This painting, by the Austrian artist Franz Anton Maulbertsch (c. 1724–1796), was inspired by an ancient Roman Legend. Standing center stage by the tree is the artist’s representation of Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus, a powerful figure in Rome who was said to have lived at the turn of the 6th and 5th century BCE. A distinguished warrior, politician, and a mastermind behind tactics of oppression used by the early Roman Republic’s oligarchical ruling class, Coriolanus was an extreme figure who was loathed by Rome’s commoners. In the end, however, the masses put Coriolanus on trial and, as the oligarchs deemed him to be a controversial liability, they allowed the trial to go forward, resulting in Coriolanus’ banishment.
Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus did not take his exile lightly. Bent upon revenge, the banished warrior soon found asylum with one of the greatest enemies of the Roman people at that time—the Volscians—and offered his military experience to them as a general or advisor for their army. According to the Roman historian, Livy, Coriolanus masterminded a highly-effective Volscian invasion of the Roman Republic’s territory between 490-488 BCE, besieging Rome itself in the last year of the conflict. The Romans, however, had a secret weapon behind their walls—Coriolanus’ family, who were still residents of the city. Therefore, as the legend goes, all of Coriolanus’ family members and relations were sent out to negotiate for Rome. His mother was among the negotiators, as were his wife and children, all begging for him to end his siege of their beloved Rome. Livy described the scene:
“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).
Such is the scene that inspired Franz Anton Maulbertsch’s painting. It shows Coriolanus being barraged by the pleas of his family members. Unable to go against his family, Coriolanus withdrew his army from the city, never again to return to Rome. For a more complete account of the story of Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus, read our article, HERE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.