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"Veturia at the Feet of Coriolanus" by Gaspare Landi (photo courtesy of The VRoma Project)
19th-century caricature of Coriolanus parting from his wife and family

Gaius Marcius Coriolanus is believed to be a legendary Roman general who 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 then promoted to a general. [1] In later ancient times, it was generally accepted by historians that Coriolanus had lived, and a consensus narrative story of his life appeared, retold by leading historians such as Livy and Plutarch. The story is the basis for the tragedy of Coriolanus, written by William Shakespeare.

Contents

The consensus biography

According to Plutarch, Coriolanus represented the Roman aristocracy. As a general, he successfully led the city's soldiers against an enemy tribe, the Volscians. After defeating the Volscians and winning support from the patricians of the Roman Senate, Coriolanus argued against the democratic inclinations of the plebeians, thereby making many personal enemies. The general was charged with misappropriation of public funds, convicted, and permanently banished from Rome. As a result of this ingratitude, the exiled general turned against Rome and made allegiance with 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 skepticism

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

Coriolanus's history, as retold by these ancient historians, is a moralistic tale, which displays traits of individual and group temperament such as disloyalty and ingratitude. The story is today deemed legendary by most modern scholars, probably devised in order to justify the fact that the Romans had several times been badly defeated by the Volscians. The theory goes that, in order to maintain their self-respect, descendants of the surviving Romans came to believe that the reason they had been defeated was because a Roman defector had led the enemy forces. This myth would have bolstered the Romans' belief in the quality of their military leadership, as if to prove the assertion "only an ex-Roman could defeat Romans." 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 when the Volscians overran Latium and threatened the very existence of Rome.

Beethoven's overture

Beethoven's Coriolan Overture is based on Heinrich Joseph von Collin's 1802 play.

External links

References

  1. ^ Virginia Brown's translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Famous Women, p. 110; Harvard University Press 2001; ISBN 0-674-01130-9
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