CORIOLANUS. Gaius Marcius.

Coriolanus is the hero of one of the most famous and beautiful Roman legends. According to this legend, he gained the surname 'Coriolanus' thanks to the value he showed to the powerful Corioli in 493 a.C. Under the consul Posthumus Cominius. During 492 a.C. there was a severe famine, Coriolanus argued in the Senate that the grain sent by Dionysius of Syracuse (who began his reign in 405 a.C.) wasn't distributed to the populace. He then, in turn made personal enemies, who accused him of misconduct on behalf of  the people. Coriolanus, by default, was sentenced to exile. Coriolanus decided to take refuge with the king of the Volscians 'Attio Tullio', who he managed to persuade to wage war against the Romans. He rose to become the head of the Volsci and began the invasion of the Roman territory conquering many cities including Labici and Pedum, arriving at fossae Cluiliae, five miles from Rome.

In vain two ambassadors of the Roman Consulate accompanied by priests went to his camp to placate him. Following this were visits from the Roman matrons, preceded by his wife Volumaia and mother Veturia. Coriolanus, forewarned, rushed to embrace his mother, who asked him first if she was about to be embraced by an enemy or her son. Coriolanus relented and withdrew the army of the Volscians. In order to celebrate the success of the Roman matrons 'The Temple of Fortuna Muliebris' (Women’s Luck) was constructed a quarter mile from Via Latina. According to the ancient legend, Coriolanus, went on to live to a ripe old age among the Volscians. Another legend recounts that he was instead killed as a traitor, and a third version, as already recognised by the ancient poetry (Cicero, Brutus, 42); spoke of his suicide.

The legend of Coriolanus, which has elements that are both noble and profoundly Roman is a celebration of the matrons and a extraordinary branch of love. According to the story, the consuls do not appear, nor the name Coriolanus in any of the annals, although Dionysius (VIII, 62) says that even in his time Coriolanus was celebrated in the Volsci songs.

It seems to be absurd, this explanation of the name Coriolanus, which would be payable in any case the consul Postumus Cominio: missing the strange anachronism of wheat sent by Dionysius of Syracuse. Some people deny the legend has any historical value, that is not to reflect the seriousness of the threat Volsca indeed posed to Rome at the time. Others believe that Coriolanus was originally a Volsci, and that during an expedition in the Rome area, he was separated from the Ernici from Lazio (indeed Labici is one of the cities he conquered) and made contact with Equi. The memory is preserved in the folk tradition, which would transform lucky Capitan into a Roman traitor.



It was a very ancient town in Latium, one of the thirty towns which sent their delegations onto Mount Albano to share the bull’s meat, which was sacrificed to Iuppiter latialis. According to the legend, it passed under the Volsci, and then under the Romans in 493 through Gaius Marcius’s bravery, thus called Coriolanus. From the description Livy (II, 33, 39), Dionysius (VII, 9 and following) and Plutarch (Coriol., passim) give of this event, as well as from the quarrel risen between the Aricini and the Ardeatini in 443 B.C., Nibby thought the town lay on Monte Giove, one of the last hills of the Albano chain towards the seaside, in conctact with Ardea, Ariccia, Anzio and Lanuvio.

G. Treccani (1949), Coriolano, Gneo Marcio, In Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, vol. XI, page 412. 


 Coriolanus in Shakespeare’s tragedy

Coriolanus is a political tragedy rather than a historical play, inspired by the noble lesson of Plutarch’s “Parallel lives”.

As a tragedy it wants to voice and to give substance to mad vanity and blinding pride that guide the brave leader Gaius Marcius Coriolanus to stir up the popular revolt, which was the cause of his downfall.

But passions also insinuate themselves in this framework of the plot. They are the drive of human behaviour and if they are not dominated by wise common sense, they drive to madness.  

Love of native country, jealousy, perseverance and boldness are brought to face a feeling which is unknown to the general’s thick skin: the sensation of peace as an ecstasy both for human beings and things.

Shakespeare’s tragical greatness to show us Coriolanus’s inner conflict lies in avoiding any easy compromise.

In fact the conclusion of the drama shows us a defeated leader, deprived of boldness and any desire for revenge and blood.

Once deprived of this formidable mainspring, Coriolanus, surrounded by his mother’s supplications for peace, to whom he can’t resist, remains unable to take his place in another sphere of action, different from the horrifying warmachine.


 Coriolanus in Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s tragedy

Heinrich Joseph von Collin, an Austrian poet and dramatist, reasonably famous and also appreciated by Goethe, is the author of a tragedy, “Coriolanus”, enriched by an ouverture composed by Beethoven.

Although some people, Wagner included, asserted that Beethoven paid more attention to Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus”, rather than to Collin’s, it was Beethoven himself who showed his appreciation for the Austrian dramatist publicly.

Heinrich Joseph von Collin and Beethoven created a refined work of art together, that stages human values and crimes and that leads the audience into a rhythm alternating between drama and passion.


Coriolanus in Beethoven’s ouverture

Coriolanus’s ouverture was composed by Beethoven during the first months of 1807.

It was conceived as an interlude to Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s homonymous tragedy, but in fact it became a separate piece and not a composition that had to be sung at the beginning of the play.

At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century Beethoven started to voice all those feelings that, later, would be performend in all his works: grief, resignation, fight and rebellion against one’s fate, confidence about a faint difficult but wonderful triumph of good.

The uneasiness that permeates his works doesn’t prevent the audience’s admiration. 

In 1807 he decided to accept the annual pension of 4000 fiorins offered to him by archduke Rudolph and princes Lobkowitz and Kinsky, thus rejecting the king of Westphalia’s invitation to his court as Musikdirektor.

And it is in this context that, in march 1807, he performed “Coriolanus”’s ouverture for the first time, during a private concert at prince Lobkowitz’s residence.

The ouverture fully grasps the Roman leader Gaius Marcius Coriolanus’s mood and thoughts, before when he is at the head of the Roman troops against the Volsci, then when he is indicated as a traitor by his own people, because of his political opponents’ intervention.

That’s how Coriolanus allies with the Volsci against Rome.

Just his boundless love and his deep respect towards his mother, in front of whom the great brave leader becomes completely docile, dissuade him from this enterprise.

Among the conflicting historical sources on the reality of the events, the Ouverture follows the one according to which the leader kills himself because he can’t come back to Rome owing to his exile.

Once again it’s love, this time towards his native country, to determine Gaius Marcius Coriolanus’s life.

Beethoven accompanies the main theme with C minor stressing Coriolanus’s combative outburst, who is ready and determined to invade Rome; then the composer passes to a soft E flat to express his mother’s sweetness and pleas but also her authority.

It isn’t a very famous ouverture, but it is rich in pathos and able to accompany anyone who is listening to it to a journey into the brave leader’s and his stately but loving mother’s heart and, maybe, into Beethoven’s heart too.


We use cookies on our website. Some of them are essential for the operation of the site, while others help us to improve this site and the user experience (tracking cookies). You can decide for yourself whether you want to allow cookies or not. Please note that if you reject them, you may not be able to use all the functionalities of the site.