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Helene A. Guerber

The Story of Coriolanus

T HE plebeians returned to Rome as soon as they were sure that their rights would be respected. They had no sooner arrived, however, than they once more armed themselves, and went out to fight the Volscians, who had taken advantage of the revolt to rise up against Rome. The victory was soon won, and the army came back to the city, where, in spite of the tribunes' efforts, new quarrels arose between the patricians and plebeians.

One of the principal causes of discontent was that the patricians now regretted having given any rights to the plebeians, and were always seeking some good excuse to reduce them to their former state of subjection.

Three years after the revolt of the plebeians, there was a great famine in Rome. The poor, as usual, suffered the most, and they were almost starved, when a king of Sicily took pity upon them and gave them a great quantity of wheat.

The wheat was sent to the senate, with a request that it should be divided among the suffering plebeians. Now, as you surely remember, none but the patricians were allowed to belong to the senate, and they gladly took charge of the wheat. But, instead of distributing it immediately, they kept it, saying that it would be given to the poor only on condition that they gave up the right of electing tribunes and ædiles.

The plebeians were in despair. They were unwilling to lose their dearly-won rights, and still they were so hungry that they could scarcely resist the temptation to do as the senators wished, for the sake of getting food for themselves and their families. They were very indignant that such a cruel advantage should be taken of their misery; and, when they found that the plan had been suggested by a Roman named Coriolanus, they hated him.

In their anger they loudly accused Coriolanus of treason, and made such fierce threats that the senate did not dare to protect him. Coriolanus therefore fled from Rome, swearing that he would take his revenge; and he went to join the Volscians.

The Volscians, you know, were the enemies of Rome. They had already made war against the proud city, and had lost part of their lands. They therefore received Coriolanus with joy, and gave him the command of their army; for they knew that he was an excellent warrior.

Coriolanus then led them straight to Rome. On the way, he won one victory after another over the Roman troops, and took village after village. Such was his success that the Romans began to fear for their city. The plebeians, moreover, heard that he was ravaging their lands and destroying all their property, while he did no harm to the farms of the patricians; and they began to tremble for their lives.

When the victorious exile was only five miles away, a deputation of senators went out to meet him, and implored him to spare the city. But Coriolanus would not listen to their entreaties. He was equally deaf to the prayers of the priests and of the Vestal Virgins, who next came to beseech him to have mercy upon Rome.


Coriolanus before Rome.

The Romans were in despair. They thought their last hour had come, but they made a final effort to disarm the anger of Coriolanus, by sending his mother, wife, and children, at the head of all the women of Rome, to intercede for them.

When the banished Coriolanus saw his mother, Veturia, and his wife, Volumnia, heading this procession, he ran forward to embrace them. Then the women all fell at his feet, and begged him so fervently to spare their country that the tears came to his eyes.

He would not yield, however, until his mother exclaimed: "My son, thou shall enter Rome only over my dead body!"

These words almost broke his heart, for he was a good son, and dearly loved Veturia. He could no longer resist her prayers, in spite of his oath and promises to the Volscians that he would make them masters of Rome. Bursting into tears, he cried: "Mother, thou hast saved Rome and lost thy son."

The tears of the Roman women now gave way to cries of joy, and the procession returned in triumph to Rome. Only Veturia and Volumnia were sad, because Coriolanus could not accompany them, and because they could not forget his exclamation, and feared for his life.

When the women were gone, Coriolanus led his disappointed army home. Some historians say that he dwelt quietly among the Volscians until he died of old age, while others declare that they were so angry with him for betraying them and sparing Rome, that they put him to death.

According to a third version of the story, Coriolanus died of grief, because he had left Rome and nearly caused her ruin, and because to save his native city he had been obliged to betray the Volscians who had trusted him.

The spot where Veturia and Volumnia had knelt in tears before Coriolanus was considered as hallowed ground. Here the Romans built a temple dedicated to the Fortune of Women. They never forgot how generously Coriolanus had spared them, when they were at his mercy; and when he died, all the women of the city wore mourning for him, as they had worn it for Brutus.

Thus, you see, even in those ancient times the people knew that it was nobler to conquer one's own evil passions than to win a great victory; and that a man who is brave enough to own himself in the wrong and to do right, is more worthy of honor than many another hero.