The class struggle in the Roman Republic

Rome continued to be in the hands of an exclusive aristocratic club, although the economic and class relations in society had been completely transformed. The political superstructure no longer corresponded to the economic base. This contradiction had to be resolved, and it was resolved through the most savage class struggle. This was the explosive background to the emergence of the Gracchi. [Part one]

The rise of a money economy

The early Republic was an agricultural economy based upon subsistence farming. Its backbone was the class of free peasants who produced mainly for their own consumption, only exchanging the small surplus left over. In the early days of Rome money played an unimportant role in the economic life of society. But a long period of wars and foreign conquests had radically transformed the Roman economy. With the emergence of Rome as a world power and the consequent expansion of trade on an international scale, money begins to play a more important role, first as silver, later as copper and gold. For the first time, exchange and money-relations begin to dominate economic life.

This led to the disintegration of the old social forms. The rise of money economy put an end to the relative equality of the early days of the Republic, and in its place we see an increasing polarisation between rich and poor that no longer corresponds to the old tribal divisions between plebeians and patricians, noblemen and commoners. As we have seen, the spread of slave labour not only destroyed the class of free peasants. It also degraded the value of free labour in general, reducing the free proletarians to a level of misery that was not very different to that of the slaves.

Together with trade and money economy, the Roman capitalists’ power also increases. A new class of Roman capitalists arose on the basis of money, production for exchange and the slave economy. The name equites (“knights”, derived from equus, a horse) was originally given to those citizens who could afford a horse and provided the cavalry in the army, but now began to refer to all those with an estate worth more than 4,000,000 sesterces, a kind of Roman bourgeoisie, a new “aristocracy” of speculators, tax farmers, merchants and the like.

With the emergence of these new relations of production, the day of the free peasant was over, and so was the old Republic with its stern morality and simple soldierly virtues. Gone was the famous frugality of the Romans. Very often the new men of money were commoners, and even freedmen (former slaves). These “new men” had no aristocratic pedigree, but they had wealth and showed it off ostentatiously. The nouveaux riches dressed in silk, drank fine foreign wines and employed educated Greek slaves to recite Homer at their lavish banquets, even if neither they nor their guests understood a single word. Conservatives like Cato complained bitterly about this ostentation, but, as we have already seen, by this time old Cato was regarded as a crank when he dressed himself up in a rough peasant’s tunic and went to work in the fields alongside his domestic slaves. Such things were now seen as anachronisms.

Although in economic terms the capitalists and aristocrats had similar interests as defenders of private property, in political terms there were still important differences between them. The power of the old aristocracy was based on its control of the senate, but increasingly the equites began to exercise a decisive influence on Roman politics. As these “new men” gradually accumulated vast sums of wealth, so they increasingly felt themselves to be a power in the land. They constantly jostled with old patrician nobility for political power, creating new tensions and antagonisms within the Roman Republic.
Privileged aristocracy

Despite the concessions that the patricians had been forced to give to the “new men” in the previous period, the latter were still poorly represented in the offices of state. The government was still in the hands of a closed circle of privileged families. About 2,000 men from less than twenty clans controlled the state and took the lion’s share of the huge amounts of loot from the wars. A good example of this is the Scipio family, which in less than a hundred years had gained no fewer than twenty three consulships. This was a permanent source of friction between the capitalists and the patricians.

These great aristocratic families kept in their cupboards the wax masks of their ancestors who had held consular office. These masks were paraded in the streets at their funerals, when there were pompous speeches in praise of the dead man and all his ancestors. In this way Rome remained in the hands of an exclusive aristocratic club, although the economic and class relations in society had been completely transformed. The political superstructure no longer corresponded to the economic base. This contradiction had to be resolved, and it was resolved through the most savage class struggle.

Rome was now effectively divided into two or three rival centres of power, reflecting the interests of different classes: the official state power, the senate, controlled by the predominantly patrician oligarchy, the voting-assemblies or comitia, controlled by the middle class citizens, and the popular assemblies, where the poorest sections of the populace gathered, the proletariat, including street-boys, Jews, Egyptians and the city rabble in general. The political life of the Republic now becomes much more complicated. In order to get support for its struggle with the aristocracy, the most radical wing of what we might call the Popular Party tried to lean on the masses, as the French middle class Jacobins did at the time of the French Revolution.

The popular assemblies existed, although they had no legal powers to decide anything – but in practice they controlled the streets. And the power of the street in Rome was growing. The urban poor formed a lumpenproletariat of dispossessed peasants, embittered by their expropriation and always ready to riot. Plutarch describes the popular agitation in Rome at this time. In the Life of Tiberius Gracchus he writes of the common people expressing their discontent by “setting up writings upon the porches, walls, and monuments,” demanding that the poor citizens be reinstated in their former possessions. This was the explosive background to the emergence of the Gracchi.
The Agrarian question

The period that led to the fall of the Republic was characterized by a ferocious struggle between the classes, along with fierce power struggles between ambitious generals and politicians. There is an official history of this period, but there is also a secret history. In Capital, Marx wrote: "For the rest, it requires but a slight acquaintance with the history of the Roman republic, for example, to be aware that its secret history is the history of its landed property." (Capital, vol. 1 p. 82, The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof).

It was standard practice of the Romans to confiscate part of the land of conquered cities and states, and this was made public land which, was occupied by tenants who paid rent, usually in produce, to the state. From the earliest times the patricians held the lion’s share of the public lands. In Italy the holding of public lands tended to become a monopoly of the wealthy. This confirms the old saying that property is nine-tenths of the law. No matter by what dubious means this land had been acquired, once it had been occupied for a certain length of time, it was considered as real property of the occupier. In this way, gradually the people were robbed of the public lands, and this was the focal point of all the great class battles in the later Roman Republic.

There were repeated attempts to pass laws regulating the distribution of public lands– the result of the struggle of the poorer classes to gain some share in the ager publicus. Since these lands were occupied without lease, from a strictly legal point of view, this should not have been difficult. But the law, especially as regards property, has always favoured the rich and powerful. And since most agrarian legislation challenged the wealth and privileges of the powerful, it remained a dead letter. The wealthy classes were determined to keep the lands they held, and they controlled the state and drew up the laws. Consequently the agrarian laws were often flagrantly disobeyed or simply ignored.

The most famous of early agrarian laws were the Licinian Reforms (367 B.C.), which limited the amount of land any citizen could hold and the number of sheep and cattle he could pasture on public land. Some public lands were distributed to poor citizens, but by about 233 B.C. these laws had already fallen into disuse and the situation of the poor peasants became increasingly difficult.
Tiberius Gracchus

The next serious attempt to solve the agrarian problem was the Sempronian Law of 133 B.C. This will be forever associated with the name of one of the most remarkable figures in Roman history: Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. He was not a plebeian but an outstanding member of the Roman aristocracy, whose father had held high office. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and his brother Gaius (known to history as “the Gracchi”) came from a prestigious aristocratic family. They were the sons of Sempronius Gracchus and Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio Africanus, the famous general who defeated Hannibal.

With such a pedigree, Tiberius would normally be destined to take his place with the ruling aristocracy and hold high office in the state. But instead he broke with his class and became the most celebrated leader of the plebeians, the Roman poor - the proletariat. Despite his impeccable aristocratic credentials, Tiberius Gracchus was destined to launch himself on a course that would destroy the social and political equilibrium of the Republic.

This is not the only case in history where outstanding members of the ruling class come over to the side of the revolution. In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels point out that “in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands.” (The Communist Manifesto, Bourgeois and Proletarians, Selected Works, Vol. 1. p. 117)

We see the same process in earlier periods also. Marx points out that in the period of the decay of feudalism, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie. So in a period of intense class struggle in the Roman Republic, certain individuals broke away from their class and attempted to represent the interests of the oppressed classes. It may be argued that the Gracchi did not have a consistently revolutionary policy, that they vacillated and attempted to compromise, and that this eventually led to defeat. But when we consider that these men had no reason to do what they did, and that they gave their lives fighting for the cause, surely they deserve to be remembered for their courage and not for their weaknesses.

Tiberius Gracchus was clearly a man of high principles and extraordinary talent, a fact that was grudgingly accepted even by his critics. Seventy five years after Gracchus’ death, Cicero considered Gracchus to be among the best orators Rome had ever produced, but he also saw him as a dangerous demagogue when he wrote: “I only wish that Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus had possessed political intentions as good as his oratorical talents”, and he added, “If so, his renown would have been the most splendid in the world.” (Cicero, Letters, p. 254)

To us today his proposals for reform do not seem excessively radical, but for their time they were genuinely revolutionary. It was almost unheard-of for Roman politicians to deal with social or economic problems and such problems seldom played any part in senatorial debates. The idea that a senator or politician might represent a particular social class was completely alien to the Romans. Tiberius was the first one to address the growing problems in the city of Rome itself, and tried to solve the economic crisis in the countryside through agrarian reform.
Tiberius clashes with the senate

How did this man become a revolutionary? Probably there were several different reasons. Cicero wrote: “He took office only because he was so infuriated with the nobility.” (ibid.) His clash with the senate seems to have its origins in an incident during the Numantian war in Spain (153 BC), when the name of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus first comes to our attention. He apparently became interested in the land question when he travelled to Spain, and observed the decline of farming in Etruria. Plutarch writes:

“When Tiberius passed through Etruria and found the country almost depopulated and its husband men and shepherds imported barbarian slaves, he first conceived the policy which was to be the source of countless ills to himself and his brother.” (Plutarch, The Life of Tiberius Gracchus, in The Makers of Rome, Penguin Edition p. 161)

He saw with his own eyes how the Italian smallholders, whom Rome depended on to provide men for her army, were declining in numbers, undermined by competition from the huge farms, worked by armies of slaves. The smallholdings were everywhere in decline, although they had by no means disappeared by this time. Tiberius Gracchus drew the conclusion that the destruction of the class of free peasants would undermine Rome itself.

As a member of an aristocratic family, Tiberius Gracchus could have expected a distinguished senatorial career, following in his father’s footsteps to both the consulship and the censorship. But his reputation was undermined by a reckless decision he took in Spain. In the Numantian campaign, Tiberius served with distinction as quaestor, and earned the respect of the Spaniards for his bravery and honesty. Such was his reputation for honesty and fairness that the Numantines insisted on negotiating with the son of the man who had treated the Iberians better than other Romans, who frequently reneged on their promises.

But his conduct gave rise to an incident that changed his life and the course of Roman history. In order to save the army of Mancinus, which was trapped and facing certain destruction, Tiberius staked his reputation by concluding a treaty with the Spaniards – without first consulting the senate. Plutarch credited Tiberius Gracchus with saving the lives of 20,000 Roman citizens through this agreement. But there was a problem. The senate had not been consulted about this deal and promptly rejected it and sent the commander Mancinus in chains back to Numantia.

The actions of the senate mortified Tiberius. A Roman aristocrat was brought up to prize above all else his dignitas, a more complicated idea than dignity in English. It means not just dignity, but status and honour. Tiberius had given his word to the Spaniards, and the senate broke it. He considered this a dishonourable action, which not merely betrayed the Numantines, but also disgraced him. Tiberius’ brother-in-law Scipio Aemilianus did his best to shelter him from the dishonour of the Numantian affair, but to no effect. This betrayal had a profound effect on Tiberius Gracchus, who took deep and lasting offence at the senate. This set in motion a chain reaction which exercised a fatal influence on Roman history for more than a century.

Tiberius Gracchus became the mortal enemy of the senate and the Roman aristocracy. He entered the political arena, and in 133 BC he shocked the Roman system by standing not for the office of magistrate, but for the office of tribune of the people. This was a bold and fateful step to take. The tribunate carried with it important powers: the power to veto and to propose law. But the ruling class had always assumed that it could buy off the tribunes and use them to police the masses. They never thought that such an office would be held by a significant political figure such as Tiberius Gracchus, or that it would be used in a serious attempt to change society. But they were wrong.

The moment Gracchus stood for the office it was clear that he was seeking to use his power to rival that of the consuls. In so doing, he was acting according to the letter of the law, but he was doing things that were not in the original script. This was extremely dangerous. It was as if the modern Labour leaders were to make use of the machinery of formal parliamentary democracy to pass laws to expropriate the capitalists. That also is not in the script! This action set Tiberius Gracchus on a collision course with the senate. The hatred felt by the aristocracy towards him was so intense because they saw him as a traitor to his class. He was the first member of the Roman senatorial class to break ranks. His actions offended the strong spirit of solidarity that always exists within the ruling class. They wanted to destroy him utterly. For his part, he was looking for a fight.
The land question

Tiberius Gracchus was no doubt a courageous and sincere man, convinced of the need for a change. He was a social reformer, an idealist who was influenced by the philosophical doctrines of the Stoics of the brotherhood of man. His critics said that he had spent too much time listening to Greeks. In his Life of Tiberius Gracchus, Plutarch writes:

“Of the land which the Romans gained by conquest from their neighbours, part they sold publicly, and turned the remainder into common; this common land they assigned to such of the citizens as were poor and indigent, for which they were to pay only a small acknowledgement into the public treasury. But when the wealthy men began to offer larger rents, and drive the poorer people out, it was enacted by law that no person whatever should enjoy more than five hundred acres of ground. This act for some time checked the avarice of the richer, and was of great assistance to the poorer people, who retained under it their respective proportions of ground, as they had been formerly rented by them. Afterwards the rich men of the neighbourhood contrived to get these lands again into their possession, under other people's names, and at last would not stick to claim most of them publicly in their own. The poor, who were thus deprived of their farms, were no longer either ready, as they had formerly been, to serve in war or careful in the education of their children; insomuch that in a short time there were comparatively few freemen remaining in all Italy, which swarmed with workhouses full of foreign-born slaves. These the rich men employed in cultivating their ground of which they dispossessed the citizens.” (See Plutarch, op. cit/, pp. 159-60)

As we have noted, according to his contemporaries, he was an excellent orator. The following speech recorded by Plutarch is probably not authentic but invented by Plutarch (this was standard procedure with the ancient writers). But it undoubtedly conveys the spirit, if not the letter, of his agitation:

“The wild beasts," said he, "all over Italy, have their dens, they have their places of repose and refuge; but the men who bear arms, and expose their lives for the safety of their country, enjoy in the meantime nothing more in it but the air and light and, having no houses or settlements of their own, are constrained to wander from place to place with their wives and children.

“He told them that the commanders were guilty of a ridiculous error, when, at the head of their armies, they exhorted the common soldiers to fight for their sepulchres and altars; when not any amongst so many Romans is possessed of either altar or monument, neither have they any houses of their own, or hearths of their ancestors to defend. They fought indeed and were slain, but it was to maintain the luxury and the wealth of other men. They were styled the masters of the world, but in the meantime had not one foot of ground which they could call their own.” (Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus, p. 162)

Despite the implacable opposition of the aristocracy, Tiberius Gracchus obtained some important backers for his candidature to the tribunate, including a number of key senators and ex-consuls. This may reflect the power of old family ties and personal friendships, or maybe they did not take his populist propaganda very seriously. In the same way, members of the British Establishment did not take seriously the Communist convictions of Burgess, Maclean and Philby because they were members of the upper class and had been educated at Eton and Cambridge – until they turned out to be Soviet spies.

If they had looked more closely at his programme for taking office, they might have seen that he was very serious indeed.