Cornelia The MatronEdit


In ancient Roman literature there have been few more loving mothers than that of Cornelia the matron. Naturally, due to stereotypes of the day, sources detailing Cornelia are scarce. Roman Women, edited by Augusto Fraschetti, explores the life of Cornelia using a compilation of facts included in works by famous ancient writers (such as Pliny or Plutarch) and inadvertently articulates this female character as a fantastic matriarch.

The neglect of historical women by ancient biographers is, more or less, understandable considering the significance of gender roles at the time. Interestingly enough however, though divided into fragments, Roman Women teaches us that a strong biography of Conrelia the Matron does in fact exist. As well, discrepancies among the details, not to mention sparse references to philosophical studies, are not at all dissimilar to the nature of Diogenes Laertius’ biographical niche. With this in mind, Diogenes Laertius’ account of Cornelia’s life would work as an ancient biographical piece.


To affirm this claim an analysis of Diogenes’ literary style is essential. The most prevalent aspect of his writing is Diogenes’ attention to detail. Diogenes, whenever possible, sketches his characters with a chronology consistent with their lives. As records fade, are uncovered, and are distorted with time, multiple accounts of historical subjects are often present and confound concrete biographies. Diogenes acknowledges this problem by simply admitting to the existence of multiple accounts, fleshing out some in great detail, and merely commenting on the less relevant. For example, upon describing Archytas, Diogenese states: “Archytas of Tarentum, son of Mnesagoras, or, if we may believe Aristoxenus, of Hestiaeus,…” (Diogenes, 393). The alternative account given by Aristoxenus is perhaps underappreciated, however our ancient biographer by no means ignores it.

The facts included in Roman Women assure that his style of writing would indeed suit a biography of Cornelia the Matron. The comment: “The year of Cornelia’s birth is unknown…” (Roman Women, 36) no longer sits as an open and negligible detail about Cornelia’s life, but rather as a conventional beginning when considered in the biographical style of Diogenes. In fact, the subsequent attempts to pinpoint Cornelia’s birthday through examination of her family members’ ages, as well as Roman marriage tendencies what is known of her esteemed husband, this exemplifies a Diogenes alternate biographical detail already.


Although a complicated beginning is not essential to be a candidate for Diogenes’ biographical attentiveness, uniqueness of character is certainly a prerequisite. In every of his numerous accounts there is something to be admired. For example, in Diogenes’ examination of Parmenides, he claims: “He was the first to declare that the earth is spherical, and is situated in the centre of the universe” (Diogenes 431). Though this might seem consistent with his habit of including multiple small details to describe a person’s life story, significant achievements and unique personal values rarely escaped Diogenes characterizations.

With respect to Cornelia, Diogenes would find substantial noteworthy expressions of originality, as well as historical memorability. In Roman Women, we find an anecdote of an almost fable like resemblance. This quote, “haec ornamenta sunt mea” (Roman Women, 47) or “these are my jewels” captured a profoundly motherly idea as a sort of urban folktale in ancient Rome. The story goes that in a discussion about precious jewels and gems with another woman, Cornelia claims her finest gems are in fact her own children. Though it was difficult for women in ancient times to gain their own personal fame, Valerius Maximus later replicated this profoundly simple message as one of his own sayings: “For married women children [are] their most precious jewels” (Roman Women 47). Such inspiration of thought would by no means be neglected in Diogenes’ biography of Cornelia.


Perhaps today more than ever, we understand what it means to be famous. Even though the requirements to become a celebrity are somewhat less meaningful than they once were, one concept has never changed. People take pleasure in being able to associate with celebrities. Never has meeting a famous actor been neglected in conversation with friends. Through Diogenes this is seen to be as true in ancient societies as it is today; and furthermore, this appears to be a criterion for Diogenes’ successful biographical sketch. Diogenes begins his commentary of Philolaus with such an association: “Philolaus of Croton was a Pythagorean, and it was from him that Plato requests Dion to buy the Pythagorean treatises” (Diogenes, 399). This association is no further elaborated upon however it draws in the reader’s attention which, although less significant than the concrete facts, is a quintessential part of biography and any writing for antiquity.

Such associations are by no means estranged in Cornelia’s life. In fact: “…the sources also tell us that Cornelia could hold her own in the company of famous people” (Roman Women, 50). This comment not only makes Cornelia a strong candidate for the Diogenes style of writing biography; however, it is perhaps the strongest statement speaking to her character. As previously discussed, associations to famous persons could be coincidental; however, in ancient times these associations tended to rely on professional courtesy and or correspondence. This signifies Cornelia’s value in society as a scholar, artist, or orator. Further reading verifies this inference and also further endears Cornelia to Diogenes’ list of candidates worthy of biographical accounts. “Cornelia was so renowned for her knowledge of philosophy that Carneades found nothing unseemly about participating in philosophical disputes in her presence” (Roman Women, 50). Because Diogenes takes an interest in even the most mundane students of philosophy, Cornelia’s recommendation by association with more notable philosophers contributes to her worth as a subject of his studies.


Though Cornelia appears altogether worthy of immortalization through Diogenes’ pen, such a resume is comparatively more significant than those of his other subjects. This is ironically due to the same reason she is not currently included in Diogenes Laertius II. Because of Cornelia’s gender, she was neglected in writings to posterity. Simultaneously however, Cornelia’s standing among men of such splendor as an equal in conversation inherently places her above them. For they may achieve fame easier as they are men while Cornelia must not only be as wistful, but even more so in order to be recognized and respected for it. Such was true of Cornelia, as few philosophers are “…elevated to mythic status” (Roman Women 53).


Though many of the most significant figures are present in Diogenes Laertius II, it is only natural that significant characters are left out of historical works. One large gap occurs in records of ancient women. Gender stereotypes let women be seen as less significant characters in history, thereby making them less interesting to read about and therefore less profitable to read about. Few records of men’s female relatives allow us to piece together the likely history of ancient women. One such example, Cornelia the matron, proves to be wise beyond her gender, standing as a model mother figure and as a worthy opponent in philosophical debate.

There is enough known about Cornelia the Matron to understand that her gender alone excluded her from the works of Diogenes Laertius. Enough mystery surrounds her upbringing to open Diogenes’ potential account of her life to exploration of multiple origins. In addition, her association with famous persons would assist Diogenes in grabbing the attention of readers and her uniqueness of character, not to mention status as an influential philosopher in her own time. All of these achievements and many more accredit her as a pristine character for his biographical studies.