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

Tiberius Gracchus

T HE two Gracchi, Tiberius and Caius, were the sons of Tiberius Gracchus, who, though he was once censor, twice consul, and celebrated two triumphs, was even more distinguished for his virtues than his dignities. Hence, after the death of Scipio, the conqueror of Hannibal, he was deemed worthy to marry Cornelia, the daughter of that great man, although he had been rather at variance with Scipio than on terms of friendship with him.

The story is told that Tiberius once caught a pair of serpents, male and female, upon his bed. He consulted the seers as to what this strange event might mean, and was advised by them that he should neither kill both the serpents nor suffer both to live. Further, they told him that if he killed the male serpent his own death would follow, while if he killed the female his wife Cornelia would die. Now Tiberius loved his wife dearly, and, as he was much older than she, deemed it fitter that he should die rather than Cornelia. He therefore killed the male serpent and allowed the female to escape. Not long after he died, leaving no fewer than twelve children to the care of his wife. The sole charge of the house and children now fell upon Cornelia, and so nobly did she discharge her trust, and with such affection and wisdom, that it seemed Tiberius had not judged ill in choosing to die for such a woman. A monarch, Ptolemy, King of Egypt, paid his court to her and offered her a seat upon his throne, but she refused him.

All her children died during the time of her widowhood except three; a daughter, who married the younger Scipio, and two sons, Tiberius and Caius. These children were brought up with such care by Cornelia that they were considered to owe more to their training than to the gifts of nature, though they belonged to the noblest family in Rome, and were gifted beyond all others in mind and character.

While the two brothers strongly resembled each other in courage, in temperance of life, in generosity and in eloquence, yet there appeared no small difference between them in their actions and in their conduct of political affairs.

In the first place, Tiberius was gentle in manner and calm in behaviour, while Caius was fiery and energetic. This difference was shown in their different styles of speaking in public. Tiberius stood still and used gestures but little. But Caius strode from one end of the platform to the other and often threw his gown from his shoulder. His oratory was full of passion and of a kind to excite terror and fear, while the speech of Tiberius was of a gentler nature, and awakened the softer emotion of pity. Tiberius used well-chosen words and polished language, while Caius was more splendid and forcible in diction.

Similarly, Tiberius lived in a very plain and simple manner, while Caius, though moderate in comparison with other young Romans of his position, seemed luxurious when compared with his brother.

The differences between the brothers in speech and mode of living reflected the difference in their characters. Caius was aware that his ardent nature often caused him to lose control of himself when speaking, and led him to raise his voice too high, to indulge in words of abuse, and to lose the thread of his speech. He was, therefore, accustomed to station one of his servants, a sensible fellow, behind him when he was speaking, with orders to sound a note of warning upon a pitch-pipe whenever his master was beginning to show signs of anger and to raise his voice too high.

Such was the difference between the brothers. But, in the courage which they displayed against the enemies of the state, in their justice towards their fellow-citizens, in the sense of duty which guided their public actions, they were perfectly alike.

Tiberius was the elder of the two by nine years, and hence it came about that their work in political matters took place at different times. This was a great misfortune, for, could they have acted together, their strength would have been greater, and might well have been irresistible.

As the young Tiberius grew into manhood, he gained a great reputation for one of his years. This is shown by the following story. Appius Claudius, who had been both consul and censor, and whose merit had raised him to the rank of President of the Senate, took occasion at a public entertainment to address Tiberius, and to offer him the hand of his daughter in marriage. Tiberius was sensible of the honour, and gladly accepted the proposal. When Appius returned home, he called out to his wife directly he entered the house and told her that he had arranged for the marriage of Claudia their daughter. 'Why so suddenly as all this?' answered his wife. 'What is the need for such haste, unless, indeed, Tiberius Gracchus is the man you have chosen?'

Tiberius served in Africa under the younger Scipio, who had married his sister, and he was, therefore, on intimate terms with his general. He lived in Scipio's tent, so that he learned much from the general's genius and mental powers, which daily gave him subjects for admiration and imitation. Tiberius, indeed, excelled all others of his age in the army in discipline and courage. At the siege of a certain town he was the first to scale the walls.

After this expedition he was appointed quaestor, and it became his duty to accompany the consul Mancinus in the Numantian war. The consul was not lacking in courage, but nevertheless showed himself one of the most unfortunate generals the Romans ever had. But amidst a series of reverses and disasters Tiberius distinguished himself, not only by his courage and ability, but by the respect which he showed to his general in his misfortunes.

After having lost several important battles, Mancinus endeavoured to draw off his army by night. The enemy, however, detected the movement, seized the Roman camp and, attacking the retreating army, cut up the rear. Indeed, they surrounded the whole force and drove the Romans into rough and broken ground, whence there seemed no chance of escape. Mancinus despaired of cutting his way through with the sword, and sent a herald to his foes to beg for a truce and to ask for conditions of peace.

The Numantians, however, refused to treat with the herald, and declared that Tiberius must be sent, for they would have dealings with no other. Their reason for this was partly respect for Tiberius himself, and partly respect for the memory of his father, whose honour and faith their people had experienced beforetime.

Accordingly Tiberius was sent as envoy to the enemy. By giving way on some points he gained others, and was thus the means of making a peace which saved the lives of twenty thousand citizens of Rome, in addition to the slaves and other followers of the army.

However, the Numantians carried off as plunder everything that was left in the Roman camp, and, amongst other things, the books which contained the accounts which Tiberius had kept as quaestor. These accounts were of great importance to him, and therefore, when he discovered their loss, he returned with a few friends to Numantia, although the army was upon the march. When he arrived, he called out the magistrates from the place, and asked them to restore the books. He pointed out that enemies might take the opportunity to accuse him of misuse of the public money if they learnt that he had lost the volumes, which alone contained the evidence to rebut such false charges.

The Numantians were pleased to have the opportunity of obliging him, and invited him to enter their city. As he stood debating in his mind the wisdom of doing so, they came up to him, took him by the hand, and begged him no longer to look upon them as enemies, but to have confidence in them as friends. Tiberius decided to trust them, and entered the town. There they first invited him to take food with them, and afterwards not only restored his books but also asked him to accept whatever else he chose from the plunder. Tiberius, however, would accept nothing except some frankincense, to be used in public sacrifices to the gods. He then embraced his former foes, and took his departure.

When he returned to Rome, he found the people very angry about the peace, which they considered a dishonour to the Roman arms. Tiberius was therefore in considerable danger, but the relatives and friends of the soldiers whose lives had been saved by the treaty made up a considerable part of the people, and they united to save him. They laid all the blame of the disgrace upon the consul, and said that as for Tiberius he had rendered the state great service by saving the lives of so many citizens. The general body of the people, however, would by no means allow the peace to stand. They demanded that the example of their ancestors should be followed, who, when their generals made a similar peace, sent the chief officers of the army back naked to the enemy, as being the ones responsible for the breach of the treaty through agreeing to such terms.

The people, however, showed on this occasion a great affection for Tiberius. For instead of sending back the quaestors and tribunes as well as the consul, as their ancestors had done, they decreed that Mancinus alone, naked and in chains, should be delivered up to the Numantians, but that the rest should be spared for the sake of Tiberius. Scipio, who at the time had great power and influence at Rome, appears to have helped to procure this decree.

It is probable that Tiberius would never have fallen into the misfortunes which ruined him, if Scipio had been at home to aid him in political matters. He was, however, engaged in war with Numantia when Tiberius was bold enough to propose his new laws.

These land laws of Tiberius arose from the following facts. It had formerly been the custom when Rome won new territory from neighbouring states to dispose of it in this manner. A part was sold, another part was added to the public lands, and the rest was divided among the needy citizens on condition of a small rent being paid to the public treasury. But when the rich began to oppress the poor and to shut them out from the land entirely unless they paid extravagant rents, a law was passed that no man should hold more than five hundred acres of land. This law checked the greed of the rich for a time, and the poor possessed their lands at the old rents. But after a while their rich neighbours began to seize upon their lands and to hold them, at first in the names of other persons, and then, as they grew bolder, in their own. After the poor Romans were thus driven out, the lands were cultivated for the rich by slaves and foreigners, and thus there was a lack of freemen all over Italy.

Laelius, a friend of Scipio, made some attempt to remedy these abuses, but, when he found that the opposition was very powerful, he gave up the idea, for he feared that his reforms could only be carried by the sword. But no sooner was Tiberius appointed Tribune of the People than he engaged in this very undertaking.

Some say that he was incited to do this by the complaint of his mother that she was known as the mother-in-law of Scipio and not as the mother of the Gracchi. But his brother Caius relates that when Tiberius was passing through Tuscany, he was filled with sorrow to see the countryside stripped of husbandmen and shepherds and almost uninhabited, save for the foreign slaves who tilled the lands of the rich, and that he then formed the plans which were to bring such great misfortunes upon himself and his brother. Certainly the people themselves incited him to become the champion of their cause, for on the porches, the walls, and the monuments of the city they put up writings beseeching him to restore their share of the public lands to the poor.

Tiberius did not frame the law without consulting some of the Romans most distinguished for virtue and position. And, indeed, a more moderate law was never made to remedy so much injustice and oppression, for those who deserved punishment for taking away the rights of the people and holding lands contrary to law were to be compensated for giving up their groundless claims. Moderate though the proposals were, they satisfied the commons, who were content to overlook the past, provided their rights were safeguarded for the future.

Nevertheless, the rich opposed the law out of greed, and assailed Tiberius with hatred and malice. They endeavoured to raise prejudice against the design, by asserting that he wanted to throw everything into disorder and to overturn the constitution. They faHed, however, for, in a cause so just and glorious, the eloquence of Tiberius, which might well have carried less worthy proposals, was irresistible. Great was he when, from the public platform, he pleaded for the poor in such words as these:

'The wild beasts of our country have caves in which to shelter, but for the brave men, who have shed their blood in her cause, there is nothing but air and light. Houseless and homeless, they wander from place to place with their wives and children. What a mockery it is when the generals at the head of their armies exhort the soldiers to fight for the tombs of their ancestors and the gods of their hearths! For among all those numbers of men, there is perhaps not one Roman who has an altar that belonged to his forefathers or a sepulchre in which their ashes rest. The common soldiers fight and die to increase the luxury of those already rich and great, and those Romans, who are called the masters of the world, have not a foot of ground to call their own.'

Such speeches, delivered by a man whose heart glowed with interest in the cause, filled the people with enthusiasm, so that none of his opponents dared to answer him. They therefore gave up the attempt to debate the matter, and applied themselves to work upon another of the tribunes named Marcus Octavius. Now, the power of the tribunes lies chiefly in the negative vote, for if one of them stands out the rest can do nothing. At first Octavius was unwilling to oppose Tiberius, who was his friend, but when a number of the men of the highest rank applied to him, he gave way and prevented the passing of the law.

Tiberius was incensed by this. He now dropped his first moderate proposals, and brought in a more drastic measure by which the holders were commanded to give up immediately the lands which they held contrary to the laws. Daily disputes on the new bill arose in public between Tiberius and Octavius, but, even in the heat of debate, they used no abusive or insulting language concerning one another.

Tiberius saw that Octavius would suffer personal loss if the proposals were passed, because he held more land than the law allowed. He therefore offered, though his own fortune was not great, to make up out of his means whatever loss Octavius might sustain, if only he would withdraw his opposition and allow the law to pass. But Octavius refused to accept the offer.

Tiberius now endeavoured to force the passage of his Agrarian Law by bringing the machinery of the state to a standstill. He forbade the other magistrates to exercise the functions of their offices, and he set his own seal upon the Temple of Saturn, so that no moneys should be taken out, or paid into, the treasury. These measures aroused such resentment that a number of the wealthy Romans went the length of bribing assassins to murder Tiberius, who, to protect himself, was obliged to take to carrying a long narrow sword such as robbers use.

When the day of the voting came, some of the urns used for the ballot were carried off by partisans of the rich, and great confusion was thus caused. Those who were supporting Tiberius were in numbers sufficient to carry the point by force, and seemed about to do so. Then two men of consular rank approached Tiberius, fell at his feet, and with tears and prayers besought him not to carry this purpose into execution. He himself now recognised the dreadful consequences of such an attempt. He referred the matter again to the senate, but the influence of the rich was so great in that body, that nothing came of the debates on the measure.

Tiberius then adopted a plan which was neither moderate nor just. He resolved, since there appeared to be no other way of getting the law passed, to remove Octavius from the tribuneship. First, however, he again besought him to give way, but met with a refusal. Then he declared that since they differed on a point of such prime importance, it was impossible for both to continue in office. He proposed, therefore, that they should abide by the popular vote, as to which of them should resign office. This proposal also was rejected by Octavius.

Next day Tiberius convoked the assembly and, as Octavius still refused to agree to his proposals, put to the vote a decree depriving him of office. When, of the thirty-five tribes, seventeen had already given their vote in favour of this, and but one more was wanted to carry the decree, Tiberius stopped the proceedings, and once more besought his colleague to yield. Octavius listened, not without emotion, but with a firmness that cannot but be admired, refused and bade Tiberius do his worst. The bill therefore was passed, and Tiberius then ordered one of his freedmen to pull down Octavius from his tribunal. This shameful manner of expulsion should have awakened the compassion of the mob, but, so far from feeling pity, they attacked the expelled tribune. Indeed, it would have gone hard with him, had not a body of the landed party come to his rescue, and kept off the mob so that he escaped with his life. But such was the fury of the mob that one of his servants, who put himself in front of his master in order to shield him, had his eyes torn out by the raging crowd. This outbreak was quite against the wishes of Tiberius, and he hastened to do his utmost to appease the fury of the people.

The Agrarian Law was then confirmed, and three men were appointed to attend to the survey and distribution of the lands. They were Tiberius, his father-in-law Appius Claudius, and his brother Caius, who was then serving in the army under Scipio. Tiberius next filled up the vacant tribuneship by getting one of his own dependents put into the office.

The anger of the patricians grew more and more bitter with these proceedings. In the senate they lost no opportunity of insulting Tiberius. Thus, for example, they refused him the use of a tent at the public expense, while he was engaged in dividing the lands, though such a grant was customary. Moreover, they allowed him only a very small sum for expenses.

Meanwhile, on their part, the people were becoming more and more exasperated. When it happened that a friend of Tiberius died suddenly, the people roundly declared that he had been poisoned. The fact that it was only with great difficulty that the body could be consumed on the funeral pyre confirmed their suspicions. The action of Tiberius on this occasion tended to stir up the anger of the people against the other party still more. Dressed in mourning, he led his children into the Forum, and commended them and his mother to the protection of the people, as though he considered his own life as good as lost.

Now, about this time a certain ruler died, who by his will left the Roman people his heirs. Tiberius at once proposed a law to the effect that the money thus bequeathed should be divided among the citizens to enable them to get tools for the working of the lands newly assigned to them.

These proposals again were very distasteful to the senate, and many accusations were levelled at Tiberius. One senator charged him with designing to make himself King of Rome, and stated that he had certain knowledge that a royal diadem and purple robe had been brought to the tribune to be worn when he assumed the title. Others accused him of consorting with mean and turbulent people; while yet another brought a charge of more weight and truth, affirming that he had been guilty of a great offence in deposing his fellow-tribune, whose person, according to the law, was sacred.

Tiberius himself felt that the step he had taken in deposing Octavius from office offended many of the commons, as well as the patricians. He defended himself by saying that the person of a tribune of the people drew its sanctity from the fact that it was devoted to the service of the people. But, he argued, if a tribune opposes the interests of the people, he loses that attribute, and can be deposed by the same power that set him up.

The supporters of Tiberius, being afraid of the threats and plots against him, now advised him that he should use all his influence to get his tribuneship continued for another year, for they considered that he would be in great danger if he were but a private citizen. Tiberius therefore, in order to secure reelection, brought forward other laws intended to please the people. He proposed to shorten the time of military service, and also that an appeal from the judges to the people should be allowed. It must be confessed that in some of his proposals, he seemed now to be inspired rather by an obstinate anger against the patricians than by regard for the public welfare.

When the time came for the vote to be taken, Tiberius and his friends saw that there was a poor attendance of the people, and that their opponents were likely to be the stronger party. They therefore spun out the proceedings by all means possible, and procured the adjournment of the meeting to the following day. Tiberius then, with every sign of mourning and distress, went into the market-place, and applied to the people for protection. He told them that he feared that he himself would be killed, and his house destroyed before morning. The people were deeply moved. Many of them set up tents outside his door, and kept guard over his house all night.

Next morning, omens of disaster were not lacking. Nevertheless, Tiberius set out for the Capitol as soon as he heard that the people were assembled there. As he went out of his house, he stumbled on the threshold, and struck it so violently with his foot that his toenail was broken and the blood flowed freely. He had gone but a little way farther when he saw, on his left hand, two ravens fighting upon a housetop, and, although as tribune he was surrounded by many people, one of the ravens let fall a stone which dropped close to his foot. Even the boldest of his supporters were disturbed by so evil an omen, except one who exclaimed: 'It would be a disgrace unbearable if Tiberius, son of Gracchus, grandson of Scipio Africanus, and protector of the people of Rome, should fail to go to the help of the people when they called upon him, for fear of a raven, forsooth!' He declared, too, that their enemies would not be content with laughing at them. They would point out to the commons, the speaker continued, that Tiberius was already acting with the insolent pride of a king in coming or not to the meeting-place as it pleased him.

At the same time there came several messengers from their friends in the Capitol, asking Tiberius to make haste, for everything was going as well as he could wish.

And indeed, when the assembly saw Tiberius approaching in the distance, they burst out into the loudest applause, and when he came up greeted him with delight, and formed a ring around him to keep all strangers at a distance. The colleague, whose appointment Tiberius had secured, then began to call over the tribes, but such was the excitement and the press of the crowd that nothing could be done regularly and in order. In the midst of the commotion a certain senator got upon a raised place, and, as he could not make his voice heard above the din, made a sign with his hand to Tiberius that he had something to say to him in private. The tribune therefore called upon the people to make way, and with much difficulty the senator got near to him. He told Tiberius that the senate was sitting, and that the landed party had applied to the consul to take action against the tribune, and further that, as they could not get the consul to consent, they had resolved to kill Tiberius themselves, and had armed a number of their friends and slaves for that purpose.

As soon as Tiberius communicated this news to those around him, they girt up their togas, seized the halberds with which the guards kept off the crowd, and broke them up to serve as weapons with which to beat off any attack. The people who were at a distance could not understand the cause of this disturbance, and Tiberius found it impossible, on account of the din, to let them know by calling out to them. He therefore touched his head with his hand as a sign to them that his life was in danger. At once some of his enemies, who were mingled with the crowd, ran to the senate and declared that Tiberius was claiming the kingly crown, for that was the interpretation they put upon the sign he made.

The report caused a great sensation in the senate. Nasica, one of the senators, rose and demanded that the consul should defend the commonwealth, and destroy this man who aimed at making himself tyrant. The consul answered that he would not begin the use of violence, nor put any citizen to death who had not been condemned by the laws, but that he would annul any decree contrary to the constitution that Tiberius should persuade the people to adopt.

Upon this Nasica started up and cried, 'Since the consul gives up the cause of his country, let all those who support the laws follow me.' Then, covering his head with the skirt of his toga, he hurried to the Capitol, followed by a number of others. The crowd did not resist them; indeed the people, out of regard for their rank, made way for the senators to pass, trampling upon one another and breaking the benches as they did so. The attendants of the senators had brought staves and clubs with them, while the patricians themselves seized the legs of the broken benches. Thus armed, they rushed upon Tiberius, killing or driving off such as stood in their way.

Tiberius himself, with many of his friends, sought to escape. One of his enemies laid hold of his toga, but he slipped it off, and continued his flight. He chanced, however, to stumble over the bodies of some of those who had already been killed in the onslaught, and fell. Before he could recover himself, one of the patricians struck him upon the head with the leg of a stool, and he was killed. Over three hundred others were slain in this fight, all by clubs and stones, and not one by the sword.

This is said to have been the first civil strife in Rome, since the expulsion of the kings, in which the blood of any citizen was shed. All other disputes had been settled by compromise, and so probably might this one have been if Tiberius had been moderately dealt with. But it seems that the conspiracy against him was caused rather on account of the personal hatred of the rich, than for the reasons which they publicly gave for the deed. This is shown by the cruel and disgraceful treatment of his dead body. Despite the entreaties of Tiberius's brother that he might be allowed to take it away, the nobles ordered that it, with the other bodies of the slain, should be cast into the river. Nor was this all, for, of his friends, some were banished and others put to death without trial. One, indeed, was shut up in a cask with vipers and other poisonous snakes and left thus to perish miserably.

The senate now sought to make peace with the people. They no longer offered any opposition to the Agrarian Law, and they allowed the election of another commissioner, in place of Tiberius, to attend to the dividing of the lands. But the people deeply lamented the death of their tribune, and it was plain that they were awaiting an opportunity for revenge. Nasica was especially the object of their hatred, and they reviled him as an accursed wretch who had defiled the most sacred and most awful temple in Rome with the blood of a magistrate. Nasica was indeed constrained to leave Italy secretly, and to wander from place to place in foreign lands until he died.

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