Before being a historical figure, Caius Marcius Coriolanus is a legendary one. He, as an actual person was a Roman general who lived in the fifth century before Christ. What belongs to history and what belongs to the myth about him remains unclear today. The following text will therefore address his (hi)story without the doubts and precautions that a historian would need to systematically indicate when addressing this same story.
Coriolanus’s story is brought to us by the 1608 play written by William Shakespeare. General Caius Marcius earn his name of Coriolanus by his glorious victory against the Volscian city of Corioli. Strengthen by this success, he is encouraged to run for Consul of Rome. Despite an apparent support from both the Senate and the Plebe, he has to face riots from the latter. He finally publicly expresses his despise of democratic processes and exiled himself when he is condemned as a traitor. Later, he joins his former Volscian enemies and marches towards Rome. He remains insensitive to every request of his formers friends (including his own wife), but finally accepts a peace treatise after being won over by his manipulative mother. Peace is signed between the Romans and the Volscians but Coriolanus is assassinated by the latter for his treason.
In 2011, actor director Ralph Fiennes turned the Shakespeare’s dialogues into a contemporary version of Coriolanus. The language’s age, as well as the antic Roman names contrasts with the images of our world that recalls war in the Balkans and numerous internal political intrigues and manipulations in Western representative democracies. Both the play and the film — it is not innocent that Ralph Fiennes chose himself to play Coriolanus — are sympathetic for the Roman general who remains faithful to his principles and his honor until he cedes to his mother and accept death for it. The plebe is pictured as a versatile horde that can be easily manipulated by politicians who are after their own ambition. When we look at it closely however, Coriolanus is a perfect embodiment of fascism — of course, it is an anachronism to talk about fascism both for Antic Rome and 17th-century England — when the military realm and the political one fuse into a new form of sovereignty.
Fienne’s film opens with news images — he integrates the power of the televisual medium in modern democracies in a very evocative way — of the state of emergency declared by the Roman Senate (see still above) when the city is facing riots against the public requisition of grain storage and the scarcity resulting from it. The state of emergency or state of exception is concomitant to the state of war, when military and politics become a single mode of sovereignty. Once the state of exception is triggered, there is a systematic effort from it, to sustain itself in time. This is even more true in our contemporary era — that is why Fienne’s movie is useful to watch — as the state of war is not as clearly delimited as it used to be in the past when the belligerents were defined by their belonging to a given nation or city. Nowadays, the so-called “war on terror” has blurred the limits in time of the state of war, and therefore of the state of exception. War can be continuous when there is made against diffuse international groups of people whose sporadic killings is more made for the symbolic spectacle (is it a pleonasm?) of entrenched nations than for an actual military effectiveness since these groups grow as the (often hazardous) strikes against them intensify. Meanwhile, the continuous tension that sustains the state of exception is organized through media canals that proposes a unique imaginary built on the fear of loosing the status quo.
Coriolanus does not constitute the paradigm of the contemporary sovereign. His personality and his military principles are very distant from the ones of our current “leaders;” this is also true for his refusal to use the spectacular mediums (a scene of the film shows him addressing the people on a television set) to embrace his ambition. However, the problem is not one of the people but rather of the systems that they are operating into. Coriolanus may not be a paradigm of the Western democrat politician, but he is a paradigm of the form of sovereignty that we are subjected to: a perpetual state of emergency in which military actions — that involves the surveillance of populations like the one of the NSA — and politics work together to sustain the exception in time.
All following images are still from the film Coriolanus by Ralph Fiennes (2011):