These are My Jewels - Cornelia by Anjelica Kaufmann

Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi

It is unlikely that one will find a woman held in higher esteem by the Roman people than Cornelia, daughter of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Major, the conqueror of Hannibal in the Second Punic War. Cornelia married Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus the elder who, Plutarch tells us "had been once censor, twice consul, and twice had triumphed, yet was more renowned and esteemed for his virtue than his honours."

Plutarch wrote that: "after the death of Scipio who overthrew Hannibal, (Tiberius Sempronius) was thought worthy to match with his daughter Cornelia, though there had been no friendship or familiarity between Scipio and him, but rather the contrary."

Cornelia bore 12 children, however only three lived to adulthood, the famous brothers Tiberius and Caius, who died championing the rights of the common people, and daughter Sempronia, wife of Scipio Aemilianus (Scipio the Younger) the destroyer of Carthage.

After the death of her husband Tiberius in 154 BCE: "Cornelia, taking upon herself all the care of the household and the education of her children, approved herself so discreet a matron, so affectionate a mother, and so constant and noble-spirited a widow, that Tiberius seemed to all men to have done nothing unreasonable in choosing to die for such a woman; who, when King Ptolemy himself proffered her his crown, and would have married her, refused it, and chose rather to live a widow."

Cornelia reared Tiberius, Caius and Sempronia" with such care that though they were without dispute in natural endowments and dispositions the first among the Romans of their time, yet they seemed to owe their virtues even more to their education than to their birth."

Cornelia is credited with inspiring her children towards civic duty, and ensuring that they obtained the education necessary to accomplish great deeds. As the attitudes towards the agrarian democratic reforms proposed by her sons ranged from outrage to admiration, so too does opinion towards Cornelia, as to whether she motivated her sons action, or sought to temper their brashness.

Plutarch continues, "some have also charged Cornelia, the mother of Tiberius, with contributing towards it, because she frequently upbraided her sons, that the Romans as yet rather called her the daughter of Scipio, than the mother of the Gracchi."

Cornelia lived in a period of political turmoil, of which her family was often the center. Clearly Cornelia exercised political influence. Her son Caius "proposed two laws. The first was, that whoever was turned out of any public office by the people, should be thereby rendered incapable of bearing any office afterwards; the second, that if any magistrate condemn a Roman to be banished without a legal trial, the people be authorized to take cognizance thereof.

One of these laws was manifestly leveled at Marcus Octavius, who, at the instigation of Tiberius, had been deprived of his tribuneship. The other touched Popilius, who, in his praetorship, had banished all Tiberius's friends; whereupon Popilius, being unwilling to stand the hazard of a trial, fled out of Italy. As for the former law, it was withdrawn by Caius himself, who said he yielded in the case of Octavius, at the request of his mother Cornelia."

The Roman citizenry "had a great veneration for Cornelia, not more for the sake of her father than for that of her children; and they afterwards erected a statue of brass in honour of her, with this inscription, Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi."

Plutarch ends his Life of Caius Gracchus with an eloquent description of Cornelia:

"It is reported that as Cornelia, their mother, bore the loss of her two sons with a noble and undaunted spirit, so, in reference to the holy places in which they were slain, she said, their dead bodies were well worthy of such sepulchres.

"She removed afterwards, and dwelt near the place called Misenum, not at all altering her former way of living. She had many friends, and hospitably received many strangers at her house; many Greeks and learned men were continually about her; nor was there any foreign prince but received gifts from her and presented her again.

"Those who were conversant with her, were much interested, when she pleased to entertain them with her recollections of her father Scipio Africanus, and of his habits and way of living.

"But it was most admirable to hear her make mention of her sons, without any tears or sign of grief, and give the full account of all their deeds and misfortunes, as if she had been relating the history of some ancient heroes. This made some imagine, that age, or the greatness of her afflictions, had made her senseless and devoid of natural feelings.

"But they who so thought were themselves more truly insensible not to see how much a noble nature and education avail to conquer any affliction; and though fortune may often be more successful, and may defeat the efforts of virtue to avert misfortunes, it cannot, when we incur them, prevent our hearing them reasonably."