Roman Women

The Roman Empire > Roman Women >

Prev | Next | Contents


After the revolution, of which the tragedy of Lucretia was the traditional cause and which ended forever monarchical rule in Rome, our subject begins to emerge from the haziness of legendary narratives into the clearer light of veritable history. It now becomes possible for us to catch glimpses of the women of Rome, living and moving amid scenes that were real and under conditions which undoubtedly prevailed.

Roman society at the beginning of the Republic was most distinctly and rigidly classified. Not only were the people divided by the circumstances of birth into separate classes, but the law preordained for every person his precise station, his duties, his privileges, and his limitations. The citizen could no more go beyond these than he could transfer himself into another order of creation; for law, in Rome, was as absolute as it was rigid. Speaking generally, there were two orders, the patrician and the plebeian. A common opinion of the old writers was that out of the influx of adventurers who crowded to Rome at its founding Romulus chose one hundred Senators, their qualification being that they could name their fathers. Their children were called patricians. In the third century before Christ, when the plebeians had wrested many privileges and offices from the unwilling higher class, Publius Decius, himself a plebeian, uses this theory of the origin of the patricians to great advantage. Contending in debate for the right of his order to serve in the priesthood, he said: "Have ye never heard that the first-created patricians were not men sent down from heaven, but such as could cite their fathers; that is, nothing more than freeborn? Well, I can cite my father; he was a consul; and my son will be able to cite a grandfather." This excessive pride which Roman citizens took in the fact that they could trace their paternity through more or less generations must not be understood as reflecting, in any way, upon the character of the early matrons; it arose simply from the fact that they could so surely name their ancestry as to eliminate possibility of descent from one of the common herd of unenfranchised inhabitants.

These latter were the plebeians. This class was made up of the descendants of the ancient people who of old had inhabited the country, ordinary foreigners who were attracted to the city, and the children of captives who had been given their liberty. At first, the plebeians enjoyed no rights whatever. They lived, it is true, under the shelter of the walls of the city, but on the outside. They possessed no right of suffrage, and were not allowed to interfere in any public affair. But they were free. They held property and engaged in handicrafts and in commerce. It soon came to pass that the increase of their number and their importance rendered their repression by the nobles more and more difficult. Under King Servius the plebeians became citizens; and, as is the case in every land, the internal history of Rome contains nothing more interesting than the indomitable and successful struggle of this lower class to wrest ever larger privileges from the tenacious rulers. It was not, however, until B.C. 444 that equality of rights had made sufficient progress for matrimonial alliances to be countenanced between patricians and plebeians. By the commencement of the Christian era all practical distinction between these two classes had vanished.

In addition to the two principal orders, there was that of the clients. These were in reality vassals, who preferred dependence on the great and wealthy to living independently in a precarious liberty. They were called by the names of their patrons and were numbered in the latter's tribe. By enactments of law, the patron was made responsible for the support and protection of his clients. In return, the patrician could depend upon his clients to fight his battles, support his cause, and prove themselves loyal retainers of his house in both good fortune and evil. The subservience of these clients, and the conscienceless zeal with which they furthered the designs, even the most wicked, of their masters, are well illustrated in the part which Marcus Claudius played in the persecution of Virginia by the decemvir Appius. Another dependent class was that of the slaves. At first the number of these was comparatively small; but as the conquering arms of Rome spread over the world her avaricious sway, the captives dragged in barbarous triumph to the city grew out of all proportion to the population. They enjoyed fewer rights and suffered under a regime more inhuman than in any other slaveholding nation in history.

That which distinguished one class from another in early Roman society had nothing whatever to do with the character of the occupation of the people comprising it. The noblest of the early patricians, as well as the commonest plebeians, tilled the soil with their own hands; nor did they disdain to engage in trade, or even in the letting of money on usury. Wealth was no more a consideration than occupation in determining to which order a man or a woman belonged. In course of time, the plebeians, despite the patricians' unneglected privilege of practising robbery under due process of law, numbered many families of great wealth; but no man could therewith purchase entrance to the higher class. It was the blood line that marked these distinctions; it was ancestry alone that could give the patent of nobility. Nor is it surprising that a people who believed in the divine origin of some of their tribes should acknowledge superior rights as attached to a well-authenticated pedigree.

In most societies, the advantages of class are more markedly displayed in the life of the women than in that of the men. This does not appear to have been the case in the early times of the Roman Republic. In fact, it is difficult to see how difference in class greatly distinguished the patrician matron from her plebeian sister. Neither had any legal part whatever in State affairs or in any public functions, excepting those of a religious nature. The duties of each were confined to the home, and no woman was relieved from the obligation of personal and diligent industry. On the epitaphs of many noble women were praises for their chastity and their proficiency in spinning. Indeed, the evidence seems to indicate that any other qualities than these two, and that of fertility, were deprecated rather than admired by the Romans of this period. The only advantages which a patrician woman could possess were her natural pride in the privileges of her family and what honor was reflected upon her from the positions held by her male relatives. The term "Head of the Family" never had so tyrannical a meaning as in most ancient Rome. It was a place which a woman could not hold. The husband was all in all; no one else was recognized by law. Wife, children, clients, and slaves were alike persons without will of their own. They were mancipia, under the hand of the father. He it was who answered for them to the State and who judged them. If a wife was accused of crime, she was committed to her husband for judgment. And this was the law even down to the time of Nero, when Pomponia Græcina, charged with embracing a foreign superstition, was "consigned to the adjudication of her husband." A man could even condemn his wife to death for certain offences, such as the violation of her marriage vows, or even for forging false keys in order to steal his wine. At her husband's death, the wife could not claim any of his property if he had bequeathed it to another, even though it were willed to an entire stranger. In this severely disciplined society, the woman never escaped from guardianship. She was looked upon as belonging to the family rather than to the State. The latter consisted only of men, to whom the women were merely necessary accessories. No one thought that a woman possessed any claim or right to independence of individuality. She was always under a master: her father, when she was a girl; her husband, when she was married; and her nearest male relative, if she became a widow. If she obtained any share in her father's property or in that of her husband, she could not transfer or bequeath it without the consent of her male guardian, unless she were a Vestal; nor could she marry without the same consent.

But, however dependent her position may have been, whether maid or matron, the Roman woman was always treated with reverence. The stola, the characteristic robe of the matron, corresponding to the toga of the male citizen, always ensured for its wearer respect, it being not merely an article of attire, but also an insignia which could only be retained by strict rectitude of life, market days or assembly days. In the villa--a miserable cabin made of mud, rafters, and branches--not a day, not a moment, was lost. Horace does not draw a more agreeable picture of ancient city manners. He tells us that "at Rome, for a long time a man knew no other pleasure and no other festival than to open his door at dawn, to explain the law to his clients, and to lay out his money on good security. They learned from their elders, and taught beginners, the art of increasing their savings." But when it is remembered that Cato was a sour and miserly Puritan, who adopted austerity as his pose, and that Horace was a poet, not untouched with cynicism, who lived in a society in which the charm of simple enjoyments was entirely forgotten, we may consider both pictures, though from differing causes, slightly overdrawn. Nevertheless they serve to indicate how circumscribed was the life of the wives of the early Romans.

Those strong-minded, intense, practical people were not, however, without their entertainments. Music, both vocal and instrumental, was cultivated. There were religious festivals, in which processions of boys and maidens sang pious hymns. We also learn from Cicero that it was the custom for the guests at a feast to sing the praises of their great men to the sound of the flute. It is easy for us to imagine a home scene in which Veturia, the mother of the youthful Cnæus Martius, tells over again to the inquiring boy those inspiring stories which he has heard chanted by his father's hearth and which are to prepare him to emulate heroic deeds at Corioli and earn for himself an honorable name.

But, habitually solemn and grave as were those old Romans, they were also much addicted to amusements of a coarse and grotesque nature. Even in their religious processions they included monstrous mechanical shapes, with formidable teeth and huge jaws which, by their opening and closing, frightened the women and children, to the great enjoyment of the men. Hideous masks were also worn for the same purpose. In fact, so little refinement characterized the minds of the people of these times, that they could find entertainment in only the rudest and coarsest of jests. Farces, which were nothing more than the absurd antics and personal witticisms of buffoons, had been introduced from Atella. But the beginning of Roman drama may be dated from B.C. 364, when, on account of a pestilence which devastated the city, Etruscan actors were imported to institute scenic games in honor of the gods. The pestilence ended; and consequently the games, being regarded as the efficacious remedy, were retained. These games consisted of combined dances and songs, which were accompanied by appropriate but not altogether proper gestures. Later, there was instituted the floral festival, the purpose of which was to induce the goddess of spring to grant that all the flowers which decked the fields at the time of blossoming should be represented by fruit in the harvest. In these games, dancing girls appeared upon the stage; and we may draw our own conclusions from the fact that in the time of Cato the scene was regarded as too frivolous for the eyes of so grave a personage. But the most popular of all the early festivals was that of Anna Perenna, the goddess of life. In this, restraint was abandoned. To drink extravagantly, and to listen to a recitation of the mistakes of Mars in taking a hideous goddess for the beautiful Minerva, were regarded as works of piety. Young girls were required to sing this story, which was full of the coarsest allusions. But the ancients did not consider the requirements of modesty in the same light as we do. They did not esteem that innocence born of ignorance, in which modern times deem it sacrificed to honor was the signal for the expulsion of tyranny.

It was not alone in the incitement of the populace to measures for her protection that the influence of woman was felt in matters of State. There were occasions when by her means calamities were averted, as well as times when civil strife was for her sake produced. The memory of the good service done for the city by Veturia, the mother, and Volumnia, the wife of Coriolanus, was never allowed to fade.

In the history of this brave and haughty warrior we have a picture of Roman political life. Rough politics they were; rock-faced episodes, befitting the character of the times, in which men knew nothing of finesse, and when appeal was made directly from reason to brute force and to the natural feelings of men. Perhaps it would be bordering on literary impiety to think that Shakespeare, in his Coriolanus, has not given the best interpretation possible of this fragment from the old Republic; but it is not one of his greatest pieces, because the material is lacking in those human qualities which are necessary to arouse profound interest. It is a drama with but one motive--filial respect. Yet the most is made of this; and the great dramatist has succeeded in vivifying the principal characters. In the portrayal of the mother of Coriolanus we see a matron who is worthy of such a son; the wife's part is that of passive resignation to the will of stronger spirits. Mrs. Jameson, in her Characteristics of Women, says: "In Volumnia, Shakespeare has given us the portrait of a Roman matron, conceived in the true antique spirit, and finished in every part. Although Coriolanus is the hero of the play, yet much of the interest of the action and the final catastrophe turn upon the character of his mother, and the power she exercised over his mind, by which, according to the story, 'she saved Rome and lost her son.' Her lofty patriotism, her patrician haughtiness, her maternal pride, her eloquence, and her towering spirit, are exhibited with the utmost power of effect; yet the truth of female nature is beautifully preserved, and the portrait, with all its vigor, is without harshness." We may well believe that Veturia--whom, following Plutarch, Shakespeare calls Volumnia--was a woman who could say: "When yet he was tender-bodied, and the only son of my womb ... I was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him, whence he returned, his brows bound with oak." And when the wife tremblingly inquires: "But had he died in the business, madam--what then?" it was in the mother to reply: "Then, his good report should have been my son." This is in accord with the Greek historian's statement that Coriolanus fought heroically, not only for glory and the passion of battle, but to win the meed of praise from his mother.

The action in the story of Veturia and her son is entirely political. The balance of power between the patricians and the plebeians was very narrow, especially when hardship aroused the latter to make inquiry into the claims of the former. A famine was more than sufficient to incite the lower order to threaten the privileges of the upper class; and Rome was at that time suffering from a scarcity of corn. The populace was not entirely convinced by Menenius's parable that the whole duty of the patrician order consisted in being the belly of the State organism. The people clamored; their tribunes saw in this an opportunity to gain increased powers; the Senators were inclined to be subservient. But the haughty spirit of Coriolanus would yield nothing of the ancient privileges. For his mother's sake, he sought the consulship; nevertheless, he angered the commons, though he could not gain the office without their suffrages. The stress became so great that his patrician friends could not prevent his exile. He left Rome, only to return to wreak vengeance at the head of a Volscian army. This enemy being already a menace to Rome, the defection of the great leader to their ranks placed the disordered city at their mercy. Then it was that the Romans remembered that though women were incapacitated for political action and were unable to fight, yet they were powerful factors in the appeal to those feelings of the human heart whence flow justice and pity. The arguments of ambassadors and the behests of the priests had not availed; the authorities were constrained to adventure what might be effected by the tears of the women for whom alone, of all that was Roman, Coriolanus retained any regard. His mother and his wife were implored to make the last appeal. This plan had come by inspiration into the mind of Valeria, sister of the great Publicola, as she was praying with the other matrons in the temple of Jupiter. Veturia and Volumnia, leading the two sons of Coriolanus, went forth to the Voiscian camp. As they drew near, Coriolanus, though resolved to remain obdurate, showed himself not lacking in filial respect; he advanced to meet them, ordering the fasces to be lowered in the presence of his mother. The Roman historians clothe Veturia with noble dignity as she makes her appeal. "Before I receive your embrace, let me know if I have come to an enemy or to a son; whether I am in your camp a captive or a mother. Has length of life and a hapless old age reserved me for this--to behold you an exile and an enemy?... So then, had I not been a mother, Rome would not be besieged; had I not a son, I might have died free in a free country." The spirit of this is truly Roman. Even the women were trained to force the claims of blood and the natural affections into a place secondary to the duty of loyalty to the State. This appeal; joined with the embraces of his wife and the lamentations of the other matrons, prevailed over the anger of Coriolanus; and again Rome was saved by the Roman women. As a reward, a monumental temple was erected by the men of the city, and dedicated to Female Fortune.

It was not alone as peacemakers that the Roman matrons served the public interests of the city. On more than one occasion the treasury was rendered efficient by means of their generous contributions. More than once the golden ornaments of the wives became auxiliary to the iron arms of their husbands, and in one instance they accomplished that which the latter could not achieve. When the Gauls burned the city, and were only turned from the citadel by the payment of one thousand pounds of gold, with the sword of Brennus thrown on the Gallic side of the scale to insure good weight, the amount could not have been raised but for the self-sacrifice of the matrons. In gratitude for this, the Conscript Fathers voted that thenceforth funeral orations might be made for women. The gold was afterward repaid to the women out of Etrurian plunder. Again, when, in accordance with the vow of Camillus, a tribute was to be presented to Apollo, the matrons brought what they possessed of the precious metal, it was especially honored by being made into a golden bowl, which was carried to Delphos. On this occasion also they were rewarded; for the Senate conferred on them the privilege of riding to public worship and to the games in covered chariots, and on other errands in open carriages. The historian introduces this latter information with "they say"; whether or not, previous to this, the Roman ladies had been obliged to walk is left to be surmised without further evidence.

Some Idea of what those golden ornaments were may be gathered from the account of a voluntary contribution which was made in Rome at a later period. Funds were required to equip a fleet against Philip of Macedon, the ally of Hannibal. Lævinus the consul, urging upon his fellow Senators the duty to set an example of public generosity, says: "Let us bring into the treasury to-morrow all our gold, silver, and coined brass, each reserving rings for himself, his wife and children, and a bulla for his son; and he who has a wife or daughters, an ounce weight of gold for each. Let those who have sat in a curule chair have the ornaments of a horse, and a pound weight of silver, that they may have a salt-cellar, and a dish for the service of the gods ..." Notwithstanding the fact that, in response to this appeal, the needs of the fleet were abundantly provided for, the indication is that at this period, about B.C. 280, the decorative tastes of the Roman ladies had in no wise acquired that luxuriousness with which they afterward became characterized. There was no ornament so common as the ring, the place of which, in these early times when only one was worn, was the third finger of the left hand. It was used for the purpose of sealing letters and papers, and long before the end of the Republic the custom arose of setting rings with precious stones. Indeed, the people of the early Republic were not unacquainted with most exquisite work of the goldsmiths' art; but there was still prevalent that consciousness of the surpassing value of personal excellences which could afford to be independent of outward adornment, and of which Cornelia's reference to her sons as her jewels was a surviving echo.

But the times were soon to change. Hitherto we have seen the Roman matrons living the simple, diligent, unsophisticated lives of women who were fitting mates for men who held to the plow for support, but dared not let drop the sword. Until then, Rome had been nothing but a city struggling for existence--sometimes a precarious existence. Instances there were when her fortunes waned almost to the vanishing point; when the tide of progress seemed to hang at the ebb. The god of victory, though honored as the tutelary deity of Rome, was frequently partial to her Italian neighbors; her walls were entered and her houses razed by the barbarian Gauls; and once she was at the point of being deserted by her citizens, the majority of whom could hardly be restrained by the ideals of religion from removing the State and the Capitol to Veii. Yet her star of empire persisted and, despite temporary eclipses, remained in the ascendant.

How did those centuries of varying civic fortune affect the status of the women? They were, by the necessities of their circumstances, trained to endure hardship. The temple of Janus was never closed, for warfare was unceasing; and it was usual for the widow's wailing death dirge to be embittered by the fact that the husband had been slain in his strength and prime. Slavery and outrage, the concomitants of barbarous warfare, were always included within the possibilities of a Roman matron's fate. Under such circumstances civilization necessarily advanced slowly; it is only as life and liberty and leisure are secured that existence can acquire the social graces. Hence the probability is that, during the first two and a half centuries of the Republic,--that is, until Rome was fully launched upon her career of conquest,--the position and the habits and manner of life of the women did not greatly change. It is true that there was a continuous internal development of the State; but this manifested itself in an accentuation of those laws which reveal the hardness of the old Roman character, rather than in any tendency toward the easement of the individual lives of the citizens. Never has personal privilege been so completely subjugated to State prerogative. The laws, which were rigidly--even slavishly--interpreted according to the letter and never according to the spirit, considered the individual from the standpoint of his value to the State, and rarely from that of his own rights. The woman's value to the State was entirely submerged in that of her husband. Therefore, we find that it was only with the greatest difficulty that edicts granting privileges to woman could be passed, unless it were in payment for some special act of loyalty on her part to the State. Hard and inflexible in their ideas of life were those old Romans, practical and unsentimental in their relations with each other, narrow in their conceptions, proud to arrogance of their State, and reverencing only their institutions.

But in course of time they broke through their insularity with the force of their own arms. Victorious contact with other States gave them a larger acquaintance with the fruits of civilization, and the spoils of conquest afforded them the means to enjoy it. Hence, during the latter half of the republican period we see life in Rome rapidly undergoing a change. As typical of this new state of things, as it affected the character, status, and condition of women, there is only one woman whom we need to select. In Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio Africanus and the wife of Sempronius Gracchus, is found the ideal of Roman femininity of that day. She was in every way worthy of her patrician ancestry, which had produced a greater number of eminent men than any other family, twenty-one consulships being held by the Cornelii in eighty-six years. Cornelia lived in a Rome which we can understand and appreciate; we begin to recognize social features upon which the imagination can lay hold and from them piece together some idea of the reality. Hitherto the data has been too foreign and too meagre for any great success in this; but when we read of Cornelia providing herself with a country house, riding to public worship, listening to the gossip of her friends respecting each other's jewelry, and interesting herself in Greek literature, we discover that the main features of a Roman matron's life were not essentially dissimilar from those which characterize polite feminine society in our own time. Indeed, there is more to evoke our sympathetic appreciation in the Rome of B.C. 150 than in the Europe of A.D. 1000 or in the Asiatic civilizations of to-day. We feel more at home in the patrician villas than in the mediæval castles; just as we find more that is applicable to modern life in the Roman poets than we do in the bards of chivalry. In studying the period when the ancient civilization of Italy was at its best, we discover habits of thought, bits of life, and social customs, which really startle us with their similitude to those to which we ourselves are accustomed.

The city, in the time of Cornelia, showed few outward signs of the magnificence it was to acquire under the emperors. The houses were mostly of brick, though domestic architecture had become quite ambitious in its character, Cornelia herself having built, as has been said, a very expensive villa at Misenum; those of the wealthy were filled with costly furniture and precious works of art, which the Romans first learned to admire in the countries which they subdued; and having acquired a taste for beautiful things, they made no scruple of appropriating them. Rome had now grown wealthy with the spoils of her extensive victories, and, as always comes to pass with the advent of riches, there had been brought about a great differentiation in the condition of the population. Polybius gives us a picture of the extravagant style in which Æmilia, the mother of Cornelia, appeared in public. "When she left home to go to the temple," says he, "she seated herself in a glittering chariot, herself attired with extreme luxury. Before her were carried with solemn ceremony the vases of gold and silver required for the sacrifice, and a numerous train of slaves and servants accompanied her." And this notwithstanding the Oppian law, which limited matrons to a half-ounce of gold on their wearing apparel and prohibited them from riding in carriages in the city, and which had not yet been repealed. As this modish lady passed through the streets of Rome with her brilliant retinue, exciting the envy of other matrons, and bestowing gracious recognition upon white-robed, stately patricians, she must have beheld as many signs of abject, suffering poverty as are prevalent in our own great cities. By this time, the plebeian order had been raised to equal legal privilege with the patrician, and society had now come to be divided into the enormously rich and the extremely poor. The former rendered their position secure by means of extortion in the provinces; the condition of the latter was made hopeless by the fact that all labor was performed by slaves. A state of things unknown to the old times was now prevalent in Rome: men and women were idle, willingly or perforce, according to their circumstances.

The position of women had also changed. They were now beginning to make a stand for their rights--a thing undreamed of in the old days. The father of the family was no longer allowed to execute his arbitrary power entirely unquestioned. Livy narrates an incident which illustrates this development and bears interestingly upon the character of Æmilia and the history of Cornelia. He relates that "the Senators, happening to sup one day in the Capitol, rose up together and requested of Africanus, before the company departed, to betroth his daughter to Gracchus; the contract was accordingly executed in due form, in the presence of this assembly. Scipio, on his return home, told his wife Æmilia that he had concluded a match for her younger daughter. She, feeling her female pride hurt, expressed some resentment at not having been consulted in the disposal of their common child, adding that, even were he giving her to Tiberius Gracchus, her mother ought not to be kept in ignorance of his intention; to which Scipio, rejoiced that her judgment concurred so entirely with his own, replied that she was betrothed to that very man."

It has been well said that the words which Plautus puts into the mouth of Alcmena may be applied to the character of Cornelia, who was thus bestowed by her great father upon a no less worthy man: "My dower is chastity, modesty, and the fear of the gods; it is love to my kindred; it is to be submissive to my husband, kind toward good people, helpful to the brave." She also received a dot, an accompaniment of marriage which was beginning to be highly considered among the matrons of Rome as of more practical value than the above-mentioned moral qualities. It consisted of fifty talents of gold. But the time had not yet arrived when the riches of virtue and goodness were entirely unappreciated; there were still matrons who could enter, with faces neither brazen nor abashed, the temple erected to chastity; and upon the tombs of many of them might have been truthfully inscribed, as upon that of Claudia: Gentle in words, graceful in manner, she loved her husband devotedly; she kept her house, she spun wool. Among these chaste matrons Cornelia excelled; her fame remains as that of the highest type of the pure-principled, noble-minded, cultured Roman matron. She lived in entire sympathy with her husband; and we may well believe that it was partly owing to her influence that the generous Sempronius Gracchus found it in himself to command an army enlisted from among the slaves, and to emancipate them upon the battlefield as a reward for the bravery which his leadership incited.

Plutarch, in his lives of the sons of Gracchus, repeats a story which, though characterized by the superstitions of the times, indicates in what estimation Cornelia was held by her husband and all who knew her. It relates that Gracchus once found in his bed chamber a couple of snakes, and that the soothsayers, being consulted concerning the prodigy, advised that he should neither kill them both nor let them both escape; adding that if the male serpent were killed, Gracchus would die, and, if the female, Cornelia would perish. Therefore, as he extremely loved his wife, he thought that it was much more his part, who was an old man, to die than it was hers, who as yet was but a young woman; so he killed the male serpent and let the female escape. Soon after this, he died, leaving his wife and the twelve children which she had borne to him. "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. In this state she continued, and lost all her children, except one daughter, who was married to Scipio the Younger, and two sons, Tiberius and Caius." The daughter, Sempronia, seems to have been in every respect unlike her mother. Unattractive and childless, she neither loved nor was loved by her husband; and, indeed, suspicion was cast upon her of having brought about his death.

Cornelia was well equipped to undertake the education of her children. What is told of her indicates a woman who was alert to advance with all that was progressive in her time. The spirit of literature had but recently attained its reincarnation, and that for the first time upon Roman soil. It was begotten, as it was again fifteen centuries later, by the immortal genius of Greek poesy. The Romans conquered Greece physically; but Hellenic learning subjugated Roman ideas. The Scipios were the ardent supporters of Greek culture; and in this, as in all other respects, Cornelia took a foremost position among the representatives of her gifted family.

She provided for her children the most erudite of Greek masters, and spared no efforts in training their minds in the love of all that was graceful and cultured. In the justly renowned eloquence of her sons, there was recognized a gift which they inherited from their mother, as was testified by Cicero, who had seen her letters. She possessed the ability and also the courage to incite them to noble deeds for their country. It was probably not so much ambition for herself as for them which caused her to reproach her sons with the fact that she was still known as the widow of Scipio and not as the Mother of the Gracchi. But they lost no time in earning for her, both on account of their deeds on the battlefield and by their devotion to the civil affairs of the State, the distinction of this latter title.

The Roman Republic had so far degenerated as to submit to be governed by an oligarchy consisting of a few proud and wealthy families--the worst of all forms of government. The Senators were flagrantly using their power to accumulate enormous riches and to monopolize the land by seizing upon the public domain. Middle-class independence was rapidly diminishing, and the growing masses of the people were oppressed by a poverty from which they had no means of freeing themselves. The Gracchi sought to relieve these evils by passing laws limiting the amount of land which might be held by one person, and offsetting the power of the nobility by securing the economic independence of the people. The Gracchi were reformers; and they each in turn attained to dictatorial power. But though they secured the enactment of their measures, they could not put them into effect; and in the end,--as is frequently the case with reformers,--because they were far-sighted enough to see evil in that which the majority of the rulers considered good, there was nothing for them but martyrdom. This they suffered in turn: Caius taking up the work where Tiberius was compelled, by assassination, to relinquish it.

The parting of Caius from his wife on the morning of his own death is a scene from a heroic tragedy. He could not be persuaded to arm himself, with the exception of a small dagger underneath his toga. As he was going out, Licinia stopped him at the threshold, holding him by one hand and their little son by the other. She pleaded that he would not expose himself to the murderers of his brother. "Had your brother," she urged, "fallen before Numantia, the enemy would have given back what then had remained of Tiberius; but such is my hard fate, that I probably must be a suppliant to the floods or the waves, that they would somewhere restore to me your relics. For since Tiberius was not spared, what trust can we place either in the laws or in the gods?" But Caius, gently withdrawing himself from her embraces, departed; and Licinia, falling in a faint, was carried as though dead into the house of her brother Crassus.

Cornelia bore the death of her two sons with her characteristic nobility of mind. She removed to her seaside home at Cape Misenum; and there she surrounded herself with learned men, and especially delighted in entertaining the exponents of Greek literature. She was held in the highest esteem by all; and her friends desired no greater privilege than to listen to her reminiscences of her father, Scipio Africanus. She would proudly add: "The grandsons of that great man were my children. They perished in the temple and grove sacred to the gods. They have the tombs that their virtues merited, for they sacrificed their lives to the noblest of aims,--the desire to promote the welfare of the people." Such was Cornelia; and she was the noblest of the matrons of the Republic. No greater thing can be said of her than that she gloried most in the reflected honor which came upon her as being the mother of the Gracchi; yet she has been deservedly given a high place among the great and good women of all time.

Prev | Next | Contents