Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi

Certainly one of the most remarkable women of any period in Roman history was Cornelia, mother of Tiberius and Gaius. She was born in the late Republic, a time when the Roman matrona had evolved from the politically powerful Hellenistic princesses, expanding cultural opportunities for women. As a daughter of a hero, wife of an aristocrat, mother of the champions of the Roman people, Cornelia was admired for her virtue, fidelity, and especially for her intelligence. She moved in circles that were open only to the most respected women in Rome. It is clear, however, that, while her family connections were strong, her own abilities won the admiration and confidence of important Romans. She was sought out for advice and conversation long after the death of her husband and sons and later writers portrayed her as the ideal Roman matron.

Cornelia was born the younger daughter of Publius Scipio Africanus, renowned for defeating Hannibal, and his wife Aemilia in the late 190s BCE. She married the consul Tiberius Sempornius Gracchus in the time period between 175 - 165 BCE. Plutarch, a Greek historian of the first century CE, stated that the marriage was one of mutual love derived from the union of two of the most virtuous individuals in Rome. However, Polybius, a Greek historian of the second century BCE, states the betrothal of Cornelia to the much older Tiberius Gracchus occurred after her father's death and was arranged by close relatives.

With him she bore twelve children, yet only three lived to adulthood, Sempronia, Tiberius, and Gaius. Tiberius was most likely born in 163 BCE, with Gaius following nine years later. Sempronia was probably older than both of her brothers as she was already the wife of Scipio Aemilianus when the seventeen year old Tiberius was serving under her husband's command in Africa. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus died in 154-153 BCE, leaving Cornelia to raise her daughter and two sons on her own, with Tiberius being around the age of nine and Gaius being an infant. She supervised their education and filled them with the culture and refinement that she herself had absorbed in her parent's home.

Soon after the death of her husband, the Egyptian monarch Ptolemy VIII Physcon proposed to her and she outright refused him to remain faithful to the memory of her husband. She was praised for her devotion to her household and the education of her children. Cicero details how carefully she sought out the finest Greek tutors, such as the famous rhetorician Diophanes of Mytilene and the Stoic Blossius of Cumae. He further states that her children were nourished more by her conversation than her breast. At a time when other women of her age were displaying their various ornamentation, Cornelia declared that her sons were her most precious jewels.

It would be difficult to separate Tiberius' short and dramatic political career entirely from his mother's influence. From childhood, she had groomed him for success, and it is doubtful Tiberius considered her any less a political ally and advisor. Her reputation was able to survive rumors that she assisted her daughter in the murder of Scipio Aemilianus because he opposed the legislation of Tiberius. Following the assassination that cut short Tiberius' promising career, Cornelia did not let her son's memory fade away. She was a major factor in fashioning his subsequent image as a martyr for the popular cause, which was gaining momentum in Rome, largely because of Tiberius' land reform program.

Her influence on her younger son Gaius, who, as tribune in 123 BCE, lionized his brother's efforts and became leader of the popular movement, must have been just as strong. In one of her letters she begs Gaius not to employ the same methods of radical reform as did his brother. When he too died violently in 121 BCE, Cornelia gloried in the memory of her two sons and continued to be admired for her political acumen and intelligence. She was as much a politician as any woman could be in a society that did not allow the formal participation of women in politics.

Plutarch gives the fullest account of Cornelia's life. He describes how Cornelia carried on her life after the death of her two sons, Tiberius and Gaius:

.........Cornelia is reported to have borne all her misfortunes in a noble and magnanimous spirit, and to have said of the sacred places where her sons had been slain that they were tombs worthy of the dead which occupied them. She resided on the promontory called Misenum and made no change in her customary way of living. She had many friends, and kept a good table that she might show hospitality, for she always had Greeks and other literary men about her, and all the reigning kings interchanged gifts with her. She was indeed very agreeable to her visitors and associates when she discoursed to them about the life and habits of her father [Scipio} Africanus, but most admirable when she spoke of her sons without grief or tears, and narrated their achievements and their fate to all inquirers as if she were speaking of men of the early days of Rome. Some were therefore led to think that old age or the greatness of her sorrows had impaired her mind and made her insensible to her misfortunes, whereas, really, such person themselves were insensible how much help in banishment of grief mankind derives from a noble nature and from honorable birth and rearing.........

(Gaius Gracchus, 19.1-3)

Seneca, a Stoic philosopher of the first century CE, writes that she is an example of a woman who deserves to be ranked among the greatest of men and a statue was dedicated to her, bringing her closer to official status than any other woman. Unlike many other famous Roman women of antiquity, Cornelia was a major figure in her own right. She remains a paragon of virtue for the Roman people and a model of wife and mother of her time.

Baumon, Richard A. Women and Politics in Ancient Rome. Cornwall: T.J. Press, 1992

Cicero. On Government. London: Penguin Books, 1993

Kebric, Robert B.. Roman People, Second Edition. London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1997

Lefkowitiz, Mary R. and Fan, Maureen B. Women's Life in Greece and Rome. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992

Stockton, David L. The Gracchi. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979