Caius Marcius Coriolanus
Or C. Coriolanus, the hero of one of the most beautiful of the early Roman legends, was said to have been the son of a descendant of king Ancus Marcius. His mother's name, according to the best authorities, was Veturia (Plutarch calls her Volumnia). He lost his father while yet a child, and under the training of his mother, whom he loved exceedingly, grew up to be a brave and valiant man; but he was likewise noted for his imperious and proud temper. He was said to have fought in the battle by the lake Regillus, and to have won a civic crown in it.
To explain his surname, Coriolanus, the legend told how in a war with the Volscians their capital, Corioli, was attacked by the Romans. When the enemy made a sally, Marcius at the head of a few brave men drove them back, and then, single-handed (for his followers could not support him), drove the Volscians before him to the other side of the town. So in memory of his prowess the surname Coriolanus was given him. But his haughty bearing towards the commons excited their fear and dislike, and when he was a candidate for the consulship, they refused to elect him. After this, when there was a famine in the city, and a Greek prince sent corn from Sicily, Coriolanus advised that it should not be distributed to the commons, unless they gave up their tribunes. For this he was impeached and condemned to exile. He now took refuge among the Volscians, and promised to assist them in war against the Romans.
Attius Tullius, the king of the Volscians, found a pretext for a quarrel, and war was declared. Coriolanus was appointed general of the Volscian army. He took many towns, and advanced plundering and burning the property of the commons, but sparing that of the patricians, till he came to the fossa Cluilia, or Cluilian dyke. Here he encamped, and the Romans in alarm (for they could not raise an army) sent as deputies to him five consulars, offering to restore him to his rights. But he refused to make peace unless the Romans would restore to the Volscians all the lands they had taken from them, and receive all the people as citizens. To these terms the deputies could not agree.
After this the Romans sent the ten chief men of the Senate, and then all the priests and augurs. But Coriolanus would not listen to them. Then, at the suggestion of Valeria, the noblest matrons of Rome, headed by Veturia, and Volumnia, the wife of Coriolanus, with his two little children, came to his tent. His mother's reproaches, and the tears of his wife, and the other matrons bent his purpose. He led back his army, and lived in exile among the Volscians till his death. On the spot where he yielded to his mother's words, a temple was dedicated to Fortuna Muliebris, and Valeria was the first priestess.
Such is the substance of the legend. The date assigned to it in the annals is 490 BCE. Its inconsistency with the traces of real history which have come down to us have been pointed out by Niebuhr, who has also shown that if his banishment be placed some twenty years later, and his attack on the Romans about ten years after that, the groundwork of the story is reconcilable with history. The account of his condemnation is not applicable to the state of things earlier than 470 BCE, about which time a famine happened, while Hiero was tyrant of Syracuse, and might have been induced by his hostility to the Etruscans to send corn to the Romans. Moreover, in 458 BCE, the Volscians obtained from the Romans the very terms which were proposed by Coriolanus. "The list of his conquests is only that of a portion of those made by the Volscians transferred to a Roman whose glory was flattering to national vanity." The circumstance that the story has been referred to a wrong date Niebuhr considers to have arisen from its being mixed up with the foundation of the temple to Fortuna Muliebris. The name Coriolanus may have been derived from his settling in the town of Corioli after his banishment. Whether he had any share in bringing about the peace of 458, Niebuhr considers doubtful.
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Roman Antiquities vii, 20 - viii, 59.
- Livy. The History of Rome ii, 34-40.
- Niebuhr, B.G. (1845). History of Rome. Vol. 1i, pp. 94-107, 234-260.
- Plutarch. Caius Marcius Coriolanus.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.