Study Guide for Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus

Text taken from Thomas North and/or John Dryden
Study Guide by Anne White

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Coriolanus (Fifth Century B.C.)

Was Coriolanus real?

Historians such as Livy and Plutarch believed that Coriolanus was a real person who lived in the early Roman Republic. More recent scholarship has cast some doubt on his existence. Certainly it was more difficult even for a writer such as Plutarch to be clear on events several centuries removed from his own time. We will treat his Life in the same way as we would that of Plutarch's other subjects, although the dates of historic events will be less exact.

Versions and pronunciation of his name

In different translations, Coriolanus is called Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, or Caius Martius Coriolanus. Coriolanus was a name given to him later in life (like Publicola), so in the text he is referred to as Marcius. Since he is of the house (family) of Marcius (in Latin, the Marcii), that makes him a Marcian; with North's spelling, Martius would be a Martian. I have used Dryden's spelling; but if you are searching for information, look for the other versions as well.

Should Coriolanus have a long or short A? In Latin, you would pronounce his name Coriolah-nus. In English, particularly in reference to Shakespeare's play, it is often pronounced Coriolay-nus.

The Government of Rome

Social Classes

There were two different types of class divisions in ancient Rome. The first was family-based, between the patricians (the nobility) and the plebeians (common people), and this is one of the main points of contention in the story. The second type were property- or wealth-based classes such as the senatores, the wealthiest citizens, who owned large amounts of land. The next level down, the equestrian class (in North's translation, the knights of Rome), was a "business class," made up of those who could afford horses and who made up the cavalry, or soldiers on horseback, in times of war. Besides the equestrian class, there were three classes of property owners; and then, lowest of all, the proletarii.

Were the senatores the same as the senators?

Often, but the two were not identical. Over the centuries, both the size of the Senate and the personal requirements for membership (age, wealth) changed. Some plebeians became senators along with the patricians.

What was an aedile, a quaestor, a consul?

The elected positions, or magistracies, in Rome were (starting at the bottom): quaestor, aedile, praetor, and consul. (The office of tribune was a separate position, explained below.) There were various numbers of each of these: for example, two consuls were elected each year. Ex-consuls could become censors; and a consul could become dictator if the need (usually a great emergency) arose.

Who were the tribunes?

The office of "tribune of the plebeians" or "tribune of the people" was established during the lifetime of Coriolanus (see Lesson Two). The word "tribune" was also a military term, which sometimes causes confusion; but these tribunes were elected to protect the liberties of the common people from any individual or group (such as the nobles) who might take advantage of them or suppress their rights. The position was not part of the junior-senior ranking of magistrates such as quaestor and consul; it was an office voted on by the common people (plebeians), who themselves were bound by oath to protect the tribunes from harm.

Nations Around Rome

As the story of Coriolanus belongs to an earlier time than many of Plutarch's other lives, we hear about rival tribes that were eventually conquered and became part of the Roman Republic.

Aequi or Aequians: An Italic tribe who lived to the east of Rome

Italic: Like Latin, this refers to the Indo-European people who spoke Italic languages (there were other Italic languages besides Latin).

Latin: The name Latin (sometimes Latian) refers to an ancient Indo-European people who moved into the Italian peninsula during the late Bronze Age (1200-900 B.C.), and lived in a region they called Latium. From about 600 B.C. on, the Romans became the most powerful of the Latin tribes.

Sabines: A tribe which lived in the central Apennine Mountains. Shortly after the founding of Rome, some of the Sabines joined with the Romans and became Latinized. The rest fought for their independence, but eventually became part of the Roman Republic. The ancestors of Coriolanus are believed to have been Sabines.

Volsci, Volscians: The Volsci, living to the southeast, were the Romans' greatest enemies during this time. North calls them the Volsces. Their capital city was Antium, so the people living there were the Antiates.

Top Vocabulary Terms in Coriolanus

If you recognize the following words, you are well on your way to mastering the vocabulary of Coriolanus. These words will not be repeated in the vocabulary lists.

1. check: stop, put in check

2. choleric: hot-tempered. To be in choler is to be angry.

3. corn: grain, such as wheat or barley

4. hazard: risk

5. sedition: rebellion, uprisings

6. spoil, pillage: plunder, loot: take weapons or treasures from a defeated enemy or a captured city, or steal food from the fields of an enemy. Both words can be used as verbs (they spoiled the camp) and as nouns (they came back laden with spoils).

7. tarry: wait

8. valour, valiantness: great courage and bravery

9. virtue: that which is morally good or desirable

10. voices: votes

Shakespeare Connections

Notes on Shakespeare's play Coriolanus follow the discussion questions.

Coriolanus Trivia

The twentieth-century poet T.S. Eliot said that Shakespeare's Coriolanus was better than Hamlet.

Lesson One


After a brief description of the ancestry of Gaius Marcius, we are quickly introduced to a young man who was "churlish," "choleric," "impatient," "uncivil," and "altogether unfit for any man's conversation." We may well wonder what we have gotten into! However, Plutarch also describes Marcius' "natural wit," "great heart," and fierce discipline in physical training; and our picture of Marcius becomes more complex. Where would such a combination of character qualities take someone?


patrician: noble; see introductory notes

supply of water: they are credited with building aqueducts

censor: a high public office; see introductory notes

eminent: famous, respected

in their minority: when they are children

churlish: rude, mean-spirited

proof: we might say "bullet-proof"

temperance: moderation, self-control

fortitude: strength of mind that allows someone to act with courage, especially in adversity and trouble

imperious: arrogant, high-handed

stripling: youth


Publicola: one of the first consuls in the Roman Republic

Numa: Numa Pompilius, the legendary second king of Rome

Gaius Marcius: that is, Coriolanus; see introductory notes

Tarquinius Superbus: or Tarquin; the former king of Rome

the dictator: Aulus Postumius Albus Regillensis, general of the Roman military forces at the Battle of Lake Regillus

Historic Occasions

511 B.C.: Very approximate date of birth for Coriolanus

509 B.C.: Rome became a republic

508, 507, 504 B.C.: Publius Valerius (Publicola) was consul in Rome

503 B.C.: Death of Publicola

496 B.C.: Battle of Lake Regillus

On the Map

In this first lesson, it would be useful to look at a map of the early Roman Republic, and to locate the city of Rome, which was founded on the banks of the Tiber River.

Lake Regillus: a lake located in the remains of a volcanic crater, between Rome and the city of Tusculum.


Part One

The patrician house of the Marcii in Rome produced many men of distinction; among them was Ancus Marcius, grandson to Numa by his daughter, and king after Tullus Hostilius; of the same family were also Publius and Quintus Marcius, which two conveyed into the city the best and most abundant supply of water they have at Rome. As likewise Censorinus, who, having been twice chosen censor by the people, afterwards himself induced them to make a law that nobody should bear that office twice.

Gaius Marcius, whose life we intend now to write, being left an orphan by his father, and brought up under the widowhood of his mother, has shown us by experience that, although the early loss of a father may be attended with other disadvantages, yet it can hinder none from being either virtuous or eminent in the world, and that it is no obstacle to true goodness and excellence; however bad men may be pleased to lay the blame of their corruptions upon that misfortune and the neglect of them in their minority. Nor is he less an evidence to the truth of their opinion who conceive that a generous and worthy nature without proper discipline, like a rich soil without culture, is apt with its better fruits to produce also much that is bad and faulty.

For this Marcius' natural wit and great heart did marvellously stir up his courage to do and attempt notable acts. But on the other side, for lack of education, he was so choleric and impatient that he would yield to no living creature; which made him churlish, uncivil, and altogether unfit for any man's conversation. Those who saw with admiration how proof his nature was against all the softnesses of pleasure, the hardships of service, and the allurements of gain, while allowing to that universal firmness of his the respective names of temperance, fortitude, and justice, yet, in the life of the citizen and the statesman, could not choose but be disgusted at the severity and ruggedness of his deportment, and with his overbearing, haughty, and imperious temper. Education and study, and the favours of the Muses, confer no greater benefit on those that seek them than these humanizing and civilizing lessons, which teach our natural qualities to submitted to the limitations prescribed by reason, and to avoid the wildness of extremes.

Part Two

Those were times at Rome in which that kind of worth was most esteemed which displayed itself in military achievements; one evidence of which we find in the Latin word for virtue, which is properly equivalent to "manly courage." As if valour and all virtue had been the same thing, they used as the common term the name of the particular excellence.

But Marcius, being more inclined to the wars than any other gentleman of his time, began from his childhood to give himself to handle weapons, and daily did exercise himself therein. And outward he esteemed armour to no purpose, unless one were naturally armed within: therefore he did so exercise his body to hardness, and all kind of activity, that he was very swift in running, strong in wrestling, and mighty in gripping, so that it was hard for any to disengage himself. Insomuch as those that would try masteries with him for strength and nimbleness, would say, when they were overcome, that all was by reason of his natural strength of body, which they said no resistance and no fatigue could exhaust.

The first time he went to the wars, being but a stripling, was when Tarquinius Superbus (that had been king of Rome, and was driven out for his pride, after many attempts made by sundry battles to come in again, wherein he was ever overcome), now entered upon this last effort, and proceeded to hazard all, as it were, upon a single throw. A great number of the Latins and other people of Italy joined their forces, and were marching with him toward the city, to procure his restoration; not, however, so much out of a desire to serve and oblige Tarquin, as to gratify their own fear and envy at the increase of the Roman greatness, which they were anxious to check and reduce. In this battle, wherein were many hot and sharp encounters of either party, Marcius valiantly fought in the sight of the dictator: and a Roman soldier being thrown to the ground even hard by him, Marcius straight bestrode him, and slew his assailant.

The general, after having gained the victory, crowned Marcius with a garland of oaken boughs.

[omission for length: explanation of how this crown became a Roman tradition]

Narration and Discussion

What sort of a person does Marcius seem so far? Would you want to spend time with him?

Marcius "esteemed armour to no purpose, unless one were naturally armed within." What did he mean?

Creative narration: Imagine Marcius as an action hero whose super-strength is his fortitude. In what situations would it be an advantage to him? When it could it be a problem?

For older students: Plutarch says that "Education and study, and the favours of the Muses, confer no greater benefit on those that seek them than these humanizing and civilizing lessons, which teach our natural qualities to submitted to the limitations prescribed by reason, and to avoid the wildness of extremes." What parts of our education most "humanize" and "civilize" us?

Shakespeare Connection

Shakespeare's plays usually jump in where the action is, so the stories of Marcius' early life are only summarized in later scenes.

Lesson Two


Marcius, as an adult, became known for his well-defined loyalties: first to his city, as shown by his military victories; also to his mother; but finally to his social class. To him, the blurring of the lines between patricians and plebeians meant only a weakening of the noble Roman spirit, especially during a time when the young Republic needed to build itself up. However, he comforted himself and his friends with the thought that, even if they had to fight side by side with the commoners, they could at least show them who had the most "valiantness."


emulation: the desire to equal or outdo others

satiate: fill up, satisfy

recompense: reward

forsake or underlive: not live up to one's previous performance

exceed and obscure: we might say "overwrite"

luster: glow, radiance

prowess: skill

laurels: leafy crowns given for athletic and military victories

felicity: happiness, good fortune

usurers: those who lend at excessively high rates of interest. Being unable to pay the usury means being unable to pay back the loan plus the extra amount of interest.

bondmen: indentured servants, slaves

there was, nevertheless, no moderation. . . : the common people, even the veterans of wars, were treated harshly by the ruling noblemen, and were given none of the protection (especially financial help) that they had been promised

lenity: lenience, easing up

redress: remedy

treat: negotiate terms, deal with

succour: assistance, aid

stood presently to their arms: took up their weapons

alacrity: cheerful readiness

embasing: lowering in power and status


his mother: Plutarch and Shakespeare call her Volumnia, but she is also called Veturia (see note below).

Epaminondas: a Greek general of the 4th century B.C.

took a wife: later we hear her addressed as Virgilia or Vergilia. However, the Roman historian Livy said that it was the wife of Coriolanus who was named Volumnia, and that his mother was named Veturia.

Sabines: see introductory notes

Marcus Valerius: consul in 505 B.C.; brother of Publicola

Menenius Agrippa: Agrippa Menenius Lanatus; a former consul

Junius Brutus and Sicinnius Vellutus: as described here, the first "tribunes of the people"

Historic Occasions

505 B.C.: War with the Sabines



It may be observed, in general, that when young men arrive early at fame and repute, if they are of a nature but slightly touched with emulation, this early attainment is apt to extinguish their thirst and satiate their small appetites; whereas the first distinctions of more solid and weighty characters do but stimulate and quicken them and take them away like a wind in the pursuit of honour. They look upon those marks and testimonies to their virtue not as a recompense received for what they have already done, but as a pledge given by themselves of what they will perform hereafter: ashamed now to forsake or underlive the credit they have won, or, rather, not to exceed and obscure all that is gone before by the luster of their following actions.

Part One

Marcius, having a spirit of this noble make, was ambitious always to surpass himself; and did nothing, how extraordinary soever, but he thought he was bound to outdo it at the next occasion; and, ever desiring to give continual fresh instances of his prowess, he added one exploit to another, and heaped up trophies upon trophies. Whereupon, the captains that came afterwards (for envy of them that went before) did contend who should most honour him, and who should bear most honorable testimony of his valiantness. Insomuch the Romans having many wars and battles in those days, Coriolanus was at them all; and there was not a battle fought from whence he returned not without laurels and rewards.

And whereas others made glory the end of their daring, the end of his glory was the joy he saw his mother did take of him. For he thought nothing made him so happy and honourable, as that his mother might hear everybody praise and commend him, that she might always see him return with a crown upon his head, and that she might still embrace him with tears running down her cheeks for joy. Epaminondas is similarly said to have acknowledged his feeling, that it was the greatest felicity of his whole life that his father and mother survived to hear of his successful generalship and his victory at Leuctra. Now as for Epaminondas, he had this good hap, to have his father and mother living, to be partakers of his joy and prosperity. But Marcius, thinking all due to his mother that had been also due to his father if he had lived, did not only content himself to rejoice and honour her, but at her desire took a wife also, by whom he had two children; and yet he never left his mother's house.

Part Two

Now he being grown to great credit and authority in Rome for his valiantness, it fortuned there grew sedition in the city, because the Senate did favour the rich against the common people, who did complain of the sore oppression of usurers, of whom they borrowed money. For those that had little were yet spoiled of that little they had by their creditors, for lack of ability to pay the usury: who offered their goods to be sold to them that would give most. And such as had nothing left, their bodies were laid hold of, and they were made their bondmen, notwithstanding all the wounds and cuts they showed, which they had received in many battles, fighting for defense of their country and commonwealth: of the which, the last war they made, was against the Sabines, wherein they fought upon the promise the rich men had made them, that from thenceforth they would entreat them more gently; and also upon the word of Marcus Valerius, chief of the Senate, who by authority of the council, and on behalf of the rich, said they should perform that which they had promised.

But after that they had faithfully served in this performance, in the last battle of all, where they overcame their enemies, there was, nevertheless, no moderation or forbearance used; and the senate also professed to remember nothing of that agreement, and sat without testifying the least concern to see them dragged away like slaves and their goods seized upon as formerly, there began now to be open disorders and dangerous meetings in the city. The Romans' enemies, hearing of this rebellion, did straight enter the territories of Rome with a marvellous great power, spoiling and burning all as they came.

The consuls now gave notice that all those which were of lawful age to carry weapons should come and register to go to the wars, but no man obeyed their commandment. Whereupon their chief magistrates, and many of the Senate, began to be of divided opinion among themselves. For some thought it was reasonable, they should somewhat yield to the poor people's request, and that they should a little qualify the severity of the law. Others held hard against that opinion, Marcius in particular. For he alleged that the creditors losing their money they had lent was not the worst thing that was thereby: but that the lenity that was favoured was a beginning of open revolt against the laws, which it would become the wisdom of the government to check at the earliest moment.

The Senate met many days in consultation about it: but in the end they concluded nothing. The poor common people seeing no redress, gathered themselves one day together, and one encouraging another, they all forsook the city, and encamped themselves upon a hill, called to this day "The Holy Hill," alongst the Tiber, offering no creature any hurt or violence, or making any show of actual rebellion: saving that they cried, as they went up and down, that the rich men had driven them out of the city, and that all Italy through they should find air, water, and ground to bury them in. Moreover, they said, to dwell at Rome was nothing else but to be slain, or hurt with continual wars, and fighting for defense of the rich men's goods. The Senate, being afraid of their departure, sent the most moderate and popular men of their own order to treat with them. Menenius Agrippa, their chief spokesman, after much entreaty to the people, and much plain-speaking on behalf of the Senate, concluded, at length, with this celebrated fable.