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The Roman Republic is worth thinking about

The life and death of Tiberius Gracchus illustrate the virtues of populism

A couple of years ago, the Daily Beast published an article titled “Donald Trump Isn’t Julius Caesar. He’s Republic-Killer Tiberius Gracchus.” While the attack on Trump wasn’t out of the ordinary for an American journalist, what was striking was the author’s hostility to the Roman Republican politician, Tiberius Gracchus, who the author claimed was “dangerous due to his determined incitement of the worst and most violent tendencies of his populist mob.” However, this assertion couldn’t be further from the truth, as Tiberius Gracchus is predominantly recognized in history for being the first case of political violence in the Roman Republic, having been beaten to death by senators wielding wooden chair legs. Indeed, his life stands as the perfect case study into populism, revealing the core of what the ideology is and offering insight into the establishment’s stance towards those who advocate for the interests of the populare. So why, even after more than 2,000 years, is Tiberius Gracchus worth remembering?

What came to define Rome’s foundations was therefore the belief that virtue laid in service to the republic

The Roman Republic emerged in 509 BC after the monarchy, which had ruled Rome since its inception, was abolished in a revolution led by Lucius Junius Brutus, who swore to never again allow such kingly injustices to be inflicted upon the people of Rome. What came to define Rome’s foundations was therefore the belief that virtue laid in service to the republic, while dishonour befell those who prioritised personal gain. That a man’s worth was not defined by his wealth, but by whether his achievements equalled those of his ancestors. For instance, if a Roman soldier saved the life of a Roman citizen by killing an enemy in war, he was awarded with the Corona Civica, which he could then wear for life. This ability to inspire virtue in citizens stemmed from an understanding that the political system belonged to nobody but was collectively shared by Rome as a whole. 

After the Second Punic War, the founding virtues of the Republic began to erode. Rome effectively transitioned from controlling territories in Italy and surrounding islands to expanding its influence abroad. This brought unprecedented amounts of wealth into Rome, unlike anything witnessed before. A new class of the super-wealthy emerged, and money became deeply intertwined with the pursuit of public office. For example, in 183 BC, Scipio Africanus was considered the wealthiest man of his time, yet more than a century later, Crassus controlled a fortune forty times that of what Scipio possessed.  

However, with this newfound wealth, the Roman populace began to realise that they had less of everything than their forebears had. After the war there was a significant population increase, with the population surging from 137,108 in 208 BC to 328,442 in 146 BC. Initially, to ensure an adequate food supply, citizens farmed acquired land in exchange for rent payments. However, inheritance laws mandated the equal division of family properties among sons, resulting in land becoming subdivided into parcels too small to sustain agricultural viability. This disqualified many citizens from military service, which was traditionally the means for social advancement. It was thus here that the first initial seeds of decline within the Republic began to take root. As the Roman elite grew ever wealthier, the populace grew ever more impoverished. The age of virtue was declining, and the age of aristocracy had quickly turned to oligarchy.  

This marks the beginning of Tiberius Gracchus’ story. Born in 163 BC to a prominent Roman family, his first public service was in the Third Punic War, where he earned an award for bravery as the first soldier to scale the wall of an enemy town. Following this victory, he married his wife Cornelia, the daughter of Appius Claudius, who hailed from one of Rome’s most esteemed families. It appeared that Tiberius was thus destined for a peaceful and prosperous future, but he instead forsook it all out of his devolution for the Roman people.

The defining moment of Tiberius’ career came in 134 BC when he ran for Tribune of the Plebs, motivated by the sight of the countryside populated not by ordinary people but by the elite and their slaves. The elite had begun to abuse a law, from 367 BC, which made the ownership of more than five hundred pieces of land illegal, by transferring leases under fictitious names. Thus, the general populace called upon Tiberius in graffiti to reclaim the common land for the poor. It was here that the policy of Agrarian reform, which would cause Tiberius no end of trouble, was first conceived. In a famous speech Tiberius proclaimed: 

 The wild animals of our Italian countryside have their dens. Each of them has a place of rest and refuge, but those who fight and die for Italy have nothing- nothing except the air and the light. Houseless and homeless, they roam the land with their children and wives. And they make liars of our military commanders: ‘The enemy must not be allowed near our tombs and temples’ our leaders say, to inspire their troops to battle, but none of these Romans has an ancestral altar or a family tomb. No, they fight and die to protect the rich and luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by others. These so-called masters of the world have no clod of earth that they can call their own. 

Tiberius began to draft a bill on Agrarian reform. His law was so modern in its composition that those who should have been punished would have instead been compensated for the lands they unjustly acquired and were merely required to tolerate the presence of fellow citizens in need of assistance. The Roman people were content to forget the past if there were no more injustices against them in the future. However, the elite, now obsessed with their own wealth, became intolerant of not just the law, but also of the very man who introduced it.

The first thing the senate attempted to do was turn the Roman people against Tiberius by claiming that he was secretly a monarchist that wanted to subvert the constitution.  But this did not work, as Tiberius’ aims were just. So, the senate abandoned such attempts and instead bribed another Tribune, Marcus Octavius, to block Tiberius’ path. However, Tiberius instead removed Octavius from his office, justifying this action by arguing that a politician who does not live up to the expectations of the people should not hold office at all. 

After Octavius’ disposition, Tiberius’ reforms successfully passed, and a committee of three was formed to oversee the distribution of land. However, the senate refused to allocate funds for the land distribution, promoting Tiberius to personally finance the entire project himself.  As the senate understood that there was nothing they could do politically to further stop Tiberius, the threat of violence now rippled throughout Rome. Tiberius’ friends fell victim to poisoning, and he himself changed into mourning clothes. In 133 BC, he was killed by the senate, and over 300 of his supporters met the same fate, with their bodies thrown into the river. This event marked the first instance since the beginning of the republic that civil strife had ended in bloodshed. Tiberius murder laid bare the reality that there was no longer a republic but the rule of force and violence. That the political establishment was willing to employ any means necessary to protect their own interests. Rome had unmistakably transitioned into an oligarchy, signalling the onset of the Republic’s decline. 

The significance of Tiberius Gracchus’ story is striking, as it mirrors the many events witnessed within politics today. The author from Daily Beast was right to compare Trump to Tiberius, as both had set themselves up firmly on the side of the people against an entrenched elite and were both met with walls of significant hostility.  In Trump’s case, modern methods of slander and censorship resemble the political violence employed by the Senate within Rome. It’s important to remember that Tiberius did not create violent mobs, the Senate created one against him. 

Populism is better defined as the virtue of democracy

Often the term “Populist” is thrown around without any consideration to what the term means. The media talks about it in dark termssuggesting that a populist is someone who seeks to use the concerns of the people to gain power.  But that, of course, is just the job of any politician. Populism is better defined as the virtue of democracy. It is the political aim to serve the interests and concerns of the people — “people” in this context referring to those who are not the establishment but are the ordinary majority. This is why in the Roman Republic, politics was defined not by left vs right, but by Patricians vs Plebs. 

Political scientists are right to point out that populism coincides with the end of politics. That when those in power begin to serve themselves, the virtue of governance becomes its own alien political concept, left to be demonised by the establishment. Think today with how populism is portrayed to be a threat to democracy, despite it being the essence of what democracy is, because it directly threatens the interests of the establishment. This illustrates that systems created with the intention of good easily fall into decay, like that of creation and fall. When the people believe that their interests are not represented, they are likely to revolt, thus bringing the establishment down, and a new system is born from its ashes. This is what happened in Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire, and it is likely what will happen in the West if the interests of ordinary people are neglected. 

It’s important to remember, that the lessons of the past are easily forgotten its patterns and rhymes are often ignored. But the situation that has plagued politics today has happened many times before. Oligarch and corruption are not new. Tiberius’ life screams out to those who will listen to remember him. After Tiberius’ death his younger brother, Gaius Gracchus, continued his Agrarian Reforms; but was killed for similar reasons. In a dream shortly before Gaius’ death, Tiberius appeared to him and said, “Fate has decreed the same destiny for us both, to live and die in the service of people.” Thus, reflecting the true meaning of populism, it is the political ideology of service to the people.

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