Notable Women of the Roman Republic: Sempronia the Sister of the Gracchi


Tiberius Gracchus

In our last blog in our series Notable Women of the Roman Republic we wrote about Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi. Cornelia was the daughter of the great Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus who conquered Carthage at the end of the second Punic war. She was married to Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and had twelve children by him, only three of whom survived to adulthood. The eldest, Sempronia, was about eleven when her father died. Her brother, Tiberius, was about ten, and her other brother, Gaius, was an infant.


Cornelia was very much involved in her children’s educations. She employed the renown philosopher Blossius of Cumae and the rhetorician Diophanes of Mitylene as their tutors. Sempronia was probably one of the best educated women in Rome. A few fragments of Cornelia’s writing survive, but if Sempronia left any writing to posterity, it hasn’t survived.


Sempronia was married at the age of about seventeen to Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus who was about twenty years her senior. Publius was the adopted son of Cornelia’s brother Publius who, not wishing to pass on familial infirmities, had no children of his own. Publius’ biological father was Cornelia’s brother Lucius Aemilius Paullus. Paullus had adopted out his two elder sons because he had divorced their mother and remarried. He wanted the eldest son from the second marriage to inherit his estate. Nevertheless, the two elder sons accompanied Paullus in 168 B.C. when he went to war with Perseus of Macedonia. On that campaign Paullus and his sons met Polybius, the Hipparch of Megalopolis. Roman politics being what they were, Polybius ended up a hostage in Rome, but having been befriended by Paullus he was retained to tutor Publius and his brother Quintus Fabius Maximus (who had been adopted by a grandson of the famous Quintus Fabius Maximus Veruccosus Cunctator.)


Shortly after Sempronia and Publius were married, Publius was elected consul and sent to Carthage to complete its conquest and destruction. Rome had been at war with Carthage for three years. The war was entirely at Rome’s instigation and the Roman government was determined to destroy Carthage once and for all. The Romans believed that Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemelianus was just the man to accomplish this.


Sempronia’s marriage to Publius could not have been a happy one. There developed a breach between Publius and Sempronia’s brother Tiberius as a result of Tiberius’ treaty with Numantium, a city in Spain. Mancinus, the general under whom Tiberius was serving as quaestor, had managed to get himself and 20,000 soldiers trapped in a defile by the Numantines. Tiberius’ father had dealt justly with the Numantines years before and they told Mancinus that they would treat only with his son. Tiberius negotiated a deal with the Numantines that they would let the 20,000 soldiers and their camp followers go in exchange for a treaty with Rome allowing them sovereignity. Pubius denounced the treaty on the floor of the senate and it was abrogated. Tiberius naturally harbored resentment against his brother-in-law for forcing the abrogation of a treaty that he had worked hard to effect and which had saved the lives of 20,000 Roman soldiers.


Three years later, Publius got himself elected consul,  went to Spain, and brutally destroyed Numantium, selling the few survivors into slavery. He was still in Spain when he got word that Sempronia’s brother, Tiberius, who had been active in enacting land reform laws, had been killed in a riot instigated by members of the Roman senate. He loudly quoted the words of Homer: “Thus perish all others who on such wickedness venture.”


Polybius and Cicero both sang the praises of Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, but there are indications that he had a marked cruel streak. Apart from conquering and totally destroying Carthage and Numantium, which may be said to have been his duty as a Roman consul and was done at the behest of the Roman senate, there are accounts that he executed deserters “ad bestia.” that is, he had them torn apart by wild animals, and that in the campaign against Numantia, when young men from Lutia, a neighboring town, plotted to come to the aid of the Numantines, Publius had four hundred of the youths rounded up and cut off their hands. Publius was caustic in his discourse with his political adversaries, and he may well have been caustic with his wife when displeased with her. Sempronia was not reputed to have been attractive and it is likely that he married her for her dowry and the assistance the alliance with her illustrious family could lend to his political career.


It would seem that Sempronia sided with her brothers in their conflict with Publius. Publius is quoted as saying of Sempronia: “She’s not beautiful and she’s not fertile.” The marriage produced no issue. I strongly suspect that after Tiberius’ assassination, Sempronia left her husband’s house permanently. Ten years later, Sempronia’s brother Gaius, an even more dynamic reformer than Tiberius, would meet a facte similar to his brother’s.


Ancient historians describe Sempronia as “unlovely, unloving, and unloved.” I suspect that there was probably more to her than that, and that she was a victim of the vicious political dynamic of Rome in her era.


The only survivor in her family, Sempronia was summoned to Rome in 100 B.C. to give testimony as to whether Equitius, who claimed to be an illegitimate son of Tiberius, was telling the truth. Valerius Maximus, writing over 100 years later, praises Sempronia for standing up to the bullying of Saturninus and his faction and denying Equitius’ claim emphatically, thus bringing about the aquittal of Metellus Caecilius Macedonicus, the former censor who had disenfranchised Equitius. In my fictional account of Sempronia, a work in progress, I quote her as saying: “I have little doubt that this Equtius is a bastard, but he’s not Tiberius’ bastard.”

The Gracchi

Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus


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