Story of Rome - Arthur Gilman

A Futile Effort at Reform

One day when the conqueror of Carthage, Scipio Africanus, was feasting with other senators at the Capitol, the veteran patrician was asked by the friends about him to give his daughter Cornelia to a young man of the plebeian family of Sempronia, Tiberius Gracchus by name. This young man was then about twenty-five years old; he had travelled and fought in different parts of the world, and had obtained a high reputation for manliness. Just at this time he had put Africanus under obligations to him by defending him from attacks in public life, and the old commander readily agreed to the request of his friends. When he returned to his home and told his wife that he had given away their daughter, she upbraided him for his rashness; but when she heard the name of the fortunate man, she said that Gracchus was the only person worthy of the gift. The mother's opinion proved to be correct. The young people lived together in happiness, and Cornelia became the mother of three children, who carried down the good traits of their parents. One of these was a daughter named, like her mother, Cornelia, who became the wife of Scipio Africanus the younger, and the others were her two brothers. Tiberius and Caius, who are known as the Gracchi. Tiberius Gracchus lived to be over fifty years old, and won still greater laurels in war and peace at home and in foreign lands. Cicero says that he did a great service to the state by gathering together on the Esquiline the freedmen who had spread themselves throughout the tribes, and restricting their franchise (B.C. 169). Thus, Cicero thought, he succeeded for a time in checking the ruin of the republic.

There was sad need of some movement to correct abuses that had grown up in Rome, and the men destined to stand forth as reformers were the two Gracchi, sons of Cornelia and Tiberius. Their father did not live to complete their education, but their mother, though courted by great men, and by at least one king, refused to marry again, and gave up her time to educating her sons, whom she proudly called her "jewels" when the Roman matrons, relieved from the restrictions of the Oppian law, boastfully showed her the rich ornaments of gold and precious stones that they adorned themselves with. The brothers had eminent Greeks to give them instruction, and grew up wise, able and eloquent, though each exhibited his wisdom and ability in a different way.

Tiberius, who was nine years older than his brother, came first into public life. He went to Africa with his brother-in-law, when the younger Africanus completed the destruction of Carthage, and afterward he took part in the wars in Spain. It is said that, as he went through Etruria on his way to Spain, he noticed that the fields were cultivated by foreign slaves, working in clanking chains, instead of by freemen; and that because the rich had taken possession of great ranges of territory, the poor Romans had not even a clod to call their own, though they had fought the battles by which the land had been made secure. The sight of so much distress in a fertile country lying waste affected Tiberius very deeply, and when he returned to Rome, he bethought himself that it was in opposition to law that the rich controlled such vast estates. He remembered that the Licinian Rogation, which became a law more than two hundred years before this time, forbade any man having such large tracts in his possession, and thought that so beneficent a law should continue to be respected. He told the people of Rome that the wild beasts had their dens and caves, while the men who had fought and exposed their lives for Italy enjoyed in it nothing more than light and air, and were obliged to wander about with their wives and little ones, their commanders mocking them by calling upon them to fight "for their tombs and the temples of their gods,"— things that they never possessed nor could hope to have any interest in. "Not one among many, many Romans," said he, "has a family altar or an ancestral tomb. They have fought to maintain the luxury of the great, and they are called in bitter irony the 'masters of the world' while they do not possess a clod of earth that they may call their own!"

It was a noble patriotism that filled the heart of Tiberius, but it was not easy to carry out a reform like the one he contemplated. It may not have appeared difficult to re-enact the old law, but we must remember that, during two centuries of its neglect, generations of men had peaceably possessed the great estates, of which its enforcement would deprive them all at once. Was it to be supposed that they would quietly permit this to be done? Was it just to deprive men of possessions that they had received from their parents and grandparents without protest on the part of the nation? Cornelia urged Tiberius to do some great work for the state, telling him that she was called the "daughter of Scipio," while she wished to be known as the "mother of the Gracchi." The war in Sicily emphasized the troubles that Tiberius wished to put an end to, and in the midst of it he was elected one of the tribunes, the people hoping something from him, and putting up placards all over the city calling upon him to take their part.

The people seemed to feel sure that Gracchus was intending to do something for them, and they eagerly came together and voted for him, and when he was elected, they crowded into the city from all the regions about to vote in favor of the re-establishment of the Licinian laws, with some alterations. They were successful; much to the disgust of the aristocrats, who hated Gracchus, and thenceforth plotted to overthrow him and his power. For a while, the lands that had been wrongfully occupied by the rich were taken by a commission and returned to the government.

When Attalus, the erratic king of Pergamus, left his estates to Rome, Gracchus had an opportunity to perform an act of justice, by refunding to the rich the outlays they had made on the lands of which they had been deprived. This would have been politic as well as just, but Gracchus did not see his opportunity. He proposed, on the other hand, to divide the new wealth among the plebeians, to enable them to buy implements and cattle for the estates they had acquired.

It was easy at that excited time to make false accusations against public men, and to cause the populace to act upon them, and, accordingly, the aristocrats now stirred up the people to believe that Gracchus was aspiring to the power of king, which, they were reminded, had been forever abolished ages before. No opportunity was given him to explain his intentions. A great mob was raised and a street fight precipitated, in the midst of which three hundred persons were killed with sticks and stones and pieces of benches. Among them was Gracchus himself, who thus died a martyr to his patriotic plans for the Roman republic.

Caius Gracchus was in Spain at the time of his brother's murder, and Scipio, his brother-in-law, was there also. So little did Scipio understand Tiberius, that when he heard of his death he quoted the words of Minerva to Mercury, which he remembered to have read in his Homer, "So perish he who doth the same again!" The next year brother and brother-in-law returned from Spain, but Caius did not seem to care to enter political life, and as he lived in quiet for some years, it was thought that he disapproved his brother's laws. Little did the public dream of what was to come.

Meantime Scipio became the acknowledged leader of the optimates, and in order to keep the obnoxious law from being enforced, proposed to take it out of the hands of the commission and give it to the senate. His proposition was vigorously opposed in the forum, and when he retired to his home to prepare a speech to be delivered on the subject, a number of friends thought it necessary to accompany him as protectors. The next morning the city was startled by the news that he was dead. His speech was never even composed. No effort was made to discover his murderer, though one Caius Papirius Carbo, a tribune, leader of the opposing party, was generally thought to have been the guilty one.

The eloquence of young Gracchus proved greater than that of any other citizen, and by it he ingratiated himself with the people to such an extent, that in the year 123 B.C. they elected him one of their tribunes. Though the aristocrats managed to have his name placed fourth on the list, his force and eloquence made him really first in all public labors, and he proceeded to use his influence to further his brother's favorite projects. He was impetuous in his oratory. As he spoke, he walked from side to side of the rostra, and pulled his toga from his shoulder as he became warm in his delivery. His powerful voice filled the forum, and stirred the hearts of his hearers, who felt that his persuasive words came from an honest heart.

[Illustration] from The Story of Rome by Arthur Gilman


The optimates were of course offended by the acts of the new tribune, who abridged the power of the senate, and in all ways showed an intention of working for the people. He was exceedingly active in works of public benefit, building roads and bridges, erecting mile-stones along the principal routes, extending to the Italians the right to vote, and alleviating the distressing poverty of the lower orders by directing that grain should be sold to them at low rates. The laws under which he accomplished these beneficent changes are known, from the family to which the Gracchi belonged, as the Sempronian Laws. In carrying out the necessary legislation and in executing the laws, Caius labored himself with great assiduity, and his activity afforded his enemies the opportunity to say falsely that he made some private gain from them.

The optimates soon saw that the labors of Gracchus had drawn the people close to him, and they determined to weaken his influence by indirect means, rather than venture to make any immediate display of opposition. They according adopted the sagacious policy of making it appear that they wished to do more for the people than their own champion proposed. They allowed a rich and eloquent demagogue, Marcus Livius Drusus, to act for them, and he deceived the people by proposing measures that appeared more democratic than those of Gracchus, whose power over the people was thus somewhat undermined. The next step was then taken. In the midst of an election a tumult was excited, and Gracchus was obliged to flee, over the wooden bridge, to the Grove of the Furies. Death was his only deliverance. The optimates tried to make it out that he had been an infamous man, but the common people afterward loved both the brothers and esteemed them as great benefactors who had died for them,

The fall of the Gracchi left the people without a leader, and the optimates easily kept possession of the government, though they did not yet feel disposed to proceed at once to carry out their own wishes fully, for fear that they might sting the populares beyond endurance. They stopped the assignments of lands, however, allowing those who had occupied large tracts to keep them, and thus the desolation and retrogression which had so deeply moved Gracchus continued and increased even more rapidly than it had in his time. The state fell into a condition of corruption in every department, and office was looked upon simply as a means of acquiring wealth, not as something to be held as a trust for the good of the governed. The nation suffered also from servile insurrections; the seas were overrun with pirates; the rich plunged into vice; the poor were pushed down to deeper depths of poverty; judicial decisions were sold for money; the inhabitants of the provinces were looked upon by the nobles as fit subjects for plunder, and the governors obtained their positions by purchase; everywhere ruin stared the commonwealth in the face, though there seems to have been no one with perceptions clear enough to perceive the trend of affairs.

In this degenerate time there arose two men of the most diverse traits and descent, whose lives, running parallel for many years, furnish at once instructive studies and involve graphic pictures of public affairs. The elder of them was with Scipio when Numantia fell into his hands, and with Jugurtha, a Numidian prince, won distinction by his valor on that occasion. Caius Marius was the name of this man, and he belonged to the commons. He was twenty-three years of age, and had risen from the low condition of a peasant to one of prominence in public affairs. Fifteen years after the fall of Numantia we find him a tribune of the people, standing for purity in the elections, against the opposition of the optimates. Rough, haughty, and undaunted, he carried his measures and waited for the gathering storm to furnish him more enlarged opportunities for the exercise of his strength and ambition.

The opponent and final conqueror of this commoner was but four years of age when Numantia fell, and came into public life later than Marius. Lucius Cornelius Sulla was an optimate of illustrious ancestry and hereditary wealth, a student of the literature and art of Greece and his native land, and he united in his person all the vices as well as accomplishments that Cato had been accustomed to denounce with the utmost vigor.

Marius and Sulla, the plebeian and the optimate, the man without education of the schools, and the master of classic culture, were brought together in Africa in the year 107. Numidia had long been an ally of Rome, but upon the death of one of its kings, Jugurtha, who had gained confidence in himself during the Numantian campaign, attempted to gain control of the government. Rome interfered, but so accessible were public men to bribes, that Jugurtha obtained from the senate a decree dividing the country between him and the rightful claimant of the throne. Not contented with this, he attempted to conquer his rival and obtain the undivided sway. This action aroused the Roman people, who were less corrupt than their senate, and they forced their rulers to interfere. War was declared, but the first commander was corrupted by African gold, and the struggle was intermitted. Jugurtha was called to Rome, with promise of safety, to testify against the officer who had been bribed, and remained there awhile, until he grew bold enough to assassinate one of his enemies, when he was ordered to leave Italy. As he left, he is said to have exclaimed: "A city for sale, ready to fall into the hands of the first bidder!" These memorable words, whether really uttered by the Numidian or not, well characterize the state of affairs at this corrupt period.

[Illustration] from The Story of Rome by Arthur Gilman


One general and another were sent to oppose Jugurtha, but he proved too much for them, either corrupting them by bribes or overcoming them by skill of arms. The spirit of the Roman people was at last fully aroused, and an investigation was made, which resulted in convicting some of the optimates, one of them being Opimius, the consul, who had been cruelly opposed to Caius Gracchus. A general of integrity was chosen to go to Africa. He was Caecilius Metellus, member of a family which had come into prominence during the first Punic war. Marius was with him, and when Jugurtha saw that men of this high character were opposed to him, he began to despair. While the struggle progressed, Marius remembered that a witch whom he had had with him in a former war had prophesied that the gods would help him in advancing himself, and resolved to go to Rome to try to gain the consulship. Metellus at first opposed this scheme, but was finally persuaded to allow Marius to leave. Though but few days elapsed before the election, after Marius announced himself as a candidate, he was chosen consul, and then he began to exult over the optimates who had so long striven to keep him down. He vaunted his lowly birth, declared that his election was a victory over the pusillanimity and license of the rich, and boldly compared his warlike prowess with the effeminacy of the nobility, whom he determined to persecute as vigorously as they had pursued him.

[Illustration] from The Story of Rome by Arthur Gilman


Marius brought the Numidian War to a close by obtaining possession of Jugurtha in the year 106, but as his subordinate, Sulla, was the instrument in actually taking the king, the enemies of Marius claimed for the young aristocrat the credit of the capture, and Sulla irritated his senior still more by constantly wearing a ring on which he had caused to be engraved a representation of the surrender. Marius did not immediately return to Rome, but remained to complete the subjugation of Numidia, Sulla the meantime making every effort to ingratiate himself with the soldiers, sharing every labor, and sitting with them about the camp-fires as they softened the asperities of a hard life by telling tales of past experience, and making prophesies of the future.

Sulla was not a prepossessing person. His blue eyes were keen and glaring; but they were rendered forbidding and even terrible at times by the bad complexion of his face, which was covered with red blotches that told the story of his debaucheries. "Sulla is a mulberry sprinkled over with meal," is the expression that a Greek jester is said to have used in describing his frightful face.

It was the first of January, 104, when Marius entered Rome in triumph, accompanied by evidences of his victories, the greatest of which was the pitiful Numidian king himself, who followed in the grand procession, and was afterwards ruthlessly dropped into the horrible Tulliarium, or Mamertine prison, to perish by starvation in the watery chill. He is said to have exclaimed as he touched the water at the bottom of the prison, "Hercules! how cold are thy baths!"

During the absence of Marius in Africa, there had come over Rome the shadow of a greater peril than had been known since the days when Hannibal's advance had made the strongest hearts quail. The tumultuous multitudes who inhabited the unexplored regions of Central Europe, the Celts and Germans, had gathered a mass comprising, it is said, more than three hundred thousand men capable of fighting, besides hosts of women and children, and were marching with irresistible force towards the Roman domains. Nine years before (B.C. 113), these barbarians had defeated a Roman army in Noricum, north of Illyricum, and after that they had roamed at will through Switzerland, adding to their numbers, and ravaging every region, until at last they had poured over into the plains of Gaul. Year after year passed, and army after army of the Romans was cut to pieces by these terrible barbarians.

As Marius entered the city he was looked upon as the only one who could stem the impetuous human torrent that threatened to overwhelm the republic, for, in the face of the supreme danger, as is usual in such cases, every party jealousy was forgotten. The proud commoner accepted the command with alacrity, setting out for distant Gaul immediately, and taking Sulla as one of his subordinates. After two years of inconsequent strategy, he overcame the barbarians at a spot twelve miles distant from Aquae Sextiae (the Springs of Sextius, the modern Aix, in Provence), (B.C. 102). He collected the richest of the spoil to grace a triumph that he expected to celebrate, and was about to offer the remainder to the gods, when, just as he stood amid the encircling troops in a purple robe, ready to touch the torch to the pile, horsemen dashed into the space, announcing that the Romans had for the fifth time elected him consul! The village of Pourrières (Campi Putridi) now marks the spot, and the rustics of the vicinity still celebrate a yearly festival, at which they burn a vast heap of brushwood on the summit of one of their hills, as they shout Victoire! victoire! in memory of Marius.

During this period Sulla gained renown by his valorous deeds, but the jealousy that had begun in Africa increased, and in 103 or 102, he left Marius and joined himself to his colleague Lutatius Catulus, who was endeavoring to stem another torrent of barbarians, this time pouring down toward Rome from the valley of the Po. When Marius reached home after his victories in Gaul, he was offered a triumph, but refused to celebrate it until he had marched to the help of Catulus, who, he found, was then retreating before the invaders in a panic. After the arrival of Marius the flight was stopped, and the barbarians totally destroyed at a battle fought near Vercellae. Though much credit for this wonderful victory was awarded to both Catulus and Sulla, the whole honor was at Rome given to Marius, who celebrated a triumph, was called the third founder of the city (as Camillus had been the second), and enjoyed the distinction of having his name joined with those of the gods when offerings and libations were made. The jealousy of Sulla was all this time growing from its small beginnings.

While Marius and Sulla were fighting the barbarians there had been a second insurrection among the slave population of Italy, and it was not distant Sicily only that was troubled at this time, for though the uprising spread to that island, many towns of Campania were afflicted, and at last the contagion had affected thousands of the slaves, who arose and struck for freedom. The outbreak in Campania was repressed in 103, but it was not until 99 that quiet was restored on the island, and then it was by the destruction of many thousands of lives. Large numbers of the captives were taken to Rome to fight in the arena with wild beasts, but they disappointed their sanguinary masters by killing each other instead in the amphitheatre. The condition of the slaves after this was worse than before. They were deprived of all arms, and even the spear with which the herdsmen were wont to protect themselves from wild beasts was taken away.

At this time the power of the optimates was rather decreasing, and signs of promise for the people appeared. In the year 103, a law had been passed which took from the senate the right to select the chief pontiffs, and it had been given to the populares. An agrarian law was proposed in the following year, a speaker on the subject asserting that in the entire republic there were not two thousand landholders, so rapidly had the rich been able to concentrate in themselves the ownership of the land. The powers of the senate were still further restricted in the year 100, by a law intended to punish magistrates who had improperly received money, and to take from the senators the right to try such offences. At the same time the right of citizenship was offered to all Italians who should succeed in convicting a magistrate of peculation or extortion. Thus it seemed as though the reforms aimed at by the Gracchi might be brought about if only the man for the occasion were to present himself. Marius presented himself, but we shall find that he mistook his means, and only cast the nation down into deeper depths of misery. His star was at its highest when he celebrated his triumph, and it would have been better for his fame had he died at that time.