Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny. — Thomas Jefferson

Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

The Gracchi; the Rise of Marius

No nation is the same at the end of a war as at its beginning. The Romans had been carrying on warfare for a long period, and they were quite different people from the Romans of earlier times. They now tried to imitate the, ways of the East, and especially of Greece. It had become the fashion to look down upon everything Roman and to think everything Grecian far superior. The Latin language now seemed to the Romans common and unpolished. They learned Greek and sent their sons to Greece for the last years of their education. They scorned the old simple ways and delighted in the Eastern fashions of living in luxury and spending a great deal of money for amusements.

The victories of the Romans had brought a vast amount of wealth to Rome, for all the lands that she had conquered were obliged to pay tribute to her. There were new opportunities for men to make large fortunes; for instance, if a man succeeded in getting himself appointed governor of a province, he did not often try to rule the province for the good of the people, but got as much money from them as possible, and it made small difference to him whether by fair means or foul. Then he returned to Rome to try to make more display than any one else. Occasionally, an unjust governor was prosecuted on his return; but this was small gain to the suffering provincials, for now the governors wrung all the more from them to make sure of having enough money to bribe their judges if they were brought to account.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan

A Roman was no longer satisfied to live on a little farm and till it with his own hands like Cincinnatus; he must own a wide estate and have it cultivated for him. So many wanted these large estates that land became dear, and a poor man could not buy even a small farm. He could not easily get work to do on one of these large places, because most of them were now cared for by slaves. It was a common custom to sell as slaves the people of a conquered city; and the Romans had taken so many cities that slaves had become exceedingly cheap. It was far less expensive to buy them than to pay wages to free men. But how did the poor men live? Some went to the towns and hung upon some wealthy men for their support. Some became soldiers and fought, not to save their country or to strengthen her power, but merely to get their wages and the plunder of conquered cities.

There was little hope of any one's becoming a senator unless he was rich. The Romans were divided into two classes: the rich, who cared for little but display and amusements, and the poor, who were becoming more and more anxious to be idle and luxurious, and who did not care who supported them if they could only get rid of work. The rich were growing richer, and the poor were growing poorer, and both cared chiefly for living idly and comfortably and being amused.

In their amusements the Romans were as stern and cruel as in their warfare. Their entertainments were chiefly the theatre and the gladiatorial combats. Their first knowledge of the theatre came from an educated Greek of Tarentum named Livius Andronicus. When the Romans captured Tarentum, they brought him to Rome as a slave. He learned Latin and translated some Greek plays. This was a new diversion for the Romans. They gave him a building on the Aventine Hill and went in crowds to see him act. From his 111) ?> times, the Romans had liked the drama; that is, they liked comedy, and they wanted plays that were amusing and full of jests, often the coarser the better. Tragedy seemed to them dull and stupid; and, indeed, it is no wonder that a man who had seen the destruction of Carthage or Corinth should think a tragedy as acted on the stage a rather tame proceeding.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan

The Romans had always been stern, and now they had become cruel and often brutal. In the athletic contests they were no longer satisfied with racing and wrestling; they demanded to see real fights and the spilling of real blood. At first they were entertained by watching battles between wild beasts, lions, leopards, panthers, and elephants, sometimes hundreds of them fighting together in the same arena; but this soon ceased to be interesting. Those who are cruel to animals always become cruel to people; and the Romans soon wanted the excitement of seeing men fight and die. It was an old custom among the Etruscans to have combats between prisoners at the grave of a warrior. This was introduced into Rome, and the Romans found it so entertaining that they soon ceased to limit it to funerals or to single pairs of combatants. These fighters were called gladiators, from gladius, the Latin word for sword. At first the gladiators were all slaves and criminals. Sometimes they were promised freedom if they fought for a certain number of years and were not slain. These men fought savagely, but not always skillfully, and the Romans were soon a little bored by seeing fighting done in a clumsy fashion. Schools were established where gladiators were trained to fight, and from which they could be obtained at any moment. Not only slaves, but some of the wild, reckless men of Rome went to these schools.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan

At the close of a gladiatorial combat, the victor stood proudly beside the vanquished and waited for the spectators to say what should be done with him. If the man had made a brave fight, they stretched out their hands with the thumbs up; but if he had shown himself awkward or cowardly, the thumbs were pointed down, and he was put to death on the instant. The citizens who watched the gladiatorial shows year after year became more and more brutal. Toward one another they had to keep up some appearance of courtesy, but they had no feeling whatever for their slaves. These slaves were often of much finer breeding and education than their masters and had been used to living more luxuriously; but when a shipload of them arrived at Rome, their purchaser drove them off in chains to his farm, branded them with his name or mark with red-hot irons, and set them at hard labor. If the work of a slave was not satisfactory, or if his master became angry with him, he was flogged or tortured or even crucified. If he was sick, no one paid any attention to him, for it was cheaper to buy another slave than to care for a sick man. Even the good Cato, who tried so hard to lead the people back to the simple ways of their forefathers, looked upon his slaves as little more than machines, and when they could work no longer, he either sold them or turned them off to live or die as they might.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan

There was also much misery among the freemen of Italy. This was increased by the change from tilling the soil to raising sheep. Sheep-raising needs much land and few workmen. For a long while it had been hard for a poor man to find employment, and it was becoming doubly hard, now that so few workmen were needed. Rome had grown wealthy and powerful, but her citizens were fast becoming idle, extravagant, and dissolute.

Many people were troubled and anxious about this state of affairs, but one man believed that he knew what ought to be done to better matters. This was one of the nobles, Tiberius Gracchus, grandson of Scipio Africanus. His father had died when he and his brother Caius were children, but he had a wise mother, Cornelia, who brought up her sons with the greatest care. The story is told that a friend who was visiting her displayed some beautiful jewels and asked to see hers. Cornelia put her off for a little until the children came in from school. Then she said to her friend, "These are my jewels."

Tiberius Gracchus had seen for himself how the poor were suffering because the great landowners held so much land and worked it with slaves. There was an old law that no one should have more than two hundred and fifty acres of the public land; but the poor could not see to it that the law was enforced and the rich would not. Tiberius proposed a new law, which was in reality almost the same as the old one; but there was little hope of its being passed.

The rich men who held vast estates of this public land were indignant. Often the land which they held had been in their families for many years, and they had come to feel that it must be their own. They did not care to remember that if it was not just to take the land in the first place, holding it a long while had not made the act any more just.

Tiberius was an eloquent speaker, and he pleaded most earnestly for the poor. He said: "The wild beasts of Italy have their caves to retire to; but the brave men who spill their blood in her cause have nothing left but air and light. . . . The private soldiers fight and die to advance the wealth and luxury of the great; and they are called masters of the world, while they have not a foot of ground in their possession."

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan

But no matter how eloquently Tiberius spoke, the senators could not be brought to look at the matter as he did. That was not so very important, for if the ten tribunes, of whom Tiberius was one, agreed to propose this law to the assembly of tribes, or meeting of plebeians who were landowners, there was little doubt that it would be passed. But no law could even be proposed unless all ten of the tribunes desired it. The senators induced one of the ten to refuse to present it. Legally, Tiberius could do nothing more; but he reasoned that when a man refused to agree to so good a law, he was not fit to be tribune, and he induced the assembly to pass a vote putting the man out of office. When the tribune refused to give up his office, then by orders of Tiberius, he was pulled down from his place.

However good this new law may have been, it was exceedingly difficult to carry it out, and, what was worse, Tiberius had broken the laws in passing it. As long as he was a tribune, he was safe; and therefore, although this, too, was illegal, he tried to get himself elected tribune for the following year. The nobles were angry and indignant. They rushed out of the senate house. A riot followed, and Tiberius was slain. Before this, the different parties in Rome had tried their best to get their own way; but this was the first time that they had tried to get what they wanted unlawfully and with violence. If the government of any country allows lawbreakers to go unpunished, or even if the citizens are permitted to uphold the laws by unlawful means, that country is sure to become weak. So it was that the act of kind, honest, mistaken Tiberius Gracchus in 133 B. C. was the beginning of the downfall of the republic.

Ten years later, Tiberius's brother, Caius Sempronius Gracchus, proposed that a law should be passed requiring the state to sell grain to the people at much less than the usual price. Then he won over the merchants, bankers, and other business men by getting laws passed giving them instead of the nobles control of the courts. The common people and the men whose property was in money were friends of Caius; but the senators, whose property was chiefly in land, were his enemies, for they were afraid he would propose a land law, or agrarian law, like that brought forward by his brother Tiberius. They had good reason to be afraid, for this is exactly what he did do. Then he founded colonies at Tarentum and Capua. No one objected to his founding colonies; but when he proposed that the Latins should have all the rights of Roman citizens, the proud people of Rome were indignant. Before long, there was a riot and Caius was slain.

The brothers were dead, and no one came forward to care for the rights of the poor. The slaves, too, were becoming more and more wretched, if that were possible. In Sicily they were especially miserable, and at length they revolted. They fought like demons, for they knew well that if they were captured, torture and death would await them. Four times they overcame the armies of the Romans; but at last they had to yield. Then followed terrible scenes of suffering. Thousands of these prisoners were thrown from cliffs or were crucified.

The poor freemen of Rome were hardly happier than the slaves, for in that city gold was the only power. No one could hope to win even a just cause in the courts unless he had gold with which to bribe the judges. Jugurtha of Numidia said of Rome, "O city, you would sell yourself if you could only find a buyer."

Jugurtha had good reason to make this speech. Masinissa, king of Numidia, had died and Jugurtha had seized the kingdom. The rightful heirs appealed to Rome for help. Rome sent generals and soldiers to regain the kingdom and punish Jugurtha, but for a long time he found it an easy matter to bribe the generals. At length, however, he was conquered by a commander named Caius Marius. He was brought to Rome and had to walk in chains at the triumph of Marius. When the procession was about to ascend to the Capitol, he was thrust into the Mamertine dungeons and left to die of hunger.

This Caius Marius was the son of some hard-working country folk. He entered the army as a young man and was so brave and obedient that his general, the famous Scipio Africanus, began to take special notice of him. One evening some one asked Scipio, "When you are gone, where will the Romans find another general equally great?" "Here, perhaps," replied Scipio, laying his hand kindly upon the shoulder of Marius. The young soldier was too excited to sleep that night. Such words as these, coming from so famous a general, seemed to him like the prediction of an oracle. He pushed onward with all his might, and before long he became a tribune. While he held this office, he carried a law that lessened the power of the nobles. Then the common folk admired him. Soon he opposed a law which the common folk wanted, but which he thought not best for them; and now the nobles were inclined to admire him. Both parties began to say, "That young Marius is a bold, sturdy fellow. He does what he thinks best and fears no one."

As an officer in the army, Marius was so wise that the other officers respected him, and so simple in all his ways that the common soldiers loved him. If the soldiers had only dry bread for their dinner, the commander, too, dined upon dry bread. If they were digging a trench or throwing up a bulwark, they often found Marius among them working as hard as they. They wrote to their friends at Rome about the brave and honest general, and when he wished to be elected consul, he had little difficulty in getting the office. He was now at the head of the army, and a strong, powerful army he made it. He trained the soldiers to take long marches, to carry their baggage, and to care for their own food. "Marius's mules," the jesters of Rome called them.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan

The soldiers needed all the training they could get, for soon the Romans were obliged to carry on war, not to increase their power or to punish rebellious states, but to defend their own state. For many years they had felt no fear of attacks by any foreign nation; but now there came tidings from the north that a vast company of barbarians were marching toward Italy. "There are at least three hundred thousand," the rumors said, "and in battle they fight like furies. Their war cries are like the roars of wild beasts, so horrible that no man can describe them."

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan

These barbarians were called Cimbri and Teutones. They belonged to the German race whose home had been on the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. They had wandered southward as far as Gaul, or what is now France, and there they had burned and plundered and killed. Then they had come still farther south. Some Roman forces met them in battle beyond the Alps and were defeated as badly as their countrymen had been at Cannae. The most mortifying part of this defeat was that a barbarian tribe of Switzerland, that had joined the others, compelled a Roman army to pass under the yoke. At this the Romans were fairly terrified. Barbarians had burned their city once; they might do it a second time. Prayers and sacrifices were offered, and no man who was able to bear arms was allowed to leave Italy. Just at this time Marius returned from his victory over Jugurtha. "Marius will save us," cried the people. "Let us make him consul again." This was contrary to the custom, but the Romans were so alarmed that they thought only of choosing a general who could overcome the barbarians; therefore Marius was elected. He was elected year after year, for the barbarians delayed and the fear of them increased.

At length, in 102 B. C., they started for Italy. Marius had not wasted the time of their delay; he had trained his soldiers more and more perfectly, and had kept them busy digging canals and doing other work, so that instead of growing weak, they had become stronger and more ready for battles. The battles came. Marius defeated the barbarians and destroyed their whole army except sixty thousand, who were sent to Rome to be sold as slaves. In this battle, two companies, or cohorts, of Italians had been so fearless and valiant that as a reward he made them all Roman citizens. Of course he had no right to do any such thing; but "the din of battle was so loud that I could not hear the laws," he said.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan

When Marius returned to Rome, the people were almost ready to worship him as a god. "Romulus founded our city," they cried. "Camillus saved it, and now Marius has saved it a second time." They were eager to give him whatever he wanted, and he was beginning to think himself so great a man that no honor and no power could be more than he deserved. Just at this time there was another revolt of the slaves in Sicily, and with the same result—defeat, torture, and crucifixion. Before the revolt was fully quieted, there was trouble in Rome, and Marius, stupidly, perhaps, rather than wickedly, united with some men who were trying to overthrow the government. He had been consul five times, but he was eager for even greater honors, and he was not at all particular by what means they might be won. He was the ablest general of his age, but he had no idea how to behave in political life. He seems to have tried to keep free from the crimes of his allies, but to have been more than willing to profit by them. Finally, he became so unpopular that he himself saw that Rome was no place for him. He declared that some time before this he had vowed to offer sacrifices to the mother of the gods, and he set sail for Asia to keep his vow.


The Romans had lost their old simple ways. Much wealth had come to Rome, and there was a distinct line between the rich and the poor. The chief Roman amusements were the theatre and the gladiatorial combats. The Romans were cruel to their slaves.

Sheep-raising threw many out of employment. Tiberius Gracchus tried to help the poor by limiting the amount of land held by any one person. In the attempt to pass this law (133 B. C.) he resorted to force. This act was the beginning of the downfall of the republic. Later, Caius Gracchus attempted similar reforms, but was slain in a riot. The slaves in Sicily rebelled (133—132 B. C.). Gold had become the only power in Rome. Jugurtha was conquered. Marius rose from the ranks to the head of the army. The Cimbri and Teutones threatened Italy, but were driven away by Marius. The slaves in Sicily rebelled a second time. Marius plotted to overthrow the government.

Suggestions for Written Work

  • A Roman talks about the old customs and the new.
  • A poor man tells of his sufferings because of the introduction of sheep-raising.
  • Cornelia's friend describes the "jewel" scene.