Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Gracchi: Cornelia

That last post on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest started me thinking another favorite topic in Roman history. So let's take things back to the 2nd century BC and meet the Gracchi brothers, who were the Jack and Bobby Kennedy of the late Republic.

Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi

I think that any conversation about the Gracchi should start with the story of their mother, Cornelia (c.190 - 100 BC), who besides being one of the most influential women in Roman history can also tell us a lot about what life was like for Roman women in general. Cornelia was the daughter of Scipio Africanus (Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, 235-183 BC), the man who finally defeated Rome's worst enemy ever, Hannibal (248-183 BC). That's how he earned the name "Africanus," meaning "victor over the Africans."

When Cornelia was 18 (172 BC), she married a 45yo senator named Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (c.217 BC - 154 BC). Pretty much all marriages between upper-class Romans were arranged for political reasons, and given that Cornelia's father died years earlier I bet her mother Aemilia Tertia played an important role in making this match. The historian Plutarch (c. AD 46-120 ) tells us Gracchus was a devoted husband and generally gives the impression that they were happy together. During their roughly seventeen years of marriage, Cornelia bore her husband 12 children of whom only 3 made it to adulthood (the infant mortality rate in ancient Rome was no joke). When Gracchus died, their daughter Sempronia was around 16, Tiberius was 14 and their youngest Gaius was no older than 5.

Under Roman law, there must always be a man at the head of the household. Thus, when Gracchus died, Cornelia and her children technically passed under the authority of some male in-law. But, in practice, many upper-class Roman widows managed their own households and they were the ones making the day-to-day decisions. Assuming she survived her childbearing years, a Roman woman often found herself widowed at a young age -- either because she married an older man or because her husband died in one of those wars the Romans were always fighting. Also, whereas in Ancient Greece a fatherless young man would have become the head of the household and had authority over his widowed mother when he reached majority, in Rome adult children were expected to honor and respect their parents.

Plutarch tells us that Cornelia received several proposals after Gracchus' death, including one from Ptolemy Physcon (c.182-116 BC), the Pharoah of Egypt. But she turned down his fat, inbred ass and instead focused her attention on raising her three children. Historians also praise Cornelia for her modesty: one oft repeated anecdote tells how a Roman matron once visited Cornelia and, noticing her simple dress, asked where all her jewels were. Cornelia supposedly called her two sons to her and, putting her arms around them, replied "these are my jewels." Many conservative Roman writers condemned the decadent society of the late Republic. They believed conspicuous consumption to be out of step with traditional Roman values, and women who wore expensive dresses and jewelry were a favorite target. These writers looked back fondly to an idealized past, and they wrote that women should all do their own weaving and men should all serve in the army and till the fields.

Cornelia oversaw her sons' education and made sure they had the best Greek teachers available. These Greek masters instilled in Tiberius and Gaius a strong sense of civic responsiblity as well as uncompromising ideas on justice and democracy: you can definitely say that the character of their education, and hence their mother's choice in instructors, played a decisive role in molding the shape of their future political careers. Meanwhile, Sempronia was eventually wed to Cornelia's cousin Scipio Aemilianus (185-129 BC).

Images: Cornélie, mère des Gracques, 1861 statue by Jules Cavelier on display in Paris' Musée d'Orsay (image found on life in focus photography blog); 1779 painting "Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi" by Noël Hallé can be found at Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France (image found on wikipedia).

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