Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus Is Tribune Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The tribunate of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus attempted to reform Roman society, but Gracchus’s murder inaugurated an era of political violence that eventually destroyed the Roman Republic.

Summary of Event

By the 130’s b.c.e., conditions in Roman Italy were deteriorating. The acquisition of empire made the posting of garrisons in distant provinces necessary and provoked a long, drawn-out war of pacification in Spain. Soldiers were conscripted for these duties from the small farmers of the Italian peninsula, and the long periods of time some of them had to spend overseas made it very difficult for them to keep their farms going at home. Many of the farms of these soldiers were ultimately sold to their wealthy creditors, who then added this land to their large rural plantations (latifundia), worked by non-Italian slaves taken in vast numbers during the provincial wars. For these reasons, the danger of mutiny grew in many foreign-based Roman legions. Moreover, landless citizens swelled the growing numbers of the demoralized urban proletariat, who, without property, were no longer subject to military service with the Roman field armies. This progressive pauperization of small farmers, who made up the bulk of recruits into the Roman army, threatened the long-term stability and survival of the state. A few attempts had been made to repair this situation, but they all had been blocked by the conservative Roman senate. Gracchus, Tiberius Sempronius Octavius, Marcus Scipio Aemilianus Scipio Nasica

In December, 134 b.c.e., Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus took office as one of the ten plebeian tribunes. Shortly thereafter, he proposed passage of the Sempronian Agrarian Law, a measure intended to reform the use of “public” land (land owned by the state). This land was occupied, but not owned, by farmers and ranchers, many of whom were wealthy latifundia proprietors. The agrarian bill stipulated that the amount of public land being used by any single individual should not exceed 300 acres (121 hectares). A man would be allowed to work an additional 150 acres (60 hectares) for each of his first two sons. The state would repossess areas above the stipulated 300 acres (121 hectares), paying compensation for improvements made by the occupier, and divide this excess into 18-acre (7-hectare) parcels that the state would then rent to landless citizens. This measure was designed to reduce the number of landless citizens in Rome and simultaneously increase the number of men eligible for military service overseas.

Tiberius presented this plan to the assembly of the people, the Consilium Plebis, which voted it into law. At this point, however, Marcus Octavius, one of the other tribunes, who was said to have enormous tracts of public land, exercised his legal veto and nullified the assembly’s act.

Tiberius counterattacked with a legal innovation that provoked a constitutional crisis of the first order. He argued that a tribune should not hold office if he acted against the interests of the people. Whether he did act against them should be decided by the people themselves through the Consilium Plebis. Conservatives, led by Tiberius’s own uncle Scipio Aemilianus, strongly opposed this proposal, arguing that tribunes were inviolable and therefore not subject to recall. Moreover, they argued that there was no precedent for the deposition of a tribune. Tiberius, however, ignored these constitutional objections and presented his proposal to the Consilium Plebis, which voted overwhelmingly to recall Octavius. The assembly then immediately voted the agrarian bill into law and appointed a commission, which included Tiberius, his brother Gaius, and another relative, to survey the public land and proceed with its redistribution.

This commission required money to function, and the conservative-dominated senate, which traditionally controlled state finances, refused to grant it sufficient funds to operate. It was at this point that the news arrived that the Hellenistic state of Pergamum had been bequeathed to Rome by its recently deceased king, Attalus III (c. 170-133 b.c.e.). Tiberius, apparently with the approval of the Consilium Plebis, appropriated part of the financial reserve of Pergamum and used it to finance the commission’s work. This action, while necessary to implement the agrarian law, nevertheless outraged conservative Romans, who viewed it as a serious breach of constitutional practice and a threat to the traditional authority of the senate. The senate therefore made up its collective mind to resist Tiberius.

As the time for the election of magistrates for the year 132 approached, Tiberius feared that his opponents would make an effort to elect men in sympathy with their own views and attempt to then repeal the agrarian law. To head off this possibility, he presented himself for reelection as tribune, another unprecedented action because tribunes had traditionally only served a single-year term. Conservatives charged that Tiberius was implementing a nefarious strategy designed to increase his personal power every year until he was in a position to proclaim himself king.

On election day, a crowd of senators and their clients gathered in the Roman Forum. When it became clear that Tiberius was going to be returned to office, this mob, led by Scipio Nasica, stormed the crowded voting areas armed with staves and knives. They seized Tiberius, beat him to death, and then murdered more than three hundred of his supporters. Their bodies were unceremoniously flung into the Tiber River.


Tiberius, in attempting to reform Roman society, had had to resort to extraconstitutional measures, which turned the senate, which included many of his relatives and former friends, sharply against him. Instead of attempting some sort of legal redress to deal with the renegade tribune, the senate resorted to the drastic expedient of murder. This act inaugurated an era of violence that gradually swelled into a full-scale civil war that would ultimately destroy the Roman Republic.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brunt, P. A. “The Fall of the Roman Republic.” In The Fall of the Roman Republic and Related Essays. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988. A highly original and thought-provoking essay which places Tiberius Gracchus within the larger framework of the breakdown of the republican system of government in Rome.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hildinger, Erik. Swords Against the Senate. Cambridge, Mass.: DaCapo Press, 2003. Details the Republic’s descent into anarchy and civil war, beginning with the time of the Gracchi. Written from the perspective of a military historian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scullard, Howard Hayes. From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome, 133 b.c. to a.d. 68. 1959. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 1989. A classic study that places Tiberius Gracchus at the beginning of a process that led to the installation of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shotter, David. The Fall of the Roman Republic. New York: Routledge, 1994. A concise and easy-to-read analysis which argues that Tiberius Gracchus was essentially an opportunist who adopted the position of social reformer to further the interests of his senatorial faction.
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Gracchi; Scipio Aemelianus. Gracchus, Tiberius Sempronius

Categories: History