Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus have long held the reputation of proto-Communists. However, it is time we re-examine this label and determine for ourselves the inadequacy of this nomenclature, and the false impression that it gives to men whose reputation has been sullied by false accusations of Revolution.
Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus are known as the first leaders of the Populares faction in the late Roman Republic, and initiated a conflict that would last throughout most of the Republic’s final century. While the nature of the conflict between Popularis and Optimate would largely be formed by personality, notably the personal animosity between Marius and Sulla, it cannot be denied that at its inception the disagreements were ideologically based. From Tiberius’s election to the Tribune of the Plebs in 133 BC to the murder of Gaius in 121 BC, the Republic is seen as being mired in a form of pseudo-class warfare, with the brothers rallying the great mass of people against what they saw as an entrenched, privileged elite, protected and enabled by a corrupt Republic.
This understanding of the Gracchi, and reputation as being proto-socialists, as men of the Left, was bequeathed by the revolutionaries who would claim to follow in their footsteps throughout the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. During the French Revolution, the prominent Jacobin, Francois-Noel Babeuf was inspired by their example, and adopted the pen name Gracchus Babeuf in their honor. Given their aristocratic heritage (their father was a consul and their maternal grandfather was Scipio Africanus), the example of the Gracchi brothers was one of several that led Karl Marx himself to write that “in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands” in his Communist Manifesto. Even in a casual discussion with Mary Beard in 2015, interviewer Joy Lo Dico asked if she considered the Gracchi to be “proto-socialists.” Dr. Beard responded that such a description is charitable. It can be argued that such a description is incorrect, and the truth around the Gracchi is more complicated than their reputation would suggest.
Rather, those in the various modern movements that drew their inspiration from the Gracchi might not find themselves in agreement on much beyond common rhetoric about helping the poor. The most notable example of this is, perhaps, the man who took his pen name from the brothers Gracchus: Gracchus Babeuf. Babeuf, who has been dubbed a Revolutionary Communist before such a term existed (avant-la-lettre as Lenin would later put it), wrote in his Manifesto of Equals that there was nothing “more sublime and more just” than the “common good or the community of property” as he hoped to end the concept of “individual property in land: the land belongs to no one.”
It is unlikely that the Gracchi would agree with these statements or sentiments, for the Gracchi explicitly defended the right of individuals to own property, including the wealthy. Tiberius Gracchus, for instance, while arguing in favour of land redistribution in 133 BC, made clear that he would not confiscate all the land held by the aristocrats, stating that they had the right to “free ownership of five hundred jugera secure forever, and in case [they] have sons, of two hundred and fifty more for each of them.” This defense of the right of aristocratic land ownership, albeit constrained by the rule of law, would not necessarily have been at home amongst the Jacobins moved by his inspiration.
Additionally, while Babeuf wanted to abolish land ownership for everyone, not just for the wealthy, the Gracchi were actually making the fight for land ownership, in this case by former soldiers. Babeuf declared, “since all have the same faculties and the same needs, let there then be for them but one education, but one nourishment. They are satisfied with one sun and one air for all: why then would the same portion and the same quality of food not suffice for each of them?” He held the belief that none should have the right to advance above a certain position. Tiberius Gracchus, however, lamented that former soldiers “have not a single clod of earth to call their own,” and wanted to ensure their right to land ownership so that none should drop below a certain station (“but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light . . . houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children”). That difference in approach, with Babeuf focused on hatred for those at the top, and Tiberius Gracchus focused on concern for those at the bottom, is not an insignificant difference. The former indicates a belief in the equality of outcome, and the latter a belief in the equality of opportunity.
The Revolutionaries who were so inspired by the Gracchi also miss a further key distinction between their two camps. The modern replica wanted to Revolt and Replace. The Gracchi wanted to Reform and Restore. In both France and Russia the legal code was ignored and replaced as unjust. In Russia, for instance, Lenin instructed the Revolutionary Tribunals to ignore the law and instead govern by, what he called, “a Revolutionary sense of justice.” The French went much further, establishing new legal bodies (the Committee of Public Safety being the most notorious), repurposing religious buildings for a new Cult of Reason, demanding new oaths of loyalty, and even changing the calendar.
The Gracchi would not have supported any such measures, for the Gracchi, in their minds, would have been adhering to the laws of the Republic as previously written. In 367 BC the Roman Republic passed the Licinian Reforms that restricted the land ownership of the wealthiest and guaranteed land ownership to former soldiers. This law had been ignored for decades and the Gracchi were explicitly working to ensure that an existing law was adhered to. The system, in their mind, worked, and it was the application of that system that had failed. To the modern Socialist, the system itself is the flaw. This distinction is significant; it shows that approach of the Gracchi to the system of government that held sway was more in line with an originalist, constitutionalist approach than anything else. They did not say that the Republic was corrupt, but rather they held up the Republic as the guarantor of land ownership for the poor, and that it was only their contemporaries who corrupted this by ignoring those established protections. These are not the beliefs of a revolutionary, but of a reformist.
This perhaps explains the difference in methods chosen by the Gracchi and their later supposed impersonators. Marat declared that the way “to deal with oppressors is by devouring their palpitating hearts” and Robespierre believed that “Terror is the only justice,” but the Gracchi had a different approach. We learn from Plutarch that “it is thought that a law dealing with injustice and rapacity so great was never drawn up in milder and gentler terms.” While the revolutionaries wanted retribution, the Gracchi wanted forgiveness and to “let bygones be bygones if they could be secure from such wrong in the future.” Plutarch’s descriptions of the reforms of the Gracchi would not have been recognizable in the Jacobin or Bolshevik camps, nor is it likely that the Gracchi would have wanted to be on the side of Revolution in such circumstances.
It would seem as though the modern perception of the Gracchi is not formed from an unadulterated examination of the historical evidence as presented to us by Plutarch and the Gracchi themselves. Rather, the French revolutionaries of early-modern Europe have held up a red-tinted lens through which they demand we view the Reforms of the Gracchi, and for so long has this lens been held before us that we no longer see it as a lens at all. Instead, our understanding of the Gracchi has been so thoroughly influenced by what we have been told the Gracchi believed, that we have seemed to forget to actually examine our subject for ourselves. The Gracchi have long held the reputation of proto-Communists before the words to describe such people existed. It is, however, perhaps time we re-examine this label, and determine for ourselves the inadequacy of this nomenclature, and the false impression that it gives to men whose reputation has been sullied by false accusations of Revolution.
This essay first appeared in the Autumn edition of The Salisbury Review.
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The featured image is a photograph of a sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Claude Eugène Guillaume (1822-1905) titled “The Gracchi,” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.