1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Coriolanus, Gaius Marcius

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CORIOLANUS, GAIUS (or Gnaeus) MARCIUS, Roman legendary hero of patrician descent. According to tradition, his surname was due to the bravery displayed by him at the siege of Corioli (493 B.C.) during the war against the Volscians (but see below). In 492, when there was a famine in Rome, he advised that the people should not be relieved out of the supplies obtained from Sicily, unless they would consent to the abolition of their tribunes. For this he was accused by the tribunes, and, being condemned to exile, took refuge with his friend Attius Tullius, king of the Volscians. A pretext for a quarrel with Rome was found, and Coriolanus, in command of the Volscian army, advanced against his native city. In vain the first men of Rome prayed for moderate terms. He would agree to nothing less than the restoration to the Volscians of all their land, and their admission among the Roman citizens. A mission of the chief priests also failed. At last, persuaded by his mother Veturia and his wife Volumnia, he led back the Volscian army, and restored the conquered towns. He died at an advanced age in exile amongst the Volscians; according to others, he was put to death by them as a traitor; a third tradition (mentioned, but ridiculed, by Cicero) represents him as having taken his own life.

The whole legend is open to serious criticism. At the traditional date (493 B.C.) Corioli was not a Volscian possession, but one of the Latin cities which had concluded a treaty of alliance with Rome; further, Livy himself states that the chroniclers knew nothing of a campaign carried on by the consul Postumus Cominius Auruncus (under whom Coriolanus is said to have served) against the Volscians. Only one of the consuls was mentioned as having concluded the treaty; the absence of the other was consequently assumed, and a reason for it found in a Volscian war. The bestowal of a cognomen from a captured city was unknown at the time, the first instance being that of Scipio; in any case, it would have been conferred upon the commander-in-chief, Postumus Cominius Auruncus, not upon a subordinate. The conquest of Corioli by Coriolanus is invented to explain the surname. The details of the famine are borrowed from those of later years, especially 433 and 411. The incident of Coriolanus taking refuge with the Volscian king, who, according to Plutarch, was his bitter enemy, curiously resembles the appeal of Themistocles to the Molossian king Admetus. Further, the tradition that Coriolanus, like Themistocles, committed suicide, renders it a probable conjecture that these incidents are derived from a Greek source. The contradictions in the accounts of the campaign against Rome and its inherent improbability give further ground for suspicion. Twelve important towns are taken in a single summer apparently without resistance on the part of the Romans, and after the retirement of Coriolanus they are immediately abandoned by the conquerors. It is strange that the Volscians should have entrusted a stranger with the command of their army, and it is possible that the attribution of their successes to a Roman general was intended to gratify the national pride and obliterate the memory of a disastrous war. It is suggested that Coriolanus never commanded the Volscian army at all, but that, like Appius Herdonius—the Sabine chieftain who in 460, with a band of fugitives and slaves, obtained possession of the capital—he appeared at the gates of Rome at the head of a body of exiles (but at a much later date, c. 443), at a time when the city was in great distress, perhaps as the result of a pestilence, and only desisted from making himself master of Rome at the earnest entreaty of his mother. This seems to be the historical nucleus of the tradition, which accentuates the great influence exercised by and the respect shown to the Roman matrons in early times.

Ancient Authorities.—Plutarch’s Life; Livy ii. 34-40; Dion. Halic. vi. 92-94, vii. 21-27, 41-47, viii. 1-60; Cicero, Brutus, x. 42. The story is the subject of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. For a critical examination of the story see Schwegler, Römische Geschichte, bk. xxiv.; Sir G. Cornewall Lewis, Credibility of Early Roman History, ch. xii. 19-23; W. Ihne, History of Rome, i.; T. Mommsen, “Die Erzählung von Cn. Marcius Coriolanus,” in Hermes, iv. (1869); E. Pais, Storia di Roma, i. ch. 4 (1898).