Gaius Marcius Coriolanus: Legendary General or Man of Myth

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

With so much to discuss about Ancient Rome, sometimes we ask ourselves were to begin or what to share today? We all know that events abound during this historical period from the Founding of Rome through the Decline of the Byzantine Empire, and that numerous people stood out as well.

Having recently watched the move Coriolanus, starring Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler, we were curious if this was the imagination of William Shakespeare or if this was truth. In any case, the story was awesome (check out our take on the film here – Ralph Fiennes Presents William Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’) and the search for the truth would be worth it.

Join us today as we hunt for the real Gaius Marcius Coriolanus!

Gaius Marcius Coriolanus

Gaius Marcius (Caius Martius) Coriolanus was a Roman General who is said to have lived in the 5th Century BC. In later ancient times, it was generally accepted by historians that Coriolanus was a real historical individual, and a consensus narrative story of his life appeared, retold by leading historians such as LivyPlutarch, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

Map of Coriolanus’ Campaigns

Coriolanus came to fame as a young man serving in the Army of the Consul Postumus Cominius Auruncus in 493 BC during the siege of the Volscian town of Corioli. While the Romans were focused on the siege, another Volscian force arrived from Antium (modern Anzio and Nettuno) and attacked the Romans.

It was at this moment that the besieged soldiers of Corioli also launched a counter-attack against the Romans. Marcius, who held watch at the time of the Volscian attack, quickly gathered a small force of Roman soldiers to fight against the rallying Volscians from Corioli.

Not only did Marcius repel the enemy, but he also charged through the town gates and began setting fire to some of the houses bordering the town wall. The citizens of Corioli cried out, and the whole Volscian force was dispirited and was ultimately defeated by the Romans.

Land of the Volsci

The town was captured by the Romans, at least in part due to Marcius. He received the toponymic cognomen “Coriolanus” because of his exceptional valor in the siege of said Volscian city.

In 491 BC, just 2 years after the victory over the Volscians, Rome was recovering from a grain shortage. A significant quantity of grain was imported from Sicily, and the Senatus Romanus (Roman Senate) debated the manner in which it should be distributed to the Plebis (Common People).

Coriolanus advocated that the provision of grain should be dependent upon the reversal of the pro-Plebeian political reforms arising from the First Secessio Plebis (494 BC). The Senate thought Coriolanus’ proposal was too harsh.

The populace were infuriated at Coriolanus’ proposal, and the Tribuni (Tribunes) subsequently put him on trial. The Senators argued for the acquittal of Coriolanus, or at the least a merciful sentence.

Tom Hiddleston as Caius Martius Coriolanus

Coriolanus refused to attend on the day of his trial, and he was convicted. He was subsequently exiled from Rome.

Oddly enough, Coriolanus fled to the Volsci in exile. He was received and treated kindly, and resided with the Volscian leader Attius Tullus Aufidius.

Plutarch’s account of his defection tells that Coriolanus donned a disguise and entered the home of Aufidius as a supplicant. It was almost as if Coriolanus was hoping this would be made into a movie or play one day.

Coriolanus and Aufidius then persuaded the Volscians to break their truce with Rome and raise an army to then invade Rome itself. Livy recounts that Aufidius tricked the Senatus Romanus into expelling the Volsci from Rome during the celebration of the Ludi Romani (Great Games), thereby stirring up ill-will among the Volsci.

Ralph Fiennes (front left) as Coriolanus with Gerard Butler (front right) as Attius Tullus Aufidius.

Coriolanus and Aufidius led the Volscian army against Roman towns, coloniae (colonies) and allies. Following this Volscian victory, Roman colonists were then expelled from Circeii.

The pair then campaigned and retook the formerly Volscian towns of SatricumLongulaPollusca, and Corioli. The Volscian army followed this by taking Lavinium, CorbioVitelliaTrebiaLavici, and finally Pedum.

From there the Volsci marched on Rome and besieged it. The Volscians initially camped at the Fossae Cluiliae (Cluilian Trench), 5 miles outside Rome, and ravaged the countryside. Coriolanus directed the Volsci to target plebeian properties and to spare the patricians’.

Coriolanus at the Walls of Rome.

The Consuls, now Spurius Nautius Rutilus and Sextus Furius Medullinus Fusus, readied the defenses of Rome. But the Plebeians implored them to sue for peace.

The Senate was convened, and it was agreed to send petitioners to the enemy. Initially ambassadors were sent, but Coriolanus sent back a negative response.

The ambassadors were sent back to the Volsci, but were refused entry to the enemy camp. Next priests adorned in their regalia were sent by the Romans, but achieved nothing more than had the ambassadors.

Veturia at the Feet of Coriolanus by Gaspare Landi.

Then Coriolanus’ mother Veturia (known as Volumnia in Shakespeare’s play) and his wife Volumnia (known as Virgilia in Shakespeare’s play) and his 2 sons, together with the matrons of Rome, went out to the Volscian camp and implored Coriolanus to cease his attack on Rome. Coriolanus was overcome by their pleas, and moved the Volscian camp back from the city, ending the siege.

Rome honored the service of these women by the erection of a temple dedicated to Fortuna (a female deity). Coriolanus’ fate after this point is unclear, but it seems he took no further part in the war.

One version says that Coriolanus retired to Aufidius’ home city of Antium. Coriolanus had committed acts of disloyalty to both Rome and the Volsci, and Aufidius raised support to have Coriolanus first put on trial by the Volscians, and then assassinated before the trial had ended.

Plutarch’s tale of Coriolanus’ appeal to Aufidius is quite similar to a tale from the life of Themistocles, a leader of the Athenian democracy who was a contemporary of Coriolanus. During Themistocles’ exile from Athens, he travelled to the home of Admetus, King of the Molossians, a man who was his personal enemy.

Themistocles

Themistocles came to Admetus in disguise and appealed to him as a fugitive, just as Coriolanus appealed to Aufidius. Themistocles, however, never attempted military retaliation against Athens.

More recent scholarship has cast doubt on the historicity of Coriolanus. Some portray Coriolanus as either a wholly legendary figure, or at least disputing the accuracy of the conventional story of his life or the timing of the events.

According to Plutarch, his ancestors included prominent patricians such as Censorinus and even an early Rex Romae (King of Rome).

Other modern scholars question parts of the story of Coriolanus. It is notable that accounts of Coriolanus’ life are initially found in works from the 3rd Century BC, some 200 years after Coriolanus’ life. There are few authoritative historical records prior to the Gallic sack of Rome in 390 BC.

Whether or not Coriolanus himself is a historical figure, the saga preserves a genuine popular memory of the dark, unhappy decades of the early 5th Century BC when the Volscians overran Latium and threatened the very existence of Rome. The story is the basis for The Tragedy of Coriolanus, written by William Shakespeare, and a number of other works, including Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture (based not on Shakespeare but on the play Coriolan by Heinrich Joseph von Collin).

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is the last of his “Roman plays”. Its portrayal of the hero has led to a long tradition of political interpretation of Coriolanus as an anti-populist, or even proto-fascist leader.

President Coriolanus Snow in the film The Hunger Games.

Bertolt Brecht‘s version of Coriolanus (1951) is one of those that stresses this anti-populist view. Suzanne Collins also references the anti-populist interpretation in The Hunger Games trilogy with her character President Coriolanus Snow, a totalitarian dictator who preserves order in the degenerate society of the books, though this character has little in common with the figure Coriolanus.

Heinrich Joseph von Collin‘s 1804 play Coriolan portrayed him in the context of German romantic ideas of the tragic hero. Beethoven’s 1807 Coriolan Overture was written for a production of the von Collin play.

T. S. Eliot wrote a sequence of poems in 1931 entitled Coriolan. Shakespeare’s play also forms the basis of the 2011 motion picture Coriolanus, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes, in which Coriolanus is the protagonist.

This is the front cover art for the book Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome written by Steven Saylor.

Steven Saylor‘s 2007 novel Roma presents Coriolanus as a Plebeian, the child of a Patricius (Patrician) mother and Plebeian father. His attitudes toward the changes occurring in Rome during his lifetime are reflective of what has been described.

He achieves Senatorial status thanks to his military valor and connections. When he calls for the abolition of the office of Tribune, he becomes a target of the Plebeians and their representatives.

Coriolanus flees before the trial which would ruin him and his family socially and financially, and seeks the alliance with the Volsci described above. His military campaign against Rome is successful and his forces are approaching the walls of the city until the appeal of the Roman women, including his Patrician mother and his wife. When he orders his troops to withdraw, he is killed by them.

The front cover art for the book The 48 Laws of Power written by Robert Greene.

The 48 Laws of Power uses Coriolanus as an example of violating Law #4: “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” citing his constant insulting of the plebeians as the reason for his exile.

We appreciate you joining us on the adventure to find the truth about Coriolanus. Since it seems inconclusive, we hope that you will make an informed decision on your own.

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Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!

 

References:

Lendering, Jona. “Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus”.

LivyAb Urbe Condita.

Vittucci, Paola Brandizzi. Antium: Anzio e Nettuno in epoca romana. Bardi, 2000 ISBN 88-85699-83-9.

Willett, John. The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects. Methuen, 1959.

The Life of Coriolanus – Full text of 17th-century English translation by John Dryden (HTML)

The Life of Coriolanus – Full text of 19th-century English translation by Aubrey Stewart and George Long (multiple formats for download)

Coriolanus – Full text of Shakespeare’s play based on Plutarch (HTML)