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

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The death of Gaius Gracchus

Tiberius’s brutal murder could have driven his younger brother to one of two choices. It could have either persuaded him to shy away from politics and public life entirely (or if he had any involvement at least to tow the senatorial line). Or it could have fired him up to see his brother’s land reform legislation through to the end, and maybe implement some radical legislation of his own. Gaius Gracchus being who he was, it ended up being the latter.

Gaius managed what his brother could not, holding the position of tribune two years in a row in 123 and 122 BC. He also surpassed his brother in the scale and radicalism of his reforms. He outlawed bribery, and enabled people to appeal the death penalty. He made Rome the only state in the Mediterranean to provide a state-subsidised grain ration to each of its citizens, an innovation that lasted for centuries. And in his land reforms he established colonies abroad where citizens could emigrate en masse(one of them being the recently razed site of Carthage which—contrary to popular belief—was never sown with salt).

His popularity with the masses and brazen disregard for the wishes of the patricians made him unsurprisingly even more unpopular than his brother. It could have been behind the scenes senatorial scheming that explains why, when he went for the tribunate again in 121 BC, he failed to secure it. Things then went from bad to worse as he barely managed to stop one of the consuls for that year Lucius Opimius from repealing his legislation. And then, during a street brawl, a posse of Gracchan supporters stabbed Opimius’s attendant to death with styluses (the pen on this occasion proving mightier than the sword), forcing Gaius to flee as the Senate announced a state of emergency.

With the backing of the Senate, Opimius managed to talk some Cretan Archers (who just happened to be hanging around) into joining his improvised lynch mob. He then set about massacring thousands of Gracchan supporters, some 3,000 if we believe the ancient numbers, either butchered on the spot or executed after a series of sham trials over the coming days. Gaius at this point was taking refuge on the Aventine Hill. But with the Cretan Archers approaching, and seeing no way out of his mortal predicament, he ordered his slave to stab him to death; an order he obligingly carried out.

While Tiberius’s death had set a precedent, his younger brother’s death entrenched it. Senatorially approved factional violence was now seeping into the mainstream as a legitimate way of removing one’s enemies. Ostensibly, these enemies were threats to the state, but in reality they threatened no more than the status quo. To keep up appearances, Opimius was made to stand trial for his slaughter of thousands. But as it was just for effect he was soon acquitted. As things were beginning to calm down in Rome, however, tensions were reaching breaking point among Rome’s allies across Italy.

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