What can Tiberius Gracchus teach you about the housing crisis?

The unaffordability of housing in Australia is at its highest rate ever.

With an entire generation now struggling to own their own home,  a national shortage of over half a million affordable properties, and a 10 year waiting list for welfare housing across NSW; it is perhaps worth considering what Tiberius Gracchus – a distinguished war hero, politician and one of the earliest examples of a political philosopher of the humanist tradition can teach you about the current housing crunch.

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus had a troubled childhood.

Tiberius’ father died when he was a child, and of his eleven brothers and sisters, only two survived to adulthood. Tiberius’ mother – Cornelia, daughter of Scipio Africanus – never remarried. Tiberius was raised by his mother, a single parent (if you think that’s socially difficult today, consider the social stigma 2000 years ago), and as the eldest male of his family, it was up to Tiberius to carry the household from a young age.

Without any work history and a family to support, Tiberius did what most young men do: he joined the army.

Tiberius served with honour while with the Roman infantry as a junior officer. In the face of a total rout of the Legion he was serving with against the Numantines – Rome’s latest enemy – when it became apparent that General Mancinus was incompetent in salvaging a victory out of the disastrous rout thrown before him, Tiberius broke the chain of command and negotiated an armistice with the enemy. Tiberius’ negotiations and subsequent evacuation of the Legion saved the lives of 20 000 of his fellow countrymen.

Upon his return home, Tiberius witnessed first hand that the housing laws of Rome were resulting in mass poverty and squalor for the families of the very troops he had saved. Plutarch tells us that the housing crisis during the life of Tiberius was such that ordinary Roman citizens could not afford a place to live due to total control by the wealthy elite. Concentration of land into the hands of the wealthy few had become a vicious cycle, with the profits fuelling further consolidation of land. Plutarch tells us that when new housing stock was opened up to the market, that:

“…a part they sold, and a part they made common land, and assigned it for occupation to the poor and indigent among the citizens, on payment of a small rent into the public treasury. And when the rich began to offer larger rents and drove out the poor, a law was enacted forbidding the holding by one person of more than five hundred acres of land. For a short time this enactment gave a check to the rapacity of the rich, and was of assistance to the poor, who remained in their places on the land which they had rented and occupied the allotment which each had held from the outset. But later on the neighbouring rich men, by means of fictitious personages, transferred these rentals to themselves, and finally held most of the land openly in their own names. Then the poor, who had been ejected from their land, no longer showed themselves eager for military service, and neglected the bringing up of children, so that soon all Italy was conscious of a dearth of freemen, and was filled with gangs of foreign slaves, by whose aid the rich cultivated their estates, from which they had driven away the free citizens.” [p 161 – 162]

Indeed, the housing regulations and subsequent high rent were such that the ordinary citizens of Rome had little assets to their name and lived in squalor, and eligibility for military service (which was based on land ownership) was at an all time low.

While addressing the people of Rome about his new bill to reform the then current housing crisis Tiberius stated:

“The wild beasts that roam over Italy,” he would say, “have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in; but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchres and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.””  [p 166 – 167]

Consider then the modern context: Do the wild beasts have a greater claim to their home and dwelling than you?

And if so, is this sustainable for our society?

In Rome, this would be a severe problem not just in the time of Tiberius, but for the next generations as well.

Simon A. Mattes & Thomas Green

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