Gateway to the Classics: Stories from the History of Rome by Emily Beesly
 
Stories from the History of Rome by  Emily Beesly

Caius Marcius and His Mother

T HERE was a noble lady in Rome named Volumnia, whose husband had died, leaving her with one little son, who was called Caius Marcius. Volumnia was a brave and noble woman, and she spent all her time in bringing up her son, and in making him what she thought a Roman ought to be—brave and honourable, and able to bear toil and hardship. And Caius loved and honoured her, and made her happy by obeying her and trying to please her in every way. But he had a proud and haughty temper, and was often fierce and even cruel to those whom he did not love. In person he was strong and active, and from his childhood he loved to learn the use of weapons. As he grew older he practised himself constantly in wrestling, racing, and all kinds of manly games, and thus he became so strong and skilful and swift of foot that none of the young men of Rome could compare with him.

When Caius was still very young he went out to war for the first time, when Aulus Postumius led the Roman army to fight against the proud King Tarquin, and won the great victory at the Lake Regillus. Caius Marcius behaved with great bravery in this battle, and after the fight was over the general gave him a crown of oak leaves—the reward usually given to a soldier who had saved the life of a Roman. How glad must Marcius have felt when he came back to Rome and met his mother's eyes, and knew that she was proud of her dear son!

From this time Marcius was always eager to win fame in war; and he was never satisfied with what he had done, but always tried to do more and more glorious deeds. He thought himself most happy when he could return to Rome after having fought bravely, and bring his spoils and his triumphal garlands to his mother, that he might see her joy in his glory.

Now a war broke out between the Romans and the Volscians, and the Consul Cominius led an army against a Volscian town called Corioli, and besieged it. Then, leaving part of the army with Titus Lartius, a very brave old officer, Cominius went towards Antium, another Volscian town, to meet the Volscian army. While he was gone the men of Corioli came out of their town, and attacked a party of Romans who were under the command of Marcius. He and his soldiers beat back the attack of the Volscians, and drove them into the city. Then Marcius cried out,

"The gates are open for the conquerors as well as for the conquered."

And, so saying, he with very few following him rushed into Corioli in pursuit of the Volscians. In the town he fought with the greatest bravery and the Volscians could not drive him out till Lartius and his army came to help him, and so the town was taken.

The Roman soldiers at once began to plunder Corioli; but Marcius told them it was shameful for them to be collecting spoil and plundering, when the Consul Cominius and his troops were perhaps at that very moment fighting the Volscians. He put himself at the head of those who were willing to go with him, and got to the place where Cominius was just as the battle was going to begin. Marcius begged the consul to let him fight in the place where the danger was the greatest; and the consul admiring his courage granted what he asked.

When the battle began, Marcius charged the Volscians with such fury that he broke through their ranks, and he was in great danger, and badly wounded, but the consul sent his own guards to help him, and the Volscians were put to flight. The soldiers then begged Marcius to go to his tent that his wounds might be dressed and he might rest himself; but he only said, "It is not for conquerors to be tired," and he joined them in pursuing the enemy.

Next day the consul made a speech to the army, and he praised the gallant deeds of Marcius.

"Of all the plunder that we have gained," he said, "we will give the tenth part to Marcius, who has so well deserved it; and I myself wish to give him a beautiful horse, to show him how much I admire his valour."

Marcius came forward before the army to answer the consul.

"I must refuse the reward you offer me," he said; "I cannot take a bribe to pay my sword. I will take my one share like the other soldiers. But your horse I will accept—and besides I will ask a boon. I have a friend among the Volscian prisoners, and I would ask for his freedom."

All the army praised Marcius for his generosity, and the consul said,

"We will give to Marcius a reward that he cannot refuse; and that is, that from this day he shall be called Coriolanus, after the town of Corioli, which he won for Rome."

Soon after this there was a great famine in Rome. During the wars and troubles of the last year the land had not been tilled, and the seed corn had not been sown; so now very little corn was to be had, and the people could hardly get bread to eat. But a great deal of corn was brought from Sicily, and the Senate met to talk over the rate at which the people should be allowed to buy it—that is, how much money they must pay for it.

Now, Caius Marcius—or Coriolanus, as he must now be called—was, as I told you, a very proud man. He thought because he was rich and of a noble family, that he was better than the poor plebeians, as the common people of Rome were called, forgetting that a poor man may be as good and as brave as a rich one; and that a working man may love his country just as well, and be as ready to die to serve it as the greatest noble. He wished that the nobles—the patricians they were called in Rome—should have the power to govern the country as they pleased, and that the common people should have no voice in the matter. He was also very angry because some time before the Senate had allowed the people to choose some men called tribunes, who were to defend any poor man who was in trouble, and in all sorts of ways to do all they could to help the plebeians against the nobles.

When the Senate met to fix about selling the Sicilian corn, Coriolanus stood up and made a speech to them.

"If the people," said he, "want this corn to be sold to them as cheaply as it used to be, let them give back to the Senate all the power it used to possess. Shall we, who could not endure to have the Tarquins ruling over us, submit to these low-born tribunes? Let us make the people give them up to us, and never have another tribune in Rome. If the people want corn, let them steal it, as they did three years ago, if they will not do as the Senate bids them."

When the people heard of what Coriolanus had said, their anger was very great.

"Coriolanus," they cried, "would make us do his will by starving us, the people of Rome, as if we were enemies. He will take from us this foreign corn, which is our only chance of getting bread for our children, unless we give up our tribunes to him. He will either make us slaves, or force us to die of hunger."

They ran to attack Coriolanus, and he might have been killed, but the tribunes came between, and ordered him to be tried for what he had said. At first he treated the threats of the tribunes with scorn; but the rage of the people was so great that the Senate were afraid, and thought it best to punish Coriolanus rather than that there should be war in the city. So he was tried, and was condemned to be banished, or sent away from Rome for all his life. The people were much delighted at this sentence, and the nobles were in the greatest distress; so that it was easy to see by men's faces to what party they belonged—he who looked glad and cheerful was a plebeian, and he who looked downcast and sad was a patrician.

Coriolanus himself was the only one who did not show any grief. He was too proud to do so. He went home to his own house and bade farewell to his wife and mother, who were in the greatest sorrow. He told them they must bear this trouble patiently, and then he left them, and went out of the city. He resolved that he would go to the country of the Volscians, for his anger was so great against the Romans that he hoped to be able to revenge himself on them by the help of their old enemies.

So he came to Antium, where lived Tullus Aufidius, the greatest warrior among the Volscians. Coriolanus went into the house of Tullus without anyone noticing him, and sat down by the fire, covering his face with his cloak. The people of the house were much surprised when they saw him, but so grand and noble were his look and manner that they dared not speak to him or ask him any questions. At last they went to Tullus himself, who was at supper, to tell him about this stranger.

Tullus rose directly and went to the unknown guest, and asked him who he was. Coriolanus stood up, and uncovering his face,

"I am Caius Marcius," he said, "the man who has done so much to harm the Volscians. For all the hard toil and danger that I have gone through I have no reward but the name of Coriolanus. The ungrateful and envious people of Rome have driven me away from their city. I come to ask if you will let me help you to fight against the Romans; for now instead of loving them I hate them, and will do my best to punish them, and to fight for you."

Tullus was greatly pleased to hear what Coriolanus said.

"Take courage, Marcius," answered he. "We accept your offer of help, and you shall find that the Volscians will be more grateful to you than the Romans have been."

And from that day Coriolanus lived in the house of Tullus, and they were friends.

Not long after this there was a quarrel between the Volscians and the Romans, and the Volscians chose Coriolanus and Tullus for their generals. It was agreed that Coriolanus should lead an army of Volscians to attack the Romans at once, and that Tullus should remain behind, to collect fresh troops, and to see that the Volscian towns were properly defended.

The Volscians were greatly pleased with the courage and warlike skill of their new general; and they praised him so often and so much, that Tullus began to think that all his own deeds would be forgotten, and he grew jealous of Coriolanus, and wished that he had never helped him to make friends with the Volscians.

News was brought to Rome that the banished Coriolanus, at the head of a large Volscian army, was marching to attack them, and soon they heard of his taking one town after another that lay between Rome and the country of the Volscians. At last he arrived at a place only five miles from Rome, and then all the people were in the greatest terror. The women ran up and down the streets in their fear, the old men were seen weeping and praying before the altars of the gods, and the whole city was filled with confusion and alarm.

The people and Senate agreed to send messengers to Coriolanus to beg him to put an end to the war, and to ask him to come home and be a Roman once more. So they chose for messengers men who were all friends or relations of Coriolanus, supposing that he would treat with respect and kindness those whom he had loved before he was banished. But when the messengers came to the Volscian camp, they were led before Coriolanus, who was seated in state, with his chief officers about him. He received them with a very severe manner, and as if they had been all strangers to him. He told them that the Romans must give back to the Volscians all the lands they had taken from them in former wars.

"If you do not do this," said he, "you shall have no peace."

So the messengers went back to Rome, sad at heart, to tell the people of these hard terms. The Romans in great fear sent the messengers back again to Coriolanus, but he refused to let them come into his camp. After this the priests in their robes went to try if they could persuade him to show mercy, but they could not alter his resolve. He told them that the Romans must either give up their lands, as he had said, or fight.

Now when the Romans had almost lost the hope of being able to defend themselves against their terrible enemy, some of the Roman ladies went to Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus, to ask her and his wife, Virgilia, to go to him, and to beg him to spare the city. When the ladies had spoken, Volumnia said,

"All the Romans are unhappy, but we are more unhappy than all. For we see my son, Virgilia's husband, fighting against his own country. I know not if he have any love for us left, as he has none for his country, which used to be dearer to him than mother, wife, or children. But we will go to him if you wish it. If he will not listen to us, we can at least die at his feet begging him to have mercy on Rome."

So Volumnia and Virgilia took the two little sons of Coriolanus with them, and went with the other women to the Volscian camp.

When they got there the soldiers allowed them to pass through it, till they came to where Coriolanus was sitting among his chief officers. The general, who had resisted the prayers of his dearest friends, and of the priests who begged him in the name of the gods to spare Rome, was not inclined to pay any attention to a band of sorrowing women; but one of his attendants cried out suddenly,

"If my eyes do not deceive me, general, yonder stand your mother and your wife and children!"

Coriolanus was greatly surprised; he sprang from his seat, and ran to embrace his mother. But when he came near her she bade him stop.

"Before you embrace me," she said, "let me know if I am come to my son or to an enemy—if I am your mother or a prisoner in your camp. Has my life lasted so many years only that I should see you first banished, and now the enemy of Rome? Could you plunder the country in which you were born, and which has fed you for so many years? Did not your anger grow less when you came into these parts? Did not you think, when you came in sight of Rome, 'Within those walls is my home; there are my mother, wife, and children?' If you had not been born Rome would not have been attacked. If I had never had a son I might have died a free woman in a free country. Now what I suffer is shameful to you and most sad to me; yet, however miserable you make me, it cannot be for long, for if you go on to conquer Rome, you must pass over the dead body of your mother."

Then she and his wife and children threw themselves on their knees at his feet, and begged him to have mercy on Rome. Coriolanus was shocked to see his mother kneeling before him.

"O mother," he said as he raised her up, "what have you done? You have gained a great victory for Rome, but it will be ruinous to me. I go, conquered by you alone."

So he sent the ladies back to Rome, and next morning he led the Volscian army away to Antium.

Some of the Volscians were very angry with Coriolanus because he had not gone on and conquered Rome, and among these was Tullus Aufidius. Tullus was also jealous of Coriolanus, because his great courage and skill in war had made the Volscians think more of him than they did of Tullus.

Tullus therefore resolved to kill Coriolanus, and collected a number of his friends who agreed to help him. They called on Coriolanus to give an account of what he had done before Rome to the people of Antium; and when he stood up to speak, they cried out that a traitor ought not to be heard, rushed on him, and stabbed him. So he died; but the Volscians gave him an honourable funeral, and raised a monument to his memory.


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