The Roman Reformers (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.6)

While events went well for Rome in its wars with its neighbors and its power continued to spread, things were not going well in the capital. There, the patricians and the plebeians continued to struggle with each other over power and wealth. These struggles between the social classes of Rome made it possible for certain charismatic politicians to gain large groups of follows. These politicians promised to make life in Rome better for the plebeians, slaves, and other poor people by reforming the government and the economy. Three of the most important of these politicians were the two Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, and, later, the Roman general Gaius Marius.

One of the primary concerns of the plebeians was the growing wealth of those patricians who owned the land around Rome. Over time a plantation system had developed in Italy. In this system, a few wealthy patricians owned all of the land while slaves did all of the actual labor of farming. In this way, the rich landowners continued to get richer while it was increasingly difficult for small farmers to make money.

In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus attempted to reform the land ownership policies in the Roman Republic. Rather than having a few large plantations worked by slaves, Tiberius thought it was better to have many small farms whose owners worked to raise their own food. He began to give away government land to people who wanted to set up these small farms.

The Senate and other Roman leaders wanted to stop Tiberius’s plan to redistribute Roman land to the plebeian farmers. Eventually, the arguments between Gracchus and the other politicians turned violent. When Gracchus decided to try to continue in his position in government even after his term was up, a group of patricians finally assassinated him.

After the death of Tiberius Gracchus, his brother Gaius Gracchus attempted to continue his brother’s policies. Gaius Gracchus passed laws which allowed poor plebeians to be given land in the areas conquered by the Romans. He also used government money to buy food for poor people. Eventually, Gaius Gracchus also was assassinated by a group of patricians angry at him for helping the plebeians.

The next of the reformers was Gaius Marius. Like the Gracchi brothers, Marius promised the plebeians that he would reform Roman law to make them more equal to the patricians. Unlike the Gracchi, however, Marius was not a politician but a military leader. As a general in the Roman military, Marius used his position to change the requirements for those men who wanted to join the army. Previously, only Roman men who owned land could become Roman soldiers. Marius changed the law to say that a man did not have to own land to join the army. Because the army was a career that paid well and allowed a man to improve his position in society, many poor people began to join the army.

Another Roman military leader, Sulla, opposed Marius’s reforms. Sulla took the side of the Senate and the patricians. After Marius’s death from a lung disease, Sulla and other patricians took power on the Italian peninsula. Many of Marius’s supporters and others who desired reform were put to death. This was not the last time that Rome would fall under the influence of a politician with a charming personality and an attractive message, however.

 

Review Questions

 1. What were the names of the two Gracchi brothers?

2. Describe the reforms of the Gracchi brothers in a paragraph.

3. How did Gaius Marius reform the military? Answer in a sentence.

 

 Vocabulary Words

 Assassination – murder of an important political figure

Reform – make changes in something in order to improve it

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