Tiberius Gracchus: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the Roman tribune Tiberius Gracchus, one of the most famous and well-loved lawmakers in Roman history. Discover how he was assassinated for creating laws that would have helped the homeless at the expense of the wealthy.

Tiberius Gracchus in Rome

It's a little hard to imagine now, but when Tiberius Gracchus was born, sometime between 169 and 165 B.C.E., the Roman Republic was in a state of almost constant war. Tiberius' short military career involved participation in the Third Punic War and the Numantine War. A hundred years before his lifetime, Rome had controlled an area only slightly beyond Italy. A century after his death, it would control most of the Mediterranean.

Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus
Gracchi Brothers

Respect from a Military Career

As a soldier, Tiberius was remembered for being the first to scale Carthage's walls. The courage he showed led him to political office. He served as a quaestor, or treasurer, during the consulship of Gaius Hostilius Mancinus.

When Mancinus went on a campaign against the Numantines of Spain, Tiberius went along. Mancinus was overmatched in the campaign, though, and forced to retreat. The retreat failed, and Mancinus' rearguard was decimated almost immediately. So Tiberius stepped in and met with the Numantines. Together they signed a treaty that saved the rest of Mancinus' army.

When he got back to Rome, Tiberius' treaty wasn't that popular. But it was generally admitted that he had saved the soldiers' lives after Mancinus had put them in jeopardy.

Realization of a Problem

On Tiberius' way home, he passed through much of Italy. Along the way, he saw many slaves and very few free people. A free Roman was expected to complete his military campaign before he went home, whether that took a month or years. Tiberius' family was wealthy, so that tradition caused no hardship for him. But as he went by farm after farm he saw that the poor families had not been able to cope as well as he had. Many families had forfeited their lands while their men were away fighting. Their lands had then been bought up by the wealthy.

Tiberius realized this was unfair. In one of his speeches, he would remind the Roman citizens that it was outrageous that a free man should risk his life fighting for Rome only to come home and realize his farm was gone.

But there was a practical side to Tiberius' argument, too. Roman law said that all men with property were eligible for military service. By making all the smaller landowners into landless men, Rome was depleting its own armies. That revelation led to Tiberius' election as a Tribune of the People.

The Politics of the Rich

The first law that Tiberius created was the Lex Sempronia Agraria. The law limited the amount of land a person could own to 500 jugera or 125 hectares. Rome had passed laws like that before, but they had never been enforced. Later, Tiberius offered to extend that limit by 250 jugera-per-son of the family and offered landowners pay for all the land above that limit. The confiscated land would be given to the landless, 30 jugera per family.

The problem was in getting the law passed. Tiberius knew that the Senate was made up of the very families he wanted to take land from, so he put his law to the Concilium Plebis, or Popular Assembly. Going through the Concilium Plebis was legal, but Tiberius knew it could irritate any supporters he might have in the Senate. He also knew it was the only way to pass the bill.

Tiberius
Tiberius Gracchus

But the Senate had an answer for him. It convinced another Tribune of the People, Marcus Octavius, to veto his law. Tiberius called for his fellow tribune to be deposed on the grounds that he wasn't acting in the people's best interests. Marcus vetoed that, too. So, Tiberius had him physically removed.

That was where Tiberius made his mistake. He knew it, too. So, instead of deposing Marcus Octavius or passing his bill, he used his own veto power to stop all public buildings from being opened. It wasn't long before his law was passed. A committee was formed out of his family and supporters to execute the laws.

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