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  • Appian and the Aftermath of the Gracchan Reform
  • Daniel J. Gargola

Appian's History of the Gracchan reform is arguably the single most detailed and coherent account of it. Early in the first book of his Civil Wars he outlines the development of a crisis in the countryside and the terms of the law Ti. Sempronius Gracchus (tr. pl. 133) proposed to remedy it; he describes the struggle to pass the measure and efforts of the tribune's opponents to block it; he tells of attempts to implement the law in the years after Tiberius' death; and he summarizes the legislative agenda and the political activities of C. Gracchus, Tiberius' younger brother, when he was tribune of the plebs in 123 and 122. Appian brings his history of the Gracchi to a close with a description of a series of laws put forward in the years following the death of the younger Gracchus and the ways they reversed earlier gains. Land reform continued to be a central issue in the conflicts that would bring the Roman Republic to an end, and historians often have relied upon Appian's short description of post–Gracchan legislation to reconstruct the politics of the matter in the last two decades of the second century. After all, he provides the only surviving overview of the agrarian legislation of these years. But scholars have found it difficult to reconcile Appian's claims with other evidence. The problem, a closer inspection will show, lies in the assumption that Appian produced or intended to produce a straightforward and unbiased account and the resulting conviction that these measures should be easily and readily identifiable. Instead I argue here that Appian has presented a highly schematic version of events that reveals more about his methods as a historian than it does about the laws themselves or the policies of those who proposed them.

Appian's Account and Modern Interpretations of It

At first glance Appian's version (BC 1.27.121–24) of the aftermath of reform is simple and straightforward. Using the death of C. Gracchus [End Page 555] as his starting point, Appian first reports the passage of a law permitting recipients of allotments to sell them and then claims that the rich immediately bought the land from the poor or took it by force. After this, a tribune, Spurios Borios or Bourios in the manuscripts, successfully proposed a law ending the distribution of public land, which those in possession were to own on payment of a rent, and establishing instead a distribution of the funds raised in this fashion. Not much later, another tribune put an end to the rent and the distribution of money that depended upon it. As a result, Appian holds, the people lost everything, and there were still fewer citizens and soldiers. He finishes with a reference to a fifteen–year period, although an apparent lacuna makes its significance uncertain.

Efforts to anchor this account firmly in the proper historical context have focused on a range of issues that have proven remarkably difficult to resolve.1 The first problem concerns the relationship, if any, between Appian's three laws and other agrarian legislation known to have been enacted in the years following the death of C. Gracchus. Cicero is the sole source for one measure. On two occasions he makes vague references to a law of Sp. Thorius that probably was passed in the latter half of the penultimate decade of the century.2 Neither is very informative. One merely records a jest involving the pasturing of animals on public lands made in the course of a senatorial debate on a lex Thoria.3 The second is potentially more useful. In Brutus (136) Cicero notes briefly the qualities as a speaker of a Sp. Thorius and connects him with a law regulating public lands: Sp. Thorius satis valuit in populari genere dicendi, is qui agrum publicum vitiosa et inutili lege vectigali [vectigale codd.] levavit. These brief remarks provide the sole grounds for emending [End Page 556] the name of the author of Appian's second measure, Spurios Borios or Bourios, to Sp. Thorius.4

Unfortunately, Cicero's seemingly simple characterization of the Thorian...


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