Cornelia (c. 100–68 BCE)

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Cornelia (c. 100–68 bce)

Roman noblewoman and wife of emperor Julius Caesar. Born around 100 bce; died in 68 bce; daughter of Lucius Cornelius Cinna; married Gaius Julius Caesar (c. 100–44 bce), Roman emperor, in 84 bce; children: daughter Julia (d. 54 bce).

Cornelia was the daughter of the patrician, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, who, despite his ancient family, was a liberal by the standards of the 1st century bce. Between the years 87 and 84, Cinna was elected to an impressive four consulships, although he was not universally popular as these were years of Roman civil war pitting the liberal populares against the conservative "Optimates." Leading the Optimates was the brilliant but ruthless Lucius Cornelius Sulla, while Cinna and his even more illustrious colleague, Gaius Marius, championed the populares faction until both died: Cinna the victim of a military mutiny and Marius of old age. Bereft of such talented leadership, the populares cause floundered and eventually fell before Sulla who thereafter did his best (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to prevent its resurrection.

Before her father's death and Sulla's ascendancy, Cornelia was destined to link Cinna's political interests with those of a promising political ally in a highly charged political atmosphere. The appropriate match for Cornelia turned out to be the soon-to-be-famous Gaius Julius Caesar, because he had two especially attractive qualities at the time of their union. First, like Cornelia he was a patrician; and second, Caesar's family had been intimately associated with the populares faction since Cinna's colleague Marius had married Caesar's great-aunt, Julia (d. 68 bce). Together the marriages of Marius to Julia and of Cornelia to Caesar (in 84) helped to rehabilitate the political fortunes of Caesar's branch of his ancient family, for, despite the family's long history, none of Caesar's immediate forefathers had been distinguished.

Religion as well as politics were instrumental in bringing Cornelia and Caesar together. The polytheistic Romans believed that their gods demanded honor before any important business—public or private—could be transacted. In Rome, there were many important priesthoods (with varying expertises and responsibilities) significant to the running of the state, and each of these was much coveted because of the high status a priesthood conferred upon its holder. The most ancient of these religious offices were reserved for patricians who were married to patricians, because that class had at one time maintained a monopoly on all Roman political and religious authority. By the 1st century, however, the number of prominent patrician families had declined precipitously. Thus, when the position of flamen Dialis (an ancient priesthood, steeped in ritualistic taboo but nevertheless prestigious) came open in 84 and Caesar became the leading candidate for that office, it became necessary to procure for him a patrician spouse. Cornelia was a perfect choice, politically expedient and from the right social stratum for Caesar's political-religious advancement. Although theirs was an arranged marriage, it seems that it pleased both principals—especially Caesar, for he weathered stormy times on Cornelia's behalf.

Sulla's victory over the remnants of the populares' faction came in late 82, at which time he forbade on political grounds Caesar's completion of the ceremonies necessary to establish the younger man as the flamen Dialis. Thus, Caesar never held that priesthood. Ironically, however, the fact that Caesar had begun the process by which the flamen Dialis was made eligible to assume his duties probably saved his life, for a religious aura was perceived as surrounding such candidates. Although Sulla had his way with Caesar in regard to this priesthood, he was not successful in his demand that Caesar divorce Cornelia. Standing up to the dictator, Caesar insisted that he had no intention of shedding his wife. Such defiance at a time when Sulla was the political authority in Rome so endangered Caesar's life that he went into hiding in the nearby Sabine territory. Hunted down by a Sullan patrol, Caesar was able to escape Italy (making his way to Anatolia) only by buying off its officer with a significant bribe. Even so, Sulla had a modicum of revenge for Caesar's audacity, when he seized Cornelia's marriage dowry and severed all of her claims to her family's estate—a considerable financial loss to both Cornelia and Caesar. Nevertheless, Caesar's faithfulness did have a political payoff, for the remnants of the populares faction remembered his bravery and loyalty to his wife and, as a result, would later rally around his leadership.

Although little is known about their intimate relationship, Cornelia remained very important to Caesar throughout his early political career because she linked her husband's fortunes to her father's political faction. The marriage produced a daughter named Julia (d. 54 bce), and, since no known animosity split the couple, it is likely that the union was congenial to both parties.

In 68, the year after he obtained his first elective office, Caesar's great-aunt, Julia, died. Using her funeral in a political fashion to reinforce his claims to the loyalties of the remaining populares, Caesar delivered a famous eulogy. Soon thereafter, Cornelia also died at a young age. Although it was unusual to make an event out of the funeral of such a young woman, Caesar nevertheless broke with tradition to present another public oration. Under most circumstances, the Romans disliked such innovation, but Caesar's emotionally delivered eulogy for Cornelia moved his audience to admiration. As a result, the virtues attributed to Cornelia circulated widely after her demise among a respectful public, thus winning her an association in death with the most famous heroines from the Roman past.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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Cornelia (c. 100–68 BCE)

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