Tiberius Gracchus death illustration

An image shows Tiberius being beaten to death with clubs by members of the Roman Senate.

133 BC, Rome.

The battle lines were drawn for Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Gracchus a tribune, had just endured a punishing political battle with Rome’s senatorial aristocracy while pushing through a contentious land-reform bill.

The effort had seen much counter-constitutional thrust and counter thrust—after he submitted the bill to the Popular Assembly without the consent of the Senate, one of his fellow tribunes issued a veto against the vote.

In response, an escalating war of vetoes and even the sealing of the Treasury ground Rome to a standstill, culminating in the unprecedented impeachment and removal of the opposing tribune.

Ultimately, the land reform law was passed. Wealthy aristocratic villas were broken up and redistributed to landless freeholders.

But the damage the affair had done to Rome would come back quickly to haunt the city.

For, in 133, the king of Pergamum died. In his will, he bequeathed his vast realm to Rome. Such a windfall was an opportunity to the ambitious on both sides of the original land-reform debate: For the reformers, it was a chance to curry more favor with the landless poor and add new clients to their rolls of patronage. For the opposition, it was a chance to strike out for new lands to replace those lost to the reform bill.

Tiberius, who as tribune was legally inviolable and had installed himself onto the land commission, wanted to protect his prerogatives, and so stood for re-election. The problem was that the unwritten rules of Rome, the mos maiorum, all but forbade second terms. Yet the mos maiorum also discouraged all the various tactics used in the previous year.

Undeterred, Tiberius stood.

The day arrived for the vote. Tiberius entered the Forum surrounded by bodyguards, and for good reason. His own supporters had flooded the Forum to be first to vote. A peculiarity of Rome’s electoral system was the election stopped as soon as a majority decision had been achieved. So, to ensure Tiberious's re-election, they wanted to be first.

But ringing the space were furious opponents, and soon clashes erupted between the two sides over access to the Forum. Finally, to restore a modicum of order, the elections were called off to give both sides time to cool down.

However, the Pontifex Maximus, Scipio Nasica and other Senate stalwarts fumed at an emergency meeting of the Senate to discuss the day’s disturbances.

To Nasica, Tiberius was aiming at nothing more than the dismantling of the Republic and his own installation as King at the head of a mob. Rising, he and other like-minded Senators gathered followers, armed them with improvised clubs (including, famously, a table leg)—as weapons were forbidden within the city—and marched to the Temple of Jupiter, where Tiberius and his supporters were regrouping from the day’s election fiasco.

The fiasco would rapidly become a tragedy.

Tiberius’ unarmed faction was confronted by this mob while their man was holding forth from a speaking platform. Soon the situation had degenerated into a desperate melee, as Nasica’s horde mercilessly beat anyone within range.

By the end of the rampage, 300 people would be dead. Among them was Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, beaten savagely, his by law sacrosanct body dumped in the Tiber river with the other victims of the atrocity.

And thence, Rome’s original sin.

Recourse to the mob would become the norm in Rome for the next 100 years. Whether populists like Clodius or Glaucia, or conservatives like Milo or Opimius, armed men and violence would carry much sway in the governing of Rome—until the advent of Augustus, and the death of the Republic.

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