Today, the 54 hectares of the Field of Mars Reserve is all that remains undeveloped of the original area of the Field of Mars Common. The debate over the sale of this common land reveals a nineteenth century connection with Rome and the Agrarian Law of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus

Established in 1804 on land owned by the Wallumattagal peoples, the Field of Mars Common extended from Baronia Park to Pennant Hills. Much of the Common was sold off in the 1880s in five acre (two hectare) blocks after the 1874 Resumption Bill was passed. The sale of land provided the government with funds to build bridges connecting the north of Paramatta River to Sydney. The proposal to sell the Common sparked years of petitions and letters to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald both against and in support of the sale. These provide us with key insights into the contested nature of land ownership in the nineteenth century.

The Common was originally granted by Governor King on behalf of the British Crown to the settlers, so they could have common land to graze their cattle and stock. The grant was intended to be forever under trust for the benefits of the settlers, the cultivators and other inhabitants. Whilst it was still being used for this purpose when the sale was proposed, reasons for the sale related to the misuse of the Common and a lack of financial resources for the development of infrastructure.

In 1873, a Petition of Resumption put forth by residents of Ryde and Hunters Hill, who backed the sale of the Common due to it “lying in waste” and being “unproductive”. Claims of bad characters (e.g. criminals, squatters) occupying the area for 25 years come up, as well as the absence of timber, due to it allegedly being cut and sold in the Sydney market.

Letters to the Sydney Morning Herald Connect the Sale of the Common to Ancient Rome

A series of letters to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald were published over the course of the 1861 concerning the sale of the Field of Mars Common. Most are in response to each other under pseudonyms or listing initials. Those who opposed the building of a bridge, such as an “H.B”, praised the trustees of the Common for not giving in to the Government and fighting for their “rights and privileges to the Common”. Those who opposed the sale of the Common for the building of bridges were labelled “commoners”, reflected by the pseudonym “The Commoner”. A man, who signed his letter as John Bull, argued that it was cheaper for the farmers to send produce into Sydney by train via Paramatta rather than directly by road and therefore the road and bridge was of no use to them, the majority, and would also come at the cost of railway tolls.

It seems that not all the men of the Common opposed the sale, seeing the benefit of a quicker route to Sydney and how it would benefit the poor men who went to the markets to sell produce as pointed out by “Mars the Commoner” and “Sempronius” arguing against an “E.M”.

“Mars the Commoner” possibly took the “Mars” aspect as a link to the Roman war god whom the Campus Martius in Rome is named after. The man writing under the name of “Sempronius” is probably making a reference to Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, who while tribune of the plebs in 133 BC proposed an agrarian law called the Lex Sempronia Agraria that protected Rome’s common land (ager publicus) from expropriation by larger land owners.

Tiberius Gracchus and the Lex Sempronia Agraria

Born to parents of prominent plebian and patrician Roman families, it was no surprise that Tiberius Gracchus entered into a political career, elected as one of the ten tribunes of the plebs in 133 BC. Whilst he held the office, he had the Lex Sempronia Agraria passed, which rectified the issues of land ownership between the rich and poor citizens. Land conquered by the Romans would either be sold or kept as common land by the state for the poor to cultivate in return for a small amount of rent. Eventually the rich started raising the rent to the point that the poor could no longer afford access to the common land, and then started buying up the land despite a law passed which limited land ownership to 500 iugera (125 hectares). Tiberius’ law offered compensation to the landholders who had acquired over 500 iugera and bought up the common land in return for giving it back to the common people, most likely anticipating their greed and dissatisfaction with the law in an attempt to appease them. The law eventually passed despite the resistance from those who did not want to relinquish land. However, due to accusations from political opponents that he sought kingship, Tiberius was killed in a riot escalated by senators and the Pontifex Maximus Publius Nasica.


Plutarch, Roman Lives Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus trans. R. Waterfield, Oxford University Press.

Christie, M. (2004), “Field of Mars Common is 200 Years Old”, The Hunters Hill Trust Inc. Journal 43.2, pp. 2-3.

Northern District Times, Friday 18 March 1994, p 34.

Richards, T. (1862), Minutes of Evidence Taken before the Select Committee on the Field of Mars Common 14 January 1862, Legislative Assembly, New South Wales.

Unknown (Jan. 21 1873), Field of Mars Common Petition for Resumption – Residents of Ryde and Hunter’s Hill, Legislative Assembly, New South Wales.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 15 January 1846, pg 2.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 12 March 1846, pg 3.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 6 September 1861, pg 5.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 19 September 1861, pg 8.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 24 September 1861, pg 8.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 17 October 1861, pg 3.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 22 October 1861, pg 3.

Sarah McAliece

Sarah is an undergraduate student studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Ancient History and Ancient Languages. She has thoroughly enjoyed learning Latin and Ancient Greek, and aims to get a doctorate in the future.