Matrons of Awesome Part II – The Republican Mothers

Angelika Kauffman, Cornelia Mother of the Gracchi, c. 1785

3. Cornelia Mother of the Gracchi

There is a club of Roman mothers who are acclaimed for being strong, influential figures in their sons’ lives. The more prominent a male citizen, the more likely it is that his mother will be praised for her virtues.

The interesting thing about Cornelia Mother of the Gracchi (always said like that, the entire phrase) is that, while she is primarily remembered for being the mother of famous Romans, they were not Roman heroes, nor people in a position to design their own propaganda. Her reputation as the ideal Roman mother was not, as with the mothers of Julius and Augustus Caesar, established to bolster the propaganda of her sons; if anything, their reputations are saved through an association with her.

The brothers Gracchi were political hotheads: Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. They managed to get themselves killed in street riots, several years apart, due to revolutionary activities against the Republic.

Despite the less than heroic reputations of her sons, Cornelia’s public image is set up as if they were princes. She is referred to by at least six of the major literary sources, always as an example of a great Roman matrona (married woman) and mother. To understand how impressive this is, you should know that references to non-imperial women in any Roman historical sources are scarce. Women are generally regarded as being irrelevant to politics and war, and almost all surviving historical texts about ancient Rome survived because they had to do with politics or war.

The Mother of the Gracchi:The Comic History of Rome, by Gilbert Abbott

Cornelia had a statue set up to her during the Republic, at a time when women had almost no public presence at all – unlike a dynastic form of government like a monarchy, a Republic can quite easily be run without involving women, and the Roman Republic very firmly kept women in the house, away from the Importandt Deeds of Men. Statues were politically relevant, so statues of women were almost non-existent.

Here are some of the things that the literary sources tell us about Cornelia, the Ideal Roman Mother:

• She was chaste, and loyal to the memory of her dead husband, refusing an offer of marriage from Ptolemy, the King of Egypt. A univira (wife of only one husband) had a special sacred status among women in Rome, and Cornelia embodied this.

• She was intelligent and educated, and used these skills to educate her sons.

• She was tough with her sons, standing in for their father (who died young).

• She socialised with men on their own terms, hosting the Roman equivalent of literary salons (interesting considering the Lucretia ‘ideal’, no?) and was prized for her conversation in these spheres.

• She had enough political nous to learn from her eldest son’s death; we have evidence of a letter she wrote to her younger son, warning of the danger he was in.

• Working in wool? Pfft.

I love Cornelia.

Ooh, and my favourite bit: motherhood was all-important to her. As you might have guessed by the ‘refusing the King of Egypt’ story, she wasn’t interested in conspicuous wealth. It is for this reason that Cornelia continued to be held up as the feminine ideal long after her death, during the new puritanism brought in by the first emperor Augustus.

When a woman asked Cornelia where her jewels were (imagine a catty comment at a house party), Cornelia pointed to her children and said, “These are my jewels.”

4. Aurelia

Yes, I named my daughter after her – Raeli for short. Aurelia is another mother in the style of Cornelia. Aristocratic, but modest. Widowed young, and refused to remarry. Tough, but fair. When her husband died, Aurelia was left with a bevy of daughters (well, two, but who doesn’t love the word ‘bevy’?) and one very talented son. She took responsibility for his education, and by all accounts was as strict as a father in discipline. Full credit is given to her as a parent that she raised Julius Caesar to be the man that he was.

Aurelia was a valued advisor to her son as he rose through the ranks (unlike the Gracchi, he did listen to his mother’s advice). When he became pontifex maximus, high priest of Rome, he was given a house of his own and parental responsibility for the Vestal priestesses; he gave the running of this household over to his mother, not his wife.

Had Aurelia still been alive when Caesar brought Cleopatra home, she would have turfed the foreign wench out of Rome without breaking a fingernail.

I have a good story about Aurelia, but it will have to wait until Part III, because it properly belongs with an explanation about Pompeia, Caesar’s second wife.

One last thing about Aurelia: though she was of noble blood, she married a younger brother and they found it difficult to make ends meet. So she ran an insula (like an apartment building) in the Subura, the roughest neighbourhood in Rome (and the one with the highest percentage of foreign immigrants), and she raised her family there. Considering that her husband (when still alive) was off on military service most of the time, it was an extraordinary lifestyle to choose, and shows that she was of stronger mettle than most aristocratic ladies.

Because he was raised in such an environment, Caesar is said to have spoken many languages, and been on friendly terms with people of all walks of life. This is why he was so beloved of “the people,” not just his own class. His mother raised him to be a person first, and an aristocrat second.

Polly Walker as Atia, mother of Octavian, in HBO's ROME

ADDITIONAL 2011 COMMENTARY: I missed out Atia. I never even thought to include her, though she is briefly referred to at the beginning of this chapter. The simple truth is that I wasn’t remotely interested in her, and had never read anything that sparked an interest in me. This was 2006, long before HBO’s Rome, in which Polly Walker managed to channel Livia and Agrippina combined, and blasted everyone else off screen with her charisma. I’m now a fan, though in all fairness I would find it very hard to cover Atia’s historical persona without the TV version deeply affecting me.

Lindsay Duncan as Servilia in HBO's ROME

There is far less excuse for me missing out Servilia, mother of Brutus (the one who killed Caesar, not the one who pulled the knife out of Lucretia centuries earlier) whom I love deeply, but again I find it hard to extract her from a fictional version, in this case the portrait provided by Colleen McCullough in her Roman Masters series of books. Those books were responsible for my obsession with Roman history and to be honest my historical interpretations of Caesar and Aurelia will never escape her either. The Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) in HBO’s Rome was marvellous, but in no way *my* Servilia – who would be played by Julia Sawahla. Sadly I’m pretty sure she hasn’t been secretly filming scenes on and off since she was twelve, up to the age she is now. Why don’t filmmakers think ahead?

NEXT: Republican Vixens


The Matrons of Awesome series was originally posted on Livejournal (LJ user: cassiphone) in March 2006 for Women’s History Month.

I’m reprinting the series as part of my Rock The Romanpunk week in celebration of my short story collection, Love and Romanpunk, which was published by Twelfth Planet Press earlier this year and is now available globally as an e-book as well as a pretty imperial purple print edition. Thanks to Wizard’s Tower Bookstore you can also now purchase it for the Kindle.