The Legendary Tale of Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus: The Courageous General and the City of Conquest

From the siege of Corioli to his eventual defection and subsequent siege of Rome, Coriolanus’s story has captured the imagination of scholars, playwrights, and composers alike. Join us as we delve into the captivating and disputed life of this enigmatic Roman general.

Coriolanus, also known as Gnaeus or Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, emerged as a heroic figure during the Roman siege of the Volscian city of Corioli in the 5th century BC. His valiant actions in defending Rome against the Volscian forces earned him the cognomen Coriolanus. It was a name that would forever be associated with his triumph and subsequent exile.

The consensus narrative of Coriolanus’s life, popularized by historians such as Livy, Plutarch, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, presents him as a real historical figure. However, recent scholarship has called into question the historicity of Coriolanus, leaving room for skepticism about the accuracy of the conventional story surrounding his life and the timing of events.

According to the accounts, Coriolanus’s conflict with Rome arose from a grain shortage in 491 BC. As the senate debated the distribution of imported grain from Sicily, Coriolanus advocated for linking the provision of grain to the reversal of political reforms favoring the commoners. His harsh proposal incensed the populace, leading to his trial and conviction.

Exiled and seeking refuge, Coriolanus found himself among the Volsci, Rome’s enemy. Plutarch recounts a dramatic scene where Coriolanus disguised himself and entered the home of the Volscian leader, Aufidius, as a supplicant. The two charismatic figures convinced the Volsci to break their truce with Rome, igniting a series of invasions and sieges.

Coriolanus and Aufidius led the Volscian army against Roman towns, colonies, and allies. Their conquests included the recapture of Corioli, the expulsion of Roman colonists, and the siege of Rome itself. It was during this climactic moment that Coriolanus’s story took a remarkable turn.

Moved by the pleas of his mother, wife, and the matrons of Rome, Coriolanus relented and withdrew the Volscian camp, ending the siege. The city honored the women’s intervention by erecting a temple dedicated to Fortuna, the goddess of fortune and fate.

The fate of Coriolanus following this event remains unclear, shrouded in differing accounts. One version suggests that he retired to Antium, Aufidius’s hometown, only to face trial and assassination by the Volscians for his acts of disloyalty.

The tale of Coriolanus, with its echoes of loyalty, betrayal, and the power of persuasion, has resonated through the ages. It served as the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Coriolanus” and even found musical expression in Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture.

While the historical reality of Coriolanus may be elusive, his legend continues to captivate our imaginations. Whether a real historical figure or a product of myth and storytelling, Coriolanus stands as a testament to the complexities of ancient Rome and the enduring power of a captivating narrative.

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