Sempronia (fl. 2nd–1st c. BCE)

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Sempronia (fl. 2nd–1st c. bce)

Roman noblewoman, thought to have been the first woman in history to appear in a Roman court, who played a role in the political upheaval of the times when she supported the Catiline. Flourished between the 2nd and 1st century bce; daughter of Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus; granddaughter of Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus (who had served as consul—the highest political office in the Roman Republic—in 129 bce and had written one of the earliest works on Roman law); married Decimus Junius Brutus, a Roman consul (r. 77 bce); married D. Junius Silanus, a Roman consul (r. 62 bce); children: (first marriage) mother or stepmother of Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus.

A member of a noble plebeian family, Sempronia was probably the daughter of Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus who reached the consulship (Rome's highest annually elected office) in 129. The Senate gave Sempronius Tuditanus the judicial authority associated with the agrarian commission established in 133 by his kinsman, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. This commission had been established to redistribute public land to the Roman poor, both to make them eligible again to serve in the Roman army (at the time, military service required the possession of land) and to get them out of Rome, where they were generally unemployed and willing to sell their collective vote at election time to the highest political bidder. Thus, perhaps somewhat naively, Tiberius Gracchus intended both to strengthen the Roman army and to lessen political corruption by his reform. The public land to be redistributed, however, had long been leased at well below market rates by Rome's richest citizens, including many among the political elite. As resistance to the reform grew among those in possession of the land, so did Tiberius Gracchus' hardball tactics in an effort to ensure its passage. Political passions eventually ignited and Tiberius Gracchus was murdered, thus sparking what would amount to four generations of civil war. Whether he sided with the political backlash against the redistribution of land, or whether he realized that it would be dangerous to assume the political legacy of his martyred relative, Tuditanus refused to exercise the authority granted by the Senate. This effectively incapacitated the land commission for several years and outraged the champions of Rome's poor. Regardless, during his consulship Tuditanus went to Illyria where he successfully campaigned, thereby earning a triumph.

Born into a prominent family at a time of acute unrest, Sempronia remained near the political epicenter of the crisis-wrecked Republic for her entire life. Her husband Decimus Junius Brutus was much older than she was and had been married before their union. He held the consul-ship in 77, in the wake of the notorious dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, again a highly volatile period in Roman history. Sempronia was either the mother or stepmother of Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, who began his career as an adherent of Julius Caesar. This son or stepson served with distinction under Caesar both during the conquest of Transalpine Gaul and during Caesar's war against Gaius Pompeius Magnus which followed, winning major naval victories for Caesar in 56 and 49. So highly regarded was Brutus Albinus that Caesar elevated him to the post of governor in Gaul where he suppressed a native rebellion in 46. Nevertheless, like many others Brutus Albinus grew fearful of Caesar's emerging imperiousness and was among those who participated in Caesar's assassination (44) even though the dictator had intended that Brutus Albinus would serve as consul in 42. (Brutus Albinus is not to be confused with Marcus Junius Brutus, the leader of Caesar's assassins.) Brutus Albinus became ensnared in the civil wars that burst forth anew after Caesar's death, and eventually was himself murdered by Marc Antony in Gaul in 43.

Politics, however, was not merely a masculine prerogative in Sempronia's family. Sempronia's most nefarious flirtation with public affairs came during the 60s bce when she appears to have favored the cause of Lucius Sergius Catilina, known as Catiline. Catiline was the scion of a down-and-out patrician house whose lack of wealth threatened to deny him the rapid political rise he thought was due his station. Early in his career he had been in the service of Sulla and was involved with that dictator's proscriptions, but Catiline's most notorious deportment began with his election to the office of praetor in 68. After serving in Rome, Catiline was made the pro-praetor of Africa for two years where he was so flagrant in extorting money from the locals (many provincial officials involved themselves in such activities, but with less greed and more discretion) that he was criminally indicted upon his return home. With a legal cloud hanging over his head, Catiline was unable to fulfill his dream of running for the consulship for both 65 and 64. Eventually he was acquitted, but many thought only through bribery. Rumor also had it that he had plotted with political radicals against those who were frustrating his ascent. His reputation besmirched, the final straw for Catiline came when he was defeated in his run for the consulship of 63 by Marcus Tullius Cicero. Humiliated by the preferment of a political newcomer, Catiline attempted to reposition himself as the champion of the poor and of those who had lost property in the civil conflicts since the time of Tiberius Gracchus. This constituency had legitimate grievances and was in need of a respectable promoter. Catiline, however, was not that man, and was again defeated when he ran for the consulship of 62. Obtaining Rome's highest office legitimately appeared hopeless: Catiline resigned himself to conspiracy and armed insurrection. His plans, however, were discovered by Cicero in November 63, and all came to nought when Catiline died in battle the following January.

The historian Sallust testifies that Sempronia was an adherent of Catiline and that at least once, when her husband was away from Rome, she allowed him and his co-conspirators to use her house close to the forum for their plotting. She is also accused of agitating among slaves on Catiline's behalf, of having fires set throughout Rome, of seducing men to Catiline's cause, and of murdering others who could not be so won over. Sallust further alleges that she committed other unnamed crimes; that although she prostituted herself, she lived so extravagantly that she amassed huge debts; that she was so passionate about sex that she approached men on the issue as much as they did her; that she thought of nothing more infrequently than modesty and chastity; that she knew more about the playing of the lyre and of dancing than a proper woman should; that she broke promises and repudiated debts; and that in all of these things, as she got older, she went from bad to worse. Despite his unflattering portrait of Sempronia, Sallust admits that she was fortunate in her birth, her beauty, her marriage, and her children. The historian also concedes that she was well educated, wrote good poetry, had a keen wit, made good conversation, had considerable charm, and that she was a woman of daring who threw herself into the causes she supported.

In fact, the two faces of Sempronia presented by Sallust are not at all difficult to reconcile, once one understands that Sallust was a supporter of the Caesar who fell victim to the assassination plot in which Brutus Albinus was a prominent member, and that Sallust wrote his account of the Catilinarian conspiracy after Caesar's murder. Thus, Sallust's characterization of Sempronia has to be read with Brutus Albinus' most notorious act in mind. That Sempronia was a well-educated model of her gender and station should be assumed. That she was fairly liberated in her manners should also be taken for granted, although Sallust's litany of her vices cannot be taken at face value, for it is difficult to see how she could have been favored in her husband and her children if she wallowed in dissipation. It was not uncommon for both men and women of Sempronia's generation and class to engage in extramarital affairs, and these occasionally provided rivals with salacious fodder for political attacks. Open licentiousness, however, was rare among the political class, for a base reputation in a candidate (or his wife, or mother) adversely affected one at the polls, as, indeed, it did Catiline himself. Regardless, since members of Sempronia's family had a track record of concern for Rome's poor, it is probably true she was attracted to Catiline at least when he began to champion the downtrodden. That she canvassed on his behalf is also not unlikely, for, even though women could not hold public office, those of Sempronia's status during the late Republic were thoroughly political creatures and helped to promote the ideologies and interests of their family's faction. How long Catiline retained Sempronia's support, however, is another matter, for it is one thing to be politically concerned and active, and another to abet armed rebellion. Since Sempronia's son or stepson remained a political force for 20 years after Catiline's conspiracy, it is likely that she had severed her ties with Catiline by the time his "crusade" devolved into open treason.

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