Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Gracchi and Their Fall

In the assault by the Roman forces on Megara, the suburb of Carthage, the first to mount the wall was a young man named Tiberius Gracchus, brother-in-law of Scipio, the commander, and grandson of the famous Scipio Africanus. This young man and his brother were to play prominent parts in Rome.

One day when the great Scipio was feasting in the Capitol, with other senators of Rome, he was asked by some friends to give his daughter Cornelia in marriage to Tiberius Gracchus, a young plebeian. Proud patrician as he was, he consented, for Gracchus was highly esteemed for probity, and had done him a personal service.

On his return home he told his wife that he had promised his daughter to a plebeian. The good woman, who had higher aims, blamed him severely for his folly, as she deemed it. But when she was told the name of her proposed son-in-law she changed her mind, saying that Gracchus was the only man worthy of the gift.

Of Cornelia's children three became notable, a daughter, who became the wife of the younger Scipio, and two sons, Tiberius and Caius Gracchus, who are known in history as "The Gracchi." Their father became famous in war and peace, taking important steps in the needed movement of reform. He died, and after his death many sought the hand of the noble Cornelia in marriage, among them King Ptolemy of Egypt. But she refused them all, devoting her life to the education of her children, for which she was admirably fitted by her lofty spirit, and high attainments.

Concerning this lady, one of the greatest and noblest which Rome produced, there is an anecdote, often repeated, yet well worth repeating again. A Campanian lady who called upon her, and boastfully spoke of her wealth in gold and precious stones, asked Cornelia for the pleasure of seeing her jewels. Leading her visitor to another room, the noble matron pointed to her sleeping children, and said, "There are my jewels; the only ones of which I am proud."

These children were born to troublous times. Rome had grown in corruption and ostentation as she had grown in wealth and dominion. When the first Punic War broke out Rome ruled only over Central and Southern Italy. When the third Punic War ended Rome was lord of all Italy, Spain, and Greece, and had wide possessions in Asia Minor and Northern Africa. Wealth had flowed abundantly into the imperial city, and with it pride, corruption, and oppression. The great grew greater, the poor poorer, and the old simplicity and frugality of Rome were replaced by overweening luxury and greed of wealth.

The younger Tiberius Gracchus, who was nine years older than his brother, after taking part in the siege of Carthage, went to Spain, where also was work for a soldier. On his way thither he passed through Etruria, and saw that in the fields the old freeman farmers had disappeared, and been replaced by foreign slaves, who worked with chains upon their limbs. No Cincinnatus now ploughed his own small fields, but the land was divided up into great estates, cultivated by the captives taken in war; while the poor Romans, by whose courage these lands had been won, had not a foot of soil to call their own.

This spectacle was a sore one to Tiberius, in whose mind the wise teachings of his mother had sunk deep. Here were great spaces of fertile land lying untilled, broad parks for the ostentation of their proud possessors, while thousands of Romans languished in poverty, and Rome had begun to depend for food largely upon distant realms.

There was a law, more than two hundred years old, which forbade any man from holding such large tracts of land. Tiberius thought that this law should be enforced. On his return to Rome his indignant eloquence soon roused trouble in that city of rich and poor.

"The wild beasts of the waste have their caves and dens," he said; "but you, the people of Rome, who have fought and bled for its growth and glory, have nothing left you but the air and the sunlight. There are far too many Romans," he continued, "who have no family altar nor ancestral tomb. They have fought well for Rome, and are falsely called the masters of the world; but the results of their fighting can only be seen in the luxury of the great, while not one of them has a clod of dirt to call his own."

Cornelia urged her son to do some work to ennoble his name and benefit Rome.

"I am called the 'daughter of Scipio,' " she said. "I wish to be known as the mother of the Gracchi:"

It was not personal glory, but the good of Rome, that the young reformer sought. He presented himself for the office of tribune, and was elected by the people, who looked upon him as their friend and advocate. And at his appeal they crowded from all quarters into the city to vote for the re-establishment of the Licinian laws, those forbidding the rich to hold great estates.

These laws were re-enacted, and those lands which the aristocrats had occupied by fraud or force were taken from them by a commission and returned to the state.

All this stirred the proud land-holders to fury. They hated Gracchus with a bitter hatred, and began to plot secretly for his overthrow. About this time Attalus, king of Pergamus, moved by some erratic whim, left his estates by will to the city of Rome. Those who had been deprived of their lands claimed these estates, to repay them for their outlays in improvement. Gracchus opposed this, and proposed to divide this property among the plebeians, that they might buy cattle and tools for their new estates.

His opponents were still more infuriated by this action. He had offered himself for re-election to the office of tribune, promising the people new and important reforms. His patrician foes took advantage of the opportunity. As he stood in the Forum, surrounded by his partisans, an uproar arose, in the midst of which Gracchus happened to raise his hand to his head. His enemies at once cried out that he wanted to make himself king, and that this was a sign that he sought a crown.

A fierce fight ensued. The opposing senators attacked the crowd so furiously that those around Gracchus fled, leaving him unsupported. He hastened for refuge towards the Temple of Jupiter, but the priests had closed the doors, and in his haste he stumbled over a bench. Before he could rise one of his enemies struck him over the head with a stool. A second repeated the blow. Before the statues of the old kings, which graced the portals of the temple, the tribune fell dead.

Many of his supporters were slain before the tumult ceased. Many were forced over the wall at the edge of the Tarpeian Rock, and were killed by their fall. Three hundred in all were slain in the fray.

Thus was shed the first blood that flowed in civil strife at Rome. It was a crimson prelude to the streams of blood that were to follow, in the long series of butcheries which were afterwards to disgrace the Roman name.

Tiberius Gracchus may well be called the Great, for the effect of his life upon the history of Rome was stupendous. He held office for not more than seven months, yet in that short time the power of the senate was so shaken by him that it never fully recovered its strength. Had he been less gentle, or more resolute, in disposition his work might have been much greater still. Fiery indignation led him on, but soldierly energy failed him at the end.

Caius Gracchus was in Spain at the time of his brother's murder. On his return to Rome he lived in quiet retirement for some years. The senate thought he disapproved of his brother's laws. They did not know him. At length he offered himself as a candidate for the tribuneship, and so convincing was his eloquence that the people supported him in numbers, and he was elected to the office.

He at once made himself an ardent advocate of his brother's reforms, and with such impassioned oratory that he gained adherents on every side. He made himself active in all measures of public progress, advocating the building of roads and bridges, the erection of mile-stones, the giving the right to vote to Italians in general, and the selling of grain at low rates to the deserving poor. The laws passed for these purposes are known as the Sempronian laws, from the name of the family to which the Gracchi belonged.

By this time the rich senators had grown highly alarmed. Here was a new Gracchus in the field, as eloquent and as eager for reform as his brother, and who was daily growing more and more in favor with the people. Something must be done at once, or this new demagogue—as they called him—would do them more harm than that for which they had slain his brother.

They adopted the policy of fraud in place of that of violence. The people were gullible; they might be made to believe that the senators of Rome were their best friends. A rich and eloquent politician, Drusus by name, proposed measures more democratic even than those which Gracchus had advocated. This effort had the effect that was intended. The influence of Gracchus over the popular mind was lessened. The people had proved fully as gullible as the shrewd senators had expected.

Among other measures proposed by Gracchus was one for planting a colony and building a new city on the site of Carthage. The senate appeared to approve this, and appointed him one of the commissioners for laying out the settlement. He was forced to leave Rome, and during his absence his enemies worked more diligently than ever. Gracchus was defeated in the election for tribune that followed.

And now the plans of his enemies matured. It was said that the new colony at Carthage had been planted on the ground cursed by Scipio. Wolves had torn down the boundary-posts, which signified the wrath of the gods. The tribes were called to meet at the Capitol, and repeal the law for colonizing Carthage.

A tumult arose. A man who insulted Gracchus was slain by an unknown hand. The senate proclaimed Gracchus and his friends public enemies, and roused many of the people against him by parading the body of the slain man. Gracchus and his friends took up a position on the Aventine Hill. Here they were assailed by a strong armed force.

There was no resistance. Gracchus sought refuge at first in the Temple of Diana, and afterwards made his way to the Grove of the Furies, several of his friends dying in defence of his flight. A single slave accompanied him. When the grove was reached by his pursuers both were found dead. The faithful slave had pierced his master's heart, and then slain himself by the same sword.

Slaughter ruled in Rome. The Tiber flowed thick with the corpses of the friends of Gracchus, who were slain by the fierce patricians. The houses of the murdered reformers were plundered by the mob, for whose good they had lost their lives. For the time none dared speak the name of Gracchus except in reprobation. Yet he and his brother had done yeoman service for the ungrateful people of Rome.

Cornelia retired to Misenum, where she lived for many years. But she lived not in grief for her sons, but in pride and triumph. They had died the deaths of heroes and patriots, and she gloried in their fame, declaring that they had found worthy graves in the temples of the gods.

So came the people to think, in after-years, and they set up in the Forum a bronze statue to the great Roman matron, on which were inscribed only these words: TO CORNELIA, THE MOTHER OF THE GRACCHI.