7The Preverse Legacy of Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

A thesis on Roman politician Gaius Gracchus’s legacy.


The concept of “unintended consequences” in sociology describes unforeseen outcomes caused by resolute actions. Although the term was first mentioned by English philosopher John Locke in the 17th century, instances of unintended consequences can be identified throughout history; such occurrences fall under three groups: unexpected benefits, unexpected drawbacks, and perverse results. The two former categories of unintended consequences are relatively mundane manifestations – perverse results, however, have more intriguing effects. Modern examples of perverse results include drug prevention advertising campaigns on television leading to increased drug use in teenagers and the deployment of automobile passenger-side airbag systems, resulting in mounting child fatality rates; examples of this phenomenon can be found in antiquity as well. Roman tribune Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (Gaius) was one such case. Gaius set out to reform the Roman Republic’s government structure into one of more democratic traits, but his actions ultimately catalyzed the fall of the Roman Republic. Despite the ingenuity behind Gaius’s actions, the unfortunate influence he had on the eventual collapse of the Republic undermines the positive effects he had on the political and socio-economic landscape in Rome; his retroactive approach hindered the potential for lasting change in the history of Rome and ultimately caused Gaius’s fate to mirror that of his older brother, Tiberius.

Gaius was born into a family of established Roman individuals – his father, Tiberius Gracchus the Elder, commonly referred to as Gracchus the Elder, was an esteemed military commander and political figure, while his mother, Cornelia Africana was the daughter of arguably the most accomplished military theorist, Plubius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. The prestige Gaius inherited though birth extended past his direct family, as his ancestors had frequently occupied high-ranking offices within the Roman Republic. The heritage provided Gaius with ethos and demanded respect; however, it also brought upon him many enemies from the actions of his family members. None of Gaius’s relatives’ popularity would affect him more than his older brother, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (Tiberius). Tiberius, nine years Gaius’s senior, held the position of tribune of the plebs in 133 BC.  During his tribunate, he pushed his flagship lex sempronia agraria program, which, operating on the logic of redistributing capital and social wealth to the average Roman citizen, focused on provisioning ager publicus in a more equitable fashion. Known as the Populares movement, Tiberius’s structured attacks on the Roman aristocracy inevitably accumulated unfavorable opinions from the Senate. The democratic reforms Tiberius promoted would eventually lead to his death at the hands of a mob when a group of Senators claimed Tiberius wished to make himself king; the irony of his death establishes a motif of unintended results within the legacy of the Gracchi brothers.

After his brother’s death, Gaius retreated from public view and refused all offers to take a political position in the Republic’s government. Gaius had served under his brother’s land-redistribution commission during Tiberius’s term as tribune and was training to follow his familial tradition of becoming a political figure, yet it wasn’t until Gaius encountered Tiberius in a dream that he reconsidered his political hermitage. Tiberius told Gaius there was “no escape” from engaging in public matters as “one life is fated for us both, and one death as champions of the people.”  Gaius’s dream was a significant moment of his life not only because it led to his return to Roman politics, but also due to the fact that, during his career, Gaius truly internalized the notion of becoming a “champion of the people” with his brother.

The first notable position Gaius took was as quaestor of Sardinia in 126 BC. While the scope of the role was relatively limited in nature, Gaius proved to be creative and persuasive: Plutarch describes an instance where the younger Gracchi personally went around the Sardinian cities and convinced the residents to provide clothes and other resources to assist the ill-equipped Roman soldiers stationed on the island. Gaius quietly served in Sardinia, continuing to gain support and admiration from the residents. Having served longer than the standard time for a quaestor, it wouldn’t be until he learned of a plot to keep him in Sardinia, away from the power and influence in Rome, that Gaius returned to the capital. In trial, Gaius successfully defended himself from accusations of treason, but failed to reduce his adversaries. Gaius, from the beginning of his political career, demonstrated to be someone who made decisions retroactively by past events rather than proactively. The Sardinian episode evidences the method in which Gaius reacts to external events – a shortage of resources for soldiers brought him to action while news of intrigue drew Gaius back to Rome. Back in the Roman capital, Gaius’s actions continue on the same retroactive trend, one that would hinder his ability to create the permanent change Tiberius had wanted.

With the support of the plebeians, Gaius was elected as tribune in 123 BC and again in 122 BC, a feat that had never been accomplished until then. Gaius would pass countless bills and legislation during his time as tribune, canvassing issues from the political realm to the socio-economic. The first task Gaius set about doing once in office was to pass two pieces of legislation: the lex de abactics and lex ne de capite civium Romanorum iniussu (sc. populi) iudicaretur. The former banned disposed magistrates from holding office, a direct attack against the enemies of his dead brother and the latter aimed to increase capital punishment and change the procedurals after a tribune death; both legesset the stage for the rest of his tribunate. Gaius passed the leges as a way to punish members of the Senate who had wronged his brother – the legislation also served a dual purpose of protecting himself from his political opponents. Given that the first thing Gaius passed was the lex de abactics and lex ne de capite civium, a logical conclusion is that he truly saw himself as an extension of his brother, just as Tiberius had told him in the dream. While the remaining majority of Gaius’s reforms lack dates, there exists a theme of reaffirming Tiberius’s Populares philosophies when reacting to the issues of his time.

Building off the framework of Tiberius’s lex sempronia agraria, Gaius passed his lex sempronia frumentaria, a bill that tackled the grain shortage that had been plaguing Rome since the city’s population blossomed. Gaius observed the disruptions that had occurred in the three main suppliers of Rome’s grain – Sardinia, Sicily, and North Africa – and recognized the necessity for precautionary measures. The lex sempronia frumentaria accomplished two related objectives: to construct state-owned granaries and to ensure the accessibility of grain via subsidies and guaranteed rations. Building storage facilities for grain enabled the Republic to amass grain reserves that would prevent future grain shortages and provide supply in the case that the guaranteed ration had to be disseminated. Together, the two parts of the lex were able to stabilize the grain supply while optimizing its distribution. Gaius’s grain laws were some of his most impactful – the conception of a system of grain supply and distribution would protect Rome from future slave revolts and other socio-economic upheavals. Lex sempronia frumentaria also buttresses Gaius’s decision making’s reliance on past events – had Rome not suffered shortages previously, there is meager evidence that the lex would have been drafted. However, this doesn’t negate the influence it had – lex sempronia frumentaria was undoubtably a major addition to Rome’s economic resilience and innately improved the lives of both Roman citizens and allies.

Gaius recognized the prominence of Rome’s connectivity for the overall health of the Republic; outside of the subsidization of grain, Gaius directed the construction of roads throughout Italy. Expansion of transportation infrastructure in the Republic aided all industries, many of which were operated by the Roman knight class, the equites. Gaius’s political reasoning for the expansion of the road network hides behind a utilitarian veneer: since taking his role as tribune, Gaius had only faced growing opposition from the Senate. Pandering to the equites was an essential task in order for Gaius to build a support base outside of the plebeians. There is little evidence to argue that the new roads had significant influence outside of its surface-level purpose or would have not been built without Gaius; however, the construction does illuminate the political rationale for Gaius’s socio-economic actions. The apex of Gaius’s pandering to the equites was the foundation of three new colonies: Minervia, Neptunia and Iunonia. New colonies provided the equites with novel resources for their activities, be it commerce or other industries. The last colony of Iunonia was only founded by Gaius because of waning plebeian support – Iunonia, located at Carthage, provided fertile soil, which was highly valued between the plebeians. The moves Gaius made for commerce were purely reactions to public sentiment towards himself, constricting the potential for radical advances in Rome.

While Gaius’s grain laws and road expansion benefitted the subjects of the Republic, his political reforms were less public-minded, and thus had minute acute influence. Gaius, paranoid of the threat the senatorial aristocracy posed to his goals, passed lex acilia repetundarum. The lex acilia repetundarum effectively reapportioned Senate power from the aristocracy to the equites in an extremely nuanced method that included various facets. Changes made by the lex acilia repetundarum cannot be classified as purely for Gaius’s own gain, though, since Roman commoners did transitively benefit from the alterations set forth. The most momentous portion of the lex acilia repetundarum was the introduction of the equites to Roman court juries. Up until the ratification of the lex acilia repetundarum, the equites had been a comparatively modest group within Roman society. Gaius effectively formalized equites as the “urban proletariate,” leading the equites to lose their moral responsibility and become power hungry. The political program Gaius set out was one motivated by his desire for ensuring his own power and security; this focus may have limited the strength of the senatorial aristocracy, but the self-serving mentality in the political and quasi-political bills he passed unintendedly led to increased social tension within the Republic.

The combination of amplified political and economic power for the equites is the defining influence of Gaius’s legacy – Gaius inadvertently unchained the equites beast that had been limited in authority in the past. With his reforms that prioritized the preservation of his tributary position, Gaius self-destructed his own sphere of influence. “As the [equites] voted in the election… they became more and more formidable to the senators;” Gaius could not have known of the subsequent Social War that can be directly linked to the equites elevated power after his tribunate.

Throughout time, there have been those who single-handedly altered the course of history, whether by direct or indirect actions. Plutarch maintains time to be the factor for the Gracchi’s discounted political career; had the peak of the brothers’ political careers aligned chronologically, “the power they would have exercised… could scarcely have failed to overcome all resistance.” The influence of Gaius Gracchus will always be tainted by his pursuit of self-preservation when responding to events happening around him. In the end, Gaius may have advanced the motives of his dead brother and improved aspects of the Republic in doing so, yet, the reality lies that Tiberius’s hope for a more democratic Roman Republic was ruined in finality through the unintended consequences of his brother’s reforms – there is no constellation of right and wrong, fortune and misfortune more intermingled in one man than in Gaius Gracchus.
(Works Cited)

Research Paper / 2020
Written for Professor David Levene, The History of Roman Republic