Fifty years ago this month, just after midnight on June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was shot by an assassin and died the following morning. The anniversary calls to mind an ancient parallel.

Tiberius Gracchus was born in Rome in 168 B.C., into a rich and prominent family. His mother bore 12 children, but only one daughter and two sons survived childhood. As a young officer, Tiberius distinguished himself in battle, and the highest paths seemed open to him not only through lineage but by virtue of valor, intellect and an open manner much admired. His future seemed golden.

But he was troubled by the poverty of so many Romans. Most did not own land. Large estates belonged to families Tiberius knew well. He sought to redistribute this land to the urban poor and veterans. Angry landowners pointed out that the commission appointed by Tiberius to redistribute their land consisted entirely of himself, his father-in-law and his younger brother, Gaius. Was rule by one family preferable to that of an aristocratic class?

Tiberius ignored this question from the Senate and appealed directly to the people. The issue was resolved: Tiberius was clubbed to death.

His cause was renewed by his brother, Gaius, whose fight for land reform seemed a restoration of the Gracchi crusade. But Gaius also sought to extend citizenship more widely, beyond the capital itself, and this angered some Roman poor who clung to that status for themselves. A mob sought Gaius’ death, and achieved it.

There was no Gracchus left to lead the family’s cause. But their name didn’t disappear. It is debated still.

Were the Gracchi seeking justice, or power? After their deaths, it was said that the verdict would be rendered by history.

History, though, is never settled. The contesting waves of hatred and worship that had marked the young brothers’ lives did not subside in all the centuries that followed. We may never be certain who the Gracchi really were.

But one thing is known. When they died, the people wept. Grape growers and artisans and landless tillers and crawling veterans and grimy orphans in the mighty capital of the world pondered neither motives nor legality.

They merely wept, because they knew their voice was gone.

 

David Lebedoff is a lawyer in Minneapolis.