In This Article The Gracchi Brothers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies

Classics The Gracchi Brothers
Saskia T. Roselaar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0221


The brothers Tiberius (163–133 BCE) and Gaius (153–121 BCE) Sempronius Gracchus left a great mark on the history of the Roman Republic. Tiberius, tribune of the plebs in 133, is known especially for agrarian reform; he passed a law that intended to distribute ager publicus (land owned by the Roman state) to the landless poor. Thus he intended to call a halt to a perceived decline of population and concomitant lack of soldiers for the army. His law caused much resistance from the senatorial elite, who held much of this land themselves and feared that Tiberius would gain too much personal power through his popularity with the plebs. Tiberius’s unusual political methods, especially his deposition of a fellow tribune and his attempt to be re-elected as tribune, led to his murder by a group of senators, led by the pontifex maximus Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica. Gaius Gracchus, as tribune of the plebs in 123, put forward a wider program of legislation, including a law to establish colonies overseas, a law against extortion by Roman magistrates in the provinces, a law to distribute subsidized grain to the people of Rome, and many others. He was re-elected as tribune, but his popularity caused resistance among the Senate. During a meeting to pass further legislation, the Senate issued the senatus consultum ultimum, authorizing the consul L. Opimius to take action against Gaius. He was killed with 3,000 of his supporters. Despite their violent deaths, many of the laws issued by the Gracchi remained in force. Gaius’s laws especially were extremely well drafted and remained the standard for many decades. The events surrounding the Gracchi were seen by many contemporary and later writers as the beginning of the end for the Roman Republic, since they illustrated the power that a determined tribune of the plebs could bring to bear against the Senate. Tiberius’s death was also the first, but sadly not the last time that violence was used in the politics of the Republic. Understanding the Gracchi is a very difficult problem, since there is no contemporary source material on the two brothers; all surviving sources date from at least several decades after the events. It is very likely that works by Gaius Gracchus were the source for much of the surviving works on Tiberius, so that it is very difficult to attain an unbiased picture of Tiberius’s actions. Furthermore, the events of the Gracchan period, and the rhetoric surrounding them, influenced the historiography of the earlier Republic. Thus, Livy’s narrative of the agrarian debates of the early Republic is clearly influenced by Gracchan rhetoric. Since many sources have been lost, especially the works of Gaius himself, it is impossible to trace the exact relationships between all these events and the interconnections between the sources. Therefore, understanding the exact events during the Gracchan period, as well as the intentions, achievements, and legacy of both brothers are among the most difficult problems facing historians of the Republic. Nevertheless, since the impact of the Gracchi was enormous, because of the laws they passed, and because of the effects of the period on the political process of the Republic, it is essential that scholars continue to engage directly with the Gracchi brothers.

General Overviews

There are several general overviews of the activities of the Gracchi and their effects on Roman politics, society, and economy. Unfortunately, there is no recent monograph on the activities of both brothers. The best introductions in English are still Boren 1968 and Stockton 1979, although both are now out of date, especially on the economic and demographic problems that the Gracchi tried to solve. Perelli 1993 is slightly more recent but does not incorporate the most recent academic insights, and unfortunately, is not available in English. The French and Italian works Clavel-Lévêque 1983, Gabba 1990, and Nicolet 1967 are useful introductions for readers in these languages, but all are out of date. Fraccaro 1967 and Carcopino 1967 are based on older editions; they are still cited and offer many valuable insights, but they cannot make up for the lack of recent scholarly overviews on the Gracchi brothers. It should be emphasized that Tiberius and Gaius do not have to be discussed together at all, and it cannot be assumed that both brothers pursued the same goals, as is already clear from the fact that Gaius proposed a far wider program of legislation than Tiberius. Nor did they use the exact same methods. Of course, much of the source material on Tiberius eventually derives from the works of Gaius, but this does not mean that they wanted to achieve the same objectives; they should therefore not automatically be discussed together (see Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus for works on the individual men).

  • Boren, Henry C. 1968. The Gracchi. New York: Twayne.

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    This work investigates the causes of the social and economic problems that the Gracchi tried to solve, and the technical and legal details of Tiberius Gracchus’s agrarian law (of course, the conclusions are by now rather out of date). Boren emphasizes that Gaius Gracchus sought support from a much wider range of groups in society than Tiberius did, and gives a good overview of his social program and its aftermath.

  • Carcopino, Jerôme. 1967. Autour des Gracques. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

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    Carcopino investigates various topics connected the Gracchi: the value of Appian as a source for the lives of the Gracchi, which he rates highly; the family background of the Gracchi; and Scipio Aemilianus’s influence on agrarian reform. The largest part of the work is taken up by a discussion of the triumviri of the agrarian commission. An appendix updates the argument from the earlier edition. The 1st edition was published in 1928.

  • Clavel-Lévêque, Monique. 1983. La società italica dopo la terza guerra punica. I Gracchi. In Storia della società italiana 2. La tarda Repubblica e il principato. Milan: Teti Editore.

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    Clavel investigates how the growth of the Roman state, through conquest, led to a social crisis; her discussion repeats the traditional picture of the abandonment of the occupation of land by the rich. She then investigates Tiberius’s activities, their importance for the process of government of the Republic, and their success in restoring small farmers. She finishes by discussing the main elements of Gaius Gracchus’s legislation.

  • Fraccaro, Plinio. 1967. Studi sull’età dei Gracchi. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider.

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    Despite the title, the work focuses especially on the Gracchan agrarian legislation. Fraccaro discusses such varied topics as the sources of Appian’s and Plutarch’s works, the availability of ager publicus for Gracchan distribution, and the technical and legal details of Tiberius Gracchus’s legislation. This work still offers many useful insights into the Gracchan period, even though the first edition was published a century ago. The 1st edition was published in 1914.

  • Gabba, Emilio. 1990. Il tentativo dei Gracchi. In Storia di Roma. Vol. 2. Edited by Arnaldo Momigliano and Aldo Schiavone, 671–689. Turin: Einaudi.

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    Gabba gives an overview of the activities of the Gracchi and the socio-economic developments that led up to them, mostly adhering to the traditional picture of agrarian decline. He also describes the technical details of the land distributions and gives a short overview of the laws of Gaius Gracchus. Overall this a useful short introduction into the Gracchan period.

  • Katz, Solomon. 1942. The Gracchi: An essay in interpretation. Classical Journal 38:65–82.

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    Katz offers a general overview of the Gracchan period and the motivations that may have inspired Tiberius Gracchus, including Greek philosophy, the general decline in Italian agriculture, the increase in slave labor, and the problems of recruitment for the army. Gaius’s motives are more difficult to establish, but Katz sensibly concludes that both brothers were conservative in their outlook and wanted to work within the framework of the state.

  • Nicolet, Claude. 1967. Les Gracques ou crise agraire et révolution à Rome. Paris: Julliard.

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    This book starts out with a general discussion of the causes of the economic and social problems of the 2nd century BCE, mostly adhering to the traditional picture of decline in Italian agriculture. Nicolet then describes the agrarian law of Tiberius Gracchus in detail, as well as Gaius Gracchus’s legislation, without adding much to already existing interpretations. Nevertheless, it is a useful introduction for French speakers.

  • Perelli, Luciano. 1993. I Gracchi. Rome: Salerno.

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    This is the most recent study of the Gracchan period, written for the general public. It presents a nuanced picture of economic developments in the 2nd century BCE, acknowledging recent archaeological research, and discusses the details of the Gracchan legislation. It is sufficiently critical of the written sources, especially Appian, and overall is a good general introduction.

  • Stockton, David L. 1979. The Gracchi. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This is still the basic introduction to the Gracchi in English. Obviously it does not incorporate the most recent insights on the Gracchi and the economic problems of Italy, but it clearly illustrates the problems surrounding the interpretation of the period. Stockton gives an intelligent analysis of the technical issues of the Gracchan land reform and thoroughly analyzes the consequences of the Gracchan reform for the Republic in general.

  • Von Ungern-Sternberg, Jürgen. 2006. Römische Studien. Geschichtsbewußtsein–Zeitalter der Gracchen. Krise der Republik. Munich and Leipzig: Saur.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110938715E-mail Citation »

    This volume collects several previously published works by Von Ungern-Sternberg. Some deal directly with the Gracchi, such as a useful paper on the socio-economic problems of the Republic and one on the agrarian program of Tiberius; others are reviews of works about the Gracchi, such as those of Stockton and Shochat. Some articles are only loosely related to the Gracchi, e.g., about leges frumentariae in the Republic.

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