PART III: THE TRIBUNE WAS TOUCHED
Well, the definition of this period as a "good time" really depended on who you were in Roman society. For the Roman Senate, these were great times. Through conquest and forfeit, millions of acres of territory had come into their posession as "public lands" which they redistributed and rented out to clients "for the good of the republic." (Senators, prohibited from holding a trade, were an investor and landlord class.) Classical art and treasure was pouring into the city from the recently-conquered Greek and Hellenistic world, as well as thousands upon thousands of Greek and Hellenistic slaves. For these guys, times were the worst of the worst. If they were fortunate, they were put to work as tutors or domestic servants ("servus" = slave in Latin) in senatorial households. If they were less fortunate, they were sent to burgeoning farms the senators were building on the previously-mentioned "public lands," mostly in Sicily. (These were the predecessors to the truly massive latifundia that would start appearing during the high empire.) If they were really unfortunate, they would be shipped to the gold and silver mines in Spain, where life expectancies ranged from a matter of months to a year.
If you belonged to a class somewhere between senator and slave, then things could go either way. Sure, the growth and proliferation of these large farms drove down the price of grain for the average Roman. However, if you were a Roman farmer, these farms were likely driving you out of business. We'll examine the corrosive effect this had on Roman democracy in a moment.
Enter Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, newly-elected tribune of the plebs for 133 B.C. Tiberius was a reform-minded politician eager to balance the scales of society and right the listing ship of state. He proposed a law, the Lex Sempronia Agraria, allowing for a more egalitarian distribution of land and creating a new pool of landowners for taxation and recruitment. Like any idealistic, energetic young politician in his first try at legislating, he was promptly gobsmacked by the powers-that-be. The landowning senators attacked him as an instigator of class warfare and tyrannical wealth redistribution, and versions of the Lex Sempronia were either ignored or blocked outright.
Gaius's ejection from the tribuneship opened the way for the Senate to begin repealing his legislation. However, on the day the repeal was meant to happen, the servant of Gaius's senatorial arch-enemy, Opimius, was killed in a scuffle with Gaius's supporters. This was the moment the Senate was waiting for to end Gaius, and they collectively howled for his blood. After intense negotiation, Opimius advanced on Gaius with mercenary archers (!), killing dozens and driving Gaius from the city. Gaius took his own life before the Senate mob could catch him.
Gaius's head was cut off and carried to Opimius, who had promised its weight in gold to whoever retrieved it. (This offer was rescinded when it was discovered its retriever had filled it with molten lead to increase his reward.) History continued to repeat itself: Gaius's supporters were killed, exiled, or put into snake-sacks and tossed into the Tiber. Gaius's laws were repealed wholesale, and Gaius's widow was forbidden to mourn his death. The threat to the Senate's power was nipped in the bud.
That someone was Gaius Marius. We'll examine his contributions in the next segment, as the decline of the Republic kicks into high gear.