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Coriolānus, Gaius Marcius

A distinguished Roman of patrician rank, whose story forms a brilliant legend in the early history of Rome. His name at first was Gaius Marcius, but having contributed, mainly by his great personal valour, to the capture of Corioli, and the defeat of a Volscian army, assembled for its aid, on the same day, he received for this gallant exploit the surname of Coriolanus. Not long after this, however, during a scarcity at Rome, he opposed the distribution of a supply of provisions, in part sent by Gelon of Sicily, and advised the patricians to make this a means of recovering the power which had been wrested from them by the commons. For this and other conduct of a similar nature, he was tried in the Comitia Tributa and condemned to perpetual banishment. To gratify his vindictive spirit, Coriolanus presented himself as a suppliant to Tullius Aufidius, the leading man among the Volsci; was well received by him and the whole nation; and, war being declared, was invested, along with Aufidius, with the command of the Volscian forces. By his military skill and renown Coriolanus at once defeated and appalled the Romans, till, having taken almost all their subject-cities, he advanced at the head of the Volscian army against Rome itself and encamped only five miles from it, at the Fossae Cluiliae. All was terror and confusion in the Roman capital. Embassy after embassy was sent to Coriolanus, to entreat him to spare his country, but he remained inexorable, and would grant peace only on condition that the Romans restored all the cities and lands which they had taken from the Volsci and gave to the latter the freedom of Rome, as had been done in the case of the Latins. After all other means of conciliation had failed, a number of Roman matrons, headed by the mother (Veturia) and the wife (Volumnia) of Coriolanus, proceeded to his tent, where their lofty remonstrances were more powerful than the arms of Rome had proved; and the son, after a brief struggle with his feelings, yielded to their request, exclaiming at the same time, “Oh, mother, thou hast saved Rome, but destroyed thy son!” The Volscian forces were then withdrawn, and Rome was thus saved, by feminine influence alone, from certain capture. On returning to the Volsci with his army, Coriolanus, according to one account, was summoned to trial for his conduct, and was slain in a tumult during the hearing of the cause, a faction having been excited against him by Tullius Aufidius, who was jealous of his renown (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. viii. 59). According to another statement, he lived to an advanced age among the Volscian people, often towards the close of his life exclaiming, “How miserable is the state of an old man in banishment!” (Coriol.; Liv.ii. 33 foll.). Niebuhr, who writes the name Gnaeus Marcius , on what he considers good authority, indulges in some acute speculations on the legend of Coriolanus. He thinks that poetical invention has here most thoroughly stifled the historical tradition. He regards the name Coriolanus as of the same kind merely with such appellations as Camerinus, Collatinus, Mugillanus, Vibulanus, etc., which, when taken from an independent town, were assumed by its πρόξενος, when from a dependent one, by its patronus. The capture of Corioli belongs merely, in his opinion, to an heroic poem. As for Coriolanus himself, he thinks that he merely attended the Volscian standard as leader of a band of Roman exiles. The story of Coriolanus has received a brilliant setting from the genius of Shakespeare.

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  • Cross-references from this page (1):
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 2, 33
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