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date: 04 December 2022

Sempronius Gracchus, Gaiusfree

Sempronius Gracchus, Gaiusfree

  • Ernst Badian


  • Roman History and Historiography
  • Roman Law

Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, younger brother of Ti. Sempronius Gracchus (3), served under his cousin and brother-in-law P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus at Numantia. A member of his brother's land commission, he supported the plans of M. Fulvius Flaccus in 126 bce, then went to Sardinia as quaestor. Returning before his commander in 124, he was accused before the censors but acquitted, and elected tribune for 123 and again for 122, when he was joined by Flaccus, by then consularis and triumphalis. After laws meant to avenge his brother and secure himself against a similar fate, he embarked on a programme of reform, aided by friendly colleagues. The most important measures were:


a lex frumentaria assuring citizens of wheat, normally at a subsidized price;


laws providing for the resumption of land distribution and the foundation of colonies, including one on the ritually cursed site of Carthage, which Gracchus himself, as commissioner, helped to establish;


laws regulating army service and providing for public works—all these to gain the support of the plebs and relieve poverty and exploitation;


a law to have the decuma of the new province of Asia sold by the censors in Rome;


laws (probably two) regulating repetundae trials, the second (passed by M'. Acilius Glabrio (2)) introducing elements of criminal procedure and taking juries from the equites—these to protect provincials from magistrates' rapacity, to secure the treasury's major revenue against peculation, and to set up members of the non-political class to control politicians;


a law to make the senate's designation of consular provinces immune to tribunician veto and to have it before the elections—this to remove the most important administrative decision of the year from personal prejudice. This law shows how far he was from being a ‘democrat’.

Finally, in 122, he proposed to offer citizenship to Latins and Latin status (see ius latii) to Italian allies, both to protect them from the excesses of Roman magistrates and to make them subject to his brother's agrarian law. The law was opposed by C. Fannius, whom he had supported for the consulship, and by M. Livius Drusus (1), who outbid him with an unrealistic colonial programme. It was defeated, and Gracchus was not re-elected. In 121, with his legislation under attack, Gracchus, supported by Flaccus, resorted to armed insurrection. It was suppressed after the first use of the so-called senatus consultum ultimum; they and many of their supporters were killed, others executed after arrest.

C. Gracchus had more ambitious plans than his brother, whose memory he revered. He saw the need for major administrative reforms. A proud aristocrat, he wanted to leave the Senate in charge of directing policy and the magistrates in charge of its execution, subject to constitutional checks and removed from financial temptation, with the people sharing in the profits of empire without excessive exploitation of the subjects. The ultimate result of his legislation was to set up the publicani as a new exploiting class, not restrained by a tradition of service or by accountability at law. But this did not become clear for a generation, and he cannot be blamed for not foreseeing it.


  • Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Sempronius 47.”

The Gracchi, Tiberius and Gaius, are usually treated together, and there are no separate treatments of Gaius. Our chief sources are Plutarch's Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus and Appian, Bellum Civile 1. Gracchus was a great orator (see Cic. Brut. 125 f.) and many fragments of his speeches survive: see Oratorum Romanorum Fragmenta4, pp. 174–98. Cicero provides many detailed comments. For details of the tribunates see Broughton, The Magistrates of the Roman Republic 1 (and cf. 3. 88). There is no major modern synthesis, although many works discuss aspects of the legislation, and older treatments use misleading models. D. Stockton, The Gracchi (1979), gives a useful insight into Oxford interpretations.