Tiberius Gracchus became Tribune of the Plebs in 133 BCE. As a Tribune, he had the power to convene the Assembly of Plebs and veto the actions of magistrates that threatened the livelihood of the plebeian class.
So as a Tribune, it was Tiberius’ job to promote the well-being of the people of Rome. As such, Tiberius traveled throughout Italy and found a lot of rich people had taken over much of the land in Italy. A law had been passed that no one individual could own more than 500 jugera (about 300 acres) of the ager publicus (or public land). This law was largely disregarded, putting a disproportionate amount of Italy in the hands of the rich. In addition to the land disparity, rich people started working the land with increasing numbers of slaves, rather than pay for the labor of poor Romans, which further increased the divide between the rich and poor. Tiberius saw the need for reform. He wanted to redistribute the ager publicus by taking away land from the rich which was in excess of 500 jugera and wrote a legislative bill called Lex Sempronia Agraria. In effect, he was simply enforcing laws that had already been on the books. Obviously, land redistribution would be an unpopular measure for the rich and Tiberius knew it. There was no way he could propose his land bill to the Senate since it was not in their interest – many of the Senators were the ones owning too much land.
In order to pass his Lex Sempronia Agraria, Tiberius did something revolutionary. He decided to exercise the true potential of his office, the Tribune of the Plebs. Since he was able to call the Assembly of the Plebs to convene, and since a vote of the Assembly of the Plebs became a binding law on all citizens, Tiberius bypassed the Senate and took the vote straight to the people. He did not want to consult the rich members of the Senate to ratify his land bill. The Assembly of the Plebs, however, would have a clear interest in endorsing this legislation. This, seemingly innocent act, sparked a revolution. Although what Tiberius did was not technically illegal, it went against the mos maiorum, the way of the ancestors. This was not the way Roman politics worked, and it was not the way Romans passed legislation. The Senate was furious, as it directly challenged not only their authority, but their relevance. Although the land bill was passed, that particular piece of legislation had very little to do with the revolution Tiberius had just set in motion. Rather, it was the method with which Tiberius passed legislation that would become significant. No longer does a bill have to be put to the Senate, the Assemblies and the Tribunes were shown to have enormous power. This directly challenged the Senate. As we will see, this does not end well for Tiberius, but Roman politicians realized the power of the Assembly of the Plebs and within a generation of Tiberius’ career, it became a standard method of politics in Rome.
If the office of the Tribune had so much power, why was it not utilized and manipulated more often?
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