A lesson from history for today’s politics
It is the year 135B. C .in the Roman Republic. The Carthaginians had been finally defeated. The Roman Republic itself was already some 375 years old, (older than the United States today) dating from the overthrow of the monarchy in 509 B. C. Vast tracts of land had been acquired by Roman patrician families and thousands of non-Romans had been enslaved for failure to pay taxes to the Roman tax collectors. The great estates were worked by slaves leaving non-land owning free men to fend for themselves.
A slave rebellion broke out that year, the first of the three “Servile Wars” against the Republic, the most famous of which, the Third Servile War was lead by Spartacus. Slaves turned on their masters, butchered them and formed an army of several hundred thousand armed soldiers. It took three years for the army of Rome to put down the rebellion. Some 20,000 were crucified by Crassus while the rest returned to slavery.
In Italy itself, vast estates owned by patrician families and worked by slaves had driven the small farmer off of the land and into the cities, particularly Rome. Think “corporate farming”. These landless became the core of the “mob”, working as day laborers, barely able to support themselves in spite of subsidized grain or foodstuffs handed out on the dole. The were the Plebians – those who owned little or nothing.
The rich patrician families got richer – very rich indeed. The poor plebs, with no land, no skills and little if any education got poorer.
It was at this time that certain politicians began to realize the potential political power of the people, the “mob”, and began to “curry” the favor of the landless poor, speaking out for their rights. And the plebs had the power of one political office – Tribune of the Plebs.
In 133 B.C. , Tiberius Gracchus, grandson of Scipio Africanus, conqueror of Hannibal of Carthage, was elected Tribune of the Plebs. Scipio was not a pleb but also not of the patrician families but he was considered “noble” because of the greatness of his accomplishments. None the less, he was never awarded a “Triumph” for his victory over Hannibal since he was not a patrician – instead he was awarded a lesser “Ovation” by the Roman Senate.
This year, the territory of Pergamum had been bequeathed to Rome in the will of it’s king, who had been an ally. Tiberius recommended that the income from Pergamum be used to begin a program of land reform, giving small farms to the landless poor. Tiberius pointed out that there was a law on the books prohibiting any family from owning more than 500 acres, which had been ignored for years by the aristocracy. Tiberius would use the wealth from Pergamum to buy the land from the patricians and redistribute it to the landless poor.
Tiberius argued that his program would lessen the possibility of revolt in the streets and would also provide more soldiers in time of need – at this time soldiers were required to be property owners. After all, why would the poor, who had nothing, fight to defend the Republic?
Naturally, the patrician class in the Senate had little interest in losing any of their land holdings. When he failed to make progress in the Senate, Tiberius convened the “Plebian Assembly” to pass the land distribution program while using his Tribune’s veto power (kind of like a filibuster) to bring the Senate to a halt. Tiberius then attempted to run again for the Tribune office at a time when holding the office for consecutive terms was not allowed.
During his campaign, Tiberius was beaten to death in the forum. His own cousin and his uncle, Scipio the Younger, had resented his attempts to subvert the traditional Roman political structure. A mob of “traditionalists” did the deed.
The reforms of Tiberius were now championed by his brother Gaius, who was elected Tribune in 123 B. C. Gaius however was much more successful than his brother. Gaius knew how to build coalitions.
Gaius was able to gain the support of the Equestrian class, Rome’s “middle class” of traders, artisans, builders. Not only did he successfully push through the land reforms in the Senate but public works projects as well which benefited the Equestrians and provided work to the plebs.
One could now hold the Tribune position for consecutive terms; Gaius was elected twice and began campaigning for a third term. But suddenly his popularity was waning – over an “immigration” issue!
Gaius had proposed granting Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of Roman Italy. He had become too progressive for many of his supporters to stomach. Gaius was defeated for a third term.
Those who still supported him began to protest in the streets. Fearing the mob and potential riots the Senate used the opportunity to grant the new Consul Lucius Optimus the authority to do whatever was necessary to protect the Republic. Optimius, taking this order to mean “by any means necessary,’ gathered several thousand troops, attacked and crushed the mob. Gaius was killed or committed suicide.
After quelling the supporters of Gracchus, Opimius established a tribunal that condemned to death 3000 people accused of being his supporters, without trial. Opimius was later prosecuted for these violent actions but won his acquittal.
Opimius’ victory established the senatus consultum ultimum in Roman constitutional practice, providing a limitless tool that the various Roman factions used against each other in the following years as the Republic slipped into violence and civil war.
The reforms of the Gracchi did not last long and ultimately had little impact. What is important about the period is the rise of the populist party in Rome, the division in Roman society between the Populares and the Optimates and the decline of the Republic. Many historians have called the Gracchi the “first socialists.”
All sounds so familiar don’t it? A couple of well off brothers (JFK and RFK?) supported by the less well off; Optimates (the best men) implying a moral or social superiority over those of lower class who had gradually gained a stake in government, the Populares, supporters of the lower classes, also called “demagogues” by the Optimates, who “tended to use the assemblies of the people for the passage of their laws, rather than deferring to senatorial authority, and claimed to champion liberty against factions in the senate. The Populares wanted to extend voting rights, relieve poverty and gain popular support for agrarian and grain laws. Their Optimate counterparts desired adhesion to conservative measures based on the old oligarchic model, and used the term popularis in a derogatory sense to imply a demagogue who aimed at tyranny”. Kind of like the word “liberal” is used as an epitaph on the right today.
And finally, the issue of “a path to citizenship” which frightened off enough popular support to cause the defeat of Gaius.
Over the next decades the reforms of Gaius Marius would permit plebs to join the Army. Those with nothing flocked to the standard just as they do today – for an income, a pension in their old age, healthcare and above all – honor.
The establishment of a standing professional army resulted in the transition of Rome from republic to empire.
After the failure of the Gracchi reforms and the success of the reforms of Marius the Republic ended as the gulf between Popularis and Optimates widened and Brutus, the Senatorial Optimates by his side plunged their daggers into the people’s hero, Julius Caesar.
What was that quote about learning from history?