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Coriolanus and the Roman matrons by Pieter Lastman (1622) Trinity College, Dublin. (Public Domain)

Tragic Coriolanus, Roman Warrior Or Traitor


William Shakespeare’s Roman play Antony and Cleopatra impresses upon the audience a vast universe which includes Rome, Alexandria, and Athens. In contrast, his other Roman play, Coriolanus, is limited to the little universe of Ancient Rome before the height of the Roman Empire along with its rivalling neighbours, the Latin tribes only a few miles away. Coriolanus started with a group of rebellious Roman citizens fiercely accusing a man named Gnaeus Marcius of being the “ chief enemy of the people”. In a relatively short period of time, this same Gnaeus Marcius was set to rise to prominence as a Roman war hero, come to be known by the name Coriolanus, banished as the people's main adversary, fulfil the accusations made against him by teaming up with the Volsci, Rome's enemy, and finally perish violently at the hands of his former allies.

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus on stage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (Circa 1808) (Public Domain)

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus on stage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (Circa 1808) (Public Domain)

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was based on the life of Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus, a legendary Roman hero of patrician descent who is thought to have lived in the late sixth and early fifth century BC. Legend has it, his surname came from his valour at the siege of Corioli, during the Battle of the Volsci in 493 BC.  The Volsci were members of the Osco-Sabellian group of tribes who lived in the upper Liris River valley since approximately 600 BC. They were also important to the Roman expansion narrative in the fifth century BC.  During Rome's famine in 491 BC, Coriolanus spoke against giving grain to the populace unless they agreed to abolish the office of the tribune. The tribunes sentenced him to banishment because of this. Soon after, Coriolanus sought refuge with the King of the Volsci and led the Volscian army against Rome, retreating only after his mother and his wife pleaded for him to do so. Like in the play written hundreds of years later, it was among the Volsci that Coriolanus died.

Backdrop to the Legend of Coriolanus

The two conflicts that characterized Coriolanus' career were the Battle of the Orders and Roman-Volsci War, both of which were the outcome of Rome's republican transition, a significant event that occurred at the close of the sixth century BC. Just before 500 BC, two royal princes, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and Lucius Junius Brutus, drove King Tarquin the Proud from his city. As soon as they had a falling out, Collatinus was banished from Rome. Not long after Collatinus’ banishment, Brutus was killed in combat against King Tarquin's Etruscan allies.


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Martini Fisher is an Ancient Historian and author of many books, including "Time Maps: Mesopotamia” Check out

Top Image: Coriolanus and the Roman matrons by Pieter Lastman (1622) Trinity College, Dublin. (Public Domain)

By: Martini Fisher

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Martini Fisher comes from a family of history and culture buffs. She graduated from Macquarie University, Australia, with a degree in Ancient History. Although her interest in history is diverse, Martini is especially interested in  mythologies, folklores and ancient funerary... Read More

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