Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Revenge of Coriolanus

Caius Marcius, a noble Roman youth, descended from the worthy king Ancus Marcius, fought valiantly when but seventeen years of age in the battle of Lake Regillus, and was there crowned with an oaken wreath, the Roman reward for saving the life of a fellow-soldier. This he showed with the greatest joy to his mother, Volumnia, whom he loved exceedingly, it being his greatest pleasure to receive praise from her lips for his exploits. He afterwards won many more crowns in battle, and became one of the most famous of Roman soldiers.

One of his memorable exploits took place during a war with the Volscians, in which the Romans attacked the city of Corioli. The citizens made a sally, and drove the Romans back to their camp. But Caius, with a few followers, stopped them and turned the tide of battle, driving the Volscians back. As they fled into the city through the open gates, he cried, "Those gates are set open for us rather than for the Volscians. Why are we afraid to rush in?" And suiting his act to his words, the daring soldier pursued the enemy into the town.

Here he found himself almost alone, for very few had followed him. The enemy turned on the bold invaders, but Caius proved so strong of hand and stout of heart that he drove them all before him, keeping a way clear for the Romans, who soon thronged in through the open gate and took the city. The army gave Caius the sole credit for the victory, saying that he alone had taken Corioli; and the general said, "Let him be called after the name of the city." He was, therefore, afterwards known by the name of Caius Marcius Coriolanus.

Courage was not the only marked quality of Coriolanus. His pride was equally great. He was a noble of the nobles, so haughty in demeanor and so disdainful of the commons that they grew to hate him bitterly. At length came a time of great scarcity of food. The people were on the verge of famine, to relieve which shiploads of corn were sent from Sicily to Rome. The senate resolved to distribute this corn among the suffering people, but Coriolanus opposed this, saying, "If they want corn let them show their obedience to the Patricians, as their fathers did, and give up their tribunes. If they do this we will let them have corn, and take care of them."

When the people heard of what the proud noble had said they broke into such fury that a mob gathered around the doors of the senate house, prepared to seize and tear him to pieces when he came out. They were checked in this by the tribunes, who said, "Let us not have violence. We will accuse him of treason before the assembly, and you shall be his judges."

The tribunes, therefore, as the law gave them the right, summoned Coriolanus to appear before the popular tribunal and answer to the charges against him. But he, knowing how deeply he had offended them, and that they would show him no mercy, stayed not for the trial, but fled from Rome, exiled from his native land by his pride and disdain of the people.

The exile made his way to the land of the Volscians, and seating himself by the hearth-fire of Attius Tullius, their chief, waited there with covered head till his late bitter foe should come in. How Attius would receive him he knew not; but he was homeless, and had now only his enemies to trust. But when the chieftain entered, and learned that the man who sat crouched beside his hearth, subject to his will, was the great warrior who by his own hands had taken a Volscian city, but was now banished and a fugitive, he was filled with compassion. He greeted him kindly and offered him a home, saying to himself, "Caius, our worst foe, is now our friend and a foe to Rome; we will make war against that proud city, and by his aid will conquer it."

But the Volscians were not eager for war. They were afraid of the Romans, who had so often defeated them, and Attius sought in vain to stir them to hostility. Failing to rouse there by eloquence, he practised craft. There was a great festival at Rome, to which had come the people of various cities, among them many of the Volscians. Attic now went privately to the Roman consuls and bade them beware of the Volscians, lest they should stir up a riot and make trouble in the city, hinting that mischief was intended. In consequence of this warning proclamation was made that every Volscian should leave Rome before the setting of the sun. This produced the effect which Attius had hoped. He met the Volscians on their way home, and found them fired with indignation against Rome. He pretended similar indignation. "You have been made a show of before all the nations," he cried. "You and your wives and children have been basely insulted. They have made war on us while their guests; if you are men you will make them rue this deed."

His words inflamed his countrymen. The story of the insult spread widely through the country, all the tribes of the Volscians took up the quarrel, and a great army was raised and set in march towards Rome, with Attius and Coriolanus at its head.

The Volscian force was greater than the Romans were prepared to meet, and the army marched victoriously onward, taking city after city, and finally encamping within five miles of Rome. When the Volscians entered Roman territory they laid waste, by order of Coriolanus, the lands of the commons, but spared those of the nobles, the exiled patrician deeming the former his foes and the latter his friends. The approach of this powerful army threw the Romans into dismay. They had been assailed so suddenly that they had made no preparations for defence, and the city seemed to lie at the mercy of its foes. The women ran to the temples to pray for the favor of the gods. The people demanded that the senate should send deputies to the invading army to treat for peace. The senate, apparently no less frightened than the people, obeyed, sending five leading Patricians to the Volscian camp.

These deputies were haughtily received by Coriolanus, who offered them the following severe terms: "We will give you no peace till you restore to the Volscians all the land and cities which Rome has ever taken from them, and till you make them citizens of Rome, and give them all the rights in your city which you have yourselves."

These conditions the deputies had no power to accept, and they threw the senate into dismay. The deputies were sent again, instructed to ask for gentler terms, but now, Coriolanus refused even to let them enter his camp.

This harsh repulse plunged Rome into mortal terror. The senate, helpless to resist, now sent the priests of the gods and the augurs, all clothed in their sacred garments, and bearing the sacred emblems from the temples. But even this solemn delegation Coriolanus refused to receive, and sent them back to Rome unheard.

Where all this time was the Roman army, which always before and after made itself heard and felt? This we are not told. We are in the land of legend, and cannot look for too much consistency. For once in its history Rome seems to have forgotten that its mission was not to plead, but to fight. Perhaps its armies had been beaten and demoralized in previous battles. At any rate we can but tell the story as it is told to us.

The help of delegates, priests, and augurs having proved unavailing, that of women was next sought. A noble lady, Valeria by name, who with other suppliants had sought the Temple of Jupiter, was inspired by a sudden thought, which seemed sent by the god himself. Rising, and bidding the other noble ladies to accompany her, she proceeded to the house of Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus, whom she found with Virgilia, his wife, and his little children.

"We have come to ask you to join us," she said, "in order that we women, without aid from man, may deliver our country and win for ourselves a name more glorious even than that of the Sabine wives of old, who stopped the battle between their husbands and fathers. Come with us to the camp of Caius, and let us pray him to show us mercy."

"It is well thought of; we shall go with you." said Volumnia, and, with Virgilia and her children, the noble matron prepared to seek the camp and tent of her exiled son.

It was a sad and solemn spectacle, as this train of noble ladies, clad in their habiliments of woe, and with bent heads and sorrowful faces, wound through the hostile camp, from which they were not excluded, like the men. Even the Volscian soldiers watched them with pitying eyes and spoke no word as they moved slowly past. On reaching the midst of the camp, they saw Coriolanus on the general's seat, with the Volscian chiefs gathered around him.

At first he wondered who these women could be. But when they came near, and he saw his mother at the head of the train, his deep love for her welled up so strongly in his heart that he could not restrain himself, but sprang up and ran to meet and kiss her. The Roman matron stopped him with a dignified gesture, saying,—

"Ere you kiss me, let me know whether I am speaking to an enemy or to my son; whether I stand here as your prisoner or your mother."

He stood before her in silence, with bent head, and unable to speak.

"Must it then be that if I had never borne a son, Rome would have never seen the camp of an enemy?" said Volumnia, in sorrowful tones. "But I am too old to bear much longer your shame and my misery. Think not of me, but of your wife and children, whom you would doom to death or to life in bondage."

Then Virgilia and the children came up and kissed him, and all the noble ladies in the train burst into tears and bemoaned the peril of their country. Coriolanus still stood silent, his face working with contending thoughts. At length he cried out, in heart-rending accents, "O mother, what have you done to me?"

Clasping her hand, he wrung it vehemently, saying, "Mother, the victory is yours! A happy victory for you and Rome, but shame and ruin to your son."

Then he embraced her with yearning heart, and afterwards clasped his wife and children to his breast, bidding them return with their tale of conquest to Rome. As for himself, he said, only exile and shame remained.

Before the women reached home the army of the Volscians was on its homeward march. Coriolanus never led them against Rome again. He lived and died in exile, far from his wife and children. When very old, he sadly remarked, "That now in his old age he knew the full bitterness of banishment."

The Romans, to honor Volumnia and those who had gone with her to the Volscian camp, built a temple to "Woman's Fortune" on the spot where Coriolanus had yielded to his mother's entreaties; and the first priestess of this temple was Valeria, who had been inspired in the temple of Jupiter with the thought that saved Rome.