Tribunes held enormous power in Rome; they were supposed to be the elected representatives of the non-patrician people of Rome and Tiberius apparently took that seriously. Having identified land redistribution as the solution to Rome's problems, he got stuck in and proposed a commission. The commission would find and confiscate land which rich people were, technically, squatting on and redistribute it in parcels of five hundred iugera
(about 350 acres) so that every (male) Roman citizen owned no less and, ideally, not much more than that five hundred iugera
. Everyone would be equalish. To make matters worse, he very selfishly followed the normal protocol for Tribunes and, instead of presenting his proposal to the Senate, he called an assembly of the people (which explicitly excluded patricians) and, standing on the Campus Martius in front of thousands of urban and rural poor, made his proposal there first. Basically, he called together all the disenfranchised of Rome and offered them the chance to vote on whether they wanted to be given some free land or not. Both the city tribes and the rural tribes—unsurprisingly—voted enthusiastically for Tiberius' brilliant proposal.
At first the Senate shrugged. Attempts like this had been made before and the laws had either been ignored or the rich had just bought back the land that was being 'redistributed'. Unfortunately for them, Tiberius Gracchus knew his history and he had built into his law a commission that would actively confiscate land, and a clause forbidding land from being resold. It could only be redistributed. Once they worked that out, the rich became hopping mad. He may as well have proposed a commission for the redistribution of wives and daughters. Their dinner parties became rage-fuelled pity parties as they outlined their grievances to one another. The Greek historian Appian, writing many centuries later after the winners had been conclusively declared, outlines the complaints of the rich alongside the complaints of the poor and suggests that they are equal, which makes for some fun reading. Appian tells us that the rich were hugely upset that the land that they had worked very hard on, and dedicated many enslaved people to, was going to be stolen from them so they'd lose all their work. Also, some of them had bought that land fairly from neighbours after the neighbours stole it from the state and people of Rome, so they were definitely being treated unfairly. Others had inherited their stolen land from their parents or had received it in dowries and yet more had taken out loans against the stolen land—and what were they supposed to do?! Their prestige and inheritances were being cruelly attacked and they were weeping into their cups.
A date was set for the Assembly to vote on the law and, as word spread, people began to flood into the city. The rich, suddenly concerned that they might lose, resorted to the Romans' favourite insult: they accused Tiberius of wanting to be a king. Sadly for them, again, Tiberius Gracchus was convincingly not a tyrant. He was too virtuous for that. But he gave great speeches which roused the people to believe in a better future for themselves. One is quoted by Plutarch and it makes you want to rise up and start singing 'The Internationale':
The wild beasts that dwell in Italy have their homes, with each having a lair and a hiding place, but the men who fight and die on behalf of Italy have a share of air and light—and nothing else. Without houses or homes they wander aimlessly with their children and wives, and their generals deceive them when they urge the soldiers on the battlefield to drive off the enemy to protect their tombs and temples; not one of these Romans has a family altar, not one an ancestral tomb; instead, they fight and die to protect the luxury and wealth of others. They are called masters of the earth yet have not a single clod of earth that is their own.
The day of the vote finally dawned. Rome was heaving with rural men who had travelled to vote and crackling with the rage and fear of hundreds of landowners. Everyone congregated in their thirty-five tribes on the Campus Martius. The Tribunes and officials began. First, according to Appian, Tiberius stuck to his strengths and gave a long speech in which he attempted to please everyone. He emphasised that this law was for the good of Rome—the glory of the Roman people!—because everyone would be able to join the army and fight then come home and farm a few acres for the rest of their lives. What a life! He encouraged the rich to see this as a gift from themselves to Rome and to all the future Roman babies that would be born on the lovely Roman land. He went full Centrist Dad to be honest. No one was won over. As was immediately demonstrated by his colleague in the Tribuneship, Marcus Octavius. As he concluded his speech, Tiberius stepped aside and ordered an official to read aloud the law to be voted on. Octavius stepped forward and ordered the official not to. He vetoed the vote. There was a screaming row between Octavius and Tiberius and the Assembly was adjourned. Everyone was sent home to reconvene the next day. No one comments on how the crowd reacted, because by the time anyone was writing histories about this, no one cared about the people, but I can't imagine it went well.
The next day, the Assembly convened again. Thousands of men again massed into the Campus Martius and waited. The Tribunes appeared and this time Tiberius brought a guard to protect himself. Thankfully, he didn't make a speech. The official launched into the reading of the law, and Octavius shouted at him to stop. This time there was uproar. The Tribunes screamed at one another and the Assembly collapsed into a mob. Before things got out of control, Tiberius shouted that he would reconvene the Assembly yet again and this time he would be asking the people to impeach Octavius and 'decide whether a Tribune who acted against the interests of the people should continue to hold office'. So he did. And he won. Octavius was voted out of office and meandered off into obscurity and Tiberius' agrarian law was passed. A commission would confiscate land andeveryone would be given some. Joy was unconfined.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Sunshine Girl: An Unexpected Life by Julianna Margulies.