Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus – the earliest ‘socialists’ in recorded history

The fundamental tenet of socialism is the reduction of inequalities between the rich and the poor through the equal distribution of resources (Witt 2018). The socialist political ideology first emerged in post-Napoleonic France, with political theorists such as Claude Henri de Rouvroy and Louis Jean Joseph Charles Blanc advocating that the government should intervene to redistribute private property in a more equitable manner to mitigate the rapidly growing social inequalities that were being created in the wake of the industrial revolution (Witt 2018).

the Gracchi
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus by Marc Baronnet, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tiberius Gracchus

Tiberius Gracchus (163/162–133 BC) and his younger brother Gaius Gracchus (154–121 BC) have gone down in history for their bravery in pushing for reforms to help the poor in the Roman Empire, starting with the redistribution of public land that had been commandeered by the ruling classes, of which they were members.

Tiberius Gracchus – the brave soldier

Tiberius was a charismatic and highly educated man who was well known for his eloquence and his many accomplishments. In his book “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans,” Plutarch tells us that as soon as he was of age, Tiberius was immediately elected to the college of augurs.  He was then sent to Africa, serving under Scipio, where he became renowned for his bravery, being the first to scale and jump over the walls of Carthage (Plutarch).

Upon returning to Rome to a hero’s welcome, Tiberius was elected to the rank of quæstor, and assigned to serve under Caius Mancinus, who was battling the Numentines. Plutarch says that Gaius Gracchus once wrote that while Tiberius was travelling to Numentia to join Mancinus, he passed through Tyrrhenia (Tuscany), where he realised that many Roman citizens were living in extreme poverty, with no land to cultivate to feed their hungry families (Plutarch).

Unfortunately, Mancinus led his army to a bitter defeat, but instead of killing or enslaving all the soldiers, the Numentines offered to negotiate with Tiberius. The asked specifically for him because he was well known as an honourable man, and because several years earlier, his father had beaten them in battle but negotiated a fair treaty and ensured it was honoured by Rome. Tiberius managed to agree on the terms of a truce, thereby saving “twenty thousand Roman citizens, besides the slaves and camp-followers” (Plutarch).

This treaty sealed Tiberius’ popular appeal, since the families and friends of the soldiers who had been saved from death or slavery hailed him as a hero, which factored into protecting him from suffering the same miserable fate as Mancinus, who was stripped naked, bound in chains and delivered to the Numentines to do with as they pleased (Plutarch).

Tiberius Gracchus – the inspiring politician

Thus began the political career of Tiberius, after the people “urged him by writing on the porticoes, the walls, and on the tombs, to recover the public land for the poor” (Plutarch).

This public state-owned land was known as ager publicus populi Romani (de Ligt 2004). It consisted of land confiscated by the Romans as they conquered new territories in Italy. In the fourth and third centuries BC most of the ager publicus in the centre of Italy was privatised through new forms of possession known as ager quaestorius, ager in trientabulis and ager censorious, which allowed the lands to held in perpetuity (Roselaar 2009).

By the time of Tiberius Gracchus, the only remaining ager publicus was mainly in the periphery of Italy (Roselaar 2009), which explains why he only became aware of the problem while travelling through Tyrrhenia (Gaius Gracchus as cited by Plutarch).

The ager publicus was divided into parcels and given out (often as a reward for military service), sold or rented. The problem was that if the land was left uncultivated, it could be taken over by someone who could work it, so soldiers who were out of the country fighting for the glory of Rome came back to find themselves dispossessed.

Vast stretches of land were taken over by rich and powerful Romans, who used slaves (who were not called for military service and were thus always present) to plough the fields and tend to the crops and livestock.  This meant that peasants and returning soldiers had not only lost their land, but also the possibility of finding decently paid work with which to support their family, because it was impossible to compete with slaves, who had to work for free (Peter 2001).

Agrarian Reform

Undoubtedly, Tiberius knew that any challenge to the status quo would not be welcomed by wealthy and powerful Romans. In fact, Caius Lælius had already tried to tackle the situation before him but had given up when he saw how aggressively the rich had reacted to his proposals (Richardson 1980).

Nonetheless, Tiberius remained undeterred and after consultation he came up with a proposal that he put to the people. He based his plan on an existing law that was being ignored and not enforced, which put a limit on the amount of public land that each person could hold of 500 iugera, circa 330 acres.

In a bid to make the proposed reform more palatable to the rich, he did not include any penalties or fines for those who had broken the law and acquired more ager publicus than they were legally entitled to, and furthermore proposed an extension of 250 iugera per son (Richardson 1980), with the upper limit set at 1000 iugera (Tsonis 2009).

Unfortunately, the upper-class Romans were determined to thwart Tiberius. Initially they used Octavius, a fellow tribune, to veto the proposal. This led to an escalation as Tiberius vetoed several other proposals, bringing the administration to a standstill.

All this resistance strengthened Tiberius’ resolve and led to him proposing even harsher reform, with penalties for those who had broken the law (Plutarch). He also proposed that the money in the treasury of Attalus, King of Pergamum, who had died that year and left his Kingdom to Rome, be administered by the comitia tributa instead of the Senate, and used to fund the agrarian reform.

The idea of using public money for the betterment of the poor was revolutionary for the time and caused great concern in the senate (Boren 1961). It is undoubtedly yet another reason for which Tiberius Gracchus is often described as the one of the first socialists in history.

In 133 BC, after deposing Octavius as tribune, Tiberius succeeded in passing his lex Sempronia agraria (de Ligt 2004).  He immediately set about implementing it, setting up a committee consisting of himself, his brother Gaius Gracchus and his father-in-law Claudius Appius.

The committee was charged with surveying the ager publicus and resolving any disputes regarding ownership of the land. Any land holdings exceeding the upper limit were taken back by the state (Plutarch).

The committee then proceeded to split the freed-up land into 14-acre plots (Peter 2001) and assigned it to impoverished Romans, also providing them with funds to set up their new farms (Richardson 1980). Thus, he hoped to alleviate the lot of the poor, who would now have enough land to be able to support a family (de Ligt 2004).


It is important to emphasize that Tiberius Gracchus knew that the agrarian reform he had pushed through would make him some powerful enemies.  He was also aware that they would try to exact revenge. 

In fact, Plutarch tells us that Tiberius always wore a dagger to be able to defend himself in case of attack.  This knowledge makes his “socialist” ideals, and his perseverance and determination to ensure that all Roman citizens received a fair share of the riches of the state even more admirable, since he clearly knew that he was acting at great risk to himself.

At the time Tribunes were considered inviolable, so Tiberius was encouraged to run for a third term to retain the protection that the position bestowed. To bolster his popularity with the citizens and increase his chances of being elected, he proposed several new populist measures that further enraged his enemies. These included proposals to reduce the mandatory term of military service as well as to change the balance of power in the senate by increasing the number of Equites to match that of the Senators (Plutarch).

The night before the vote Tiberius implored the citizens to vote for him, because he feared for his life and the life of his family. His plea was so compelling that many people guarded his house all night, to make sure he was safe.

The next day, Tiberius went to the Capitol, where he was surrounded by a crowd of people who wanted to protect him. Plutarch says that one of the Senators, Flavius Flaccus, warned Tiberius that the wealthy Romans had resolved to assassinate him.

Tiberius pointed at his head to indicate to his supporters that his life was in danger. This was interpreted by the spies sent from the senate as a request for a crown, a claim they raced to relay to the Senators, who immediately sent a mob of armed slaves and supporters to attack Tiberius and his followers.

Over 200 Roman citizens were murdered, amongst them Tiberius, who was beaten to death. Their bodies were unceremoniously thrown into the river, and the pleas of Gaius Gracchus to bury his brother were ignored.

In the end, however, the fact remained that the agrarian reform had passed, and the redistribution of public land went ahead (Plutarch), thus becoming a tangible and enduring legacy of Tiberius Gracchus, for which he had paid the ultimate price.

Gaius Gracchus

When Tiberius was killed, Gaius was still only twenty years old.  At first, he did not appear interested in politics, but as he grew older and his fame as an orator and man of strong character grew, the Gracchi’s enemies became concerned that he would attempt to continue his brother’s policies and build upon his legacy.

When Gaius was sent to Sardinia as quæstor, he proved himself to be as brave and disciplined a soldier as his brother had been. Once again, like his older brother, Gaius displayed his “Socialist” ideals when it came to safeguarding the wellbeing of the troops, who did not have sufficient food and clothing to make it through the winter. Although the cities in Sardinia had received dispensation from the Senate not to provide additional food and clothing to the troops, Gaius took it upon himself to travel from city to city, lobbying for supplies.

His endeavours were successful, causing great concern in Rome, because it was obvious he had the same charisma and populist touch as Tiberius (Plutarch). In 124 BC they tried to eliminate the threat by forcing Gaius to serve another term in Sardinia, hoping to stop him from ever becoming a Tribune, but he abandoned his commander and travelled to Rome without permission. When charged, he managed to convince the Censors that he was in the right. Clearly this was a man of great talent and strength of character (Rowland 1969).

Silvestre David Mirys, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Gaius Gracchus Tribune of the People – Silvestre David Mirys, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At this point it was clear that Gaius Gracchus was destined to become a strong player in Roman politics. Despite serious opposition from the upper classes, his rousing speeches and eloquent condemnation of the treatment his brother, Tiberius, had suffered at the hands of the rich, led to him rapidly gaining popular support.

Gaius rapidly started proposing major reform, ranging from the incapacitation of any public officials removed from office by the people (such as Octavius) to the prosecution of magistrates who condemned citizens without a fair trial (as had happened to many followers of Tiberius).

He also proposed a raft of popular measures that one could describe as being of a “Socialist” nature, such as the creation of more colonies, the distribution of more public land to the poor, the reduction of the cost of grain for the poor, the public funding of the equipment required by soldiers (who would no longer have to pay for it themselves), raising the statutory military draft age to over seventeen, giving Italian allies the same rights as Roman citizens and measures to create a better balance in the constitution of the senate and the appointment of judges.

In addition, he pushed for fairer treatment of conquered nations, successfully convincing the Senate to refund monies that had been unfairly extracted from them (Rowland 1969). Clearly, Gaius Gracchus was determined to reduce inequalities between the rich and the poor and improve the lot of those that had traditionally been exploited and ignored, with Plutarch describing his actions as changing the government of Rome from “aristocratical to a democratical form” (Plutarch).

As can be imagined, Gaius Gracchus’ reforming zeal was a major threat to those who benefited from the status quo, so they set about undermining him through clever propaganda that confused the populace as to who truly had their best interests at heart – the Senate or Gaius Gracchus.

Political manoeuvres by Gaius Gracchus’ enemies

Through a mix of legislative manoeuvres to manipulate the citizenry and the spreading of lies about Gaius’ supporters and friends, added to the fortuitous (for the Senate) absence of Gaius, who at the time was in Libya founding a colony, the Senate were successful in destroying his good name and his popularity with the people (Plutarch).

When Gaius returned to Rome, his enemies were in the ascendency, so much so that after several missteps made, both by Gaius and by his associates, foremost amongst whom was Fulvius, the citizens did not come to his aid when he was attacked.

Gaius Gracchus was killed, his head brought to the Senate on a spear and the rest of his body thrown into the river, like a common traitor. The second Gracchus brother had also lost his life due to the machinations of the rich upper-class Romans who were threatened by his “socialist” ideals and reforming zeal (Plutarch).

In conclusion, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus implemented the very same “socialist” policies, based on taking land from the rich and giving it to the poor to enable them to support their families, that de Rouvroy and Blanc were to propose circa one thousand eight hundred years later. The Gracchi brothers were well ahead of their time with their ideals, and very much merit going down in history as the very first “socialists” on record.


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