The Roman republic was 375 years old — more than 1½ times as old as the American republic is today — when, in 133 BCE, something unprecedented and indeed hitherto unimaginable occurred: domestic political violence.
A populist politician had got himself elected tribune by the citizens of Rome, in exactly the sort of democratic process that Rome was proud of. His name was Tiberius Gracchus, and he was ambitious, idealistic and perhaps somewhat naive. (He was also the grandson of my hero, Scipio Africanus, the nemesis of Hannibal.) This elder Gracchus — he had a younger brother named Gaius — then proposed reforms to improve the lot of the people. Many patricians in the Roman Senate did not like that.
It had never, up to this point, mattered that Senators and Tribunes, plebeians and patricians, Optimates and Populares (those were the names of Rome’s political factions) disagreed on matters of policy.
Of course they disagreed! Peaceful disagreement, in which the more persuasive arguments prevailed over time, was what the Roman republic was about. It was the reason Romans loved Rome.
Rome had withstood existential threats — a sack by the Gauls, near-extinction by Hannibal — without ever sacrificing its founding ideals: inside the city walls, there was no place for violence in politics.
But on that day in 133 BCE, a group of senators and their supporters made their way toward a popular assembly in progress. They beat Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters to death.
Yes, Rome was shocked. Of course it was. This incident had to be an outlier. The exception that proved the rule.
But it seems that a taboo had been broken, a precedent set. Something unthinkable had become thinkable: Political violence.
A decade after Tiberius’s murder, Gaius Gracchus (pictured above) followed in his brother’s footsteps. He, too, got himself elected tribune. He, too, intended to launch reforms.
And again, a mob of senators and their supporters came for him. Gaius fled to a grove and killed himself, as the attackers murdered his supporters.
Another outlier, they told themselves. An exception. Never to be repeated.
And yet, it was repeated. Over the next century the Romans — a people always well-armed, often for the right reasons — began flashing blades to intimidate other Romans in any disagreement. The tone of debate changed. The incidents of political violence became more frequent, and worse.
A taboo once toppled is difficult to re-erect.
Marius, Sulla, Pompey, the Caesars….
Violence, or the threat of it, now prevailed in Rome.
Rome would remain a superpower for much longer. But no longer a republic. Not the Rome that the likes of Scipio Africanus had ever fought for. Not the Rome they considered worth preserving and defending.