Gateway to the Classics: Plutarch's Lives for Boys and Girls by W.H. Weston
Plutarch's Lives for Boys and Girls by  W.H. Weston

Caius Gracchus

W HETHER it was that Caius Gracchus felt some fear of the enemies of his house, or whether he wanted to make them more hateful to the people, certain it is that at first, after the murder of his brother, he absented himself from the Forum, and kept himself close within his own dwelling. But he was, indeed, a very young man at the time, for Tiberius, who was nine years the elder, was not quite thirty years of age at the time of his death. However, it soon appeared that Caius was preparing to take part in public affairs.

He showed such powers of eloquence in the defence of one of his friends, that all the other orators seemed but children in comparison, and the people were transported with enthusiasm. The nobles, however, regarded the powers thus revealed with fear and apprehension, and at once began to take measures to prevent his advancement to the office of tribune.

His enemies were pleased to get rid of him when it fell to his lot to attend the consul as quaestor in an expedition to Sardinia. Caius, however, felt no uneasiness as to the result, for he had as good a talent for military matters as for oratory. Indeed, he thought himself fortunate in being sent abroad, for he had some natural apprehension, after his brother's fate, of taking any share in the politics of Rome.

It is a common opinion that Caius, of his own accord, became a violent political leader. This, however, is not true, and it seems to have been rather necessity than choice that brought him into politics. Cicero, the orator, tells us that Caius avoided all office, and had resolved to live in a private station, but that the shade of his brother Tiberius appeared to him. 'Why dost thou delay, Caius?' said the spirit. 'For us the Fates have decreed the same path and the same death for the people. There is no other way.'

Caius distinguished himself in Sardinia above all the other young Romans, not only in combat with the enemy, but also in justice to those who submitted, and in respect and assistance to his general. He excelled even the veterans in temperance, in simplicity of food, and in devotion to labour.

A severe and unhealthy winter came on while the army was in Sardinia, and the general demanded clothing for his men from the cities of the island. The towns, however, appealed to Rome against this burden, and the general was ordered to find some other means of supplying the needs of the army. Caius thereupon applied to the towns in person, and such was his influence that they voluntarily supplied the clothing.

The senate was alarmed at this instance of the popularity that attended Caius, and determined to keep him away from Rome. They therefore made a decree, that when the ordinary soldiers on service in Sardinia were relieved by others, the consul should remain, in order that Caius as quaestor should also be detained with him.

When this order came to Caius, his anger overcame him. In defiance of it he embarked and arrived in Rome when nobody was expecting him. Not only did his enemies now blame him, but the general body of the people thought it strange that the quaestor should return without his general. A charge was laid against him, but he defended himself so well that opinion was entirely changed, and it was seen that he had indeed been ill-used. 'I have served twelve campaigns, whereas I was obliged to serve but ten. I have attended my general as quaestor three years instead of the legal term of one year.' He added, moreover, 'I alone went out with a full purse and return with it empty, while others, having drunk the wine they carried out, return with the vessels filled with gold and silver.'

After this other charges were brought against him, but he cleared himself of all suspicion. Then, his innocence being fully established, he offered himself as a candidate for the office of tribune. The patricians exerted every effort in opposition to him, but such a great number came into the city from all parts to support him, that the meeting-place would not hold the multitude, and some of the people gave their voices from the housetops.

However, the patricians were so far successful that they prevented Caius from obtaining the first place in the election, and he was returned fourth on the list. But when he had entered upon the duties of the office, he soon obtained a leading place among the tribunes. This he owed partly to his gifts of eloquence, in which he greatly excelled the others, and partly to the memory of his brother's services and unhappy fate. Caius indeed constantly returned to this subject, and reproached the people for allowing the murder. 'Your ancestors,' he said, 'made war to avenge an insult offered to one of their tribunes. Indeed, they thought death itself not too heavy a punishment for a man who refused to make way for the tribune when he was crossing the Forum. But you suffered Tiberius to be bludgeoned to death before your eyes, and his body to be dragged shamefully through the city, and cast into the river.'

Such speeches were heard by great numbers, for his voice was so powerful that he could be heard by a multitude. Having thus prepared the way, he proposed two laws. The purport of the first was that any magistrate who had been deposed by the people should thenceforth be incapable of holding any office. This law was aimed at Octavius, the man who had been deprived of his tribuneship by the agency of Tiberius. The second proposed that any magistrate who banished a citizen without trial should answer to the people for his conduct. In this Caius struck at Popilius, who had banished the friends of Tiberius. Popilius, being afraid to stand the issue of a trial, fled from Italy. The other proposal Caius dropped because his mother Cornelia interceded for Octavius.

The people were quite content to have it so, for they honoured Cornelia greatly, not only on account of her sons, but also on account of her father. They afterwards erected a statue in her honour which bore this inscription


The Mother of the Gracchi

Among the various laws which Caius passed to increase the power of the people, one related to the foundation of colonies and the division of the public lands. A second secured that the army should be clothed at the public expense. A third gave the vote to the Italian allies of Rome. A fourth was intended to lessen the cost of bread. A fifth related to the courts of law, and, more than any other of his proposals, lessened the power of the senate. Hitherto only senators had held the office of judges, but Caius proposed that three hundred men of the knightly order should be added to the three hundred senators as judges. In furthering this bill he exerted himself to the utmost in all respects. One thing was noted as especially remarkable. Before this time all orators when addressing the people stood facing the senate-house. Caius, however, now for the first time stood so as to face the Forum, and ever after this time adopted the new position. Thus, by a mere alteration of the posture of his body, he indicated a very great matter, no less indeed than the change of the government of the state from the rule of the nobles to the rule of the people, for his action intimated that the commons and not the senate should be addressed as the masters of the state. The people not only ratified this law, but also gave Caius the power to choose the three hundred judges from the knightly order, so that he found himself possessed of almost kingly power. Indeed, at this time, even the senate was ready to listen to his advice. He used his power to obtain decrees for the making of roads, for settling colonies, and for building public granaries. He had the supreme direction of all these matters, but he was far from thinking so much business a fatigue. Indeed, he threw such energy into his manifold duties, and despatched them with so much ease, that it appeared as though any matter he happened to have in hand at the moment was the sole thing to which he had to attend. Even those who both hated and feared him could not help marvelling at his tireless industry and the speed with which his undertakings were completed. As for the people, they were delighted to see their leader followed by such a press of architects, artificers, ambassadors, magistrates, soldiers and writers, all of whom he received with a kindly and dignified courtesy.

He took especial pains in the construction of the public roads, and in planning them had regard to beauty as well as to utility. They were drawn in straight lines across the country, and were either paved with hewn stones, or made of sand specially chosen because it readily bound together to make a hard surface. Ravines or deep hollows in the way were either filled up with rubbish or spanned by bridges, so that the road crossed them as a level way. He caused all the roads to be measured, and set up stone pillars to mark the distances, while here and there he built mounting-stones to assist travellers who rode without servants to get on their horses.

The people were loud in praise of the activities of Caius, and there was no mark of their affection which they were not ready to bestow upon him. In one of his speeches he told them that there was one favour which he should esteem above all others, though he should not complain if it were denied to him. The people imagined that by these words Caius meant that he desired the consulship, and that, indeed, he aspired to be both consul and tribune at the same time. They therefore waited with some anxiety for his declaration of this fervent desire when the day of election for the consulship came. They found, however, that instead of seeking the office himself, Caius wished to secure it for another, who by the tribune's influence was immediately elected. As for Caius, though he made no application for office, and did not even offer himself as a candidate, he was at once appointed tribune for a second time.

He soon found, however, that the senators began openly to show their hatred for him, and that the consul, who had been appointed through his influence, began to fall away from him. He therefore set himself to pass still other laws to secure the favour of the people. Such measures were the proposals to found various new colonies, and to grant to all the Latins the rights and privileges of the citizenship of Rome. The senate now resolved to undermine his influence in a new and unheard-of manner. Instead of opposing his proposals, however injurious they might believe them to be, they determined to agree to them, and even to outbid him in the contest for popular favour by adopting still more extreme measures to gratify and please the people. For this purpose they secured the help of one of the colleagues of Caius, Livius Drusus, who by birth and education, eloquence and wealth was one of the foremost Romans of his time.

Drusus entered willingly into the plan. He proposed laws without any regard to the interests of the state, but solely in order to flatter and please the people and thus outvie Caius. Thus, when Gracchus procured a decree for sending out two colonies, Drusus succeeded in sending out twelve, and selected three hundred of the meanest of the citizens for each. Again, Gracchus divided the public lands among the poor citizens on condition that they paid a small rent, but Drusus freed them from even that payment. And, when Caius procured the rights of citizenship for the Latins, Drusus went beyond him by securing a decree that the Latin soldiers should not be flogged for any fault even when they were upon active service. In all these measures Drusus was supported by the senate. Indeed, he sought to persuade the people that the patricians were the prime movers in these matters, and he thus succeeded in lessening the hostility of the commons to the senate.

When it had been decided to rebuild and colonise the city of Carthage, which had been destroyed by Scipio, it fell to the lot of Caius to superintend the work, and for that purpose he set sail for Africa. While he was employed there in re-establishing the town, his work was disturbed by several events of evil omen. The staff of the first standard was broken, what with the violence of the wind and the efforts of the ensign to hold it aloft. Another tempest swept away the sacrifices from the altars, and bore them beyond the bounds marked out for the city. Moreover, the marks of the boundaries were themselves seized by wolves, and carried away to a great distance. Nevertheless, Caius brought all into good order in the space of seventy days, and then returned to Rome.

He found his affairs in no very favourable condition. Drusus had taken advantage of his absence to charge one of the particular friends of Caius with stirring up the Italians to revolt. This man, Fulvius by name, was of a factious character, and though no proofs were given for the accusations against him, his violence and unwise conduct gave some colour to them. As his intimate friend, Caius to some extent shared in the odium which fell upon Fulvius. Moreover, it was remembered, that some time ago suspicion had fallen upon Fulvius, and to a less extent upon Caius, of being concerned in the death of the great Scipio Africanus, who died without any previous sickness, and upon whose body marks of violence were afterwards found. Caius therefore found that his influence was declining, and at the same time found that the power of one of his enemies, Lucius Opimius, was increasing, so that it was expected that Lucius would be made consul for the following year, and would use the influence of that position to attempt the ruin of the tribune.

Caius now removed his dwelling from the Palatine Mount and took up his abode among the meanest and poorest of the citizens near the Forum. He then proceeded to propose the rest of his laws. The senate, however, now felt strong enough to oppose him, and, as supporters of Caius came from all quarters, they persuaded the consul to order all persons who were not Romans by birth to depart from the city. It was indeed a strange and unusual proclamation that the friends and allies of the republic should not be allowed to remain in the city and should not be allowed to vote, although they held the rights of citizenship. Caius encouraged them to disobey the order, and declared that he would protect them if they remained in Rome. But he did not keep his word, and he even suffered one of his friends to be seized and taken away before his eyes by the consul's officers. Either he feared that resistance would only serve to show how much his influence had declined, or he was unwilling to give his enemies the pretext which they sought for having recourse to the sword.

It happened that at this time Caius quarrelled with his colleagues. There was to be a show of gladiators in the Forum, and most of the magistrates had caused stands to be built around the place, intending to make a profit by letting the seats for hire. Caius, however, insisted that the stands should be taken down, in order that the poor might be able to see the spectacle without payment. His orders being disregarded, he went with a body of his own workmen, and pulled down the scaffolds on the very night before the show. Next day the poor were, of course, pleased to find that they had an uninterrupted view of the combats, but the colleagues of Caius bitterly resented the manner in which he had taken affairs into his own hands. This seems to have been the reason why he did not obtain the tribuneship a third time. It appears that he really had a majority of the votes, but that his colleagues, incensed by his conduct, managed to procure a false and fraudulent return which made it appear that he had been rejected. Whatever may be the truth of this, for it is a matter of some doubt, it is certain that Caius did not bear his disappointment with patience. Moreover, his enemy Opimius was elected consul, and at once set himself to secure the repeal of many of Caius's laws, and to annul the establishment of the colony at Carthage, with the object of provoking him to some act of violence which would furnish an excuse for destroying him. For some time Caius bore this treatment patiently, but at length, instigated by some of his friends and especially by Fulvius, he began to stir up opposition against the consul.

The beginning of bloodshed was about no great matter. When the day came upon which the consul, Opimius, hoped to get the laws of Caius repealed, both parties took up positions in the Capitol early in the morning. First the consul offered sacrifice, and one of his officers, while bearing away the entrails of the victims, came up to the place where stood Fulvius and some others of the friends of Caius. 'Out of the way, ye rebel citizens,' said he, 'and make way for honest men,' and some say that at the same time he stretched out his hand with a gesture of contempt. At once Fulvius and the others fell upon him, and stabbed him to death with their long styles, the sharp pointed metal implements with which the Romans wrote on their tablets of wax.

The people were alarmed at this act of violence. As for the two antagonists, Caius and Opimius, the one was dismayed at the handle which had been given to his enemies, while the other rejoiced and sought to excite the people to avenge the death of his officer. But for the time, a torrent of rain which came on prevented any further outbreak of passion.

Early in the morning of the next day the consul caused the senate to be assembled. While he addressed the members within the senate-house, others exposed the naked body of the murdered officer on a bier outside, and then, as had been previously arranged, carried it through the Forum to the senate-house, with loud noise of mourning all the way. Opimius, who knew all about the whole farce, pretended to be very much surprised. The senators in a body went out to meet the body, and, placing themselves around the bier, gave vent to cries of grief and indignation, as if some terrible calamity had befallen the state. This pretended sorrow could not but excite disgust in the minds of those who remembered how Tiberius Gracchus, though holding the great office of tribune, had been murdered by the nobles, and his body cast into the river. They could not help contrasting that deed with the present action of the senators, who stood weeping around the bier of a mere hireling officer, a man who had perhaps been too severely punished, but who had brought his fate upon himself by his insolence. But, in truth, the pretended grief of the nobles had no other source than the intention to provide an excuse for procuring the death of the only remaining protector of the people.

Having returned to their meeting-place, the senators passed a formal decree by which they charged the consul to take every possible means to provide for the safety of the commonwealth and the destruction of the tyrants, for so they termed Caius and his chief supporters. Opimius, in order to carry out these orders, commanded the patricians to take up arms, and each knight to attend with two well-armed servants on the next morning. Fulvius, for his part, also prepared for the struggle, and got together a crowd of his supporters. Caius made no such preparations, but it was observed that, as he returned from the Forum, he stood for some time before his father's statue, and his sorrow was shown by his sighs and tears. He then retired without a word. Many of the commons who saw him were moved with compassion. They felt that they should indeed be dastards if they abandoned their leader to the fate that threatened him. They therefore, of their own accord, went to his house and mounted guard over it throughout the night. Silently, as men oppressed by a sense of the calamitous cloud that overhung the state, they kept watch and ward, taking intervals of rest by turns. In far otherwise did those who attended Fulvius pass the night. They spent the time with noise and riot, with carousing and boastful threats, and Fulvius himself was the first intoxicated of all the rabble rout.

So soundly did Fulvius sleep after his wine that it was with difficulty that his companions awoke him at daybreak. Then he and his followers armed themselves with the Gallic spoils which he had gained during his consulship, and thus equipped they sallied out with boastings and threatenings to seize the Aventine Hill. But Caius would not arm. He went forth in his toga, having only a small dagger beneath it, as though he were going upon ordinary business to the Forum.

As he left the house, his wife threw herself at his feet, holding him with one hand, while the other clasped her son. 'You do not now go forth, my dear Caius, as tribune or lawgiver,' said she, 'nor do I send you forth to a glorious war where death would be attended by honour. You expose yourself to the murderers of your brother. You go unarmed, as indeed a man should who would rather suffer than commit violence. But in so doing, you are throwing away your life without any advantage to the state. Party hatred reigns, justice is overborne by outrage and the sword. What confidence can we have either in the laws or in the protection of the gods after the murder of Tiberius? Must it indeed be my fate to go a suppliant to some river by the sea to pray that it will discover to me where its waves have cast up your dead body?'

Thus his wife poured forth her lamentations, but Caius, as gently as he could, disengaged himself from her arms, and walked forth with his friends in deep silence. In despair she caught at his gown, but in the act fell to the ground, and there lay a long time speechless. At length her servants took her up and carried her to her brother's house.

When all the party were assembled, Fulvius listened to the advice of Caius, and sent his younger son into the Forum as a herald. He was a handsome lad, and approached the opposing party with modest air and tearful eyes to propose terms for an agreement with the consul and senate. Many of the senators were inclined to listen to these proposals. But the consul would have nothing to do with them. 'It is not the place of criminals,' said he, 'to treat with us by their heralds, but first to make submission, and surrender themselves to justice, before they sue for mercy.' He bade the young man not to return unless it were to say that the friends of Caius and Fulvius submitted to these conditions.

Caius was of opinion that all of them should now go and endeavour to come to an agreement with the senate. None of the others agreed with him, however, and Fulvius therefore again sent his son with much the same message as before. But the consul Opimius was bent upon proceeding to extremities, and in a hurry to begin hostilities. He immediately took the young herald prisoner, and marched against his opponents with a large body of foot-soldiers and a company of archers.

The arrows of the bowmen soon galled their adversaries so sorely that they were thrown into confusion, and sought refuge in flight. Fulvius hid himself in an old abandoned bath, but he was soon discovered and put to the sword. With him there perished his eldest son. As for Caius, he was overwhelmed with sorrow at the course events had taken. He was not seen to lift hand in the fray, and took shelter in the Temple of Diana. There he would have killed himself had not two of his most faithful friends prevented him, taken away his dagger, and persuaded him to seek safety in flight. Before he left the temple he is said to have knelt down and prayed to Diana that the Romans might be slaves for ever, in punishment for their base desertion of him. Indeed, upon proclamation of pardon, most of the commons had openly gone over to the other side.

The enemy pursued Caius with eagerness, and came up with him as he was crossing a wooden bridge. His two devoted friends bade him go forward, and then, taking their place side by side at the bridge head, defended the passage so that no man could pass till both the defenders had been overpowered and slain. Meanwhile Caius with but one servant fled onwards. He met many who encouraged him in his flight, as they might have cheered a runner on the racing-path. But, because they saw that his enemies were gaining upon him, none of them helped him, nor lent him a horse, though he besought them to do so. At length, a little in advance of his pursuers, he got to the Sacred Grove of the Furies, and there his life-scene closed. His faithful slave first killed his master, and then took his own life, though some indeed say that both fell alive into the hands of the enemy, and that the slave clung so close to his master to protect him that he was cut to pieces before Caius was despatched.


The Pursuit of Caius Gracchus

The bodies of Caius and of Fulvius and of all those who had been slain, to the number of no less than three thousand, were thrown into the river. Their goods were declared forfeit and were sold; their widows were forbidden to wear mourning; the dowry of the wife of Caius was taken from her. With still more savage cruelty, the younger son of Fulvius, who had not borne arms, and who had been taken prisoner when he came as a herald of peace, was put to death after the battle.

The consul Opimius lived, but lived to earn the execration of the people as one whose hands were stained with the blood of so many citizens. Moreover, he was afterwards infamous enough to take bribes from an enemy of the state. As for the commons, in a little time they lamented the Gracchi. They erected statues to their memory, and decreed that the places where they had been killed should be held sacred. Nay, some indeed offered sacrifices and paid their devotions to them as to the gods.

Cornelia bore herself in all these misfortunes with a noble greatness of soul. She said of the sacred places that they were memorials worthy of her sons. And of Tiberius and Caius she would speak without a sigh or a tear, and recount their triumphs and their sufferings as though she had been telling the story, not of her own sons, but of some ancient heroes. Thus she showed how a noble mind may learn to support itself against the pangs of sorrow, and that though Fortune may often get the better of Virtue, yet Virtue can always be the conqueror by rising superior to the blows of circumstance.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Tiberius Gracchus  |  Next: Caius Marius
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.