Press enter to see results or esc to cancel.

The Life of Coriolanus: Plutarch’s Biographical Goal and the Reshaping of Historical Sources

John Basilici

Plutarch (46-c.122) was a Greek historian from the town of Chaeronea. Amongst Plutarch’s best-known work are his Parallel Lives, written early in the second-century AD. The Parallel Lives are paired biographies, each featuring one Greek and one Roman statesman or general. 22 of the original 23 pairs remain. As Classics scholar Timothy Duff explains, each pair is “welded together by a common introduction and a closing comparison.”[1] This paired structure serves Plutarch’s overarching goal of providing moral lessons to his readers by highlighting the characters’ virtues and vices. Below we will focus our analysis on the Life of Coriolanus (from the Alcibiades-Coriolanus pair) and how Plutarch reshapes the narrative of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (his main historical source for this Life). In comparing Plutarch’s account with that of his source it becomes clear that the decisive difference between the two is that Dionysius, as a historian, is primarily interested in the larger political themes whereas Plutarch is concerned with the in-depth development of the individual as part of a larger political system. The goal of this analysis is ultimately to gain a better understanding of how Plutarch accomplishes his goal of teaching moral lessons through the Lives.

Marcius Coriolanus (he is referred to below as either Marcius or Coriolanus) was a Roman nobleman and general in the fifth-century BC who first earned his fame fighting against the Volscian rebels. As Classics scholar D.A. Russell puts it, Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus is a “tragedy of ambition and anger.”[2] And in the words of Duff, the main thread of the Life concerns the fact that Coriolanus’ “poor education leaves him unable to control the passions which destroy him.”[3] Perhaps most important though, is the fact that this Life draws exclusively on Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Roman Antiquities, and as such is best understood as a “transposition into biographical form of the historical narrative of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.”[4] The Life thus provides a strong basis for examining what makes Plutarch’s project unique.

Before examining the differences between Dionysius and Plutarch, it will be helpful to emphasize that for Plutarch education is closely related to virtue, playing a central role in his characters’ success or failure. [5] Education is particularly important for the Life in question, as Plutarch uses Coriolanus’ lack of proper education to shed light on the bad influence it has on his interaction with the Roman people:

Marcius bore witness for those who hold that a generous and noble nature, if it lack discipline, is apt to produce much that is worthless along with its better fruits, like a rich soil deprived of the husbandman’s culture. For while the force and vigour of his intelligence, which knew no limitations, led him into great undertakings, and such as were productive of the highest results, still, on the other hand, since he indulged a vehement temper and displayed an unswerving pertinacity, it made him a difficult and unsuitable associate for others. They did indeed look with admiration upon his insensibility to pleasures, toils, and mercenary gains, to which they gave the names of self-control, fortitude, and justice; but in their intercourse with him as a fellow-citizen they were offended by it as ungracious, burdensome, and arrogant.[6]

Here, Marcius’ insensibility and vehement temper in turn elicit anger from the people. His manner contrasts starkly with the manner of his counterpart Alcibiades who was “persuasive and full of charm.”[7] And this difference between Coriolanus and Alcibiades can be traced to the fact that one received the proper education from the philosopher par excellence Socrates, while the other had a lopsided formation. As the Life progresses Coriolanus’ inability to control his passions serves as the basis Plutarch’s explanation of his dissent and decline.

Plutarch’s focus on Coriolanus’ implacable mindset and subsequent interaction with the people are clearly stressed in the way that he reshapes the account of Dionysius of Halicarnassus. An example of this is the episode where the Roman people are granted the right to elect tribunes after an incident involving money lenders.[8] In Dionysius, the only reaction to this new right comes from the patricians who, after expressing some slight reservations, say “so far as we ourselves are concerned, we do not oppose even this request of yours.” But Plutarch makes a specific comment about Coriolanus’ reaction:

As for Marcius, though he was displeased himself to have the people increase in power at the expense of the aristocracy, and though he saw that many of the other patricians were of the same mind, he nevertheless exhorted them not to fall behind the common people in contending for their country’s welfare, but to show that they were superior to them in valour rather than in political power.[9]

So Plutarch has involved Coriolanus in this episode where he did not appear in Dionysius, giving him a special place in the narrative. This allows him to tie in again the theme of Coriolanus’ passion, shifting the emphasis away from strictly political interests. This is not to say that Plutarch disregards the political dynamics present in Dionysius, only that he is interested in politics insofar as they relate to his overall project of developing and exposing individual character.

Another more subtle way Plutarch reshapes the narrative is by inferring and reconstructing emotional dynamics from the interaction between leader (Coriolanus in this case)and led (the Roman people) in Dionysius’ account of the same story. A case in point is where Coriolanus fails in his bid for the Consulship. In describing Coriolanus’ relationship to the people, Dionysius writes, “It seems that, besides the general grievances against them which he shared with the others, he had lately received some private provocations that seemed to justify his hatred of the plebeians. For when he had stood for the consulship…the people had opposed him…since his brilliant reputation and daring inclined them to caution…”[10] Here, Coriolanus’ relationship with the people is definitely not cordial, but the nature of the disagreement is more political than emotional with Coriolanus’ unsuccessful bid for the consulship being mentioned only in passing. The tone and emphasis in Plutarch is much different[11]:

         The multitude fell away again from their good will towards him, and drifted into feelings of resentment and envy…So, being in such a state of mind, they rejected Marcius and others were proclaimed elected. The senators were indignant, thinking the insult directed rather at them than at Marcius, and he himself could not treat the occurrence with restraint or forbearance. He had indulged the passionate and contentious side of his nature, with the idea that there was something great and exalted in this, and had not been imbued, under the influence of reason and discipline, with that gravity and mildness which are the chief virtues of a statesman.[12]

There are two points of difference here that deserve special attention. First, the people’s reason for rejecting Coriolanus is not that they are concerned about his growing reputation, as it is in Dionysius, but because they are resentful, envious, and fearful of his un-populist attitude. So Plutarch focuses especially on emotions. Second, this resentment and envy is a mindset created by Coriolanus’ arrogance and disregard for the crowd. Thus, whereas in Dionysius Coriolanus is more a victim of the uncertainties of politics, in Plutarch he is a man lacking the virtues necessary to avoid engendering frustration in the people.[13]

Indeed, there are even certain points in the Life where Plutarch’s emphasis on emotions can be seen as an inference from the account of Dionysius. For example, in discussing Coriolanus’ banishment, Dionysius writes, “Marcius himself was not seen either to bewail or to lament his own fate or to say or do the least thing unworthy of his greatness of soul…For he was not moved at all by the tears and laminations of the women, but merely saluted them and exhorted them to bear their misfortunes with firmness…”[14] Plutarch, however, goes deeper in his psychological analysis:

         Albeit Marcius himself; who was neither daunted nor humbled, but in mien, port, and countenance fully composed, seemed the only man among all the distressed patricians who was not touched by his evil plight. And this was not due to calculation, or gentleness, or to a calm endurance of his fate, but he was stirred by rage and deep resentment, and this, although the many know it not, is pain. For when pain is transmuted into anger, it is consumed, as it were, by its flames, and casts off its own humility and sloth.[15]

It is important to note that Plutarch has not altered the account of Dionysius in the empirical sense. Coriolanus is still presented as being ‘fully composed’. What he has done though, is suggest something quite different about the factors underlying Coriolanus’ behavior. Again, as in the examples cited above, this ought to be seen in the overarching context of Plutarch’s biographical project. He is interested in developing and exposing individual character which accordingly offers explanation for Coriolanus’ dissent and decline. And this interest is served by going beyond the observations of Dionysius.

After Coriolanus’ banishment from Rome, the theme of passion persists as the basis for Coriolanus’ appeal to the Volscians to grant him leadership of their armies.[16] And even when his mother comes to plead, as Duff notes, “he is not swayed by reason but by the emotions of the scene (34.3)…There is…something of a paradox here. The reasonings to which Coriolanus is unable to remain faithful, are immoral and obstinate; the passion to which he gives in forces him, finally, to the right course.”[17] Thus we see that, even when it seems that Coriolanus is doing the reasonable thing, he is still motivated by his emotions. This final decision of Coriolanus’ to follow his emotions sets the stage for his ultimate downfall, allowing his jealous enemies among the Volscians to put him on trial and ultimately, to kill him.[18]

Going back to the comparison between Plutarch and Dionysius, Classics scholar Christopher Pelling provides a neat summary of the differences between the two presentations of Coriolanus:

After the man’s death Dionysius summarizes his career…He emerges as a man of great spirit, of generosity, even of some political skill…But the decisive point was his uncompromising commitment to justice…It prevented him from compromising in his dealings…and it eventually destroyed him, because he felt he could not withdraw from the legal proceedings among the Volscians, but had to submit to any punishment they might inflict according to their laws…Plutarch’s Coriolanus is very different. The stress on justice is still important, and indeed is developed…but the central point has changed. For Plutarch, it is his anger which drives him to such extremes.[19]

Pelling’s argument ties together perfectly all of the examples cited above. On the one hand there is Dionysius, who presents a somewhat flat image of Coriolanus-explaining his downfall simply in terms of an exaggerated commitment to justice. On the other hand is Plutarch, who has developed Coriolanus’ character over the whole Life, culminating in a weakness that can be traced back to his childhood. Of course, this difference is perfectly in keeping with the distinction between Dionysius’ historical project and Plutarch’s biographical one. This is not to say that the former has no interest in matters of individual character and the latter has no interest in politics. Rather, Plutarch is interested in political themes insofar as they serve his overarching biographical project, and Dionysius is interested in individual character-but only insofar as it serves his interest in tracing the grand lines of history.


Duff, T. (1999), Plutarch’s Lives. Exploring Virtue and Vice (Oxford).

Pelling, C. (ed.) (2002), Plutarch and History. Eighteen Studies (London).

Russell, D. (1973), Plutarch (London).

Dionysius of Halicarnassus: Roman Antiquities (Loeb Classical Library) (1943).

Plutarch’s Lives: Bernadotte Perrin translation. Accessed at:


[1] Duff, T 199: 2.

[2] Russell, D. 1963: 3.

[3] Duff, T. 1999: 205. (See also Pelling, C. 2002: 400-403.)

[4] Russell, D. 1963: 2.

[5] See also Duff, T: 1999: 205.

[6] Bernadotte, P. Translation of Plutarch’s Lives: Coriolanus 1.2-3.

[7] Ibid: Alcibiades 1.4.

[8] Roman Antiquities: 6.87, 3-6.88, 2.

[9] Bernadotte P. Translation: Coriolanus 7.2.

[10] Roman Antiquities: 7.21, 1-2.

[11] See also Duff T. 1999: 217.

[12] Bernadotte, P. Translation: Coriolanus 15.2-3.

[13] See also Pelling, 2002: 133.

[14] Ibid: 7.67.2-3.

[15] Bernadotte P. Translation: Coriolanus 21.1.

[16] Ibid: 21.3.

[17] Duff, T. 1999: 215.

[18] Bernadotte, P. Translation: Coriolanus: 39.

[19] Pelling, C. 2002: 399.