A Hungarian artist, Soma Orlai Petrich (1822–1880), painted the above scene, which depicts an event from the history of the ancient Roman Republic. Center stage—the seated man with a worried look on his face—is an artistic rendition of an ancient man named Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus. He was said to have been a powerful figure in Rome who lived at the turn of the 6th and 5th century BCE. According to legend and tradition, Coriolanus rose to prominence as a war hero in the Roman army, and he used his reputation to ascend the political ranks in Rome. As a politician, Coriolanus reportedly sided with the oligarchic ruling class, and he allegedly masterminded several schemes to oppress the Roman commoners. He was said to have become way too extreme in his political maneuverings, however, and in the end, he was prosecuted by the outraged common masses. As Coriolanus had become too controversial, Rome’s oligarchs abandoned him and made no attempt to stop his banishment.
Unfortunately for Rome, Coriolanus was intent on revenge. As the story goes, the exiled warrior soon found asylum with one of the greatest enemies of the Roman people at that time—the Volscians. Bitter about the oligarchs and commoners uniting against him, Coriolanus offered his military experience to the Volscian forces, and he allegedly became a general or advisor for their army. According to the Roman historian, Livy, Coriolanus helped the Volscians wage war against Rome from around 490-488 BCE, and he besieged Rome itself in the last year of the conflict.
During the siege, the Romans were said to have sent a very special delegation to negotiate with Coriolanus. Among the group were three generations of his family, including his mother, his wife, and his children, all begging for him to end his siege of Rome. This scene of Coriolanus being confronted by his family was captured by Soma Orlai Petrich in the painting shown above. The historian, Livy, similarly described the incident in his History of Rome:
“Coriolanus was profoundly moved; almost beside himself, he started from his seat and, running to his mother, would have embraced her had he not been checked by her sudden turn to anger…His wife and children flung their arms round him; the other women all burst into tears of anguish for themselves and their country, until at last Coriolanus could bear no more. He kissed his wife and the two boys, sent them home, and withdrew his army” (History of Rome, 2.40).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.