Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman

Caius Marcius Coriolanus

Caius Marcius Coriolanus belonged to the noble Marcii family, and was early distinguished for his courage and for his deep interest in all that pertained to war. So when Tarquinius Superbus tried to replace himself on the throne, as has been related in the life of Publicola, young Marcius gladly embraced the opportunity of appearing on the battlefield. In one of the engagements he distinguished himself by stepping into the place of a Roman soldier who had been disabled and killing his assailant. For this brave deed he was crowned after the battle with a wreath of oak-leaves, it being the custom in Rome so to adorn any soldier who saved the life of another. This crown could be worn whenever the owner chose, and entitled him to marked respect.

After that Marcius performed so many exploits that there was scarcely a battle from which he did not return crowned. This only fired his ambition to do better, and his mother's warm embrace as she received him crowned with laurels delighted his heart. His father had died when Marcius was an infant, so all his love was bestowed on his mother, from whom he never lived apart, even after he was married and had a family of his own.

Marcius added much to his glory during the war between the Romans and the Volscians. Cominius, the consul, surrounded Corioli, the principal city of the Volscians, whereupon the rest of the nation sent all their forces, so that an attack might be made upon the enemy from within and without the walls at the same time. But Cominius would not risk such an encounter; he therefore divided his army, and leaving part under the command of Titus Lartius, one of the bravest Romans of his time, to continue the siege, he led the other part out to meet the approaching Volscian troops.

Those within the walls of Corioli thought they could easily manage the small army that remained, and so gave them battle, and drove them into their trenches. Then Marcius, with a few selected warriors, flew at the Volscians, and cut to pieces all that he encountered, calling at the same time on his countrymen to renew the battle.

Encouraged by his voice and example, the Romans rallied and fought the enemy to their very gates. Thousands of darts rained down upon the besiegers from the walls, and they were on the point of retreating, when Marcius cried out, in tones remarkable for their power, "Fortune has opened the gates of Corioli to receive the conquerors!" Followed by a handful of brave men, he pushed his way through the crowd into the city. A combat followed which resulted in victory for Marcius. Some of the citizens of Corioli sought refuge in the interior, while the rest laid down their arms. Then Lartius led in the rest of the Romans, who at once began their work of pillage.

But Marcius was not satisfied. He reproached the soldiers, and told them that it was disgraceful for them thus to spend their time when the consul and his troops were perhaps engaged with the other Volscians; drawing about him the few who were willing to sacrifice the booty that lay before them, he hastened along the road Cominius had taken, praying to the gods as he went that he might arrive before the fight was over.

It was the custom among the Romans just before going to battle, while girding on their bucklers, to make a verbal will in the presence of three or four hearers. The army of Cominius was thus engaged, with the enemy in sight, when Marcius entered the camp all besmeared with blood, and attended by his small train. All thought that he had come to report defeat, but when after a moment's conversation Cominius embraced and saluted him, they knew that Corioli had fallen, and cried out to be led to battle.

Marcius inquired where the best soldiers among the enemy were stationed, and on being told in the centre, said, "Let me be granted the favor of being posted against them." He had his wish, and wherever he went he broke the Volscian ranks. Once he was completely surrounded, when, seeing the danger, the consul sent some of his choicest men to the rescue. These fought so hard that they drove the enemy from the field. Marcius was then urged to retire to the camp and rest, for he was faint from loss of blood, but he said, "Weariness is not for conquerors," and joined in the pursuit of the Volscians until part were killed and the rest captured.

The next day, when Marcius Coriolanus presented himself at the tent of Cominius, he received a hearty welcome and loud praise for his remarkable achievements. The consul then told Marcius to choose a tenth part of the booty, the horses, and the captives as his reward before the regular division was made among the soldiers, and presented him with a fine horse covered with rich trappings and ornaments. The whole army applauded; but the hero only accepted the horse, and, after thanking Cominius for his approval of his deeds, refused any other reward except what fell to his share.

"I have one special favor to ask," he added, "which I hope will not be denied me; it is that one of the prisoners, a worthy man, whose hospitality I have enjoyed, now reduced from wealth and freedom to captivity, may not be sold as a common slave."

Applause louder and longer than before greeted this request, for the men were more impressed by Marcius's refusing the rich reward offered to him and by his kind remembrance of his friend than they had been by his bravery on the battlefield. As soon as quiet was restored, Cominius said, "It is useless, fellow-soldiers, to force gifts upon one who is unwilling to receive them; but let us offer him that which he cannot reject: let us pass a vote that he shall henceforth be called Coriolanus, on account of his actions at Corioli." This is how he came by his third name.

When the war was over there was such a scarcity of provisions in Rome that a famine was feared, and great disturbance was the consequence. There had been frequent quarrels between the rich and the poor, and now the orators stirred up the latter to the belief that the Patricians, as the noble class was called, had brought about the scarcity of food out of revenge. The senate did not know what to do, but Marcius did not wait for them to decide. He secured as many volunteers as possible, marched into the territory of the Antiates, and returned to Rome with a rich supply of corn, cattle, and slaves, no part of which he kept for himself.

Those who had stayed quietly at home were filled with envy when they saw Marcius again victorious, and began to talk about the danger of his growing power.

Not long after, he presented himself in the Forum as a candidate for consul. This was a period of purity, a golden age, when bribery had not been resorted to, and a man solicited the votes of his fellow-citizens on account of his merit. So Marcius appeared in the Forum wearing only a loose gown, or toga, and no tunic. Thus attired, the scars he had received during his seventeen years' service in battle could be plainly seen, and the people told one another that they could not help creating him consul when he displayed such marks of merit. If the election had taken place then and there, Marcius would have received the office he desired, but he made this mistake: when election-day came he appeared not displaying his scars, but handsomely clad and attended by a train of senators. The other Patricians made such efforts to secure his election that the common people rejected him merely for the sake of opposition.

Coriolanus was so indignant that he burst into a violent fit of rage, which the angry remarks of his friends among the young noblemen encouraged. He vowed that he would be avenged, and they promised to uphold him in all he did.

His time came when grain was brought in large quantities to Rome from various parts of Italy and from the King of Sicily, who sent it as a present. The senate assembled to distribute it, and the people flocked in crowds, expecting to buy very cheap, and to get what the king had sent without charge.

Then Coriolanus stood up and declared boldly that he was opposed to any favors being shown the Plebeians, as the common people were called. He said that they were no longer to be trusted, since they were unwilling to obey magistrates not of their own class; that they were traitors whose insolence ought to deprive them of any favors whatsoever. He added much more, but the most aggravating part of his speech was the proposition to keep the price of corn as high as ever, and thus prevent the people from becoming independent.

When the crowd heard what Coriolanus had said, they were so angry that they wanted to break in upon the senate. Thereupon the tribunes assured them that the offender should be punished, and that they should be fairly dealt with regarding the price of food. After a short consultation, Sicinius, the boldest of the tribunes, announced that Marcius Coriolanus was condemned to die, and ordered the magistrates to take him to the top of the Tarpeian rock and throw him down the precipice.

Even his enemies were shocked at such a sentence; but his friends closed around him and would not allow the officers to come near, while he stood prepared to make a desperate resistance. Finding that he could not be taken without a great deal of bloodshed, the tribunes decided to leave his fate to the people, and let them say what should be done with him. Sicinius then turned to the Patricians and asked, "What do you mean by rescuing Marcius when he is on the eve of punishment?" They answered, "What do you mean by thus dragging one of the worthiest men in Rome, without trial, to a barbarous execution?" "If that be all," returned Sicinius, "the people grant you what you desire: the man shall have his trial. As for you, Marcius, we request you on the third market-day to appear and defend yourself; the Roman citizens will then decide your case by vote."

Several charges were brought against Coriolanus, some just, some unjust, when the trial took place, and he was condemned by a majority of votes to perpetual banishment. This sentence was received by the Plebeians with loud expressions of joy; but the Patricians felt and looked sad and depressed. Marcius alone appeared unmoved, because he was too indignant to show what he suffered. He went to his own home, bade farewell to his mother and his wife, and then left Rome, being accompanied to the city gate by the Patricians in a body. The next few days he spent at one of his farms in the neighborhood, turning over in his mind the best method of revenging himself. At last he decided to stir up some nation to a cruel war against the Romans, and fixed upon the Volscians as most likely to favor his plan. They had been defeated, but they were still strong in men and money, which they would, he did not doubt, be ready to use against Rome.

So one evening he went secretly to the town of Antium in disguise, and made his way to the house of Tullus Aufidius, a man of wealth, influence, and noble birth among the Volscians. He entered without speaking to anybody, proceeded straight to the hearth, seated himself there, and covered up his head.

As the household gods of the Romans were always placed on the hearth, it was considered a sacred spot, and any person desiring assistance, no matter of what character, went there for refuge. Something impressive in the appearance and the silence of Coriolanus prevented the people of the house from disturbing him; but they went to Tullus, who was at supper, and told him that a stranger had come who probably desired to speak with him. Tullus rose from the table, and, going towards the visitor, asked who he was, and upon what business he had come. Uncovering his face, Coriolanus looked for a moment at the Volscian, and spoke thus: "If thou dost not know me, Tullus, I must be my own accuser. I am Caius Marcius, who have brought so many misfortunes on your people; and as a proof of that I bear the additional name of Coriolanus, which is all the reward I have for the labors and dangers I have undergone. Of everything else I am robbed by the envy of the people on the one hand and the cowardice and treachery of the magistrates on the other. Driven from Rome as an exile, I come as a suppliant to thy household gods,—not for protection, for were I afraid to die I should not come here, but for vengeance on those who have wronged me. I begin by putting myself in thy hands. If thou art disposed to attack the enemy, brave Tullus, take advantage of my misfortunes; let my personal distress be the happiness of thy countrymen, and be assured that I shall fight much better for thee than I ever fought against thee. But if thou hast given up all thoughts of war, I neither desire to live nor is it fit for thee to preserve one who has been thine enemy and is not able to do thee any sort of service."

Tullus was delighted with this address; taking the hand of the Roman in his, he said, "Rise, Marcius, and take courage. The present you make us of yourself is of great value, and you may be sure that the Volscians will not prove ungrateful." He then feasted him, and the two men spent several of the following days consulting together about the war. They took the principal men of Antium into their confidence also, and all felt the difficulty of invading Rome because of a treaty of peace which had been sworn to for two years.

Coriolanus was not a man to stop at trifles; having resolved to fight, he managed in this way to make the Romans themselves furnish a pretext. He sent a message to the consuls that it was the intention of the Volscians residing in Rome to fall upon the citizens during the public games and set the city on fire. The consequence was a proclamation ordering the Volscians to depart before sunset. That was enough; such an indignity was not to be borne patiently, and Tullus did what he could to work on the feelings of his countrymen until he persuaded them at last to send ambassadors to Rome to demand that the land taken from the Volscians during the late war should be returned. The reply they received was "that the Volscians were the first to break the treaty and take up arms, but the Romans would be the last to lay them down."

Then Tullus called an assembly, and the majority voted for war. By his advice Marcius was chosen to share the command of the army with him, and so impatient was the latter to begin operations that before all the arrangements were completed he marched with part of the troops to the confines of Rome, and created such a panic by his unexpected appearance that the Volscians took more booty than they could carry away or use in camp. But this was not all that Marcius desired. He had wickedly made up his mind to increase the ill feeling that existed between the Patricians and the Plebeians, so he ordered his soldiers to destroy right and left everything that they could not carry away, but on no account to lay hands on a Patrician estate. The consequence was that the people accused the rich of encouraging Coriolanus to attack Rome because they knew that he would offer them no injury.

While disorder reigned and the two parties in Rome quarrelled and disputed, Coriolanus was marching about from city to city, plundering, killing, and increasing the wealth and number of his army. At last he laid siege to Lavinium, where the images and sacred things of the gods were kept. Then the Romans became so terrified that they demanded the recall of Coriolanus.

At first the senate refused, but when the enemy advanced to within five miles of Rome they sent ambassadors to ask Coriolanus to forget the past and return.

He received them seated in state, surrounded by Volscian officers, and replied, "As general of the Volscians I demand all the territory seized by the Romans in the late war, also the same rights and privileges for the people I command as are granted to the Latins, otherwise peace cannot be lasting. I give you thirty days to decide."

The Volscian forces were then led out of the Roman territory, but attacks were continued on other cities in Italy, and Coriolanus took possession of seven important ones. When the thirty days had passed, the ambassadors were sent again, not to agree to the terms proposed by Coriolanus, but to ask him to withdraw the Volscian army, and then to make any proposals he thought best for both parties. He refused, but granted to the Romans three days more for consideration of the matter. The senate were in despair, for the city was in a perfect uproar, and with a powerful enemy at their very gates ready to pounce down upon them at a moment's notice, nobody had the heart to engage in regular pursuits.

Here was a case that called for extraordinary measures: so a decree was issued that the whole order of priests, soothsayers, and priestesses should go in full procession, attired in their sacred robes and carrying all the emblems of their holy offices, to see what impression they could make on the now terrible Marcius. They were admitted to the camp, received with mildness and patiently listened to, but nothing was granted to them. They were sent away with this choice: either to yield to the terms proposed or to fight. So much had been expected from the intercession of the holy ambassadors that their failure made matters worse than before. In their despair the Romans resolved to remain within their walls, and merely defend themselves when the attack should be made, trusting to the friendliness of the gods to put off the evil day.

In this dreadful season of uncertainty the women of Rome daily congregated at the various temples to pray for the safety of their homes and families. Those of the highest rank met at the altar of Jupiter Capitolinus, and it was one of their number who hit upon a plan that no member of the senate would ever have thought of. Her name was Valeria, and she was sister of the great Publicola, whose services were of so much value to his country. "Come," said she to her companions, as though suddenly seized with divine inspiration, "let us go to Volumnia, the mother of Marcius; she and Vergilia, his wife, may succeed where all others have failed."

On arriving at the house, they found the mother sitting with her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. Valeria stepped forward from amidst the score of ladies who accompanied her, and spoke thus: "We have come to you, Volumnia, and you, Vergilia, as women to women, not by the direction of the senate or an order from the consuls, but prompted by the Divine Being himself, to entreat you to do a thing that will save us and raise your glory above that of the Sabine women, who won over their fathers and husbands from mortal enmity to peace and friendship. Arise and come with us to Coriolanus; help us to bear testimony in behalf of our country, that in spite of the many wrongs that have been put upon her she has never once done you an injury, but now restores you safe into his hands, though she may not on that account obtain better terms for herself."

Volumnia made answer: "Vergilia and I, my countrywomen, not only share with you the common misery, but we have the sorrow besides of knowing that Marcius is lost to us, his glory dimmed, his virtue gone, for we behold him surrounded by the arms of the enemy, not as their prisoner but as their commander. It is the greatest of all misfortunes that our country has become so weak as to rest her hopes upon us, for since Marcius has no regard for the country which he used to love better than mother, wife, or child, we can scarcely hope that he will listen to us. However, lead us, if you please, to him; if we can do nothing else we can at least expire at his feet pleading for Rome."



Having thus spoken, she took Vergilia and the children by the hand, and, after gaining the approval of the senate and consuls, proceeded with the Roman matrons to the Volscian camp. Their appearance touched the sympathies of the enemy, and when they approached the general he was overcome at the sight of his dear ones, who headed the line. He came quickly forward, embraced his mother, then his wife and children, and burst into tears. After a few moments Volumnia spoke as follows, in the presence of the Volscian counsellors, who had drawn near: "You see, my son, by our attire and miserable looks to what a forlorn condition your banishment has reduced us. Now ask yourself whether we are not the most wretched of women,—Volumnia who beholds her son and Vergilia her husband in arms against Rome. Even prayer, whence others gain comfort in misfortune, only adds to our distress, for we cannot ask the gods at the same time for our country's victory and your preservation. Your wife and children must see either Rome or you perish. As for myself, I shall not wait for war to decide, for if I cannot prevail with you to prefer peace to hostility and become the benefactor of both parties rather than the destroyer of one, rest assured that you shall never reach your country unless you trample upon the dead body of her who gave you life. It would ill become me to wait for the day when my son should come into Rome as the conqueror of his fellow-citizens, or be led into it as their captive. If I desired you to save your country by ruining the Volscians the case would be hard, for it would be quite as dishonorable to betray those who have put their trust in you as to destroy your countrymen. All we ask of you is a deliverance that will be most to the honor of the Volscians, though equally beneficial to them and to us. We ask of them the blessing of peace and friendship, which their superiority enables them to grant. If our petition meets with favor, you will be regarded as the chief cause of it; if we are repulsed, you alone must expect to bear the blame from both nations. The chances of war are uncertain. If you conquer Rome, you will have the reputation of having undone your country, but if the Volscians are defeated under you, all the world will say that to satisfy your revenge you brought misfortune to your friends and benefactors."

Marcius listened to his mother, but said not a word. Wondering at his silence, she spoke again: "My son, why are you silent? Is it an honor to yield everything to revenge, and a disgrace to grant your mother so important a petition? Does it become a great man to remember injuries done him, and to forget the reverence he owes his parents? Surely you, of all men, should take care to be grateful who have suffered so much from ingratitude. Yet you have not made your mother the least return for her kindness and devotion. The most sacred ties of nature and religion require you to indulge me in this reasonable and just request, but if it must be so, this only is left." She fell on her knees at his feet, and Valeria and his children did the same.

"Oh, mother, what is it you have done?" cried Coriolanus, as he raised her from the ground and tenderly pressed her hand. "You have gained a victory fortunate for the Romans, but ruinous to your son! By you alone am I defeated."

Although he knew that the Volscians would never forgive him for granting a favor to their enemies, he broke up the camp the next morning and led them homeward.

When the Roman matrons returned home all the temples were thrown open, and people crowned themselves to prepare for the sacrifices, as it was their custom to do when news of a great victory was brought to them. The extent of their rejoicing showed how great their misery had been. The senate passed a decree that the women who had saved their country should have any honor or favor granted them that they chose to ask.

They simply demanded that a temple should be erected to Female Fortune, offering to pay for it themselves if the city would furnish the cost of sacrifices and other matters necessary to do honor to the goddess.

The senate praised their generosity, but ordered the temple to be built at the public expense. Then the women set up a second statue of Fortune, which was said to have uttered these words when placed: "O women! most acceptable to the gods is your pious gift." We need not believe that an image spoke, but the ancient Romans had so much superstitious faith that they accepted many improbabilities as facts.

When Marcius returned to Antium he was accused of treachery by Tullus, who was jealous of his victories and his fast-growing popularity. So when he stood up before the public assembly to defend himself, Tullus and his party cried out, "We will not listen to a traitor! Volscians want no tyrant!" Amidst such exclamations they set upon Marcius and killed him on the spot.

In a subsequent battle with the Romans Tullus was slain, and the Volscians became their subjects.