The Greatest Story Never Told By Hollywood: Episode II: Return of the Gracchi

Key Takeaways:

1. No independent middle class, no democratic republic. 

2. The Gracchi were the greatest reformers, indeed the greatest heroes in the republican tradition, outside of the actual founders of republics. 

3. Government intervention may be necessary to maintain a democratic republic. 

In our last post we considered the causes giving rise to the Gracchan revolution. We will now consider the role of the Gracchi in the history of republicanism.

In 133 BC the Lex Sempronia Agraria became law against fierce opposition from the Roman plutocracy. The key features of this law were:

FIRST, to cap household use of public land to 326 acres, with an additional allotment of 163 acres for children of each affected household; and

SECOND, to transfer parcels of 20 acres to ordinary Roman citizens.

Does this sound like communism? Socialism? Taking land from wealthy Romans and transferring to ordinary Romans? Well, it isn’t. It’s probably the greatest act of republicanism in history, short of actually founding a republic.

Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 draft Virginia constitution included a clause that could have been taken right out of this ancient Roman law:

Every person of full age neither owning nor having owned [50] acres of land, shall be entitled to an appropriation of [50] acres.

In a 1776 letter to Abigail Adams, John Adams described this ancient Roman law as:

A genuine republican measure.

And General Sherman’s 1865 Special Field Order No. 15 included this provision, the origin of the famous “40 acres and a mule” for Freedmen:

The three parties named will subdivide the land [former slave plantations], under the supervision of the Inspector, among themselves and such others as may choose to settle near them, so that each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground…

What all of these measures have in common is the creation or rehabilitation of a financially independent class.


Large scale democracy has only occurred in two great waves. The first crashed on the Mediterranean Basin around the 6th Century BC; the second along the North Atlantic around the 18th Century AD. The first wave lasted a few centuries. The second is a couple centuries old and, frankly, democracy is starting to show its age.

In the midst of the first great wave of democracy, contemporary writers were smart enough to figure out where democracy came from. In both cases, democracy was preceded by a large and independent middle class. (Cf. the end of democracy, where the bewildered and teeming masses seem to think democracy is some kind of birthright.)

Anyway, the ancient middle classes are found in the military census. The different gradations of military rank corresponded to different citizen property qualifications. Middling status is implied by the obligation to supply one’s own equipment, such as heavy bronze armor, as well as the obligation to ensure the continuity of farm operations while on campaign. Households could not meet either obligation without a surplus of wealth beyond the means of subsistence. Those households which occupied the middle strata – some estimate these middling hoplites comprised as much as 30%-50% of the population in some states – by definition constituted the middle ranks of ancient society and can accordingly be regarded as middle class.  

During this first wave of democracy, Euripides connected political stability with a predominant middle class.

There are three classes of citizens. The first are rich, who are indolent and yet always crave more. The second are the poor, who have nothing, are full of envy, hate the rich, and are easily led by the demagogues. Between the two extremes lie those who make the state secure and uphold the laws.

In the same period, Aristotle even more explicitly connected a stable democratic republic (what has been translated as “constitutional government”) with a broad middle class:

The political community administered by the middle class is the best, and it is possible for those states to be well governed that are of the kind in which the middle class is numerous, and preferably stronger than both the other two classes, or at all events than one of them, for by throwing in its weight it sways the balance and prevents the opposite extremes from coming into existence. Hence it is the greatest good fortune if the men that have political power possess a moderate and sufficient substance, since where some own a very great deal of property and others none there comes about either an extreme democracy or an unmixed oligarchy, or a tyranny may result from both of the two extremes, for tyranny springs from both democracy and oligarchy of the most unbridled kind, but much less often from the middle forms of constitution and those near to them. The cause of this we will speak of later in our treatment of political revolutions. That the middle form of constitution is the best is evident; for it alone is free from faction, since where the middle class is numerous, factions and party divisions among the citizens are least likely to occur. And the great states are more free from faction for the same reason, because the middle class is numerous, whereas in the small states it is easy to divide the whole people into two parties leaving nothing in between, and also almost everybody is needy or wealthy. Also democracies are more secure and more long-lived than oligarchies owing to the citizens of the middle class (for they are more numerous and have a larger share of the honors in democracies than in oligarchies), since when the poor are in a majority without the middle class, adversity sets in and they are soon ruined.

The connection between property and power was also captured by James Harrington in his 1656 treatise the Commonwealth of Oceana:

If one man be sole landlord of a territory, or overbalance the people, for example, three parts in four, he is grand seignior; for so the Turk is called from his property, and his empire is absolute monarchy. If the few or a nobility, or a nobility with the clergy, be landlords, or overbalance the people to the like proportion, it makes the Gothic balance (to be shown at large in the second part of this discourse), and the empire is mixed monarchy, as that of Spain, Poland, and late of Oceana. And if the whole people be landlords, or hold the lands so divided among them that no one man, or number of men, within the compass of the few or aristocracy, overbalance them, the empire (without the interposition of force) is a commonwealth.  

The emergence of the modern middle class is more thoroughly documented than the ancient, and is more easily expressed through income and net worth tables. And when democracy returned to the world, the middle class was particularly predominant along the Atlantic Seaboard of the United States. As Lindert and Williamson have shown in their study on American incomes 1774-1860, on the eve of the American Revolution:

New England and the Middle Colonies appear to have been more egalitarian than anywhere else in the measurable world.

Contemporary observers noticed the same. Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 Democracy in America opens with this observation:

Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions. I readily discovered the prodigious influence which this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society, by giving a certain direction to public opinion, and a certain tenor to the laws; by imparting new maxims to the governing powers, and peculiar habits to the governed.

Tocqueville was describing none other than the Aristotelian middling virtues referenced above. In this light, it’s no surprise that it was here in Revolutionary America – in this most economically egalitarian time and place on Earth (women and slaves excluded) – that the United States was the first to be established as a democratic republic in repudiation of 18 centuries of monarchies and aristocracies.  

America’s Founding Fathers – including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton – were acutely aware of the connection between wealth and power. Noah Webster, one of the less famous Founders of America (but one of the more famous founders of dictionaries) concisely expressed the general sentiment:

The basis of a democratic and a republican form of government, iz, a fundamental law, favoring an equal or rather a general distribution of property.

Modern scholars have reached the same general conclusions regarding the relationship between democracy and the middle class. In his landmark 1966 work Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Barrington Moore famously stated “no bourgeois, no democracy.” This general proposition has been confirmed by various scholars since.

In retrospect, the reasons for this seem pretty obvious. Those in power, the nobility included, does not share power unless it is forced to do so. As Frederick Douglass, the former slave-turned-abolitionist once said:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Nor is the right to participate in the administration of a government of any community granted to any group which does not make an indispensable contribution to the community. In the context of government, that indispensable contribution will be either a military or fiscal contribution. This notion is expressed in the legal maxim:

Beneficium non datur nisi officii causa; a right is not granted except in consideration of duty.

But it is not enough to just make an indispensable contribution. Slaves made an indispensable contribution in the American South for centuries. They didn’t have any political rights. No contribution has political force or democratic relevancy unless it can also be withheld.

Rationist No. 5, written under the pseudonym Gracchus, may have summarized the relationship between the middle class and democracy most succinctly:

DEMOCRACY IS JUSTIFIED BY A CONTRIBUTION TO THE POWER OF THE SWORD OR THE POWER OF THE PURSE. The birth of democracy is a violent act of force and resistance leveraging a fiscal or military contribution, not a stoic exercise in fairness or philosophy or mutual respect. In no place in the past do we see and in no place in the future will we see democracy granted to the people as the product of the largesse and good will of a few powerful men.

As the Rationist concludes:


And therein lies the very organizing principle of a democratic republic. The people must have the power to withhold their consent before they can give it. Government is derived from the consent of the governed only if the governed can quit. From that essential principle all that we have considered above flows.

These principles manifested to summon both great waves of democracy. Ancient democracy was borne of military labor strikes conducted by the middling smallhold farmers. Modern democracy – or at least the first democratic-republic – was born of tax revolts carried out by middling New Englanders.


After Rome became master of the Mediterranean world, the situation of the middling classes was as we have considered in the prior post, perhaps best summed up by Frank Frost Abbott:

The republic had been at the outset, and for several centuries afterward, a commonwealth of free landowners. This great middle class was now swept out of existence, and with it went the foundation on which the state rested. The object of the movement connected with the name of Tiberius Gracchus was to build this class up again.

Tiberius Gracchus resolved to set the situation to rights. And since as we have considered, the democratic-republican model of government depends upon the existence of a large, independent middle class, the Gracchan legislation could have but one goal in view: to restore a large and independent middle class. To do this, Gracchus had to find some way way to fragment concentrated fortunes and get property into the hands of the common people. It doesn’t have to be communism. It doesn’t have to be socialism. But it does have to be government intervention of some sort.

The form of intervention that Gracchus employed was simple. Ration public lands. Maximum caps of 326 acres, minimum caps of 20 acres. It is not like he was the first person to think of rations. We are told by the historians that these key provisions of the Lex Sempronia Agraria were reenactments of the nearly 200-year old lex de modo agrorum of the Licinian-Sextian rogations, which had already established similar caps. And even that older law was the culmination of centuries of agitation over land. Indeed, the historical record confirms that some form of agitation over land occurred in 484, 483, 482, 477, 474, 472, 468, 454, 453, 440, 434, 422, 419, 418, 412, 411, 409, 407, 397, 384, 383, and 379 BC.

Many writers impute Gracchus’ legislation to ambition. Many blame him for violating the ancient constitution by the methods he employed to get his legislation passed. Some even call him a socialist. But the constitution was already wrecked, and it wasn’t the smallhold farmers, the citizen-soldiers, or the Gracchi who wrecked it. It was the wealthy plutocracy. Moreover, Gracchus’ rationism is not socialism. And compared to the goal of restoring a republic – whether he knew the import of his actions – motive is insignificant. For he sought out to restore the very definition of a republic, as conceived by the founder of ours, John Adams:

The word res, every one knows, signified in the Roman language wealth, riches, property; the word publicus, quasi populicus, and per syncope pôplicus, signified public, common, belonging to the people; res publica, therefore, was publica res, the wealth, riches, or property of the people. Res populi, and the original meaning of the word republic could be no other than a government in which the property of the people predominated and governed; and it had more relation to property than liberty.

For these reasons, Gracchus was a great hero of republicanism. The greatest hero of republicanism in all of history outside the Founding Fathers of Rome and America.

In our next post, we will consider the parallels in the histories of the Roman Republic and the United States in the sequence of Anacyclosis, as well as the implications of the Gracchan legislation in our own time.

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