Who was Cornelia Africana and How Did She Become the Prototype of the Virtuous Roman Woman?
The life of Cornelia Africana could be the basis for a fascinating Hollywood super-production. Since the beginning, her tale was nothing but an adventurous story about a woman whose extraordinary personality made her reach for the stars. Courageous, intelligent, and powerful, Cornelia could be an inspiration for generations of women.
Can you imagine a lady in ancient times who fought like a man, made negotiations like the best politicians, and reached higher than most men in political matters, but who never lost her feminine charms? Cornelia’s life was a story worthy of many ancient poems, but sadly many details about her story have been lost through time. From the resources that have survived, she appears to have been a powerful woman among the most influential people of antiquity.
A statue of Cornelia by Levi Schofield in 1893, now in Ohio, USA. (Steve Grant/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 )
More Than a Beauty
Cornelia was born the second daughter of a Second Punic War hero. Her father was Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, and her mother was a noblewoman named Aemilia Paulla. She grew up in a house full of war stories and pride in her father’s heroic acts. It’s not surprising than, that she also became a brave warrior woman whose life was full of moments when she had to fight for her loved ones.
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She married the grandson of the famous Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Her husband, Tiberius Gracchus the Elder, was much older than Cornelia. However, they had 12 children together. Such a big family wasn't common in ancient Rome. Sadly, only three of those children lived longer than a few years. The only ones who survived were a daughter, Sempronia, and two sons: Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. While taking care of her family, Cornelia was also active in political disputes. Her huge amount of experience in this realm allowed her to be an anchor and a safe harbor for her sons in the future.
Cornelia Africana, Mother of The Gracchi (1779) by Noël Hallé. ( Public Domain )
Putting Her Family First
Apart from her famous family, Cornelia was also a well-known writer. She was very well educated in literature and many other disciplines. Her letters shed light on her unique personality, strong character, and impressive diplomatic skills. As a woman who was active in politics after the death of her husband, she decided that she would not live a boring life as a widow, but use her position as Scipio's daughter and spend the next years of her life teaching her children. In the meantime, King Ptolemy VIII offered her marriage, but she refused it. Instead of preparing of a wedding, she supported her sons.
‘Cornelia rejects the crown of the Ptolemies’ (1646) by Laurent de La Hyre. ( Public Domain )
Cornelia was extremely active during their conflicts with other nobles. Plutarch wrote about both of her sons and presented her as a powerful woman who had provided them with a great deal of help, especially Gaius. One example of this was documented in a letter Cornelia wrote to Gaius:
''You will say that it is a beautiful thing to take on vengeance on enemies. To no one does this seem either greater or more beautiful than it does to me, but only if it is possible to pursue these aims without harming our country. But seeing as that cannot be done, our enemies will not perish for a long time and for many reasons, and they will be as they are now rather than have our country be destroyed and perish…I would dare to take an oath solemnly, swearing that, except for those who have murdered Tiberius Gracchus, no enemy has foisted so much difficulty and so much distress upon me as you have because of the matters: you should have shouldered the responsibilities of all of those children whom I had in the past, and to make sure that I might have the least anxiety possible in my old age; and that, whatever you did, you would wish to please me most greatly; and that you would consider it sacrilegious to do anything of great significance contrary to my feelings, especially as I am someone with only a short portion of my life left. Cannot even that time span, as brief as it is, be of help in keeping you from opposing me and destroying our country? In the final analysis, what end will there be? When will our family stop behaving insanely? When will we cease insisting on troubles, both suffering and causing them? When will we begin to feel shame about disrupting and disturbing our country?''
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Statue depicting Cornelia with her two sons by Jules Cavelier (1814-1894). ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Later, in the same text, she continues:
''But if this is altogether unable to take place, seek the office of tribune when I will be dead; as far as I am concerned, do what will please you, when I shall not perceive what you are doing. When I have died, you will sacrifice to me as a parent and call upon the god of your parent. At that time does it not shame you to seek prayers of those gods, whom you considered abandoned and deserted when they were alive and on hand? May Jupiter not for a single instant allow you to continue in these actions nor permit such madness to come into your mind. And if you persist, I fear that, by your own fault, you may incur such trouble for your entire life that at no time would you be able to make yourself happy.'' (Liquisearch.com ‘Cornelia Africana - Cornelia's Letter Excerpts’ )
‘Cornelia and her Sons.’ ( Public Domain )
Cornelia’s Final Days
Sadly, all her creative ideas and strategies didn't save her sons, who died before their mother closed her eyes forever. However, her life brought her a tremendous amount of respect among Roman families.
When her sons died, she also lost her place in politics. The last years of Cornelia’s life were spent in a remarkable villa in Misenum. However, she was still very popular and appreciated. Cornelia Africana died in 100 BC as an old woman. Numerous Romans grieved her passing and nobles decided to commemorate her with a statue. The city worshiped her bravery, remarkable life, and personality.
Pedestal for Cornelia’s statue, found in 1878. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top Image: Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi (1785) by Angelica Kauffman . Source: Public Domain
Cornelia's Letter Excerpts, available at:
Marjorie Lightman, Benjamin Lightman, A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women (A to Z of Women), 2007.
David Stockton, The Gracchi. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.
Emily Hemelrijk, Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Elite from Cornelia to Julia Domna, 1999.