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Gaius Gracchus was able to significantly influence the actions of the political bodies of the Roman Republic by utilizing and innovating his role as a tribune; he not only challenged the power of the Senate in ways previously not observed; he also innovated the tribunal role when he challenged different consuls’ power, and undermined the power of that of his fellow tribunes. As a result, he seems to have encouraged factionalism among the Senate and the different magistrates because their actions became increasingly driven by their need to support their faction, rather than what was best for the state.
Gaius Gracchus first challenged the power of the Senate when he helped pass laws popular with the people. These laws included a decree that changed the “appointment of jurymen” so that equestrian class members would also be chosen to serve “as jurors in criminal cases” (Gaius Gracchus 5). The people’s committee also “charged Gaius with the selection of the jurors who were to be drawn from the equestrian order”, and Gaius as a result “found himself invested with almost monarchial power” (Gaius Gracchus 6). Thus, Gaius innovated his tribunal role by gaining a new power, and simultaneously “reduce[d] the power of the Senate”, since previously Senate members had been the only ones allowed to serve as jurors (Gaius Gracchus 5). Thus, the Senate felt pressured by his gain of power, because Gaius Gracchus now had the people on his side as well as his power, as tribune, to stop any laws that he might deem unfavorable. Senate members then turned to Livius, Gaius’ fellow tribune, and convinced him to help them “compet[e] with Gaius for the favor of the masses, granting their wishes regardless of the best interests of the state” (Gaius Gracchus 8). Factionalist feelings (centered around supporting Gaius or opposing him) continued to grow, and eventually motivated the Senate to participate in outrageous attempts of demagoguery. For example, Senate members decided to parade a slave’s body around the Forum in order to incite the people to violence against Gaius Gracchus’ faction. This spectacle should only be called an attempt at demagoguery, as it was not successful. The people accused the Senate of mourning a “hireling” with false grief, so that they could “destroy the one remaining champion of the people”, i.e., Gaius (Gaius Gracchus 14). Thus, Gaius encouraged factionalism in the Senate because he threatened the Senate’s precedent of power, and those most opposed to this power shift were inclined to carry out whatever actions necessary in order to reduce Gaius’ faction’s political power.
By challenging his fellow tribunes’ power, Gaius Gracchus also prompted factionalism among his colleagues while attempting to create a more powerful role within the tribunate for himself. Specifically, Gaius challenged his colleagues’ power when he argued with his fellow tribunes over whether to build seats around a gladiatorial arena; because he wanted to accommodate even the poorest citizens, he had wanted no seats built, since typically spectators had to pay for a seat. However, other tribunes were in favor of seats, and had them built around the arena. Gaius challenged the other tribunes’ power when he ordered the workmen to “dismant[le] the seats” (Gaius Gracchus 12), and then as a result also incurred the fury of his fellow tribunes. This seems to have prompted factionalist-motivated voter fraud, as many citizens speculated that Gaius’ “colleagues falsified the returns and the declaration” of the tribune elections in order to keep Gaius from winning “his election to the tribunate for the third time” (12). From this gladiatorial arena example, it also appears that he tried to gain a more powerful role among the tribunes, but it does not appeared that he succeeded in this goal or made a lasting change in the tribunal power structure.
Gaius also challenged the ruling consuls’ decisions on a few occasions, which helped to encourage factionalism in this political office as well. For example, when Fannius was consul, many Italians gathered in Rome to show their support for Gaius Gracchus. Fannius then took the advice of the Senate, which was concerned with this gathering, and “forbade any of the allies or friends of Rome to appear in the city” (Gaius Gracchus 12) until further notice. Gaius Gracchus then “issu[ed] a counter-edict in which he denounced the consul” and “promised the allies his support if they refused to leave the city” (12). Thus, although violence was avoided in this instance, factionalism in the consulship was stimulated because this challenge proved to Gaius’ opponents that he was an even greater threat to the patricians’ power in the government. His opponents then moved to elect Opimius, who readily “proceeded”, in conjunction with his supporters in the Senate, “ to repeal many of [Gaius’s] laws” (Gaius Gracchus 13). This was a demonstration of factionalism, because it was not the substance of the laws that they were repealing which they were primarily concerned with; rather, Opimius was focused on blocking Gaius Gracchus’ laws in order to keep him from becoming too powerful. Factionalism also pushed Opimius to become the “first consul who arrogated to himself the powers of a dictator” in order to “condem[n] to death without trial three thousand Roman citizens”, including Gaius Gracchus (Gaius Gracchus 18). Consequently, factionalist practices were encouraged not only in the consulship, but also in the incredibly powerful dictator role.
Through the innovative and active tribuneship of Gaius Gracchus, the actions of the Roman senate and the magistrates were significantly influenced. Gaius challenged the power of both the Senate and that of the consulship, while adding power to his own office. However, he also undermined the power of his fellow tribunes. As a result, this prompted an increase in factionalist practices by the Senate and other magisterial offices, as these officials increasingly sought to undermine Gaius’ faction’s power. Consequently, although they succeeded in eliminating Gaius Gracchus, they did not succeed in wiping out the factionalist practices that his influence had prompted, which would ultimately be problematic for the Roman Republic.
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