by Robert Hamilton

Tiberius Gracchus

In this essay I will be discussing the various theories as to what motivated Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus to become a reformer during his relatively brief lifetime, and in particular his crash or crash-through performance as a tribune. I will be employing ancient sources and also looking at the theories of some modern ancient historians.

Starting with his early influences, I would posit that his family home, under an ambitious and independently minded mother, Cornelia, was perhaps, a hotbed of new ideas and noble intentions. Although coming from noble family origins, his grandfather was Scipio Africanus, he was brought up by his mother, who was widowed with 12 children. Single mum, lack of authoritative father figure around the home, one can see how the anti-Gracchan historians could have used this information to make a case against Tiberius’ early upbringing, but in actual fact most historians from antiquity laud his upbringing.[1]  Tiberius’ mother brought in Greek tutors for her children, and there is evidence that one of these, Diophanes, came from a radical political background. Tiberius was also influenced by Blossius of Cumae, a Stoic philosopher who was from a very liberal minded tradition and had been involved with an anti-Roman faction in Capua.[2]

Tiberius Gracchus also served with distinction in the military, firstly under Scipio Aemilianus in Africa, and Plutarch reports, that he shared a tent with the conqueror of Carthage.[3]  During these formative battle experiences, it has been suggested, that Tiberius gained great respect for the soldiers, who were fighting for Rome and yet had very little to show for it themselves upon their return. A further defining experience may have been his war service as quaestor in Numantia, under consul Gaius Mancinus. Here suffering defeat at the hands of the Numantines, Tiberius was called upon, because of his and his father’s reputation for integrity with the Spanish tribes, to arrange a surrender to the enemy – and this arrangement was later reneged upon by the Roman Senate.[4] Much bad feeling was likely to have arisen from this; including shame; betrayal of trust in the state; and the beginnings of a personal falling out with Scipio Aemilianus – who was very influential at this time and would soon become proconsul in Spain.[5]

Continued in Roman and Greek History by Robert Hamilton

©Robert Hamilton

[1] “The handing over of Mancinus started a terrible division in the state. For Tiberius Gracchus, son of that

distinguished and eminent man Tiberius Gracchus, grandson of Publius Africanus by his daughter, under

whom as quaestor and initiator that treaty had been signed, partly because he objected seriously to anything

he had done being cancelled, and partly fearing the test of a similar trial or penalty, was created tribune of

the plebs. He was a man otherwise of complete integrity of life, of brilliant intellect, of great consistency of

purpose, in short, equipped with all such qualities as the human condition allows when brought to

perfection both by nature and by effort.” Velleius Paterculus 2.2.1-3.2; 4.4

[2] “An admirer of Greek culture, Cornelia employed Greek tutors for her children; one, an eminent rhetorician Diophanes, who was a political exile from Mitylene, taught the boys oratory, an art in which they soon excelled. Another formative influence on Tiberius’ life was Blossius of Cumae, a Stoic philosopher and a member of a distinguished ‘liberal’ family which in earlier days has supported the democratic anti-Roman party at Capua.” P-24 From The Gracchi To Nero, Scullard. H.H

[3] “There, according to the Roman custom, he shared a tent with his commander, and it was not long before he learned to appreciate Scipio’s character. The older man was a model of the soldierly virtues in action. Tiberius soon came to surpass all the young Romans of his age in discipline and courage: indeed he was the first to scale the enemy’s wall, according to Fannius, who writes that he himself climbed up with Tiberius and shared in the exploits. Tiberius won the affection of many of his comrades while he was with the army and was greatly missed when he returned to Italy.” 4- Life of Tiberius Gracchus, Plutarch

[4] “When he returned to the capital, he found that the whole transaction had aroused a storm of indignation, and was being denounced as a disaster and a disgrace to the name of Rome.” 7- Life of Tiberius Gracchus, Plutarch

[5] “The first flames of conflict were kindled by [Tiberius] Gracchus, a man who easily stood ahead of all others in birth, appearance and eloquence. Whether it was that he feared the taint of the handing over of Mancinus, since he had been the sponsor of the treaty, and therefore become a popularis, or whether it was because he was led by the principles of right and good, in that he took pity on the plebs driven from their lands and was shocked that the people who had conquered the nations and owned the world should be exiled from their own hearth and home – whatever it was he had in mind, he tackled an enormous task.”Florus 2.2.14

[6] “However, his brother Gaius has written in a political pamphlet that while Tiberius was travelling through Etruria on his way to Numantia, he saw for himself how the country had been deserted by its native inhabitants, and how those who tilled the soil or tended the flocks were barbarian slaves introduced from abroad; and that it was this experience which inspired the policy that later brought so many misfortunes upon the two brothers.” 8- Life of Tiberius Gracchus, Plutarch

[7] “Further, conscription fell heavily upon the peasant when overseas wars demanded long periods of service: the rich could ensure that their farms were looked after during their absence, but the poorer man might often return to a ruined homestead.” P-19 From The Gracchi To Nero, Scullard. H.H

[8] “His father-in-law Appius Claudius Pulcher, who had been consul (143 BC) and censor (probably 136) was Princeps Senatus (i.e. his name now headed the senatorial role). With them were linked by marriage tow other influential men: P.Licinius Crassus Mucianus, a wealthy jurist and scholar (later to be consul in 131 and Pontifex Maximus), had married Pulcher’s sister, Clodia, and their daughter Licinia married Gaius Gracchus.” P-25 From The Gracchi To Nero, Scullard. H.H

[9]“ For once there were found men from the nobility who would place true glory before unjust power, the state

began to shift and civil discord arose like an earthquake. For as soon as Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus,

whose ancestors in the Punic and other wars had added much to the commonwealth, began to champion the

liberty of the plebs and to expose the crimes of the few, the nobility, out of a sense of guilt and

consequential panic, opposed the actions of the Gracchi, partly by means of the allies and those of Latin

rights, and partly through the Roman knights whom the hope of collaboration had detached from the plebs.

They first assassinated Tiberius, and then a few years later Gaius (along with M. Fulvius Flaccus) who was

attempting the same programme, the one a tribune and the other a triumvir for founding colonies. And

indeed, in the case of the Gracchi, there was, as a result of their lust for victory, an insufficient moderation

of spirit. But to a good man it is better to be defeated than to conquer injustice in the wrong way.”

Sallust, Jugurthine War 41.10-42.3

[10] “When Gracchus was endeavouring to remain tribune of the plebs

for the following year and when on the day of the voting he was stirring up troubles amongst the people,

the nobility was inflamed and under the leadership of Nasica put the plebs to flight with pieces of their

benches. Gracchus was fleeing up the steps which lie above the arch of Calpurnius, having flung aside his

cloak when he was struck by a blow from a stool and collapsed. When he rose again his head was split

open by another blow from a stick and he died. Two hundred people, moreover, were killed in that riot and

their bodies thrown into the Tiber; Gracchus’ own body was left to decay unburied.” Orosius 5.8-9


Appian, Punic Wars, (trans H.White), Loeb Classic library, 1912.

Cambridge Ancient History (2nd ed) Vol IX The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146-43 B.C. edited by J. A. Crook A. Lintott E Rawson, Corpus Christi College, Oxford Cambridge University Press, 2008 Week 5 notes.

Plutarch, Makers of Rome (trans. I. Scott-Kilvert) Penguin Books, London, 1965.

Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Pepublic, (trans. R.Warner) Penguin Books, London, Revised Edition 2005.

  • Res Gestae Divi Augusti (a translation of E.A. Judge)  Week 13: Augustus notes.

Scullard.H.H, From The Gracchi To Nero, (5th ed) Routledge, London & New York, 1982.

The Scipionic Epitaphs (from the translation of E.H. Warmington, Remains of Old Latin, Vol. IV, Loeb Classical Library).

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