Joan Of Arc
Catherine De Medici
Read More Articles About: Famous Women
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
B. C. 160
A MOTHER'S INFLUENCE
"Why, my sons, must I ever be called the daughter of Scipio rather than the mother of the Gracchi ?"
Such was the ambitious taunt by which the great and. illustrious dame urged her two sons onward toward two rebellions.
When the Campanian lady paraded her many jewels before Cornelia, the haughty mother of the patriots replied, taking her little children by the hand : "These are my jewels !"
Her cause might perish in the political rancors of the hour, but her proud spirit, emulated by millions of other Roman mothers, was finally to carry the Roman legions triumphant to the limits of the known world.
The history of Cornelia and the two Gracchi, her sons, has come down only in fragmentary form, and must be fitted together from the casual writings of Velleius Paterculus (a hostile authority), Valerius Maximus (who relates the episode of the jewels), Florus, Cicero, Quintilian, and Plutarch. Unsuccessful revolution is, of course, sedition, and the ancient authors cannot be criticised for branding the attempts of the two Roman states-men to restore to the people the common property stolen from them by the wealthy families of the commonwealth.
The most praiseworthy, intelligent and artistic weaving together of the fragmentary Roman story with which we have any acquaintance is to be found in Froude's "Casar," at the third chapter, and we shall follow his relation of the events growing out of the laws passed at the behest of the Gracchi.
Cornelia was born about 16o years before the Christian era, and about 329 years later than Aspasia. Undoubtedly the heroic sentiments of the Greek woman made a deep impression upon Cornelia, for she early became a profound student of the Greek literature. She was the daughter of Scipio Africanus, the elder, and such was the splendor of her house that Ptolemy, King of Egypt, asked for her hand in marriage, but she, with the pride that characterized her life, responded that she would rather be the wife (or widow) of a Roman citizen than the con-sort of a barbarian monarch.
She married into a plebeian house, but her husband, Sempronius Gracchus, was a distinguished soldier in Spain and Sardinia, and a member of a family which had furnished consuls to the state. He had held the great office of censor, and in this capacity he had ejected disreputable senators from the curia; he had degraded offending equites; he had rearranged and tried to purify the Comitia. Notwithstanding his close relations with the aristocrats (for his daughter married the second most famous of the Scipios, called Africanus, the younger), he still left behind him, at the time of his early death, the reputation of a reformer, a man little satisfied with the constitution of things, and it might well be feared by the wealthy that his sons would follow in the same line of public policy.
"There is a story told," says Plutarch, in his "Tiberius and Caius Gracchus," "that Tiberius (Sempronius) once found in his bedchamber a couple of snakes, and 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, Sempronius should die, and if the female, Cornelia. And that, therefore, Tiberius, who extremely loved his wife, and thought, besides, that it was much more his part, who was an old man, to die, than it was hers, who was as yet but a young woman, killed the male serpent and let the female escape, and soon after himself died. 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 Sempronius seemed to all men to have done nothing unreasonable in choosing to die for such a woman."
Twelve children were born to Sempronius, and at her husband's death the widow was left, not only to care for them, but to bear the loss by death of no less than nine of her offspring, leaving only Tiberius and Caius, and the wife of the young Scipio as the support of her declining years. "The education she gave them," says Samuel Knapp, "made them inordinately ambitious, but at the same time nobly patriotic. When they were quite young she was impatient to see them taking a part for the glories of Rome, which, she thought, were expiring in the hands of the patricians. This excellent mother did not leave their education even when they had reached manhood, for she, by her eloquence, persuaded them to study the Greek philosophy, in which all the ennobling principles of freedom are to be found."
"She brought up her children with so much care," says. Plutarch, "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. And as, in the statues and pictures made of Castor and Pollux, though the brothers resemble one another, yet there is a difference to be perceived in their countenances, between the one who delighted in the cestus, and the other that was famous in the course, so, between these two noble youths, though there was a strong general likeness in their common love of fortitude and temperance, in their liberality, their eloquence, and their greatness of mind, yet, in their actions and administration of public affairs, a considerable variation showed itself. Their valor in war against their country's enemies," continues the great Greek biographer, "their justice in the government of its subjects, their care and industry in office, and their self-command in all that regarded their pleasures were equally remarkable in both." It is clear that Plutarch attributes these qualities, so clearly marked in both brothers, as the result of their mother's sublime teaching. He believes that they failed in their noble enterprise mainly because there were nine years of difference in their ages, and that they thus could not flourish together and unite the power that they wielded.
Cicero, the greatest orator the Roman world produced, bears witness : "We have read the letters of Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, from which it appears that the sons were educated, not so much in the lap of the mother, as in her conversation."
Quintilian informs us that the Gracchi were indebted for much of their eloquence to the care and institutions of their mother, Cornelia, whose taste and learning were fully displayed in her letters, which were in the hands of the public in his day.
Later on, however, in her sad career, the mother may have offered to Shakespeare his idea of Lady Macbeth, who, urging her husband to passages of ambition from which brave men might recoil, finds herself unable to support calamities drawn down upon her house by her own counsel, and leaves Macbeth in that baleful solitude which hangs like a pall over the final scenes of the great English tragedy. Cornelia, too, writes letters to her son, Caius, betraying all the weakness and fond compunctions of the mother-heart, as we shall see, so that they who held that in after life she seemed to little feel her loss, and rather boast of the glory of her sons, knew little of her life and sorrow.
Tiberius Gracchus, the elder son of Cornelia, was admitted to the College of the Augurs (priests) on attaining manhood, out of recognition of his early virtue. At a public feast of the Augurs, Appius Claudius, who had been consul and censor, and was now at the head of the Senate, offered to Tiberius the hand of his daughter in marriage, which Tiberius gladly accepted. Appius, returning home, had no sooner reached .his door than he cried out to his wife: "O, Antistia, I have contracted our daughter Claudia to a husband." She, with amazement, answered : "But why so suddenly, unless you have provided Tiberius Gracchus for her husband?"
Tiberius now went with the army to Carthage, and served under his brother-in-law, Scipio, sharing the same tent with the commander. He was the first to mount the wall of Carthage when the city was taken, and was regarded by the entire army with affection.
Later on the young soldier covered himself with luster in Spain, because, when the Roman general Mancinus fell into deep troubles, the Numantines would treat with no other than Tiberius, whose father they remembered with affection. By means of this popularity, the lives of twenty thousand Roman soldiers were spared, but the action of Tiberius was jealously censured by the Patricians at Rome, and Tiberius was brought early into a sense of hostility to the state of things that prevailed. In this feeling he was ardently supported by the voice and influence of his mother, and the great name of Scipio contributed to make him powerful with all classes.
Returning on his sad journey from Spain, his route lying through Tuscany, north of Rome, lie saw with his own eyes that only slaves tilled the fields. The free citizens had been pushed into the towns, aliens and outcasts in their own country, without a foot of soil which they could call their own.* And the vast domains of the land-lords had not been even fairly purchased; for, despite a law forbidding it, the commons, or ager publicus, which could be legally leased to occupants only in comparatively small farms, had been seized by the great lords, and there was none of the public domain remaining for smaller lessees or proprietors. Tiberius resolved to restore the people's patrimony, and secured the office of Tribune in the year 133, Cornelia being active in the canvass, and the issue of public lands being clear. The poor people set up writings on the walls, calling upon Tiberius to reinstate them in their former possessions. The Tribunes were once powerful magistrates, who must be elected out of plebeian families, but the Senate had silently usurped many of their functions, and it had been the custom of the Tribunes for some time to submit their bills for laws to the review of the Senate before convoking the assembly of the people in the forum. But, this time, Tiberius went directly to the people. His bill provided that himself, his brother Caius, and his father-in-law, Appius, should act as a land commission to evict trespassers from the public domain and if need be to pay such tenants the value of their improvements. One of the Tribunes, going over to the Senatorial party, interposed his veto, which, under the Constitution, would defeat or postpone all legislation for one year. Tiberius incited the people to infringe the constitution by deposing the apostate Tribune, which was done without other warrant than the public vote, and the agrarian law was put in full force.
But the year in which a Tribune held office was too short a time in which to carry out a great reform, and for the sake of the people, Tiberius offered himself for re-election, which the Patricians might truly denounce as a seditious act. The election day arrived, and the nobles gathered on the Campus Martius with enormous retinues of armed servants and clients. The voting began, and as it was seen that Gracchus would be elected a second time, a fight with pikes and spades was set up ; the unarmed citizens ran away, and Tiberius with three hundred of his friends who remained to defend themselves, were killed and their bodies flung into the Tiber.
For Tiberius had been an opponent over whom the aristocracy must triumph or moderate its privileges, and it did not feel sufficiently generous to broaden the possibilities of life for the poor in the Roman Empire. "The savage beasts," said Tiberius, when the people revised the agrarian law, "in Italy have their particular dens; they have their places of repose and refuge ; but the men who bear arms, and expose their lives for the safety of their country, enjoy in the meantime nothing more in it but the air and the light; and having no houses or settlements of their own, are constrained to wander from place to place with their wives and children. The common soldiers are exhorted to fight for their sepulchers and altars, when not one amongst so many Romans is possessed of either altar or monument; neither have they any houses of their own, or hearths of their ancestors to defend. They fought indeed and were slain, but it was to maintain the luxuries and the wealth of other men. They were styled the masters of the world, but, in the meantime, had not one foot of ground which they could call their own."
When, therefore, the riot was over, which was the first bloody revolution or dissension that had occurred in Rome from the time of Tarquin, it was set up as law and doctrine that the sacred rights of property had been maintained, and that Tiberius had perished because he plotted to be King. Even Scipio, the brother-in-law, found it expedient to condemn the policy of Tiberius, and to flatter the Senate.
It now became feasible to repeal the law of Tiberius, though the outcry of the people grew every day more importunate. Caius Gracchus retired from city politics, being elected Questor and thus compelled to journey with the Consul into Sardinia. While this pleased him, it also delighted the landlords, for, from what they had seen of the young man, he gave promise of becoming a far more thorough demagogue and far more ambitious than even Tiberius had been of popular applause. Yet Cicero declares that Caius would have lived privately for his mother's sake, but that his dead brother appeared to him in a dream, and, calling him by his name, said : "Why do you tarry, Caius? There is no escape; one life and one death is appointed for us both to spend the one, and to meet the other in the service of the people."
The Senate fatuously pursued Caius with petty prosecution, and he in return reentered the arena of politics, and was easily elected one of the Tribunes, exactly ten years later than his brother. In his speeches he constantly invoked the name of his sorrowing mother, Cornelia, and never without immediate effect on the masses, who already held her in the profoundest and most affectionate esteem. Caius was a bitter orator, and neglected no opportunity, however delicate or dangerous, to inflame the people against the Senate. He exiled many of the murderers of his brother; he distributed meat to the people; he voted pay to the soldiers; he greatly reduced the power that the Senate was wielding. It seems that his course became so bold that it alarmed Cornelia, who was now living again in Campania, whither she had retired on the death of her son Tiberius. She who had madly urged on Tiberius, to whom were principally addressed the words at the beginning of this article, now appears to have shown a reactionary side of her character; for there are preserved in the fragments of Cornelius Nepos, letters to Caius from Cornelia that urged him to recede from his position. "You tell me," she says, "that it is glorious to be revenged of our enemies. No one thinks so more than I do, if we can be revenged without hurt to the Republic, but, if not, often may our enemies escape. Long may they be safe, if the good of the commonwealth requires their safety."
In a letter written to Caius by Cornelia after he was well along in his warfare on the Senate, the mother even upbraids her son : "I take the gods to witness, that except the persons who killed my son Tiberius, no one ever gave me so much affliction as you do in this matter you, from whom I might have expected some consolation in my old age, and who, surely, of all my children, ought to be most careful not to distress me. I have not many years to live. Spare the Republic that long for my sake. Shall I never see the madness of my family at an end? When I am dead, you will think to honor me with a parent's rites ; but what honor can my memory receive from you, by whom I am abandoned and dishonored while I live? But may the gods forbid you should persist ! If you do, I fear the course you are taking leads to remorse and distraction, which will end only with your life."
When Caius had abolished the right of Senators to sit on juries where the cases of corrupt magistrates, such as pro-consuls and governors of provinces, were to be tried, he put nearly every Senator in a position of jeopardy, for these corrupt governors were recruited from the ranks of the Senate, and when he made the public distribution of wheat, he began the work of undermining his own influence, because a pauperized Rome could be more easily debauched by wealthy Patricians. Yet he was a second time elected Tribune, and certainly passed the first reef on which his bother's ship had split. He now desired to benefit the mob that he at last had full power to govern. He wanted to found Roman colonies, and even the hated name of Carthage was selected as one of the points of settlement. On this the Senate took the demagogue's side of the argument, and easily pictured to the populace the exile which their leader had in view for them, after he had attained to power on their shoulders. Caius unhappily played into the hands of the Senators by proposing that there should be no distinction between Romans and Italians, thus enfranchising the entire peninsula. To mention the name of Carthage had once been treason, and the bitterest prejudices were awakened by the plans of Caius. What was better than to remain Roman citizens as they were? asked they. It began to appear that Caius no longer honored his mother and the Scipios, and that the Roman Republic was again in danger. Thus when the time of election once more came, the popular party had dwindled to a handful and the Senate was prepared to proscribe the offending Tribune. He, at last, retiring to Diana's temple, fell on bended knee, and, uplifting his head, prayed to the goddess that the Roman people, as a punishment for their ingratitude and treachery to their true friends, might always remain in slavery.
In the street battles which now took place, as in the time of Tiberius, Caius, who offered no resistance, was soon killed, and no less than three thousand dead bodies of his friends were flung into the Tiber as traitors who were unworthy of religious burial.
The leader of the oligarchs against Caius, one Opimius, erected a Temple of Concord, and this sardonic act with other aristocratic doings which followed, turned back the tide of popular opinion. When, in after years, Opimius had been convicted of embezzlement, he grew old amidst the hatred and insults of the people ; who, though humbled and affrighted at the time of the murder of Caius, did not fail before long to let everybody see what respect and veneration they had for the memory of the Gracchi.* They ordered their statues to be made and set up in public view; they consecrated the places where they were slain and thither brought the first fruits of every-thing, according to the season of the year, to make their offerings. Many came likewise thither to their devotions, and daily worshiped there, as at the temples of their gods.
"It is reported," says Plutarch, "that as Cornelia, their mother, bore the loss of her two sons with a noble, 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 afterward, 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 conversed with her were much interested when she pleased to entertain them with her recollections of her father, the great Scipio Africanus (the destroyer of Carthage), 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 signs 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 availed to conquer any affliction; and though fortune may often be more successful, and may defeat the efforts of virtue to defeat misfortunes, it cannot, when we incur them, prevent our bearing them reasonably.
"As for the Gracchi," concludes Plutarch, "the greatest detractors and their worst enemies, could not but allow that they had a genius to virtue beyond all other Romans, which was improved also by a generous education."
It is probable that the letters alleged to have been written to Caius by his mother, represent the temporary influence of aristocratic surroundings on the mother, for it is related of her that, after the death of Caius, when some one offered to her the usual condolences, she said, "Can the mother of the Gracchi want consolation ?"—and her spirit must have been edified by the public honors that were so soon paid to her sons and that she knew would round out her own career.
For, when she died, the people of Rome erected a monument to her memory, and finally she had the wish of her younger days an honor so terribly earned. On the monument of the daughter of the greater Scipio, of the wife of the brave Sempronius, of the mother-in-law of the lesser Scipio, were inscribed only the words :
MOTHER OF THE GRACCHI.