Gaius Marcius Coriolanus may have been a Roman aristocrat and army general in the fifth century BCE. He allegedly led an army against the Volscians, a tribe who invaded Roman territory in central Italy. He acquired his title “Coriolanus” due to his valor during a siege of Volscian city Corioli. The two major factors dominating his career were the war with the Volscians and the conflict of orders within the new Roman Republic. He later changed sides.
In the lead up to the Volscian war, Roman king Tarquin the Proud had been expelled by two princes, Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, who themselves fell out. When Collatunis was banished and Brutus died in battle, Publius Valerius Publicola became ruler. He decided to share this power, forming a republic to be run by two consuls: himself and a colleague. This arrangement only lasted one or two years, but it weakened Rome.
Nearby Latium cities wanted independence. Although they were defeated by Roman leader Aulus Postumius Albinus, Rome’s perceived weakness encouraged mountain tribes such as the Volscians to seek better pastures on the plains. They conquered the towns and the battles continued on an annual basis.
The conflict of orders resulting from the replacement of the king by several aristocrats was the other main issue. Few Romans had benefited from the new republic. The economy contracted, product quality declined, imports fell, and a debt crisis emerged. Social tensions developed between rich and poor, something a king might have been able to resolve more satisfactorily than the ruling aristocrats who favored the rich. The plebeians, who were the poorest Romans, had earlier set up a “tribunus plebes” to help defend their rights and this had been recognised by the aristocrats.
Coriolanus defeated the Volscians and gained the support of the aristocrats in the senate. But he had little time for the plebeians, wanting to use the current food crisis to punish them. The government had to import grain and Coriolanus proposed that the tribunate be abolished before they could receive any food. Riots ensued and he was asked to front a people’s assembly arranged by the tribunes. Perhaps fearing for his life, he refused and went into exile. Another version has him convicted of misappropriation of public funds and banished from Rome for life.
As payback for not getting his way, Coriolanus joined the Volscians, his old enemy, and would fight against the Romans. He went to the home of Volscian aristocrat Tullus Aufidius and convinced him to help persuade his people to break their truce with the Romans and build an army to invade Rome. He became a general in the Volscian army and led a successful attack against the port of Cercii in the south before capturing the towns of Tolerium, Bola, Pedum, Labici, Corbio, and Bovillae.
When his army threatened Rome itself, Coriolanus’ wife and mother were among the women sent to try and convince him not to attack. He relented before returning to Antrium. In a second campaign, he took Longula, Satricum, Ecetra, Setia, Pollusca, Mugilla, and Corioli. He ordered his troops to destroy plebeian farms but not those of aristocrats. In the end, he was put on trial by the Volscians but was assassinated before its conclusion.
Historians in later ancient times, such as Livy and Plutarch, believed that Coriolanus was a real person. However, most modern historians regard the story as a legend written to show traits like disloyalty and ingratitude and how Rome had indeed lost battles to the Volscians.