Chapter One of the English translation of Joost Douma's historical novel that recounts the life of the Gracchi brothers and the demise of the Republic through the reflections of a woman, Cornelia Africana.
Cornelia is a rare historical novel that recounts the life of the Gracchi brothers and the demise of the Republic through the reflections of a woman, Cornelia Africana: mother of the Gracchi brothers, and a woman at the zenith of power and influence. Cornelia was the daughter of the famous Scipio Africanus, the man who defeated Hannibal. Having survived her husband – one of Rome’s most powerful men who died when she was 40 years old – Cornelia became one of the most influential women of the Republic. In her final years, an aging Cornelia looks back on her life and that of her sons who tried, unsuccessfully, to save the Republic. Based on history, this moving and powerful account by a proud, saddened matrona vividly captures the struggles of the young revolutionaries and the dissolution of the Republic. The story that unfolds is doubly compelling for the parallels it suggests for superpower politics today.
Misenum, 121 BC, February
The attack is receding. My prayers have been answered. When I hold my hands out in front of me, I can almost keep my fingers still. The cramps in my belly are subsiding. The beating of my heart is slowing. My breathing is growing more regular.
After the messenger from Roma was taken away to be fed and tended to, I retired to my private apartments and ordered a bath. It is helpful to make my world as small as possible, and comforting to examine my body. I listen to the echo of my voice as I speak the name of my husband, the father of my children. I am eternally grateful to the gods that he did not live to see this moment.
What I need at this time, more than ever, is the illusion of composure and self-control. Tonight is the funeral banquet, with guests from all corners of the world, and I must make certain that no rumours travel to Roma. The very thought of their probing gazes frightens me. I dearly hope that they will all control themselves. I do understand that others have been gravely affected by this loss; I respect their grief; and I pledge that in good time I will devote all my attention to them. But for now I am silently imploring everyone to spare me, just for tonight, and not to come to me with heartfelt words of consolation. Any sincere expression of emotion would shatter me where everyone could see. I want diversion and commotion; guests interrupting each other and asking for more food; song, flute-playing, and dance.
There are moments when I manage to step outside myself – when, looking into the mirror, I confront the contrast between my inner turmoil and the calm in my face. I know that if I can suppress the panic that causes this imbalance, I will make it through the evening unscathed. I am grateful that the effort required, which is visible in my reflection, will look, to my guests, like an expression of restrained sorrow. It is reassuring to me to think that this misunderstanding will sometimes even
bring a smile to my face with the appropriate, befuddled undertone. All my life, people have accused me of deception. In the name of the gods, just this once, let that accusation be more than just! Dewdrops flow together as I run my hand along the damp mural next to me. The water spills over my sons, diving from a rock into the sea. Mischievous dolphins await them on either side with roguish looks. The painter deftly captured the differences in their build. Tiberius, with the physique of a heavyweight boxer, is bending his legs. Gaius, the wiry runner, is straight as a spear. The painting is so skilful and true to life that in my mind’s eye I can easily trace their paths until the waves swallow them up.
In times of war parents outlive their children; in times of peace children outlive their parents; but it is my fate to have lost my children in peacetime. My mother always said I had the task of raising my children to honour their parents and to serve their homeland. She never taught me how to outlive my homeland, let alone my children. To do so would have been to tempt the gods.
For a long time after my first-born died, it was hard for me to look my husband in the eyes. His features would always remind me of the boy. Midwives assured me that once a child reached the age of ten, I no longer had to be so afraid. But of the twelve children that I bore, only three survived their childhood: my daughter Sempronia and my two sons, Tiberius and Gaius. Now only my daughter remains.
My sons went to their death having always believed that their bodies would be required of them one day. Tiberius used his body as a political weapon when he stood in the temple doors and blocked the entrance to our state treasury. On the day he was re-elected, he and his followers formed a human wall to protect the baskets that held the votes. When the mob of senators and tribunes descended on the Capitol, armed with table legs and clubs, he was waiting for them. Gaius, understanding what would happen, made his stand on the Aventine Hill, and when that failed, he ran for his life.
In the warm water my skin is like old parchment, crumpled and covered with words. Over the year, many of my lifelines have grown dear to me. My soul is the seat of my memory; the furrows of my skin conceal its archive. Unseen by others, whenever I please I can summon comforting images and moments by touching my fingertips to the places that once were loved. Many have embraced my shoulders and arms; thousands of hands have held mine. The delicate hands of patricians and philosophers, the knobby, calloused hands of veterans, Bona Dea! None of them held out their hands when my sons and I needed them, and their words of support often merely expressed the heat of the moment. Yet I still feel the afterglow of their condolences and sympathies.
When I was a child, the sight of old people’s skin filled me with fear. I remember how cautiously I sometimes caressed the cheek of my beloved wet nurse Sila. Her many wrinkles made her skin seem so loose and fragile that the corners of her mouth might tear at any moment. Now I see this pliability – however unflattering – as a strength, a talent for stretching my thread of life.
Age knows no mercy. It lays our bodies’ failings bare, the flaws we carry with us from childhood onward, and although we all share in this fate, it is our weaknesses and not our advanced age by which we judge one another. In Roma, the only thing that counts is the fleeting present.
Since the day I entered this world, more than seventy summers and winters have passed, but my body is still strong, still worthy of the house of the Cornelii. It has withstood the rigors of my pregnancies. It has fended off diseases that laid many others low. It is free of marsh fever and the pain in my joints is mild. Unlike my sons’ bodies, mine has never been wracked by violence. It is unbroken and untainted. My mind is clear. My sight is not what it was, but my two eyes still work together, bearing witness for me. Even my jaw has largely survived the ravages of time.
My breasts and vagina have withered, and it has been a long time since I dreamed of new pregnancies. The skin is stretched and tender like the fallen petals of a flower, swaying in the water. I mix up the births of my children sometimes, but can still recall the sight of Gaius’ wet, black crown. When I look down at the channel to my womb, the image returns of the first time my hands touched his face and ears. The delivery was like that of Artemis: quick and painless.
Gaius loved my hands. He often took them in his, spoke of their elegance, and praised the letters and epigrams I wrote with them. His devotion sometimes left me speechless.
In my long life I have known no greater happiness than to feel the body of a nursing infant falling asleep on my bosom and to brush my lips over the soft skin of its head. I spent hours in the bath, holding Gaius like that. After I gave birth to him, my monthly bleeding diminished, a sign that my womb had closed once and for all, and I knew that Gaius would be the last person with whom I would ever share my body.
One of my Greek slaves knocks softly at the door, and I tell her to bring me more warm water. I also order her to bring more oil to drive the taste of brine from my lips. I can tell by the hesitation in her voice that she had expected me to order her to massage me and help me dress, but I am not ready yet. My lips tell me my face is not wet with vapour but with tears, whose soundless presence overwhelms me, and I wonder, with a start, whether I wept in front of the courier and my daughter.
The courier was unfamiliar, hired by friends. A coarse, unpolished lout, who spared me no detail, despite the warning looks that Sempronia shot at him. The insolent gleam in his eye betrayed a barely concealed pleasure in picking out the details that would shock me most. His language was utterly disrespectful. No sooner had I entered the room than the man asked me for more money, and he kept interrupting his account of the events in Roma with stories about his own woes and hardships. The whole time, his greedy eyes were wandering the room. His body gave off the odour of horses, sweat, strong drink, and something else I couldn’t place. ‘Carrion,’ my daughter said. I put him up for the night outside my villa, with one of my freed slaves. I was glad that I had forbidden Claudia to stay and hear his report. There is no telling how she might have behaved. Her wailing penetrates even my apartments, as if time had stood still for twelve years and my elder son had died three days ago. I would rather not have her there tonight at all, but I know there is no alternative, and her lack of self-control may steel my own resolve.
The courier almost got the better of me when he described how Gaius, in tears and without speaking a word, had stopped in front of the statue of his father in the Forum and gazed at it for a long time on the eve of the day that all the violence burst loose. As I listened, outwardly unmoved, I had to restrain myself from cutting him off and threatening him with punishment. My heart was crying out for it. I know exactly how my son must have felt. Of all my children, Gaius was the most critical of his own actions, and I have no doubt that he was begging his father and me for forgiveness. Forgiveness for his failure as a tribune, as the father of his child, and above all as our son. I could not imagine any greater loneliness than Gaius felt at that moment, and the image of him standing there became almost intolerable. All the letters I had sent him this past year, and all the harsh judgments I had made in them, turned on me then, and I felt their sting. Several times, my head grew light, and I had to hold on to my seat with both hands to stop myself from slumping forward and collapsing to the ground.
Last night I received a letter from Gaius, which he must have written a few days before he died. It’s not clear why it didn’t arrive until now. The messenger left before it even occurred to me to make him explain himself.
When the letter was handed to me, I opened it with an unthinking sense of normality, of which I did not become conscious until I saw the astonished looks on my slaves’ faces. Then I realized what was happening and broke into a strange, uncontrollable bout of giggles. Fortunately, the letter gave me an excuse for swiftly retiring to my apartments. The incident left me deeply shaken. Am I losing my mind?
The letter is written in a lively, caustic style that is unmistakably my son’s and characteristic of our correspondence in recent years. Gaius mentions the rumour that I have sent supporters from Hellas, Hispania, Africa, and Italia, disguised as seasonal workers, to assist him, but adds that of course he knows this is the last thing I would ever do. Then he thanks me for the offer of protection and asks me to show more discretion in the future. In a sudden shift of tone, he mentions Opimius’ proposal to the popular assembly to overturn his legislation for colonizing Carthago. He grimly suggests that there is a serious chance this proposal will win majority support.
As if the whole outside world were scheming to throw my life into disarray, Gaius’ letter arrived at the same time as the first letters of condolence from the tight-knit circle of Roman citizens in the region. It strikes me as tactless to have sent them so soon. Why such haste? I read the predictable eulogies with a bitterness they do not deserve, because – unlike in the days after the murder of Tiberius, which spread like a shock wave through Italia, Hispania, Hellas, and Africa – it takes true courage to honour Gaius’ memory.
The letters continue seamlessly where the letter from my son left off. They describe how, after Opimius made his proposal, the two parties flocked to the Capitolinus, where they ranged themselves opposite each other like hostile armies. Roman against Roman at the foot of our beloved citadel, which no Gaul ever penetrated!
Opimius had arranged for the session to start with a sacrifice, and Quintus Antyllius, one of his followers, who was carrying the innards, shouted at Gaius’ supporters to get out of the way: ‘Make way for an honest citizen.’ As he hollered, he held up his bare arm, confronting his opponents with his extended finger. According to my friends, Gaius stared at the man in anger and indignation, which one of his followers took as a signal. The idiot ran out and stabbed Antyllius with a stylus. My son was at his side in an instant and denounced the act in a loud voice, but he was too late. A number of correspondents reminded me of a similar incident involving Tiberius, when one of his supporters gouged out the eyes of one of Octavius’ slaves. As if I could have forgotten; I witnessed it myself.
Letters keep pouring in. Because it is hard to find reliable messengers these days, whether hired men or slaves, some merely send wax tablets, telling the messenger not to leave my villa without a reply. The sickly-sweet odour of melted beeswax fills my study, as if I were conducting a secret correspondence with a lover.
The letters report the death of Herennius, one of Gaius’ best friends. When he was taken away to prison, he swung his head into the doorpost with such force that he died at once. In its final decree, the Senate gave Opimius a mandate to break every law, and he has instituted a reign of terror. Some remark that he is doing the very same thing of which the senators and tribunes once falsely accused Tiberius: gradually assuming the status of a king. Three thousand followers of Gaius, all Roman residents, were recently executed without trial and thrown into the Tiber. For days the dull brown of the river was tinged with red. Since the fall of the kings, Roma has never seen this much violence between its own citizens.
Gaius’ house was razed to the ground, and any construction on the site is banned. It is expected that, in the weeks ahead, his followers’ houses will be auctioned off at shamefully low starting prices. To prevent Opimius’ followers from profiting, this morning I dictated letters to my clerks for my agents in Roma, with instructions to buy up as much as possible through intermediaries. Later, when the moment is right, I hope to compensate some families. Even at this stage, I know I will have to move heaven and earth to convince my agents to help me. If the news leaks, I will be accused of exploiting the situation for personal gain, and if I compensate the families, it will be seen as a confession. What is more, in these delicate circumstances, not all the intermediaries will live up to their promises. So be it. At the end of the letters, I told my agents that I accept all the consequences, including payment of any outstanding debts on the properties. Now that the letters have been sent, I realized it would have been better to let them make these objections for themselves. That would have given me the opportunity to thank them for their words of caution. Now I will be forced to think up a series of new counterarguments. Patience has never been my strong suit.
Opimius has also ordered the rebuilding of the Temple of Concordia in the Forum. This infamous act speaks volumes about the man’s character. The temple will be built on the site that two hundred and fifty years ago was chosen to celebrate the restoration of unity between the patricians and the plebeians after the adoption of Licinius Stolo’s laws. The same laws that my son Tiberius defended a stone’s throw away from the spot where the senators and tribunes murdered him. I cannot really explain why this proposal has shocked me so profoundly. More, almost, than the murder of my son. Although I always rejected their arguments, in my debates with Tiberius’ enemies I at least had the sense that we spoke the same language. Again and again, I tried to understand why my son’s actions inspired so much hate. The construction plans, and their freight of symbolism, make me feel as if I were being publicly raped. The news fills me with deep despondency, alternating with blind rage, and has brought on a new wave of nausea. For the first time in my life, I feel like a foreigner in my own country.
There is no horizon today. The blue sea, like the ocean at the edge of the world, washes unimpeded into the blue air. The white of my marble terrace is so fierce and blinding that I must be careful not to lose my balance. A keen, icy wind from the north whips past my ears and swipes at everything on my balcony, large or small. My cypresses are like green torches that burn with a strange, cold fire. The whole world around me storms and rattles. I have to clutch my amictus to my body with both arms.
Amid all this life I look back with a degree of awe at the show of courage I put on yesterday, as if it had been someone else’s performance. Yet I also see, to my relief, that my actions have restored order to the household. In times of catastrophe, the head of the family must always look out for signs of hostility among his own people. If the position of the house is in question, the freed slaves will be the first to go in search of a new place to live. The rumour-mongering –‘they’re slaughtering each other in Roma as if they were slaves themselves’ – the abrupt silences whenever I enter the room, and the secret meetings with freed men from other households undermine every form of domestic authority, even over the slaves, and especially if a woman is in charge. As far as my slaves go, the danger is that they will be bribed by my enemies with promises of liberation. I have been through this before, after the deaths of my husband and Tiberius. All eyes are now on me, searching for signs of doubt, moments of weakness. It is crucial for me to adhere to my daily routine in the weeks ahead. But I cannot deny that it is hard for me. The years have begun to take their toll.
It is my habit to spend the morning alone on my private terrace, and I can abandon myself to my thoughts here, sheltered from the wind and scrutinized only by the watchful eyes of peacocks, which Hera once sprinkled on their wings. My slave Sila regards the nervous rustle that regularly runs through their fan of feathers as living proof that those with suspicious minds blink their eyes incessantly. The peacocks’ presence makes it impossible for anyone to approach without drawing my attention.
Last night, I made the final preparations for the arrival of Licinia and Gaius’ daughter. By decree of the Senate, Licinia has been robbed of her dowry and forbidden to wear mourning. A barbaric and humiliating deed. What do they have to fear from her now? Her husband has lost his life, and even in death he is denied to her. I have instructed my people to bring her here as soon as possible. I will go to any length to prevent Licinia from searching the banks of the Tiber for Gaius’ body, as Claudia once searched in vain for Tiberius.
The funeral banquet held the night before last went just as I had hoped. It was a gathering worthy of my sons, without a single false note. I commemorated the achievements of both Tiberius and Gaius in the company of my family and my Roman and Greek guests, managing to accept their condolences with proper ceremony. Then I called for nine days of mourning, made sacrifices to the dead, and had cypress branches laid by my front gate. This morning, in consultation with the magistrates, I proclaimed that the next three days would be a festival of mourning for the people of Misenum. Gladiatorial games will be held, friends will address the people, several plays will be performed, and meat and flour will be distributed. My generous financial contribution overcame the last of their uncertainties. If money is our new supreme deity, let friends and enemies alike take note that in that respect I am immortal.
It is said that old age passes us by like a waking dream, because the older we become, the less sleep is granted to us. I have come to cherish sleep as a precious commodity, more precious than food or water or gleaming gold, but I fear the images it brings. Always I long to immerse myself in its sweetness, but as soon as I take to my bed at night, my mind is inundated with snatches of conversation and imaginary encounters, as if I had just awoken. Sometimes I wish that when Zeus mixed his sleeping potion for restless humans, he had added a few more drops of dew from Hades.
It seems that last night I was so exhausted that I managed to fall into a dreamless sleep, but I’m sure I have a long, wakeful night ahead of me. Experience has taught me what rhythm my nights will follow in the months ahead: two of little rest, followed by one of sound sleep. Actually, I sleep best in the afternoon, and frequently doze off here on my couch.
Despite my advanced age, my body’s response keeps taking me by surprise. I have so much more control over my mental faculties. When bad news reaches me, as soon as I’ve recovered from the initial shock, my thoughts seem to order themselves of their own accord, guiding me towards a broader perspective, a new line of march, a possible way out. These signs of mental resilience form the wellspring of further recovery, and solutions I’d dismissed or overlooked start to gradually come within reach. But the mental exertion required takes its toll, and it is my body that lets me down.
I am losing more hair now than ever, and not only when I comb it. I am seized by cramps in my chest and arms. I am sensitive to loud or shrill noises. They have an exaggerated effect on my body, immediately throwing me off balance, as do even the slightest arguments between my slaves. I rely heavily on the help and support of Simo, the head of my household – too heavily, in the eyes of my Roman women friends, who say he no longer knows his place. But isn’t his loyalty sufficient proof of my authority? I have always had a great need for order and regularity, but now I cannot bear the slightest hint of sloppiness. My daily inspection of the house must be a sore trial for everyone, and I know they curse me when my back is turned.
Fear is my worst enemy. After Tiberius was killed, it seemed as if half my soul had died, while the other half was in the stranglehold of fear about the fate that awaited Gaius. From the very first morning after the murder of Tiberius, I knew deep in my heart how Gaius would come to his end, and against my better judgment, I searched for signs that might refute this certainty. Strangely enough, it was the very implausibility of these illusions that strengthened my vain hope. Over the past twelve years, I have lived – day in, day out – between false hope and well-founded fear. With deep sorrow and remorse, I must confess that I have always known the arrival of the messenger would bring not only grief but also a sense of liberation.
I can live with anger and sorrow. Anger fills me; it makes me defiant and energetic. Sorrow is like a lingering illness, an inconvenient but surmountable physical flaw. The training I received at the Asclepieum enables me to tell myself that the wave of sorrow will pass in a few brief moments. It is possible, I have learned, to disarm pain and grief, to reduce them to purely physical sensations that come and go, like any other sensory experience.
But fear is different. I have no control over it. Fear is insidious; it skulks, poisons, tarnishes, undermines, paralyzes, and destroys. Aristotle calls fear a cold wave, driving the blood and heat out of the body, turning the face pale, and emptying the bowels. I am sure that fear can be seen and smelt from far away. If you smell its odour on someone else, you too will be overcome by it, as if by an infectious disease. Fear is a gaping void that can only be filled by cruelty, fear’s shadow.
Through the years there were two moments I dreaded most: the middle of the night and the early morning. Sometimes the wave of panic was so intense I had to vomit as if I were pregnant again. The attacks led a life of their own. It was not clear to me why they chose one particular moment to surge up from my midriff, nor did I have any influence over their duration or intensity. Sometimes they hovered menacingly around my belly, and sometimes they spread through my body, all the way to my fingertips, and sucked all the moisture from my pasty mouth and lips.
Below me, the frothing maw of the living sea. To show me it is unmoved by my fate, it dashes its children to pieces on the polished stone of my front steps, as casually as only a god can. Their irrevocable fate is mockingly lamented by the seagulls now massed above my villa, defying the wind as they try to gather their breakfast. I shudder to think that Gaius’ body may have been carried out into the open sea, but take comfort in the thought that there is little chance of that. The distance between Roma and Ostia is too great and the Tiber too capricious.
The messenger said that there were two different accounts of how Gaius had lost his life in the cave where he had fled. In one version, his slave Philocrates killed first his master and then himself. In the other, their pursuers found them both alive. According to this version, Philocrates shielded Gaius with his body, holding him so tightly that their pursuers had to shower him with blows before he succumbed and they could seize hold of Gaius. The messenger believed that the first story was closer to the truth, but in the second, I recognized Philocrates’ devotion to Gaius. My own suspicion is that Philocrates killed Gaius at his request and then stayed alive to protect his master’s body to the finish. He acted as I would have, and I embrace him each day in my prayers.
In an attempt to suppress the nocturnal images of swaying reeds and mutilated shoulder blades, I stop my staring and turn my gaze to Cape Misenum. To the right of it, in the distance, I can make out the contours of my beloved island of Pithekoussai and its blue-green mountain Epomeo. My last visit seems an eternity ago. I spent many happy days there with Tiberius and Gaius. Experienced boatmen, supervised by Simo, taught them to swim and to dive for green sea urchins and squid. Many times I saw the older men at pains to protect the lives of my sons. The memory of the unguarded expressions with which the two boys looked up at these men, the speed with which they carried out their orders, brings a sharp pang of emotion. From the boat, they explored the steep coastline with its yellow-ochre caves and burning sands. I will never forget the image of my two sons underwater as they swam out ahead of me towards the entrance to a cave, scissoring their legs in the green sunlight of the sea. My Dioscuri.
My Greek guests contend that if my sons had actually been twin brothers, they could have pooled their strength, and their fate would have been different. They could have worked together, like our feet or eyes. Do not forget that even if Tiberius lost his support among the lawmakers, the people remain true to him, and the masses may have turned against Gaius, but his reputation as a lawmaker is intact.
Sheets of blue lightning flicker along the flanks of the mountains, accompanied by great peals of thunder and gusts of wind. All at once, my terrace is struck by the first fat raindrops. Above me, the clouds arch into a dark vault, and I seem to be in the depths of some vast cavern. The drenched backs of my scurrying, cursing, hollering slaves call up the images I had as a child of a battle against the Gauls from the north, with lightning, hail, felled trees, glistening rocks, and naked forms besmirched with blood and earth. My peacocks ran for cover some time ago, and Simo is urging me to follow their example. I reluctantly give in and retire to my library, where he has built a fire and drawn the heaviest curtains over the windows. I am now encircled by candlelight and darkness. Outside the rain is pelting down, but already the thunder is not as loud as it was.
In times of storm, seek signs of calm, and in times of calm, seek signs of storm. I have taken this line of verse as my guide for many years, in the false belief that I was surrounded by people who were quicker than I to see disaster coming in their lives.
In the days when Claudia spent all night ringed by hundreds of torch-bearers, scouring the banks of the Tiber for any trace of Tiberius, my body was a prison to me. It was one of the rare times when I cursed the fact that I was born a woman. As those days passed, I was buffeted back and forth by feelings of hate and a banal inability to remember what had happened. Tiberius had awaited the arrival of the senators in a state of near-paralysis, and for days after his death that same paralysis seemed to hold me in its grip. In endless conversations my friends and I tried to reconstruct every event and arrive at a comprehensible whole, but all our attempts ended in bickering about who had said and done what, when, and where, and afterwards we felt we were drifting further apart than ever.
Many times I have been accused of inciting my sons to violence, but not on the one occasion that I truly considered it. The blood of my lineage was boiling in my veins, and many of Tiberius’ supporters were waiting in the alleyways of Roma to take their vengeance. But no matter how just the losing cause may be, fortune favours the victors, and no group reaps more derision and contempt than sore losers.
To counterbalance my speeches to family and friends about cool heads and reconciliation, I silently nursed a daydream full of mayhem, in which I merged the characters of my father, my husband, and Tiberius into one nameless hero. This alter ego was every bit as ruthless and unflinching as my father, as shrewd and diplomatic as my husband, and as passionate as my son. He carried through all the measures that Tiberius had envisaged, but this time with his sword. He settled the score with my son’s murderers, brought order to Roma, and demanded for his soldiers all the land that belonged to the state. If I had entered the Capitol at that time, my body would have cast two shadows.
It is no longer raining, and I long to go outside and inhale the odour of iron left behind by every storm. They say it fortifies the constitution. When I lift the curtain covering the southern window, grey light strikes the sharp, probing features of Aristotle. What thoughts would this phenomenon have stirred in him? I often speak to him; he knows my most intimate musings better than any other.
Passing slaves cast their shadows on the curtains covering the windows as if in a Greek shadow-play. Some have the same build as Gaius, and I can imagine that this very moment he is walking by my window on his way to my library.
As a child I always thought that when I died my shadow would detach itself and descend into the underworld. My shadow, I thought, follows wherever I go to remind me day after day that I am mortal. I took comfort in the thought that I would recognize a god immediately, because he would have no shadow at his side.
But according to my Greek guests, my shadow is merely a lightless void, which comes to life only when my body obstructs the stream of light from the sun. They tell me that bright light is more active than dark and that as soon as I move to another part of my terrace the lighter atoms fill the space left by my body. Every object, living or lifeless, gives off an invisible stream of atoms, some lighter and others heavier in natures, which fill every empty space.
If I had been standing close to my sons, I would not have seen the death cries escape from their throats, but my ears would certainly have heard them. My guests say I should not torture myself with the thought that the souls of my sons are not at rest. They tell me that the atoms of their souls, more fleeting than flowing water, left their bodies the moment they died and dissolved into the air, delivered from all sorrow, pain, or trouble.
Their reasoning brings me little comfort. Caught up in the fire of their argument, in the eternal need that Greeks feel to convince others of their superior intellect, they claimed that even time ceases to exist when there are no atoms. Only when I am surrounded by atoms do the objects built up from them give me the impression of a past, a present, and a future. When I imagine the boundless emptiness into which my sons have now been swept, I feel as if I have worn the flesh of Chaos, and I am gripped by an overwhelming sense of solitude.
Diophanes, my sons’ most beloved mentor, taught me to trust the present above all and not to worry about matters that are beyond my control. After all, what is in the past can no longer be lost, and the future is uncertain. But my sons’ past is my present, and their passing has robbed me of any future. Diophanes himself was one of the first to be condemned to death by the Senate. Must I sacrifice my memory of him and my sons to my own peace of mind? Precious few philosophers have borne children.
I have learned from Aristotle that even forms of government are mortal, and trailed by their own dark sides. Every king conceals a tyrant, aristocracy decays into oligarchy, democracy descends into terror. It doesn’t take an astronomer to predict that one day my alter ego will stride into the light of day and cast a long shadow over our country. In the void created by the murder of Gaius, I can see before my eyes that our Republic is dividing into factions, disintegrating, faster than the atoms of a human soul. When I survey my old body in the mirror, I can see our republic shining through it. Once, we saw to it that our farmer-soldiers were at least equal in number to our auxiliary troops, and they were capable of defeating the best Samnite, Latin, Greek, Carthaginian, and Macedonian armies. Now they perish en masse, underfed and underequipped, at the hands of rebellious slaves and barbarians.
My flesh-and-blood alter ego will restore the Republic in name, but in fact he will reign as a tyrant. He will give the Latins and Italians our civil rights. His army will consist of freed slaves and proletarians. His veterans, our outer provinces, and our allies in Italia will lionize him. He will bring the first and second classes in our society the law and order for which they yearn. He will see a competitor in every competent Roman commander, he will distrust his army, and within our city walls, he will surround himself with armed bodyguards like a foreign despot. He will have thousands of eyes and ears, and sow the seeds of ruin under all our old families. He will pack the Senate and juries with his underlings. He will give the Roman proletariat their bread and circuses, and his veterans their land, and win over the publicani with fat contracts. During his own lifetime, he will have himself declared a god, and rule our country like a prince of Pergamum.
Our best Roman families will oppose this man in the name of Libertas, which they themselves have desecrated. They will appeal to age-old Republican values, which they themselves have betrayed. When the great tyrant makes his appearance, the petty tyrants always clamour for freedom and justice. By now I am so familiar with their lines of argument that I could quite easily wield my pen on their behalf. Perhaps they will even use my letters to Gaius, befouling them with their own points of view.
Gaius once told his followers that any leader who addressed himself to them had a motive for doing so, a price in the back of his mind. To no avail, my son urged his audience to listen closely and always to ponder whether they were willing to pay the price for his services, whether or not he named it openly. But words of advice are seldom considered carefully, with an eye to their potential value. It is usually the crises of the moment that guide men’s actions.
Our country is now led by people whose price is pure personal gain. To pander to the populace, they act like shepherds. Although they are the masters of their flocks, they are also their slaves. Although their sheep are dumb, they must listen to them every moment of the day. To conceal the emptiness of their leadership, they blindly submit to the people and their passing fits of madness, and after every triumph they count their sesterces.
Unlike many others, I consider it a privilege to have lived in a time of façades, whether of marble or wax. Now that the senators have thrown off their masks, hate and malice are on the ascendant, and now that electoral bribery is coming to light, there are some who claim that our society is less riddled with hypocrisy. But in the concealment of disreputable practices, I saw a last remnant of shame and remorse. How can one lay bare this degeneration of the criticism of our degeneration? Who is left to talk to, when one has the feeling that one’s interlocutors are at the core of this decline?
According to Hannibal, a large state can never live in peace for very long. Once it is no longer challenged by an enemy from without, it creates an enemy within, like a healthy body which for lack of infection is spoiled by its own strength. Hannibal set out this view in a speech in the Carthaginian Senate after the battle of Zama, when the merchants complained about the size of the war indemnity. I always had the notion that at that moment he was speaking over the heads of his opponents to himself, but he could equally well have said the same thing to the Athenians after their victory over Persia, or to the enemies of my father, the man who had forced him to give up the fight.
I sometimes catch myself thinking – oh, the irony! – that my despised brother-in-law Nasica Corculum was right to object to Cato’s endless rants about destroying Carthago. In his eyes, Roma needed the challenge of a rival power, if only to keep the second and third classes in line. When I look back at the life of my father, my husband, and my sons, I can’t help seeing a grain of truth in this. Wasn’t it Pythagoras who observed that all the elements of our world form dyads: the finite and the infinite, mind and body, fire and water, good and evil, light and shadow?
Before my eyes is the last hope of my lineage, in the midst of a clutch of slaves holding the armies that Simo once made for the boy’s father and Gaius. The most impressive of all are the chariots, rigged with little sails so that they can be propelled by blowing, or by the wind. Even a person like me, who doesn’t know much about toys, can see that they are little masterpieces. Tiberius never wanted to share them with Gaius, and so Simo had to make him a set of his own. No task could have brought him greater pleasure.
Claudia and Licinia had forbidden their children to come onto my terrace in the morning, but I have granted them permission to accompany me at fixed times. There is a limit; I cannot have them here half the day. But it is good for me to see life go on around me, and important for my grandchildren to regain a sense of continuity. My grandson is the eldest of the three sons of Tiberius and Claudia, but he barely knew his father.
For the first few weeks, Gaius’ daughter behaved like a cornered animal, with pale features and large, dark eyes full of fear. She stared out ahead of her for hours, banging her head from side to side, and seemed almost cut off from human contact. At night she was visited by nightmares, and her screaming woke us all. I attribute these dreams of terror to the fact that her father’s murder has gone unpunished and Gaius’ soul has not yet been laid to rest, despite the series of curses addressed to the killers that Licinia and I have inscribed with needles. Provoked by the girl’s fears, Tiberius’ son treated her with the deepest hostility in the first days after Gaius’ murder, and Licinia was forced to take her daughter with her wherever she went.
As I watch my grandson and hear the sounds of his lonely battles, a peculiar sensation takes hold of me, as if I were looking into a vast mirror full of images from thirty years ago. Our memories of our families often take the form of a modest number of still pictures, and for me this scene is one of them. Gaius, with his head cocked to one side and his tongue sticking out, is reclining on the floor, surveying the battlefield. Tiberius is sitting up straight, peering tensely at his troops. Because of the difference in their ages, Gaius was often defeated, but even then it was clear that Gaius was the better strategist of the two. Their differences of temperament were also clear. When Gaius’ army was massacred in a frontal attack, he frequently lost his temper and flew at his laughing brother, flailing his arms wildly. Tiberius would hold Gaius at a distance with one arm, until his younger brother gave up, exhausted and sobbing. His elder brother, whom he idolized, sometimes had the nasty habit of laughing when confronted with someone else’s sorrow. I saw in this reaction a clumsy attempt to rein in his pity and compassion, but to those who did not know him so well, he sometimes appeared to take pleasure in other people’s suffering.
I have never wanted to know how mirrors work. But it may be correct what a mirror maker once told me: the world we see is as illusory as the images I see in his products. Because of mirrors and watery surfaces, we know – so he instructed– that all bodies and objects constantly produce a stream of images just as cicadas shed their coned wrappings in the summer and snakes their skins. Does his view imply that if I sped to Rome now, I could still catch something of my son’s image? How long do these images last?
The fact is Gaius grew up almost fatherless – like many in his age group; but his father was more visible in Rome after death than when he was alive. Tiberius and Gaius could gaze on his statue at the Forum. His portraits were in all the public places throughout Rome. In the temple of the Goddess of the Dawn they could find his battle scenes in the bronze plaque shaped like Sardinia. On the streets, people stopped them, to recount stories. Sometimes they were veterans who told them about their father’s strategies in the campaigns in Sardinia and Spain. For my sons their deceased father was omnipresent.
I am afraid that my grandson will truly grow up fatherless. The Sempronii are not like my family. They don’t belong to the select group of patricians. They can’t be honoured with any public works of art or displays until they have led the highest functions of the State.
My grandson is more likely to share my fate. Out of anger, my father removed all the public displays honouring him in Rome. He begrudged the Roman people even his remains! Even so, his name was still on everyone’s lips when I was growing up, and his fame rose to divine heights by the time I was older.
It will need a spontaneous act of the Roman people themselves – as it was with me. They erected a bronze statue of me out of gratitude because I pled Gaius to spare the Tribune Octavius. My enemies have left it intact so far. It is inscribed at the bottom: “Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi.” I was deeply touched when I first saw it. But, now the inscription has a bitter aftertaste. No mother wishes to survive her sons – certainly not publicly! My enemies have succeeded in poisoning a gesture that was once noble.
It went wrong this morning. In hindsight, I can see there were enough warning signals to tell me that a crisis was looming. Perhaps my daughter-in-law Licinia’s arrival undid the last restraints. But again, I suspect it was my granddaughter – a certain glance from her that suddenly reminded me of Gaius’ face. When I looked at her, it seemed as if I was looking at Gaius straight in the eye. Whatever it was, I had to flee immediately to my bedroom, where I lost all semblance of dignity. The attack was so fierce, so strong. I crawled like a wild beast on my knees, grasping the walls and moaning from pain. I lost my grip on my bowels. The face of Gaius dancing before my eyes, mingling with images of his mutilation. The attack came in waves, growing stronger and stronger, and receding only slowly, painfully. I cannot remember how long it lasted, but it seemed an eternity before I dared to leave my room.
I did not yield when the courier told me his repulsive story. They had set a price on Gaius’s head – its weight in gold. A friend of the consul Opimius – who else? – had stolen the head and put it on a spear. When it was weighed before Opimius, it had been seventeen and two thirds of a pound. It immediately raised suspicion. They investigated and it revealed that the man, Septimuleius, had committed a fraud. He had broken Gaius’ skull open, removed his brains and filled it with molten lead. But, there you have it. This is how our Republic paid tribute to one of its best sons.