The class struggle in the Roman Republic

Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune in 133BC on a platform of distributing land to the urban poor and limiting the land that each individual could hold. This was hugely popular with the poor but – in spite of significant concessions to the wealthy landowners ‑ it provoked the anger of the patrician reactionaries who blocked his proposed reforms. This sharpened the class conflict, giving it a revolutionary character.

The Sempronian Law

The support that Gracchus got at first from the most powerful of Rome’s politicians may indicate that at least a section of the ruling class understood that land reform was both necessary and overdue. His original proposals were not very radical. Many of these latifundia were actually situated on public land, which they rented for ridiculously small leases from the state, if they paid anything at all. Tiberius devised a plan to distribute land to the urban poor.

The Licinian laws were easily circumvented and they had been turned into a dead letter, but they had never been revoked. Tiberius Gracchus therefore could argue that his proposed reforms were based upon law. The Sempronian Law reaffirmed the provisions of the Licinian Laws and added to the maximum allowance an extra amount for each son. The occupants were to be reduced to the legal maximum and the surplus given to the poor. This idea guaranteed popular support for Gracchus, who was duly elected tribune for the year 133 BC. But his movement for reform was continually blocked by the patrician reactionaries and therefore acquired a revolutionary character.

He proposed to limit the amount of land a man could own to no more than 500 iugera (300 acres). To conciliate the big landowners, he offered to allow the current holders of public land to keep 300 acres as their undisputed property, including another 150 acres for every child. Any wealthy man with four children would therefore be allowed to keep 1000 acres. The remaining public land was to be redistributed in plots of 30 acres to family smallholders. The intention was to create thousands of new landowners, from whom Rome would recruit for her armies. The plots, once granted, were supposed to be inalienable. They could not be sold or transferred to new owners, other than by inheritance from father to son.

In compensation for their losses, the occupants of public land were to receive full title to the land they retained. This was a huge concession to the rich, who would be allowed to keep a large amount of public land, in addition to any other lands they already outright owned, which would have remained untouched. In effect, the old Licinian Law would have been superseded, and the big landowners would have their vast estates legitimized. This was intended to make the reforms palatable to the rich landowners. By this measure Tiberius Gracchus hoped to reduce the opposition of the wealthy landowners to his reform. But this was a vain hope.

Despite the moderate nature of his proposals, the wealthy classes were bitterly opposed to everything Tiberius Gracchus stood for. Plutarch describes their rabid hostility:

“But though this reformation was managed with so much tenderness that, all the former transactions being passed over, the people were only thankful to prevent abuses of the like nature for the future, yet, on the other hand, the moneyed men, and those of great estates, were exasperated, through their covetous feelings against the law itself, and against the lawgiver, through anger and party-spirit. They therefore endeavoured to seduce the people, declaring that Tiberius was designing a general redivision of lands, to overthrow the government, and throw all things into confusion.” (Plutarch, ibid, p. 161)

How familiar these lines sound today! Nowadays, the ruling class would use the mass media to launch a campaign against the “threat to democracy” posed by socialism. We see this now in the hysterical campaign in the media in the USA, which tries to present a very timid attempt to reform the health system more or less as an attempt to push through a socialist revolution and “sovietize American medicine.” This fact shows how little has changed in over 2,000 years of class struggle. The names and circumstances have changed, but the psychology of the ruling class has not.

Aristocratic reaction

For the conservative aristocrats who sat in the senate even minor political differences seemed to be matters of fundamental principle. They saw any attempt to restrict their powers as an attack on the republic. It was particularly intolerable that those who were agitating for reform were men from their own class. Tiberius Gracchus knew he would have to face a stiff a fight. Similar land reform had been proposed some ten years earlier by C. Laelius (ca. 145 BC), but these proposals were shipwrecked on the rock of senatorial opposition.

Naturally, the most strenuous opposition came from those who held large quantities of public land. They faced losing the lion’s share of their public lands, and some of them had no great private estates to fall back on. Many senators were themselves large landowners holding vast tracts of public land. They furiously opposed the reform as a radical attack on the principle of private property. They also understood that a land redistribution that would involve settling 70,000 families on public land would create a mass base of clients loyal to Tiberius. For such men Gracchus’ law could represent a serious threat. Among these opponents, the most implacable was Scipio Nasica, ex consul of 138 BC, who held vast tracts of public land.

The new land reform bill was carefully drafted. But Gracchus took a revolutionary step when he presented the bill directly to the people’s assembly (concilium plebis). He did not submit the law for review to the senate. This was not strictly required by law but it was the usual practice. Why did Tiberius Gracchus proceed in this way? The reason is unclear. Did he want to take his revenge on the senate, treating them with contempt for having betrayed him over the Numantia affair? It seems more likely that he sought to by-pass the senate where he would meet stiff opposition, and appeal directly to the people.

Whatever his reasons were, the senators were outraged. They did everything in their power to block the bill’s progress. When voting day arrived, the party of the rich prevented a vote by the simple expedient of seizing the voting urns. The masses confronted them and were preparing for a fight. Rome now seemed on the brink of revolution. But once again the situation was saved by the cunning of the ruling class and the vacillations of the leaders of the Popular Party. Two distinguished men of consular rank, Manilius and Flavius, threw themselves to their knees before Tiberius and implored him to stop the proceedings and instead take the matter to the senate.

Tiberius agreed “out of respect for their rank”. This shows the limitations of his outlook. Despite his undoubted sincerity, he had not yet given up all hope of convincing the senate of the correctness of his proposals. Tiberius appealed to the senate. What was the result? There was no result because the oligarchs dominated the proceedings. The masses were demobilized and the initiative, at least for now, was lost.

Intervention of the masses

We can only explain the conduct of Tiberius Gracchus by the fact that he was not proposing a revolution against the senate, but a reform that was calculated to prevent revolution and save the Republic through an agrarian reform that would save the small peasantry. But for the wealthy and powerful such proposals sounded like a call to subvert all property, undermine the State and provoke a general revolution (“to confound everything”). Feeling themselves threatened, the aristocrats armed a large number of their followers and slaves. They were preparing for a showdown.

A commission was set up to execute the law, but the senate organized a campaign of obstruction to undermine the law and render it ineffective. They circulated the rumour that Tiberius wanted to crown himself king. The senators staged a protest in the streets, dressing themselves in mourning clothes and walking about the Forum as if to announce the imminent death of the Republic. It was part of the preparation for counterrevolutionary violence.

Stirred up by the prospect of land, large numbers of country people flocked to Rome to vote for the bill, which was easily passed in the popular assembly. The senate struck back. They bribed another Tribune, Marcus Octavius, to veto the bill. This was a scandalous move, because this man was using his position to frustrate the will of the people he was supposed to represent. The tribunate had never been intended for this purpose. But the office of tribune was being corrupted and turned into the tool of the senatorial order. The tribune’s veto seemed to spell the end of the reform.

One might have expected Tiberius Gracchus either to retreat or seek to do some kind of deal with the senate. But this time he did no such thing. Instead he passed onto the offensive. First he offered Octavius (who, it seems, was himself the owner of public land) to compensate him out of his own pocket for any losses he incurred, on condition that he would drop his veto on the bill. Octavius refused. Then Gracchus proposed that unless he withdrew his veto, Octavius should be removed from office. What he was demanding was the right of recall.

In a desperate attempt to avoid a head-on confrontation, Tiberius tried to appeal to Octavius before the popular assembly. Plutarch describes the scene very vividly:

“When the people were met together again, Tiberius placed himself in the rostra, and endeavoured a second time to persuade Octavius. But all being to no purpose, he referred the whole matter to the people, calling on them to vote at once, whether Octavius should be deposed or not; and when seventeen of the thirty-five tribes had already voted against him, and there wanted only the votes of one tribe more for his final deprivation, Tiberius put a short stop to the proceedings, and once more renewed his importunities; he embraced and kissed him before all the assembly, begging with all the earnestness imaginable, that he would neither suffer himself to incur the dishonour, nor him to be reputed the author and promoter of so odious a measure.

“Octavius, we are told, did seem a little softened and moved with these entreaties; his eyes filled with tears, and he continued silent for a considerable time. But presently looking towards the rich men and proprietors of estates, who stood gathered in a body together, partly for shame, and partly for fear of disgracing himself with them, he boldly bade Tiberius use any severity he pleased. The law for his deprivation being thus voted, Tiberius ordered one of his servants, whom he had made a freeman, to remove Octavius from the rostra, employing his own domestic freed servants in the stead of the public officers. And it made the action seem all the sadder, that Octavius was dragged out in such an ignominious manner.

“The people immediately assaulted him, whilst the rich men ran in to his assistance. Octavius, with some difficulty, was snatched away and safely conveyed out of the crowd; though a trusty servant of his, who had placed himself in front of his master that he might assist his escape, in keeping off the multitude, had his eyes struck out, much to the displeasure of Tiberius, who ran with all haste, when he perceived the disturbance, to appease the rioters.” (Plutarch, op. cit. p. 165)

In these lines we can clearly see the class forces at work. The two opposing forces, the oligarchy and the masses, are pulling in opposite directions. It is a clash of mutually incompatible interests. In the middle we have the social reformer, Tiberius Gracchus, who has set in motion forces beyond his control. He begins to fear that the situation is slipping out of his hands and pleads with the other side to see reason. But the other side is obdurate and will not budge an inch. The masses, enraged, intervene and force the issue. For the time being, the other side is forced to retreat.

After Octavius refused for the second time, and was promptly voted out of office and dragged from the speaker’s podium he was replaced with another candidate. Another Roman historian, Appian, describes the euphoria of the people in this moment: “[Tiberius] Gracchus, immensely popular, was escorted home by the multitude as though he were the founder, not of a single city or people, but of all the nations of Italy [his opponents said that] as soon as Gracchus should become a private citizen he would be sorry that he had done outrage to the sacred and inviolable office of tribune, and had sown in Italy so many seeds of future strife.” (Appian, p. 89)

Sabotage by the senate

When Tiberius persuaded the popular assembly to impeach the tribune, he committed an unconstitutional act that was absolutely without precedent. Cicero later used this disagreement between two tribunes as an example of the wonderful flexibility of the Roman constitution:

“The tribunes have too much power you say. Yes, that is undeniable, but the power of the popular assembly has a much more cruel and violent potential. Yet, in practice, that potential sometimes makes for greater mildness when there is a leader to keep the assembly under control [....] For no board of [10] tribunes, surely, would ever be so outrageously constituted that not a single one of its members remained sane! Indeed, what caused the downfall of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was the fact the he had an opponent on his own board, that, indeed, is what brought about his downfall: his removal of one of his own colleagues from office, because he had exercised his right of veto against Tiberius Gracchus.” (Cicero, On Government, P. 205)

The senate had suffered a setback, but was by no means prepared to concede defeat. Tiberius’ agrarian law was finally passed without opposition and a new tribune was elected to replace the deposed Octavius. But it still held a strong card in its hand: its control over finances. A commission was set up to supervise the distribution of land to the people. However, the senate sabotaged the measure by withholding the funds that were necessary to help stock the new smallholdings. Without money to provide the basic necessities, the plots distributed under the reform would not be viable farms.

Tiberius Gracchus now took a drastic step, which brought the struggle between the two factions to a head. Attalus, king of Pergamum, who had died childless, bequeathed his treasury to the Roman state. Tiberius Gracchus proposed that this wealth be divided up between the citizens of Rome in order to fund the land commission and help set up farms for new settlers. In effect, he confiscated a large amount of money in order to finance the work of the agrarian commission.

Thanks to this measure, the commission could begin distributing land. But such an action was in complete disregard for tradition, which gave the senate control of all overseas affairs. Although nowhere was this explicitly stated by Roman law, Tiberius’ action was a direct challenge to the senate. And that was not all. He also proposed to reduce the length of military service, and to introduce the right of appeal against the verdicts of juries (up to then composed exclusively of senators). In short, he was trying to reduce the powers of the Senate by every means possible.

The reactionaries in the senate were alarmed by the passage of the bill, the deposition of the tribune and the confiscation of Attilus’ legacy. They were even more alarmed by the mass following Tiberius was acquiring among the poor. The senate was forced to accept the situation, but only playing for time. The reactionaries had no intention of limiting themselves to peaceful and legal means.


The seizure of the Pergamene treasury in defiance of the senate was a turning point. Tiberius Gracchus had made powerful enemies. Many of his former allies now broke away, once they saw he was serious about his intentions. He was now in a dangerous position. There were plenty of people out to destroy him. The fundamental issue at this point was no longer the land reform. The question was: who rules Rome? There was now an open clash between the senate and the popular assembly.

The situation was completely polarized: on one side were Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters, the poor peasants and proletarians, on the other, the senators, the patricians, and the big landowners. There were two rival centres of power in society, a situation resembling what Lenin called Dual Power: on the one hand, the senate, which was in the hands of the slave-holding oligarchy, on the other, the popular assembly. This contradiction could not be settled by laws and constitutions, by speeches and votes. It could only be settled by violence.

The reactionaries now saw their opportunity. Tiberius’ term as tribune was nearing its end. Once he no longer had immunity from prosecution as a tribune, he would be a dead man. The only way to prevent this was to stand for a new term of tribune. But for him to run for a second term as tribune was yet another unconstitutional action. He decided upon this desperate recourse. As a matter of fact, his chances of winning the election for the tribunate in 134 BC were very poor. His main base was in the rural areas, where the peasants were busy with the harvest. His powerful political allies had abandoned him and he had lost the support of his fellow tribunes. But the senators did not want to take any chances.

These tactics used by counterrevolutionaries of every period are well known. The reactionaries accuse their enemies of wishing to install a “tyranny” (“dictatorship”). They agitate around this false accusation in order to incite violence, while at the same time publicly adopting a “defensive” stance: “we will not be the ones who cast the first stone. We are only trying to defend the existing order and institutions of society, and protect the rights of the citizens.” While posing as the injured party that is trying to “defend” themselves, the aristocrats were in fact preparing a violent aggression against the Popular Party.

The Roman ruling elite decided that their only hope was to behead the mass movement: to kill Tiberius Gracchus. But since Tiberius was too powerful to attack directly, his opponents decided to play a waiting game. The reactionary forces began to prepare the ground carefully. They gathered around Cornelius Scipio Nasica, the Pontifex Maximus, who was in charge of religious observances and, by chance, Tiberius' cousin. They began by provoking a riot in the senate:

“They [the aristocrats] created uproar in the Senate, and Nasica demanded that the consul must act now to protect the state and put down the tyrant. The consul answered in conciliatory manner that he would not be the first to use violence, and would put no citizen to death without a regular trial.” (Plutarch, The Life of Tiberius Gracchus, in The Makers of Rome, p. 171)

There was violence also in the popular assembly, where the reactionaries were attempting to gain support by bribery or other means. The masses attempted to make use of their existing rights, such as the popular assembly, to express their grievances, and this led to open fights in the assembly, with the supporters of Gracchus attempting to physically expel the aristocrats and their supporters.

The murder of Tiberius Gracchus

The Gracchus faction held the Capitol where the popular assembly met. According to Appian, Cornelius Scipio Nasica led a mob of nobles and senators armed with clubs to the Capitol where Tiberius Gracchus was addressing an electoral meeting. As a supreme irony, the unsuspecting supporters of Gracchus gave way as a sign of respect for the senatorial rank. This polite gesture was answered by a show of naked force. The frenzied reactionaries attacked the meeting and battered Tiberius Gracchus’ brains out on the steps of the Temple of Fidelity. The scene is described by Plutarch:

“The senators’ followers were armed with clubs and staves, which they had brought from their houses. The senators themselves snatched up the legs and fragments of the benches which the crowd had broken in their hurry to escape, and made straight for Tiberius, lashing out at those who were drawn up in front of him. His protectors were quickly scattered or clubbed down, and as Tiberius turned to run, someone caught hold of his clothing. He threw off his toga and fled in his tunic, but then stumbled over some of the prostrate bodies in front of him. As he struggled to his feet, one of his fellow tribunes, Publius Satyreius, as everybody agrees, dealt the first blow, striking him on the head with the leg of a bench. Lucius Rufus claimed to have given him the second, and prided himself upon this as if it were some noble exploit. More than three hundred men were killed by blows from sticks and stones, but none by the sword.” (Plutarch, op. cit., p. 172)

For the first time in almost four centuries, there was open violence and bloodshed in Rome among members of the ruling elite. “All former quarrels,” wrote Plutarch, “which were neither small nor about trivial matters, were always amicably disposed, by mutual concessions on either side, the senate yielding for fear of the people, and the people out of respect for the senate.” (ibid.)

The terror that followed was similar to all other such episodes in history. The ruling class took its revenge on the defeated party with the utmost cruelty and ruthlessness. In the proscriptions that followed, the supporters of Tiberius were hunted down and killed like animals. The vengeful spite of the aristocratic party was vented even on the dead bodies of its enemies. Plutarch comments:

“They refused his brother’s request for permission to take up the body and bury it at night. Instead they threw it into the Tiber together with the rest of the dead. And this was not all. Some of Tiberius’ supporters were banished without a trial, while others were arrested and executed, Diophanes the rhetorician among them. A certain Gaius Villius was shut up in a vessel with vipers and other poisonous snakes and put to death in this way.” (Plutarch, The Life of Tiberius Gracchus, in The Makers of Rome, p. 172)

The death of Tiberius Gracchus was followed by a White Terror. The senate organized a witch hunt in which many of his supporters were sentenced to death. The bitterness at all levels of society is indicated by the rumour that the war hero Scipio Aemilianus had been murdered by his wife, Sempronia, who was the sister of Tiberius Gracchus, because of Scipio’s refusal to condemn the murder of Tiberius Gracchus.