Coriolanus

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Though the great houses love us not, we own, to do them right,

That the great houses, all save one, have borne them well in fight.

Still Caius of Corioli, his triumphs and his wrongs,

His vengeance and his mercy, live in our camp-fire songs.

Thomas Babbington Macaulay

The above film is being released on December 2, 2011 here in the US, and I am greatly looking forward to it.  Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s plays that is not performed as regularly as other plays of the Bard, which is a shame, because it is a powerful play about love and hate.  Gnaeus Marcius is a Roman patrician who fought in Rome’s wars shortly after the expulsion from Rome of the last of the Tarquin Kings and the foundation of the Roman Republic, conventionally dated at 508 BC.  Our ancient sources in regard to his career are plentiful, including Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Livy, Appian and Plutarch.  Unfortunately these writers wrote 450-600 years after the time of Coriolanus, and early Roman history is almost impossible to distinguish myth from fact.

Gnaeus Marcius leads the armies of the infant Republic on to victory over their nearby neighbors, and is acclaimed as Coriolanus after he conquers the town of Corioli from the Volsces.  Coriolanus is an arrogant nobleman, as well as an able general, and he proposes in the Senate during a famine that no grain be distributed to the Roman people unless the people agree to the abolition of the tribunate, the representatives of the people.  This proposal leads to riots in Rome and Coriolanus goes into voluntary exile among the Volsces.

Consumed by a desire for revenge against the people of Rome, Coriolanus leads the Volsces against his own people and in two conquests brings Rome to the brink of destruction.  Rome is saved when his wife and mother convince him to make peace with Rome and spare the city he once so deeply loved.  He does so, realizing that he has thus written his death sentence.  Plutarch captures the scene well:

Then Marcius, crying out “What hast thou done to me, my mother!” lifted her up, and pressing her right hand warmly, said: “Thou art victorious, and thy victory means good fortune to my country, but death to me; for I shall withdraw vanquished, though by thee alone.” When he had said this, and had held a little private conference with his mother and his wife, he sent them back again to Rome, as they desired, and on the next morning led away his Volscians, who were not at all affected in the same way nor equally pleased by what had happened.  For some found fault both with him and with what he had done; but others, who were favourably disposed towards a peaceful settlement of the dispute, with neither; while some, though displeased with his proceedings, nevertheless could not look upon Marcius as a bad man, but thought it pardonable in him to be broken down by such strong compulsions. No one, however, opposed him, but all followed him obediently, though rather out of admiration for his virtue than regard for his authority.

After Coriolanus returns to the territory of the Volsces, he is put to death by his erst-while allies.  Coriolanus turns against his country due to his hatred of the common people and spares Rome due to his love of his mother and wife.  It is a very Roman tale.  The Romans, although almost every Roman dearly loved his country, from the richest Patrician to the lowliest slum dweller in the Subura, were consumed throughout the history of the Republic with conflict between the Patricians and the Plebeians, and between rich and poor.   (Not all Patricians were rich, and many Plebeians were, so the class aspect was only one factor in the conflicts that tore the Republic apart and brought forth the Age of the Dictator and the destruction of the Republic.)  Most Romans deprecated this strife, even as they participated in it.  Thomas Babbington Macaulay captures this element of Roman history in his poem Horatius:

`Horatius,” quoth the Consul,
“As thou sayest, so let it be.”
And straight against that great array
Forth went the dauntless Three.
For Romans in Rome’s quarrel
Spared neither land nor gold,
Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
In the brave days of old.

Then none was for a party;
Then all were for the state;
Then the great man helped the poor,
And the poor man loved the great:
Then lands were fairly portioned;
Then spoils were fairly sold:
The Romans were like brothers
In the brave days of old.

Now Roman is to Roman
More hateful than a foe,
And the Tribunes beard the high,
And the Fathers grind the low.
As we wax hot in faction,
In battle we wax cold:
Wherefore men fight not as they fought
In the brave days of old.

So the folly of class hatred would have sounded a resonant cord in most Romans in the tale of Coriolanus.  The theme of his being swayed to spare Rome by his mother and wife would have also sounded powerfully in Romans.  For Romans the family was everything.  Their state was modeled upon the family with Rome being referred to as Mater Roma and the Senators being called the Conscript Fathers.  In theory an absolute dictatorship by the father of the family, the paterfamilias, our sources indicate in practice something more complex and loving, where mothers and wives would often help guide the destinies of families behind the scenes, and where a wise father would attempt to exercise his authority through consent and agreement rather than through edict and compulsion.

Shakespeare does justice to this grand Roman tale, and I hope the film will do justice to the Bard.

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