(The ROMAN REPUBLIC – continued)

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Violence against the Gracchi Brothers

In 133 BCE, Tiberius Gracchus was elected by a people's assembly (Comitus Plebis) as one of ten tribunes. He was a military veteran known for his bravery, and he had an enthusiastic following among Rome's urban poor. He was from one of Rome's most prestigious families and the brother-in-law of the brilliant General Scipio, under whom he had served. But he complained that those who had borne arms for their country enjoyed nothing more than air and light and that they had fought and died to maintain the luxury and wealth of others. He spoke of the restless poor being a threat to political stability and complained that the small farmer, who had been the backbone of the republic, was disappearing – their farms often going bankrupt and bought by those with wealth. Tiberius claimed that for justice and the safety of all it was urgent that as many families as possible be restored to the land. Restoring land to the poor, moreover, would make more Romans eligible for military service.

Senators accused Tiberius of attempting to usurp the Senate's prerogatives, and they complained about what they called his ambition and called him a dangerous revolutionary.

The conflict over land reform dragged on through much of 133. That year, during Tiberius' campaign for re-election, a riot broke out between his supporters and his opponents. News of the riot reached the Senate, and one of the Senators, also Rome's chief priest, the Pontifex Maximus, quickly gathered a mob that included servants and clients of prominent city leaders. The mob rushed the supporters of Tiberius, clubbing and stoning to death three hundred of them. They found Tiberius, tore his toga from his body, bludgeoned him to death and threw him and the bodies of the other dead into the Tiber River.

It was the first recorded political murder in Rome since the Republic's founding 376 years before. The Senate attempted to legalize the killings: it set up a court that tried surviving supporters of Tiberius, and it posthumously charged Tiberius with having planned an attempt to become king – a most serious charge in republican Rome. Many Romans viewed the Senators as august and honorable men and believed the charges against Tiberius. They reasoned that if Tiberius wanted to become king then he deserved to die. Many others believed the charges against Tiberius were false and that he had died for the common people. The court found some of Tiberius' followers guilty of having supported Tiberius and had them executed. Then, concerned with public opinion, the Senate sent the Pontifex Maximus to the East, ostensibly on business but in fact into exile.

The younger brother of Tiberius was elected tribune annually in the years 123 and 122, and he carried on the struggle for reforms. He successfully challenged the power of the Senate by passing legislation that outlawed proceedings such as those the Senate had used to persecute his brother's supporters. The new law forbade trials with the power of capital punishment that did not have the approval of a people's assembly. Gaius sought Roman citizenship for those Italians who had fought with Rome's armies, and for the landless among them he founded a colony where Carthage once stood. Among those opposed to giving citizenship to Italian veterans were Roman businessmen, who feared lost advantage and more competition. Roman citizens were warned that the spread of citizenship would jeopardize their good seats at shows and festivals. They disseminated false rumors about the failure of Gaius' project at Carthage, and they managed to turn enough of Rome's citizens against Gaius that he lost his bid for a third term as tribune.

A scuffle broke out between supporters of Gaius and opponents that left dead the servant of a consul who was a vociferous enemy of Gaius. The consul used this incident to persuade the Senate to create martial law, which enabled the Senate to create an armed force with which the consul could combat civil unrest. Knowing they were the targets of the Senate's martial law, Gaius and as many as three thousand of his supporters withdrew to the city's southern-most of seven hills, Aventine Hill, about 1.8 kilometers (1.14 miles) from the city center. Before the year 121 was over, the consul's army overran and killed them. A reward had been offered for Gaius' head, and he was decapitated. A soldier, it is said, scooped out the brains and filled the skull with lead and then turned it in for the reward: an equal weight in gold.


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