The Risks of Leadership in Plutarch’s Coriolanus

Abstract

In this case, students will analyze the Roman general Coriolanus (early fifth century BCE) as depicted in Parallel Lives by Plutarch. Coriolanus' embodiment of Roman military virtues, which specifically favor courage and steadfastness of character, make him unsuited to adjust to becoming a consul, who must work for the benefit of all Romans, both patricians (upper class) and plebeians (lower class). Ultimately, Coriolanus fails as a political leader. This case study dives into Coriolanus’ characteristics and his personal stakes in leadership. First, we examine Coriolanus through the lens of the contingency theory of leadership, which contends that leaders must be matched to the correct situation based on their leadership style. Next, we consider his complete dedication to one set of values and virtues, which is prejudiced against the plebeians, through the lens of ethical decision making. Lastly, students will examine his lack of empathy. For Coriolanus, the cost of denying an identity he has cultivated is too high, and because of this, he allows himself to be vilified as Rome's enemy.

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