Now the Sempronian constitution itself shows very clearly to every one who is able and willing to see, that Gaius Gracchus did not at all, as many good-natured people in ancient and modern times have supposed, wish to place the Roman republic on new democratic bases, but that on the contrary he wished to abolish it and to introduce in its stead a -tyrannis--- that is, in modern language, a monarchy not of the feudal or of the theocratic, but of the Napoleonic absolute, type--in the form of a magistracy continued for life by regular re-election and rendered absolute by an unconditional control over the formally sovereign comitia, an unlimited tribuneship of the people for life. In fact if Gracchus, as his words and still more his works plainly testify, aimed at the overthrow of the government of the senate, what other political organization but the -tyrannis- remained possible, after overthrowing the aristocratic government, in a commonwealth which had outgrown primary assemblies and for which parliamentary government did not exist? Dreamers such as was his predecessor, and knaves such as after-times produced, might call this in question; but Gaius Gracchus was a statesman, and though the formal shape, which that great man had inwardly projected for his great work, has not been handed down to us and may be conceived of very variously, yet he was beyond doubt aware of what he was doing. Little as the intention of usurping monarchical power can be mistaken, as little will those who survey the whole circumstances on this account blame Gracchus. An absolute monarchy is a great misfortune for a nation, but it is a less misfortune than an absolute oligarchy; and history cannot censure one who imposes on a nation the lesser suffering instead of the greater, least of all in the case of a nature so vehemently earnest and so far aloof from all that is vulgar as was that of Gaius Gracchus. Nevertheless it may not conceal the fact that his whole legislation was pervaded in a most pernicious way by conflicting aims; for on the one hand it aimed at the public good, while on the other hand it ministered to the personal objects and in fact the personal vengeance of the ruler. Gracchus earnestly laboured to find a remedy for social evils, and to check the spread of pauperism; yet he at the same time intentionally reared up a street proletariate of the worst kind in the capital by his distributions of corn, which were designed to be, and became, a premium to all the lazy and hungry civic rabble. Gracchus censured in the bitterest terms the venality of the senate, and in particular laid bare with unsparing and just severity the scandalous traffic which Manius Aquillius had driven with the provinces of Asia Minor;(25) yet it was through the efforts of the same man that the sovereign populace of the capital got itself alimented, in return for its cares of government, by the body of its subjects. Gracchus warmly disapproved the disgraceful spoliation of the provinces, and not only instituted proceedings of wholesome severity in particular cases, but also procured the abolition of the thoroughly insufficient senatorial courts, before which even Scipio Aemilianus had vainly staked his whole influence to bring the most decided criminals to punishment. Yet he at the same time, by the introduction of courts composed of merchants, surrendered the provincials with their hands fettered to the party of material interests, and thereby to a despotism still more unscrupulous than that of the aristocracy had been; and he introduced into Asia a taxation, compared with which even the form of taxation current after the Carthaginian model in Sicily might be called mild and humane-- just because on the one hand he needed the party of moneyed men, and on the other hand required new and comprehensive resources to meet his distributions of grain and the other burdens newly imposed on the finances. Gracchus beyond doubt desired a firm administration and a well-regulated dispensing of justice, as numerous thoroughly judicious ordinances testify; yet his new system of administration rested on a continuous series of individual usurpations only formally legalized, and he intentionally drew the judicial system--which every well-ordered state will endeavour as far as possible to place, if not above political parties, at any rate aloof from them--into the midst of the whirlpool of revolution. Certainly the blame of these conflicting tendencies in Gaius Gracchus is chargeable to a very great extent on his position rather than on himself personally. On the very threshold of the -tyrannis- he was confronted by the fatal dilemma, moral and political, that the same man had at one and the same time to maintain his ground, we may say, as a robber-chieftain and to lead the state as its first citizen--a dilemma to which Pericles, Caesar, and Napoleon had also to make dangerous sacrifices. But the conduct of Gaius Gracchus cannot be wholly explained from this necessity; along with it there worked in him the consuming passion, the glowing revenge, which foreseeing its own destruction hurls the firebrand into the house of the foe. He has himself expressed what he thought of his ordinance as to the jurymen and similar measures intended to divide the aristocracy; he called them daggers which he had thrown into the Forum that the burgesses--the men of rank, obviously--might lacerate each other with them. He was a political incendiary. Not only was the hundred years' revolution which dates from him, so far as it was one man's work, the work of Gaius Gracchus, but he was above all the true founder of that terrible urban proletariate flattered and paid by the classes above it, which through its aggregation in the capital--the natural consequence of the largesses of corn--became at once utterly demoralized and aware of its power, and which--with its demands, sometimes stupid, sometimes knavish, and its talk of the sovereignty of the people--lay like an incubus for five hundred years upon the Roman commonwealth and only perished along with it And yet--this greatest of political transgressors was in turn the regenerator of his country.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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