Reform in the Roman Republic: The Gracchi, Marius & Sulla

This lesson covers the reforms of the Late Republic. We look at the effects of slavery on the Republic. We examine the factors that led to social unrest. Finally, we take a look at the efforts of various great men to save the Republic from itself.

Crisis in the Late Republic

By the 2nd Century BCE, the city of Rome reigned supreme in the Western Mediterranean. Through centuries of endless warfare, the Romans had conquered a wide variety of peoples, including Etruscans, Samnites, Greeks, Sicilians, Iberians, and Carthaginians. Though some of these conquered peoples were fortunate enough to be made Roman citizens, a vast number of them were taken as slaves.

By 146 BCE, slaves may have made up as much of a third of Italy’s urban population. This massive slave population had grave implications for the Republic. In the century to follow, Rome wrestled with social unrest, assassination, dictatorship, and, of course, slave revolt.

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Slave Revolts

In 134 BCE, over 70,000 slaves rebelled in Sicily. They decimated an entire Roman army before finally being quelled, only to revolt again in 104 BCE.

But, the most terrifying slave revolt occurred in 73 BCE, when a gladiator named Spartacus led a band of fugitive slaves on a rampage across southern Italy. Unlike previous slave revolts, this one had a core of trained fighters in Spartacus and his fellow gladiators. As Spartacus defeated legion after legion, more and more slaves flocked to his army, swelling its ranks to nearly 70,000.

It took Rome nearly three years to defeat Spartacus. When his army was finally routed in 71 BCE, Romans wanted to make sure no slave ever got the thought of rebellion into their head again. 6,000 slaves were crucified along the Appian Way, from Rome to Capua, to serve as a grisly reminder of the price of rebellion.

Clashing Classes

Terrifying as the Romans found these slave revolts, they were only the most obvious symptom of the slave problem. Slaves were not the only people dissatisfied with their lot in the Roman Republic.

The city of Rome was divided into four classes, of which slaves were at the bottom. At the top were the Senators, 300 ancient and wealthy aristocratic families who ran the Senate. Beneath these were the Equites, a slightly larger class comprised of the lesser nobility and wealthy commoners. Beneath this class were the Plebs, or common citizens of Rome. Though this class comprised the vast majority of the Roman population, they controlled only a small fraction of its land and wealth. The plebs still ranked better than slaves, in that they were free. However, this freedom meant very little to the thousands of poor plebs inhabiting Rome, to whom freedom meant choosing whether to starve in the city or to starve in the country.

Rome was divided into four social classes.
Four Classes in Rome

The Land Monopoly

How did things get so bad for the common plebs of Rome? Well, for the last couple centuries, while the plebs had been out conquering new territories in the Roman army, the upper classes had been buying up all the good land in Italy, using slaves from newly conquered lands to farm huge plantations. This left many plebs with no land to support themselves in the country, so many of them moved to the city. Yet, the story was the same in Rome. The Senators and Equites took control of the city’s many trades, and staffed them with slaves. By the mid 2nd century BCE, the vast majority of Italy’s farms, mines, mills and manufacturing ran on slave labor. This left most plebs with no land, no job and few prospects.

The Gracchi

In 133 BCE, a pair of brothers, Tiberius and Gaius of the House of Gracchus, tried to remedy this situation. These brothers, or the Gracchi as they’re called, were of the plebeian nobility, meaning that their family was plebeian, but they had been raised to the aristocracy.

Despite their noble upbringing, the Gracchi tried to find ways to help the plebs. Perhaps they did this out of sympathy for the plebs, being just a few generations from being plebs themselves. Or, maybe the Gracchi simply had the foresight to see what so many Roman aristocrats refused to see: unless Rome found a way to give the plebs a greater stake in the Republic, they were going to have a revolution on their hands.

Tiberius Gracchus

The first of the Gracchi to take a stab at the situation was Tiberius Gracchus, who was elected tribune in 133 BCE. Tiberius came up with a controversial solution to Rome’s land crisis. He proposed that each Roman citizen could own no more than 300 acres, with another 150 acres for every child. The remaining land would be divided into small plots and given to poor plebs and veterans. With this new law, Tiberius hoped to break up the huge plantations of the upper class, and give the plebs a way to support themselves again.

Tiberius Gracchus was the first leader to attempt to grant power to the plebs.
Tiberius Gracchus

The senatorial class was outraged by this new legislation, which threatened their fortunes. They had Tiberius and his followers killed. Yet, despite this murder, or perhaps even because of it, Tiberius’ legislation was still enacted.

Gaius Gracchus

Undaunted by his brother’s murder, Gaius Gracchus, ran for tribune a decade later in 123 BCE, and again in 122 BCE. As tribune, Gaius enacted more laws for the benefit of the poor and the oppressed. He tried to stabilize grain prices in Rome by building public granaries along the Tiber and establishing a grain subsidy for poor plebs. He also tried to minimize the exploitation of people in the provinces by establishing controls on provincial governors.

Again, the senatorial class struck back. The Senate declared Gaius Gracchus an outlaw. Gaius and 3,000 of his followers were murdered in a political purge.

A Broken Political System

The plebs took this as evidence that the Roman system of law had broken down. The plebs had their own legislative assembly, which was supposedly just as powerful as the Senate. They also had plebeian government positions, like the tribune. They had attempted reform through these normal, legal channels, and what had happened? Their leaders got murdered. Though the Republic had matured to allow plebs more power, the aristocracy refused to play by the rules. The plebs needed to find a leader that could stand up to the aristocrats of Rome without getting murdered.

Gaius Marius

They thought they’d found such a leader in the ambitious general Gaius Marius, who had won great fame campaigning in Africa. In 107 BCE, Marius was elected consul by the plebs. Because Marius had an army at his back, the Senate could not just dispose of him as they had the Gracchi.

Unfortunately for the plebs, Marius was no great leader. Though he did remove the property restrictions for military service, allowing Rome’s poorest a new way out of poverty, Marius’ main achievement during his seven years in office was demonstrating that a man could defy Roman law and hold a position indefinitely, so long as he had an army at his back.

Sulla

This lesson was not lost on the senatorial class, who decided to try out this tactic themselves. In 82 BCE, the Senate named general Lucius Cornelius Sulla absolute dictator of Rome, a position he would hold for three years.

In that time, Sulla did whatever he could to break the power of the plebs and increase the power of the Senate. He greatly decreased the authority of the tribune, traditionally the defender of the plebs. He also gave the Senate veto power over the pleb assembly, leaving the plebs’ only legislative body powerless against the aristocratic Senate. Having done all the damage he could, Sulla gave up the dictatorship and retired to a country estate.

Sulla increased the power of the Senate and angered the plebs in the process.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla

A Boiling Pot of Revolution

If the Senators thought that Sulla’s dictatorship would solve their problems, they were sorely mistaken. By destroying the tribune and the assembly, they had blocked the plebs’ only avenues to legitimate political expression. With no way to address their concerns, the grievances of plebs went unresolved. With no outlet for these problems, the plebs grew increasingly frustrated. It’s as if the Senators were annoyed by a whistling teapot, and instead of taking the teapot off of the fire, they just shoved a cork in the whistling vent. The pressure of hundreds of thousands of angry plebs continued to build and build, begging for release. When this monumental pressure at last burst free, it released a wave of destruction that would consume much of the Senate and shatter the Republic forever.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Describe the population of the slaves and plebs and their positions in the Roman Republic
  • Explain the outcome of the lower class’s early attempts to gain more power, from slave revolts led by Spartacus to the Gracchi’s attempts at legislative changes for plebs
  • Identify the negative impact that Gaius Marius and had on the plebs’ political desires
  • Summarize what eventually led to the major political change in the Republic
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