Coriolanus, Rome’s Worst Nightmare from Within

Rome, 5th century B.C., is a kingdom at risk of complete collapse. Their previous king, the now exiled Tarquin the Proud, stands poised to invade and retake the Roman throne. Little does he know he also stands at the crossroads of history. A moment in which one of Rome’s greatest heroes, Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus, is recognized for his bravery. Legend says that after Coriolanus led the budding Roman kingdom to beat back the invading horde, Castor and Pollux, the twin gods themselves, descended onto the battlefield to honor him for his bravery. A divine gesture for a man destined for war, for courage, and for villainy.

The story of Coriolanus is a story of courageous resolve, but it’s also the story of how one man’s brash determination would turn him into the villain he had once defeated. 

This episode is brought to you by Famous Men of Rome, a collection of stories gathered from the chronicles of history and myth.

Education and Youth

Before he was the great Coriolanus, Gnaeus Marcius was a young man finding his way in a Roman world on the crest of great opportunity. The Roman people had just overthrown their last of seven kings, Tarquin the proud. It was here that the burgeoning hope of democracy and self rule was on everyone’s minds. And Tarquin hated it. Embittered against the Romans and craving the power he once had, Tarquin the Proud gathered various tribes across Italy and attempted to reclaim the throne.

At the time, Gnaeus Marcius was a very young, very inexperienced Roman soldier, but his youth did not prevent him from demonstrating great courage in the face of overwhelming odds. The war Tarquin fought in the name of the Roman throne had led to a series of battles fought across what we know today of Italy. It was during these battles that the strength of Rome was tested not only against the steel of its tribal aggressors, but against the will and strength of its people. Gnaeus Marcius  was so relentless in fighting in the Roman army,  that in one battle, when a fellow soldier fell to the ground near him, he dove in front of his ally, saving him from certain death at the risk of his own life. When the battle was over and the Romans had defeated Tarquin and his allies, they awarded Coriolanus a great honor, the civic crown. 

For a moment, the republic was safe, but during Coriolanus’ life Rome held a precarious position on the peninsula. He was called away to fight neighboring tribes repeatedly and continued to gain a reputation for his valor and reckless determination.

His most notable victory came against the Volscians, a tribe that lived south of Rome. Coriolanus was stationed at the Roman camp as his army prepared the campaign against the Volscians’ strongest city, Corioli. Unexpectedly a second army, not stationed in the city, launched an attack against the Roman camp. This surprise army was made up of fierce Volscian soldiers known as the Antiates, a formidable opponent.  Unfortunately for the Volscians, the attack led Coriolanus to gather a small band of Romans to repel the second army and then push on into the city. As the Volscians fled for safety, the Roman soldiers stopped to loot and pillage the town. Coriolanus grew incensed at the rest of the troops. He knew this was their opportunity to crush the Volscian army. It took every ounce of his resolve to push his fellow soldiers onward. When he was finally able to rally the soldiers and convince his general to press on, he begged to be placed in line against the Antiates. Coriolanus and his loyal  soldiers swiftly defeated the Antiates and the remaining Volscians, and then set off for home victorious.

When Coriolanus returned to Rome, the people attempted to award their brave hero with horses and other fineries. But Corioloanus refused. He was content to have an equal part of the reward with the other soldiers. He only kept one gift. It was from henceforth that he would be known as Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus, named for Corioli, the city of his greatest triumph.

But even victories in war come with a price and it was the poor people of Rome that paid it. At that time, Roman citizens were expected to fight Rome’s wars, but they were not paid or compensated. When they returned home, their farms sat dilapidated and their creditors dealt harshly with them. Oddly,  Coriolanus felt no sympathy for the people. Perhaps he had grown callous in war, but it became apparent that his valor was not fueled by passion for his nation, but instead a stubborn resolve to accomplish his own goals. 

Aspirations & Vengeance

And one of those goals was public office. At that time in Rome, those seeking political office would go into the streets dressed like beggars and show off the wounds that were on their bodies from all that they had suffered fighting for the people. After all Coriolanus had done for the people of Rome, he was sure that he would win the election. But on the day of the election he entered the hall with some of the nobility of Rome, and the poor people resolved to block his election and elect another candidate. This sparked a deep bitterness in Coriolanus against the people of Rome. 

That bitterness would soon turn vengeful. Two years after defeating the Volsci, Rome was in the middle of a major grain shortage. The Senate had imported a great deal of food from Sicily and were undecided as to how to distribute it.  The poor in Rome began to riot demanding that the excess be given to them as remuneration for their years of suffering. In a spiteful spirit, Coriolanus said that that was fine, as long as many of the other rights of the people were revisited, revised or removed entirely.  This was far too harsh, and the senators acquiesced to the people’s demands and gave all of the food away at no cost. 

Coriolanus was incensed. He had no compassion for the plight of the poor, but instead felt that their request was unfair and unjust to people like him. He caused such a commotion in his outrage that the senators in Rome had him arrested and charged with disturbing the peace.  Many of the accusations made against Coriolanus after his arrest were false, but it didn’t matter. The people wanted him gone. The Senate tried to grant him a lighter sentence. It didn’t help that Coriolanus didn’t even show up for his own trial. He was convicted and banished from Rome forever. 

Before Coriolanus left Rome, his wife begged him to settle down far from Rome and quietly live out the rest of his life in peace. But nothing could have been further from his nature. Instead, Coriolanus immediately set out for the camp of his old arch-enemies the Volscians. Among the Volscians, no one was more hated than Coriolanus. So donning a disguise, Coriolanus covered his head and snuck into the tent of the Volscian king and took a seat, deathly still. The king’s servants were uneasy when they saw this hooded figure acting  so strangely and they rushed to retrieve the king. 

When the king returned, Coriolanus threw off his hood. The king of the Volscians was taken aback, but he respected Coriolanus’ boldness. The ex-Roman explained his bitterness and asked the Volscian king to join him in attacking the city he had once called home. The Volscian king agreed and in less than a few weeks Coriolanus stood at the head of the Volscian army as they marched toward Rome destroying everything in their path. 

As Coriolanus marched toward Rome, history was repeating itself in a strange way. Coriolanus had gained notoriety for his valor and determination on the battlefield defeating Tarquin the Proud, but it was precisely this self-determination that led him, in a strange way, to be exactly like the villain Tarquin the Proud, leading Rome’s enemies as they threatened to invade the eternal city. 

Coriolanus set his forces in an encampment just outside the city. The Romans knew what Coriolanus was capable of and the stories of his Volscian army caused panic and alarm throughout the city. In response,  the Senate sent a team to beg Coriolanus for peace and to apologize to him for their mistreatment. Coriolanus demanded that Rome give back the Volscians all of the cities the Romans had won from them when he was leading the Roman army. For thirty days the Romans considered his offer as Coriolanus led the Volscian army to attack Rome’s allies in the surrounding region. 

Volumnia: Coriolanus’ Mother

In the background of our story, just outside our frame of view, a less-well-known hero from the chronicles of classical Roman myth and history. An unlikely hero, who saved Rome from its impending doom at the hands of Coriolanus. Volumnia (sometimes called Veturia) was Coriolanus’ mother and a matron of Rome. At this time, women in Rome didn’t play a crucial part in decision-making or warfare, so Volumnia’s  influence on her son’s life was quiet, private, and unnoticed by those only concerned with her son’s military accomplishments; a difficult thing to document in the chronicles of history, but one that requires great attention here. She appears only a  handful of times in the proper histories of Plutarch and Livy, but the Bard, William Shakespeare, knew to include her as a central figure in Coriolanus’ life, and in a moment you’ll see why. 

When Coriolanus returned to the gates of Rome, the Romans went out to Coriolanus a second time to beg him to reconsider his position, and to spare the city. Coriolanus was dead set in his intention for revenge so he stood firm. Finally, a third time, the senate in their desperation called on all of the religious leaders in the city and asked them to process in full traditional garb all the way to Coriolanus camp and urge him to reconsider his grudge with his home city and their ancient religion. But Coriolanus held fast. 

Inside the walls, the people of Rome began to resign themselves to the reality that soon they would be under siege from a massive army with their greatest general against them. While the men of Rome prepared themselves for the attack, some of the women of the city were gathered at the altar of Jupiter making intercessions for the Romans. Suddenly, one of the women was seized with a conviction that she and her sisters needed to find Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia. When they found her, they confronted her and said that Volumnia needed to face Coriolanus.

Of course, Volumnia was shocked. What could she do to save Rome that Rome’s best ambassadors and religious figures could not do.  But as a matron of Rome, and a loyal citizen, she knew that she must try. 

Volumnia gathered the strength of her resolve and bravely marched out of Rome to face her son, Coriolanus, at the head of an army. When Coriolanus saw his mother, he immediately melted and said, “You are victorious, and your victory means good fortune to my country, but death to me; for I will withdraw vanquished, though by you alone.” Coriolanus departed from the city leading his army back to Volsci. Volumnia returned to the walls of Rome, and was lauded as a hero among the people. She was recognized as a model of Roman female virtue and a temple to Fortuna was built in her honor and  the honor of the other women who went with her. 

His Death

Coriolanus withdrew and in response, the Volscians swore to end his life should he cease his attack on Rome. Coriolanus, in a final act of defiance, refused. Only a short time later, he  was killed by a mob of Volscians, as punishment for his betrayal. 

Unchecked bravery and resolve leads to recklessness and defiance not just towards your enemies, but to those who we love. The beauty and the horror of Corialonus’ story is its irony. Coriolanus began as a hero, one exalted for his bravery. Those who fought alongside him against the tyrant Tarquin admired him because he risked his life for the good of all Rome. But in the end, Corialonus would become the very tyrant he had risked his life to defeat, and it became apparent that true bravery was not recklessness, but the willingness to stand up for what was right. Bravery for the sake of no noble cause is vanity. In the end, it was Coriolanus’ mother who showed true bravery by facing her own son and saving the eternal city. 

Coriolanus’ story is a story of resolve and bravery, but, ironically, it isn’t a story of his bravery and resolve, but the virtue of his mother. Coriolanus may have risked his life to fight unimaginable odds, but Volumnia found the courage and resolve to face  her unchecked son and saved her people from certain disaster.