2. Beginnings of Rome
3. Institutions of Early Rome
4. Etruscan Kings of Rome
5. Reorganization of Kingdom

6. Struggle against Kingship
7. Struggle for Economic Rights
8. Struggle for Equal Laws
9. Struggle for Political Equality
10. Conquest of Latium
11. Conquest of Central Italy
12. Conquest of Southern Italy
13. Supremacy of Rome in Italy
14. First Punic War
15. Second Punic War
16. Conquests in East
17. Reduction of Roman Conquests
18. Rome as a World Power
19. Times of Gracchi
20. Times of Marius and Sulla
21. Times of Pompey and Caesar
22. Times of Antony and Octavius

23. Reign of Augustus
24. Julian Emperors
25. Flavian Emperors
26. Five Good Emperors
27. Decline of Empire
28. Reorganization of Empire
29. Extinction of Western Empire
Outlines of Roman History
by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L.
New York, Cincinnati, Chicago: American Book Company (1901).



Table of contents




The Causes of Civil Strife, I.The Reforms of Tiberius Gracchus, II.The Reforms of Gaius Gracchus, III.


   Character of the New Period.—If the period which we have just considered is the most heroic in Roman history, that which we are about to consider is one of the saddest, and yet one of the most interesting. It is one of the saddest, because it was a time when the Roman state was torn asunder by civil strifes, and the arms of the conquerors were turned against themselves. It is one of the most interesting, because it shows to us some of the greatest men that Rome ever produced, men whose names are a part of the world’s history. Our attention will now be directed not so much to foreign wars as to political questions, to the struggle of parties, and the rivalry of party leaders. And as a result of it all, we shall see the republic gradually passing away, and giving place to the empire.

   Divisions of the Roman People.—If we would understand this period of conflict, we should at the outset get a clear idea of the various classes of people in the Roman world. Let us briefly review these different grades of society.

   First, there was the senatorial order,—men who kept control of the higher offices, who furnished the members of the senate, and who really ruled the state. Next was the equestrian order,—men who were called equites, or knights, on account of their great wealth, who formed the moneyed class, the capitalists of Rome, and who made their fortunes by all sorts of speculation, especially by gathering the taxes in the provinces. These two orders formed the aristocratic classes.

   Below these was the great mass of the city population—the poor artisans and paupers, who formed a rabble and the materials of a mob, and who lived upon public charity and the bribes of office-seekers, and were amused by public shows given by the state or by rich citizens. Then came the poor country farmers living upon the Roman domain—the peasants, many of whom had been deprived of their lands by rich creditors or by the avaricious policy of the government. These two classes formed the mass of the poorer citizens of Rome.

   Outside of the Roman domain proper (ager Romanus) were the Latin colonists, who were settled upon conquered lands in Italy, who had practically no political rights, and who were very much in the same social condition as the Roman peasants. Besides these were the Italian allies, who had been subdued by Rome in early times, and had been given none of the rights of citizenship. These two classes formed the subject population of Italy.

   Now if we go outside of Italy we find the great body of provincials, some of them favored by being left free from taxation, but the mass of them subject to the Roman tribute; and all of them excluded from the rights and privileges of citizens.

   Finally, if we go to the very bottom of the Roman population, we find the slaves, having none of the rights of citizens or of men. A part of them, the house slaves, were treated with some consideration; but the field slaves were treated wretchedly, chained in gangs by day and confined in dungeons by night.

   Thus we have an aristocratic class, made up of the senators and equites; a poor citizen class, made up of the city rabble and the country farmers about Rome; and then a disfranchised class, made up of the Latins, the Italians, and the provincials, besides the slaves.

   Defects of the Roman Government.—When we look over these various classes of the Roman people, we must conclude that there were some radical defects in the Roman system of government. The great mass of the population were excluded from all political rights. The Latins, the Italians, the provincials, and the slaves, as we have seen, had no share in the government. This seems quite contrary to the early policy of Rome. We remember that before she began her great conquests, Rome had started out with the policy of incorporation. She had taken in the Sabines on the Quirinal hill, the Luceres on the Caelian, the plebeians of the city, and the rural tribes about Rome. But after that time she had abandoned this policy, and no longer brought her conquered subjects within the state. This was the first defect of the Roman system.

   But even those people who were given the rights of citizens were not able to exercise these rights in an efficient way. Wherever a Roman citizen might be, he must go to Rome to vote or to take part in the making of the laws. But when the citizens of Rome met together in the Forum, or on the Campus Martius, they made a large and unwieldy body, which could not do any important political business. Rome never learned that a democratic government in a large state is impossible without representation; that is, the election by the people of a few leading men to protect their interests, and to make the laws for them. The giving up of the policy of incorporation and the absence of the principle of representation were the two great defects in the Roman political system.

   The Decay of Patriotism.—We may not blame the Romans for not discovering the value of representation, since this system may be regarded as a modern invention. But we must blame those who were the rulers of the state for their selfishness and their lack of true patriotism. There were, no doubt, some patriotic citizens at Rome who were devoted to the public welfare; but the majority of the men who governed the state were men devoted to their own interests more than to the interests of the country at large. The aristocratic classes sought to enrich themselves by the spoils of war and the spoils of office; while the rights and the welfare of the common citizens, the Italians, and the provincials were too often forgotten or ignored.

   The Growth of Large Estates.—One of the causes which led to the civil strife was the distress and misery of the people in different parts of Italy, resulting from the growth of large landed estates. Years before, the people had possessed their little farms, and were able to make a respectable living from them. Laws had been passed—especially the Licinian laws (see
p. 70)—to keep the public lands distributed in such a way as to benefit the poorer people. But it was more than two hundred years since the Licinian laws were passed; and they were now a dead letter. Many of the small farms had become absorbed into large estates held by rich landlords; and the class of small farmers had well-nigh disappeared. This change benefited one class of the people at the expense of the other. The Roman writer Pliny afterward saw the disastrous effects of this system, and said that it was the large estates which destroyed Italy.

   The Evils of Slave Labor.—But this was not all. If the poor farmers, who had been deprived of their own fields, could have received good wages by working upon the estates of the rich landlords, they might still have had some means of living. But they were even deprived of this; because the estates were everywhere worked by slaves. So that slavery, as well as large estates, was a cause which helped to bring Italy to the brink of ruin.


   Character of Tiberius Gracchus.—The first serious attempt to remedy the existing evils was made by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. He was the elder of two brothers who sacrificed their lives in efforts to benefit their fellow-citizens. Their mother was the noble-minded Cornelia, the daughter of the great Scipio Africanus, the type of the perfect mother, who regarded her boys as “jewels” more precious than gold, and who taught them to love truth, justice, and their country. Tiberius when a young man had served in the Spanish army under Scipio Aemilianus, the distinguished Roman who conquered Carthage and Numantia. It is said that when Tiberius Gracchus passed through Etruria, on his way to and from Spain, he was shocked to see the fertile fields cultivated by gangs of slaves, while thousands of free citizens were living in idleness and poverty. He was a man of refined nature and a deep sense of justice, and he determined to do what he could to remedy these evils.

   His Agrarian Laws.—Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune and began his work of reform (B.C. 133). He believed that the wretched condition of the Roman people was due chiefly to the unequal division of the public land, and especially to the failure to enforce the Licinian laws. He therefore proposed to revive these laws; to limit the holding of public land to five hundred iugera (about three hundred acres) for each person; to pay the present holders for any improvements they had made; and then to rent the land thus taken up to the poorer class of citizens. This seemed fair enough; for the state was the real owner of the public land, and could do what it wished with its own. But the rich landlords; who had held possession of this land for so many years, looked upon the measure as the same thing as taking away their own property. When it was now proposed to redistribute this land, there immediately arose a fierce conflict between the old senatorial party and the followers of Tiberius.

   His Illegal Action.—Tiberius determined to pass his law in spite of the senate. The senate, on the other hand, was equally determined that the law should not be passed. Accordingly, the senators induced one of the tribunes, whose name was M. Octavius, to put his “veto” upon the passage of the law. This act of Octavius was entirely legal, for he did what the law gave him the right to do. Tiberius, on the other hand, in order to outdo his opponent, had recourse to a highhanded measure. Instead of waiting a year for the election of new tribunes who might be devoted to the people’s cause, he called upon the people to deprive Octavius of his office. This was an illegal act, because there was no law which authorized such a proceeding. But the people did as Tiberius desired, and Octavius was deposed. The law of Tiberius was then passed in the assembly of the tribes, and three commissioners were chosen to carry it into effect.

   This of course roused the indignation of the senators, who determined to prosecute Tiberius when his term of office had expired. Tiberius knew that as long as he held the office of tribune his person would be sacred, and he could not be tried for his action; hence he announced himself as a candidate for re-election. This, too, was illegal, for the law forbade a reelection until after an interval of ten years.

   Fall of Tiberius Gracchus.—The law of Tiberius and the method which he had used to pass it, increased the bitterness between the aristocratic party and the popular party who came to be known, respectively, as the optimates and the populares. The senators denounced Tiberius as a traitor; the people extolled him as a patriot. The day appointed for the election came. Two tribes had already voted for the re-election of Tiberius, when a band of senators appeared in the Forum, headed by Scipio Nasica, armed with sticks and clubs; and in the riot which ensued Tiberius Gracchus and three hundred of his followers were slain. This was the first blood shed in the civil wars of Rome. The killing of a tribune by the senators was as much an illegal act as was the deposition of Octavius. Both parties had disregarded the law, and the revolution was begun.


   The Rise of Gaius Gracchus.—After the death of Tiberius his law was for a time carried into execution. The commissioners proceeded with their work of re-dividing the land. But the people were for a time without a real leader. The cause of reform was then taken up by Gaius Gracchus, the brother of Tiberius, and the conflict was renewed. Gaius was in many respects an abler man than Tiberius. No more sincere and patriotic, he was yet a broader statesman and took a wider view of the situation. He did not confine his attention simply to relieving the poor citizens. He believed that to rescue Rome from her troubles, it was necessary to weaken the power of the senate, whose selfish and avaricious policy had brought on these troubles. He also believed that the Latins and the Italians should be protected, as well as the poor Roman citizens.

   His Efforts to Benefit the People.—When Gaius Gracchus obtained the position of tribune (B.C. 123) his influence for a time was all-powerful. He was eloquent and persuasive, and practically had the control of the government. From his various laws we may select those which were the most important, and which best show his general policy. First of all, he tried to help the people by a law which was really the most mischievous of all his measures. This was his famous “corn law.” It was intended to benefit the poor population in the city, which was at that time troublesome and not easy to control. The law provided that any Roman citizen could receive grain from the public storehouses for a certain price less than its cost. But the number of the poor in the city was not decreased; the paupers now flocked to Rome from all parts of Italy to be fed at the public crib. This corn law became a permanent institution of Rome. We may judge of its evil effect when it is said that not many years afterward there were three hundred and twenty thousand citizens who were dependent upon the government for their food. Gaius may not have known what evil effect this law was destined to produce. At any rate, it insured his popularity with the lower classes. He then renewed the agrarian laws of his brother; and also provided for sending out colonies of poor citizens into different parts of Italy, and even into the provinces.

   His Efforts to Weaken the Senate.—But Gaius believed that such measures as these would afford only temporary relief, as long as the senate retained its great power. It was, of course, impossible to overthrow the senate. But it was possible to take from it some of the powers which it possessed. From the senators had hitherto been selected the jurors (iudices) before whom were tried cases of extortion and other crimes. By a law Gaius took away from the senate this right to furnish jurors in criminal cases, and gave it to the equites, that is, the wealthy class outside of the senate. This gave to the equites a more important political position, and drew them over to the support of Gaius, and thus tended to split the aristocratic classes in two. The senate was thus deprived not only of its right to furnish jurors, but also of the support of the wealthy men who had previously been friendly to it. This was a great triumph for the popular party; and Gaius looked forward to another victory.

   His Effort to Enfranchise the Italians.—When he was reelected to the tribunate Gaius Gracchus came forward with his grand scheme of extending the Roman franchise to the people of Italy. This was the wisest of all his measures, but the one which cost him his popularity and influence. It aroused the jealousy of the poorer citizens, who did not wish to share their rights with foreigners. The senators took advantage of the unpopularity of Gaius, and now posed as the friends of the people. They induced one of the tribunes, by the name of Drusus, to play the part of the demagogue. Drusus proposed to found twelve new colonies at once, each with three thousand Roman citizens, and thus to put all the reforms of Gaius Gracchus into the shade. The people were deceived by this stratagem, and the attempt of Gaius to enfranchise the Italians was defeated.

   His Failure and Death.—Gaius did not succeed, as he desired, in being elected tribune for the third time. A great part of the people soon abandoned him, and the ascendency of the senate was again restored. It was not long before a new law was passed which prevented any further distribution of the public land (lex Thoria). Gaius failed to bring about the reforms which he attempted; but he may be regarded as having accomplished three things which remained after his death: (1) the elevation of the equestrian order; (2) the establishment of the Roman poor law, or the system of grain largesses; and (3) the extension of the colonial system to the provinces. He lost his life in a tumult in which three thousand citizens were slain (B.C. 121).

   Thus in a similar way the two Gracchi, who had attempted to rescue the Roman people from the evils of a corrupt government, perished. Their efforts at agrarian reform did not produce any lasting effect; but they pointed out the dangers of the state, and drew the issues upon which their successors continued the conflict. Their career forms the first phase in the great civil conflict at Rome.


Pelham, Bk. IV., Ch. l, “From the Gracchi to Sulla” (
Beesly, Ch. 1, “Antecedents of the Revolution” (6).
Merivale, Gen. Hist., Ch. 28, “Tiberius Gracchus” (1).
Taylor, Ch. 9, “The Reformers” (1).
Ihne, Hist., Bk. VII., Ch. 1, “Political and Economical Condition” (2).
Mommsen, Vol. II., Bk. III., Ch. 12, “Management of Land” (2).
Mommsen, abridged, Ch. 20, “Reforms of the Gracchi” (2).
Ramsay and Lanciani, Ch. 7, “Public Lands and Agrarian Laws” (8).
Harper’s Dict. Antiqq., “Agrariae Leges” (8).
Plutarch, “Tiberius Gracchus,” “Caius Gracchus” (11).


   THE ROMAN EQUITES.—Liddell, p. 504 (1); How and Leigh, p. 315 (1); Shuckburgh, p. 560 (1); Ramsay and Lanciani, p. 98 (8); Gow, see index “Equites” (8); Mommsen, Vol. II., pp. 377-380 (2); Harper’s Dict. Antiqq., “Equites” (8).

1 The figure in parenthesis refers to the number of the topic in the
Appendix, where a fuller title of the book will be found.


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