Coriolanus, written by William Shakespeare in 1608, is the tragic story of the Roman General Caius Marcius Coriolanus. The story is one of a brilliant general who, after his greatest victory, takes up a career in politics. When he stands for the consular elections, his temperament and hostility to the plebian class earn him the hatred of the people who promptly depose him and exile him from Rome. Wishing to remake Rome according to his own political vision, Coriolanus allies himself with his erstwhile enemy, the Volscians. Under Coriolanus’ command the Volscians besiege Rome and appear on the edge of victory. However, Coriolanus’ mother and wife make an impassioned plea that persuades the general to call off the siege. Coriolanus is so moved by the plea that he orders a retreat and saves the city, only to be murdered by Attius Tullus Aufidius, leader of the Volscians.
Shakespeare’s play was based on a the story of the real Caius Marcius Coriolanus as told by the historian Plutarch. Caius Marcius was Patrician who lived in the 5th century BC as Rome overthrew its last king, Tarquinius Superbus, and established itself as a republic. Caius Marcius was not merely a Patrician but one of the few who could trace his lineage back to the daughter of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king. Numa’s grandson and founder of the House of Marcii was Ancius Marcius and would become Rome’s fourth king, succeeding Tullus Hostilius.
According to Plutarch, Caius Marcius lived up to this noble lineage, becoming unparalleled warrior with a great aptitude for the art of war. Plutarch states that, at a very young age, Caius engaged in his first battle. Rome’s last king, Tarquinius Superbus, had raised an army in a bid to regain his throne. Tarquinius’ army was apparently a mix of various city states from across Latium. Caius, according to Plutrach, fought valiantly for the Republic and showed particular valor in saving the life of one of his fellow soldiers. In recognition for his valour, Caius was adorned with a wreath of oak leaves by the victorious Republican forces.
As an ambitious young man, eager to prove himself, Caius did not rest on his laurels and was soon given a command posting and continued to win victories for Rome. At the same time Rome was starting to experience a problem that would overshadow the whole Republican period, namely conflict between the patrician nobility in the Senate and the plebians. Roman democracy was specifically designed to keep power in the hands of the nobility while giving the plebians only a modicum of power and an illusion of elections. Angry at their status, the plebians demanded a larger say in governance and the Senate was obliged to back down and institute the election of five Tribunes. The Tribunes acted as guardians of the plebian interests to the Senate and held the right of veto over any legislation passed in the Senate House. The office of tribune would be one of the main reasons for the future downfall of Caius Marcius.
At this time Rome had just entered a war with their neighbours, the Volsians, whose capital city of Antium (modern Anzio) was only a few miles south of Rome. In between the two cities lay the town of Corioli. During the war the Roman forces were laying siege to Corioli when they were caught unawares by the Volscian army. The Romans fell into a retreat but, in his finest hour Caius Marcius rallied his men and not only drove the Volscians back, but captured the town of Corioli. For this great victory Caius Marcius was given the name Coriolanus by a grateful Rome. Following the capture of Corioli the war with the Volscians had ended in victory for Rome and Caius Marcius Coriolanus was her most celebrated commander.
Following the war Coriolanus decided to enter the world of Roman politics and stood as a candidate in the elections of 491BC for Rome’s highest office, the Consulship. As great a commander as he may have been Coriolanus was no politician. Plutarch describes him as a blunt spoken aristocrat who detested the plebians and, as such his attempts at election failed although he was given a seat in the Senate. Around this time Rome had entered a grain crisis as the shipments of the vital foodstuff from Sicily had faltered. Coriolanus stood in the Senate and issued the proposal that the reserve grain should only be distributed to the plebians on condition that the reforms that had instituted the office of Tribune be rescinded. This proposal was seen as too harsh even by the Senate. The plebians, incensed at the proposal, rallied around their Tribunes who put him on trial for acting against the interests of the people of Rome. The Senate pleaded with the people for leniency but Coriolanus, showing his contempt for the Tribunes and the plebians, refused to even attend his trial. The result was a foregone conclusion, Coriolanus was to be exiled from Rome.
Coriolanus was incensed at this humiliation and, upon leaving the city, headed south towards Antium to join his former enemy and unleash his revenge upon his ungrateful homeland. On his arrival in Antium, Coriolanus passed through the streets unrecognised, straight to the house of Attius Aufidius (Tullus Aufidius in Shakespeare’s play), the Volscian leader. According to Plutarch, Coriolanus dined with Aufidius and recounted his story to his former enemy. Aufidius is said to have been only too eager to hire such a competent commander saying “rise [Coriolanus] and be of good courage; it is great happiness that you bring to Antium, in the present that you make to us in yourself; expect everything that is good from the Volscians”.
Taking advantage of the chaos in Rome caused by his exile and the ongoing grain crisis, Coriolanus and Aufidius led the Volscians into war against Rome. The Volscian advance was swift and the town of Corioli was recaptured in days. It was not long before the Volscians were besieging the walls of Rome itself. The Senate sent ambassadors to the Volscian camp to sue for peace but Coriolanus sent them back with nothing. Rome then sent the college of priests in full regalia to beg for mercy but they met with no more success than the ambassadors. Finally, in a last ditched attempt the Romans sent the women of Rome led by Coriolanus’ mother Veturia (Volumnia in the play) and his wife Volumnia (Virgilia in Shakespeare’s play) to urge the fallen general to cease his attack. Coriolanus was so moved by their plea that he withdrew the Volscian forces back to Antium. In recognition of their role in saving Rome, the Senate erected a temple to Juno Fortuna to honour the women of the city.
Coriolanus is said to have gone back to Antium where an enraged Aufidius put him on trial for betraying the Volscians, but impatient at the trials progress had the Roman brutally murdered before its conclusion. Aufidius would soon raise an alliance and march on Rome again. However, this alliance fell apart from infighting and the Romans were able to pick them off one by one.
Many modern historians have cast doubts on whether Coriolanus was an actual historical character as the earliest records of his story only appear 200 years after these events. Whether or not Coriolanus was a real figure, the tale can be seen as representing a dark period of the collective memory of the Romans. It represents a time when an old enemy, the Volscians, overran Latium and threatened the very existence of the young Republic. The town of Corioli no longer exists. It is last mentioned in a document relating to a land dispute in 443BC between the towns of Ardea and Aricia.