Cornelia (c. 195–c. 115 BCE)

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Cornelia (c. 195–c. 115 bce)

Roman wife of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (one of the most powerful Romans of his generation), mother of the Gracchi (whose careers sparked the revolution that overthrew the Roman Republic), and one of the most influential political and cultural figures of her day. Name variations: Cornelia Sempronii. Pronunciation: Cor-NEE-lia. Born around 195 bce; died around 115 bce; second daughter of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (the Roman victor over Hannibal in the Second Punic War) and Aemilia; married Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, around 175 (died 154 bce); children: 12, though only Sempronia, Tiberius Gracchus, the younger, and Gaius Gracchus, survived to adulthood.

Cornelia was the product of a marriage linking the Cornelii (through her father) and the Aemilii (through her mother), two of Rome's most established patrician families in the generations before her birth. Cornelia's family on both sides constituted a virtual who's who of prominent Roman politicians and generals in the period of the middle Republic. Some of these had patriotically sacrificed their lives; others were among the greatest war-heroes Rome had ever produced. Cornelia's father, Publius Cornelius Scipio, who, after his victory over Carthage in the Second Punic War, was awarded the honorific name "Africanus," was the greatest of them all, but her family's service to Rome was not limited to the charismatic conqueror of Hannibal. To name only the most prominent of the others: Cornelia's paternal grandfather and great uncle had both died fighting Carthage in Spain, and her maternal grandfather, as one of Rome's two serving consuls, had been slaughtered with sword in hand, along with tens of thousands of others, fighting Hannibal at Cannae in the greatest military defeat any Roman army would ever experience.

At the time of Cornelia's birth, Scipio Africanus was enjoying the height of his popularity and political influence—an influence that left, as its greatest legacies, the transformation of the Roman army from a militia into a semi-professional force and imperial expansion throughout the Mediterranean basin. Nevertheless, no republic can long function under the dominance of only one man or faction. While Rome's influence was spreading as a result of its victory over Carthage in the Second Punic War (218–201), there arose an increasing concern that foreign ways would undermine the traditional institutions and morality that had been credited with Rome's success. Conservative, perhaps even reactionary, anxieties began to influence the electorate. These were successfully tapped by Scipio's political arch-enemy, Marcus Porcius Cato, often referred to as the "Elder" or "Censor," to distinguish him from his equally famous great-grandson. Cato made a virtue of "Romaness" by attacking everything foreign. In addition to ending every one of his speeches with the exhortation "but first … Carthage must be destroyed!," Cato, though well versed in Greek himself, attacked everything Hellenic as degenerate and socially dangerous. Over time, Cato's fulminations had an effect upon Scipio's popularity, for there was no greater philhellene in Rome than Scipio. Scipio was a devotee of Greek literature and art, surrounding himself with as many hellenic manuscripts and intellectuals as possible. When serving Rome in regions heavily populated by Greeks, such as Sicily and the East, he was even famous for "going native" by adopting Greek dress and customs. In addition to the fears such habits engendered, Scipio's infamous love of extravagant living, and an almost unprecedented 20-year-long political ascendancy that fed his arrogance, undermined his popularity at home. By the 180s, he and his brother, Lucius, came under increasing attack and ultimately under indictment for alleged abuses of power and the misuse of public funds. Although neither Scipio was convicted, the influence of Cornelia's father was broken. He withdrew from Rome and politics to die at Liternum a bitter man in 184.

Cornelia's mother Aemilia had at least four children—two sons and two daughters—who lived to adulthood. Although we know little about Aemilia, she appears to have shared her husband's interests in Greek culture and high living. At least, she appears to have been no miser, for she was famous for the rich, religious rituals she underwrote and for the expensive attire she donned, even during the bleakest hours of the Second Punic War when such dress was considered inappropriate. As far as her sons were concerned, neither ever approached Scipio's stature. The older, Publius, was denied a political career by ill-health and is most famous for the adoption of Scipio Aemilianus. The younger, Lucius, began a political career, reaching the praetorship in 174, but for unknown reasons fell afoul of powerful interests and never attained Rome's highest magistracy. Of Aemilia's daughters, we know only of the youngest Cornelia, who married Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (c. 175), after her brothers negotiated a political alliance between their interests and his.

Aemilia (fl. 195 bce)

Roman patrician. Flourished in 195 bce; daughter of Lucius Aemilius Paullus (consul in 219 and 216 bce); sister of Lucius Aemilius Paullus (consul in 182 and 168 bce); married Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (the Roman victor over Hannibal in the Second Punic War); children: two sons and two daughters who lived to adulthood, including Publius (who adopted Scipio Aemilianus); Lucius (praetor in 174); and Cornelia (c. 195–c. 115 bce).

Aemilia had four brothers. Her father Aemilius Paullus allowed two of them to be adopted by sonless friends to keep alive their family name. Ironically, the two brothers who were not adopted died before their father. Thus, legally, Aemilia's family died out when her father expired.

This match surprised many, both because the Sempronii and the Cornelii had long been at political odds, and because Tiberius had previously attacked some of the policies of Cornelia's father. Apparently, however, his had been more a principled protest of specific policies than an out and out attack, for as a tribune in 184 Tiberius twice vetoed actually bringing Scipio to trial on trumped up charges. Cornelia's husband was of a plebeian, but noble, family. Tiberius' grandfather had attained the consulship in 238. Tiberius himself would become one of the greatest figures of his generation, reaching the consulship twice, in 177 and 163, and also serving as censor in

169. In addition, he triumphed twice for military conquests in Spain and Sardinia, and was elected as an augur, an important religious office with political implications. Undoubtedly, therefore, as Cornelia's brothers saw their political fortunes waning, they sought to hitch their futures to that of a rising "star." Although it is clear that at one level this was a thoroughly political union, it is equally clear that Tiberius and Cornelia came to love one another deeply. They jointly produced 12 children, though only three survived childhood, and immersed them in philhellenism. Subsequently as a highly sought after widow (Tiberius died in 154), she would refuse all proposals of marriage (one of which even came from a King Ptolemy of Egypt) to remain a univira (literally, a "one-man" woman) and thus, faithful to her husband.

Cornelia was the ideal Roman matron, steadfast in upholding the honor of her husband, efficient in running the household, and dedicated to the rearing of her children. Tiberius' and Cornelia's marriage appears to have been idyllic by Roman standards. He tended to the affairs of the state and the family's public interests, while she reigned over the domestic scene, charged with overseeing a substantial establishment composed of children, slaves, and free attendants. That she was well suited to her responsibilities by ability, personality, and education, no one doubted. Cornelia was of strong character, forceful opinion, and she inherited her father's fabled charisma. She was also educated in the arts as well as the practical skills necessary to oversee a sizeable household and to enhance the political ambitions of a Roman Senator. The resulting combination made her the intellectual and emotional, if not legal, equal of any spouse. Her personal advantages, together with the formidable status and reputation of her family, insured Tiberius' devotion to and appreciation of his wife. As a result, Cornelia's and Tiberius' relationship surpassed the formal expectations of a traditional Roman political marriage.

Of Cornelia's relationship with her children, the sources are also clear: they always remained close. Unlike some of her station, Cornelia was personally diligent in the raising of her children. Their upbringing began with a thorough indoctrination in the traditional Roman virtues—piety, patriotism, honesty, self-sacrifice, knowing the value of thrift and dedication, a sense of responsibility, a sense of justice, a sense of proper restraint—and then proceeded to the magnificence of the classical Greek literary canon. No expense was spared to supply them with the best Greek tutors, with well-known intellectuals such as Diophanes of Mitylene and Blossius, the Stoic philosopher from Cumae, invited into her household for the sake of her children. Rhetoric was especially emphasized so that when each was in a position to make a public mark, it would be an eloquent one, steeped in hellenic humanitas.

Sempronia was the oldest of Cornelia's offspring to survive childhood, and although no beauty, her status and training garnered a proposal of marriage around 155 from Scipio Aemilianus, perhaps the most eligible bachelor of his day. This union was probably one of the last accomplishments of Cornelia's husband before his death, and, despite whatever emotions were involved, it reeked of politics. By birth, Scipio Aemilianus was the second son of L. Aemilius Paullus, under whom he served when the Romans conquered the Macedonians in the Third Macedonian War in 168. Scipio, however, had already been adopted by Publius Scipio, the sonless son of Aemilia and Scipio Africanus and the brother of Cornelia. In addition, Aemilius Paullus was the brother of Scipio Africanus' wife, Aemilia. Thus, Sempronia married a man who was biologically her mother's uncle's son and legally her cousin. The marriage reinforced links with two established political allies of the Sempronian clan and two families renowned for their staunch support of Roman imperialism and philhellenic attitudes. With the death of Tiberius, Scipio Aemilianus became the dominant figure of Cornelius' family circle. Shortly after his marriage to Sempronia, Aemilianus' career sky-rocketed. Serving in Spain in the late 150s, he insured his place in history with an early consulship (147) after which he defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War (146). This was Rome's final conflict with its fiercest rival, for Carthage was thereafter obliterated in order to preclude a fourth clash. A censorship followed for Aemilianus (142), as did a second consulship (134), and another command in Spain (133) where his younger brother-in-law, Tiberius, served under him, and where he was again victorious. Aemilianus' private life, however, withered as his public fortunes blossomed. He and Sempronia did not have children, and over time the two proved incompatible. In fact, when he was murdered in 129, some accused Sempronia—and through her, Cornelia—of complicity. Personal ties aside, however, it was politics that would drive a wedge between Aemilianus and his in-laws.

Sempronia (c. 168 bce–?)

Roman noblewoman. Born around 168 bce; daughter of Cornelia (c. 195–c. 115 bce) and Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus; married Scipio Aemilianus, around 155 (died 129 bce); no children.

Tiberius Gracchus the Younger was ten and Gaius Gracchus less than a year old when their father died. Thus, just at the time when a young Roman noble would begin to look to his father for guidance in the rough political arena of the world's greatest city, Tiberius the Younger had no father. Cornelia assumed the duties of a father as well as a mother to her two "jewels," as she referred to her sons, and by all accounts, she did so impeccably. It was said that although both were "well endowed by nature, they were thought to owe their virtues more to education than to nature." Ambitious through and through, Cornelia held up Aemilianus' success as a model for her maturing sons, even reproaching them as they grew older "because the Romans still called her the mother-in-law of Scipio, but not the mother of the Gracchi." When old enough to begin his military service, Tiberius the Younger did so under Aemilianus in Africa against Carthage (146). In 137, as a quaestor in Spain, to which he had been assigned thanks to his father's earlier service in the region, Tiberius the Younger experienced something that would radically affect his future and that of his immediate family.

To understand the significance of Tiberius the Younger's Spanish service, however, we must digress somewhat. Since the end of the Second Punic War in 201, Rome had become an imperial power, conquering lands and adding them as provinces to the Republic. In the process, Rome found it constantly necessary to maintain large armies outside of Italy—armies that both protected Roman interests and stimulated further conquest. These armies were mostly composed of Roman citizens, who legally owed the state military service if they owned a minimum of landed property. Of course, as the distances between Italy and wherever these armies fought increased, it became necessary to keep the soldiers under arms for longer and longer periods, thus preventing the men who constituted Rome's draftable population away from their small, family farms for increasingly extended periods. This, in turn, made it more and more difficult for the farms of the absentee legionnaires to maintain their profitability. Over time, unable to maintain a traditional lifestyle, tens of thousands of these farmers sold off their ancestral lands and their families moved into rapidly growing cities, especially Rome. Unfortunately, with no industrial base in the modern sense, there were few jobs in the cities. So, when whatever profits from the sale of these farms had been spent, these Romans became destitute and absolutely reliant on rich patrons and/or the state for survival.

To this festering social dislocation other factors contributed. For one thing, Hannibal's presence in Italy for 16 years during the Second Punic War had already damaged extensive areas of the Italian countryside, again worsening the plight of the small farmer. For another, with Rome's military successes against Carthage, in Spain, in Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicily, in the Balkans, and in Anatolia came extensive financial profits, which rolled into Italy in the form of booty, and continued to be imported through increasing revenues reaped from provincial taxation. Unfortunately, most of the money fell into the hands of Rome's Senatorial nobility, opening up a wider and wider chasm between the haves and the have-nots. By law, no Senator could be engaged in any business but farming, thus as the rich got richer, they tended to invest their money in land, which their poorer compatriots sold off. Huge plantations were amassed, and these came to be worked by a large population of imported slaves—slaves that the many Roman wars made relatively inexpensive. In other words, Rome's imperial growth greatly, and adversely, affected the social structure of Roman Italy.

Cornelius Nepos">

You will say that it is glorious to take vengeance on one's enemies. That seems to no one greater and more glorious than it does to me, but only if it can be done without injury to one's country.

—Cornelia, excerpt of a letter from the Fragments of Cornelius Nepos

Serious ramifications followed, not the least of them being the great slave revolts that began to wreak havoc over the Italian countryside, but as far as Tiberius the Younger's career is concerned, we can focus on three things. First, when Romans became landless, legally they retained most of their rights, including the right to vote in elections, but they ceased to be eligible for service in the Roman army. As a result, the number of men on the draft roles plummeted at exactly the time when Rome's military commitments abroad were at their most extended. More commitments meant the need for more men—but legally the military manpower supply was drying up. Second, as the pool of potential draftees shrank, Roman generals were less willing to impose the harsh discipline traditionally associated with military service. As a result, those armies that did exist proved to be less efficient in the field than their predecessors. And third, with so many destitute Romans having no ethical way to earn a living in the cities, in large numbers they began to sell their votes to the Senators most willing to pay to get elected to political offices—offices, which invariably put them into a position to tap the financial flow from Rome's growing number of provinces. Thus, a vicious cycle of political corruption and moral decay—an age of "bread and circuses"—had begun.

Such was the situation when Tiberius the Younger journeyed to Spain to assume his official responsibilities as quaestor (137). On the way, as he traversed northern Italy, Tiberius was struck by the number of slaves he saw working the land in lieu of the free population he knew had once tilled that soil. When he arrived in Spain, Tiberius' chief duty was to negotiate the freedom of an incompetent general, Hostilius Mancinus. Mancinus had led his less-than-disciplined army into ambush and captivity as he sought to collect booty and win a cheap victory, one he could turn into a triumph back at home. After playing upon his father's connections and reputation, Tiberius the Younger accomplished his mission, negotiating in good faith, but in so doing found it necessary to treat Mancinus' captors as if they were Rome's equals. When he returned to Rome with Mancinus, his army and a treaty that guaranteed that Rome would henceforth treat these Spaniards as free allies, his own brother-in-law led the Senate to accept the army, reject the treaty, and return Mancinus to Spain to be dealt with in any way his one-time captors wished. Eventually, the Spaniards returned him to Rome unharmed, reasoning that Mancinus and Rome deserved one another.

Scipio apparently acted as he did because he thought that an inexperienced Tiberius had given away too much by treating one Spanish tribe as Rome's equal. (Perhaps this was another factor in the deteriorating marriage of Aemilianus and Sempronia.) Regardless, Tiberius the Younger, having lost face, was furious with Aemilianus for what he considered a major betrayal, and, as a result, married the daughter of one of Aemilianus' most bitter political rivals, Ap-pius Claudius. Further, a few years later in 133, when Tiberius was elected to the tribunate, he introduced his famous Land Bill, backed initially by Claudius and a few other eminent Senators. This bill was meant to deal with several problems at once. It called for the distribution of Rome's extensive public lands strewn about Italy to landless citizens. By doing so, on the idealistic plane Tiberius the Younger hoped to repopulate rural Italy with Roman citizens: 1) to increase the number of those who would be eligible for military service; 2) to introduce an effective counterbalance to the growing slave threat to the free population of Italy; and 3) to stem the tide of political corruption that resulted when the Roman poor sold their votes to the rich.

Although on the surface Tiberius' bill appeared enlightened, it met immediate and stout resistance from the majority of his Senatorial peers, including Aemilianus. There were two reasons for this. First, the extensive tracts of publicly owned land that dotted the Italian peninsula and which had been acquired piece by piece as Rome extended its domination over its Italian neighbors had not been allowed to lie fallow since their initial acquisition. Indeed, to generate revenue for the state, the land had been leased to those willing to pay for its use. It should come as no surprise that by far the largest share of this public land was leased to Senators, who thereby augmented their privately owned plantations. Some of this public land had been leased out to powerful interests for generations before Tiberius' bill, and these stood to lose the cost of any improvements that had been made, as well as substantial future revenues if the state reclaimed them for another use. Greed, pure and simple, motivated much opposition. But there was also a political side to this proposal. That is, if Tiberius the Younger was successful, he could look forward to the political support of those who would thereby reacquire farms. The size of this clientage had the potential of redefining the shape of the existing Roman factions, and everybody who would not benefit from the scheme—including Aemilianus—howled at the prospect. Much rhetoric was expended and much political maneuvering attempted before it became clear that Tiberius had the upper hand among the Roman poor, if not the Senate. His rhetorical ability had won the day. Admitting temporary defeat, Tiberius' enemies nevertheless swore that they would reverse their fortunes when Tiberius the Younger surrendered his magistracy at the end of the year (all regular Roman offices were annual). Fearing that his magisterial successors might overturn his reforms, however, Tiberius announced that he would run for an unprecedented second consecutive tribunate. This unexpected development ignited his opposition. A force, led by the pontifex maximus (Rome's highest religious official), met the faction of Tiberius in the Roman forum. A riot ensued and when the dust settled, Tiberius the Younger and many of his supporters lay dead in the city's streets—the first loss of life in a civil disturbance in Rome since the foundation of the Republic, over 350 years earlier.

What role did Cornelia play in these affairs? Although Roman law prohibited a woman from holding public office, it is clear that Cornelia not only stood beside her older son—literally as well as figuratively, for she appeared with him in public as he emotionally appealed to the electorate—but actually helped to shape his political agenda. Nevertheless, with Tiberius the Younger dead and Aemilianus alienated, Cornelia had no access to the public forum until her younger son, Gaius, was old enough to join in the political fray. Thus, with one exception, she cultivated her cultural interests, furthered her younger son's education, and lived in relative obscurity for the next decade. That exception came in the year 129, when Aemilianus was assassinated, after a bold attempt of his own to advance the causes of justice and political expediency (he also wanted more clients) by championing the extension of Roman citizenship to long time Italian allies. The prospect was not only opposed by the most conservative Senators, but also by Rome's masses who feared that their own privileges would, as a result, be watered down. Although no more than slander, some accused both Cornelia and Sempronia of complicity in Aemilianus' death.

An active role for Cornelia was resurrected when Gaius, less disciplined than his brother but his rhetorical equal, ran for the tribunate in 123. The motives behind Gaius' political agenda were more complex than those that had spurred his brother a decade earlier, as indeed was the agenda itself. It is apparent, however, that Gaius was at least as motivated by a desire to avenge his brother's death as he was by anything else. His reform package contained many things that benefitted the have-nots in Roman society: it reinforced Tiberius' land bill; established colonies in and beyond Italy; subsidized a series of benefits for the urban poor; and, through road building, facilitated the bringing of food to markets, among others. Several aspects of his program, however, hint at a sinister purpose behind his seemingly progressive program. For example, he threw provincials to the wolves by effectively creating a system that prevented Roman governors from enforcing Roman law over Roman businessmen in the provinces. Thereafter, not only could honest governors not bring miscreants to heel but, those few who tried, ran the risk of being convicted by their businessmen/adversaries of provincial maladministration in courts controlled by the businessmen themselves. Also, in a series of laws, Gaius sought legal vengeance on those whom he knew to have been associated with the murder of the brother he had adored, even if stacked courts had convicted no one; he even sought to debase the entire Senatorial order for its perceived complicity in Tiberius' death.

Taking all of Gaius' legislation into account during his two tribunates, it seems clear that he was motivated less by idealism of any sort than by a sheer hatred of the entire class that had precipitated Tiberius' death. Although many of his laws benefitted non-Senators, they appear to have done so primarily to win those constituencies as allies so that the Senate could be assaulted. Regardless, in 123 and 122 Gaius' drive elevated him to the position of Rome's uncrowned king. His opponents, realizing that he was winning support through the dispensing of political pork, abided by the old maxim, "if you can't beat them, join them," and began to outbid Gaius for the loyalty of Rome's non-Senatorial classes.

During this period, Cornelia stood by her son's more progressive legislation while publicly decrying his irrational attacks upon the entire Senatorial order. She is known to have made him desist from attacks on one notable rival. Disregarding Cornelia's attempts to temper Gaius' activities, his political opponents lumped her with everything he attempted to do. In an almost unprecedented fashion, she became the object of public attack. One charge levelled against her was that she had organized agricultural workers to come to Rome, not to participate legitimately in Rome's political process but to act as goons to break up legitimate assemblies of Gaius' opponents. Given her known disapproval of her son's more radical tactics, this almost certainly was untrue, but Gaius was forced to defend Cornelia openly and, in the process, was able to win some sympathy from those who thought only the lowest of the low would publicly assail a prominent politician's mother. Nevertheless, it remains clear that Cornelia was actively partisan on both her sons' behalf to a degree that was unprecedented in her day. Thus, she set an example that influenced other women of her station to become more politically active.

Despite, or perhaps because of, her activism—not all of Rome welcomed women to politics—the tide flowed against Gaius by the end of 122. Outbid by his cynical rivals for the loyalty of the masses, and foolishly away from Rome to establish a colony on the old cite of Carthage at a crucial time, Gaius returned to discover some of his legislation already overturned. Acting precipitously to disrupt his enemies, he resorted to physical violence. Peace was restored only after Gaius and hundreds of his supporters had been butchered in the riots that followed.

The violence that surrounded the two Gracchi polarized Roman society and led to the intense factionalism that so disrupted law and order that it overthrew the Republic, the process coming to fruition with the victory of Octavian (Augustus) over Marc Antony and Cleopatra (VII) in 31—over a century of open civil strife in all. Bereft of her sons, Cornelia retired to the small town of Misenum, where she retained a high social and cultural profile presiding over perhaps the era's most influential literary salon, in the process fostering the Greco-Roman amalgam that would dominate the Mediterranean cultural scene for almost 500 years after her death. Kings exchanged gifts with her as they had for decades, friends visited, and intellectuals, especially Greek, dropped by to enjoy her hospitality. Cornelia seems to have made the most of her situation, although she clearly grieved the personal losses she had suffered.

In the few years between Gaius' death and her own, Cornelia began the process of her sons' political deification, speaking of them, tearlessly, in tones previously reserved for the legendary heroes of early Rome. Throughout, she also maintained a copious correspondence with friends beyond Misenum, expressing herself as a dedicated mother and loyal patriot in a style that was lofty enough to warrant publication and literary praise. In the generations that followed, her letters had a significant impact, and she came to be remembered more for her refined statements on what it was to be a philhellenic—but intensely patriotic—Roman matron than for the specific policies she and her sons once supported.


Cornelius Nepos. Fragments. Trans. by J.C. Rolfe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1929.

Plutarch, Makers of Rome: Lives of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Penguin, 1965.

suggested reading:

Astin, A.E. Scipio Aemilianus. Oxford, 1967.

Lefkowitz, M.R., and M.B. Fant. Women's Life in Greece and Rome. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1992.

Stockton, D. The Gracchi. Oxford, 1979.

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

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Cornelia (c. 195–c. 115 BCE)

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