City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

The Story of Coriolanus

Not long after the people had gained their tribunes to protect them, a noble lady, named Veturia, lived in Rome. She was a widow, and had but one son, Caius Marcius, whom she loved very dearly. From his babyhood, Caius was a strong, brave boy, and his mother had every reason to be proud of him, except for one fault. He had a violent temper, and never learned to control it; and, in the end, this brought great trouble upon both his mother and himself.

Caius was proud of his mother, and proud of belonging to the noblest class in the city; and from his earliest youth, he tried to make himself worthy of both. At that time, almost the only training of a Roman youth was for war, and the stories say that Caius labored so faithfully to learn the use of weapons, and to make his body strong, that there was soon no youth in the city who could equal him.

At last, the time came when Caius Marcius went to his first battle, and in this he proved himself to be a good fighter, although he was still almost a boy. He came back to his mother with a crown of oak leaves upon his head, which was the way in which the Romans honored those, of their soldiers who had not only fought bravely in battle, but who had also succeeded in saving the life of a Roman citizen.

You may be sure that the heart of the lady Veturia was glad and proud, when she saw her son riding home to her from his first battle, with the wreath of honor upon his brow. But she had still greater cause to rejoice later, for, as time went on, and Caius was called to fight for his city again and again, she never once saw him return without honors and rewards. And his greatest pleasure in his honors was the pride and delight which his mother took in them.

At one time, when Marcius was fighting with the Roman army, they were besieging the city of Corioli, in the country of the Volscians. As the soldiers lay camped about the city, they heard that a large force was marching to attack them from behind. The consul, who was leading the Romans, did not wish to be caught between the walls of Corioli and a fresh army, and thus be attacked on both sides at once. So he divided the army into two parts, and left the smaller part to watch the town, while he marched against the army of the Volscians with the other.

When the people of Corioli saw that only a small part of the Roman army was left to lay siege to their city, they came rushing out from their gates to attack them. The Romans were driven back, and they would have been defeated if it had not been for Marcius. So fiercely did he attack the enemy that they were forced to give way before him. Then he encouraged his companions to pursue the flying soldiers to their city gates. Even there he was not willing to stop, but, still urging his men onward, he rushed into Corioli after the defeated enemy, and kept them at bay, and the gates open, until the rest of the army could come up and take the city.

Then, as though he had done nothing to give him need of rest, he led a part of the men to help the consul in his fight against the Volscians. They arrived just as the battle was beginning, and fought bravely with the others until the victory was won. After the battle was over, Marcius was offered much rich booty as a reward, but this he would not take. He accepted only the horse of the consul, which was pressed upon him as a gift, and asked but one favor.

"I have one request to make," he said, "and this I hope you will not deny me. There is a friend of mine among the Volscian prisoners, a man of virtue, who has often entertained me at his house. He has lost his wealth and his freedom, and is now to be sold as a common slave. Let me beg that this may not be done, and that I may be allowed to save him from this last misfortune."

The consul granted this request, and Marcius returned to Rome with no other reward than this for his brave deed. But, in honor of what he had done, the people gave him a third name, which was formed from that of the city which he had taken; and, after this, he was called Caius Marcius Coriolanus. His mother, who was as proud as Coriolanus himself, must have been better pleased with this title for her son than if he had brought home a great treasure to enrich the family.

If Coriolanus could have been always with the army, doing such brave deeds, the rest of his story might have been very different. But, as he was a Roman patrician, he was not only a soldier, but one of the rulers of the city as well. The proud, fierce temper, which Marcius had shown even in his boyhood, began to exhibit itself more and more plainly as he grew to be an older man and took more part in the affairs of the city.

He thought that only the patricians should have part in the government of Rome, and he hated the tribunes, who could stop the patrician consuls by their veto. This made the plebeians fear him, and, though the nobles admired him for his courage, and wished to make him consul, the people refused to elect him. Marcius was bitterly angry over this defeat, and was never willing to forget that he had been so slighted after his services to the city.

Then a time came when the dislike which Coriolanus had for the plebeians made him do an unwise thing, which proved to be his ruin.

On account of the many wars which had laid waste the fields, there was not enough grain raised on the lands of Rome to feed her people; and the consuls sent even as far as Sicily for corn to keep the city from famine until the next harvest time. When the grain tame to Rome, it seemed to bring more trouble than comfort to the starving citizens; for Coriolanus proposed to the Senate that they should not allow the poor people to receive the grain until they had promised to give up their tribunes, and be governed entirely by the patricians, as before. Some of the senators were wise enough to see that this would never do, and when the people arose, and threatened the Senate, it gave way in spite of Coriolanus, and allowed the corn to be sold at a low price.

But the people were not satisfied with receiving their grain. They now so feared and hated Coriolanus, for having tried to starve them into giving up their rights, that they would no longer have him in their city. He was brought to trial by the tribunes, and the people sentenced him to banishment for life from Rome.

Coriolanus went away with his heart full of bitterness. He could not see that he had been wrong, and he felt only hatred now for the Roman people, who, as it seemed to him, had abused and mistreated him. He went, therefore, to the country of the Volscians, against whom he had fought so many battles for the Romans. At the fall of night, he came to the house of one of their chiefs. There he entered and seated himself as a suppliant at the hearth, with his mantle covering his face. He had such an air of pride and sorrow that the members of the family did not dare to question him, but sent for Tullus, the master of the house. Tullus immediately went to him, and asked him who he was and for what purpose he had come to him. Then Coriolanus arose and threw the covering from his head, and looked him proudly in the face.

"Do you not remember me?" he said. "I am that Caius Marcius who has brought so much trouble upon the Volscians. If I were to deny this, my name of Coriolanus would still declare me your enemy. That name is the one thing which I received in reward for my perils and hardships in battles, and it is the one thing that the Romans have left me, as they send me forth an exile. Now I come, an humble suppliant at your hearth, not for protection, but for revenge. Let me lead your people against the Romans, and you will have the advantage of a general who knows all the secrets of your enemies. If I may not do this, let me perish as your foe, for I no longer wish to live."

Tullus was rejoiced to give him what he asked, and soon Coriolanus marched against Rome with a Volscian army at his back. When he came near the city, the Romans were seized with fear, for they felt too weak to contend against the Volscians, when led by Coriolanus.

The senators and the people, therefore, agreed to send messengers to Coriolanus, offering to restore him to his place at Rome, and begging him not to bring the terror and distress of war upon his city. These messengers were chosen from among the friends and relatives of Coriolanus, in order that they might have more influence with him. But he treated them harshly, as if he had altogether forgotten his former love for them, and no peace could be settled upon. Then the Romans sent all the priests of Rome, clothed in their sacred robes, to beg for peace; but they also were turned away.

Then the city was given over to despair, for the people felt that there was no cruelty of the harshest enemy that could be compared with the fierce wrath of the exiled Coriolanus. The old men knelt weeping at the altars of the gods, and the women ran wailing through the streets of the city. But Veturia, the mother of Coriolanus, gathered about her the wife of her son, his children, and the noblest women of the town, and set out for the camp of the Volscians to try what she could do.

Coriolanus saw the company of Roman women moving as suppliants through his camp, but he watched them unmoved, until he recognized his mother at their head. Then his proud soul was shaken, and he ran to her with his arms outstretched, as though he were the little Caius once more. But his mother drew back and spoke sternly and sadly to him.

"Do I behold you, my son," she cried, "in arms against the walls of Rome? Tell me, before I receive your embrace, whether I am in your camp as a captive or as your mother. Does length of life give me only this, to behold my son an exile and an enemy? If I had not been a mother, Rome would not have been besieged! If I had not had a son, I might die free, in a free country! But be sure of this, my son, that you shall not be able to reach your country to harm it, unless you first cross the body of your mother."

As Veturia spoke these words, she threw herself down upon the ground at the feet of Coriolanus, as a suppliant before her own son. But Marcius, weeping, raised her from the earth, and cried:

"O Mother! what is this that you have done to me! You have saved Rome, but destroyed your son. I go, conquered by you alone."

Then Coriolanus led his army away from Rome; and it is said that he met his death at the hands of the disappointed Volscians. Veturia returned in loneliness to Rome, mourning for her beloved son; but she held him less dear than she did her country's freedom.