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Cornelia’s Connections: Political Influence in Cross-Class Female Networks

Krishni Schaefgen Burns

University of Illinois at Chicago

This paper explores the potential existence of female social networks that stretched across class barriers to give women of all stations the ability to influence politics during the Roman Republic. It will build on the work of scholars such as Richard Bauman (1990), Judith Hallett (1984), and Emily Hemelrijk (1987), who have established that women in high socioeconomic positions acted as political intercessors between their powerful male relatives and other Roman women. The hypothesis is founded on various events from the Roman Republic, including the Lex Oppia protests (Livy 34.8.1-3) and Veturia’s intervention with her son, Coriolanus (Livy 2.391-40.12, Val. Max. 5.2.1). The paper will use Tiberius Gracchus’ land reforms of 133 BCE as a case study in how such a network would have functioned.

During the middle of the second century BCE, the women of the rural Italian farming communities were suffering as much as their male counterparts from the exploitation of their urban landlords. At the time, there was a relative disconnection between the Roman countryside and urban areas which allowed the Senate to ignore the abusive conditions. In fact, Plutarch cites a pamphlet circulated by Gaius Gracchus that claimed that Tiberius became aware of the problem by chance, when he traveled through Italy once on his way to Numantia (Plut. TG 8.7). Although the story is improbable, it does suggest that members of the urban elite only passed through the Italian countryside at irregular, unpredictable intervals.

Unlike their menfolk, the women living in rural Latium would have had regular, predictable access to Rome’s elite matrons. Members of the ordo matronarum who had only had one husband, univira, travel to the temple of Fortuna Mulieribus at least once a year to fulfill their religious obligations to the goddess (DiLuzio 2016, Scullard 1981, Schultz 2006). Cornelia, mother of Tiberius Gracchus, was a univira of considerable status and would have been involved with the rites of the cult of Fortuna Mulieribus. Rural plebeian women would have had an excellent opportunity to approach the univirae during their priest(ess)ly rites (Richlin 220).

As a Tribune’s mother, Cornelia would have been especially sought after as an ideal spokeswoman for a primarily plebeian cause. In performing her duties at the rural shrine of the goddess, Cornelia would have been the most politically influential woman to come into physical proximity with plebeian countrywomen. She was certainly held to have exercised considerable political authority through her two sons (Barnard 1990, Bauman 1994, Dixon 2007, Hallett 2006). Emily Hemelrijk (1999) has demonstrated that Cornelia would have directed her sons’ education and influenced their rhetorical style, and Plutarch cites a number of instances in which Cornelia is said to have influenced her sons’ political actions (TG 8.2, 5; CG 4.1-2). Plutarch even cites reports that Cornelia urged Tiberius to propose his land reforms.

Plutarch suggests that Cornelia supported the reforms in order to increase her son’s reputation, but a legislative campaign that helped the least powerful members of Rome’s community would hardly have added to the family’s prestige. Instead, I propose that Cornelia was fulfilling her sociopolitical function as intercessor on behalf of the women of the rural community. The combination of accessibility, influence, and social responsibility coupled with a lack of evident reward makes it much more likely that Cornelia would have acted on behalf of the women affected than for personal glory.

If Cornelia was indeed the source of the Gracchan land reforms as Plutarch suggests, she was promoting them at the request of other Roman women who had less direct access to policy makers. When Cornelia urged reform, she was not lobbying for her own preferred policies; she was using her privileged position to raise up her more marginalized sisters.

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Sisters Doin' it for Themselves: Women in Power in the Ancient World and the Ancient Imaginary

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