Caius Marcius was a noble Roman youth, who 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 joy to his mother, Volumnia, whom he loved exceedingly, it being his greatest pleasure to receive praise from her lips.
He afterward 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. Through Caius's bravery the place was taken, and the Roman general said: "Henceforth, let him be called after the name of this city." So ever after he was known as 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 promise to obey the Patricians, as their fathers did. Let them 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 a fury, and a mob gathered around the doors of the Senate house, prepared to seize and tear him in pieces when he came out. But the tribunes prevented this, and Coriolanus 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 became the friend of Rome's great enemy, whom he had formerly helped to conquer. He aroused the Volscians' ire against Rome, to a greater degree than before, and placing himself at the head of a Volscian army greater than the Roman forces, marched against his native city. The army swept victoriously onward, taking city after city, and finally encamping within five miles of Rome.
The approach of this powerful host threw the Romans into dismay. They had been assailed so suddenly that they had made no preparations for defense, 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, 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 such severe terms that they were unable to accept them. They returned and reported the matter, and the Senate was thrown into confusion. 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.
All else having failed, the noble women of Rome, with Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus, at their head, went in procession from the city to the Volscian camp to pray for mercy.
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 as the deputies had been. Even the Volscian soldiers watched them with pitying eyes, and spoke no scornful 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. "Ere you kiss me," she said, "let me know whether I speak 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 answer.
"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 endure 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, his wife, and his children, came forward 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?"
Then clasping her hand he wrung it vehemently, saying: "Mother, the victory is yours! A happy victory for you and Rome! but shame and ruin for your son."
Thereupon he embraced her with yearning heart, and afterward 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 it against Rome again. He lived and died in exile, far from his wife and children.
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.