Biography of Coriolanus

Bingley on Cnaeus Marcius

Coriolanus with Veturia.

Basics on Coriolanus | Detailed Biography

Cnaeus Marcius' father died while he was still young, and so he was brought up by his mother. From an early age he was interested in war and physical training, believing a well-developed physique was among a man's best weapons. He first saw military service when Tarquinius Superbus attempted to regain his position as king by leading an army against Rome (499 BC).

He was awarded an oak wreath, the civic crown, for saving another citizen's life in battle.

He had a close relationship with his mother, and considered her pleasure in his achievements the greatest reward he could have. When he got married his mother continued to live with him. Livy says Marcius' mother was called Veturia and his wife Volumnia, but Plutarch says the mother was called Volumnia and the wife Vergilia.

This was a time of frequent warfare between Rome and the neighbouring tribes, particularly the Sabines and the Volscians, and of internal political struggle between the aristocratic patricians and the common plebs. Many of the plebs suffered during the wars because after their land had been raided by the enemy they had no option but to borrow money and then, when they were unable to repay the debt, they were imprisoned or enslaved. One particularly sad case of an enslaved veteran caused a near riot (495).

Although that particular crisis was averted by a Volscian invasion, nothing was done to deal with the underlying problem. The next year (494) the plebs simply walked out and withdrew three miles across the river Anio to the Sacred Mount, leaving the patricians in command of an empty city. The patricians had no choice but to negotiate and the institution of the tribunes of the plebs was founded to protect the plebs against oppression.

To counter the Volscian invasion, the Romans attacked and besieged the city of Corioli (493). When the other Volscians attempted to relieve Corioli, the besieging Romans split their forces in two, one part to deal with the Volscian relief force and the other, much smaller part, to deal with a sortie from the city. Marcius managed to halt the Coriolian sortie and chased them back to the city, so hot on their heels that he managed to fight his way into the city amongst the fleeing Coriolians. Although the attention of most of the Romans who entered Corioli was focused on plunder, Marcius managed to persuade some to follow him to help the Roman forces who were fighting to prevent the Volscian relief force from coming up to Corioli. He joined them just as the battle was about to start, and despite having just fought one battle, played a distinguished part in the second.

When the time came to distribute the booty, Marcius refused to take any more than his ordinary entitlement as an officer, except for freedom for a Volscian friend of his. It was for his exploits in this battle that he is said to have been given the name of Coriolanus, although, in fact, the practice of giving generals names derived from places they had conquered was a much later one.

One of the side-effects of the secession of the plebs was that no agricultural work had been done, and the campaign against the Volscians had left no opportunity for agriculture either. The result was near-famine conditions in Rome, with the plebs bearing the brunt of the shortages. When wheat imports, including a gift of wheat from Syracuse, arrived (491), the patricians, led by Coriolanus, refused to countenance any idea of the wheat being sold to the poor cheaply. In a fiery speech in the Senate, Coriolanus argued that here was an opportunity to pressurise the plebs into giving up the political gains they'd won as a result of their secession three years before.

When news of this speech leaked out, a riot ensued which was only halted by Coriolanus being ordered by the tribunes to appear before the people's assembly on charges of trying to overthrow the constitution. Coriolanus duly appeared, and was found guilty. The penalty was banishment.

After saying goodbye to his wife and mother, Coriolanus left for Antium, where Attius Tullius Aufidius, one of the Volscian leaders who was still implacably hostile to Rome, lived. Together they plotted how to bring about another war between Rome and the Volscians, which the Volscians could win with Coriolanus on their side.

Most of the Volscians had had enough of war but this did not stop Coriolanus and Tullius. Many Volscians were in Rome for the Great Games. Tullius went secretly to the Roman Senate and warned the senators that there was a plot amongst certain Volscians to re-kindle war between Rome and the Volscians by attacking the Romans while the games were on. Alarmed by this warning the Senate decreed that all Volscians should leave Rome by nightfall. Tullius then waylaid the departing Volscians on their way home and played on their resentment of the way they had been expelled from Rome to win support for military action against the arrogant Romans.

Coriolanus and Attius were put in command of the Volscian war effort. In his raids into Roman territory, Coriolanus gave strict orders that patricians' property was to remain unharmed, while plebeians' property was legitimate prey. Naturally this led to further tension between the classes in Rome: the patricians blamed the plebeians for exiling Coriolanus and the plebeians suspected some sort of conspiracy between the patricians and Coriolanus.

As Coriolanus approached nearer to Rome, an embassy was sent offering to repeal his banishment if he would stop the war, but Coriolanus refused to betray his new allies and said he would only stop the war if the territory surrendered by the Volscians after defeats in previous wars was returned to them. He gave the Romans thirty days to consider his offer and withdrew to harry the territory of Rome's allies.

When the thirty days was up, the Romans sent another embassy saying they would trust to Coriolanus' discretion to make suitable arrangements between the Romans and Volscians after the Volscian forces went back home. Coriolanus replied that the Romans were in no position to lay down terms, but his previous offer would still stand for another three days.

In desperation, the Senate sent another deputation, this time of priests, but again Coriolanus adamantly stuck to his position. Led by Valeria, the sister of Publicola, the women of Rome went to Coriolanus' house, where his mother and wife still lived, to beg them to intercede with him. The women set out for Coriolanus' camp. At first he was going to refuse to even see the women until someone pointed out that his mother and wife were among them.

The pleas and reproaches of his mother at this family reunion were too much for Coriolanus to bear and he agreed to withdraw the Volscian troops. It is not known what happened to him afterwards. Some say that a Volscian mob, angered by what they saw as his treachery, killed him, others say that he lived to a ripe old age in exile.

When the women arrived back in Rome, they were promised all sorts of rewards but they refused them, asking only that a temple dedicated to Women's Fortune be erected.

The above article was originally published on in two parts at [] on 22 November 2004 and at [] on 6 December 2004.


Primary Sources:

Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus

Plutarch's Comparison of Coriolanus and Alcibiades

Livy's account of Coriolanus can be seen in sections 2:33 to 2:40.

Secondary Source:

Jona Lendering's essay on Coriolanus