Let me start by saying this piece isn’t about tearing down an ancient woman and challenging her “good” reputation. Far from it. Instead, I am in admiration of a woman who was clearly strong-willed, intelligent and still managed to secure a virtuous reputation from those harshest of critics – Roman historians.
Let’s set the scene by briefly looking at who else has been called “good” by the Romans. First up, we have Lavinia, the silent bride of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. Her virtue comes from her tacit existence as a prize to be won by the feuding Aeneas and Turnus. Secondly, we have Lucretia, who died in 509 BC. She was crowned the most virtuous woman by her husband and his friends because, while other wives were out and about in their husbands’ absence, she was at home weaving. But when she was raped, she committed suicide so future women would not use her as an excuse for infidelity.
Unlike either of these women, however, Cornelia is an outspoken figure who involves herself in politics. So why is she not comparable to women such as Clodia, wife of Metellus (born 95 BC), who put herself between the conflicting political views of her husband and her brother? Or Agrippina the Younger (AD 15–59), who schemed for her son Nero to become emperor and then ruled alongside him? Let’s see.
Cornelia (c.190s–c.115 BC) was not only praised by historians such as Plutarch: she was even honoured in her lifetime with a bronze statue. The base survives to this day, and is currently on display in the Capitoline Museums in Rome:
The inscription reads:
Cornelia Africani f(ilia) | Gracchorum
(Cornelia, daughter of [P. Scipio] Africanus, [mother of] the Gracchi.)
The statue itself has sadly not survived. In Plutarch’s Life of Gaius Gracchus 4.3, however, we learn that it was made out of bronze: a very expensive metal. There were four “types” of female statuary bodies at this time, one of which was the Venus type, depicting that goddess nude. Since this type was reserved for the goddess of love and sex, we can confidently rule it out for Cornelia’s image. We are left with the trio of Large Herculaneum Woman, Small Herculanean Woman and Pudicitia (Chastity) types. Although we cannot know for certain which of these was the style chosen for Cornelia, all three show women covered in thick drapery from head to toe, standing still, with closed body language. They all embody the values of modesty and restraint that were expected of Roman women.
The base tells us three things: her name, who her father was, and who her sons were; her whole identity is dependent on the men around her. At first glance, it doesn’t tell us anything special about her, nor does it even hint that there is anything special or noteworthy about her. This does not seem to be the strong woman I admire. But if we open our Plutarch, another tale emerges about who Cornelia was and what she did.
Cornelia was the daughter of Scipio Africanus (236–183 BC), a great Roman general who defeated Hannibal and the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars (218–201 BC). This set her off to a great start. Despite the saying that “you can’t choose your family”, she couldn’t have chosen better: her father’s well-earned glorious and prestigious reputation worked wonders for her public image.
Cornelia was the wife of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (c.163–133 BC), who held the consulship twice and was awarded a triumph twice following successful military campaigns in Spain and Sardinia. They had twelve children, quite the number! Unfortunately, only three survived. Here therefore is a woman who went through and survived significant heartbreak and physical challenge. While nothing is said of this in the sources, it must take a strong individual to endure such a series of loss, and perhaps it explains her investment in the lives of the two sons that did survive. She also had a daughter called Sempronia, who married Cornelia’s cousin, Scipio Aemilianus (185–129 BC), a wealthy man who became a famous Roman general who fought in a series of significant wars. Most notably, he oversaw the defeat and destruction of Carthage during the Third Punic War (149–146 BC).
Valerius Maximus, a 1st-century AD Latin author who records historical anecdotes, has a story about her relationship with her husband:
When Tiberius Gracchus caught two snakes in his own house, a male and female, he was told by the soothsayer that, if he let go of the male, it portended the death of his wife; but that, if he let go of the female, he himself would suddenly die. Following that part of the prediction that portended his own death, rather than the death of his wife, he caused the female snake to be released, and was so resolute as to watch his own destruction when the snake was killed in his presence. Therefore I cannot determine whether Cornelia was happier that she had such a husband, or more miserable in his loss. (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 4.6.1)
This paints a picture of a couple very much in love, and in admiration of one another. Whether this specific anecdote about the snakes is accurate, we cannot say, but it certainly gives the impression of a successful marriage. Indeed, the biographer Plutarch tells us a similar tale of loyalty: Tiberius was thought to have made no bad decision when he elected to die instead of such a woman. (Life of Tiberius Gracchus 1.4)
When Tiberius died, Cornelia proved her virtue by not re-marrying. Although it was acceptable for women to re-marry in Ancient Rome, she chose not to. She had good offers, for we know she was even proposed to by Ptolemy VIII (182–116 BC), a king of Egypt (!), but she rejected the offer and remained a widow. While this may have been out of true loyalty to Tiberius, the life of a widow probably gave her something that not even a crown could: relative freedom.
Cornelia could probably do things such as manage her own affairs and those of her children because she had this relative independence. The status of her father and husband would also have given her significant prestige. The freedom of being a widow, and the esteemed reputation she enjoyed by her family name, meant she could make choices for herself, a luxury for a woman in the ancient world.
We get a fairly good impression of Cornelia through the biographer Plutarch (AD c.46–120s). Writing in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, he was alive about 300 years after Cornelia. While this means we should be slightly cautious about whether his account is entirely factual, he is a reputable source for this topic.
Plutarch wrote two lives that are relevant here: the Life of Tiberius Gracchus and the Life of Gaius Gracchus, Cornelia’s two sons. Tiberius Gracchus (c.163–133 BC) was a politician most famous for his agrarian reform law that gave land from the Roman state and wealthy landowners to poorer citizens. He also fought in the Third Punic War (149–146 BC) and in the Numantine War in Spain (143–133 BC). His brother Gaius Gracchus (c.154–121 BC) was also an active politician engaged in land reform and the reorganisation of the judicial system. He created a subsidised grain supply for Rome and proposed laws to establish colonies outside of Italy.
Plutarch’s focus in his biographies is on these two men – no surprise there – but he does take the time to paint quite a picture of Cornelia. He gives us a brief but useful introduction to her: she is “so discreet”, “so good a mother”, and “so magnanimous”. He goes on:
She had many friends and kept a good table so 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 with them about the life and habits of her father Africanus, but most admirable when she spoke of her sons without grief or tears, and narrated their achievements and their fate to all enquirers as if she were speaking of men of the early days of Rome. (Life of Tiberius Gracchus 19.2)
She was clearly very proud of her sons. By elevating them to the quasi-mythical status of the “men of the early days of Rome”, she clearly demonstrates her high estimation of them. It is interesting that this paragraph captures how she values her father and sons – the two groups of men with whom she is identified on her honorific statue base. Her husband is absent, and yet he was elected consul twice, was a successful general and was awarded two triumphs; there is plenty to boast about there too!
Valerius Maximus tells the following anecdote about how greatly she valued her sons:
That children are the greatest ornaments to married women we find written by Pomponius Rufus in his book of Collections, as follows. When a Campanian lady staying at the house of Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, showed off her jewels and other ornaments, which were the fairest of any at that time, Cornelia remained talking with her till her children returned from school. “And these,” she said when they appeared, “are my ornaments.” (4.4)
It is this scene that has been the inspiration for many paintings, such as:
These paintings portray Cornelia in a very gentle manner, as a proud mother confident in valuing her children above her jewellery.
We know from Plutarch that Cornelia was invested in the education of her children, hiring philosophers and learned men from across the Greco-Roman world to educate them. I like to think that she sat in on these lectures herself. We certainly get the impression that we are dealing with a very well-educated and intelligent woman. This was not surprising or unusual in Rome at this time; indeed, the majority of upper-class women studied to some degree. And since they could afford not to spend their time working, either inside or outside the home, they could ensure that they were suitable company for men intellectually. Plutarch goes so far as to say the following about the quality education she gave her sons:
These sons Cornelia reared with such scrupulous care that although confessedly no other Romans were so well endowed by nature, they were thought to owe their virtues more to education than to nature. (Life of Tiberius Gracchus 1.5)
Just as Plato said in his Protagoras (325c–d), mothers played a crucial role in the education and upbringing of their children. It is nice to know this maternal role was not overlooked!
Cornelia and Politics
Cornelia’s involvement in Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus’ political lives is what fascinates me most. So far, we have a daughter of a noble father who is loyal to her husband and educates her sons in the best possible way. It is likely that she too was highly educated, though we do not have the sources to state that clearly; the assumption is based on the fact that other women of her status and wealth were appreciably educated. Good: she has already ticked many boxes and it’s easy to see why she is in the ‘good books’. But it is this aspect that I think subverts expectations.
She is characterised as quite harsh towards Tiberius and Gaius. Plutarch says that she “often reproached her sons because the Romans still called her the mother-in-law of Scipio, but not yet the mother of the Gracchi” (Life of Tiberius Gracchus 8.5). Clearly, they were not living up to their potential, or to her high expectations and aspirations for them. In a letter, reportedly by Cornelia herself (an amazing fact in its own right, if accurate), she writes to Gaius Gracchus:
“No enemy has caused me so much annoyance and trouble as you have because of these events – you who ought, as the only survivor of all the children that I have had in the past, to have taken their place and to have seen to it that I had the least possible anxiety in my old age; you who ought to have wished that all your actions should above all be agreeable to me, and should consider it impious to do anything of great importance contrary to my advice, especially when I have so brief a portion of my life left.” (Nepos, Fragments 1.2)
This is quite a strongly-worded letter that powerfully expresses her anger and frustration at her son. She is not afraid to tell him what she thinks; her tone is realistic, direct and strong. We could say, however, that this is just a private letter, and it is not unexpected for mothers to chastise their sons when they disagree. Fair enough. But Cornelia goes a step further: she is furious that Gaius has not followed her advice. While we don’t know the context, and this could very well be a personal or familial matter, we should recall that she gave advice on political matters too.
Roman women of course had no formal or official role in political life. They could not vote or stand for political office. They could, however, influence men. We have numerous examples of this: Fabia Minor persuaded her father to amend the law allowing plebeians to apply for the consulship (Livy, History of Rome 6.34.5–11). Praecia, a courtesan in the early 1st century BC, was so involved in her lover Cethegus’ (131–66 BC) politics, that “political power passed entirely into her hands” (Plutarch Lucullus 7). Sempronia was involved in the Catilinarian Conspiracy although the details are omitted by Sallust. The wife of Decimus Junius Brutus, she was a highly educated woman who was very fortunate in her marriage, her children and generally in her life. However Sallust records that she had numerous affairs, perhaps also with Julius Caesar, and involved herself in Catiline’s conspiracy to overthrow the consuls of 63 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius Hybrida. When women get involved, it’s rarely something they are praised for. But let’s return to Cornelia.
We hear that she was involved in Gaius Gracchus’ treatment of Marcus Octavius, an enemy of Tiberius, and consul in 165 BC:
Of these laws, one had the direct effect of branding with infamy Marcus Octavius, who had been deposed from the tribunate by Tiberius; and by the other Popillius was affected, for as praetor he had banished the friends of Tiberius. Popillius, indeed, without standing his trial, fled from Italy; but the other law was withdrawn by Gaius himself, who said that he spared Octavius at the request of his mother Cornelia. (Life of Gaius Gracchus 4.2)
Cornelia has become directly involved in Gaius’ political life to the point where her “request”, a rather strong word, altered her son’s treatment of someone else. The fact that this detail is included in Plutarch suggests that she played a significant role.
Cornelia goes further. Not only does she demand things of her sons but she actively involved herself in their affairs:
The enemies of Gaius also effected the election of Opimius as consul, and then proceeded to revoke many of the laws which Gaius had secured and to meddle with the organization of the colony at Carthage. This was by way of irritating Gaius, that he might furnish ground for resentment, and so be got rid of. At first, he endured all this patiently, but at last, under the instigations of his friends, and especially of Fulvius, he set out to gather a fresh body of partisans for opposition to the consul. Here, we are told, his mother also took active part in his seditious measures, by secretly hiring from foreign parts and sending to Rome men who were ostensibly reapers; for there are said to have been obscure allusions to this matter in her letters to her son. Others, however, say that Cornelia was very much displeased with these activities of her son. (Plutarch, Life of Gaius Gracchus 13.1–2)
It is interesting that Plutarch gives two versions of this episode – one casts a negative light on Cornelia, the other positive. Frustratingly, we don’t know which to believe. The different impression matters greatly for our conclusions about what kind of a woman she was. One option is that she knew where the boundaries lay when involving herself in the political lives of her sons and expressed displeasure when they acted inappropriately. She probably adopted the same harsh language as we saw in her letter. The other option is that she crossed the lines and took matters into her own hands.
My money is on the first option: this is a woman who knows how to play the game. Her character and resolve are so strong that her sons, and probably others, listened to her when she spoke. I don’t think she needed to take matters into her own hands: she was persuasive and forceful in her speech and that was enough. We have to remember also that she was honoured with a statue; I doubt she would have had such a distinction bestowed upon her if she were breaking the rules and expectations of female behaviour.
Let us return to the honorific statue for Cornelia. Plutarch tells us of a bronze statue erected to honour her immediately after writing how she advised her son Gaius Gracchus to spare Octavius:
“The people were pleased at this and gave their consent, honouring Cornelia no less on account of her sons than because of her father; indeed, in later times they erected a bronze statue of her, bearing the inscription ‘Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi’.” (Plutarch, Life of Gaius Gracchus 4.3)
Plutarch is drawing a link between Cornelia’s sage political advice and the people’s honouring her with a statue. Does this imply that she was praised in her life for getting involved in politics, an area that was reserved for men? If so, why, when so many other women were not?
Athina Mitropoulos is Head of Classics at Queen’s Gate School, London, and author of Once Upon a Myth, her own retelling of Ancient Greek myths and fairy tales. She has previously written for Antigone about the Eleusinian Mysteries and the differences between Greek mythology and European fairy tale.
Suzanne Dixon, Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi (Routledge, London, 2007).
Sylvia Bernard, “Cornelia and the women of her family,” Latomus 49 (1990) 383–92.
For more general information on women in Rome, see Emma Southon’s A History of the Roman Empire in 21 Women (Oneworld, London, 2023).