This is the third in a series of blogs about notable women of the Roman republic. Veturia, sometimes also known as Volumnia, was the mother of Gaius Marcius Coriolanus. She single-handedly saved Rome from imminent destruction. Quotations are from Plutarch’s Life of Gaius Marcius Coriolanus.
Veturia, a patrician woman, was widowed soon after her son Gaius Marcius was born, but she raised him in the strictest Roman tradition and encouraged his success in military affairs and in affairs of state. Gaius Marcius was evidently very devoted to his mother. He married according to her wishes and remained in her household even after he was married and had fathered children.
As a warrior, Gaius Marcius was unsurpassed in his time. He repeatedly won accolades for his deeds of valor on the battlefield, including when still a youth, an oak crown for saving the life of a comrade on the battlefield. During the war against the Volsci, in 493 B.C., under the command of the Consul Postumius Cominius Arauncus, he lead his forces against overwhelming odds to capture the Volscian city of Corioli. For his valor during this campaign, the Roman people conferred upon him the agnomen Coriolanus.
Already, even at this early stage of the Roman republic, the society was riven with internal dissension and civil discord. Plebeians were expected to take up arms for Rome and fight in her wars, but the very act of serving in the army often caused them to neglect their farming and fall into debt. Failure to pay these debts often resulted in the debtor being sold into slavery to satisfy his creditors. At one point the plebeian population seceded en mass and refused to serve Rome until the senate granted them the concession of establishing the office of tribune of the plebs which would defend the interests of the lower classes.
Gaius Marcius Coriolanus was an aristocrat of the severest stripe who believe that it was a great mistake to grant any political concessions to the plebeians. The Volscian war brought about a famine in Rome since so many men had been recruited into the Army that the fields were left untilled. The price of grain rose to the point where many of the plebeians were in danger of starving. The senate managed to purchase grain from other parts of Italy and there was a large donation from the tyrant Gelo of Syracuse, but Coriolanus gave speeches in the senate advocating that relief not be given to the plebeians unless they agreed to the abolition of the the Tribunate of the plebs and give up other concessions they had extracted from their secession.
These speeches incurred the wrath of the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius and they urged that Coriolanus be thrown to his death from the Tarpaean Rock, but allies in the senate protected him. Sicinius then ordered that Corliolanus be brought to trial. He was condemned by a vote of the tribes and sentenced to perpetual banishment.
Coriolanus vowed revenge upon the ungrateful people of Rome. He went directly to Volscian city of Antium, to the house of Tullus Aufidius, long his deadly enemy, and offered him his services as a general of extraordinary abilities, and urged him to renew the war on Rome. Aufidius readily agreed to the alliance and Coriolanus lead the Volscians in a campaign to reconquer all of the cities they had lost in the recent war with Rome, and then led them to a camp five miles from the city of Rome. The citizens of Rome sorely lamented their rash decision to banish their erstwhile hero.
The Roman sent an embassy consisting of kinsmen and friends of Corliolanus offering to rescind his banishment if he would desist from attacking the city. Coriolanus insisted on conditions that were so favorable to the Volscians that he knew the Romans would not accept them. A delegation of priests and augurs met with a similar lack of success. It appeared that Rome was destined for destruction.
At this point the women of Rome began to gather at the various temples to the Gods and pray for deliverance. The foremost of these women was Valeria, the sister of the eminent statesman Publius Valerius Publicola, now deceased. Valeria gathered the women around her and bid them go to the house of Corliolanus where they found Veturia and her daughter in law Virgilia, with the children on their mother’s lap. She said “We whom thou seest here, Veturia, and thou, Vergilia, are come as women to women, obeying neither senatorial edict nor consular command; but our god, as it would seem, taking pity on our supplication, put into our hearts an impulse to come hither to you and beseech you to do that which will not only be the salvation of us ourselves and of the citizens besides, but also lift you who consent to do it to a more conspicuous fame than that which the daughters of the Sabines won, when they brought the fathers and husbands out of war into friendship and peace. Arise, come with us to Marcius, and join with us in supplicating him, bearing this just and true testimony in behalf of your country, that, although she has suffered much wrong at his hands, she has neither done nor thought of doing harm to you, in her anger, but restores you to him, even though she is destined to obtain no equitable treatment at his hands.”
Veturia replied “O women, not only have we an equal share with you in common calamities, but we have an additional misery of our own, in that we have lost the fame and virtue of Marcius, and see his person protected in command, rather than preserved from death, by the arms of our enemies. And yet it is the greatest of our misfortunes that our native city is become so utterly weak as to place her hopes in us. For I know not whether the man will have any regard for us, since he has none for his country, which he once set before mother and wife and children. However, take us and use us and bring us to him; if we can do nothing else, we can at least breathe out our lives in supplications for our country.”
The women of Rome proceeded in a body to the camp of Gaius Marcius Coriolanus and when he saw his wife and mother he descended quickly from the tribunal and ran to meet them. He saluted his mother first and held her a long time in his embrace, then embraced his wife and children, sparing neither tears nor caresses. Perhaps the enormity of what he was about to do suddenly dawned upon him. He realized that he intended to destroy everything he had always loved.
But then he resumed his place at the tribunal and bade his mother speak in the presence of the Volscians. She said “”Thou seest, my son, even if we do not speak ourselves, and canst judge from the wretchedness of our garb and aspect, to what a pitiful state thy banishment has reduced us. And now be sure that we who come to thee are of all women most unhappy, since fortune has made the sight which should have been most sweet, most dreadful for us, as I behold my son, and this wife of thine her husband, encamped against the walls of our native city. And that which for the rest is an assuagement of all misfortune and misery, namely prayer to the gods, has become for us most impracticable; for we cannot ask from the gods both victory for our country and at the same time safety for thee, but that which any one of our foes might imprecate upon us as a curse, this must be the burden of our prayers. For thy wife and children must needs be deprived either of their country or of thee. As for me, I will not wait to have the war decide this issue for me while I live, but unless I can persuade thee to substitute friendship and concord for dissension and hostility, and so to become a benefactor of both parties rather than a destroyer of one of them, then consider and be well assured that thou canst not assail thy country without first treading underfoot the corpse of her who bore thee. For it does not behoove me to await that day on which I shall behold my son either led in triumph by his fellow-citizens or triumphing over his country. If, then, I asked you to save your country by ruining the Volscians, the question before thee would be a grievous one, my son, and hard to decide, since it is neither honourable for a man to destroy his fellow-citizens, nor just for him to betray those who have put their trust in him; but as it is, we ask only a relief from evils, something which would be salutary for both parties alike, but more conducive to fame and honour for the Volscians, because their superiority in arms will give them the appearance of bestowing the greatest of blessings, namely peace and friendship, although they get these no less themselves. If these blessings are realized, it will be chiefly due to thee; if they are not, then thou alone wilt bear the blame from both nations. And though the issues of war are obscure, this is manifest, that if victorious, thou wilt only be thy country’s destroying demon, and if defeated, the world will think that, to satisfy thy wrath, thou didst bring down the greatest calamities upon men who were thy benefactors and friends.”
When Coriolanus sat there silent and seemingly implacable she continued. “Why art thou silent, my son? Is it right to yield everything to wrath and resentment, but wrong to gratify a mother in such a prayer as this? Or is the remembrance of his wrongs becoming to a great man, while the remembrance, with reverence and honour, of the benefits which children have received from their parents is not the duty of a great and good man? Surely for no man were it more seemly to cherish gratitude than for thee, who dost so bitterly proceed against ingratitude. And yet, although thou hast already punished thy country severely, thou hast not shown thy mother any gratitude. It were, therefore, a most pious thing in thee to grant me, without any compulsion, so worthy and just a request as mine; but since I cannot persuade thee, why should I spare my last resource?”
And with these words she threw herself at his feet, together with his wife and children. 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.”
Plutarch says that Coriolanus died soon after that at the hands of Tullus Aufidius who felt that he had betrayed his friendship.
To honor Veturia the Romans erected a temple as a monument to Female Fortune. Veturia was held up thereafter as a model of a Roman woman’s virtue and courage.