Tiberius Graccus and the Senate

Why was the ancient Roman senate so worried about the ambitious tribune, Tiberius Graccus? To find out we must start from the begining. In the wake of the second Punic war, Roman soldiers came home to find the countryside devastated. Their land useless for farming, the veterans sold it to the newly rich and moved into the city. There were not many job opportunities in the city for the veterans, because slaves did everything, and rejoining the army was not an option, because in order to do that you had to be a landholder.

Tiberius Graccus pursued a land reform that would distribute land to the veterans and thereby make them eligible for the military. He did not have enough support in the senate, so he bypassed it altogether and went straight to the concilium plebis (counsel of the plebs) . This was a major impropriety, because it was an unwritten law that you first had to get the consent of the senate before a bill was taken to the any of the assemblies. Now the senate had its eye on Tiberius.

The unwritten law of always getting the senate’s approval was one of three principles which the Roman government relied heavily on: always respecting the ruling of your co-magistrate, not having consecutive terms in any elected office, and of course, always getting the senate’s approval. The senate also traditionally managed all things pertaining to finances and foreign affairs.

The bill passed, but the senate intervened and refused to fund it. This probably would have been the end of it if the King of Pergamum had not bequeathed his entire Kingdom to Rome. Tiberius seized this opportunity and announced that tax revenues would fund his land commission. This supplanted the senate’s traditional custodianship of finances and foreign matters.

The senate influenced Tiberius’ co-tribune, Marcus Octavius, to veto the land reform bill. Tiberius then organized a special vote to remove Octavius from the office of Tribune. Tiberius won, and Octavius was removed. This violated the principle of collegiality, which stated that there had to be two magistratesĀ  in each of the offices, and that they had to agree unanimously. Tiberius then proceeded to violate the third principle by running for a second consecutive term. The senate now viewed Tiberius as a great threat to Roman tradition.

At a political rally, things began heating up. Tiberius sensed his life was in danger and put his hand to his head to indicate this. The people at the rally misinterpreted this gesture and thought that Tiberius was calling for a crown. Someone told the senate and they rushed over to the rally, brandishing broken-off bench legs. When they found Tiberius, they beat him to death.

The senate was very worried about Tiberius Graccus. They weren’t so concerned about his land bill, because it passed soon after his death, and had a large influence. Tiberius was just too ambitious. His big mistake was threatening the only source of the senate’s power: tradition.




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