This illustration, created by the English artist Henry Singleton (c. 1766-1839) and printed by H. Gillbank in 1802, was inspired by the legend of Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus, a powerful figure in Rome who was said to have lived at the turn of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. In the early stages of his story, Coriolanus was a distinguished warrior and politician, and was a mastermind behind tactics of oppression used by the early Roman Republic’s oligarchical ruling class. 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.
Coriolanus took the banishment personally and, as the legend goes, he became determined to get revenge on Rome. With this in mind, Coriolanus reached out to one of the greatest enemies of the Roman people at that time—the Volscians—and offered to become an advisor or general for their military. This offer was accepted and, according to the Roman historian Livy (49 BCE-17 CE), Coriolanus went on to mastermind a highly-effective Volscian invasion of the Roman Republic’s territory between 490 and 488 BCE, besieging Rome itself in the last year of the conflict.
Rome, however, would not fall to Coriolanus, for the Romans sent out a highly effective group of people to negotiate with the besieging forces. These negotiators were Coriolanus’ family and relatives, who were still residing in Rome. His mother, wife and children, all appeared before Coriolanus, 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).
This scene of Coriolanus being talked down by family is what Henry Singleton (c. 1766-1839) re-created in his artwork. Unable to go against his family, Coriolanus withdrew his army from the city, never again to return to Rome. After calling off the siege of the city, Coriolanus faded out of history and slipped into obscurity.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.