2000 Years of Latin Prose | History and Literature

Chapter 3 – Gaius Gracchus: Beware Of Politicians

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Two thou­sand years of Latin Prose is a dig­i­tal anthol­o­gy of Latin Prose. Here you will be able to find texts from two mil­len­nia of gems in Latin. In this third chap­ter, we will learn about, and read part of a speech from, Gaius Grac­chus as found in Aulus Gel­lius XI.10.2–6.

If you want to learn more about the anthol­o­gy, you will find the pref­ace here.

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this chap­ter: 2000 Years of Latin Prose: Chap­ter 3. Grac­chus.

Life & Works of Gaius Gracchus

In this sec­tion you will learn about the author’s life and works.

(154–121 B.C.)

Gaius Grac­chus is per­haps most famous for his trag­ic end which strong­ly echoed that of his old­er broth­er, Tiberius Grac­chus. Gaius Grac­chus was, just as his broth­er had been, a very strong ora­tor, renowned for his ele­gant and pure Latin.

Life of Gracchus

Gaius Sem­pro­nius Grac­chus was born in 154 B.C. to con­sul Tiberius Grac­chus and Cor­nelia Africana.

Painting by Laurent de la Hyre showing Cornelia, mother of Gaius Gracchus, rejecting King Ptolemys proposal.

His moth­er Cor­nelia was, or rather is, one of the most famous Roman women. She was the daugh­ter of the great Roman gen­er­al Sci­pio Africanus (the one who defeat­ed Han­ni­bal) and she became the ide­al of how a Roman woman should be. Tiberius Grac­chus was much old­er than her, but they had twelve chil­dren togeth­er out of which only three sur­vived child­hood: Tiberius Grac­chus Minor, Gaius, and Sempronia. 

When Cor­nelia was wid­owed she raised her chil­dren alone. She has been giv­en praise through­out his­to­ry for the edu­ca­tion she pro­vid­ed for her chil­dren, and for her knowl­edge and pru­dence. Cicero was very impressed by her and praised her for mak­ing sure her sons learned Greek prop­er­ly, for instance, she made sure that one of their teach­ers was Dio­phanes of Myti­lene, who was one of the most famous con­tem­po­rary speak­ers (Cicero, Bru­tus, 2.11). So involved was she with her chil­dren, which was con­trary to all aris­to­crat­ic prac­tice at the time (Bru­tus, 2.11), that when the Egypt­ian king, Ptole­my VIII, pro­posed to her, she turned him down—at least so we’re told by his­to­ri­an Plutar­chos, known in Eng­lish as Plutarch (46–120 A.D.) (Tiberius Grac­chus, 1).

This thor­ough edu­ca­tion ensured by his moth­er gave Gaius, just as it gave his old­er broth­er Tiberius, a great ground to stand upon in the polit­i­cal are­na of Rome. They had prac­ticed Greek rhetor­i­cal tech­niques and been drilled by their moth­er in find­ing sim­ple and pre­cise expres­sions. This turned them both into skilled orators. 


Tiberius Minor was nine years old­er than Grac­chus and became a tri­bune of the plebs. He became famous and infa­mous for his many reforms to help the poor. He, for instance, want­ed to trans­fer land from wealthy Romans to poor­er citizens—a reform pop­u­lar amongst the poor but not by the wealthy. He was killed by an angry sen­a­to­r­i­al mob. 

The death of his broth­er hit Gaius hard. He was not even allowed to bury him, as his body was thrown into the Tiber. So, he stepped back from pol­i­tics and his career and kept qui­et for a while. But, as his friend Vet­tius was under pros­e­cu­tion, he came back into the pub­lic light to defend him. And this was only the beginning. 

In 126 B.C. he became quaestor in Sar­dinia, where he earned him­self a good rep­u­ta­tion, and then, in 123 B.C., he became tri­bune of the plebs, the same office that his broth­er had held. How­ev­er, Gaius’ reforms were even greater than his broth­er’s had been. He revived the land reform pro­gram his broth­er had insti­gat­ed, he ini­ti­at­ed tax reforms, mil­i­tary reforms, as well as mak­ing sure the state would buy bulk grain to dis­trib­ute to poor­er cit­i­zens at a low price – the so-called Lex Fru­men­taria

Grac­chus’ reforms and pop­u­lar­i­ty with the peo­ple brought him a lot of ene­mies, espe­cial­ly with the sen­ate. So, when the deci­sion was made to found a colony by the recent­ly destroyed Carthage, Gaius was appoint­ed to over­see the con­struc­tion togeth­er with one of his allies, Ful­vius Flac­cus. They were there­fore sent to Africa. 

Painting by Félix Auvray showing the death of Gaius Gracchus.

In 121 B.C., upon their return to Rome, the polit­i­cal cli­mate had changed, erupt­ing in riots and vio­lence. The two men and their fol­low­ers met with a sit­u­a­tion so dan­ger­ous that the only option was to flee the city. They failed. Flac­cus was killed by a mob. Gaius man­aged to get to the oth­er side of the Tiber, where the seri­ous­ness of the sit­u­a­tion caught up with him, and he decid­ed to take his own life with the help of his slave Philocrates.

3000 of Gaius’ sup­port­ers were also killed and thrown into the Tiber, their prop­er­ties con­fis­cat­ed and their wives for­bid­den to mourn. 

Accord­ing to Greek-Roman his­to­ri­an Appi­anus, or Appi­an (95–165 A.D.), the heads of Flac­cus and Gaius were car­ried to Lucius Opim­ius, con­sul and sworn ene­my of Gaius and his supporters—who lat­er repealed all of his laws and reforms, save Lex Fru­men­taria. Opim­ius gave their weight in gold to those who had brought heads. (Appi­anus, Civ­il Wars, 1.26) Plutarch also men­tions this inci­dent but adds that the one who brought Gaius’ head tried to cheat and filled it with molt­ed led to make it heav­ier and that those who brought Flac­cus’ head were of such an obscure sort that they got noth­ing from Opim­ius. (Gaius Grac­chus, 17) 

Works of Gracchus

As men­tioned ear­li­er, Gaius was famous for his pure and ele­gant Latin, owing to his mother’s thor­ough edu­ca­tion and his Greek teach­ers. He mixed an elo­quent Latin with Greek speak­ing tech­niques with a pas­sion for what he spoke about. 

Engraving showing Gaius Gracchus as a tribune speaking to the crowds at Rome.

Accord­ing to Plutarch, Gaius’ speech was awe-inspir­ing and pas­sion­ate, but he had a tem­per and was sup­pos­ed­ly often car­ried away by it. So, when his voice was raised too high due to the heat of the moment, a ser­vant – Licinius – who always stood behind him when he spoke, sound­ed a soft key with a pitch pipe so that Gaius would remem­ber to take his voice back down. (Plutar­chos, Tiberius Grac­chus, 2)

So famous was Gaius Grac­chus for his rhetoric ele­gance that the Roman rhetor­i­cal trea­tise, called Rhetor­i­ca Ad Heren­ni­um, draws a sub­stan­tial part of its exam­ples from him. 

“Quid? ipsa auc­tori­tas antiquo­rum non cum res prob­a­bil­iores tum hominum stu­dia ad imi­tan­dum alacrio­ra red­dit? Immo erig­it omni­um cupid­i­tates et acuit indus­tri­am cum spes iniec­ta est posse imi­tan­do Grac­ci aut Cras­si con­se­qui facultatem.”

— Ad Heren­ni­um, IV, II.

And fur­ther­more, does not the very pres­tige of the ancients not only lend greater author­i­ty to their doc­trine but also sharp­en in men the desire to imi­tate them? Yes, it excites the ambi­tions and whets the zeal of all men when the hope is implant­ed in them of being able by imi­ta­tion to attain to the skill of a Grac­chus or a Crassus.

Though Gaius Grac­chus was an impor­tant ora­tor, only a few frag­ments of his speech­es have come done to us. 

In today’s chap­ter of 2000 years of Latin Prose, we will take a look at a part of his speech oppos­ing the Lex Aufeia, a Roman tax law, from 124 or 123 B.C. The pas­sage is found in Aulus Gel­lius’ Noctes Atti­cae (2nd cent. A.D.), an eclec­tic work con­tain­ing a myr­i­ad of extracts from Roman authors. We will return to the Noctes Atti­cae in the chap­ter about Gellius.

Further resources and reading

If you want to learn more about Grac­chus and his broth­er and their polit­i­cal ideas as well as their grue­some deaths, I can rec­om­mend read­ing the chap­ters about the Grac­chi broth­ers in Plutarch’s Lives. Tiberius and Gaius Grac­chus and in Appi­anus’ Civ­il wars, liber 1. Details dif­fer between the two his­to­ri­ans, but they are both real­ly good reads. Though, for those of you who, like me, do not read Greek, I rec­om­mend turn­ing to the Eng­lish translation. 

If you are curi­ous about the Lex Aufeia and dat­ing it, there is an arti­cle from Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press about it here: ”The So-called Lex Aufeia (Gel­lius xi 10)”

Audio & Video in Latin

Click below to read and lis­ten to a pas­sage of a speech by Gracchus.

Video with English subtitles

Audio of Latin text

Latin text

Below you will find the orig­i­nal text of the pas­sage in Latin.

AP. GELL. XI.10.2–6
”Nam vōs, Quirītēs, sī velītis sapi­en­tiā atque virtūte ūtī, etsī quaeri­tis, nēminem nos­trum inveniētis sine pretiō hūc prōdīre. Omnēs nōs, quī ver­ba facimus, aliq­uid petimus, neque ūllīus reī causā quisquam ad vōs prōdit, nisi ut aliq­uid auferat.

Ego ipse, quī aput vōs ver­ba faciō utī vec­tīgālia ves­tra augeātis, quō facil­ius ves­tra com­mo­da et rem pūbli­cam admin­istrāre pos­sītis, nōn grātīs prōdeō; vērum petō ā vōbīs nōn pecū­ni­am, sed bonam exīs­timātiōnem atque honōrem.

Quī prōde­unt dis­suāsūrī nē hanc lēgem accip­iātis, petunt nōn honōrem ā vōbīs, vērum ā Nīcomēde pecū­ni­am; quī suā­dent, ut accip­iātis, hī quoque petunt nōn ā vōbīs bonam exīs­timātiōnem, vērum ā Mithridāte reī famil­iārī suae pretium et praemi­um; quī autem ex eōdem locō atque ōrdine tacent, hī vel ācer­rimī sunt; nam ab omnibus pretium accip­i­unt et omnīs fallunt.

Vōs, cum putātis eōs ab hīs rēbus remōtōs esse, impertītis bonam exīs­timātiōnem; lēgātiōnēs autem ā rēgibus, cum putant eōs suā causā ret­icēre, sūmp­tūs atque pecūniās max­imās praebent, item utī in ter­rā Grae­ciā, quō in tem­pore tra­goe­dus glōri­ae sibi dūcē­bat tal­en­tum mag­num ob ūnam fābu­lam datum esse, homō ēlo­quen­tis­simus cīvitātis suae Dēmādēs eī respondisse dīc­i­tur: “Mīrum tibi vidē­tur, sī tū loquendō tal­en­tum quaesīstī? ego, ut tacērem, decem tal­en­ta ā rēge accēpī.” Item nunc istī pre­tia max­i­ma ob tacen­dum accipiunt”.

Vocabulary and Commentary

These fol­low­ing words are key to under­stand­ing the text, if you already know them — great! — if not, make a men­tal note of them.

aput: in your pres­ence. Aput is anoth­er form of the more com­mon apud,

exis­ti­ma­tio: opin­ion, reputation

glo­ri­ae sibi duc­ere: To con­sid­er praise­wor­thy, to boast; this is a so-called dou­ble dative, or final dative, which is a com­mon con­struc­tion in Latin, cf. Hoc mihi hon­ori est (This is an hon­our for me.”) and Hoc mihi gau­dio est (“This is joy­ous for me”). 

gratis (adv.): for free

item (adv): sim­i­lar­ly

mag­num tal­en­tum: a whole tal­ent. A weight of pre­cious met­al or sum, which var­ied over time (ca. 60–70lb.).

neque ullius rei causa: (lit.) and not for any oth­er rea­son. Causâ placed after a noun in the gen­i­tive express­es pur­pose, not cause.

ob tacen­dum: to be quiet

quirites: Quiritesorig­i­nal­ly des­ig­nat­ed the inhab­i­tants of the Sabine town Cures (cf. Col. praef. § 19, vet­eres illi Sabi­ni Quirites).After the Sabines and the Romans had unit­ed in one com­mu­ni­ty, under Romu­lus, the name of Quirites was tak­en in addi­tion to that of Romani, the Romans call­ing them­selves, in a civ­il capac­i­ty, Quirites, while, in a polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary capac­i­ty, they retained the name of Romani. (Lewis & Short)

quo facil­ius: Final claus­es with com­par­a­tive adverbs, e.g. facil­ius, in Clas­si­cal Latin are usu­al­ly con­struct­ed with quo instead of ut, e.g. Latine loqu­un­tur quo melius legant (“They speak Latin in order to read better”).

res famil­iaris: house­hould, prop­er­ty, possesions 

ret­icere: keep silent (about something)

sua causa: for their (own) sake

ver­ba facere: talk, give a speech

English Translation

Below you will find an Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the text.

Ap. Gell. XI. 10.2–6

“For you, fel­low cit­i­zens, if you wish to be wise and hon­est, and if you inquire into the mat­ter, will find that none of us comes for­ward here with­out pay. All of us who address you are after some­thing, and no one appears before you for any pur­pose except to car­ry some­thing away.

I myself, who am now rec­om­mend­ing you to increase your tax­es, in order that you may the more eas­i­ly serve your own advan­tage and admin­is­ter the gov­ern­ment, do not come here for noth­ing; but I ask of you, not mon­ey, but hon­our and your good opinion.

Those who come for­ward to per­suade you not to accept this law, do not seek hon­our from you, but mon­ey from Nicomedes; those also who advise you to accept it are not seek­ing a good opin­ion from you, but from Mithri­dates a reward and an increase of their pos­ses­sions; those, how­ev­er, of the same rank and order who are silent are your very bit­ter­est ene­mies, since they take mon­ey from all and are false to all.

You, think­ing that they are inno­cent of such con­duct, give them your esteem; but the embassies from the kings, think­ing it is for their sake that they are silent, give them great gifts and rewards. So in the land of Greece, when a Greek trag­ic actor boast­ed that he had received a whole tal­ent for one play, Demades, the most elo­quent man of his coun­try, is said to have replied to him: ‘Does it seem strange to you that you have gained a tal­ent by speak­ing? I was paid ten tal­ents by the king for hold­ing my tongue.’ Just so, these men now receive a very high price for hold­ing their tongues.” 

Trans­lat­ed by J.C. Rolfe (1927).

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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