Yesterday: The Birth of Tragedy Tomorrow: Julius Caesar
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With the post yesterday on some of the literary motifs behind tragedy, I am enabled to make a move towards a transition into Roman history. This makes me happy. Because really, the Romans were the most real MEN of any society in history. The Romans fought. And built. And fought. And built. And fought more. And built more. And then began to pray and weren’t the same.
The story of Coriolanus is an ancient Roman legend describing a warrior whose military prowess is outweighed only by his pride. Coriolanus’ father is unknown. His mother was Veturia, a member of the Roman aristocracy, and it is as a member of the aristocracy that Coriolanus proceeds to single-handedly defeat the Volscians and their indomitable leader Titus Aufidius in battle time and time again. returning to the city as a living hero. But in the age of plebeian reforms, Coriolanus adhered to the line of the old nobility with such force that he made himself many enemies. In Shakespeare’s play he refuses to support measures that would lower the price of grain. The leaders of the plebeians, forgetting his heroics as a general, thus charged him with corruption and misappropriation of public moneys, securing his conviction and sending him into exile, whereupon he disguised himself and went as a suppliant to the house of his enemy, Titus Aufidius, intending now to fight against Rome. Aufidius welcomes him, recognizing the honor that would accrue to him for having turned the Volscians’ greatest enemy into their greatest asset.
As they march towards Rome, the Romans realize that they are doomed, and send out Coriolanus’ wife Vergilia and Veturia at the head of a body of matrons to mollify him. Coriolanus’ anger is assuaged at the sight of his female family members (again one wonders how long he’d been dealing with a no-hitter), and he concludes a truce with the Romans, remaining himself exiled and returning to Antium (Aufidius’ city). Aufidius and the Volscians now see him as an enormous threat, and they put him on trial on trumped-up charges, and Aufidius has him assassinated before the trial was finished.
The tale appears in Livy’s History of Rome, Coriolanus is given a life in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, and Shakespeare’s play of his name is in my opinion one of his two best (along with Richard III). Its moral, of the value of loyalty and humility, is one that would be valuable for ANY athlete–look at the case of Randy Moss or Terrell Owens if you doubt this–and any talented person of any sort. And while one must recognize his severe shortcomings, I find it hard not to ultimately sympathize with the manly Coriolanus and find him a victim, as the plebeians are truly hideous ingrates and he is responsive and considerate to those who are most vulnerable, the Roman women, showing himself chivalrous, not simply violent.
(You can find the Shakespeare play on Interesting Literature’s list of Ten Most Underrated Shakespeare Plays: http://interestingliterature.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/ten-underrated-shakespeare-plays/)
It is also worth noting that the Apollonian element is missing. There is no dreamlike, idyllic state in the entirety of the tragic legend. This is Roman, not Greek–and it shows.
For the moment Coriolanus is purely legendary. There are no facts known that support his existence. Nor does it appear that there ever will be. Still this remains a most valuable story, one which would serve a tremendous purpose but for the fact that nobody reads the classics anymore, and they are not responsive to the importance of them.
One last note before I take off for the day: remember how I’ve said that the classics make those who have read them millions?
Case-in-point trivia question: what famous actor’s early career included a role as a Roman citizen in a version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus?
Answer: Denzel Washington