Sempronia (sister of the Gracchi)
Sempronia (170 BC – after 101 BC), was a Roman noblewoman living in the Middle and Late Roman Republic, who was most famous as the sister of the ill-fated Tiberius Gracchus (died 133 BC) and Gaius Gracchus (died 121 BC), and the wife of a Roman general Scipio Aemilianus.
Sempronia was the oldest surviving child and only surviving daughter of Roman consul and censor Tiberius Gracchus Major and his wife Cornelia Africana. Her younger brothers were the famed Roman politicians Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus. Her maternal grandparents were the great Roman general Scipio Africanus and his wife Aemilia Paulla, and her maternal great-uncle was another distinguished Roman general Lucius Aemilius Paulus Macedonicus. Her father had a formidable reputation as a general (having won a triumph in Sardinia), and was known as a strict censor who was yet tremendously popular.
Sempronia was born in Rome around 170 BC, and was raised and educated there by her mother. Her father died suddenly in 154 BC, and it is probable that she was engaged while he was still alive to her mother’s maternal first cousin Scipio Aemilianus Africanus who was her first cousin by adoption (by her maternal uncle). At her father's death, her young brothers were apparently partly raised and educated in Scipio's household; he was wealthy, rich, and cultivated a circle of literary-minded Romans and foreigners known to history as the Scipionic Circle. When Sempronia was age 17 or 18, and probably by 151 BC (when Scipio the Younger left for Spain), she appears to have married Scipio Aemilianus. He became a famous Roman general and a somewhat less successful Roman politician.
Certain historical accounts state that Sempronia and Scipio had a very unhappy marriage. They did not show any affection towards each other, and Scipio complained of her lack of beauty and her sterility. It is known that Sempronia had no children in her marriage. Nothing is known of her private life or character, but presumably both were irreproachable. Those same historical accounts state that the couple disagreed over Scipio's treatment of his young cousin and former ward Tiberius Gracchus, who had tried to arrange a settlement for Numantia and bring an entire Roman army out of captivity. Scipio denounced the treaty in the Senate, and although Gracchus was saved from punishment, he bore a grudge against Scipio and his allies henceforth. He allied himself with Scipio's political rival Appius Claudius Pulcher, who was Princeps Senatus and censor in 136 BC and other influential men allied to him by marriage, and became tribune of the plebs to implement a radical reform program that threatened to undermine the socio-economic and political order.
In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus and some of his followers were clubbed to death in Rome. The conservative mob which attacked them was led by a close relative, Sempronia and Scipio’s cousin Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio, who was Pontifex Maximus. Scipio was then away in Spain successfully besieging Numantia, and on his return, he is said to have commented that Tiberius had tried to make himself king of Rome, and thus implied that Gracchus's death was justified by the mos maiorum. At the time, Scipio was credited for having arranging the murder, or at the very least, having connived at it.
Scipio was held indirectly responsible for his brother-in-law's death, or at least, for his failure to prosecute those responsible for the murder of Roman citizens in the vicinity of the Senate. This, together with his want of tact in speaking to the people henceforth, led to a drop in his popularity among the Roman voters. However, he was still an influential and effective speaker in the Senate.
Death of Scipio Aemilianus
In 129 BC, Scipio told allies of Gracchus, notably the tribune Gaius Papirius Carbo, that he intended to formally denounce Tiberius Gracchus' reforms, notably the agrarian proposals. Carbo, then a tribune of the plebs, had been a long-time supporter of Tiberius Gracchus, and at that time he was a bitter enemy of Scipio. Scipio returned home and went to bed early, planning to make his crucial speech the next day in the Senate. The following morning, he was found dead in his bed.
There had been no history of illness. His body was hastily cremated, rather than interred as customary among the Scipios. Rumours spread that he was murdered, and his estranged wife Sempronia and her mother Cornelia Africana were suspected. However, the way Scipio died is unknown, and there is no evidence to prove that Sempronia was involved. What was suspicious was the way in which the Senate responded to the sudden death of a great general.
Modern scholars suggest that if Scipio was murdered, it was probably Carbo who was responsible. The Roman historian and senator Cicero, writing several decades later using sources who were close to the late Scipio, named Carbo as the guilty person, but was less certain as to whether Sempronia gave Carbo access to Scipio.. Those believing that Scipio was murdered point to the similar mysterious death of another cousin Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio who, even though Pontifex Maximus, had been sent off to Asia Minor by the Senate, and who died mysteriously in Pergamum in 132 BC.
Sempronia lived quietly after her husband's death with her mother. After her younger brother, who had become Tiberius' heir (after his three sons all died young), also died in 121 BC, his property was confiscated by a vindictive Senate. Her mother Cornelia Africana died later that year, leaving her property by special exemption to her infant granddaughter Sempronia (below). Sempronia is known to have been alive in 102-101 BC, when she was forced to testify in court by a person who claimed to be Tiberius Gracchus' illegitimate son, which she indignantly denied.
- Ancient Library 3110
- Sempronia, daughter of Cornelia
- Sallust, De coniuratione Catilinae xxv
- Plutarch, Makers of Rome, Tiberius Gracchus.
- Valerius Maximus, Factorum et dictorum memorabilium libri iii.8.6, ix.15.1
- The family had a magnificent tomb, rediscovered in the eighteenth century, and now in the Vatican.