The Roman Republic officially ended when Augustus Caesar made himself emperor of Rome in 27 BC; but this was only possible due to over a century of political norm breaking and the refusal of the ruling elites to allow for reforms. For over 300 years prior to this turmoil, the Republic operated in a fairly stable system where – for the most part – political norms were followed and changes were made when problems arose. This would all change when, in 133 BC, the Republic experienced it’s first political murder.
Tiberius Gracchus was an elected official who swept into office on a populist agenda to redistribute land to the poor. When his land reforms were halted by the Senate in the form of a Tribune veto and refusal of funds, he went over their heads, physically removing a Tribune and taking the bill directly to the people. This action was not illegal, but a flagrant break with longstanding norms and traditions. While seeking a second term as Tribune of the Plebs, a fight broke out where senators murdered Tiberius and nearly 300 of his followers.
The unwillingness of the Senate to address necessary reforms opened the door for a populist to sweep into office; the breaking of norms by Tiberius Gracchus heightened the divisions and justifications for violence; and the political murders meant the Republic’s expiration date was fast approaching:
“Here perhaps we see what was seen as being at stake in these events: the land bill itself was controversial, but not so detested as to lead to its abolition after Gracchus’ death. The methods employed by Gracchus, however, were detested; the identity of Gracchus’ supporters is probably less important than what the tribune himself did. He rode roughshod through political convention in a thoroughly populist and demagogic way, just the kind of behavior that, as Aemilianus seemed to suggest, was “reminiscent of kings and tyrants.” The clue to understanding this episode, therefore, lies in Aemilianus’ observation: here is an engaging and significant example of a man who was thought of, in his own time and later, as humane, sophisticated and forward-looking, but who, under extreme political pressure, showed himself to be as thorough a traditionalist as anyone of his class.
After all, the continued success of the aristocratic oligarchy was seen as depending upon a continued observance of Rome’s long-established traditions. The problem now, however, was that once blood had been shed in pursuance of a political feud, the clock could not be turned back. It was inevitable that, in the post-Gracchan era, it would be easier as a result to settle political issues by resorting to violence: that was the legacy both of Tiberius Gracchus and of the contemporaries who supported and opposed him.”
The Fall of the Roman Republic (p34)
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