Plutarch’s Lives in Paint: 9b Coriolanus

Richard Westall (1765-1836), Volumnia Pleading with Coriolanus Not to Destroy Rome (1800), media and dimensions not known, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Several of the subjects of Plutarch’s Lives have had their fame promoted in modern literature; Coriolanus has that distinction, although Shakespeare’s play about him is one of the his lesser-known, and drawn almost entirely from Plutarch’s account. Unless you recall that play well, you probably won’t recognise this figure under his original name of Caius Marcius.

As a Marcius, he came from the noble family of the Marcii, descendants of Numa and the former king of Rome, Ancus Marcius, who succeeded Tullus Hostilius. Others in the clan had attained fame by bringing Rome much of its supply of fresh water, but Caius Marcius is remembered for quite different achievements.

He showed military potential at an early age, and as a youth served bravely in the last battle against Tarquin, when he saved the life of a Roman soldier by killing his assailant. For that he was awarded a garland of oak leaves, the Roman equivalent of a medal of valour.

Later, when Rome went to war with the Volscians, Marcius encouraged other patricians to demonstrate their valour by rallying to the city’s call for men to fight in its army.

The Romans then put the Volscian city of Corioli under siege, forcing them to divide their forces between that siege, and meeting the Volscian army. The men of Corioli took advantage of this, overcame the Romans surrounding their city, and pursued them back to camp. Marcius led a small band of Romans to stop the men of Corioli, then rallied the other Roman forces to pursue their enemy back to their city, bursting into it with a small group of valiant Romans. This counter-attack took the enemy by surprise, and allowed Roman reinforcements to secure the city.

When the Roman soldiers started to plunder and pillage the city, Marcius cried out that he thought it a shame that they should concern themselves with getting booty, when other Romans could be fighting for their lives in battle nearby. He therefore led a small group of Romans out of the captured city towards the main Volscian force.

Marcius and his troops met up with the main Roman army as they were about to join battle with the Volscians, and was granted permission to take on the fiercest of the enemy troops. In the battle which followed, Marcius again distinguished himself greatly, and it was his troops who were largely responsible for putting the Volscians to flight.

The following day, Cominius, the consul in command of the Romans, praised Marcius highly in front of the assembled army, and awarded him a tenth of the booty which had been taken, and a horse. For his part, Marcius accepted the latter, but declined to take any booty beyond his normal share. For this, Marcius was dubbed Caius Marcius Coriolanus, and became famous throughout Rome.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Interior of Caius Martius’ House (1907), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike other famous Romans, there don’t appear to be many adulatory portraits of Marcius. Instead, Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted this reconstructed view of the Interior of Caius Martius’ House in 1907. Fascinating though it is, it seems a strange memorial to a military man.

With the war against the Volscians settled in a truce, Rome faced famine, and dissent among its people. The citizens of Velitrae, though, had been decimated by an epidemic, and came to Rome to hand their city over and seek Roman colonisation. This too became the subject of dissent, and when the consuls called for Romans to go to Velitrae, the people refused.

Coriolanus led a volunteer force on an incursion into Antium, where they found and secured sufficient corn and other spoils to relieve the hunger in Rome. This further improved his reputation with the people, and he stood as a popular candidate in the next consular election. During his campaigning, though, the people saw that he was just another patrician: in the senate, Coriolanus strongly opposed the free distribution of grain, which had been sent as a gift from Syracuse, and would have greatly eased hunger among the ordinary people.

Matters quickly came to a head, and Coriolanus was summoned to answer to the people for his actions in the senate, which were claimed to incite civil war. Coriolanus responded by standing his ground and continuing his contempt for the people. The tribunes accordingly condemned Coriolanus to death, and ordered him to be taken up to the Tarpeian Rock and thrown from it immediately.

When they tried to arrest him and do this, many realised what a monstrous act it would be, and he was surrounded and protected by a crowd of patricians and many plebeians too. It was then agreed with the tribunes that Coriolanus would be tried by the citizens in a little less than a month. Coriolanus recognised the difficulty that the senate had in its kindly feelings towards him and its fear of the common people, and brought the trial forward in an effort to clear his name.

The tribunes insisted at the start of his trial that votes should be cast not by ‘centuries’ (groups which divided the vote almost evenly between patricians and plebeians), but by tribes (families), which gave the plebeians a clear majority over the patricians and citizens of military class. At the end of the trial, when the vote was taken, he was found guilty by the tiny majority of three, and banished from Rome in perpetuity.

Coriolanus was probably the only patrician who kept his composure at this. He went home, where his mother and wife were in great distress at the news. He was then escorted by fellow patricians to the city gate, and left.

After a few days in the country, he decided to take vengeance on the Romans by inciting one of their enemies to wage war against Rome. He went to Tullus Aufidius, the leader of the Volscians, in their city of Antium, where he was welcomed and shown great kindness, and the two began to plot the war they would fight against Rome.

Meanwhile the Romans were torn apart by continuing dissension, and increasingly fearful of a series of bad portents. They should have been enjoying a two-year truce with the Volscians, but there were rumours that visiting Volscians would try to set the city alight. Tullus sent ambassadors to Rome to demand back the territory which they had lost to the Romans, but Rome was indignant and suggested that the Volscians intended to break the truce.

Coriolanus won the full support of both Tullus and the Volscians to wage war against Rome, and was appointed general with Tullus. They led a preliminary incursion into Roman territory, and won so much booty that they were unable to carry it all back. They then completed final preparations of the Volscian army for its campaign.

Coriolanus next took his Volscian division against the Roman colonial city of Circeii, which surrendered without any resistance. He moved on to lay waste the country of the Latins, but Rome refused to go to their aid, and Coriolanus captured their cities, enslaved their inhabitants, and plundered their property. His forces were then only twelve miles from the city of Rome.

The next city to which Coriolanus laid siege was Lavinium, which had been founded by Aeneas, and was still the location of the Romans’ sacred symbols of ancestral gods. Finally, Rome reacted: the commons proposed repealing the sentence against Coriolanus, and inviting him back to Rome, which was promptly vetoed by the senate.

Coriolanus marched against Rome, and camped just five miles from its gates, putting terror into the hearts of the Romans. Rome sent ambassadors to Coriolanus to beg him to stop the war, and to welcome him back to Rome. In front of the Volscians, Coriolanus repeated demands for Volscian territories to be returned, and for the Volscian people to be accorded equal civic rights with citizens of Rome. He gave them thirty days to respond, then withdrew his forces.

Coriolanus next attacked more allies of Rome, capturing seven of their cities, and ravaging their territories. The Romans didn’t come to their aid either, but sent more ambassadors to negotiate with Coriolanus, who merely gave them another three days to accept his previous demands. Rome then sent all its priests and religious people to try to persuade Coriolanus to relent. This too failed to change his mind, and the Romans decided to defend their city against his imminent attack.

In Rome, Valeria, sister of the statesman Publicola, led a delegation of women to Volumnia, mother of Coriolanus, where they also found his wife Vergilia. Valeria begged Volumnia and Vergilia, with her children, to join her and the other women in going to Coriolanus to plead with him not to attack Rome. They did so, and met Coriolanus in the Volscian camp.

After his mother had put their case to him, Coriolanus stood silent for a long time. Finally, he agreed that he and the Volscians would march away without attacking Rome; as he put it, he had been vanquished not by Rome, but by his own mother. He sent the women back, and ended the war. It is this extraordinary scene, that of Act V Scene III in Shakespeare’s play, which has been painted extensively.

Artist not known, Veturia and Volumnia confronting Coriolanus (c 1473), woodcut print, hand-coloured, from incunable German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel of Giovanni Boccaccio’s ‘De mulieribus claris’, printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474, 8 x 11 cm, Penn Libraries, Pennsylvania, PA. Image by kladcat, via Wikimedia Commons.

More than a century before Shakespeare, this woodcut showing Veturia and Volumnia confronting Coriolanus (c 1473) appeared in a German translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Coriolanus Begged by his Family (c 1652-53), oil on canvas, 112 x 198.5 cm, Musée Nicolas-Poussin, Les Andelys, France. Image by Aiwaz, via Wikimedia Commons.

It was perhaps Poussin who was the first to recognise its visual narrative, in Coriolanus Begged by his Family from about 1652-53. Under the shadow of the massive walls of the city, Coriolanus is symbolically drawing his sword, to show his intent to attack Rome.

To the left are Volumnia, Vergilia with at least two of their children, Valeria (standing, in ultramarine blue), and four other women (with a Roman soldier escort) all reaching out to the warrior. Just in case there is any doubt, Poussin provides an inscribed tablet in the foreground.

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621–1674), Coriolanus’ Wife and Mother Beg Him to Spare Rome, (1662), media and dimensions not known, The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Only a decade later, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout’s Coriolanus’ Wife and Mother Beg Him to Spare Rome (1662) elaborated this further. Although Volumnia looks directly at Coriolanus, he avoids making eye contact.

Angelica Kaufmann (1741-1807), Coriolanus, his Mother Veturia and his Wife Volumnia, Belittling him to Give up War (1765), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

A century later, Angelica Kaufmann’s more intimate Coriolanus, his Mother Veturia and his Wife Volumnia, Belittling him to Give up War (1765) has both mother and wife looking straight at Coriolanus, their hands also speaking eloquently.

Heinrich Friedrich Füger (1751-1818), Coriolanus Implored by his Family to Spare Rome (date not known), pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash over black chalk, 51 x 65.8 cm, Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, Stanford, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

This story attained peak popularity in the late eighteenth century, when Heinrich Friedrich Füger, for instance, drew Coriolanus Implored by his Family to Spare Rome.

Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809), The Family of Coriolanus (after 1771), oil on canvas, 275.5 x 298 cm, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

At some time after 1771, Joseph-Marie Vien added a young infant, in The Family of Coriolanus, suggesting that at the time of his banishment, the wife of Coriolanus was pregnant.

Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1724–1796), Coriolanus at the Gates of Rome (c 1795), oil on canvas, 38.5 x 54 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

I presume that this painting by Franz Anton Maulbertsch, Coriolanus at the Gates of Rome from about 1795, was an oil sketch for a finished work which I have been unable to locate. Although it includes a subtle reference to the earlier award to Coriolanus of a horse, and there is impending drama in its sky, I’m not sure that many would recognise the gates or walls of the city of Rome.

Richard Westall (1765-1836), Volumnia Pleading with Coriolanus Not to Destroy Rome (1800), media and dimensions not known, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Westall’s Volumnia Pleading with Coriolanus Not to Destroy Rome (1800) is another account which makes excellent use of direction of gaze to tell the story: all eyes are fixed on Coriolanus, who is looking away to the heavens in the hope of a divine solution.

Soma Orlai Petrich (1822–1880), Coriolanus (1869), oil on canvas, 140 x 260 cm, Mihály Munkácsy Museum, Békéscsaba, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons.

The last painting which I have found showing this scene is Soma Orlai Petrich’s Coriolanus from 1869. This draws sharp contrast between the central group of women and children, huddled together and pleading, with the Volscians to the right who are drawing their weapons. Coriolanus sits between them, pondering his decision, his sword shown prominently still in its scabbard.

When Coriolanus returned to Tullus at Antium, the Volscian leader plotted to remove him immediately. Coriolanus was killed, though without the support of the majority of the Volscians, who gave him an honourable burial commensurate with his military rank. When the Volscians did attack Rome, they were defeated and Tullus himself was killed. As a result, they became subjects of Rome, rather than citizens.

Comparison between Alcibiades and Coriolanus

These two generals had unusual careers. Militarily, both were brave soldiers and skilful commanders, with Alcibiades perhaps the more successful as a general. As statesmen, they were disastrous: Alcibiades by his excessive wantonness, and Coriolanus whose pride and pigheadedness engendered the hatred of the Roman people.

Plutarch considers that Coriolanus was simple in his nature and straightforward, but Alcibiades was maliciously deceitful in his dealing with the Spartan ambassadors, which put an end to peace. Coriolanus waged war against the Romans purely out of his anger, a passion from which “no one ever gets a grateful return.”

Alcibiades had good reason to go back to the side of the Athenians, when the Spartans were plotting to kill him. Coriolanus, though, was being treated perfectly fairly by the Volscians, and it was dishonourable for Coriolanus to leave them in the lurch as he did.

Their attitudes to money were in stark contrast too: Alcibiades often took bribes, which were then spent in luxury and wantonness. Coriolanus couldn’t even be persuaded to take more than his fair share when it was awarded in recognition of his bravery.

Coriolanus had an arrogant pride, and lacked any skills of persuasion. As a commander, he didn’t obtain any great successes for his city, but Alcibiades had often been of service to Athens. Both men may have had their greatness, and both had great flaws too.


Whole text in English translation at Penelope.