Lex Sempronia Agraria

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus:

“The wild beasts that roam over Italy have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in; but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchres and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans 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.” (Plutarch, 165)

Tiberius Gracchus’ land reform bill, the Lex Sempronia Agraria, promised to be a solution to the large poor and homeless population that Rome had accumulated.

Due to the buying up of small farms and public lands (ager publicus) by the latifundia, many small farmers and their families had been run out, replaced by slave labor, and forced to move into the cities without a job or home. This was a large problem for Rome for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the city was experiencing overcrowding of poor in urban areas.

Secondly, an increase in latifundia, which largely produced cash crops such as olive oil and wine, led to a shortage of grain, and an increase in the price of bread.

Thirdly, non-property owners could not serve in the Roman military, and thus Rome was having a harder time finding recruits for it’s legions to support its constant warring.

This third point is arguably the most important toward Gracchus’ reforms, as the “immediate crisis was less agrarian than urban, less concerned with land than with people.” (Boren, 892) The increase in number of the poor led to a kind of moral and structural shakiness in Roman society. As noted by Plutarch:

“the poor, who had been ejected from their land, no longer showed themselves eager for military service, and neglected the bringing up of children, so that soon all Italy was conscious of a death of freemen, and was filled with gangs of foreign slaves, by whose aid the rich cultivated their estates, from which they had driven away the free citizens.” (Plutarch, 161)

The bill was largely an enforcement of the Sexto-Licinian laws of 367 BC, which limited the amount of public land anyone could work to 500 jugera. Gracchus’ bill was even more generous than this original allotment, as it allowed for “in addition to placing a maximum of 500 jugera under cultivation, an individual could exploit further areas of ager publicus to graze his livestock,” so that “the maximum of 500 sheep [allowed] was additional to the maximum of 100 cattle” (Tipps, 334). Furthermore, an additional 250 jugera were allowed for each son within a household.

Tiberius Gracchus’ thought was that the land in excess of this legal precedent should be confiscated, after payment to the owner, and redistributed to the landless poor. Not only would this reduce the number of poor living within the city of Rome, but historians note that “it is generally to be agreed that the reform program of Tiberius Gracchus was designed to remedy a major crisis, a shortage of recruits for the legion” (Morgan and Walsh, 200).

Gracchus was not a tyrant looking to expand his own fortune, or to seize power over Rome. He was attempting to solve a short-term crisis in the city, but due to his methods of action, would result in long-term effects over Roman politics.

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