Gn. Marcius Coriolanus

Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus: Roman aristocrat and legendary commander of the armies of the Volsci, who invaded Central-Italy in the first quarter of the fifth century BCE.

The early fifth century

Model of Archaic Rome
Model of Archaic Rome

The career of the Roman nobleman Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus was dominated by two struggles: the war between the Romans and Volsci and the conflict of the orders. Both were the result of an important event at the end of the sixth century, when Rome became a republic.

Shortly before 500 BCE, king Tarquin the Proud was expelled from his city by two princes of the royal family, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and Lucius Junius Brutus. The two men soon fell out with each other and Collatinus was expelled from Rome too. Not much later, however, Brutus died in a battle against the Etruscan allies of king Tarquin. The new ruler of Rome was Publius Valerius Publicola, a nobleman who announced that he would share his power with a colleague. From now on, Rome was a republic under two consuls, usually aristocrats.

Although the revolution lasted only a year or two, Rome was seriously weakened and had lost its grip on the neighboring towns of Latium, which had been forced into submission by Tarquin. The cities now wanted to become independent and revolted. But they had made a mistake. The Roman commander Aulus Postumius Albinus, Rome's first dictator, defeated them and a new treaty was concluded. The giant temple of Castor and Pollux on the Roman forum was built from the spoils, which must have been enormous.

This crisis was not over yet, when a new and formidable problem presented itself. The mountain tribes of the central Apennines, which had come down to the coastal plain before but had always been repelled, descended to Latium again, looking for better pastures. The Aequi and Volsci made good use of the divisions between the Latins. The towns in the east and south were easily conquered and the war against these tribes - from now on sedentary in Latium - was to become a yearly event. And Coriolanus was to become famous in this almost eternal war.

The second problem was the conflict of the orders. The king had been replaced by aristocrats, but the majority of the Romans had gained nothing from the republic. On a larger scale, Italy seems to have suffered from what is called the "fifth-century crisis". Its precise nature is unclear, but the archaeological record of the age is meager, the quality of products is low, and it seems that there were less imports from Greece. (It must be noted, however, that it is difficult to 14C-date objects to the fifth century.) There were social tensions between the rich and poor. A king might have intervened in favor of the poor, but the new aristocratic rulers certainly did not. The result was a debt crisis.

In c.490 (or, to use the Varronian chronology, which is too often confused with our era, 494), the poorest Romans, called the plebeians, decided to act. They demanded an improvement of their conditions. Several debtors had been sold as slaves, and this was felt to be a great injustice. Therefore, the plebeians created the office of the tribunus plebis, who was to defend the rights of the poor. In a lex sacrata (sacred law), they swore that they would defend the tribune's person at all costs, which made him sacrosanct (i.e., he could not be attacked by the magistrates). This enabled him to veto (forbid) measures by consuls, sentences by praetors and financial decisions by quaestors. After a brief struggle, the aristocrats recognized the tribunes, although they demanded that they would not intervene with military matters. The tribunes were therefore some sort of anti-magistrates elected by the people's assembly (consilium plebis).

The legend of Coriolanus

This was the world of the Roman nobleman Gnaeus Marcius: threatened by Volsci and Aequi, and internally divided. According to the Roman historian Livy (59 BCE - 17 CE), Marcius received his surname Coriolanus in the war against the Volsci. In the first years of the fifth century, this mountain tribe had taken over parts of southern Latium, and had captured Antium (modern Anzio and Nettuno). In 493 (Varronian), the Romans tried to expel them, but in vain. The only success in this war was the capture of a village named Corioli by the man who was from now on known as Coriolanus.

This can, however, not be true, because the custom to name persons after places where they had fought successfully, is not known before the late fourth century BCE. A more plausible interpretation, more in line with the nomenclature of the fifth century, is that the Marcius family originated from Corioli.

Relief of an Amazon from the temple of Mater Matuta in Satricum

In those years, noblemen often went to the war with a following of their own, and they could play their own political role. For example, in 504V, a man named Attus Clausus had settled his men in Rome, where he became an influential senator. An inscription from Satricum mentions the followers (suodales) of one Publius Valerius - who may or may not be identical to Publius Valerius Publicola. It is likely that Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus was a condottiere of this type, and the capture of Corioli may have been an action by his private army.

According to Livy, Coriolanus was an old-fashioned aristocrat, who wanted to use a food crisis (in 492-491V) to punish the plebeians. When the Senate had bought grain abroad, Coriolanus proposed that the plebeians would only receive it after they had abolished the tribunate. This proposal resulted in riots, and the tribunes ordered Coriolanus to explain himself during a meeting of the people's assembly. He refused, and preferred voluntary exile among the Volsci.

Map of Coriolanus' Campaigns
Map of Coriolanus' Campaigns

In 489-488V, Coriolanus was elected as one of the generals of a Volscian army, and he was extremely successful. His campaigns can be reconstructed with a fair degree of certainty from Book Seven of the Roman Antiquities by the historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a contemporary of Livy. Coriolanus first took the port of Circeii in the extreme south of Latium (modern Terracina), and advanced via Tolerium, Bola, Labici, Pedum, Corbio, Capitulum, and Bovillae to Rome. This campaign served to conquer the 'gap' between the Alban Mountains and the mountain range behind Praeneste. This was the eastern entrance to Latium.

The second campaign took place in the southern part of Latium, where Coriolanus captured Longula, Satricum, Ecetra, Setia, Pollusca, an unidentified place called Albietas, Mugilla, and finally Corioli.

Livy adds that Coriolanus gave the Volscian soldiers instructions to ravage only the farms of plebeians. The possessions of the rich Romans were to be spared. The story has a strange ending, because Livy wants us to believe that Coriolanus' mother Veturia and his wife Volumnia prevented him from attacking Rome itself - as if these women had not joined their relative in his voluntary exile.

In his History of the Italian wars, Appian of Alexandria adds that Coriolanus was put to death by the Volsci.


It is difficult to establish the historical truth of the Coriolanus legend. His connection with the conflict of the orders is extremely suspect, because the family name Marcius is not aristocratic, but plebeian. (The name of Coriolanus' wife is plebeian as well.) The inevitable conclusion is that the story of Coriolanus' conflict with the plebeians and his trial is an addition to an older story.

On the other hand, the two military campaigns make sense, and it is possible that the historical truth is that a Roman condottiere who lived near the threatened region, sided with the Volscian enemies and became one of their most dangerous generals. This is possible, perhaps even likely, but we cannot be certain.

The text of Plutarch's book on Coriolanus can be found here; Book 7 of the Roman Antiquities of Dionysius is here.

This page was created in 2003; last modified on 4 October 2020.