Veturia and Volumnia (late 6th c.–mid-5th c. BCE)

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Veturia and Volumnia (late 6th c.–mid-5th c. bce)

Patrician mother and wife of Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus who convinced him not to fight with Rome.

Veturia. Name variations: Volumnia. Mother of Coriolanus.

Volumnia. Name variations: Vergilia or Virgilia. Married Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus. (In William Shakespeare's Coriolanus, first presented around 1609, the character of Volumnia is the mother of Coriolanus; the character of Virgilia is the wife.)

Veturia was the mother of Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus; Volumnia was his wife (although a less likely tradition names them Volumnia and Vergilia, respectively). Veturia raised her son by herself since her husband died when the boy was young. Gnaeus Marcius (his birth name) grew to become very conservative in his politics (being a patrician at the time, he was by status a member of the political elite) and was much opposed to making any concessions to the hard-pressed plebeians of his day as they began to agitate for basic securities against patrician exploitation. (The political activism of the plebeians at this time inaugurated the so-called "Conflict of the Orders," a struggle which pit plebeians against patricians for about 200 years, ending with the plebeians attaining the securities they wanted.) Although his political views were reactionary, for a while Gnaeus Marcius retained his prominence thanks to the fact that he was a noteworthy soldier at a time when Rome was threatened by many neighbors and not particularly strong. Among Rome's rivals were the Volsci, against whom a war was waged in 493. During this conflict, Gnaeus Marcius fought bravely and was the main reason the Romans were able to wrest the city called Corioli from the Volsci. After this success, his fellow citizens attempted to honor Gnaeus Marcius for his martial prowess with substantial material rewards. However, he is reported to have accepted no special honor for his services except the distinction of having "Coriolanus" added to his name.

Attempting to exploit his new renown, Coriolanus ran for the consulship but failed to win. However much he was appreciated as a soldier, Coriolanus' politics were simply too reactionary for the majority of his contemporaries to vote him into Rome's highest annually elected office. Embittered by this failure, Coriolanus became even more set in his ways. When a famine struck Rome in 491, necessitating the import of grain from abroad and driving up its cost, Coriolanus stunned his fellow Senators and outraged the plebeians by speaking forcefully against the distribution of grain to the starving poor at below market value prices. His stand against such a policy nearly embroiled the state in open civil war, and did cause him to be exiled from his native land, for even his peers came to deem him a danger to the domestic peace.

Irate at Rome's rejection of what he stood for, Coriolanus made straight for the Volsci and Attius Tullius, one of their leaders. At Tullius' hearth, he both sought sanctuary and offered his

services against Rome. Although Tullius had been one of Coriolanus' bitterest rivals, Coriolanus convinced Tullius of his sincere lust for vengeance against Rome. Once persuaded, Tullius induced his fellow citizens to exploit Coriolanus' skill in war. Thus, in 490 Coriolanus became the commander of a Volscian army with which he ravaged the Roman countryside and its smaller cities. Coriolanus was so successful against his former comrades-in-arms that several embassies were sent to him to negotiate for peace. Coriolanus' terms (including a demand that Rome return to the Volsci that territory which Coriolanus had helped to conquer), however, were rejected by the Romans as being too severe. Unable to come to terms, Coriolanus continued his assault until he came upon Rome itself.

Then, realizing that their men were not up to the task of defending against Coriolanus, the women of Rome came to the aid of their city. Urged on by one Valeria , Veturia and Volumnia were beseeched to intervene with Coriolanus. This the mother and wife of Coriolanus agreed to do, and with Coriolanus' young children in tow (all dressed in tatters) they traveled forth into the camp of the enemy, now commanded by their son and husband. Their arrival moved Coriolanus greatly and he embraced all, beginning with Veturia. However, whatever Coriolanus imagined brought his family to his camp (at first he probably thought that they either had been expelled from Rome or voluntarily intended to join him), he was shocked to learn what their real motive was. Far from taking his side in the current dispute, Veturia especially berated her son for his attack on Rome, and declared that he would advance further only over her dead body. She understood the dilemma with which they posed him, for she knew that if Coriolanus, for them, quit the war, that he would betray the faith of the Volsci. Still, Veturia remained adamant that Coriolanus would only proceed by killing her, the woman who had given him birth and who had raised him alone.

Stunned, Coriolanus backed down and led his Volscian army back to their homeland, but only after returning his family—upon its patriotic insistence—back to Rome. What happened to Coriolanus is disputed. Most sources agree that he was executed by the Volsci when he returned to their land, but a variant tradition had it that he lived to an old age. What happened to Veturia and Volumnia, however, is agreed upon. Hurt very much economically by the permanent loss of Coriolanus, they nevertheless willingly added to their loss. Asked by the state how it could honor them for their role in turning aside Coriolanus' invasion, Veturia and Volumnia requested the construction of a temple in honor of "Women's Fortune." Although the state agreed to shoulder the expense of this project, much money toward its erection was also donated by the two women most closely associated with Coriolanus.

Although this episode is of disputed historicity (the early years of the Roman Republic are shrouded in mist), there is no reason not to believe in its essential truth. Historical or not, the characters of Veturia and Volumnia had a large impact upon Roman values, for they came to personify the degree to which patriotic Roman women were expected selflessly to honor the state over family.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California