Who was Coriolanus in ancient Rome?

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

Gnaeus Martius Coriolanus was a legendary Roman figure of the Fifth Century BC. Our knowledge of Gnaeus Martius stems from the histories of Rome by Titus Livius and Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus in the First Century AD and later from the pen of William Shakespeare. Truth or not, it does make an interesting tale.

Gnaeus Martius was reported to have been born an aristocrat.

He was raised by his mother. His Father died while Gnaeus was a young child. He showed an interest in the military and trained as a warrior. His first military experience was in the service against Tarquinius Superbus who was attempting to regain his throne. In 499 BC, Marcus was awarded the oak wreath for his heroism.

The period after Tarquinius overthrow was a time where two completing factions jockeyed for control of Rome. The poorer plebeians called for a democracy while the rich schemed for an aristocracy. During this time of internal strife, neighboring states saw an opportunity to invade Rome. Volsci was especially aggressive.

In response to Volscian aggression, Rome fielded an army to attack the Volsci capital city of Corioli. The Roman army found itself trapped between the Volscian forces that had been attacking Rome and the forces advancing from the city. Rome split its army. Half would attack the army advancing from Rome while the other half, under Martius’ command, would defend their back by holding off an attack from the city. Martius routed the attackers and chased them into Corioli. Leaving a contingent to hold the city, he returned to join the other army and defeated the volcians.

Gnaeus Martius was awarded the title “Coriolanus” in honor of his victory over Rome’s enemy. Upon his return to Rome, he was courted by the aristocrats. Marcus became a spokesman for aristocracy and voiced opposition to democracy. This created many enemies among the plebeians. His enemies plotted and soon Marcus was charged with misappropriation of public funds. He was tried, convicted and banned from Rome.

The legend carries the exiled hero to the gates of his former enemy, the Volscians. He managed to persuade the Volscians to put an army under his command and allow him to break the treaty by attacking Rome. He lead the Volscian troops to many victories and eventually brought them to the outskirts of Rome. Marcus’ wife and mother met the army facing Rome and pleaded with Marcus to spare the city and withdraw from its gates. Marcus was so moved by this appearance that he did lead his army back to Volsci. The Volscians accused him of treachery and treason. He was seized and thrown in jail but before he could be tried he was murdered.

The legend is a moving story of heroism, betrayal and tragedy. Great elements for good storytelling. How much is true? It’s a legend. It offers an explanation for the defeat of the Roman army. A Roman army could only be defeated by a “bigger-than-life” Roman hero. Gnaeus Martius Coriolanus was just that kind of Roman hero.