The Gracchi Brothers and Social Reforms
Updated: Jul 17
Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, by Joseph-Benoît Suvée (1795, Louvre), Public Domain image from the wikipedia. Cornelia was the daughter of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, hero of the second Punic war and victor over Hannibal. She was seen as the model of a virtuous Roman women.
The Gracchi brothers are key figures in the story of the Roman republic and the lines drawn between the populares and the optimates. Cicero would write ~75 years after their deaths:
"the death of Tiberius Gracchus, and the whole system of his tribuneship divided one people into two parties"
Both brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, were reformers whose actions, political careers and violent deaths challenged the balance of power between the senate and the Roman people, and added to the social unrest that erupted in the Social War. Tiberius Gracchus, the older brother, as tribune, pushed for moderate land reform and enforcement of existing limits on use of public land. He was blocked by the senate, whose members had much to lose from the legislation. Frustrated in his first efforts, he persisted more aggressively, and fanned the flames of increasingly violent social and political unrest. He was killed in 133 BC with hundreds of his followers by a mob led by Scipio Nascia, the pontifex maximus. In the aftermath, the senate allowed the land reforms to proceed.
Gaius Gracchus, like his brother, as tribune, was even more prolific in his reform agenda. His most influential reform was establishing distributions of subsidized grain for Roman citizens. When policy discussions turned violent in 121 BC, the Senate gave the consul, Lucius Opimius, emergency powers to defend the republic, and these powers were used to kill Gaius Gracchus and thousands of his followers.
The 120's BCE were a time when the Italians (non-Romans) and their relationship with Rome or "the Italian question" was dividing Roman politics. These lines would eventually erupt in the Social War with the attempt to extend citizenship to all Italians in 91 BC, a policy that Gaius Gracchus had advocated for unsuccessfully.
This coin was issued in the year that Gaius Gracchus was elected tribune.
Q. Fabius Labeo, c. 124 BC, AR Denarius, Rome mint
Obv: Roma helmeted head right, X below chin, LABEO before, ROMA behind
Rev: Jupiter in quadriga to right, holding scepter and reins in left had, and hurling thunderbolt with right hand, below a rostrum, Q.FABI in exergue
Ref: Crawford 273/1
"The style of this issue (273) as a whole and the rostrum in particular varies from presentable to horrible"
- Michael Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage (RRC)
I'm not sure where Crawford would put this coin, but it seems at least a bit better than "horrible" to me, despite the misshapen flan and dark surface encrustations.
Here's a closeup of the rostrum:
Under the legs of the horses on the reverse of this coin, the rostrum is at least recognizable. A rostrum was a naval battering ram on the bow of a Roman ship. Here is one from a Roman battleship from ~241 BC, used in the Battle of Egadi Islands between Rome and Carthage.
More on this one can be found here and an article on 7 others found W and NW of the coast of Sicily here. It would be attached to the bow of the ship and could be used to poke holds in the enemy ship.
Coins of the Roman republic often reference events from before they were minted – connected with the moneyer – and are also connected in time to interesting events from the years when they were minted. The rostrum on the coin of Q. Fabius Labeo celebrates the naval victories of the moneyer's grandfather (also named Q. Fabius Labeo) who was praetor in 189 BC and proconsul in 188 BC.
"Valerius Antias relates, that as many as four thousand captives were restored out of the whole island, because the Cretans feared his threats of war; and that this was deemed a sufficient reason for Fabius obtaining from the senate a naval triumph, although he performed no other exploit. From Crete, Fabius returned to Ephesus: having dispatched three ships from the latter place to the coast of Thrace, he ordered the garrisons of Antiochus to be withdrawn from Aenos and Maronea, that these cities might be left at liberty."
This coin was minted in 122 BC, by Q Miucius Rufus, Gaius Gracchus' second year in office. Gracchus championed more social reforms than his brother and his popularity and legislative agenda threatened the senate.
Q. Minucius Rufus, AR Denarius, Rome, 122 BC. Obv: Helmeted head of Roma to right; behind, RVF and below chin, X Rev: The Dioscuri galloping to right; below horses, Q·MINV and in exergue, ROMA Ref: Crawford 277/1
A crowd of Gaius' supporters killed Quintus Antyllius, in 121 BC - a story told with opposite sympathies by Plutarch (pro-Gracchus) and Appian (anti-Gracchus). This gave consul Lucius Opimius and the senate an excuse to take arms against Gaius Gracchus. In the end Gaius was either killed or committed suicide. Plutarch paints a grisly scene:
"Someone cut off the head of Caius, we are told, and was carrying it along, but was robbed of it by a certain friend of Opimius, Septimuleius; for proclamation had been made at the beginning of the battle that an equal weight of gold would be paid the men who brought the head of Caius or Fulvius. So Septimuleius stuck the head of Caius on a spear and brought it to Opimius, and when it was placed in a balance it weighed seventeen pounds and two thirds, since Septimuleius, besides showing himself to be a scoundrel, had also perpetrated a fraud; for he had taken out the brain and poured melted lead in its place."
-Plutarch, Life of Caius Gracchus, 1.17
After the death of Gaius Gracchus, Lucius Opimius was tried and acquitted of any wrongdoing in the death of C. Gracchus. His defense was made by Gaius Papirius Carbo, consul in 120 BC, and relative of the Gnaeus Papirius Carbo . Gnaeus, the moneyer, responsible for this coin in 121 BC. This Gnaeus would also become consul in 113:
Cn. Papirius Carbo, 121 BC, AR Denarius, (Rome mint
Obv: Helmeted head of Roma right, curl on left shoulder; X (mark of value) to left
Rev: Jupiter driving galloping quadriga right, hurling thunderbolt and holding scepter and reins
Ref: Crawford 279/1; Sydenham 415; Papiria 7
"When he [Lucius Opimius] had the nerve, or naivety, to celebrate his suppression of the Gracchans by lavishly restoring the temple of the goddess Concord (‘Harmony’) in the Forum, some realist with a chisel summed up the whole murderous debacle by carving across the façade the words ‘An act of senseless Discord produces a Temple of Concord’."
- Mary Beard, SPQR (here is the passage from Plutarch that she references)
Plutarch. Plutarch's Lives. with an English Translation by. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1921. 10.
Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. London: Profile Books, 2015.
Watts, Edward J. Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny. S.l.: BASIC BOOKS, 2020.
Crawford, Michael. The Roman Republic. New York: Harper Press, 2015.
Crawford, Michael H. Roman Republican Coinage. London: Cambridge University Press, 1974.
Titus Livius (Livy), The History of Rome, Book 37, William A. McDevitte, Sen. Class. Mod. Ex. Schol. A.B.T.C.D., Ed
Will Mather, A Roman Rostrum, Australian National Maritime Museum, 2017
Sebastiano Tusa and Jeffrey Royal, The landscape of the naval battle at the Egadi Islands (241 B.C.), Journal of Roman Archaeology, 25(1):7-48, January 2012
Cicero, Marcus T, Francis F. Barham, and Charles D. Yonge. The Treatises of M.t. Cicero: On the Nature of the Gods; on Divination; on Fate; on the Republic; on the Laws; and on Standing for the Consulship. Literally Translated Chiefly by the Editor, C.d. Yonge, B.a. London: G. Bell, 1878.