T HE life of Coriolanus falls within the early history of the Roman Republic, when the mastery of Rome over other neighbouring cities and peoples was, as yet, uncertain and unstable. The chief events narrated by Plutarch in the life of Coriolanus fall within the first few years of the fifth century before Christ. The story exhibits the ruin of a noble nature by pride. The ardent young soldier, taught to consider valour in battle the greatest of all virtues, performs in early manhood deeds of courage worthy of the demi-gods of early tradition. To the pride derived from such success is added the pride of rank felt by an arrogant and overbearing nature. His scornful contempt of the commons leads to his fall, and at once resentment overpowers the finer qualities of his nature, and the patriot becomes the leader of his country's enemies. One strain of tenderness, however, remains, and he forgoes the full exaction of his revenge in response to the prayers of his mother Veturia and his wife Volumnia, whom Plutarch calls respectively Volumnia and Virgilia.
The life of Coriolanus illustrates the earlier stages of that struggle between patrician and plebeian, of rich and poor in Rome, which we shall find growing still more bitter, and breaking out into the bloodshed of civil brawls, in the lives of the Gracchi.
The life of Coriolanus as told by Plutarch is closely followed by Shakespeare in the stately drama of Coriolanus, though the order of events is in some places altered by him.
C AIUS MARCIUS was of a patrician family which gave many illustrious citizens to Rome. He was brought up by his mother in her widowhood, and his life shows that the loss of a father, though attended by many disadvantages, is no hindrance to the attainment of manly virtue. On the other hand, his life bears witness to the fact that a noble nature, if not moulded by discipline, will bring forth bad qualities with the good, just as the richest soil, if not carefully tilled, produces the most luxuriant weeds. His dauntless courage and resolution incited him to many great deeds, and enabled him to accomplish them with honour. But, at the same time, he was a man of violent passions and of great obstinacy, so that it was difficult for others to act in concert with him. Hence, the very persons who could not but admire his temperance, justice and courage, were unable to endure his imperious temper, and found his manner too haughty and overbearing for a citizen of a republic.
The young Marcius had an extraordinary natural inclination towards war, and from childhood was accustomed to the use of arms. And, since he thought that weapons of war were of little avail unless the bodily strength and activity were preserved and improved, he trained himself by exercise for every kind of combat. Hence, while his limbs were so active and lissome that he was fleet in pursuit, his muscular strength and weight were such that none could easily break away from his grip in wrestling. Indeed, those who were beaten by him in any contests in these sports consoled themselves by ascribing their defeats, not to their own lack of skill, but to the invincible strength of Marcius, which nothing could resist or tire.
While still very young he made his first acquaintance with war in the campaign against Tarquin, who had reigned in Rome and had been driven from the throne. The deposed king had fought many battles with ill success, and was now staking all upon a last desperate effort to regain his throne. He was aided by many of the states of Italy who took up his cause, not for any love for him, but because of their fear and envy of the growing greatness of Rome. In the battle which followed, Marcius distinguished himself in the sight of the dictator. For, seeing a fellow-Roman overthrown at no great distance from him, Marcius rushed to the assistance of his comrade, engaged the enemy and slew him. When victory had finally declared for the Romans, the general presented Marcius with a crown of oak leaves, which was the reward given, by the custom of Rome, to one who saved the life of a citizen.
The honours which Marcius gained early in life by no means satisfied his desire for glory. He was ever endeavouring to excel his previous exploits, and to add achievement to achievement. So conspicuous was his courage, that he received greater and greater honours from the generals under whom he served. The Romans at this time were engaged in several wars, and many battles were fought, from not one of which did Marcius return without a crown of honour, or some other distinction in witness of his valour. He valued these rewards of his courage mainly on account of the delight which they gave to his mother Volumnia, and he considered himself at the height of happiness when, with tears of joy, she embraced him, crowned with the prize of valour, amid the plaudits of the people. Indeed, he held himself bound to pay her the respect and duty which would have been due to his father had he been alive, over and above the honour due to her as his mother. He even married in compliance with her wishes, and after children had been born to him he still continued to dwell in his mother's house.
At the time when the reputation and influence which the courage of Marcius had gained for him were at the highest point, Rome was disturbed with internal troubles. The senate sided with the richer citizens against the commons of the city, who were treated by their creditors with intolerable cruelty. The goods of such as had property were seized, and either kept as security for debt or sold. Those who had nothing were dragged off to prison and there loaded with fetters, though their bodies were often covered with the wounds they had received while fighting for their country. The last expedition in which the Romans had been engaged had been against the Sabines, and, in order to induce the poorer citizens to serve, they had been promised that in future they should be treated more leniently, and by a decree of the senate the consul was appointed a guarantee of the promise. But when the commons had cheerfully undergone the dangers and toils of war, and had returned with victory, they found their lot in no way improved. Moreover, the senate disregarded their agreement, and without concern saw the commons dragged off to prison, or their goods seized and sold as before. The people were deeply angered at this breach of faith, and the city was filled with tumult and sedition.
These internal troubles encouraged the enemies of Rome. They invaded the territories of the city, and laid them waste with fire and sword. The consuls called upon all who were able to bear arms to send in their names, in order to form a force to repel the invaders, but so general was the discontent that not a man among the commons responded to the summons. It was now urgent that something should be done. A number of the senators were of opinion that some indulgence should be shown to the poor. Others, however, were absolutely opposed to any concession. Marcius in particular strongly held this view. He regarded the demands of the commons as an insolent attempt to decrease the powers of the patricians and believed that any yielding would only lead to further and greater demands. The senate debated the matter several times within a few days, but could come to no decision.
On a sudden, however, the commons took action. They arose one and all, marched out of the city, and, without committing any act of violence, withdrew to the height now known as the Sacred Hill. For they said: 'The rich have for a great while been accustomed to drag us from our dwellings in the city. Any place in Italy will furnish us with air and water and room for burial, and Rome offers us no other privilege than these, unless indeed it be a privilege to bleed and die for those who oppress us.'
The action of the commons thoroughly alarmed the senate, and some of those members who were most moderate in opinion and most popular with the plebeians, were chosen to go and treat with the people. The leader of this deputation was Menenius Agrippa, who, after much entreaty to the commons and many arguments in defence of the senate, concluded his speech with this celebrated fable:
'Once upon a time the members of the human body rebelled against the belly, which, they said, lay idle and useless, while they were all toiling without cease to satisfy its appetites. But the belly only laughed at the foolishness which they showed in not realising that though it did indeed receive all the nourishment into itself, it did so only that the food might be prepared for the use of all the other parts of the body.
'Such, my fellow- citizens,' said Menenius, 'is the case with regard to the senate and yourselves. For, in return for your labours, the consuls and government of the senate provide for the well-being of all the people.'
After this speech the commons were reconciled to the senate, but not before they had secured the appointment of five men, known as Tribunes of the People, to defend their rights upon all occasions. The commons now readily obeyed the orders of the consuls with regard to the war, and came forward to be enrolled as soldiers.
The privilege which the commons had gained by the appointment of tribunes was far from pleasing to Marcius, who looked upon it as lessening the authority of the patricians, and a considerable body of the nobles shared his opinion. Nevertheless Marcius exhorted those who thought with him not to be backward in serving their country, and to prove themselves the superiors of the commons in courage and patriotism.
The capital of the country of the Volscians, with whom the Romans were at war, was Corioli. This town was besieged by the Romans under their consul. The rest of the Volscian nation, alarmed lest their capital should be taken, assembled with the intention of falling upon the rear of the besieging army. The Roman consul therefore divided his force and, leaving part to continue the siege of Corioli, marched with the other troops to meet the Volscian army which was advancing to the relief of the town.
When the people of Corioli got wind of this division of the Roman forces, and saw the smallness of the body left to maintain the siege, they despised the strength of their besiegers, and sallied out of the town to attack them. At first their attack was successful: the Romans gave ground and were driven to their entrenchments. Their success, however, was checked by Marcius, who with a small party flew to the assistance of his fellow-citizens. He slew the foremost of the enemy and checked the career of the rest, while with a loud voice he called the Romans back, for he was no less dreadful in battle from the might of his arm than from the thunder of his voice, and from an aspect that struck terror to his enemies. Many of the Romans rallied to his call, and pressing hard upon their enemies drove them back in confusion.
It did not satisfy Marcius merely to repel the attack; he followed close upon the rear of the flying enemy, and continued the pursuit up to the very gates of the besieged town. There the Romans who had followed him halted, for showers of arrows were rained upon them from the walls, and there was none except Marcius so bold as to dream of entering, with the press of fugitives, within the walls of a city filled with warlike enemies. Such, however, was the hero's daring plan. 'See,' he cried, 'the gates are open, and assuredly rather for the victors than for the vanquished.' But few were willing to follow him as he broke through the enemy and forced his way into the town, while for a time no one ventured to oppose or even to face him. Once within the walls, he cast his eyes around and saw that but very few Romans had entered with him, and that these were dispersed and mingled with the foes. All now depended upon him, and, summoning up all his strength, he performed almost incredible feats, in which he displayed alike his mighty vigour, his marvellous agility and his extraordinary daring. His efforts overpowered the enemy, some of his antagonists fled to distant parts of the town, and others threw down their arms, so that the Roman commander was able to bring up the main body of his troops, and to enter the town without hindrance.
Thus the city was taken, and at once most of the soldiers fell to plundering the place. Marcius sternly rebuked this action. 'Shame it is,' said he, 'that we should run about for plunder, and thus keep out of the way of danger, while, perhaps at this very moment, the consul and the Romans under his command are engaged with the army marching to the relief of the town.' Though few would listen to him, he nevertheless put himself at the head of such as offered to follow him, and took the road which he knew would lead to the consul's army. He kept urging his small body of followers to hasten their march, and besought the gods to grant that he might arrive before the battle was over, in order that he might share in the glorious toils and dangers of his countrymen.
The consul's army was drawn up in order of battle, and the enemy was in sight when Marcius and his followers arrived. Many of the soldiers were startled at his appearance, for he was covered with the blood of battle and the sweat of his hurried march. But when he ran joyfully up to the consul, took him by the hand and told him that Corioli was taken, the consul clasped him to his heart, while those who heard the great news and those who did but guess at it were greatly animated and cried out with loud shouts to be led against the enemy. Marcius then inquired of the consul in what part of the enemy's array the bravest troops were stationed. He was told that those who had that reputation were placed in the centre. 'I beg of you, then,' said Marcius, 'that I may be favoured by being placed directly opposite to them.' The consul admired his spirit, and readily granted the request.
When the battle began with the throwing of spears, Marcius advanced beyond the rest of the Romans, and charged the centre of the enemy so furiously that it was soon broken. The wings, however, endeavoured to surround him, whereupon the consul in alarm sent a chosen body of troops to his succour. The fight then raged furiously around Marcius, and great carnage was made, but the vigorous attack of the Romans at last prevaHed, and the enemy was put to flight. By this time Marcius was almost weighed down by wounds and weariness, but when others begged him on that account not to join in the pursuit, he replied, 'It is not for the conquerors to feel weary.' So he joined in completing the victory, in which the whole Volscian army was defeated, great numbers being slain and many made prisoners.
On the day after the battle, the consul caused his army to be assembled and then mounted the rostrum. First he returned thanks to the gods for the extraordinary success that had attended the Roman arms; next, he spoke of the great deeds of Marcius. In detail he recounted his gallant actions, of some of which he had been himself an eye-witness, while he had heard of others from the general in command of the troops left before Corioli. Finally, he ordered that, out of the great store of treasure and the number of horses and prisoners that had been taken, a tenth part should be given to Marcius. Moreover, the consul presented him with a splendid horse magnificently caparisoned, as a reward of valour.
The army received the speech of the consul with loud shouts of applause, and thereupon Marcius stood forward to reply. He was, he told them, happy in the approval of the consul, and gladly accepted the present of the horse. But as for the tenth part of the booty, Marcius continued, that seemed to him rather a reward in money than an honourable distinction, and he therefore begged to be excused from accepting it, and to be allotted only his single share with the others. He asked, however, to be allowed one favour. 'I have,' said he, 'a friend among the Volscian prisoners, a man of virtue and honour, bound to me by the sacred ties of hospitality. From wealth he is now reduced to servitude, and I should be glad to free him from one of the many woes which have befallen him, by preventing his being sold as a slave.'
These words of Marcius were hailed with louder applause than the consul's speech, for his conquest of the temptation of wealth was esteemed even nobler than his valour in battle. Even those who had before felt some envy and jealousy at the honours offered him, now realised that he was indeed worthy of great things, since he had so greatly declined them.
When at length the applause had died down and the multitude was silent, the consul spoke again. 'You cannot, my fellow-soldiers,' said he, 'force these gifts upon a man so firmly resolved to refuse them. Let us therefore give him something which it is not in his power to decline, and, in memory of his brave conduct at Corioli, let us decree that he be henceforth called Coriolanus.' Hence from that time Caius Marcius became Caius Marcius Coriolanus.
When this war was over, further trouble between the patricians and the plebeians arose in Rome. No new injury was done to the commons, but the city suffered from the consequences of former troubles, and the miseries which the people endured were used by demagogues to stir them up against the patricians. The previous quarrels had prevented corn from being sown in the territories of Rome itself, while the war had prevented supplies from being brought from other places. Thus there was a great scarcity of food, and factious orators made use of the want and misery of the people to assert falsely that the rich had planned the famine out of a spirit of revenge.
Just at this time, too, there arrived ambassadors from the people of the town of Velitrae, which had been so terribly scourged by plague that scarcely a tenth part of its inhabitants survived. They offered to surrender their town to Rome and begged that a colony might be sent to repeople the city. The wiser part of the Romans thought this a highly advantageous proposal for their city, since it would relieve the scarcity of provisions. They hoped also thus to rid the city of some of those who disturbed the peace. The consuls therefore chose some to form the colony, and further to heal the dissensions, selected others to serve in war against the Volscians, believing that when rich and poor, patrician and plebeian, came again to serve in arms against the common enemy, they would treat one another in a greater spirit of comradeship.
But the restless tribunes cried out against these proposals. They declared that the consuls and the patricians, not content with bringing famine upon the city, now designed to expose the people to the horrors of plague and to the slaughter of war. They persuaded the people that the rich, by thus bringing upon them the three greatest calamities to which mankind is subject, famine, plague and war, intended to compass their utter ruin. Stirred by their speeches, the commons refused both to form the colony and to go on service in the war.
The senate was now in some doubt as to the course to be pursued. Marcius, however, by this time not a little elated by the honours he had received and by the consciousness of his own abilities, took a foremost part in opposition to the tribunes of the commons. Through his influence, therefore, the colony was sent out, heavy fines being inflicted upon those who refused to go. But as the commons still held out against serving in the war, Marcius mustered a body of his own dependents and of such volunteers as he could raise. With these he made a foray into the territories of the enemy. There he took great store of corn and many cattle and slaves. He kept no part of the plunder for himself, but led his troops back to Rome laden with the booty. Those of the citizens who had held back from the war now repented of their obstinacy, and looked with envy upon the men who returned with such great store of provisions. Upon Marcius, too, they looked with an evil eye, regarding his power and honour as rising upon the ruin of the people.
Soon afterwards Marcius stood as a candidate for the consulship. At first the commons seemed disposed to think more kindly of him, and to be sensible of the shame of rejecting a man so distinguished in family, in courage, and in services to the state. When, as it was the custom for candidates for the consulship to do, Marcius stood in the Forum clad in a loose gown without a tunic, and showed the wounds and scars he had received in many glorious battles fought during seventeen successive years, the people, struck with admiration for his valour, decided to make him consul.
But when the day of election came, the suspicions of the people were aroused. Marcius was conducted with great pomp to the Campus Martius by the senate in a body, and the patricians bestirred themselves on his behalf with more vigour and energy than had ever before been known. The people now began to reflect that a man so much in the interests of the senate and so strongly favoured by the nobles might, if he became consul, utterly deprive the commons of their liberties. Influenced by these reflections, the people rejected Marcius, and elected others to the office.
The senators were very much incensed at this action of the commons, which they regarded as directed against them rather than against Marcius. But he for his part bitterly resented his rejection, and gave free vent to his anger. Unfortunately, he appeared to think that there was something great and noble in freely expressing his angry feelings, and his character was wanting in that calmness and moderation which are the chief political virtues. He went away from the meeting-place greatly disturbed by his defeat, and full of bitterness against the people. Some of the proudest and most high-spirited of the nobility, who were devoted to him as their instructor in war and their leader in every expedition, further inflamed his anger by their words.
In the meantime great stores of corn were brought to Rome, some bought from other parts of Italy, and some sent as a present from the King of Syracuse. Affairs appeared, therefore, to be in a more encouraging state, and it was hoped that the troubles which disturbed the city would disappear with the scarcity of food which had given rise to them. The senate was immediately called together, and the people stood about in crowds awaiting the decision as to the disposal of the food. They expected that the corn which had been bought would be sold at a moderate rate, and that the supplies which had been sent as a gift would be distributed free. Some of the senators proposed that this should be done. Marcius, however, stood up, strongly censured those who spoke in favour of the commons, and called them traitors to their order. He told the senate that by yielding to some extent to the demands of the people, they had encouraged their insolence and disorder. Instead, therefore, of yielding further to their demands with regard to the distribution of the corn, they should seek rather to take from them the privileges which had already been granted. Especially, Marcius declared, should they abolish the office of the tribunes of the people, by whose appointment the authority of the consuls had been lessened.
This speech was hailed with delight by the young senators and most of the rich men. Some of the older men, however, foresaw the consequences, and opposed his proposals. They were indeed justified, for the result was disastrous. The tribunes who were present, seeing that there would be a majority in the senate in favour of the proposals, ran out to the people assembled without, and called upon them to rally to the support of their own magistrates. A tumultuous mob soon gathered together, and when the speech of Marcius was recited, the people were on the point of breaking into the senate. The tribunes, however, dissuaded them, and succeeded in directing the fury of the mob especially upon Marcius. They impeached him in due form, and sent for him to come and make his defence.
The messengers who were sent on this errand, however, were spurned away. The tribunes then went themselves with their attendant officers to lay hands upon Coriolanus and bring him by force. Upon this the patricians rallied to his defence. They drove off the tribunes and beat their officers until, at length, nightfall put an end for a time to the struggle.
Early next morning crowds of the enraged commons began to flock to the Forum from all quarters. The consuls were now greatly alarmed at the outlook. They hastily convened the senate, and proposed that in the present dangerous position of affairs they should use their best efforts to allay the anger of the commons. The majority of the senate agreed in the wisdom of this course. The consuls, therefore, went out to the people and did all they could to pacify them. Though they complained of the tumultuous behaviour of the commons, they spoke favourably to them, and declared that, as to the price of the corn and other provisions, there should be no cause of difference between the senate and the populace.
A great part of the people were moved by the speech of the consuls, and it was evident that they were ready to compose their difference with the senate. The tribunes, however, interposed. They declared, that since the senate spoke thus moderately, the commons for their part were willing to meet them in the same spirit. They insisted, however, that Marcius should come before them, and answer to the charges of inciting the senate to destroy the privileges of the people; of refusing to obey the summons of the tribunes, and of beating their officers and thus stirring up civil war. The object of the tribunes was, either to humble the proud spirit of Marcius if he should submit, or, in the event of his refusing, which they deemed the more probable event, for they knew the man, to make the quarrel between him and the commons incurable.
Marcius stood before the people as if he intended to make his defence, and the populace stood in silence awaiting what he had to say. But when he began to speak, instead of the submissive language they had expected, the commons heard a bold accusation of themselves. Moreover, not only his words, but also his haughty tone and fierce looks, expressed his scorn and contempt for them. Then his hearers lost all patience, and the boldest of the tribunes, after consulting with his colleagues, proclaimed that the tribunes condemned Marcius to death, and called upon their officers to seize him, carry him to the Tarpeian rock, and there hurl him over the precipice. However, when the officers came to lay hands upon him, many, even of the plebeians, were shocked at the idea, while the patricians at once ran with loud shouts to his assistance. Some of them surrounded him to prevent his arrest, while others besought the people to think better of their decision. But in the tumult little regard was paid to words and entreaties for a time. It was soon evident, however, that Marcius could not be taken without much bloodshed, and the friends of the tribunes therefore besought them to alter the unlawful sentence they had pronounced, and to promise that a fair trial should be given to their antagonist. Somewhat moved by these appeals, the tribune who had called for the execution of Coriolanus asked the patricians by what right they took Marcius out of the hands of the people. The nobles answered by another question: 'By what right,' said they, 'do you dare to attempt to drag one of the worthiest citizens of Rome to a dreadful and unlawful death?'
'If that be all your complaint,' said the tribune, 'you shall have no further pretext for your opposition to the people, for the man shall have his trial. You, Marcius, we cite to appear on the third market-day, then to satisfy the people of your innocence if you can. By their votes your fate shall be decided.' The nobles had to be satisfied with this compromise, and withdrew, thinking themselves fortunate in being able to carry Marcius off upon any terms.
The third market-day was yet some while off, and as war broke out against the people of Antium, the senate had some hopes of evading bringing the matter to the judgment of the commons. Peace, however, was soon made, and the senate met frequently in order to find means, if possible, of refusing to give up Marcius to judgment without causing further trouble with the plebeians. The boldest of the senators declared that their order would be ruined if they once allowed the right of the commons to sit in judgment upon one of their number. Others, however, were of opinion that it was wiser to give way to the demand.
When Marcius saw that the senators, perplexed between regard for him and fear of the violence of the people, were undecided how to act, he spoke himself to the tribunes. 'What accusation,' said he, 'do you bring against me, and upon what charge am I to be tried before the people?' They answered that he would be tried for treason against the commonwealth, and for designing to set himself up as a tyrant. 'If that is the charge,' said Marcius, 'I refuse no form of trial, and am ready to make my defence to the people, provided that no other charge is made against me.' The tribunes agreed to this condition, and promised that the trial should turn upon the point of treason to the commonwealth alone.
When the people were assembled, however, the first thing the tribunes did was to alter the method by which it had long been the custom for the votes to be taken. They contrived thus to give the balance of power to the meanest and most turbulent of the people, who were by their device enabled to outvote those who were of some standing and character, and who had borne arms in the service of the state. In the next place, notwithstanding their promise, they passed over the charge against Marcius of treason in seeking to make himself master of the commonwealth. Instead, they brought up his speech against lowering the price of corn, and for abolishing the office of the tribunes. Moreover, they advanced quite a new charge, namely that he had divided the spoils of his expedition against Antium amongst the volunteers who had followed him, instead of bringing them into the public treasury.
The last charge, being quite unexpected, confused Marcius the most, and the praise which, in his reply, he gave to his followers in the expedition only served to incense those who had refused to serve in that war. Thus it came about that he was condemned, the sentence being perpetual banishment from Rome.
The commons looked upon the sentence as a great victory for their order, and showed more elation at their triumph than ever they did at a victory on the battlefield. In the streets of Rome it was not necessary to look at the dress or any marks of distinction to tell which man was a patrician and which a plebeian. He whose face showed exultation was a plebeian, and he whose looks revealed dejection was a patrician.
But, amidst the triumph of enemies and the dejection of friends, Marcius himself stood unmoved and unhumbled. His carriage was still haughty, and his countenance composed, but his calm concealed hot anger and fiery indignation. First he repaired to his own house, and there embraced his weeping wife and mother, and besought them to bear his banishment with fortitude. Then he hastened to one of the city gates, whither he was conducted by the whole body of patricians. Thus, asking nothing and receiving nothing at any man's hand, he left Rome.
Coriolanus spent the next few days at some of his farms near the city. His mind was agitated by a thousand different thoughts which anger and resentment prompted, and by plans from which he sought not advantage for himself, but revenge against the people of Rome. At last he determined to stir up a bitter war between Rome and some neighbouring people. For this purpose he determined first of all to approach the Volscians, for he knew that they were still strong in men and in wealth, and he judged that they were rather embittered against Rome than absolutely subdued by their former defeats.
There was, dwelling at the town of Antium, a certain man named Tullus Aufidius, who was highly distinguished among the Volscians for his courage, wealth, and noble birth. Marcius was well aware that of all the Romans he himself was the most hated by Tullus, for the two warriors had in several engagements exchanged threats and defiances, and had thus added personal enmity to the hatred which existed between their nations. Nevertheless, Marcius determined to approach Tullus with regard to the design which he had formed. He knew that, more than any of the other Volscians, his former enemy longed to be revenged upon the Romans for the evils which his country had suffered at their hands. Marcius therefore disguised himself and in the evening stole into the town of which he had been so bitter an enemy. Though he met many people in the streets, no one recognised him, and he passed without hindrance through the place until he came to the house of Tullus. He at once entered, made his way to the fireplace without saying a word, and, covering his face, calmly sat down. The people of the house were much astonished at the curious proceedings of the stranger, but there was so much dignity in his appearance that they did not disturb him, but went and told Tullus, who was at supper, of the unknown visitor. Their master at once rose from the table, and coming to the place where Coriolanus sat by the fireplace, asked him who he was, and upon what business he had come.
Coriolanus uncovered his face, paused awhile, and then spoke thus. 'If thou dost not know me, Tullus, I must be my own accuser. I am Caius Marcius, who have brought many evils upon the Volscians, whereof my other name, Coriolanus, is sufficient proof. That name is now the only reward left to me for all my labours and exploits; of everything else I have been stripped through the malice of the commons and the cowardice of those of my own order. Therefore have I come to you to offer my services to the Volscians that I may avenge them and myself upon Rome. Be assured that I shall fight better for you than ever I did against you.'
Tullus was delighted to hear Marcius speak thus. Taking him by the hand, he said, 'Rise, Marcius, and be of good courage. The offer which you make of yourself is beyond all value. The Volscians, I assure you, will not be ungrateful.' He then led him to his table, and entertained him honourably. For the next few days the two consulted earnestly about the proposed war against Rome. Meanwhile that city was still greatly disturbed by the enmity between the nobles and the commons, which indeed had been increased by the recent expulsion of Coriolanus.
Tullus and Marcius, therefore, in secret conference with the principal Volscians, begged them to avail themselves of these dissensions, and to fall upon the Romans while they were thus weakened. There was, however, a truce for two years with Rome, and the more honourable of the Volscians shrank from the disgrace of breaking the pact. A pretext for doing so was, however, furnished by the Romans, for, acting upon some suspicion or false report, they proclaimed, on the occasion of certain public games, that all the Volscians who were in the city should leave it before sunset. Some say that this was done in consequence of a stratagem of Marcius, who, it is said, caused false intelligence to be taken to the consuls to the effect that the Volscians intended to attack the Romans during the games and to set fire to the city.
The proclamation greatly exasperated the Volscians, and Tullus was careful to feed their resentment and to magnify the insult. By so doing he at last persuaded them to send ambassadors to Rome, to demand that all the lands and cities which had been taken from the Volscians in the late war should be restored. The senate of Rome heard these demands with indignation, and replied that the Volscians might indeed be the first, if they pleased, to take up arms in spite of the truce, but that, if they did, the Romans would be the last to lay them down.
Tullus now called a general assembly of his countrymen and advised them to send for Marcius. He urged them to forget the injuries their former enemy had inflicted upon them, and assured his hearers that those evils would be far outweighed by the benefits which Marcius could confer upon them as their ally. The Roman was accordingly sent for, and made a speech to the assembly. His hearers now found that he could speak as well as fight, and perceived that he possessed ability as well as courage. They therefore willingly appointed him as general in conjunction with Tullus.
Marcius, thus made general, feared that much time would be lost in preparations for the war, and that the favourable opportunity for attacking the Romans would thus be lost. Therefore, leaving the magistrates of Antium to collect troops and necessary stores for the war, he set out with a body of volunteers, but without any regular levy of troops, and raided the Roman territories. There he made so much booty that the Volscians found it difficult either to consume it in camp or to carry it off. But the injury he inflicted upon the Romans by the loss of all this spoil was of less consequence than the harm he contrived that the raid should cause them by increasing the suspicion and dislike between the nobles and the commons. For, while Marcius ravaged the whole countryside, he was very careful to spare the lands of the patricians, and to prevent their goods from being carried off. Hence, while the nobles blamed the commons for causing the present troubles by the unjust expulsion of Marcius, the people, for their part, accused the patricians of inciting him to attack their lands out of a spirit of revenge. Thus Marcius attained his object of increasing the division between the two parties, while at the same time his success increased the warlike confidence of the Volscians. When he was satisfied that he had accomplished these objects, he drew off his troops without hindrance.
Meanwhile the Volscian forces had been assembled with great rapidity. So numerous were they, that it was decided to divide them into two parts, of which one was to be left to garrison the Volscian towns, while the other marched to attack Rome. Coriolanus then left it to Tullus to decide which of the two bodies he would command. The Volscian replied that his colleague was not at all his inferior in valour, and hitherto had been more successful. Therefore Tullus considered that the Roman general should lead the attacking army, while he himself saw to the defence of the towns and to the supply of stores to the invaders.
Marcius, thus given sole command of the attacking force, first marched against a Roman colony which, as it surrendered without resistance, he would not suffer to be plundered. Next he laid waste the lands of the Latins, expecting that the Romans would be forced to risk a battle in defence of this people, since they were their allies. The Latins sent urgent messages to Rome praying for assistance. But the commons showed no eagerness in the cause, and the consuls, whose term of office was nearly expired, would not run any risk. The Latins were therefore left to their own resources. Town after town which resisted the Volscian army was carried by assault, the inhabitants sold as slaves and the houses plundered, though Marcius was careful to spare such as surrendered voluntarily to him. At last he arrived at a town but little more than twelve miles from the walls of Rome. There he put to the sword almost all who were of an age to bear arms, and took much plunder.
These successes so excited the Volscians that those who had been left to garrison the towns came hurrying to join his army, declaring that they would have no other general but him. Indeed, his fame spread throughout Italy, for all were astonished that one man could make so vast a change in the position of affairs.
But in spite of the pressing danger, disorder and confusion continued in Rome. The commons still refused to fight, and spent their time in plotting, in making seditious speeches, and in complaints against the nobles. But a most wonderful change occurred when news came that Coriolanus had laid siege to Lavinium, where the sacred symbols of the gods were kept, and whence the Romans derived their origin, since it was the first city built by their ancestor AEneas. For, strangely enough, the commons now proposed to recall Coriolanus and reverse the sentence against him, while, still more strangely, the senate rejected the proposal. Either the senate was moved by a perverse spirit of opposition to everything which the commons proposed, or they were now filled with resentment against Coriolanus because he sought the total ruin of Rome, though he had only been injured by a part, and that the least notable part, of the citizens.
The news of the attitude of the nobles still further enraged Coriolanus. Quitting the siege of Lavinium, he marched in a fury against Rome, and encamped some five miles from its walls. The appearance of his army struck terror to the citizens; the women ran through the streets uttering cries of despair, the aged with tears prayed for succour at the altars of the gods, all courage and all counsel were quelled by fear.
But the terror which damped the valour of the Romans also stifled their quarrels. The senate saw their folly in refusing the wish of the commons for the recall of Coriolanus, and in indulging their anger against him at a time when they were powerless to protect themselves. All were now ready to agree to the sending of ambassadors to offer Coriolanus liberty to return to the city, and to beseech him to put an end to the war. For this purpose a number of senators were chosen, and, as they were all either friends or relations of Coriolanus, they doubted nothing of a favourable reception. But when they came to the Volscian camp they found a greeting other than they had expected. Being led through the host of their enemies, they came at last to the place where Coriolanus was seated in council with a number of the great officers of his army. He received them as strangers, and, with an air of great haughtiness and severity, bade them declare the business which had brought them. With a humility that befitted the present position of their affairs, the ambassadors delivered the petition of the Roman senate.
When they had spoken, Coriolanus answered in words which showed much bitterness and the deep resentment he felt against Rome. Further, as general of the Volscians, he demanded that the Romans should restore all the lands and cities they had taken in former wars, and that they should admit the Volscians to the freedom of their city. He gave them thirty days to consider his demands, and, having dismissed them, at once withdrew his army from the Roman territories.
There were not lacking among the Volscians men to misrepresent the action of Coriolanus in this matter. Among these was Tullus, who was moved not by any injury which he had received, but by envy and jealousy at finding himself displaced by Marcius from the first place in the esteem of the Volscians, who now looked upon Coriolanus as their chief leader. Private hints were first thrown out by the dissatisfied, and then the murmurings grew that Coriolanus had acted treasonably to their cause. True, he had not betrayed either their cities or their armies, but, said they, his treason was shown by his allowing the Romans a respite of thirty days in which they might compose their differences and re-establish their strength.
The delay, however, was not spent idly by Coriolanus. He wasted the lands of the allies of Rome, and, in the space of the thirty days, took seven large and populous towns to which the Romans did not venture to send any help. Indeed, that people seemed suddenly to become as lacking in warlike spirit as if their bodies had been smitten with palsy.
When the term was expired, Coriolanus again appeared before Rome with all his forces. The citizens then sent another embassy to him, imploring him to lay aside his resentment and to draw off the Volscian army. He replied that, as general of the Volscians, he would give them no answer, but, as one who was still a Roman citizen, he advised them to humble themselves, and to come to him within three days to express their full submission to the demands he had made. He warned them also that, if they decided otherwise than as he advised, it would not be safe for them to come again to his camp with nothing but empty words.
When the ambassadors reported the ill-success of their mission, the senate was almost in despair. As a last resource, it was decided to send all the priests of the gods, the ministers of the sacred mysteries and the diviners to endeavour to bend Coriolanus from his purpose. They went forth, therefore, wearing their robes and carrying the symbols of their sacred offices, and came to the Volscian camp. Coriolanus did indeed suffer them to be admitted to his presence, but he showed them no other favour, and treated them as sternly as he had the other ambassadors. He bade them, in short, either accept his former proposals, or prepare for war.
When the priests returned, the Romans felt that they had exhausted all their resources. They resolved to keep close within the city, and to defend the walls, but they had little hope except that perchance some accident might occur to save them. Everywhere there reigned terror and confusion and forebodings of coming disaster.
In this time of peril and dismay, an inspiration came to a certain noble lady named Valeria, who with many others of the most illustrious matrons of Rome was making her supplications for the preservation of the city in one of the temples. Acting upon a divine impulse which suggested a means by which Rome might yet be saved, she rose and called upon the other noble matrons in the temple to proceed with her to the house of Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus. When they entered they found Volumnia seated, with her son's children upon her lap and his wife by her side. The Roman matrons approached, and, speaking for her companions, Valeria said: 'We come to you, Volumnia and Virgilia, not by any orders of senate or consuls, but in the name of our common womanhood. For we believe that our gods, hearing our prayers, put it into our minds to come to you to beseech you to accompany us to the camp of Coriolanus. For if you can by your prayers save the city, greater will be your glory than that of the Sabine women who charged the mortal enmity between their fathers and their husbands to peace and friendship.'
After Valeria had spoken thus, and the other matrons had joined in the appeal, Volumnia replied. 'We share,' said she, 'in the general misfortune of our country. But we are, my friends, especially unhappy since Marcius is lost to us, his glory dimmed and his virtue gone, and we see him surrounded by the enemies of his country, not as a prisoner, but as their commander. And to us it appears a calamity that Rome has become so weak that she must needs repose her hopes upon us women. For ourselves, we know not whether Marcius will have any regard for us, since he has none for his country, which he was wont to place before mother and wife and children. Take us, however, and do with us as you please. If we can do nothing more, we can at least die at his feet in beseeching safety for Rome.'
So, taking the children of Virgilia with her, Volumnia went with the other matrons of Rome to the Volscian camp. When they approached, Coriolanus, who was seated upon the tribunal with the chief officers of his army, was greatly surprised and agitated. He endeavoured, however, to retain his wonted sternness of appearance, though he perceived his wife and mother at the head of the party. But feelings of affection mastered him; he descended from the tribunal, and hurried to meet them. First he embraced his mother, then his wife, and afterwards his children, nor could he refrain from tears and other signs of natural affection.
At length, seeing that his mother desired to speak, he called his Volscian counsellors around him, and Volumnia thus set forth the purpose of her mission: 'You see, my son, by the sadness of our looks and our attire, the sorrow which your banishment has brought upon us. And think within yourself whether we are not the most unhappy among women, since the sight of you, which should have been the most pleasing to our hearts, is now the most dreadful. For Volumnia beholds her son and Virgilia her husband encamped as an enemy before the walls of his native city. Nor is the last consolation, prayer to the gods, left to us, for we cannot at the same time beseech them for our country and for you. Your wife and children must either see Rome perish or yourself. As for myself, I will not live to see this quarrel decided by the fortune of war. If I cannot persuade you to bring friendship between your countrymen and your present allies, then you must advance against Rome by trampling on the body of the mother who bore you. For it is not meet that Volumnia should live to see the day when her son shall either triumph over his native city, or be led a captive through its streets.'
Coriolanus listened to his mother while she spoke thus. But he made no reply, and, after waiting a long time whilst he still stood silent, Volumnia spoke again. 'Why are you silent, my son?' said she. 'Do you consider it a point of honour to guide yourself only by anger and revenge, and a disgrace to grant your mother's petition? Is it becoming for a great man to remember only the injuries that have been done him, and to forget the benefits he has received from his parents? Surely you, of all men, who have suffered so severely from ingratitude, should be most sensible to the claims of gratitude. The most sacred feelings of nature and of religion call upon you to grant my prayer, but if words will not prevail, this course only is left.' So saying, she, with Virgilia and her children, threw themselves at the feet of Coriolanus.
'O mother!' cried he, as he raised her from the ground and tenderly pressed her hand, 'what is this that you have done? You have won a victory glorious for your country, but ruinous for me. I go, conquered by you, not by the arms of Rome.'
Next morning he drew off the army of the Volscians, amongst whom there were diverse opinions upon what had happened. Some blamed Coriolanus; others, who were inclined for peace, had no fault to find; while yet others, though they disagreed with the withdrawal from Rome, nevertheless could not find it in their hearts to blame the general for yielding to his mother's prayers.
In Rome it seemed as though the citizens had never been so sensible of the terrible danger which threatened the city as they were now that it was over. For immediately that they perceived from the walls that the Volscian army was being drawn off, all the temples were thrown open and were at once crowded with people, crowned with garlands, who offered sacrifices as for some great victory. In nothing did their joy appear more plainly than in the honour and gratitude which they paid to the women of Rome, to whom both senate and people ascribed the preservation of the city. In memory thereof the senate ordered that a temple should be built to the Fortune of Women at the public charge.
When Coriolanus returned to Antium, Tullus, who now both hated and feared him, resolved to compass his death. He therefore got together a number of persons to join him in the plot, and then called upon Coriolanus to lay down his authority as general and to render an account of his conduct to the Volscians. To this demand Coriolanus replied that, since he had received the office from the Volscian people, he was ready to surrender it if they so desired, but not otherwise. He further declared that he was prepared at once to give an account of his behaviour to the people of Antium if they wished him to do so.
The people of the town being therefore assembled, certain orators endeavoured, in accordance with the plan which had been formed, to stir them up against Coriolanus. But when the general stood up to speak the violence of the tumult abated, and it appeared that the best part of the people were ready to hear him fairly, and to judge him with justice. Tullus was therefore afraid that he would escape, the more so as he was an eloquent man, and had, in spite of the withdrawal from Rome, rendered great services to the state. Therefore he and his fellow-plotters determined to act at once. Crying out that such a traitor ought not to be heard, nor suffered to play the tyrant over the Volscians, they rushed upon him in a body, and slew him upon the spot, no man present lifting a hand in his defence. Nevertheless it soon appeared that the deed had not the general approval of the Volscians, for they gave his body an honourable burial and adorned his monument with spoils and arms as became a mighty warrior and general. As for the Romans, they received the news of his death without any sign either of favour or of hatred. But they permitted the women of the city at their request to go into mourning for him for ten months, that being the term of mourning assigned by the laws for the loss of a father, a son, or a brother.
Events soon proved how necessary the abilities of Coriolanus were to the Volscians. First they became involved in a quarrel with their allies in which they lost many men, and afterwards they were defeated in battle by the Romans. There Tullus and the flower of their army were slain, and the Volscians were obliged to submit to humiliating terms of peace which made them subject to Rome.