Children's Plutarch: Tales of the Romans - F. J. Gould

How A Woman Saved Rome

"COMRADES, let us leave the city!"

"We will go at once!"

"There is plenty of air and water in Italy. We have no need to stay in Rome!"

"And we can die and be buried outside Rome!"


And so the common folk, or plebeians, of Rome shouted to one another as they marched through the streets with their wives and children. They thought they were wrongly treated by the richer people, who were called patricians. They did the hard work of Rome—hewed the wood, drew the water, built the houses, tilled the land; and yet they were not allowed their fair share of the government of the city.

The old men of the senate were alarmed.

"We cannot do without the working-men," they said. "We must fetch them back, or else they will found a new city."

Several senators were chosen to follow after the plebeians, and persuade them to come back. The chief among these messengers was Agrippa, and he spoke very earnestly to the people:

"Friends, Romans, countrymen: The senate desires you to return. You shall be justly treated. You shall elect some of your number to sit with the senators. We need you, and you need us."

"Ah, but do we need you patricians?" murmured the people.

"Let me tell you a fable, Romans. Once there was a man whose legs, arms, fingers, feet, and mouth made a great rebellion against his stomach. They said the stomach did nothing, while the mouth talked, the legs walked, the arms pulled, the fingers worked, the feet stamped. So the stomach refused to do anything, as they accused it of being idle. Then the body of this man pined away till it was mere skin and bone. All the parts of the body, Romans, need one another. The patricians need you working-men, and you need the patricians to lead you and advise you, in peace and war. Come back to Rome, and we will agree that you shall choose five people's men, or tribunes, who shall sit with the senate, and take a share in the ruling of the city."

The plebeians went back, and the five tribunes had seats at the door of the senate hall. Whenever the senators made a law that seemed unjust to the people, the tribunes rose from their seats and cried aloud:


This word means, "I forbid."

Among the patricians at this time was a man of noble spirit named Marcius. Very brave was his conduct at the siege of Corioli, the capital of the Volscian country. He was in the thick of the fight, and was covered with blood and sweat. The soldiers agreed to give him a new name after the town which he took, and therefore he was called Coriolanus. Much plunder was captured—gold, silver, etc. The plunder was piled in a heap before the army, and the consul of Rome told Coriolanus that he might have a beautiful horse for himself, and also a tenth part of the spoil.

"No," said he, "I will indeed accept the horse, but let the spoil be divided among the men, and I will take my share—nothing more—the same as the rest. But I will ask for one favor, sir."

"What is that?"

"Among the Volscian prisoners is a friend of mine, who will, in the usual course, be sold as a slave. Grant me his freedom, for he has been kind to me, and is a man of virtue."

All the army praised his goodness of heart, and the consul granted his desire.

For seventeen years Coriolanus, who lived in the first half of the fifth century B.C., served the city in war and in the work of governing, and at last he was made consul. But then came troubles. He had never liked the tribunes. He thought too much had been given to the common people. In his ideas he was an aristocrat—that is, he thought the superior class of men should hold the sway over the less worthy and more ignorant class. But then, you see, the plebeians would not consider themselves less worthy or more ignorant. When a large stock of corn was brought into Rome, as a present from the King of Syracuse, the people saw the loaded wagons and mules, and hoped that they might all receive shares of it gratis, or free.

"No," said the consul to the senate, "we must not yield to the people, and flatter them, and give them all they demand. If we do so, there will be no end to their requests, and the city will be filled with disorder."

The tribunes, hearing this, ran into the streets, and called the citizens together. The senate broke up in confusion.

Next morning the senators met again in the forum, and talked of the best way to deal with the corn. Some wished to sell it cheap to the people. Coriolanus said "No," and he defied the people in angry words and with haughty looks.

"He shall die!" shouted the tribunes.

They were about to carry him to the top of the Tarpeian rock, and hurl him down the precipice. His friends defended him. At length it was agreed that he should stand trial in a great assembly of the Romans on a certain market-day. The trial was held. The majority of votes were against him. What should be his punishment? Banishment for life. Never must he set foot in Rome again. His friends were deeply grieved. He alone kept a cool mind and a face unmoved. First, he went to his house and kissed his mother and wife. Then, amid a crowd of patricians, he walked firmly to one of the city gates, and there they bade him good-bye. With three or four companions he travelled into the country, staying at farm-houses. Then he went on alone.

He had dressed himself in mean garments like a rustic laborer. Where was he going? He had made up his mind to join the enemies of Rome—the very Volscians against whom he had so boldly fought.

One evening he reached the town of Antium, and walked through the streets. No one knew him. He stopped at the door of Tullus, a nobleman. Having entered, he sat down by the fire-side, close to the shelf where stood the little images of the household gods. Whoever sat by the household gods was looked upon as under their care; he must not be hurt. The people of the house were much surprised at the stranger's entrance. They hurried into the room where Tullus sat at supper, and told him.

"Who are you?" asked Tullus. "And what is your business here?"

The Roman drew the cloak away from his face, and said:

"Do you not know me, Tullus? I am he who was the foe of the Volscians. The city which I captured gave me my name, Coriolanus. But I have received an evil reward for all my service. The mob of common people insulted me. The patricians were too cowardly to assist me. I mean to take my revenge on Rome. I have come to join the Volscians. I shall fight much better for you than I have fought against you."

"Welcome," cried Tullus. "We shall be glad of your friendship, and grateful for your aid in the war against Rome."

They sat down to table, and talked long and earnestly on the best modes of carrying on the struggle.

One day Tullus called a meeting of the Volscians, and told them of the new ally, or comrade, who had come from Rome. Coriolanus then appeared before the people and addressed them. They were charmed by his speech, and declared themselves ready to follow him anywhere.

With the Volscian troops he marched toward his native city, setting fire to farm-houses and villages, and capturing fortresses, and beating back bodies of Romans who were sent out to check his progress. The city was in alarm. Women ran up and down the streets, and old men knelt praying before the altars of the gods.

Some of the senators, who had once been friends of Coriolanus, offered to go and confer with him in his camp.

"I will make peace," he replied to these messengers, "if the Romans give back all the land they have taken from the Volscians. You may have thirty days to think about it."

They returned to his camp in thirty days, and said the Romans would yield a part of the land if the Volscians would lay down their arms.

"No," he answered, "and you can now have but three more days before I resume the war."

A third party came. This consisted of priests bearing their wands and staves. To these he spoke as sternly as to the senators.

A wise lady named Valeria thought of a plan. She took a number of Roman matrons with her, and they called at the house where lived Volumnia, the aged mother of Coriolanus. They found her sitting with her daughter-in-law, the wife of Coriolanus; and his children were with the mother and grandmother.

"We come to you," said the visitors, "as women to women, not being sent by the senate or the consuls. We come to beg your help. Go along with us to Coriolanus. Tell him that, though you are his mother, the Romans have done you no harm, in spite of his joining the enemies of our city. You will bring him to a better mind."

To this Volumnia agreed. She took with her her daughter-in-law and the children, and a number of the Roman ladies accompanied her to the camp. The general sat in his chair of state, and when he saw a party approaching he at first supposed it must be the senators. As they drew nearer, to his surprise he beheld women. He saw his mother, his wife, his children. Rising from his chair, he ran to meet them and kiss them, and the tears fell from his eyes.

"My son," then said his mother, "you see how unhappy we all appear. The women in Rome are also unhappy. How else should we feel when we see a Roman encamped against Rome? A battle will be fought. Whoever wins, we shall be miserable. Your wife will see Rome beaten, or you. If you win, and if you march into Rome as a victor, you shall pass over the dead body of your mother; for I will not live to see Rome conquered by my son. Make peace, I beg of you. The Volscians are strong, and it will be to their honor to make peace; and Rome will thank you. Your mother has done much for you. What have you done for her?"

So saying, the old matron knelt at his feet, as did also his wife and children.

"Oh, mother!" cried Coriolanus, as he raised her up, "what have you done? You have gained a victory, and saved Rome, but ruined me."

He sent the women back to Rome, and the next morning he drew off the army and marched it back to the Volscian country. The Volscians let him do so, for they felt that only Coriolanus was able enough a leader to conduct the war against Rome. Without him there could be little worth doing. The Romans rejoiced, and the citizens crowded to the temples to place garlands of flowers on the altars of the gods. All the men praised the work of the women who had gone with such courage to the camp and prayed for mercy.

The elders of the senate met, and made a decree that the women might have whatever reward they chose.

"We desire only one thing," said the Roman ladies. "Let a new temple be built for the Good-Fortune of Women. We will subscribe the money for the building."

The senate said the temple should be set up at the public expense.

Nevertheless, the Roman ladies each paid what they were able to the fund; and when the temple was built, about four miles outside the city, on the spot where the tent of Coriolanus had rested, the first priestess to take charge of it was the aged mother who had saved Rome.

Not long afterward Coriolanus was killed by the daggers of the Volscians, who were angry because he had spared Rome.

I am not sure what you will think of the conduct of Coriolanus. But I am sure you will admire the action of Volumnia and the matrons. And you girls who read this story will, I hope, see that you have a part to play for your city and your country.