Betrayal of a Republic: Memoirs of a Roman Matrona

Written by Joost Douma
Review by J. Lynn Else

The life of Cornelia Africana, daughter of famed Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus and mother to the Gracchi brothers, is recounted through journal entries. With interests in literature, writing, and Greek philosophers, Cornelia was influential in her son’s education and political careers. Her sons served as tribunes for the people between 133 and 121 BCE, but their defiance of Rome’s political institutions, unfortunately, led to violent ends.

I’ve read journal-like narratives before, but none have been done this well. The Roman frame of mind and its vices come alive in Douma’s fictional memoir. The prose is lyrical and historically immersive as a mourning mother reevaluates life, fate, and the mistakes made in her lifetime. With their eyes on economic distress, fair land distribution, care of the country’s veterans, and providing subsidies to the poor, readers can see parallels to the news stories of today in the reforms the Gracchi brothers lost their lives for. The words of the author are well-stated in saying, “…but neither my sons nor I had foreseen how much vitriol and hatred would burst to the surface if you try to stop the underbelly of a society to indulge in its greed.” The journal is non-linear in fashion, but everything unfolds in organic ways and appropriately sets the stage for what’s to come. The narrative is packed with emotion, tension, and fantastic period details. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Roman culture through the eyes of an influential, educated woman in this poignant account of a Republic about to rend itself to pieces. Highly recommended.