Law and Justice – Roman Constitution – 11.3 Land Reform
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Law and Justice – Roman Constitution – 11.3 Land Reform

October 10, 2019

>>>>The expansion of the Roman Republic in
the 2nd century BC brought in its train enormous social transformations that would have unintended
political consequences. We’ve seen how the Bacchanalian conspiracy, the anxiety about
this kind of religious movement, underground religious movement, is part of this gradual
change in Roman society. The consuls, in a sense fear what they can’t control in this
urban environment, where there are nighttime religious festivals that have allegedly foreign
influences come from Greece. That’s part of the social changes–religion is one dimension.
We want to consider the economic dimensions of the transformations in 2nd century Rome,
and the consequences of economic change for the political crisis of the Republic. And
we’ll do so through the eyes of one of the great figures of late republican politics,
Tiberius Gracchus. The career of Tiberius would represent the beginning of a new, acute
phase of crisis within the republican system, and it’s precisely because of his political
ideas and his ideas for a land reform that the Republic will enter a period of outright
political violence that would ultimately lead to the end of the Republic itself. Tiberius
was born into the wealthiest strands of the Roman aristocracy, from the elite of the elite.
The Roman aristocracy of this period is a military aristocracy. They’re a wealthy, traditional
set of families, all of which compete with each other for military commands. And so the
sons of the aristocracy in this world serve as military officers. And Tiberius was serving
as a military officer and returning from a campaign in Spain when he traveled down the
coast of what’s now Tuscany, then Etruria, a most important region to the north of Rome.
And as he traveled along the coast road, looking inland at the land that he saw, and he could
visualize almost in a flash in the image that he could see there off the coast, the problems
that faced Roman society. For he witnessed not a landscape carved up into small farms,
but a landscape dominated by enormous, slave-staffed villas. Tiberius could see these large villas
owned by the aristocracy of Rome that controlled huge amounts of land, that were stocked with
slaves who performed the agricultural labor to produce commodities, above all wine, that
then could be sold in foreign markets, bringing enormous wealth to the Roman elite. And in
that image of this landscape carved up into enormous slave plantations that didn’t allow
the small farmer who was the traditional backbone of the Roman Republic to flourish, Tiberius
sensed the fundamental problems that would face the Roman Republic for the rest of its
history. And these problems that Tiberius sensed were at the heart of all of the changes
of the 2nd century: the urbanization of Rome, the growth of slavery, the expansion of markets,
the opportunities to make enormous wealth off of commerce, and that it changes within
the military, all of which would contribute to the demise of the small farmer. Tiberius
wasn’t content simply to watch this transformation undermine his Republic, and he conceived a
brilliant political reform that would try to turn back some of these changes and would
restore the small farmer–the backbone of the Republic. Tiberius ran for office and
became a tribune in the Roman Republican system. Now the tribune was a very particular office
within the Roman system of magistrates. By this time, there were ten tribunes elected
annually. And the tribune had a very specific function in the Roman Republican Constitution.
A tribune was a defender of the common person. The tribune’s role in the Republican Constitution
was to protect the ordinary man, and the tribune had exceptional powers that allowed him to
do so. The tribunes were sacrosanct. They were absolutely protected in their person,
in their safety, because they had to be willing to stand up for ordinary people, sometimes
against powerful interests. The tribune’s powers included above all the veto–the ability
to say, “I prohibit this legislation from being enacted.” So the tribune had the fundamental
power to say no, to stand in the way of changes that would harm the ordinary Roman citizen.
And the tribune would use these powers to protect the interests of the common man. And
so Tiberius, although from one of the bluest blood families in all of Roman society, became
an officer whose role was to protect ordinary Romans — and he did so on a very particular
platform. He ran on an idea of land reform, what we can call the Tiberian land reforms.
Tiberius proposed to rehabilitate an ancient law, the Licinian law that was passed in 367
BC, so we’re talking about a law that’s 200 years old. This law said that no individual
then can own over a certain amount–500 jugera is about 40 family farms, it’s a very significant
amount of land–of ager publicus, of public land: A particular kind of land that was classified
within the Roman legal system, land that had been conquered by the Roman armies. Tiberius
says, in effect, I am going to enforce this obsolete, ancient law that’s more than 200
years old that limits the upper size of properties, landed properties, on a certain classification
of land. There were certainly many estates owned by the Roman aristocracy that far exceeded
this scale of landholding. It would be like if we found a law that was 200 years old,
so imagine a law that was passed in the presidency of George Washington, that had fallen into
desuetude that said something like, “No individual can own more than 100 acres” or “No individual
can own more than say $500,000,” maybe that’s a better a way of estimating it. But today
that would seem very small, and that must of been something that like the way the Roman
aristocracy reacted to the reforms of Tiberius. That he had found this ancient law that was
technically on the books but was largely obsolete, and intended to enforce it so he would set
upper limits to the size of their properties. Well, what this amounted to was a seizure
of properties, and we have remnants of the kinds of debates that happened in the context
of his proposals. The aristocrats said, “We’ve owned this property. We’ve occupied this property.
We’ve improved this property. We’ve invested capital to improve this land. This has been
our home. Our ancestors’ tombs are on this land, and you’re simply going to seize it
by enforcing some obsolete law?” But the small farmer had a different kind of case. Imagine
the veteran saying, “This is public land, this is land that was conquered by the Roman
armies, the armies that ordinary citizens and soldiers, such as myself, had served in.”
Tiberius proposed to take the land that he was going to redistribute and give it to small
farmers, especially veterans–men who had served their republic in the army, to give
it to poor people, to ordinary people. And so the land reform that he proposes has a
very profound class-based impact. The wealthy, the aristocrats who own large tracts of land,
oppose this kind of reform and see it as an egregious act of theft, of the state stealing
their land and redistributing it. The small farmer sees it as a wise, republican reform,
sees it as a way for the Republic to revitalize itself, to give what is due to those who have
served in the Roman army. Tiberius is brought into office on this platform, but he faces
immediate opposition, in fact, opposition from one of his colleagues, one of the other
tribunes, who also has the veto power and who represents the interests not of the common
man, but of the wealthy, senatorial aristocracy, and who begins to use his veto power to block
Tiberius’s efforts to redistribute land. There’s a certain irony in this that another tribune,
who should be acting in the interests of the common Roman, uses his powers to block the
land reforms of Tiberius. Tiberius is furious and he makes every maneuver he can to try
and overcome his opponent, to try and dissuade him. He, in fact, takes extreme measures.
He practices what we would consider a government shutdown. He begins vetoing every single act
of every single magistrate in the Roman Republic, shutting down the entire system of government.
And when his colleague still refuses to budge, Tiberius proposes an unprecedented action.
He proposes that his colleague, his fellow tribune, be impeached, be turned out of office
because he’s failing to protect the interest of the common man. This is a radical and unprecedented
act, and it scared even Tiberius’s own supporters, who realize that if the tribune could be thrown
out of office that it would set, in fact, a dangerous precedent that would undermine
the office of the tribune in the long run. Because then it meant that a tribune taking
unpopular action could simply be turned out of office. Nevertheless, Tiberius was intent,
and he had his colleague thrown out of office. And he then stood unimpeded, and was able
to begin enforcing his land reforms. Tiberius and his brother and another ally begin to
carry out their land reforms. And we know that already in this year, 133 BC, that his
land commission is taking action to redistribute land. But as the year progressed his progress
was continually impeded by the Senate, who didn’t wish to see his land reforms carried
through. And as the year reached its end, so would Tiberius’s tenure as tribune, and
Tiberius knew that if he was no longer tribune that first his land reforms would be undermined,
and that secondly, he himself would be in grave danger. No longer protected by the office
itself, he would probably be a likely target of political violence. And so Tiberius took
another extraordinary act. He ran for reelection as tribune, again violating tradition within
the Roman Republican Constitution. And as Tiberius campaigned for reelection this time,
the campaign itself became clouded by an atmosphere of violence. His opponents, especially the
wealthy senatorial aristocracy, accused him of aiming at tyranny. They accused him of
taking unprecedented actions, having his colleagues thrown out of office, having himself reelected
beyond his term, so that he could redistribute land. In the eyes of the aristocrats, he was
a dangerous demagogue. But to his own constituency, the common people of Rome, he was a hero.
His reelection campaign was marked by an air of increasing violence, and on the day of
the election itself, Tiberius went into the heart of Rome and where he was surrounded
by a mob of people. Another group of senators meeting on the other side of Rome set out
across the city and came to Tiberius and slew him, killing him, spilling blood in the streets
of Rome. Tiberius was assassinated by a band of senators who claimed to be acting in the
name of republican liberty, in the name of the constitution. Who claimed the be acting
against a dangerous demagogue, who had broken precedent time and again to carry out his
reforms. Tiberius claimed to be acting in the interest of the common man, to be upholding
the values of the Republic against the wealthy interests that were undermining it. The career
of Tiberius Gracchus above all proves how fundamentally important it is within a republic,
a res publica, to maintain a community of interest. The career of Tiberius Gracchus
teaches this lesson: That when the interests of different elements of society are so divergent
that they lack the ability to form a consensus, that violence becomes possible. And the assassination
of Tiberius Gracchus was the beginning of a new and more violent period of Roman politics.

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