"It's the quality and not the length of a man's life that counts. If a man is assassinated while he is fighting to save the soul of the Nation, his death contributes more than anything else to its redemption."
MARTIN LUTHER KING
"I don't think in this administration or in our generation or time will this country be at the top of the hill, but some day it will be, and I hope when it is that they will think we have done our part . . ."
JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY
Empires have always succumbed to the same disease. With each new conquest, Rome thrust forward her frontiers and retreated from her principles. The first Romans were simple people, wholly devoted to their land and their gods, But the pilgrims, the settlers and the' sages were succeeded by a promiscuous mob that capitalized on the victories. The growing number of slaves and the afflux of the poor swelled the population. The patricians found their chances for survival considerably reduced as hordes of former slaves, freed and newly wealthy, fought over their estates.
For the Romans, all things reflected their greatness -- the victories of Marius, Pompey, and Caesar, but also the Empire, history, and the future of the Roman people. But there was neither justice in the courts nor honesty in the elections. Only one standard decided the merit of a candidate or the innocence of a defendant: gold.
The spectacles at the Circus served to distract the populace. The free wheat and olives distributed to the needy at the Forum served as a subterfuge for social reforms. The aristocracy purchased seats in the Senate. The magistracy of the empire and the spoils of victory went to the senators, the consuls, the praetors, the quaestors, the censors and their wives. Rome had become a corporation.
The government was in the hands of a few opulent families of the world of finance, supported by the military junta. These families knew how to protect their interests: they disguised them as national necessities. The preservation of Rome was identified with that of the ruling families. "The Roman people consisted of a small oligarchy of landowners, bankers, speculators, merchants, artisans, adventurers, and tatterdemalions, avid for pleasure, excitement, and sudden gain, proud, turbulent, corrupted by the life of the city, and placing their own interests ahead of even the most salutary reform . . ."(1)
The national honor of the Roman Empire was nothing more than the caprices or the indignation of the rulers of the moment, its political institutions no more than the cupidity of its dignitaries and the indolence of its masses, its history nothing more than a series of petty larcenies and more important crimes.
And then the Gracchus brothers, nephews of Scipion the Mrican, appeared on the scene. The elder brother, Tiberius (160-133 BC), the son of a consul and born a patrician, had been raised by Greek philosophers, Blossus of Cumes and Diophanes of Mytilene. He was a veteran of the Spanish campaign. He was elected a tribune. His fortitude, his temperance, his humanity, his passion for justice and his natural eloquence elicited the admiration of Cicero. It was evident that he would make his mark in politics.
Tiberius was as calm, as sober, and as moderate as his brother Gaius was vehement, impassioned, and impetuous. He worked for Italy, for the people, and for liberty. He would not be stopped by either threats or clamor.
On Rogation Day,(2) he addressed the people massed around the tribune. A fragment of this speech, in which he evoked the misery and the helplessness of the people, the depopulation of Italy and the rapacity of the wealthy, has been preserved. "The landowners in mourning dress appeared on the Forum in the most wretched and humble condition in order to move the people whom they despoiled so mercilessly to pity. But they had little confidence in this demonstration, and they hired assassins to kill Tiberius . . ."(3)
Tiberius, nevertheless, proceeded with his reforms. One of his laws authorized the people to circulate freely on the roads and highways. Another stipulated that the treasure of Attala, who had made the Roman people his heir, would be distributed among the citizens. Other laws distributed lands, subsidized the cost of the first planting, decreased the length of military service, and reorganized the judiciary. Henceforth, no Roman citizen could own more than 750 acres of public land for himself and 375 for each of his sons. This law threatened the owners of the largest herds.
In his speeches Tiberius declared that the will of the people was the supreme authority of the state. This was too much. On the day of his re-election to the tribunate, which would have enabled Tiberius to complete his reforms, Scipion Nasicaa, one of the richest of the landowners, assembled all of the wealthy Romans. Followed by an army of slaves and clients, they climbed to the Capitol. One of Tiberius' colleagues, a tribune, dealt him the first blow. Other assassins finished the job. His body was profaned and thrown into the Tiber.
Rome, which had found senators to assassinate him, found no historian to stigmatize his assassins. After centuries of law and order, the Empire watched with stupefaction as the violence of a faction that had taken the law into its own hands not only went unpunished, but was admired.
Gaius (152-121 BC), eight years younger than his brother, appeared to accept his death and to be unaware of the identities of his assassins. He was appointed quaestor of Sardinia and, against the wishes of the Senate, he did not disappear from view. He lived the life of his soldiers and looked after their interests. He liked long marches and took long, lonely swims in the sea, and he remained chaste.
"The fate of his brother and his reforms had proved that it was vain to attempt to remedy the ills of Rome without first having destroyed, or at least humiliated, the large landowners and the usurpers of the public domain; that the idea of transforming the poor people of Rome into a landowning class was too simple and, in reality, not very effective.
"But once the terror had disappeared, the little people of Rome began to seek a protector, and the victim's brother, who was known for his virtues and was already suspect to the wealthy, appeared to be just the person they needed.
"The persistent hatred of the nobility precipitated him into the fray, although he had no intention of taking up his brother's reforms. Boldly, Gaius ran for the office of tribune and was elected. He immediately proved that he was no ordinary man. He denounced his brother's assassins and punished them. He promulgated the laws that Tiberius would have wanted. He cited Tiberius incessantly in his speeches. He was re-elected a tribune. He reduced the authority of the Senate. He controlled everything, organized everything, imparting his prodigious activity and his indefatigable energy to everyone.
"He was craftier than his brother. He had learned from him, and he had had time to meditate his revenge without beclouding his mind. For a long while, he retained the support of the wealthy by proposing laws that pleased the rich and others that suited the poor. But eventually he voiced the idea that he had so long meditated in silence: that all Italians should be given the rights of citizens."
Rome would be the capital of a vast Italic nation. No longer would the Empire be founded on a municipal oligarchy allied with the corrupt merchants, but on rival classes working in partnership. The former centers of civilization and commerce, now destroyed or declined, would be restored, and the wealth and the multitudes that poured into Rome, threatening to choke the nerve-center of the Empire, would be distributed evenly throughout the different lands.
It was the historic task of Rome that Gaius had in mind, but he thought he could accomplish alone what it was to take six generations to achieve. His grandiose ideas were too premature. His plan to accord the rights of a Roman citizen to all Italians pleased neither the nobility nor the little people.
The Senate decided that things had gone far enough. The Consul Lucien Opimius led the conspiracy. Pursued and about to be taken, Gaius killed himself in a wood dedicated to the Furies. Septimuleius cut off his head. Gaius in his turn was thrown into the Tiber, along with 3,000 of his followers. The year of Gaius' death, the grape harvest was exceptionally good. The nobles, the wealthy, the big and the small landowners bought up all the slaves on the market.
The Gracchus brothers were the last true aristocrats of Rome. Licentiousness robbed the aristocracy of its traditional energy and its virtues. Most of their laws were abolished. The robber barons rid the Roman Empire of all the leaders who had dreamed of being generous, or simply of being just. Balbinus, Emilian, Valerian, Aurelius, and Maximus were assassinated in their turn. Probus lasted six years, Tacitus ten months, and Pertinax 97 days.
Sixteen centuries later, Machiavelli wrote that "men forget the death of their father more easily than the loss of their patrimony, and they hesitate less to harm a man who is loved than another who is feared."
Later, after Honorius, the frontiers of the Empire were overrun by the barbarians. The Empire, invaded, was split asunder, and Rome faded into oblivion. The Gracchus brothers were not forgotten by the Roman people. Statues were erected in their memory, and a cult was founded in their honor.
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1. Guglielmo Ferrero.
2. The day the laws were proposed to the people.
3. Leon Jouberti.