Gaius GracchusIn one of the Roman world’s most quoted jibes, the satirist Juvenal, writing at the end of the first century CE, turned his scorn on the ‘mob of Remus’, which – he claimed – wanted just two things: ‘bread and circuses’ (panem et circenses). As the currency of that phrase even now shows, it was a brilliant dismissal of the limited horizons of the urban rabble, presented here as if they were the descendants of the murdered twin: they cared for nothing but the chariot racing and food handouts with which the emperors had bribed, and effectively depoliticised, them. It was also a cynical misrepresentation of the Roman tradition of providing staple food for the people at state expense, which originated with Tiberius’ younger brother Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, a tribune of the people in two consecutive years, 123 and 122 BCE.
Gaius did not introduce a ‘corn dole’. To be precise, he successfully proposed a law to the Plebeian Assembly establishing that the state should sell a certain quantity of grain each month at a subsidised, fixed price to individual citizens in the city. Even so, the scale and ambition of this initiative were enormous. And Gaius seems to have planned the considerable infrastructure needed to support it: the public purchasing, distribution facilities and some form of identity checking (how otherwise did you restrict it to citizens?), as well as storage in new public warehouses built by the Tiber and rented lock-up space in others. How the whole operation was staffed and organised day to day is not known for certain. Public officials at Rome were given only the skeletal support of a few scribes, messengers and bodyguards. So, as with most of the state’s responsibilities – right down to such tiny specialist jobs as repainting the face of the statue of the god Jupiter in his temple overlooking the city from the Capitoline Hill – much of the work of managing and distributing the grain was presumably in the hands of private contractors, who made money out of delivering public services.
Gaius’ initiative came partly out of concern for the poor in the city. In good years the crops of Sicily and Sardinia would have been more or less sufficient to feed a quarter of a million people – a reasonable, though slightly conservative, estimate for the population of Rome in the later second century BCE. But ancient Mediterranean harvests fluctuated dramatically, and prices sometimes went far beyond what many ordinary Romans – shopkeepers, craftsmen, day labourers – could afford. Even before Gaius, the state had sometimes taken preemptive measures to avoid famine in the city. One revealing inscription found in Thessaly in northern Greece records the visit of a Roman official in 129 BCE. He had come, cap in hand, ‘because the situation in his country at the present time is one of dearth’, and he went away with the promise of more than 3,000 tonnes of wheat and some very complicated transportation arrangements in place. Charitable
aims, however, were not the only thing in Gaius’ mind, nor even the hard-headed logic, sometimes in evidence at Rome, that a hungry populace was a dangerous one. His plan also had an underlying political agenda about the sharing of the state’s resources. That certainly is the point of a reported exchange between Gaius and one of his most implacable opponents, the wealthy ex-consul Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi (his last name, appropriately enough, means ‘stingy’). After the law had been passed, Gaius spotted Frugi standing in line for his allocation of grain and asked him why he was there, since he so disapproved of the measure. ‘I’m not keen, Gracchus,’ he replied, ‘on you getting the idea of sharing out my property man by man, but if that’s what you’re going to do, I’ll take my cut.’ He was presumably turning Gaius’ rhetoric back on him. The debate was about who had a claim on the property of the state and where the boundary lay between private and public wealth.
The distribution of cheap grain was Gaius’ most influential reform. Though it was amended and occasionally suspended over the decades that followed, its basic principle lasted for centuries: Rome was the only place in the ancient Mediterranean where the state took responsibility for the regular basic food supplies of its citizens. The Greek world, by contrast, had usually relied on occasional handouts in times of shortage, or sporadic displays of generosity on the part of the rich. But food distributions were only one of Gaius’ many innovations.
Unlike all earlier Roman reformers, Gaius sponsored not just a single initiative but a dozen or so. He was the first politician in the city, leaving aside the mythical founding fathers, to have an extensive and coherent programme, with measures that covered such things as the right of appeal against the death penalty, the outlawing of bribery and a much more ambitious scheme of land distribution than Tiberius had ever proposed. This involved exporting surplus citizens en masse to ‘colonies’ not only in Italy but also, for the first time, overseas. Just a couple of decades after it had been razed and cursed, Carthage was earmarked as a new town to be resettled. But Roman memory was not so short, and this particular project was soon cancelled, even though some settlers had already emigrated there. It is impossible now to list all the legislation that Gaius proposed in just two years, still less to determine precisely what its terms and aims were. Apart from a substantial section of the text of a law governing the behaviour of Roman officials abroad and providing means of redress to those whom they abused (which we shall explore in the next chapter), the surviving evidence comes largely in the form of passing asides or much later reconstructions. But it is the range that is the key. To Gaius’ opponents, that smacked dangerously of a bid for personal power. The programme overall certainly seems to have added up to a systematic attempt to reconfigure the relationship between the people and the senate.
That is how his Greek biographer, ‘Plutarch’ (in full, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus), understood it more than two hundred years later when he singled out what must have been a flamboyant gesture by Gaius as he addressed his audiences in the Forum. Speakers before him had faced the senate house, with the audience squashed together in the small area known as the comitium just in front of it. Gaius flouted convention by strategically turning his back on the senate house when talking to the people, who now listened in the open piazza of the Forum. It was, Plutarch concedes, just a ‘slight deviation’ in practice, but it made a revolutionary point. Not only did it allow the participation of a much larger crowd; it signalled the freedom of the people from the controlling eye of the senate. Ancient writers, in fact, credit Gaius with a particularly sharp sense of the politics of place.