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Famous Men of Rome by  John H. Haaren & A. B. Poland


 

 

CORIOLANUS

I

[64] ONE of the great men of Rome not long after the banishment of the Tarquins was Caius Marcius. He was a member of a noble family, and from his youth he had been noted for his bravery.

In his time there was a war between the Romans and the Volscians, a people of a district in Latium. The Romans made an attack on Corioli, the capital city of the Volscians, but were defeated and driven back. Caius Marcius reproached the Roman soldiers for running from the enemy. His words made them ashamed and they turned again to the fight. With Caius at their head they sent the Volscians flying back into the city. Caius followed the enemy to the gates, which were partly open. When he saw this he shouted to the Romans:

"The gates are open for us; let us not be afraid to enter!"

Caius himself sprang in and kept the gates open for the Romans. After a short fight the city was taken.

[65] Then everybody said that it was Caius who had taken Corioli, and that he should be called after the name of the city he had won. So ever afterward he was known as Coriolanus.

II

BUT though Coriolanus was a brave soldier and always ready to fight for Rome, he had some qualities that were not so good. He had great contempt for the common people, and he took part with those who tried to oppress them.

Only a little while before the taking of Corioli, there was a serious trouble between the people and the patricians. A great many of the people earned their living by farming. But when there was a war the strong men had to become soldiers, and as Rome was almost constantly at war the men were nearly always away from their farms. Very often, therefore, they had to borrow money to support their families while they themselves were away fighting, for at this time Roman soldiers got no regular pay.

Now it was the rich patricians who loaned the money, and if it was not paid back at the time agreed upon they could put the people who owed it in jail, or they could sell their wives and children as slaves.

[66] In this way the plebeians often suffered much hardship. At last a great number of them resolved to leave Rome and make a settlement for themselves somewhere else in Italy. The patricians did not like this very much, for if the common people went away there would be a scarcity of soldiers for the army. So the Senate, after thinking the matter over, proposed that the plebeians should elect officers of their own, to be called tribunes, who should have power to veto laws they did not like, that is, prevent them from being passed. The word veto, which is Latin for I forbid, is used in the same way in our own country. The President of the United States and the governors of some states have, within certain limits, power to prevent the passing of laws they do not approve. This is called the veto power.

The plebeians were pleased with the proposal that they were to have tribunes, so they returned to Rome, and for a time there was peace between them and the patricians.

But Coriolanus and other patricians were opposed to the election of tribunes, because they thought it gave the common people too much power. Once when there was a famine in Rome, and the poor were suffering greatly from want of food, the Greeks living in Sicily sent several ships laden with corn to [67] Rome to relieve the people in distress. When the corn arrived the Senate was about to order that it should be divided among the people who needed it, but Coriolanus interfered.

"No, no," he said, "if the people want corn let them first give up their tribunes. It must be either no corn or no tribunes."

The people were so angry when they heard of this speech that they talked about killing Coriolanus. And they would have done so but for the wise advice of the tribunes.

''No, no," said the tribunes, "you must not kill him; that would be against the law. But you can have him tried for treason against the people and we will be his accusers."

Coriolanus was then ordered to appear before the assembly of the people to be tried, for the people had power to try in their assemblies persons charged with such offences. But Coriolanus was afraid the assembly would condemn him, so he secretly fled from the city, leaving his family behind, and went to a town of the Volscians.

The chief of the Volscians received Coriolanus in a friendly manner. Coriolanus then told him why he had left Rome. The Volscian chief was glad to hear it. He had long wanted to fight the Romans, but had been afraid to make the attempt. With [68] the aid of such a soldier as Coriolanus, however, he was sure that Rome might be taken. So he raised a large army and put it under the command of the great Roman.

III

THE Volscian army, led by Coriolanus, captured many cities belonging to the Roman Republic. At last Coriolanus resolved to attack Rome itself, and he marched his army towards the city. The Romans just then were not very well prepared for a battle, so the Senate decided to send messengers to Coriolanus to beg him to spare his native city and make terms of peace.

The messengers chosen were five of the leading nobles, and they at once set out for the Volscian camp. Coriolanus received them cordially, for they were old friends; but he said that he would not spare Rome unless the Romans would give up all the lands and cities which they had taken from the Volscians in former wars.

To this the Senate would not agree, and Coriolanus refused to listen to any other terms. The Romans then began to prepare for battle, though they feared very much that they would be defeated.

But while the men were thus in fear and doubt, [69] the women of Rome saved the city! Valeria, a noble Roman lady, remembered that Coriolanus had always dearly loved his mother.

"Perhaps," thought she, "he may listen to her though he will hear no one else."

So Valeria, with a large number of noble ladies, went to the house of Veturia, the mother of Coriolanus, and said to her:

"The gods have put it into our hearts to come and ask you to join with us to save our country from ruin. Come then with us to the camp of your son and pray him to show mercy."

The aged mother at once agreed to go, so she got ready immediately and set out for the camp of the Volscians, accompanied by a great number of ladies and her son's wife and little children. It was a strange sight, this long line of Roman ladies, all dressed in mourning, and even the Volscian soldiers showed them respect as they passed along.

Coriolanus happened to be sitting in front of his tent in the Volscian camp with a number of officers around him as the procession came in view. "Who are these women?" he asked. Before an answer could be given he saw that among them were his mother and wife and children, and he stood up and hastened forward to meet them. They fell on their knees and begged him to spare his native city.

[70] Coriolanus seemed deeply distressed. He made no answer, but bent his head, pressed his hand to his breast and gazed down upon the dear ones who knelt at his feet. Then his mother said:

"If I had no son Rome would not be in this danger. I am too old to bear much longer your shame and my own misery. Look to your wife and children; if you continue in your present course you will send them to an early death."


[Illustration]

PLEADING WITH CORIOLANUS

Coriolanus was so grieved that for some minutes he could not speak. At last he cried out:

"Oh, mother, what have you done to me? You have saved Rome, but you have ruined your son."

Then he embraced his mother and looked at her sadly for a moment. He also embraced and kissed his wife and children and told them to go back to Rome, for they would be safe there. The women then returned to the city and Coriolanus marched away with the Volscian army. Rome was saved!

Coriolanus lived the rest of his life with the Volscians, but he never again made war against his native city. It is supposed that he died about the middle of the fifth century before Christ.


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