Notable Women of the Roman Republic: Cornelia the Mother of the Gracchi

Cornelis Africana Refusing the Hand of King Ptolemy of Egypt

Cornelia Refusing the Hand of King Ptolemy of Egypt

In my last blog about notable women of the Roman Republic, I wrote about Aemilia Paulla, the daughter of Aemilius Paullus the Roman consul slain at Cannae, and wife of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Carthage in the second Punic war.

 

In this blog I will write about her younger daughter, Cornelia Minor, arguably the most famous and revered woman of the Republic.

 

Cornelia Minor was born around the year 190 B.C.E., the second daughter and fourth surviving child of Publius Cornelia Scipio Africanus and his wife Aemilia Paulla. She had two older brothers, Publius and Lucius, and one older sister, Cornelia Major.

 

Politics in Ancient Rome was vicious and became increasingly more so as time went by. Cornelia’s father, Scipio, who had served Rome so spectacularly in the second Punic war, was under political attack by Marcus Porcius Cato the elder. Cato disapproved of the fact that Scipio had made peace, on Roman terms, with Carthage rather than destroying the city. He also disapproved of Scipio’s Graecophilia-his tendency to promote Greek culture, art and philosophy. He charged Scipio with bribery, a capital crime, in his dealings with Antiochus III in the recent conflict with the seleucid empire. Scipio responded by retiring, in disgust, to his estate in Liternum where he died two years later.

 

Cornelia was about seven years old when her father died. Her mother Aemilia outlived her father  by about twenty-five years.

 

Cornelia was married at about the age of seventeen to the much older Tiberius Gracchus. The marriage was probably arranged by her eldest brother Publius. Gracchus had been a political adversary of Scipio, but had protected both him and his brother Lucius when they were charged with offenses by Cato.

The marriage was a happy one and Cornelia bore twelve children in the eighteen years that they were married. Only three of these survived to adulthood. The eldest, Sempronia, was married to her mother’s nephew, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, who had been adopted by Cornelia’s brother Publius. Given what followed, this marriage could be said to have been made in Hades. The other two surviving children were Tiberius and Gaius, who would grow up to be the reformers known as “The Gracchi.”

There is a story that Cornelia’s husband, Tiberius Gracchus discovered two snakes in his bed chamber, a male and a female. He consulted a haruspex who told him that he must kill one and let the other go. If he killed the male, he would soon die, and if he killed the female, Cornelia would die. Tiberius opted to kill the male, and he died not long afterward.

 

Left a widow, Cornelia threw her energies into educating her children. At the time of their father’s death, Sempronia was probably about eleven, Tiberius ten and Gaius an infant. There is a story that a Campanian woman was showing her jewels off to Cornelia and Cornelia pointed to her children and said “These are my jewels.”

 

Cornelia took after her famous father in her Graecophilia. She hired the well known Greek scholars, Blossius of Cumae and Diophanes of Mitylene to tutor her children. (Cumae is in Italy but was settled by Greek speaking people.) Blossius was a philosopher and Diophanes taught rhetoric. Cornelia’s own writings (letters to her sons,) were studied generations later by Roman scholars such as Atticus and Cicero and these scholars expressed great admiration for her erudition. Evidently, Cornelia surpassed nearly all of the Romans of her day in her command of the Latin language. These scholars also attributed both of her sons’ renown oratorical talents to Cornelia’s influence.

 

Cornelia’s sons, Tiberius and Gaius, although about nine years apart, had similar military and political careers. Tiberius accompanied his brother-in-law, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemelianus to Carthage in the third Punic war. He also served in Spain. Upon leaving the military he got himself elected to tribune of the plebs and launched a campaign of land reform. He so offended powerful aristocratic elements in the senate that his own cousin Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio, precipitated a riot in which Tiberius and three hundred followers were killed. His younger brother Gaius also went into the military, served in Spain and Sicily and stood for Tribune when he returned to Rome. Again, Gaius’ reforms didn’t sit well with the aristocracy and, after an incident in which the Consul Lucius Opimius’ servant was killed by one of Gaius’ followers, a Senatus Consultum Ultimum was declared which enabled Opimius to send his military forces to destroy Gaius followers. Gaius Gracchus and three thousand of his followers were killed.

 

Cornelia outlived her famous sons by a number of years. She probably died around 100 B.C.E.

She lived at her estate in Misenum where she received a constant stream of visitors and entertained her guests generously. Despite their tragic deaths, she was able to talk about her sons with pride and without becoming tearful. It is quite possible that she derived her emotional fortitude from her Stoic philosophy, which dictates that one must accept the vicissitudes of life.

 

After her death the Romans erected a statue in her honor, and she became a role model for generation after generation of Roman women.

 

Comments

  1. Thank you. Everyone revered Cornelia “mother of the Gracchi,” but I’m sorry you’re ending your series. It would be interesting to hear your take on Sempronia’s later adventures – and her daughters’.

  2. Hi Judith,
    I’m not ending the series. My next blog will be about our poor Sempronia. There were two notable Roman women named Sempronia. One was the daughter of Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi. She was a most unfortunate person, horrible marriage to Scipio Minor and terrible tragedy with both her brothers. She, herself had no children. The second Sempronia was the only surviving child of Sempronia’s brother Gaius. She was famous, or perhaps infamous in her own right, and was the mother of Fulvia, wife to the infamous Clodius and later to Mark Anthony. I will be writing about all of them in due course.
    Robin

  3. Hi, I was wondering what was, if any, Cornelia’s professional experience, her accomplishments, did she have any educational background? Can you emphasize on the employment history, names, locations, and years of employment, the special success that Cornelia would be proud of, and school names and years attended, or any degrees held with what majors?

  4. Cornelia was born in the early 2nd century B.C. She was the daughter of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal. He was wealthy and powerful. In those day women did not attend schools or have professions, but Cornelia certainly had the best available tutors at home and was one of the most educated women of her time. Cicero praised her writing and believed that she had passed her skills onto her sons, Tiberius and Gaius who were both superb orators.

  5. Do you know her husband I really need to know who he was for my project.

  6. Yes. Cornelia’s husband was Tiberius Gracchus the Elder, and he was a fascinating character in his own right. He was from a prominent plebeian family and his uncle, by the same name, was a famous general in the Second Punic War. Tiberius himself had a successful political career. He was a tribune of the plebes and served as Consul twice. He was not politically allied with Cornelia’s father Scipio Africanus, but he respected him for his great deeds in the Second Punic War and he interfered with Cato the Elder’s attempt to prosecute him. Cornelia was just a child when her father died so her marriage to Gracchus was probably arranged by her older brother. The marriage was a happy one which produced twelve children, of whom, unfortunately, only three survived. The two surviving sons, Tiberius and Gaius both became ardent reformers and both perished with their followers at the hands of the Roman aristocracy which felt threatened by them.

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