Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus And His Revenge Against Rome


    Gnaeus (or Gaius) Marcius, according to tradition, was a Roman aristocrat and military leader who lived in the earliest days of the Roman Republic. He was considered a member of the Marcii patrician family in Rome, and ancient historians such as Livy and Plutarch painted Gnaeus Marcius as a staunch, hot-headed member of the patrician faction, as well as a hardliner in favor of suppressing the commoners by any means. It is possible, however, that Gnaeus Marcius’ family originated outside of Rome—it has also been proposed, based on his nickname “Coriolanus,” that Gnaeus Marcius’ ancestors may have actually come from the city of Corioli. Yet, ancient tradition explained his nickname in a different way. Whatever the case, Gnaeus Marcius, himself, was said to have been entrenched in the ruling class of the early Roman Republic.

    An ongoing power struggle between the power-hungry oligarchic aristocrats and the liberty-loving masses of the fledgling republic was not the only dangerous situation faced by Rome in the first decade of the 5th century BCE. They were also threatened by the encroaching forces of the Volscians and Aequians. Naturally, the Romans mustered their own military to meet this new threat on the battlefield, and Gnaeus Marcius was one of the officers among the forces of Rome. He made a name for himself in the first clashes between Rome and the Volscians, and particularly showed his prowess during the Roman assault on Corioli, dated to 493 BCE. At the time, Gnaeus Marcius was not in a position of high command in the Roman army, but this did not stop him from leading his own personal band of troops right through the entrance of Corioli to secure a Roman victory. According to tradition, it was this battle that earned Gnaeus Marcius the name “Coriolanus.”

    Eventually, the Romans and Volscians settled into a short truce. This temporary halt of hostilities, according to Livy, might have been caused by famine in Rome and an epidemic in Volscian lands, debilitating both sides of the conflict. Boosted by his wartime fame, Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus began rising higher in the political ranks, and his ruthlessness in war was allegedly matched by his bloodthirstiness in his political maneuvering as a patrician against the masses. He was said to have treated the common people of Rome as if they were an opposing city under siege, starving them from precious food unless they relinquished more and more power to the oligarchs. Such tactics made Coriolanus extremely unpopular among the Roman masses, so unpopular that the other patricians in Rome were willing to throw their comrade under the proverbial bus when the leaders of the commoners began some political maneuvers of their own. Ultimately, a trial was launched against Coriolanus in which (in person or in absentia, depending on the source) he was sentenced to an indefinite banishment from the city of Rome.

    Angry at both the masses (for prosecuting him) and the patricians (for abandoning him), the exiled Coriolanus marched with purpose to join the very people he had made a name fighting against—the Volscians—and pledged himself to seeking revenge against Rome. Despite his past violent actions against the Volscians, Coriolanus somehow worked his way into the good graces of a certain Attius Tullius, who is said to have been one of the most prominent Volscian leaders of the time.

    Attius Tullius was not only able to have Coriolanus accepted into the Volscian community, but he also managed to encourage the Volscian warriors to trust the Roman refugee in military matters. According to tradition and legend, by the time war between the Volscians and Rome resumed around 490 BCE, Coriolanus had gained such respect and trust among the Volscian communities that he was chosen to lead their military forces against the Romans. He masterfully led the Volscians in two annual campaigns, in which he carved away large swaths of land from Roman control. Livy gave a concise list of Coriolanus’ conquests:

    “[Gnaeus] Marcius [Coriolanus] first marched for Circeii, expelled the Roman settlers, liberated the town, and handed it over to Volscian control; he captured Satricum, Longula, Polusca, and Corioli, all places recently acquired by Rome; then after taking over Lavinium, he marched across country into the Latin Way and took Corbio, Vitellia, Trebium, Labici, and Pedum. Finally he marched on Rome and took up a position by the Cluilian Trenches five miles outside the walls” (History of Rome, 2.39).

    Coriolanus’ siege of Rome in 488 BCE is an event shrouded by legend and folklore, therefore the tale becomes more odd and vague at this point. As the story goes, the Volscians decided not to assault Rome, itself, but instead settled in for a siege. Coriolanus parked his army near the city and set about systematically ravaging the surrounding countryside. According to tradition, he spared the estates of certain patricians, either due to some small residual sympathy for the patrician class, or more likely, as a piece of psychological warfare meant to drive a wedge between the suspicious commoners and the oppressive oligarchs of the Republic.

    While under siege, Rome reportedly became quite an unstable place. Conspiracy theories abounded in the city when the commoners discovered that the estates of the republic’s oligarchs were left untouched while the property of the poor and powerless was raided. Such suspicious thoughts, according to tradition, led the commoners in the Roman military to mutiny, leaving the Republic with inadequate troops to drive off the Volscians by force. With military support shaky, the Roman Republic resorted to diplomacy. According to Livy, Rome sent two separate professional diplomatic missions to the Volscian camp, and when both of these failed, they also sent an additional mission of priests in hopes of swaying Coriolanus to relent from his siege. This group, too, did not accomplish their task. When the diplomats and priests failed, one last group went out to meet with the commander of the Volscians. This final diplomatic effort was reportedly led, oddly enough, by Coriolanus’ mother, wife and children, who, for whatever reason, had not joined him in his exile. From this last set of unique diplomats, Coriolanus faced an unbearable attack—he was scolded by his mother, faced pouts from his wife, and was sobbed at by his children. According to the traditional tale, this was too much for Coriolanus and he led his army away from Rome.

    After his withdrawal from the city, Coriolanus faded into history. Many different tales about his death were told, but none of them were definitive. Some, such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Plutarch, claimed that Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus was quickly executed by Attius Tullius and the Volscians after his failure to continue the siege of Rome. Livy, for his part, merely stated that Coriolanus’ fate was unknown, but also went on to claim that Fabius Pictor, Rome’s first historian, had stated that Coriolanus lived to become an old man amongst the Volscians, spending the rest of his days in exile.

    Picture Attribution: (Illustration of Coriolanus being confronted by his family, painted by Soma Orlai Petrich (1822–1880), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

    Written by C. Keith Hansley


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