Female Action and Female Rhetoric in Dionysius, Livy, and Plutarch

Bradley B. Buszard

Christopher Newport University

The invasion of Coriolanus, a Roman military crisis that is resolved by the intercession of Coriolanus' mother, is described at length in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Livy, and Plutarch. Their respective accounts of this crisis all include lengthy female speeches in direct discourse. This paper will compare both the speeches themselves and the narrative actions that frame them, examining in each case the ways in which these authors employs narrative and direct speech to fashion from the same story three dissimilar portrayals of female behavior.

Dionysius' prolix narrative contains four speeches by two women: Coriolanus' mother, Veturia, and Valeria, sister of P. Valerius Publicola. All four speeches demonstrate great rhetorical ability, but little emotion. The speakers' passion is represented instead by physical actions like prostration, weeping, and suicide. The result is a dichotomy between word and deed. While this disconnect is apparently intentional—Veturia argues that her speech is strong if judged by reason but weak if by passion (Ant. Rom. 8.49.4)—it enervates Dionysius' portrayal of their character. Despite their passionate actions, they speak not as women in extremis but as rational automata.

The more succinct account in Livy contains only one speech, that of Veturia to her son. The Roman historian thus places this speech into high relief against a backdrop of indirect discourse. The central feature of Veturia's invective is a striking prosopopoeia, in which she speaks for Rome in the words of an outraged mother, culminating in the fierce rhetorical question: "Were you able to ravage this land which bore and nourished you (2.40.6)? She thus assimilates the devotion her son owes to herself and to his native city. While effective, however, Veturia's speech tells us little about Veturia's individual character. Her words convey far more emotion than in Dionysius, and her rhetorical ability and civic perspective are evident, but she speaks as a stereotypical mother. Her rhetoric effectively transforms Livy's Veturia into Rome itself.

For Plutarch, writing not history but a moral biography of Coriolanus, character is a central issue, and is accorded a more prominent place in his narrative. He allows himself greater scope, both in third person narrative and in direct discourse, to develop an individualized portrayal of Coriolanus' mother (whom he names Volumnia). The most peculiar aspect of Volumnia's personality is her devotion to her son, whom she alone has raised after the death of her husband. This relationship in Plutarch becomes both the cause and the cure of Coriolanus' invasion. The loyalty Coriolanus should have felt for his native city devolves instead upon his mother (Cor. 4.5–7), so when he is stripped of her guidance by an unjust exile he is deprived of his moral compass. He is soon after leading an invasion of Rome at the head of a Volscian army. Yet Coriolanus' dependence upon his mother also facilitates her intercession, and provides her with an effective rhetorical strategy: her strongest arguments are expressions of personal outrage, framed in antitheses opposing Coriolanus' anger against Rome and the duty he owes to her: "Is it good to give in to rage and grudges but not to gratify your mother?…though you have now exacted great penalties from your fatherland, you have not repaid to your mother even one favor" (Cor. 36.2–3). This is neither the dispassionate discourse of Dionysius nor the clever prosopopoeia of Livy. Indeed, the peculiar relationship between Plutarch's Volumnia and her son requires that she be passionate yet adopt a completely different rhetorical strategy from Livy's Veturia if she is to save her people from disaster.


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