Rome, 121 B.C. 


ACT I

Scene 1: The Plebeian Mob, consisting mostly of dispossessed farmers, landless veterans, and the urban poor, broods over its down-and-out condition in the Roman Forum, portending civil unrest. Loquax, an optimist, comments on the Mob’s cri de coeur, gradually recognizing the gravity of the situation. Fatuus enters and provides entertainment. The aristocratic Publius and his retinue are passing through but stop to take in Fatuus’s performance. Fatuus engages in a provocative exchange with Publius, in which he praises Gaius Gracchus, while exciting the Mob. As a consequence, Fatuus is killed by Publius’s henchman, Metellus Gladius.

Scene 2: Fatuus’s cortege, led by Loquax and the Mob, passes by the house of the Gracchi. Gaius is in the room of the family shrine, head down on a table after a bout of drinking. The Tribune is visited by the ghost of his brother, Tiberius, who exhorts him to carry on the work of political and agrarian reform. The Ghost departs and Cornelia enters, reproaching her son for his lassitude, neglect of his family, and marital problems. She reveals a scandalous rumor of Licinia’s growing weakness for Publius’s advances. Gaius’s son, Tiberius Paulus, appears after a bad dream of Rome on fire. Licinia comes in to take Paulus back to bed. She and Gaius ignore each other. Gaius dismisses his mother and swears to his departed brother that he will reform the state and exact vengeance on Publius for pursuing Licinia’s affection.

Scene 3: A debate between Gaius and Publius takes place in the Senate over the state of the Republic. Manlius frames the issues at stake. Gaius wants swift passage of his agrarian bill for land redistribution. To bolster his case, Gaius accuses Publius of criminal conduct, including the death of Fatuus. Incensed, Publius threatens Gaius and the Populares with the Ultimate Act (martial law), and then storms out of the Senate with the Optimates in tow. Manlius warns Gaius of the acute political danger, especially as the Optimates are in the majority. Civil war looms.

Scene 4: A veiled and conflicted Licinia arrives secretly at the palace of Gaius’s enemy. Flattering her and promising to take care of her and her son, Publius uses the prospect of divorce and remarriage to overcome Licinia’s hesitancy and finally to seduce her.

Scene 5: Lads and Lasses on the Capitoline dance before the Temple of the three gods, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Blossius leans against the pillar of Minerva. Gaius and Manlius arrive, sending off the young dancers. There is a dialogue between Gaius, Manlius, and Blossius. The philosopher urges retirement and a life of contemplation. Manilius tries to persuade Gaius not to aggravate the confrontation with Publius, but instead to seek compromise. Gaius is reluctant. Manilius offers a solution to the crisis: they’ll bring Publius to court. The Tribune gives him three days to launch a prosecution before he takes matters into his own hands.

Scene 6: Guilt-ridden over her adultery, Licinia arrives at the grotto of the Sibyl. There she expresses contrition and begs the Sibyl to search into the divine mysteries concerning the future. Licinia receives an ominous and enigmatic prophecy about the fate of her household, which fills her with consternation.


ACT II

Scene 1: Introductory commentary by Loquax. At the Gracchi farm, Manlius reports to Gaius of the failure of the prosecution against his adversary, despite the fact that Loquax witnessed the murder of Fatuus. Publius owns the courts. Gaius is resigned to a final reckoning. Manilius departs and Licinia enters to seek forgiveness from Gaius. After a stormy tête-à-tête, culminating with Gaius’s sword against Licinia’s neck, they reconcile in an epiphany of mutual forgiveness. The Tribune’s wife pleads with her husband not to leave the safety of the farm, but Gaius has unfinished political business in Rome. He tells Licinia to meet him the next evening in the Plebeian Temple of Diana on the Aventine in order to renew their marriage vows. After parting words to his son, Gaius leaves for Rome and a showdown with Publius.

Scene 2: Subsequent to a meeting with Gaius in Rome, Manlius, fearing his friend will cause the fall of the Republic, visits Publius and betrays Gaius’s plans: when the Senate is in session, the Tribune intends to lead the Mob to its doors and there demand implementation of reform measures, afterwards he’ll join Licinia in the Temple of Diana.

Scene 3: Gaius addresses the Mob on the Field of Mars. They march to the Senate. The Tribune pounds on the Senate’s great doors. Publius has been made Consul, the highest Roman magistrate. The doors open and Publius appears with guards, the Optimates, and some Populares. He reads to the throng the Ultimate Act condemning the Tribune and exiling him. The Tribune must not tarry. Then the Consul and his allies withdraw into the Senate and the doors are closed. Gaius tries to calm the Mob and to disperse them, if only to reassemble them later after considerations of legal recourse. Loquax has some advice. Gaius repairs to the Temple of Diana while the Mob begins to riot. The City is set on fire, fulfilling the dream of Tiberius Paulus.

Scene 4: Licinia meets Gaius in the temple. She tells of crossing paths with Manlius who informed her that Publius is gathering the Urban Cohort. They are coming for them. Licinia urges flight. Banking on certain official immunities, Gaius talks the fearful Licinia into proceeding with the renewal of their marriage vows. Manlius, Publius, and the Captain arrive with armed men of the Urban Cohort to arrest the Tribune. Publius encourages Licinia to leave with him. She refuses and Publius grabs her arm. Gaius rushes Publius and is impaled on his sword. The Consul is arrested by the Captain, who fears the violation of tribunician sanctity and divine wrath. Publius drops his sword and is taken away. Manlius flees. Licinia holds her dying husband as he slips away. With Publius’s sword, stained with the blood of Gaius, she takes her own life.

Scene 5: Cornelia delivers a funeral oration on the steps of the Temple of Concord in the Roman Forum, before which is set the pyre of Gaius and Licinia. The mother of the Gracchi speaks of the restoration of civil harmony and relates the execution of Publius and Manlius’s suicide. The oration finished, Tiberius Paulus lights the pyre of his parents. Ethereal strains are heard from the Sibyl. Flames arise and subside, and all becomes dark except for a light upon the pyre, before which dance a Lad and Lass. Final curtain.