Academic journal article Antichthon

Insulting Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi*

Academic journal article Antichthon

Insulting Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi*

Article excerpt


Plutarch records calumny directed at Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, though he offers no detail as to its content. This article speculates that Cicero's reference to rhetorical misgivings concerning her marriage offers a clue. References by Pliny and Solinus to the ominous nature of Cornelia's postnatal condition prompt the further speculation that enemies of the Gracchi were able to claim that both her marriage and the birth of her children had run counter to divine injunction.

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

Illustrating an argumentum remotum, Cicero has recourse to Ennius' adap- tation, in his Medea Exul, of the opening from Euripides' Medea:

Utinam ne in nemore Pelio securibus

caesae accidissent abiegnae ad terram trabes

Would that no beams of fir had fallen to earth struck by axes

in Pelion's forest . . .

Enn. Med. TRF [3], p. 49; ROL i, p. 3121

In oratorical practice, such laments were attractive.2 Cicero had already offered a historical example:

quodsi non P. Scipio Corneliam filiam Ti. Graccho collocasset atque ex ea duos Gracchos procreasset, tantae seditiones natae non essent.

If Publius Scipio had not given his daughter Cornelia in marriage to Tiberius Gracchus and if through her Gracchus had not sired the two Gracchi, such great seditions would not have been born.

Cic. Inv. 1.91

Enemies of the Gracchi were many; and there is no reason to think that they did not find such a rhetorical conceit useful. Verbal assaults on Roman statesmen often embraced the target's associates and family. The extent to which Cornelia 'mother of the Gracchi' became an icon of virtue cannot obscure, even from this distance, the fact that she was herself the target of contemporary political abuse.3 That this was public (and wounding) is evidenced by Gaius Gracchus' angry public response to such targeting, samples of which are preserved in Seneca and Plutarch (we provide, in our translation below, the second and third of those items within the context in which Plutarch sets them).4

Tu matri meae maledicas, quae me peperit?

Would you speak ill of my mother, the woman who bore me?

ORF3, frag. 65a Malc. = Sen. Dial. 12.16.6


ORF3, frag. 65b Malc.


ORF3, frag. 66 Malc.5

And there are remembered many things which Gaius said about [Cornelia] in rhetorical and forensic mode when he was attacking one of his enemies. 'Do you', he said, 'abuse Cornelia who gave birth to Tiberius?' And since the abuser had been accused of effeminacy, 'By what licence', he said, 'do you compare yourself with Cornelia? For have you borne children as she has? And indeed all Romans know that she has been for a longer time without a man than you, [supposedly] a man, (have).'

Plut. CG 4.3-4

In those surviving three fragments, Gracchus demands respect for his mother's reputation and, in the last, vilifies the anonymous attacker as a pathicus.

We see four principal ways in which Cornelia might have been attacked. First, her ambition for her sons' advancement is known to have been the object of criticism. Second, there is evidence that she was accused of providing improper political support for her son Gaius.6 Third, her personal morality might have been called into question. Though no evidence exists to show that it was, oratorical practice suggests that any woman's reputation was fair game (and given the nature of Gracchus' response, both insisting upon the continence of her long widowhood and insinuating the lack of such discipline on the part of her critic, this would at first sight seem a highly plausible explanation of Gracchus' outburst).7 Before advancing to the fourth (which we favour), let us review those first three options.

A number of anecdotes testify to the supposed strength of Cornelia's ambition for Tiberius and Gaius. Her celebrated (if perhaps practised) apophthegm, 'My sons are my jewels', will come immediately to mind (Val. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.