This post is part two in a timeline series of posts. The goal of this post is to examine the impact of Tiberius Gracchus on the republic of Rome. His life would forever change the complexion of Roman politics as he was the first person to really recognize and leverage the power of the “mob mentality” upon the Senate. We will also draw some parallels to our American republic as there are some definite similarities. In the end, as you will see, it is very difficult to ever discern whether a human being’s actions are rooted in evolutionary morality or their self-serving lust of power guised as such. Although all evidence points to the latter, I have this naïve hope that human beings will one day treat each other ethically, coexist peacefully, and be prosperous. In that spirit, I choose to believe that Tiberius Gracchus was a man of nobility and magnanimity. But in truth, we’ll never know and logic tells us that this is unlikely when considering his species.
Timeline Part 2 – Tiberius Gracchus 168BC – 133BC
Like many of his era, his birth year cannot be confirmed. Tiberius was born sometime in the 2nd century BC. He was old enough to fight as a junior officer in the third Punic war (149 to 146 BC) pitting Rome against Carthage. Tiberius was born into political power and influence as was any Roman you will ever read about. If you were not born with the proper pedigree, you had no chance of being “somebody” in the Roman historical record. And if you were, your chance of being somebody usually rested on your military success. Your political success was also hinged upon your military success. So to recap, your chance of being written about in Roman history rested on 3 basic criteria occurring in this specific order: 1)born into the right family 2) successful military career 3) successful politician. Each criterion’s opportunity was predicated upon the previous criterion’s occurrence. Most people were disqualified at step one which is out of their control. My friend Kirk and I have always referred criterion #1 as “the lucky sperm club” of which, unfortunately, neither of us are members. Let’s begin with Tiberius’ military career to understand his rise as a politician.
The Carthage empire had shrunk under each of the first and second Punic wars. The third, and last Punic war, was a typical siege/besieger campaign against the city of Carthage itself, the last stronghold. Wars in this era had a lot of “pre-game” activity. Use your imagination to think about how it must have been for the Roman besiegers. They would have circumvented the area, dug trenches, cut off supply lines, and built war machines over the course of many months. Men would be camped in tents all around the perimeter of the battlefield.
One of the biggest assets of the besieger would be the massive ladder towers with wheels that would be pushed up against the walls of whatever fortress was being invaded. The first people that would charge up this ladder and get over the wall would be considered the bravest for they would be subjected to a rain of arrows and giant buckets of boiling oil being spilled from the top of the wall. The oil would burn you and cause you to fall to your death and then be set ablaze which would catch the entire ladder structure on fire. Tiberius is said to be the first over the wall during the 3rd Punic war. You can decide if you want to believe that last sentence or not.
Tiberius’ bravery in Carthage would earn him recognition amongst his comrades and his superior officers. But, his actions in defeat in Hispania during the Numantine War would earn him a political voting base for life even if that life was short. The Celtiberian tribes in the province of Hispania were tough fighters. Rome had trouble defeating them for many years. Metellus had fought them and won some battles but never “took” Numantia. Pompeius had his 30,000 troops crushed by 8,000 Celtiberian fighters.
Eventually the Roman Senate would appoint General Mancinus to fight in Numantia. Mancinus managed to get his entire 20,000 troops surrounded by the Celtiberian fighters. When Mancinus surrendered, it was only Tiberius Gracchus that the Celtiberian chief would negotiate peace with because of his reputation of honor and his father’s honor of which they knew. Tiberius Gracchus negotiated a treaty with Numantia that saved the lives of 20,000 soldiers. He was hailed as a hero to 20,000 soldiers, all the military staff traveling with the soldiers, and all of their families back in Rome; the Roman Senate, however, was none too impressed.
Tiberius would not yet realize the political sway he had just earned from his actions in Hispania. But, the stage was set for his political high point of being elected Tribune. Tiberius, his mother Cornelia, and brother Gaius were of high status in political circles in Rome. He had the proper pedigree to potentially get elected into public office. Tiberius, however, had also made enemies with some in the Senate when he negotiated with the Numantians.
Tiberius was sympathetic to the plight of the plebeians who were losing their land to the wealthy when they would not return home from wars or would return home unable to tend their farms. The plebs had no voice with the aristocrats of Rome and Tiberius saw agrarian reform laws as a cause worth championing. Tiberius wanted the aristocrats to give back the land they had taken to the men who used to own it and would tend and plant it. It was Tiberius’ sense of humanity and justice that these plebs being stepped on was wrong and ignoble. Further, when the plebs had tended their farms and made good use of the land, it only served to help the republic of Rome. We all know that freedom alone is what makes the soil most fertile and productive. As the plebs land was taken by the aristocrats it hurt the plebs and Rome on the whole. The aristocrats taking the land felt richer, but it’s a false sense of wealth when corruption leads a republic to act contra to the moral codes that have been established and proven over so many thousands of years beforehand. The rural poor became the urban poor. The balance of power and justice had been so upturned and the republic was beginning to falter. This was about the time when the military lowered its standards of recruitment which is a good bellwether of a failing republic. These are standard hallmarks of a failing republic: lower military standards (i.e. we don’t need the best men, we just need people), lower education standards, erosion of regulations, &c. Tiberius saw this and also saw his calling as a political reformer. It was Appius Claudius, the head of the Senate, who came to Tiberius and offered him his daughter Claudia in marriage and some consultation about how he could become elected Tribune. A Tribune position was perfect for Tiberius because while you were in office, which was a one year term, you had protected status (i.e. you were not allowed to be murdered). This was important because Tiberius was about to stir up some serious shit.
Tiberius was elected Tribune in 133 BC. His cousin and arch-enemy, Scipio Nasica, was an influential Senator plotting against Tiberius. Nasica had positioned another Tribune, Octavius, to stifle Tiberius’ reforms. Octavius was an old friend of Tiberius and this is where it starts to get ugly.
A quick digression…
The rich do not take kindly to anyone taking away what they consider their wealth. This is even more so the case for those people that are born on 3rd base and somehow think they’ve hit a home run in life. They can justify or rationalize very easily any measure that would prohibit someone from infringing upon their stock. And, because they have the power, they will use it however they see fit to the peril of anyone who should try to do so. Humans have not changed at all in this regard even as I write this today. The only difference today in politics as compared to ancient Rome is the medium by which people become marginalized. This technique is the exact same in any court of public opinion. Let’s look at a couple examples of typical modern day marginalization:
Case#1 A woman is assaulted by a wealthy man she’s been dating and files charges with the police. The man’s lawyers and money roll out the propaganda machine to convince the public that she’s a drug user and is just trying to get after his money. In the public’s mind, she’s marginalized and is considered a gold digging and drug using scammer. Truth and justice fall by the way side.
Case#2 A politician with integrity, great ideas, and a strong work ethic (I know this person doesn’t exist, but I’m trying to make a point) is running for election against an incumbent that is known to be deceptive, untrustworthy, and unfaithful to his wife. The challenger said something innocuous but stupid a few years ago that was caught on video. The incumbent goes negative in his ad campaign and runs and re-runs a commercial incessantly replaying the challengers gaff. The public sees this commercial enough times and decides they can’t elect the challenger.
Case#3 A political party has poor ethics and sets out to manipulate the minds of voters. They issue talking points each morning to their apostles; each of which uses their own media channel sending the same hypnotic buzzwords all day long to their flocks. The goal of their actions is to tarnish the reputation of a person, some legislation, or whatever else. These buzzwords get repeated incessantly all day every day until the flocks are parroting them back to each other and anyone they come in contact with. Whatever cause, person, or bill that doesn’t suit them is destroyed by “popular opinion”.
That list could go on and on. I could cite real world examples and name names, but they’re so trite I feel it unnecessary. In Tiberius’ case the allegations against him were this: Scipio Nasica accused Tiberius of wanting to be king. This was the pinnacle offense in Rome and it was a very simple rallying cry to get the masses worked up. Perhaps, Tiberius’ rise in stature was too much for Nasica to take. Perhaps he acted out of jealousy. We won’t know. But the agrarian reforms that Tiberius was proposing were not that radical. It’s the way Tiberius went about achieving his goals that would get him in trouble.
Tiberius had expected his agrarian reforms to pass through the Tribunal council. The Tribune Octavius, that was planted in the council by Nasica, used his veto power to block the passage of Tiberius’ reform. Dumbfounded, Tiberius left the council that day with no new law on the books. This is where it gets crazy and where Tiberius becomes famous in history. He decided that he would use his veto power to block every single Tribunal proposal that was set forth at the next Tribunal council. The word veto is latin for I deny and each Tribune had this veto authority.
You have to picture these Tribunes sitting out in the open forum with hundreds of common city folk in attendance. Most of which were there to cheer on Tiberius’ reforms. When Octavius used his veto, the crowd would have been booing and hissing at him. At the next Tribunal council Tiberius would stand up and shout VETO! at each and every proposed bit of legislation or action to be spoken about. The crowd was going sick and frothing at the mouth I’m sure. This had the effect of shutting down the city and usurping the power of the Senate. The Senate was now furious that someone would have the gall to act in such a way. This took the pressure up on notch on Tiberius. This is where you really have to wonder whether Tiberius was truly noble or just self-serving his ego to get his way. He was championing reform to remedy those enduring injustice, but was it really for the plebs or himself? We will never know. It would have assuredly been intoxicating to have the popular support of so many people; something akin to groupies toward a rock star. He was for the first time giving a voice to those who had never had one; the mob mentality was born.
Tiberius was able to get his reforms passed because it was obvious he was not going to relent. Tiberius had Octavius, his old friend, deposed and was now able to get his laws on the books. But, his protected status as a Tribune was soon coming to an end. The Senate was irate toward Tiberius and wanted him tried for crimes against the Republic as soon as his term as Tribune expired which would carry the death penalty. He tried to extend his term by seeking reelection thus extending his protected status but it didn’t work. The rules in Rome were clear that you must have an interval between terms in office. This served Tiberius poorly given that he was illegally seeking to hold power whilst he was being accused of wanting too much power.
The other angry mob of people that was not on Tiberius’ side and that was brainwashed into thinking that Tiberius wanted to be king, murdered Tiberius and 300 of his closest supporters. Tiberius was not afforded a funeral and his body was dumped face first into the Tiber river. His brother Gaius would pick up where Tiberius left off championing agrarian reform and he would end up with a similar fate: assassination.
What Tiberius did would give rise to a revolution. The corrupt aristocrats would further abuse their power at the expense of the plebs. The divide between rich and poor would become larger and larger. We know now that this is part of a typical life cycle of any empire or republic. This sets the stage for chaos and the rise of a military power into emperorship or dictatorship. Around the world and throughout history, this pattern seems to not have changed in the 2,000 years since Tiberius and was probably the same for many millennia before him.
Does any of this sound familiar? Republicans and Democrats. Fox News and MSNBC. Christians and Muslims. There are so many parallels to the rise and fall of Rome and the ever polarizing America we’re living in today. We are so closely approaching this exact same stage in our history as a republic. As our aristocrats’ lust for money and power so blinds them from the plight of their own people, it is easy to see our preordained path; history repeats itself. Perhaps the best summation of the Gracchi brothers can be given to you in just one sentence from Adam Smith’s classic book “The Wealth of Nations”. In book V, chapter I, part III, Article II, titled “Of the Expence of the Institutions for the Education of Youth”, Smith says this:
But the factions of the Greeks were almost always violent and sanguinary; whereas, till the time of the Gracchi, no blood had ever been shed in any Roman faction; and from the time of the Gracchi the Roman republic may be considered as in reality dissolved.
As Rome approached this revolution started by Tiberius, let’s get ready for the next post in this series on Julius Caesar. Caesar has marveled my brain since high school. He is the ultimate megalomaniac. He is the ultimate example of power. He is ultimate politician. He is the ultimate warrior. Look for the post labeled Timeline part#3 for the next installment in this series: Julius Caesar.