Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire

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The murder of Tiberius Gracchus

Reflecting on the downfall of his beloved Republic, the great orator, philosopher and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero picked out one event, some 80 years previous, which signalled the beginning of the end. “The death of Tiberius Gracchus,” he wrote, “and even before that the whole rationale behind his tribunate, divided a united people into two distinct groups” and thus paved the way for civil war. No doubt he was right about the significance of Tiberius’s death and his problematically populist political programme (the troubling rationale behind his tribunate). But to call the Romans united before the arrival of Tiberius Gracchus is a little too generous.

At its foundation, the Roman Republic was split socially between patricians and plebeians. The patricians, hereditary aristocrats, essentially took all political and religious offices for themselves, monopolising control of government and leaving the plebeian masses with nothing but a load of debt and no way out of it. Then in 494 BC came the Conflict of the Orders in which Rome’s plebeians did what today’s Italians still do best and went on strike. Their mass walkout temporarily brought Rome to a halt and eventually won them a series of political liberties.

One was the creation of their own assembly with an elected plebeian official to preside over it called the “Tribune of the Plebs”. The tribune was sacrosanct, meaning nobody could lay a hand on him for fear of being either outlawed or hunted down by a plebeian mob. It was to this position that Tiberius Gracchus, a celebrated war hero and brother-in-law of Carthage’s hammer, Scipio Aemilianus, was elected in 133 BC. The main agenda Tiberius wanted to push was the requisitioning of land from Italy’s rich and its division among the disgruntled, landless poor.

This obviously didn’t go down well with the patricians, who got their man Marcus Octavius (Tiberius’s fellow tribune) to repeatedly veto his legislation. Tiberius’s response was simple but effective: he got the people to vote Octavius out of office. His reform then passed and a generous sum of money from the recently incorporated kingdom of Attalus III of Pergamum provided the funds to implement it. But retirement after his year in office wouldn’t do for Tiberius, and wanting to see the job through until the end he stood for the tribunate a second time. For his senatorial enemies, this was too much.

In 133 BC Tiberius was murdered along with 300 of his supporters, bludgeoned to death by a chair leg as votes were being counted in the Plebeian Assembly. As Cicero realised, his death set a dangerous precedent. Legally speaking, as Tribune of the Plebs Tiberius should have been physically untouchable. But this completely was disregarded. Instead his murder set an example as the first case of extreme violence being used where politics had failed to settle matters. Unsurprisingly, it wouldn’t be the last time violence infused the politics of the Roman Republic. Surprisingly, however, history would be repeated just over 10 years later with Tiberius’s younger brother, Gaius.

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