Gaius Marcius Coriolanus

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Veturia at the Feet of Coriolanus by Gaspare Landi (Photo courtesy The VRoma Project)

Gaius Marcius (Caius Martius) Coriolanus (/ˌkɔriəˈlnəs, ˌkɒr-/) was a Roman general who is said to have lived in the 5th century BC. He received his toponymic cognomen "Coriolanus" because of his exceptional valor in a Roman siege of the Volscian city of Corioli. He was subsequently exiled from Rome, and led troops of Rome's enemy the Volsci to besiege Rome.

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 Livy, Plutarch, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. More recent scholarship has cast doubt on the historicity of Coriolanus, portraying him 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.[1]

According to Plutarch, his ancestors included prominent patricians such as Censorinus and even an early King 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.

The consensus biography[edit]

The Mother of Coriolanus pleads for her son

The siege of Corioli[edit]

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. Whilst the Romans were focused on the siege, another Volscian force arrived from Antium and attacked the Romans, and at the same time the soldiers of Corioli launched a sally. Marcius held watch at the time of the Volscian attack. He quickly gathered a small force of Roman soldiers to fight against the Volscians who had sallied forth from Corioli. Not only did he repel the enemy, but he also charged through the town gates and then 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 defeated by the Romans. The town was captured, and Marcius gained the cognomen Coriolanus.[2]

Conflict and exile[edit]

After defeating the Volscians and winning support from the patricians of the Roman Senate, Coriolanus argued against the democratic inclinations of the plebeians, holding the grain dole hostage until the plebeians restored the powers of the patricians won through their secession, thereby making many personal enemies. The general was charged with misappropriation of public funds, convicted, and permanently banished from Rome by the tribunes.[3]

Defection to the Volsci[edit]

As a result of this ingratitude, the exiled general turned against Rome and declared allegiance to the same Volscians he had once fought against. Plutarch's account of his defection tells that Coriolanus donned a disguise and entered the home of a wealthy Volscian noble, Tullus Aufidius. The unmasked Coriolanus appealed to Aufidius as a supplicant. Coriolanus and Aufidius then persuaded the Volscians to break their truce with Rome and raise an army to invade. When Coriolanus's Volscian troops threatened the city, Roman matrons, including his wife and mother, were sent to persuade him to call off the attack.

At the sight of his mother Veturia (known as Volumnia in Shakespeare's play), wife Virgilia and children throwing themselves at his feet in supplication, Coriolanus relented, withdrew his troops from the border of Rome, and retired to Aufidius's home city of Antium. Coriolanus had thus committed acts of disloyalty to both Rome and the Volscians. Aufidius then raised support to have Coriolanus first put on trial by the Volscians, and then assassinated before the trial had ended.

The tale of Coriolanus's 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 traveled to the home of Admetus, King of the Molossians, a man who was his personal enemy. 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.

Modern scepticism[edit]

Act V, Scene III of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. Engraved by James Caldwell from a painting by Gavin Hamilton.

Coriolanus's story is today deemed legendary by some modern scholars.[1] Whether or not Coriolanus himself is a historical figure — and note that neither he nor any of the other leading figures in his tale can be confirmed by the consular Fasti — 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.

Cultural references[edit]

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. Bertolt Brecht's version of Coriolanus (1951) stresses this aspect.[4] 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. 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.

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

Steven Saylor's Roma presents Coriolanus as a plebeian, the child of a 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. He 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.


  1. ^ a b Lendering, Jona. "Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus". Retrieved 14 January 2012. 
  2. ^ Livy, Ab urbe condita, 2.33
  3. ^ Livy, 2.34–35
  4. ^ Willett, John, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects, London: Methuen, 1959, p.63.

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