The Sacrificial Badge of Mercy

On a cold morning in Rome, a man came to deliver birds to the home of Tiberius Gracchus for use in a religious rite, but the birds refused to be shaken out of the cage. No matter how hard they tried, the birds clung to the side. The oddness of the event crawled under Tiberius Gracchus’ skin. Then as he left his home to go to the assembly he stumbled through the threshold of his doorway and his toenail was ripped off. He had crossed that threshold thousands of times: he knew it was a premonition that his feet would soon lose their way. Finally, as he limped along, he saw a jet black raven on the roof of a nearby building. As he passed, it knocked a stone from a building that landed right before his feet. These three omens haunted Tiberius Gracchus, and he knew the end was near.

When Tiberius Gracchus arrived at the assembly, the scene was tense. The factions gathered in opposing crowds each side eying the other to see who would make the first move. Immediately he saw a friend who, after great difficulty, waded through the crowd and approached Tiberius Gracchus telling him that his life was in danger; there was a plot to kill him that day. Tiberius Gracchus told those surrounding him, and they formed up in a circle drawing spears. Some of Tiberius Gracchus supporters stood farther away and couldn’t hear what was going on, so Tiberius Gracchus motioned toward his head to indicate that his life was in danger.

His enemies thought that this motion indicated he was asking for a crown. This news spread to the Senate and they rallied a violent mob that marched to the assembly and entered with clubs and weapons of all kinds. They entered and charged on Tiberius Gracchus and his followers.

Almost a century before Caesar would cross the Rubicon and lead a populist movement to topple Rome’s legendary Republic, there was another Roman—almost completely unknown today—who showed that the plutocracy which had infested the eternal city was not invincible. His name was Tiberius Gracchus. The story Plutarch tells of Tiberius Gracchus is the story of a shrewd leader who stood up to all the machinations of the rich and powerful to show mercy to the common man in Rome. It’s the story of a man who loved mercy enough to risk his own life.

The story of Tiberius Gracchus is from our book, Famous Men of Rome, a collection of stories gathered from the chronicles of history and myth. It’s a perfect addition to the collection of any students and teachers of classical history, from fourth to sixth grade.

As a young man, Tiberius Gracchus learned to love the common men of Rome serving in the military. He served with distinction for the famed general Scipio Africanus the Younger. Though Tiberius Gracchus was a gentle and soft-spoken man, he had a fearsome spirit. During the Third Punic War, he quickly gained notoriety among the Roman soldiers as the bravest among them. Undoubtedly his time facing death, sickness, and the barbarian horde of Carthage, forged a brotherhood with his fellow Romans.

Ironically, Tiberius Gracchus’ bravery and compassion for his fellow soldiers is best illustrated by a humiliating defeat the Romans suffered. After the war with Carthage, Tiberius Gracchus became the treasurer for an army fighting a campaign in Spain. Unfortunately for him, the general of this army was like a kind, silly old Roman uncle, beloved by everyone: respected by no one. This general made several tactical blunders that left the Roman army exposed to attack from all sides. Twenty thousand Romans lay vulnerable to defeat. Typically, the treasurer of a Roman army wouldn’t lead the diplomatic efforts with a foreign army, but Tiberius Gracchus was no typical Roman. He met with the enemy dignitaries and secured a truce, allowing all twenty-thousand soldiers to escape back to Rome.

When Tiberius Gracchus returned from the war, Rome had changed. Tiberius Gracchus thought that he would come home lauded as a hero. But his return was anything but triumphant.

On his arrival back at home, Tiberius Gracchus was met by ire of the rich in Rome. Rather than thank him for his noble effort to save the lives of literally thousands of soldiers, they were embarrassed that Rome had suffered defeat. They acted as though the lives of these men were worth far less than their reputation as Roman nobility. Their mercilessness for the poor did not sit well with Tiberius Gracchus.

Unfortunately, the wealthy held considerable influence in Rome, and for years they had been using their influence to drive the city toward economic crisis. Typical Roman policy was to divide conquered land among its people. Half of the land was sold, and half would be held as public land. The public half of the land, the government would rent to poor people in Rome providing them the opportunity to develop the land and create their own wealth.

The wealthy, however, had one big problem with this arrangement; if the land was public, then it wasn’t theirs! So, they started offering the government more rent than the poor people could pay. The Roman government took the money, and the wealthy drove out the poor. Of course, the poor were outraged and protested this unfair treatment. In response, a law was passed stating that no person could possess more than 300 acres of land.

But, that only stopped the wealthy for a moment. When the law was passed, the government applied pressure to the rich to transfer any land, over 300 acres, back to poor renters. Instead, the wealthy landowners created fake identities and transferred the property to fictitious owners, keeping it for themselves. Over time, it was apparent that only a few wealthy landowners controlled Rome’s destiny. The noble class had created a new status quo, that Roman politicians were far less likely to challenge.

Tiberius Gracchus, however, could not live with these injustices. But an entire political machine stood in his way. Rome had two political institutions that Tiberius Gracchus would have to overcome. There was the Senate: a group of lawmaking advisors (who were also deeply influenced by the wealthy), and there were the tribunes: 10 appointed representatives who advocated for the people. Both the senate and tribunes could pass laws, but only tribunes held the power of veto (to say literally “I forbid it”) to keep the Senate in check. Also, if one tribune opposed the law of another tribune, then the other nine could not move forward with the law until it held unanimous support.

Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune, and he hoped to use the office to show mercy to the poor. He stood before the people of Rome and said: “not one of all these many Romans [has] an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.”

His first action was to draw up a shrewd law that would force the wealthy to sell their illegally acquired land back to the poor. Though it didn’t seem fair that the wealthy would be compensated for the land they had stolen, Tiberius Gracchus hoped this would force their hands. But the wealthy had grown far too comfortable to give up the land without a fight.

In the night, they quietly went to one of Tiberius Gracchus’ closest friends, another tribune named Octavius. They whispered promises of wealth and turned him against Tiberius Gracchus. When Tiberius Gracchus realized that he was betrayed and that Octavius would veto his law, he rescinded it and drew up a harsher one. The new law stated that the rich would give up all of the land that they acquired and there would be no compensation. He hoped that the harsher law would create even more pressure on Octavius to rescind his veto.

A fierce debate ensued. Octavius and Tiberius Gracchus faced each other shouting their bitter vitriol, Tiberius Gracchus calling for justice, and Octavius smearing his opponent’s character labeling him an opportunist and power hungry. For the first time in over three hundred years, the political conflict threatened to turn violent. Tiberius Gracchus was so convinced that the wealthy planned to assassinate him that he started carrying a concealed knife into the assembly.

Opposition to Tiberius Gracchus’ law persisted long enough that he grew desperate. So he asked the Senate to pass his law. Unfortunately, in the Senate, Tiberius Gracchus had few, if any allies. The wealthy held too firm a grasp over the Senate’s decision making.

When the Senate failed to accomplish anything, Tiberius Gracchus recognized the reality of his situation. His hands were tied as tightly as the poor. The Senate was no good, and as long as Octavius could veto the law, it would never be passed. So, he resorted to a controversial maneuver that enraged his enemies.

Tiberius Gracchus told his friend, Octavius, that there was no way that the two of them could both be tribunes if they disagreed on such an important matter. He said that he would put it to a vote with the people and if they voted to remove Tiberius Gracchus from office then he would graciously step aside, but if they didn’t then Octavius should step down.

Octavius said no, knowing that the people preferred Tiberius Gracchus. Tiberius Gracchus, anticipating this, said, well if you aren’t willing to put me to a vote then I have to put you to the vote and he brought a vote to the people to remove Octavius. Octavius lost in a landslide.

There was one serious problem: in Rome, the tribunes were considered sacrosanct. This meant that it was illegal for anyone to harm a tribune by word or deed in any way. But as soon as Octavius lost the vote, a few of Tiberius Gracchus’ supporters physically dragged Octavius from the stand.

But, the law was passed and Tiberius Gracchus was praised for his mercy for the commoners of Rome.

What seemed like a great victory for Tiberius Gracchus and the people of Rome would be short lived. In modern day Turkey, the King of Pergamum died and his will stated that the land of Pergamum should be given over to Rome because he feared that Rome would violently conquer it, if it wasn’t given to the Romans freely. The king ruled a wide expanse of land that covered much of western Turkey. Tiberius Gracchus knew that this much land could be incredibly helpful for the plight of the poor Romans, so he drew up a law to give all of the land to the people as public land.

Of course, the Senate fiercely opposed Tiberius Gracchus’ law. In fact, one opponent spread a rumor saying that before the King of Pergamum had died that he had sent Tiberius Gracchus a royal robe. This rumor suggested that Tiberius Gracchus’ was only interested in social reform if it consolidated his power among his many poor constituents.

The following Summer, Tiberius Gracchus typically would have completed his term as tribune and left office. Of course, this meant that he would no longer be sacrosanct. Having made many enemies among the wealthy and powerful, Tiberius Gracchus feared that leaving office would not only cede his position to someone who would undue all of his work, but also certainly lead to death at the hands of the violent opposition.

On the day of the elections, he wore all black as though he was preparing to die and introduced his son to all of his supporters insinuating that they would need to care for his son when he was gone. His supporters, seeing his plight, voted to elect him for another year as tribune.

His re-election was deeply controversial. Tiberius Gracchus’ opponents now felt they had an ironclad case against him. First, he had violated the sacrosanctity of another tribune, dragging Octavius from the assembly. Second, he had ostensibly accepted gifts from a foreign dignitary as he accumulated power. And finally, he had ignored the checks and balances of the tribunal term limit, and extended his reign of terror for another year. Of course his supporters told a different story. Tiberius Gracchus had taken a hard stand against evil men intent on taking advantage of the systems that had afforded them power in the first place, so that he could extend mercy to the poor.

Only a few days later, on that cold Roman morning, a violent mob rallied to take Tiberius Gracchus life. In the chaos of the riot, there was nowhere for Tiberius Gracchus to run. He was struck dead by the very people he had lived to protect. The next morning, Tiberius Gracchus’ lifeless body floated down the Tiber, a casualty of mob violence. His love for the people finally stifled at the hands of the rich.

Perhaps no other phrase better illustrates histories fascination with Tiberius Gracchus’ life, than the one William Shakespeare put in the mouth of Titus Andronicus: “Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.” To be truly noble is to use one’s power for the support and relief of those who don’t have it. Mercy is the embodiment of that nobility.

Over the years, historians have had the same debate that the factions of Rome had during Tiberius Gracchus’ lifetime. Was he truly a civil servant or was he an opportunist, using the support of the masses for his own political advancement? While we can never know his motives definitively, Shakespeare gives us insight into why so many have been inspired by his life. The goal of his life was mercy, mercy for the poor and mercy for the disadvantaged. This mercy is a badge of Tiberius Gracchus’ noble spirit. A nobility that all of us can aspire to. The lesson for us is simple: love mercy.