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The Exile of Coriolanus: Space, Identity, and Memory in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita

Alexandra Kennedy

There has been much scholarly discussion of the theme of exile in Latin literature, with particular interest in both the poetics of exile literature and the perspective it provides on contemporary politics and culture (e.g. Claassen 1999 and 2008, Gaertner 2007, McGowan 2009, Williams 1994). In most of these studies, “exile literature” traditionally consists of literature written in the first person by exiled Roman authors. Less attention, however, has been paid to third person narratives of exile such as those found in histories.

In this paper, I explore how Livy’s account of the exile of the Roman hero Coriolanus in 492 BC and his subsequent attack on Rome reflects the relationship between Romans and the physical space of their city in the Ab Urbe Condita. By examining the literary representation of exile in Livy, which has not yet been addressed by existing treatments of Livy’s history or of Latin exile literature, I bring together two previously disparate areas of scholarship.

I argue that Livy’s story of Coriolanus’ exile in Book 2 depicts the city of Rome and the Roman people as a natural unit, and that exile functions as an unnatural division of this unity. My discussion will focus on the cause of Coriolanus’ exile in Livy’s narrative, as well as its consequences for the city of Rome and for Coriolanus himself. My conclusions will draw chiefly on the language Livy uses to describe Coriolanus and his relationship to Rome and his fellow citizens, both before and after his exile. I will show that Coriolanus’ exile is the result of ongoing civil strife in Rome in which he and the plebs are characterized as foreign enemies (hostes) rather than as members of the same community; and that Coriolanus’ military attack on Rome with the Volsci after his exile is thus represented as a continuation of previous discord, with internal and external conflicts becoming conflated. I will then explore the devastating consequences of exile in this episode, arguing that exile leads to a serious threat to the safety of Rome when the city is attacked by one of its own citizens, and that exile strips Coriolanus of his Roman identity as he takes on the characteristics of his former enemies, the Volsci. My discussion of the criticism Coriolanus receives from his mother as he marches on Rome will further demonstrate that his exile destroys his previous personal connection to Rome and his ability to correctly link Roman space with memory.

In this light, Livy’s narration of Coriolanus’ exile is more than a historical account. The forced departure of Coriolanus from Rome in Livy’s history becomes both a physical manifestation of political and ideological division within the city and a symbol of the devastating disruption of the intimate connection that ought to exist between Roman space and Roman identity and memory.

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Roman Exile: Poetry, Prose, and Politics

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