Aurelia Cotta, Mother of Julius Caesar

Putting the "Mater" in "Maternal"

Mama's little boy: Aurelia Cotta birthed this handsome Caesar. y Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Behind every kick-ass man is an extraordinary mother or maternal figure who, let’s be honest, is pretty awesome. Even the one and only Julius Caesar, the statesman, dictator, lover, fighter, and conqueror, had an important woman to instill lovely Roman values into him from a young age. That was his mama, Aurelia Cotta.

Bred to Breed

A Roman matriarch from her perfectly coiffed hair down to her sandals, Aurelia raised her son with pride in his ancestry.

After all, for a patrician clan, family was everything! Caesar’s paternal family, the Julii or Iulii, famously claimed descent from Iulus, a.k.a. Ascanius, son of the Italian hero Aeneas of Troy, and thus from Aeneas’s mother, the goddess Aphrodite/Venus. It was on this basis that Caesar later founded the Temple of Venus Genetrix (Venus the Mother) in the forum that bore his name. 

Although the Julii claimed illustrious ancestry, they had lost much of their political clout in the years since Rome was founded. Members of the Caesar’s branch of the Julii, the Caesares, had held important, but not outstanding, political posts for the century or two preceding our Julius’s birth. They made important alliances, however, including marrying Caesar’s paternal aunt to the dictator Gaius Marius. Julius Caesar the Elder might have achieved some note as a politician, but his ending wash ignominious. Suetonius says that Julius the Elder died when his son was fifteen, while Pliny the Elder adds that Caesar’s dad, an ex-praetor, died in Rome “without any apparent cause, in the morning, while putting on [his] shoes.” 

Aurelia’s own family had achieved more recently than her in-laws’. Although the exact identity of her mom and dad aren’t known, it seems likely that they were an Aurelius Cotta and one Rutilia. Three of her brothers were consuls, and her own mother, Rutilia, was a devoted mother bear. The Aurelii were another distinguished family; the first member of this to become consul was another Gaius Aurelius Cotta in 252 B.C.

, and they’d kept up their hard work ever since.

Married to Money?

With such a distinguished lineage for her kids, Aurelia would have been understandably eager to ensure great destinies for them. Admittedly, like most other Roman mothers, she wasn’t too creative in naming them: both her daughters were called Julia Caesaris. But she took great pride in nurturing her son and turning him towards a promising future. Presumably, Caesar Sr. felt the same way, though he was probably away on government business during most of his son’s childhood.

The older of the two girls probably married one Pinarius, then a Pedius, by whom she had issue, producing two grandsons. Those boys, Lucius Pinarius and Quintus Pedius, were named in Julius’s will to inherit one-quarter of their uncle’s estate, according to Suetonius in his Life of Julius Caesar. Their cousin, Octavius or Octavian (later to be known as Augustus), got the other three-fourths ... and was adopted by Caesar in his will!

Octavius was the son of the granddaughter of Caesar’s younger sister Julia, who had married a man named Marcus Atius Balbus, whom Suetonius, in his Life of Augustus, describes as “of a family displaying many senatorial portraits [and]… closely connected on his mother's side with Pompey the Great.” Not bad!

Their daughter, Atia (Caesar’s niece), wed Gaius Octavius, a member of a clan that, according to the Life of Augustus, “was in days of old a distinguished one.” Propaganda much?  Their kid was the one and only Octavian.

Aurelia: Model Mom

According to Tacitus, the art childrearing had declined by his time (the late first century A.D.). In his Dialogue on Oratory, he claims that, once upon a time, a kid “was from the beginning reared, not in the chamber of a purchased nurse, but in that mother’s bosom and embrace,” and she took pride in her family. Her goal was to raise a son who would make the Republic proud. “With scrupulous piety and modesty, she regulated not only the boy’s studies and occupations, but even his recreations and games,” Tacitus writes.

And whom does he cite as one of the best examples of such prime parenthood?

“Thus it was, as tradition says, that the mothers of the Gracchi, of Caesar, of Augustus, Cornelia, Aurelia, Atia, directed their children’s education and reared the greatest of sons." He includes Aurelia and her granddaughter, Atia, as great moms whose rearing of their sons led those boys to contribute much to the Roman state, individuals with “a pure and virtuous nature which no vices could warp.”

To educate her son, Aurelia brought in only the best. In his On Grammarians, Suetonius names the freedman Marcus Antonius Gnipho, “a man of great talent, of unexampled powers of memory, and well read not only in Latin but in Greek as well,” as Caesar’s tutor. “He first gave instruction in the house of the Deified Julius, when the latter was still a boy, and then in his own home,” writes Suetonius, citing Cicero as another of Gnipho’s students. Gnipho is the only of Caesar’s teachers whose name we know today, but as an expert in languages, rhetoric, and literature, he clearly taught his most famous protégé well.

Another way of ensuring your son’s future in ancient Rome? Obtaining a wife for him who had wealth or was well-bred – or both! Caesar was first engaged to one Cossutia, whom Suetonius describes as “a lady of only equestrian rank, but very wealthy, who had been betrothed to him before he assumed the gown of manhood.” Caesar decided on another woman with an even better pedigree, though: he “married Cornelia, daughter of that Cinna who was four times consul, by whom he afterwards had a daughter Julia.” It looks like Caesar learned some of his savvy from his mama!

Eventually, the dictator Sulla, enemy of Caesar’s uncle Marius, wanted the boy to divorce Cornelia, but Aurelia worked her magic again. Caesar refused, endangering his life and those of his loved ones. Thanks to “the good offices of the Vestal virgins and of his near kinsmen, Mamercus Aemilius and Aurelius Cotta, he obtained forgiveness,” says Suetonius. But let’s be honest: who brought in her family and prominent Roman priestesses to help her baby boy?

Most likely, it was Aurelia.

Give Your Mom a Kiss

When Caesar was elected to the highest priesthood in Rome, the office of pontifex maximus, he made sure to kiss his mom goodbye before he went out to achieve this honor. It looks like Aurelia still lived with her son at this time, too! Writes Plutarch, “The day for the election came, and as Caesar's mother accompanied him to the door in tears, he kissed her and said: ‘Mother, to‑day thou shalt see thy son either pontifex maximus or an exile.’”

Suetonius is a bit more practical about this episode, stating that Caesar bribed his way to the post to pay off his debts. “Thinking on the enormous debt which he had thus contracted, he is said to have declared to his mother on the morning of his election, as she kissed him when he was starting for the polls, that he would never return except as pontifex,” he writes.

Aurelia seems to have played a supporting role in her son’s life. She even kept an eye on his wayward second wife, Pompeia, who was having an affair with a prominent citizen named Clodius. Writes Plutarch, “But close watch was kept upon the women's apartments, and Aurelia, Caesar's mother, a woman of discretion, would never let the young wife out of her sight, and made it difficult and dangerous for the lovers to have an interview.”

At the festival of Bona Dea, the Good Goddess, in which only women were allowed to participate, Clodius dressed as up as a female to meet Pompeia, but Aurelia foiled their plot. As he was “trying to avoid the lights, an attendant of Aurelia came upon him and asked him to play with her, as one woman would another, and when he refused, she dragged him forward and asked who he was and whence he came,” describes Plutarch.

Aurelia’s maid started screaming once she realized a man had intruded on these rites. But her mistress remained calm and handled it like an ancient Olivia Pope. According to Plutarch, “the women were panic-stricken, and Aurelia put a stop to the mystic rites of the goddess and covered up the emblems. Then she ordered the doors to be closed and went about the house with torches, searching for Clodius.” Aurelia and the other women reported the sacrilege to their husbands and sons, and Caesar divorced the licentious Pompeia. Thanks, Mom!

Alas, not even courageous Aurelia could survive forever. She passed away in Rome while Caesar was campaigning abroad. Caesar’s daughter, Julia, died in childbed around the same time, making this loss a triple one: “Within this same space of time he lost first his mother, then his daughter, and soon afterwards his grandchild,” says Suetonius. 

Talk about a blow! The loss of Julia is often cited as one reason why Caesar and Pompey’s alliance began to deteriorate, but the death of Aurelia, Caesar's number one fan, couldn’t have helped her son's faith in all things good. Eventually, Aurelia became the ancestress of royalty as the great-grandmother of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Not a bad way to end a career as Supermom.