CHAPTER XXI. INTERNAL HISTORY. - THE GRACCHI.
We have seen how the long struggle between the patricians and plebeians terminated in a nominal victory for the latter. From about 275, the outward form of the old constitution had undergone little change. It was nominally that of a "moderate democracy." The Senate and offices of state were, in law, open to all alike. In practice, however, the constitution became an oligarchy. The Senate, not the Comitias, ruled Rome. Moreover, the Senate was controlled by a class who claimed all the privileges of a nobility. The Comitias were rarely called upon to decide a question. Most matters were settled by a DECREE OF THE SENATE (Senatus Consultum). To be sure the Comitia declared for war or peace, but the Senate conducted the war and settled the conditions of peace. It also usually assigned the commands, organized the provinces, and managed the finances.
The causes for this ascendency of the Senate are not hard to find. It was a body made up of men capable of conducting affairs. It could be convened at any time, whereas the voters of the Comitias were scattered over all Italy, and, if assembled, would not be competent to decide questions demanding knowledge of military matters and foreign policy.
The Senate and the Roman nobility were in the main the same. All patricians were nobles, but all nobles were not patricians. The patricians were the descendants of the original founders of the city. The nobles were the descendants of any one who had filled one of the following six curule offices, viz. Dictator, Magister Equitum, Consul, Interrex, Praetor, or Curule Aedile. These nobles possessed the right to place in their hall, or carry in funeral processions, a wax mask of this ancestor, and also of any other member of the family who had held a curule office.
A plebeian who first held this office was called a novus homo, or "new man."
The Senate, thus made up of patricians and nobles, had at this time the monopoly of power. Legally, however, it had no positive authority. The right of the people to govern was still valid, and there was only wanting a magistrate with the courage to remind them of their legal rights, and urge the exercise of them.
Such a magistrate was found in TIBERIUS SEMPRONIUS GRACCHUS. With him was ushered in the contest which lasted for more than a century, and brought to the surface some of the proudest names of Roman history. On one side or the other we find them, - MARIUS and SULLA, CAESAR and POMPEY, AUGUSTUS and ANTONY - arraying Rome against herself, until the glories of the Republic were swallowed up in the misrule and dishonor of the Empire.
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus the elder (see Chapter XX.) belonged to the nobility, but not to the aristocracy. He married CORNELIA, the daughter of Africánus the elder. They had twelve children, of whom all but three died young. Two sons and a daughter lived to maturity. The daughter, SEMPRONIA, married Africánus the younger. The sons, TIBERIUS and GAIUS, grew up under the care of their noble and gifted mother, who was left a widow when they were mere boys.
Tiberius (164-133) entered the army, and served under his brother-in- law during the third Punic war. Ten years later (136) he was Quaestor in Spain, where he won the affections of the people by adhering to the mild policy which his father had previously followed. His popular measures here displeased his brother-in-law, and he ceased to be a favorite with him. On his return home he passed through Tuscany where he was astonished to see large tracts of the ager publicus (see Chapter VII.) cultivated by slave gangs, while the free poor citizens of the Republic were wandering in towns without employment, and deprived of the land which, according to law (see the Licinian Rogations), should have been divided among them, and not held in large quantities by the rich land-owners.
Tiberius determined to rectify this wrong. In 133 he offered himself as candidate for the tribuneship, and was elected. He then began boldly the battle for the commons. He proposed to revise the Agrarian Law, now a dead letter, which forbade the holding of more than 320 acres of the ager publicus by one individual. Occupants who had fenced this land and improved it were to be compensated therefor.
The wealthy classes and the Senate at once took sides against Tiberius, and the struggle began. One of the other Tribunes, OCTAVIUS CAECÍNA, who was himself a large land-owner, taking advantage of his authority as Tribune, interposed his veto to prevent a vote upon the question.
Gracchus, full of enthusiasm over the justice of his cause, obtained, contrary to all precedent, the removal of his colleague from office, and passed his Agrarian Law. Three commissioners were appointed, himself, his brother, and his father-in-law, APPIUS CLAUDIUS, to carry it into effect.
It was contrary to the law that a person should hold the office of Tribune for two successive years. But Gracchus, in his desire to carry out his plans, determined to violate this rule, and offered himself as candidate for the next year. The election day came, and when it became evident that he would be re-elected, the aristocrats, who had turned out in full force on the Campus Martius with their retinues of armed slaves and clients, raised a riot, and, killing Gracchus with three hundred of his followers, threw their bodies into the Tiber (133). Thus was shed the first blood of the civil struggle. The mob was led by SCIPIO NASÍCA, the uncle of Tiberius. Africánus, when he heard of the murder of his brother-in-law, exclaimed, "Justly slain."