Cornelia a superb historical novel of violence, corruption and inequality

When you live in Rome, you’re surrounded by 3,000 years of history. Benito Mussolini built much of my neighborhood. I live two miles from the Forum and Colosseum. I’m eight miles from ancient aqueducts that were built in the 3rd century B.C. Remnants of the most powerful civilization in history are all around me.

The Smithsonian can not hold all the books written about Roman history and I’ve read my share. Books resonate more when I sit on my couch reading about the rites of gladiators then have a glass of wine at Oppio Caffe across the street from the Colosseum.

What I’ve learned most from studying Rome is it may have been the most powerful civilization in history but that doesn’t mean it was the best. Despite the image of elegantly dressed senators, lavish banquets, military parades and beautiful temples, underneath lay a deeply flawed society.

Mass poverty. Inequality. Violence. Corruption. It was all there in the city that stretched its influence from Persia to what is now Great Britain. That seamy, soft underbelly of Roman society is exposed in one of my favorite books on Rome. I recently finished “Cornelia: The First Woman of Rome.” It’s about the Gracchus family, a prominent family of aristocrats during the Roman Republic when Rome exploded on the world scene.

Cornelia was the strong mother who lorded over Tiberius and Gaius, two brothers who became hugely prominent in Rome’s military and politics and were brutally assassinated. The book centers on the period from 136-121 B.C. and has all the makings of a good novel. War. Sex. Betrayal. Politics. The poor screaming for more; the rich crushing them. 

The main focus seems dry: land reform during the Roman Republic. Tiberius and Gaius both seek to spread the wealth against withering opposition and you can feel the stress in the family grow like a house fire.

However, the book is in the form of historical fiction. The author, Dan Armstrong, put the story in the style of a novel. It’s told through the words of Sempronia, the sister with a crippled foot and wife of an evil, war-mongering but powerful husband. Riveting dialogue fills the book and so do the sub-plots within one of the most prominent families in Rome history.

Another reason I read the book is Armstrong lives in my hometown of Eugene, Ore. He went there in 1973 to get his master’s degree at my alma mater, the University of Oregon, and never left. He did spend one year as a sportswriter for a New York betting sheet but he returned to Oregon to be a self-described “Eugene hippy.” 

He even foreshadowed the book when he worked on land reform in the Willamette Valley. For years he wrote articles advocating the diversification of crops and small organic farms while the valley’s market collapsed. He published the book in 2017, one year after Donald Trump’s election and saw what was happening around him reminded him of what he studied about the Roman Republic.

“It was similar to what’s going on in the U.S.,” he told me.

Armstrong actually graduated from Princeton in 1972 but  quickly turned to writing when he wasn’t house painting. It’s his fourth book about Rome, including a trilogy, “The Eyes of Archimedes,” which can be found on his website.

I caught up with Armstrong, 71, last week on a Zoom call. We talked about his book, Ancient Rome and how history does repeat itself, unfortunately.

Dan Armstrong

JH: So what first attracted you to this story?

DA: Cornelia, that particular story, there’s very, very little written about the Gracchus family. Very little written about Cornelia. There are two fragments of letters which I put in the book. When I started doing this I was going, Wow! There’s so little information I’m going to really have to piece it together and use my imagination. I didn’t have much to go on.

JH: How did you research it?

DA: The way it started, finishing the third book in the trilogy — maybe it was the second book — I was reading about marriage because there’s a marriage that takes place in the second book of the trilogy. I stumbled on to the name of Cornelia. I like to include women’s issues because I think women deserve it. I said, Well, here’s a novel I could write about an important woman in Rome no one knows about or very, very few. When I finally began writing I discovered my main sources were Plutarch. He’s very famous. There are three volumes. He does a biography of a Roman and a Greek side by side and compares them. Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were really key pieces for me. And Cornelia is mentioned. Sampronia is mentioned as disabled in some way. I went to Appian, another Roman historian a little later than Plutarch. We’re talking about maybe 10 pages out of his book. I read a lot of Livy and Polybius. My sources were almost entirely classical pieces except for one. I read articles and scouted all over for academic pieces. But the most important piece I had was a guy named (David) Stockton wrote a piece called “The Gracchi.” That was all about the legislature. It told stories about Gaius and Tiberius but it got into details of the administration, the bills he wanted to pass and how it worked. That was hugely important.

The attraction of topic

JH: I know you like to include women but why Cornelia? What struck you about her and what drew you to the subject?

DA: At first it was the first woman I ever saw ever mentioned in any of the history I read. It wasn’t a queen in passing. Of course, there was Cleopatra. But earlier, during the Republic, women are barely mentioned at all. She is Publius Sciopio’s daughter, the man who defeated Hannibal. But when I saw she was the Gracchis’ mother, I go, Oh, my God, what a great way to introduce their story, which I saw that time as mirroring what’s going on in the United States. Right? The Gracchi were popular populists, at least, as I interpreted them. But the thuggery, the beatings, all of that stuff was new to Roman politics and in a sense it’s been similar to Donald Trump. We’ve been a pretty civil political country until Trump arrived and then he just blew it apart. That’s what happened during the Gracchi. They beat Tiberius to death. That never would’ve happened. There’s a quote in the book that says for the first 400 years of the Republic, there was no physical violence in politics. Then it changed. Within another 40 years they got an emperor. Another thing I saw was the relationship of Cornelia and her sons as similar to  Rose Kennedy and the Kennedy brothers. Right? You have a rich family promoting politicians standing up for the common man and both being assassinated. That was another draw.

JH: That’s a good analogy. It’s amazing how politics never really changed. This thing happened 2,200 years ago and the same things are happening in America in the 21st century.

DA: What I was astounded by was the level of governmental sophistication in Rome at this time: 130 B.C. Those bills are the same as we might pass today: infrastructure bills, tariffs and so forth. I really had my mind open when I began this. I understood the sophistication of the Roman Republic and it really deteriorates rapidly in the next 100 years. That type of legislation is basically not happening anymore. 

JH: Most people I know who like Roman history know more about the Roman Empire after 27 B.C. than the Roman Republic. What would you tell people who are interested in Rome but don’t know much about the history, how would you summarize the Roman Republic?

DA: I’d summarize it as the best of Rome. Maybe not the most luxurious of Rome, but the closest to a democracy. I think I described it in “The Death of Marcellus,” an earlier book. It’s really similar to what’s going on in the United States today. The wealthy people have huge control but it’s not complete. In Rome it may be a little more. It was pretty civil and really the next step from what Greeks had been doing. It becomes crazy when you start getting the emperors involved. Not that there aren’t some good ones. It just seemed more civilized before. 

Land reform

JH: I know what you mean. I compared Trump to Caligula. His locomotive libido and the fact that Caligula got rid of all of his enemies. He didn’t fire them. He had them murdered. He left in disgrace. He was highly unpopular. 

Let me talk to you about land reform. You had an interest in it from what you were doing in the Willamette Valley?

DA: In the first place, what Tiberius Gracchus did was he noticed the land was being absorbed by big owners and turning them into plantations. Part of the problem in Rome is if you didn’t own land, you couldn’t be a soldier. He also understood the work ethic of the man who owned the property was greater and more valuable than the man walking the streets of Rome without anything other than his family if he can keep it together. At the time I wrote that book, I was a facilitator and did all writing of articles for this program we called the Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project. If you remember living in the Willamette Valley, we mostly grow grass seed. So during the crunch of oil 2007 and ’08, the grass seed industry fell apart. A large part of the big farms — and I’m talking 5, 6, 7,000 acres — they were starting to fail. A couple of farmers in my group and myself we began advocating that they diversify their crops with dried beans and grains like wheat which we had grown before but everybody had stopped. We were advocating that and also advocating for small organic farms to also diversify and do the processing on farms. The tendency in the United States for 50 years was small farms getting sucked up by big farms. It’s just the direction of globalized capitalism. We were losing little farms. We found doing beans and grains was another way to make money. There was concern if you just grow vegetables, you don’t have something to sell in the winter. If you were growing dried beans and grains you’d have stored product throughout the winter. I spent five years trying to establish a year-round farmer’s market indoors for Eugene. 

Now it’s been 15 years and still trickling along. But the bottom line is as a group we felt there was stability in diversity of farm sizes, the diversity of products and diversity of opportunities to sell the products. If you go to the website, Mud City Press, you’ll see something at the top called the Bean and Grain Index. That essentially charts every quarter what we did for eight years. Farmer meetings. Public meetings. I was on the Farmers Market board. I was on Lane County Food Policy board. And I worked on this Bean and Grain. So for maybe 10 years I was right in the focus of adding security and stability to the local farm community. We were talking about food security. We were concerned that a change in climate could change the way food came into the Willamette Valley and what we grew. Beans you could grow without water. Wheat you could grow with very little water. We were trying to create a foundation of staples for the population in case of a pinch in the coming years. It was an environmental effort as well as a save-the-farm type thing.

When I read about Tiberius Gracchus, this is really the same thing. He ended up building grain storages, silos. He made deals so the price of wheat stayed stable for the poor person. It wasn’t the same but boy, was it close. I wasn’t aware of that when I started the research. I’m going, Wow! I’m doing the same thing here as they were doing 2,000 years ago. That’s very cool.

JH: I found myself rooting for him, too. 

DA: Oh, gosh, yes! How could you not? But I also wanted to get Sempronia in there. Again, I threw in some women’s issues that probably tickled the outside edge of reality. Scenes when Elephantis (a Greek poet and midwife) visited Cornelia at her villa, that was a real person. Whether she would’ve done a seminar (Cornelia held a sex seminar for the women in her immediate circle which was, ahem, one of the better passages.), I don’t know. What I put in there about her was true. She wrote books about intercourse, about abortion. She was a Greek. I don’t know if she got into the politics of orgasms which is a modern day concept. But she certainly would’ve gotten into the violence against the women.

Laelia fascinating figure

JH: The one woman I found fascinating, the most liberating woman in the book was Laelia. I loved her. She kicked some ass. She was sexually aggressive. Was a lawyer. Divorced her husband.

DA: She was real, too. She was the first woman to speak in the Forum as a lawyer. Her father-in-law was one of the top legal experts. She was a real character. Whether she was promiscuous as I characterized her, I don’t know. But I felt it seemed like it would fit. It would be fun to speculate on. 

JH: Hey, take it from a writer: Sex sells.

DA: I figured there’s some depth, there’s some love and there’s some laughter. Although “Cornelia” was probably the least funny book I’ve ever written.

JH: The one thing about Ancient Rome, the reputation that has gone all over the world, is the promiscuity. Everybody knows about Caligula and the orgies in the Senate. If you saw the series “Rome,” which was filmed here, there was sex in every episode.

Promiscuity was big

DA: I saw it. There was sex everywhere in the streets. The poor people, that’s what they did. But the aristocrats, especially the women, had this kind of aura of being above it all. They always had affairs and that was the conflict that was going on with Laelia getting divorced. 

JH: They really could get divorced back then?

DA: No. That changed within the next 100 years. Putting that trial in there was really about an effort to describe the nature of marriage in 100 B.C. There was a thing called manus. The father transfers the daughter to the husband and he becomes like the father. In Rome the father could kill his children without penalty. If he was sick of his daughter he was allowed to kill her, or his son. It was pretty peculiar.

JH: One of the most riveting scenes that was really disturbing and told the mindset of the military in Ancient Rome was when Aemilianus, Sempronia’s husband, called Tiberius a coward for not fighting his way out of an impossible battle in Spain. He should’ve died instead of surrendering.

DA: That was the mindset. I don’t know if it changed after another 100 years. That was the mindset of Romans, especially when they were fighting Hannibal. Their practice of war was just to stand in a line and march in there. There was no strategy. It was all brute. But Hannibal taught them how to fight and it changed. They learned to sophisticate it, to use a cavalry. There’s the story of Publius Scipio, the guy that defeats Hannibal, is really a cool one because he’s Cornelia’s father which makes it interesting. And he taught her all this Greek stuff. In 200 B.C., if you were reading the Greeks’ philosophy you were considered effeminate. It wasn’t considered macho. Their No. 1 general, Publius Scipio, is walking around in a toga and he’s in the military camps and he’s reading Greek literature. He’s just way different.

Rome expansion during the Republic

JH: I know during the Roman Empire stretched far and the people were demanding to keep going outward. It’s interesting they did the same during the Republic, too.

DA: It was the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) that changed everything. They were doing a little bit. They had their provinces. But after the Second Punic War when they won they became a world power. Prior to that they were much more concentrated on Rome and Italy. They didn’t have many slaves. That’s another thing that came in about Tiberius and land. He didn’t want to see everybody go to the farm and there are 100 slaves and no Romans working the ground. The Roman image was a guy who was a farmer, a soldier and a citizen. That was going away. He saw the crumbling of the backbone of the Roman Republic. They weren’t a sea power before that war.

JH: You speak through the words of Sempronia, the daughter, instead of Cornelia. Why?

DA: I don’t even think I wanted to do first person when I began the book. I liked Sempronia because it allowed me to give a perspective on Cornelia from her daughter and the perspective on the sons from their sister. Because she was crippled, it gave her a little bit of an edge. I discovered that not everyone likes her as a narrator because she’s not really a person you identify with. 

JH: I liked her descriptions of her horrible marriage. I think everyone can relate to that.

DA: Another reason for using her was I knew that she was going to murder her husband. I wanted to have the viewpoint of the murderer. It’s a three-part book. The second part is all about her murdering her husband. I wanted her to have this relationship with Polybius (Greek historian who investigates the murder). Of all the historians I read in Ancient Rome from the classic writing, Polybius was easily the most modern and easily the best historian. 

One thing I’d note about Roman historical novels is when people buy them from me I suggest to them to not worry about the names. Characters that are key, there are five or six, you’ll remember. But all the side characters with their three-part names are impossible to remember and keep separate. They don’t need to remember them. I put them all in because (in a List of Characters) you get into the story.

JH: You told me literary agents said people weren’t buying books about Rome?

DA: If you go to a historical novel conference, they’ll have maybe 10-15 agents. You go in there and talk to them and I ran into another woman who wrote about Roman history. She asked a question in a conference and they said, “Well, no one’s doing Rome anymore unless you write the special book.” That’s what we’re trying to do. I’m hoping it changes. There are Roman books still being put out. But I think the audience is not so much in America. 

Historical novel genre

JH: I really love historical novels. I haven’t read many but your book turned me on to more of them. Here’s why I liked it: If someone asked me to describe “Cornelia,” I could say it’s a book about land reform during the Rome Republic. “Land reform” makes it sound dry but because it’s in historical novel form it brings out the life of the characters. It puts the person in Ancient Rome back then. Why did you pick that genre?

DA: I really like to write fiction to start with. People like historical novels and I do, too. I didn’t start doing historical novels. My first two books were political novels set in the United States. One was about farmers. If you go to the website you’ll see one called “Prairie Fire” and it’s where I have a standoff between the militia and the National Guard in the middle of the United States protecting the wheat fields. 

How I got into historical novels was when my grandfather died, he left me three volumes of Plutarch and I had them in my house. I picked one up one day and read the one about Marcellus, who was a general in the Second Punic War. It tells the story of Archimedes and the science that he had in Sicily. He was making weapons that were beyond anything anybody had. The most sophisticated weapons in the world were in Sicily, at Syracuse, because Archimedes made them. I studied engineering at Princeton. I was an aerospace engineer so I love science and I love Archimedes. I told myself, the death of Archimedes was one of the turning points in history. Science falls back 1,600 years. We don’t get back to where he was until 1600 A.D. I got into it and once I started writing historical fiction, I liked the research, I liked to educate myself and people like it. 

JH: I loved “Pompeii,” Robert Harris’ historical novel about the volcano eruption through the eyes of four families.

DA: I read it. If I’m writing historical novels set in Rome, which I spent seven years doing it, not counting 10 years of research before, once I start I won’t read anything else. The only books I read will be about commentary on Rome, novels on Rome or history on Rome. I will just stick my head in there and stay in there until I am done. I would remotely inject myself into the period. 

JH: You said you were a sportswriter once?

DA: I was a sportswriter for one year in New York. I graduated from Princeton but it was during the (Vietnam) war. I became a dropout. I was essentially a Eugene hippy. I wrote on the side whenever I could. I always wanted to do writing by the time I was 20. I worked as a house painter for 30 years so I could get three months off during the winter to write. I did that for more than 30 years but I never could complete anything. So when I was in my mid- 50s, I got arthritis in my hands and had to quit painting. Fortunately, my wife was a professor at the U of O. She said, “Dan, don’t worry about it. We don’t need the money. Just do it.” So I was freed up. 

The sportswriter came in my previous marriage. My wife went to Columbia (University) to be a midwife and we moved to New York and I needed a job. I was writing but I was a painter. But I had a friend who worked at a place called Sports Eye on Long Island. He hired me and I had my own publication: a 48-page gambling sheet called Sports Form. I kept track of all wins and losses of all the basketball, all the college football, all the pro football, all the pro basketball. I kept the lines. I called Las Vegas every day. Then I’d set up power ratings and write articles on the teams. As a matter of fact, I did a series called the Greatest Football Games in History. I did a 12-part series of great football games. That was 1985-86.

I had a great time but I made so little money as a sportswriter I moved back to Oregon. I was making 10 bucks an hour and I was working 60 hours a week. My dad said, “Dan, you should stick to sports writing.” I said, “Dad, I can’t survive.” I came back to Oregon and I could make $50-60-70 an hour as a contractor. I had a son and I had a wife so it still allowed me to write when I wanted.