Gracchi Brothers


Donald L. Wasson
published on 14 August 2023
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Available in other languages: French, Portuguese
The Gracchi (by Sailko, CC BY)
The Gracchi
Sailko (CC BY)

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (c. 163-133 BCE) and his younger brother Gaius (c. 154-121 BCE) were tribunes of the plebs in the Roman Republic. Serving in 133 BCE, Tiberius introduced a land reform but was beaten to death after his term. Eleven years later in 122-121 BCE, Gaius reaffirmed his brother's land reform and attempted to curb corruption. He met the same fate as his brother.


Tiberius and Gaius were the sons of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Cornelia, second daughter of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, hero of the Battle of Zama in the Second Punic War and the patriarch of one of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families in Rome. Cornelia gave birth to twelve children of whom only three survived into adulthood: Tiberius, Gaius and a daughter Sempronia, who would later marry Cornelia's cousin the Roman commander Scipio Aemilianus. After the death of her husband in 154 BCE, Cornelia refused to remarry. The highly independent woman, instead, chose to control her own affairs. She was extremely dedicated to her two sons providing them with an education via a tutor in rhetoric and Greek philosophy.

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Historian Simon Baker in his Ancient Rome wrote that after the death of his father, Tiberius was faced with the responsibility of upholding his father's name as well as the prestige of his mother's family. Cornelia encouraged Tiberius and Gaius to demonstrate self-discipline and courage: something evident in their time as tribunes. To those around him, Tiberius was seen as more gentle and sedate, while his brother, nine years younger, was high-strung and impetuous. In his Lives, Plutarch wrote of the personalities of both: Tiberius was mild and reasonable, while Gaius was rough and passionate. He added that their valor against Rome's enemies and their "care and industry in office and their self-command … were equally remarkable" (908).

Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi Brothers
Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi Brothers
Archivio fotografico del Museo Civico di Modena (CC BY-SA)

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Tiberius' Career

Tiberius began his journey into the world of Roman politics via the military, serving at the fall of Carthage at the very end of the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE) under the command of his brother-in-law. He "soon learned to estimate the noble spirit of his commander which was so fit to inspire strong feelings of imitation" (908). After the scaffoldings and siege engines were put into place, Tiberius was one of the first to scale the walls. According to Plutarch, while at Carthage, he would surpass all others in obedience and courage and "was regarded while he continued with the army with great affection; and left behind him on his departure a strong desire to return" (909).

As tribune, Tiberius proposed a land reform bill, the lex agraria, calling for a fair distribution of the land held in common.

Tiberius entered the cursus honorum as a quaestor in 137 BCE, serving under the command of the consul Hostilius Gaius Mancinus in Spain. A campaign against guerrilla insurgents, the Numantines, almost brought Tiberius' military and political career to an untimely end. From the start, things went terribly wrong. The Romans were outmaneuvered and after failing in an attempt to escape in the middle of the night, they were forced to surrender and agree to a treaty, which Tiberius helped to negotiate. Rome was outraged: legions of the Roman army do not surrender. Mancinus was stripped of his commander and returned to the insurgents in chains. Tiberius was not charged – "the soldiers … acknowledged Tiberius as the preserver of so many citizens, imputing to the general all of the miscarriages which had happened" (910).

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It was while he was in Spain that he observed something that would haunt him and change the direction of his life. As he travelled the countryside, he noticed that most of the work in the field was done by slaves. The small family farm had all but disappeared. Upon his return to Rome, he learned that when the Roman Republic defeated its enemies, it confiscated their land. Although some of the land went to the poor and indigent who paid a small fee to the public treasury, most of the land became ager publicus or public lands held in common. Unfortunately, the majority of this public land ended up in large estates or latifundia. Over time, the small, peasant farmer simply vanished. A second factor that affected this disappearance was the continued demand of the Roman army for manpower. With farmworkers gone, the small, family farm fell into bankruptcy and was bought out by larger landowners. Plutarch stated that for a while the poor and indigent took advantage of the land held in common, but the wealthy began to "drive the poorer people out" (911). Tiberius understood that something needed to be done.

Tiberius' Land Reform

In 133 BCE, Tiberius was elected one of ten tribunes of the plebs. Elected by the concilium plebis or Plebian Assembly for a one-year term, a tribune could propose laws and summon a session of the Roman Senate. Tiberius took advantage of his newly acquired powers and proposed a land reform bill, the lex agraria, calling for a fair distribution of the land held in common. Realizing resentment would be forthcoming from the Senate and in an attempt to appease them, he renewed an old unenforced law banning the occupation of more than 500 iugera of land (three-hundred acres).

Ancient Roman Society and Social Order
Ancient Roman Society and Social Order
Simeon Netchev (CC BY-NC-SA)

Since all legislation had to be presented to the Senate first, Tiberius feared his proposal would be blocked before it would even be heard by the Assembly. So, he simply ignored the Senate and put his reform bill before the Assembly. A fellow tribune, Marcus Octavius, vowed to use his power of veto and stop it from being read before the Assembly. As the bill was being presented, Octavius intervened and, as promised, blocked its reading. The next day brought the same result. Without being read, the bill could not be voted on. Tiberius had a simple solution: the following day he presented a second bill, stripping Octavius of his tribunate. With Octavius out of the picture, the proposed bill was read and passed. Next, he created a commission to oversee the implementation of the new law.

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The commission – Tiberius, his father-in-law, and Gaius – surveyed the status of those possessing public land to impose the 500-iugera limit. The new law stipulated that possession of the land did not mean ownership; however, it remained rent-free. The state could reclaim all public lands in excess of the legal limit. After the bill's passage, Tiberius became concerned with how to finance its implementation. Luckily for Tiberius, the king of Pergamon, Attalus III, died and bequeathed his entire realm to Rome.

Death of Tiberius

Tiberius was beaten to death; his body was taken out & thrown into the Tiber along with 200 of his followers.

Although considered great for the small farmer, Tiberius' outspoken nature and circumventing the Senate brought opposition. Standing for tribune for a second time, he gathered his followers at the Temple of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill where the votes were being counted. He knew that if he failed to win, his law would be repealed. One of his most vocal opponents was the pontifex maximus Publicus Cornelius Scipio Nasica, Tiberius' cousin. As his opposition became more vocal, fights broke out across the city.

In an attempt to stop the voting, Nasica and a number of senators raced to the temple, demanding a state of emergency, and carrying makeshift weapons. Plutarch wrote that Tiberius' assailants had "furnished themselves with clubs and staves from their houses … [and] fragments of stools and chairs" (918). At the hill, little could be done to resist the onslaught of Nasica and his fellow assailants. Tiberius was beaten to death; his body was taken out and thrown into the Tiber along with 200 (some claim 300) of his followers. As an object of the people's fury, Nasica was sent off on a foreign assignment, dying in Pergamon. Quiet finally returned to Rome, but it was not long before another Gracchus gained the attention of the city.

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Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

For the year following the murder of Tiberius, his brother Gaius Sempronius Gracchus avoided the Roman Forum and all public places. Plutarch wrote of this isolation:

...either for fear of his brother's enemies or desiring to render them more odious to the people absented himself from the public assemblies and lived quietly in his own house. ... [Gaius] gave great pains to the study of eloquence as wings upon which he might aspire to public business; and it was very apparent that he did not intend to pass his days in obscurity. (920)

When he did finally come out of hiding, the Roman people received him warmly and were already encouraging him to become a tribune. Having already served in the military, he entered the cursus honorum as a quaestor assigned to Sardinia under Lucius Aurelius Orestes. When his commission there was extended unfairly, he grew angry and left for Rome. Although charges of dereliction of duty were levelled, he used his oratory skills to clear himself, claiming that he had already served longer in the military and as a quaestor than anyone else. When additional charges were brought against him for exciting insurrection amongst the allies, he again had to clear himself.

Gaius' Laws

Like Tiberius, he saw the need for reform and, despite the fears of his opponents and the wishes of his own mother, he was elected a tribune in 123 BCE. According to Anthony Everitt in his The Rise of Rome, Gaius had a "larger and more all-embracing vision than his brother." His aim was to "purify the Senate and make it more responsive to the interests of the people" (363). He immediately introduced two new laws. The first stated that any Roman official who had been deposed from public office was prohibited from serving again in any capacity (possibly aimed at his brother's old nemesis Octavius), however, his mother convinced him to withdraw it. The second bill forbade capital trials without the approval of the Assembly. Any individual who had deprived another citizen of his civic rights through execution or exile, as if he were an enemy of Rome, was to be arraigned before the people; the bill was easily passed by the Assembly.

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Gaius Gracchus
Gaius Gracchus
Silvestre David Mirys (Public Domain)

Making sure that some of the public lands went to the poor, he next reaffirmed his brother's land law but exempted some of the public lands from distribution. As a former military man, he proposed that a Roman soldier should be clothed at the public's expense without any deduction in his pay. He saw the formation of three new coloniae in Italy and at the abandoned site of Carthage, renamed Junonia after the goddess Juno. Plutarch wrote that he gave special attention to the construction of the roads which "he was careful to make more beautiful and pleasant" (923). To avoid food shortages and possible famine, Gaius stockpiled grain reserves normally imported from Africa, Sicily, and Sardinia, by building granaries. The lex frumentaria, a law passed by the Assembly asserted the state could sell a certain amount of grain each month at subsidized prices to individual citizens.

Next, he attacked corruption, namely fraud, bribery, and theft, in public offices. He created a special court to hear cases before a jury of senators and designed to recover or secure compensation for the illegal acquisition of money or property. However, many of those charged were acquitted as they were close friends with many of the senators. To remedy this, senators were barred from serving on the juries, replaced by the equites. Some of his proposals were poorly received by both the Roman government officials and the people. He had plans to give full Roman citizenship to certain communities with Latin or second-class citizenship. The proposal was blocked and not seriously approached again until the Social War of 91 BCE.

Gaius' Death

Having failed to be elected tribune for a third time, he left Rome to visit the new site of Junonia. Upon returning to Rome, he was met with strict opposition, mostly from Lucius Optimus. After becoming a consul, Optimus proceeded to repeal many of Gaius' laws. The Roman Senate had grown to fear Gracchus' power and influence and ordered that Optimus "should be invested with extraordinary power to protect the commonwealth and suppress all tyrants" (927). In a repeat of the day of Tiberius' death, Optimus told the senators to arm themselves. Sensing trouble, Cornelia helped secure bodyguards to protect Gaius. A state of emergency was declared. Gaius and his followers sought safety and assembled on Aventine Hill. Optimus ordered arrows to be shot into the crowd.

Despite the wishes of his supporters, Gaius only armed himself with a small dagger. His wife, Licinia, gave him a grim warning as he left their house: "You go now to expose your person to the murderers of Tiberius unarmed … choosing rather to suffer the worst of injuries than do the least yourself" (928). According to Plutarch's account, he sought sanctuary at the Temple of Diana, where he attempted suicide, but he was stopped by two of his friends. He and his supporters then gathered on one of the bridges crossing the Tiber, the Pons Sublicius. They tried to ward off the assailants allowing time for Gaius to escape, but resistance was futile, and both his slave and Gaius were killed. His head was cut off and given to Optimus, while his body and the bodies of at least 3,000 of his followers (condemned by a special court) were thrown into the Tiber. Reportedly, with the death of both sons, Cornelia left Rome for Misenum.

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About the Author

Donald L. Wasson
Donald has taught Ancient, Medieval and U.S. History at Lincoln College (Normal, Illinois)and has always been and will always be a student of history, ever since learning about Alexander the Great. He is eager to pass knowledge on to his students.


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Questions & Answers

Who were the Gracchi brothers and why were they murdered?

The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, were tribunes of the plebs in 133 and 122-121 BCE, respectively, who introduced land reforms and other laws, circumventing the Roman Senate. They were beaten to death by their opponents.

What are the Gracchi brothers most known for?

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus is known for his lex agraria, the land reform that proposed fair distribution of the land held in common. A decade after his brother's death Gaius Sempronius Gracchus tried to continue his brother's policies, fought corruption, and planned to extend Roman citizenship.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Wasson, D. L. (2023, August 14). Gracchi Brothers. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

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Wasson, Donald L.. "Gracchi Brothers." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 14, 2023.

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Wasson, Donald L.. "Gracchi Brothers." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 14 Aug 2023. Web. 17 Apr 2024.