In 133BC, the democracy of the Roman Republic began its slow journey to the grave. After fending off every power beyond its borders, it was struck by a new threat. A man who turned the power of the Republic against itself. Tiberius Gracchus broke with the traditions of the system and was beaten to death in the first act of political violence in four centuries, but not before his actions had done irreparable damage to the identity of an entire nation.
The situation in Rome leading up to 133BC was that of rapid change. Roman dominance in the Mediterranean had allowed for a period of massive expansion; Spain and Greece were brought under Roman rule in a matter of decades. A massive amount of undistributed land was given to the most powerful class in Rome, the patricians. The abundance of slaves taken from the war campaigns meant that the patricians could turn their new estates into huge farms worked by unpaid labourers, allowing them to amass unimaginable levels of wealth. They consolidated this wealth by using their influence to buy the land around their estates, previously owned by self-sustaining farmers. The working class, the plebeians, suddenly found themselves unable to find any work that was not being performed by slaves. Collapse would be imminent without change.
Knowing this to be the case, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a man from an extraordinarily noble family, yet technically a plebeian, campaigned for the position of Tribune of the Plebs, promising land reform. He appealed to the people of Rome, claiming that they were being treated worse than the beasts of Italy. The homeless masses flocked to his promise of change, electing him a Tribune. With this office, Tiberius Gracchus had the power to veto any action by the senate in order to protect the interest of the plebeians. He put forward a law which would renew the existing limit of any 500 acres of land to each person, redistributing the rest to the homeless and not punishing any patricians for holding land illegally. Everybody would be affected by this law, so people flooded to Rome, bringing with them anger and discontent. Tiberius whipped the poor into a frenzy, he blamed the rich for stealing their land, he blamed the slaves for stealing their jobs, and he blamed the senate for doing nothing about it. It was him, he said, who would enact the will of the people.
The rich would not part with their dragon-like hoards of wealth easily. As the much-anticipated vote drew near, the rich convinced another popular Tribune, Marcus Octavius, to use his veto power to stop Tiberius’ law. Octavius used his power, given to him by the plebs, to act against their interest, which was considered a shocking disregard for the traditions of the republic. But Gracchus could not be deterred from what he believed to be the correct path. He forced the magistrates to allow his law to be voted on, by vetoing every action taken in the senate, essentially grinding politics in Rome to a halt. And in this one act, done in the interest of the greater good, Tiberius Gracchus had turned the political world on its head. The general agreement that political power would only be used for the sake of politics, not personal agendas, was reneged upon.
When, at last, the day of the vote arrived, Octavius would not relent, and refused to allow the law to be passed, so Tiberius called a different vote – one which atempted to remove Octavius from office. Despite the pleas of Tiberius, Octavius would not stand down voluntarily. He was removed from office by the baying crowd, and Tiberius had him dragged from the stand. Tiberius’ law was passed. He had won, but Rome was in a shambles. The senate were outraged that Tiberius had betrayed the Republic’s core value by using his power to achieve a personal goal. But there was nothing they could do. Tiberius’ powerful speeches where he spoke on the behalf of the maligned plebeians and blamed the greedy patricians, meant that all his laws had gone through the correct legal process.
This rhetoric is ubiquitous in today’s political discourse, that of the “will of the people” against the establishment. A similar narrative of the common people versus the corrupt elite contributed significantly to the victories of Trump, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. The UK is no stranger to any of this, as the Brexit process has seen experts and analysts ignored and mocked in favour of “Taking Back Control from the Undemocratic EU”. The revival of such thinking is no coincidence. These politicians have all spotted and capitalised on the exact same thing that Tiberius Gracchus had found back in Rome. Dissatisfaction. The need for change. The same need that Tiberius answered with land reform, was answered by Trump’s wall and by Brexit’s control. The same hatred that Tiberius directed towards slaves and the rich has been directed towards Muslims and immigrants. It cuts through democracy and replaces it with mob rule, weaponising the fear and demoralisation of the dissatisfied masses. To see where it can lead, all we must do is look to history.
Tiberius Gracchus’ year-long appointment as Tribune was coming to an end, and with it, his safety. Tribunes were sacrosanct under Roman law; to attack a Tribune was an inviolable religious crime. But a Tribune had never held office two years in a row. Tiberius once again tried to break a Roman tradition, but it proved one time too many. On the day of the election, Tiberius came to the senate surrounded by armed men for protection. Fighting broke out as senators ran towards Tiberius, baying for blood. In this riot, Tiberius and many of his followers were killed, the first such event in four centuries.
And thus the civil wars began. Those wishing to capitalise on the precedent Tiberius had set began to abuse their power and cling to it after their terms were up. Lucius Sulla became a brutal dictator after winning two civil wars against his rival Marius. Although he stepped down before having to be killed, his success inspired yet more would-be despots. Julius Caesar would become a dictator for life after starting, and winning several civil wars. He could only be removed by public assassination, renewing the cycle of violence. When the next round of civil wars ended, so too did Roman democracy, as Octavian became the first Emperor, unelectable and unaccountable. Tiberius’ desire to give the people land had eventually stripped them of all their power. The people’s desire to enact change came to fruition, at the expense of their democracy. The Roman Republic fell at the hands of populism.
- Appian, The Civil Wars Book 1, 2nd Century AD
- Plutarch, “The Life of Tiberius Gracchus“, Parallel Lives, 2nd Century AD
- Mark Rice-Oxley and Ammar Kalia, “How to spot a populist“, The Guardian, 3rd Dec. 2020
- David Molloy, “What is populism, and what does the term actually mean?“, BBC News
- André Munro, “Populism“, Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed 1st July 2020