealthy was an unstoppable process.

Aristocratic reaction

The murder of Tiberius Gracchus changed everything. It introduced violence onto the streets of Rome as a political weapon. All hopes of a political consensus died with Tiberius. There was now no question of compromise. Neither side paid any attention to the laws or the “rules of the game”. It was a fight to the finish between the contending classes. Appian writes:

“Thus Gracchus, son of Gracchus who had been twice consul and of Cornelia, daughter of Scipio who had wrested supremacy from the Carthaginians, lost his life on the Capitol, while holding the office of tribune, as a result of an excellent scheme which he pushed forward by violent means. And this foul crime, the first perpetrated in the public assembly, was not the last, but from time to time something similar would always occur. The city was divided between grief and rejoicing at the murder of Gracchus, one group mourning for themselves and for him and for the present situation, which they saw not as ordered political life, but as violence and the rule of force.” (Appian, pp. 1011)

Although reaction was once more in the saddle in Rome, the murder had solved nothing for the oligarchy. Objectively, the problems of the poor and the dispossessed peasantry continued to worsen, providing a fertile soil for revolutionary agitation. Marx explains that the revolution sometimes needs the whip of the counterrevolution. The masses were enraged by the murder of Tiberius. They insulted the counterrevolutionary senators in the streets. Tiberius’ younger brother Gaius was put on trial, but defended himself energetically and was cleared. By contrast, Cornelius Scipio Nasica, the murderer of Tiberius was disgraced and forced into exile, posted to the new province of Asia, where he died under suspicious circumstances.

The aristocratic party concentrated its attacks on the agrarian reform, determined to remove the last remaining barrier to its seizing all the remaining land. But the senate did not feel strong enough to reverse Gracchus’ land law. The Popular Party was equally determined to keep the laws that defended what was left of the free peasantry. Faced with the sullen anger of the people, the senate retreated and named a land commission to carry out some of the reforms that Tiberius had demanded. For a time, it even seemed to be succeeding. By 125 BC seventy-five thousand citizens were added to the list of those liable for military service, when compared to the census figures of 131 BC.

The plunder of Italy

The oligarchy was forced to buy peace for a while by squeezing the provinces with high taxes. While keeping the merchants and the urban poor quiet by a combination of concession and repression, the aristocracy continued to concentrate more land into its hands. They plundered Italy shamelessly, ruining the small peasants and driving them out, creating an economic and social disaster. Small farms in Italy, says Mommsen, “disappeared like raindrops in the sea.”

Many dispossessed Italians began to drift into Rome, agitating for greater rights. This added to the political ferment in the city. In 126 BC the tribune Iunius Pennus passed a law expelling non-citizens from Rome This measure was really targeted at evicting the Italian agitators. To what extent it was ever enforced against the rich foreign merchants and traders is unclear. It is obvious that many of them circumvented this law, which was directed against the poor non-Roman citizens.

Italian discontent became so dangerous that in 125 BC consul Marcus Fulvius Flaccus proposed to grant full citizenship to the Latins and Latin privileges to all Italians in preparation of eventual full citizenship. But this met with opposition on two fronts. The senators saw the mass of Italians as a threat to their political authority, as they held no hold of political patronage over them. And the poor saw any increase of the number of citizens as a threat to their privileges as Roman citizens. The measure stood little chance of success, but just to make sure, the senate sent Flaccus off to Massilia to fight the Saluvii.

Unable to win by force, the senate temporarily resorted to intrigue and bribery. They offered to increase the ration of corn and to give land to the landless Roman citizenship (at the expense of the Italian peasants). But this was only meant to buy time while they prepared behind the scenes to deal with their enemies in the traditional way. Later the class struggle assumed a violent form again, with new conflicts on the streets and murders. The ruling class, not yet sure of the situation, had to tread with care, combining repression with concession in an attempt to keep the masses under control. They allowed the distribution of public land to proceed and proposed that the people should elect a new commissioner to succeed Tiberius.

The struggle therefore continued, but there was a situation of deadlock between the classes. A class of no more than 2,000 wealthy families decided everything. But the whole nation was now in a palpable state of decline. The upper class showed itself as utterly degenerate and unfit to hold power. At the same time, the masses were not in a position to overthrow them.

Gaius Gracchus

The people had learned to challenge the authority of the senate. Tiberius had turned the Popular Party into a viable political movement. After his murder it was impossible to make the constitution of the Republic work effectively. How could the laws work when the people understood that the legal code was only the formal expression of the class interests of their masters? Tiberius Gracchus had tried to base himself on the people. He failed, but there would be others willing to try it again.

Gaius Gracchus, the brother of the murdered Tiberius, assumed leadership of the Popular Party. Like his brother he advocated a programme that was aimed at breaking the power of the rich. He was a political agitator who started a hundred years of civil war that brought the Roman Republic to the point of exhaustion. He enjoyed immense popularity with the masses, and equally was hated by the rich and powerful:

“All the most distinguished men in Rome without exception joined forces to oppose him, but such an immense multitude poured into the city from various parts of Italy to support his candidature that many of them could find no lodging; and since the Campus Martius was too small to hold them, they climbed up to the attics and housetops to declare their support for Gaius.” (Plutarch, The Life of Gaius Gracchus, in The Makers of Rome, p. 177.)

Despite Gaius’ popularity, the aristocrats succeeded in gerrymandering the elections to the post of tribune, so that he came fourth, instead of first, as expected. But no trickery could prevent his meteoric rise.

The agrarian law of Tiberius Gracchus was being applied in a reactionary manner, at the expense of the Italian peasants. This created a profound sense of grievance among the allied regions of Italy. As we have seen, a prominent member of the Gracchan camp, M. Fulvius Flaccus, argued strenuously that the Italians should be granted Roman citizenship as compensation for any disadvantages they should suffer from agrarian reform, and Gaius agreed. The Italian question finally proved to be his undoing.

The senate tried to get rid of Flaccus by sending him off as consul to Gaul to protect the Roman allies of Massilia (Marseilles) who had appealed for help against the Celtic tribes. The manoeuvre backfired. He later returned in triumph, having won victories over the Gauls. In the meantime, Gaius Gracchus had finished his term of office as quaestor in Sardinia, and returned to Rome to take the place of his brother. Nine years after his brother's murder, at the age of about thirty, Gaius was elected as people’s tribune in 123 BC.

Gaius’s main base was the city poor, the proletariat, which looked to him to provide them with their rations and land. He planned to expand his base, forming a broad opposition, based on the city masses, the “knights” and the Italians. In a blatant attempt to bribe the voters, he enacted legislation by which the population of Rome was to be provided with corn at half price.

The programme initiated by the younger Gracchus was even more far-reaching than that of his brother. He demanded that the soldiers should be supplied with clothing at the public expense, with no deduction from their pay, and that nobody under the age of 17 should be conscripted. He also demanded a reduction in the price of grain sold to the public. He got a law passed adding to the 300 members to the senate another 300 drawn from the class of “knights”. He launched an ambitious programme of public works, such as roads and harbours, which mainly benefited the equestrian community – the Roman capitalists. By such means he succeeded in splitting the equites away from the senate.

With this broad coalition, Gaius was able to remain in office for two years, during which he pushed through a lot of legislation. He reaffirmed Tiberius’ land laws and established smallholdings in Roman territory abroad, creating new colonies, including one on the old site of the destroyed city of Carthage. He proposed to divide up the public lands among the poor citizens. But once again he was met with sabotage. The senate allowed the new tenants to sell their new land, which the wealthy bought up. This was a regular feature, by which the senate turned every attempt at reform into a dead letter. Every time newly acquired lands were assigned to the poor, they simply passed into the hands of the wealthy landholders. In the meantime, large-scale slave labour drove all before it, tearing up the laws and mercilessly displacing free peasant labour throughout Italy.

The aristocracy was able to control the assembly (comitia tributa) because, with each tribe controlling a single block vote determined by the majority, the voting power of the urban proletariat was concentrated within four tribes. On the other hand, the rural tribes numbered thirty-one. The landowners could therefore register themselves, together with their freedmen and clients, and this body of interests could usually dominate the assembly, since the small farmers seldom travelled to Rome in great numbers and never stayed there for long. Originally this system had been devised to prevent the interests of the farmers being swamped by those of the urban masses. But now it was a weapon in the hands of the slave-owning aristocracy.

In order to please the equestrian class, Gaius awarding them the right to contract for the collecting of the enormous taxes due from the newly created province of Asia. It was further agreed that members of the equestrian class should hold judgement in court cases over provincial governors accused of wrong-doings. This was clearly an attempt to cut down the power of the senate, as it restricted its power over the governors, many of whom were Roman capitalists of the equestrian order, filling their pockets at the expense of the provinces.

Gaius wished to expand the franchise to give the vote to the Italians, in order to increase his basis of support. But these measures were controversial and exposed the contradictions within the popular camp. The reactionaries then skilfully utilised anti-Italian feeling to divide the masses and thus the city poor united with the senate to defeat this proposal. The lumpenproletarian rabble did not want to share their privileges as Roman citizens with anybody. Since this “seemed to these people, so to speak, like a partnership which gave them a claim to share in sundry very tangible profits, direct and indirect, they were not at all disposed to enlarge the number of the partners.” (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 116.)

The struggle between the classes had reached the point of deadlock, as Mommsen points out:

“It was clear that the senate was not powerful enough to wrest either from the merchants or from the proletariat their new privileges; any attempt to assail the corn-laws or the new jury arrangement would have led, under a somewhat grosser or somewhat more civilised form, to a street riot in presence of which the senate was utterly defenceless.” (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 117)

In 121 BC Gaius Gracchus stood for yet another term as tribune, just as his brother had done. Once again, the senate conspired against him. They put forward their own candidate, M. Livius Drusus with a demagogic programme intended to undermine Gracchus' standing as a champion of the people. They put into circulation malicious rumours about Gaius to undermine his credibility. But the most serious weakness was the loss of popularity resulting from the failed proposal to extend Roman citizenship to the Italians. As a result, Gaius lost the vote for his third term in office.

Gaius Gracchus' angry supporters, some of them apparently carrying weapons, held a mass protest demonstration on the Aventine Hill, with Flaccus at their head. This was used as an excuse for sending the consul Lucius Opimius to the Aventine Hill, backed by militia, legionary infantry and archers, “to restore order”. He carried an order from the senate to take action against anyone “endangering the stability of the Roman state”. That was all he needed. What followed was a massacre in which the Gracchan movement was drowned in blood. It appears that realizing the hopelessness of the situation Gaius ordered his personal slave to stab him to death. His headless corpse was thrown into the Tiber. In the bloody proscriptions that followed as many as 3,000 of his followers were arrested and strangled in prison.

Why the Gracchi failed

The fatal weakness of the Popular Party was the fact that what we call the Roman proletariat was not a proletariat in the Marxist sense, but to a very great extent a declassed lumpenproletariat. The unemployed mob in Rome hated the rich patricians, but in the last analysis, they formed part of the exploiting classes, living off the labour created by the slaves in the form of the dole, the state handouts of free grain. The Roman proletariat benefited from the exploitation and oppression of the Italians, and therefore were implacably opposed to recognising them as Roman citizens.

They were able to stage riots, and sometimes played a revolutionary role, but in the end they turned out to be fodder for the camp of reaction, which skilfully played on their prejudices. In a repeat of what happened to his brother, Gaius's plans to extend rights to non-Roman Italians were vetoed by another tribune. But this time, the senate’s manoeuvre was accompanied by a sinister development. A large number of plebeians, jealous of their privileges as Roman citizens, turned against Gaius. This fatal split in the popular camp was what emboldened the reactionaries, who again went onto the offensive.

This was not the end of attempts to solve the land problem. It was a particularly serious issue with the soldiers in the Roman army, who demanded land when they retired from military service. On several occasions in the first century BC, public lands were assigned to veterans in Italy as well as on the borders of the empire. The dictator Sulla carried out wholesale confiscation and reassignment of private lands in 82 BC. Later Caesar distributed land to his veterans. Ultimately, however, the attempts at agrarian reform failed, and were bound to fail.

As we have seen, the aim of the Gracchi was to distribute land to the free citizens, revive the peasantry, and populate Italy with free peasants instead of slaves. They demanded that this public land should be redistributed to the poor. Nevertheless, their proposals did not remove the central contradictions. The new class of smallholders could not compete with the big estates of the rich run on the basis of slave labour, especially, if they were to be regularly taken away from their farms to perform military service. In essence, this was an attempt to put back the clock. It flew in the face of economic necessity.

Just as under modern capitalism all the attempts to bolster small businesses and prevent the spread of monopolies by anti-trust laws have proved futile, so in the Roman Republic, the efforts to re-create a class of small farmers proved to be ineffective. The tendency towards the concentration of the ownership of land in the hands of a small number of slave-owners was unstoppable.