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In the BBC series about six critical moments in Ancient Roman history, the earliest episode is about Tiberius Gracchus. They say that, although his reforms were not successful, they initiated a process that eventually lead to the end of the republic with the rise of Julius Caesar. They do not explain this connection.

Is there any influence between the Gracchus reforms and the end of the republic?

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    Maybe it was a general point that the plebs didn't feel like the republic was working for them so they were happy to support someone who made them promises of something more attractive, just as Caesar did. – Ne Mo Mar 4 '15 at 21:06
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There were actually two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, known as the "Gracchi". They were demagogues who promoted the interests of plebians and socii in Rome. Their movement signalled the downfall of the Roman Republic. When they could not overthrow the privileges of the long-born Romans (known as Optimates), they started efforts to overthrow the republic by force. These efforts ended in disaster and the traditional forces in the city had them and their followers murdered. This set a bad precedent in which the fate of Rome would be decided by violence and power, not by the votes of the original citizens, the Optimates.

The Gracchi were followed by Gaius Marius, who was a novus homo. He saw the power the disenfranchised could give him. Marius, repeatedly elected Consul, did everything he could to become a dictator and essentially restore Rome to a kingship--something it had foresworn centuries ago when the republic was founded. When the champion of the republic, Sulla, left to fight Mithridates, who led a rebellion of the Greeks against Roman rule, Marius took advantage of the opportunity to dissolve the senate, and make himself dictator by force and started executing republicans.

At this, Sulla returned to Rome with his legions, instituting a civil war. Marius responded by offering freedom to any slave would fight with him against Sulla. Originally, only full citizens who owned land were allowed to be in the army. For Marius to arm slaves was a complete abandonment of the principles of the republic and an attempt at despotism. Sulla entered Rome with his legions--an illegal act--and eventually defeated Marius the Younger (who committed suicide) and killed thousands of his supporters (the elder Marius had died earlier). All of the slave-soldiers and other usurpers were hunted down and put to death. Then Sulla restored the laws and institutions of the republic and retired.

This peace only lasted a short time. Julius Caesar, a follower of Marius with family ties to the Marians, followed the exact path that Marius had--gathering power from the plebs and non-citizens until he had enough power to make himself dictator. This was the beginning of the empire and the final end of the Roman republic.

(There is a story that Caesar was originally on the lists to be executed, even though he was a young man. Powerful and connected women in the city interceded to protect Caesar and Sulla's men came to him and insisted Caesar be taken off the lists. Sulla warned them, "In this young man, there are many Mariuses." Nevertheless, Caesar was taken off the lists.)

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    This is a pretty poor rendition of Roman History of that period. Awful. Sulla did not kill Marius in either March to Rome. – Oldcat Mar 4 '15 at 21:40
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    Sorry, -1. I actually appreciate what you were trying to do (compressing perhaps the most interesting and turbulent period of Roman history into half a page) but it does not work at all. The major problem is that you present an extremely prejudiced view of the events (bad populares versus the republic). I don't think there is any scholar who ever claimed the populares, as a party, wanted to overthrow the republic. You seem to have bought into the optimate propaganda hook and sinker. Gross distortions inevitably ensue - for example the plain fact that it was good old Sulla who was the first – Felix Goldberg Mar 7 '15 at 23:06
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    ever Roman general to lead his troops against Rome is conveniently neglected. Sure enough, his opponents led by Sulpicius played a rather dirty political game but his response is utterly unjustifiable. You also neglect to mention Pompey and Crassus who effectively dismantled Sulla's constitution in 70 BCE when Caesar was still earning his political spurs. Your Marius is a caricature - sure, he did degenerate into a powre-drunk monster in the ened but you neglected to mention that at the start of his career he was a brilliant general who saved Rome from a Germanic invasion. You also did not – Felix Goldberg Mar 7 '15 at 23:10
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    mention that he first sided with the optimates, putting down Saturninus and his followers on their behalf. And so on and so on the errors abound. Mithridates was a Pontic king who invaded Roman territory and enjoyed some support among Rome's Greek subjects, not a Greek leader. As for arming slaves, that was a well-known expedient of last resort. Funny that you did not mention the 10000 slaves of Sulla whom he freed and who were the scourge of Rome, denouncing, killing and plundering, during his tenure of office. Etc etc – Felix Goldberg Mar 7 '15 at 23:13
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    P.S. I did not write "my version" of events, only pointed out a number of crucial factual points which you omitted and which drastically affect any interpretation. – Felix Goldberg Mar 8 '15 at 11:27
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I probably should not but, since we have no choice but to live through interesting times, I'll provide my perspective - a different one to the accepted answer.

Fair warning: keep in mind we're discussing history, not graphic design -- almost nothing aligns neatly in history. Roman history especially. I like it exactly because it's fuzzy and warm, enough to keep it friendly and me interested. My friends, however, have stopped asking for my opinion on the Romans because I don't have "answers", just ideas.


So, the beginning of the end of the Republic and how did Tiberius Gracchus contribute to it?

Answer: In simple terms, it wasn't the fact of the reforms (or legislation). It was how Tiberius Gracchus went about it.

Let me explain in three parts. First, Tiberius Gracchus used his powers as tribune to help plebeians (the lower classes, common folk). This was exactly what was expected of a "tribune of the plebs". He introduced reforms, principally a law to create more land for farming (confiscating land held by higher class and transferring them to the lower class), which would also solve other problems then facing the Republic. He was being a populist and it angered the higher class (taking their land especially).

But he did something else. He went against political convention (cf. concordia) which angered the powerful men of Rome (the senators) even more. When his initial ideas/proposals were rejected, he ignored the Senate (which, by convention, he should not have) and went straight to the Assembly for authority to enact his reforms (and also give himself power to, in effect, decide on whose lands he could confiscate). One could say he defied the senators. But it was more that that, Tiberius Gracchus undermined them and he undermined the accepted convention, or ancestral custom (mos maiorum), of tribune and senators working together amicably to solve Rome's endless headaches of governing a large republic.

Second, by undermining the Senators and the political convention of working together, Tiberius started another one - the convention of using violence to solve political disagreements. From SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015) by Mary Beard, p. 216:

Looking back over the period, Roman historians regretted the gradual destruction of peaceful politics. Violence was increasingly taken for granted as a political tool. Traditional restraints and conventions broke down, one by one, until swords, clubs and rioting more or less replaced the ballot box. At the same time, to follow Sallust, a very few individuals of enormous power, wealth and military backing came to dominate the state – until Julius Caesar was officially made ‘dictator for life’ and then within weeks was assassinated in the name of liberty. When the story is stripped down to its barest and brutal essentials, it consists of a series of key moments and conflicts that led to the dissolution of the free state, a sequence of tipping points that marked the stages in the progressive degeneration of the political process, and a succession of atrocities that lingered in the Roman imagination for centuries.

The first was in 133 BCE, when Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a tribune of the people with radical plans to distribute land to the Roman poor, ...

He was killed at an election (to be Tribune for a second time), by a group of senators and their henchmen. Gaius Gracchus, his brother, carried on his reforms. Actually, he doubled-down, and initiated even more reform. However, unlike his brother but probably because of the violence against his late brother, Gaius Gracchus resorted to armed insurrection. It failed and he died in 121 CE. Then we get to the Social War, Sulla, the First Triumvirate and so forth - violence begetting more of the same (Martin Luther King, if I’m not mistaken, said something similar).

Finally, in 46 BCE, less than a 100 years after the death of Tiberius Gracchus, Julius Caesar was the last man, of the Triumvirate, still standing and with his horseguards (Germani corporis custodi) and Praetorians beside him, no one dared stop Julius Caesar from becoming a sole consul.

No one then saw it coming, at least not the ones who mattered. Or those who did foresee would have been killed (I assume).


This is a very short sketch of this political history. And it is never really one, or even a few key factors, to the rise or demise of any state. There will always be a multitude - of people, of events, and of opinions - to the course of history. And that is why this question is so appealing, at the same time so difficult to answer. Whilst we watch in real-time the gradual destruction of a republic, we can only speculate what caused the fall of the original republic.

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  • It is interesting to note here 'the absence' of the material preconditions for the events unfolding then. The republic was in crisis way before him and however important his individual actions were, they didn't spring up from nothing with him. I'd say that for the institutions themselves the republic won a truly pyrrhic victory in the Second Punic War. Since then the internal problems mounted and the unwillingness to adapt via reforms made for the Gracchi's rise. Keeping with tradition ensured its destruction? A common conservative dilemma. Will you look into the time before Gracchus? – LаngLаngС Nov 11 at 12:01
  • @LаngLаngС - Valid point. Since the narrower question is what were Gracchus’ contribution, as asked here, I can only restrict my answer. On your broader question, my 2 pence would be the destruction of Carthage after they paid off Rome (which took 50 years, I think), 149 BCE. By destroying Carthage, and killing their legacy, it unleashed Republican Rome from their previous (higher) standard of morality, of diplomacy, of civilities. – J Asia Nov 11 at 12:48
  • Could one say (im extremely simplified terms) that the Social War was ultimately won by the losing side? The allies (socii) of Rome wanted citizenship, which was declined by Rome, which in turn led to war. First, Rome offered citizenship to all who remained neutral, however, in the end all Italian tribes got Roman citizenship. The loser won. – Dohn Joe Nov 11 at 16:24
  • @DohnJoe - I suppose you could say that, which would be what historians of “winning” side - the Romans - want you to believe. I believe the Italians, their so-called allies, wanted to be treated more equitably, not unlike recent “BLM” movement. They had helped Rome grow from a village to a big town in their military expeditions. But when they returned home, they went from being a fellow soldier of the winning side to being a third-class citizen, ironically. Not much good being “back home”! So, by acquiring “citizenship”, what the Italians really wanted was, in my opinion, to “live honestly”. – J Asia Nov 11 at 16:58

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