Study Guide for Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus
Text by Thomas North
Study Guide by Anne White
Coriolanus (Fifth Century B.C.)
Was Coriolanus real?
Historians such as Livy and Plutarch believed that Coriolanus was a real person who lived in the early Roman Republic. More recent scholarship has cast some doubt on his existence. Certainly it was more difficult even for a writer such as Plutarch to be clear on events several centuries removed from his own time. We will treat his Life in the same way as we would that of Plutarch's other subjects, although the dates of historic events will be less exact.
Versions and pronunciation of his name
In different translations, Coriolanus is called Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, or Caius Martius Coriolanus. Coriolanus was a name given to him later in life (like Publicola), so in the text he is referred to as Marcius. Since he is of the house (family) of Marcius (in Latin, the Marcii), that makes him a Marcian; with North's spelling, Martius would be a Martian. I have used Dryden's spelling; but if you are searching for information, look for the other versions as well.
Should Coriolanus have a long or short A? In Latin, you would pronounce his name Coriolah-nus. In English, particularly in reference to Shakespeare's play, it is often pronounced Coriolay-nus.
The Government of Rome
There were two different types of class divisions in ancient Rome. The first was family-based, between the patricians (the nobility) and the plebeians (common people), and this is one of the main points of contention in the story. The second type were property- or wealth-based classes such as the senatores, the wealthiest citizens, who owned large amounts of land. The next level down, the equestrian class (in North's translation, the knights of Rome), was a "business class," made up of those who could afford horses and who made up the cavalry, or soldiers on horseback, in times of war. Besides the equestrian class, there were three classes of property owners; and then, lowest of all, the proletarii.
Were the senatores the same as the senators?
Often, but the two were not identical. Over the centuries, both the size of the Senate and the personal requirements for membership (age, wealth) changed. Some plebeians became senators along with the patricians.
What was an aedile, a quaestor, a consul?
The elected positions, or magistracies, in Rome were (starting at the bottom): quaestor, aedile, praetor, and consul. (The office of tribune was a separate position, explained below.) There were various numbers of each of these: for example, two consuls were elected each year. Ex-consuls could become censors; and a consul could become dictator if the need (usually a great emergency) arose.
Who were the tribunes?
The office of "tribune of the plebeians" or "tribune of the people" was established during the lifetime of Coriolanus (see Lesson Two). The word "tribune" was also a military term, which sometimes causes confusion; but these tribunes were elected to protect the liberties of the common people from any individual or group (such as the nobles) who might take advantage of them or suppress their rights. The position was not part of the junior-senior ranking of magistrates such as quaestor and consul; it was an office voted on by the common people (plebeians), who themselves were bound by oath to protect the tribunes from harm.
Nations Around Rome
As the story of Coriolanus belongs to an earlier time than many of Plutarch's other lives, we hear about rival tribes that were eventually conquered and became part of the Roman Republic.
Aequi or Aequians: An Italic tribe who lived to the east of Rome
Italic: Like Latin, this refers to the Indo-European people who spoke Italic languages (there were other Italic languages besides Latin).
Latin: The name Latin (sometimes Latian) refers to an ancient Indo-European people who moved into the Italian peninsula during the late Bronze Age (1200-900 B.C.), and lived in a region they called Latium. Starting in about 600 A.D. on, the Romans became the most powerful of the Latin tribes.
Sabines: A tribe which lived in the central Apennine Mountains. Shortly after the founding of Rome, some of the Sabines joined with the Romans and became Latinized. The rest fought for their independence, but eventually became part of the Roman Republic. The ancestors of Coriolanus are believed to have been Sabines.
Volsci, Volscians: The Volsci, living to the southeast, were the Romans' greatest enemies during this time. North calls them the Volsces. Their capital city was Antium, so the people living there were the Antiates.
Top Vocabulary Terms in Coriolanus
If you recognize the following words, you are well on your way to mastering the vocabulary of Coriolanus. These words will not be repeated in the vocabulary lists.
1. check: stop, put in check
2. choleric: hot-tempered. To be in choler is to be angry.
3. corn: grain, such as wheat or barley
4. hazard: risk
5. sedition: rebellion, uprisings
6. spoil, pillage: plunder, loot: take weapons or treasures from a defeated enemy or a captured city, or steal food from the fields of an enemy. Both words can be used as verbs (they spoiled the camp) and as nouns (they came back laden with spoils).
7. tarry: wait
8. valour, valiantness: great courage and bravery
9. virtue: that which is morally good or desirable
10. voices: votes
Notes on Shakespeare's play Coriolanus follow the discussion questions.
The twentieth-century poet T.S. Eliot said that Shakespeare's Coriolanus was better than Hamlet.
After a brief description of the ancestry of Gaius Marcius, we are quickly introduced to a young man who was "churlish," "choleric," "impatient," "uncivil," and "altogether unfit for any man's conversation." We may well wonder what we have gotten into! However, Plutarch also describes Marcius' "natural wit," "great heart," and fierce discipline in physical training; and our picture of Marcius becomes more complex. Where would such a combination of character qualities take someone?
patrician: noble; see introductory notes
supply of water: they are credited with building aqueducts
censor: a high public office; see introductory notes
eminent: famous, respected
in their minority: when they are children
churlish: rude, mean-spirited
proof: we might say "bullet-proof"
temperance: moderation, self-control
fortitude: strength of mind that allows someone to act with courage, especially in adversity and trouble
imperious: arrogant, high-handed
Publicola: one of the first consuls in the Roman Republic
Numa: Numa Pompilius, the legendary second king of Rome
Gaius Marcius: that is, Coriolanus; see introductory notes
Tarquinius Superbus: or Tarquin; the former king of Rome
the dictator: Aulus Postumius Albus Regillensis, general of the Roman military forces at the Battle of Lake Regillus
511 B.C.: Very approximate date of birth for Coriolanus
509 B.C.: Rome became a republic
508, 507, 504 B.C.: Publius Valerius (Publicola) was consul in Rome
503 B.C.: Death of Publicola
496 B.C.: Battle of Lake Regillus
On the Map
In this first lesson, it would be useful to look at a map of the early Roman Republic, and to locate the city of Rome, which was founded on the banks of the Tiber River.
Lake Regillus: a lake located in the remains of a volcanic crater, between Rome and the city of Tusculum.
The patrician house of the Marcii in Rome produced many men of distinction; among them was Ancus Marcius, grandson to Numa by his daughter, and king after Tullus Hostilius; of the same family were also Publius and Quintus Marcius, which two conveyed into the city the best and most abundant supply of water they have at Rome. As likewise Censorinus, who, having been twice chosen censor by the people, afterwards himself induced them to make a law that nobody should bear that office twice.
Gaius Marcius, whose life we intend now to write, being left an orphan by his father, and brought up under the widowhood of his mother, has shown us by experience that, although the early loss of a father may be attended with other disadvantages, yet it can hinder none from being either virtuous or eminent in the world, and that it is no obstacle to true goodness and excellence; however bad men may be pleased to lay the blame of their corruptions upon that misfortune and the neglect of them in their minority. Nor is he less an evidence to the truth of their opinion who conceive that a generous and worthy nature without proper discipline, like a rich soil without culture, is apt with its better fruits to produce also much that is bad and faulty.
For this Marcius' natural wit and great heart did marvellously stir up his courage to do and attempt notable acts. But on the other side, for lack of education, he was so choleric and impatient that he would yield to no living creature; which made him churlish, uncivil, and altogether unfit for any man's conversation. Those who saw with admiration how proof his nature was against all the softnesses of pleasure, the hardships of service, and the allurements of gain, while allowing to that universal firmness of his the respective names of temperance, fortitude, and justice, yet, in the life of the citizen and the statesman, could not choose but be disgusted at the severity and ruggedness of his deportment, and with his overbearing, haughty, and imperious temper. Education and study, and the favours of the Muses, confer no greater benefit on those that seek them than these humanizing and civilizing lessons, which teach our natural qualities to submitted to the limitations prescribed by reason, and to avoid the wildness of extremes.
Those were times at Rome in which that kind of worth was most esteemed which displayed itself in military achievements; one evidence of which we find in the Latin word for virtue, which is properly equivalent to "manly courage." As if valour and all virtue had been the same thing, they used as the common term the name of the particular excellence.
But Marcius, being more inclined to the wars than any other gentleman of his time, began from his childhood to give himself to handle weapons, and daily did exercise himself therein. And outward he esteemed armour to no purpose, unless one were naturally armed within: therefore he did so exercise his body to hardness, and all kind of activity, that he was very swift in running, strong in wrestling, and mighty in gripping, so that it was hard for any to disengage himself. Insomuch as those that would try masteries with him for strength and nimbleness, would say, when they were overcome, that all was by reason of his natural strength of body, which they said no resistance and no fatigue could exhaust.
The first time he went to the wars, being but a stripling, was when Tarquinius Superbus (that had been king of Rome, and was driven out for his pride, after many attempts made by sundry battles to come in again, wherein he was ever overcome), now entered upon this last effort, and proceeded to hazard all, as it were, upon a single throw. A great number of the Latins and other people of Italy joined their forces, and were marching with him toward the city, to procure his restoration; not, however, so much out of a desire to serve and oblige Tarquin, as to gratify their own fear and envy at the increase of the Roman greatness, which they were anxious to check and reduce. In this battle, wherein were many hot and sharp encounters of either party, Marcius valiantly fought in the sight of the dictator: and a Roman soldier being thrown to the ground even hard by him, Marcius straight bestrode him, and slew his assailant.
The general, after having gained the victory, crowned Marcius with a garland of oaken boughs.
[omission for length: explanation of how this crown became a Roman tradition]
Narration and Discussion
What sort of a person does Marcius seem so far? Would you want to spend time with him?
Marcius "esteemed armour to no purpose, unless one were naturally armed within." What did he mean?
Creative narration: Imagine Marcius as an action hero whose super-strength is his fortitude. In what situations would it be an advantage to him? When it could it be a problem?
For older students: Plutarch says that "Education and study, and the favours of the Muses, confer no greater benefit on those that seek them than these humanizing and civilizing lessons, which teach our natural qualities to submitted to the limitations prescribed by reason, and to avoid the wildness of extremes." What parts of our education most "humanize" and "civilize" us?
Shakespeare's plays usually jump in where the action is, so the stories of Marcius' early life are only summarized in later scenes.
Marcius, as an adult, became known for his well-defined loyalties: first to his city, as shown by his military victories; also to his mother; but finally to his social class. To him, the blurring of the lines between patricians and plebeians meant only a weakening of the noble Roman spirit, especially during a time when the young Republic needed to build itself up. However, he comforted himself and his friends with the thought that, even if they had to fight side by side with the commoners, they could at least show them who had the most "valiantness."
emulation: the desire to equal or outdo others
satiate: fill up, satisfy
forsake or underlive: not live up to one's previous performance
exceed and obscure: we might say "overwrite"
luster: glow, radiance
laurels: leafy crowns given for athletic and military victories
felicity: happiness, good fortune
usurers: those who lend at excessively high rates of interest. Being unable to pay the usury means being unable to pay back the loan plus the extra amount of interest.
bondmen: indentured servants, slaves
there was, nevertheless, no moderation. . . : the common people, even the veterans of wars, were treated harshly by the ruling noblemen, and were given none of the protection (especially financial help) that they had been promised
lenity: lenience, easing up
treat: negotiate terms, deal with
succour: assistance, aid
stood presently to their arms: took up their weapons
alacrity: cheerful readiness
embasing: lowering in power and status
his mother: Plutarch and Shakespeare call her Volumnia, but she is also called Veturia (see note below).
Epaminondas: a Greek general of the 4th century B.C.
took a wife: later we hear her addressed as Virgilia or Vergilia. However, the Roman historian Livy said that it was the wife of Coriolanus who was named Volumnia, and that his mother was named Veturia.
Sabines: see introductory notes
Marcus Valerius: consul in 505 B.C.; brother of Publicola
Menenius Agrippa: Agrippa Menenius Lanatus; a former consul
Junius Brutus and Sicinnius Vellutus: as described here, the first "tribunes of the people"
505 B.C.: War with the Sabines
It may be observed, in general, that when young men arrive early at fame and repute, if they are of a nature but slightly touched with emulation, this early attainment is apt to extinguish their thirst and satiate their small appetites; whereas the first distinctions of more solid and weighty characters do but stimulate and quicken them and take them away like a wind in the pursuit of honour. They look upon those marks and testimonies to their virtue not as a recompense received for what they have already done, but as a pledge given by themselves of what they will perform hereafter: ashamed now to forsake or underlive the credit they have won, or, rather, not to exceed and obscure all that is gone before by the luster of their following actions.
Marcius, having a spirit of this noble make, was ambitious always to surpass himself; and did nothing, how extraordinary soever, but he thought he was bound to outdo it at the next occasion; and, ever desiring to give continual fresh instances of his prowess, he added one exploit to another, and heaped up trophies upon trophies. Whereupon, the captains that came afterwards (for envy of them that went before) did contend who should most honour him, and who should bear most honorable testimony of his valiantness. Insomuch the Romans having many wars and battles in those days, Coriolanus was at them all; and there was not a battle fought from whence he returned not without laurels and rewards.
And whereas others made glory the end of their daring, the end of his glory was the joy he saw his mother did take of him. For he thought nothing made him so happy and honourable, as that his mother might hear everybody praise and commend him, that she might always see him return with a crown upon his head, and that she might still embrace him with tears running down her cheeks for joy. Epaminondas is similarly said to have acknowledged his feeling, that it was the greatest felicity of his whole life that his father and mother survived to hear of his successful generalship and his victory at Leuctra. Now as for Epaminondas, he had this good hap, to have his father and mother living, to be partakers of his joy and prosperity. But Marcius, thinking all due to his mother that had been also due to his father if he had lived, did not only content himself to rejoice and honour her, but at her desire took a wife also, by whom he had two children; and yet he never left his mother's house.
Now he being grown to great credit and authority in Rome for his valiantness, it fortuned there grew sedition in the city, because the Senate did favour the rich against the common people, who did complain of the sore oppression of usurers, of whom they borrowed money. For those that had little were yet spoiled of that little they had by their creditors, for lack of ability to pay the usury: who offered their goods to be sold to them that would give most. And such as had nothing left, their bodies were laid hold of, and they were made their bondmen, notwithstanding all the wounds and cuts they showed, which they had received in many battles, fighting for defense of their country and commonwealth: of the which, the last war they made, was against the Sabines, wherein they fought upon the promise the rich men had made them, that from thenceforth they would entreat them more gently; and also upon the word of Marcus Valerius, chief of the Senate, who by authority of the council, and on behalf of the rich, said they should perform that which they had promised.
But after that they had faithfully served in this performance, in the last battle of all, where they overcame their enemies, there was, nevertheless, no moderation or forbearance used; and the senate also professed to remember nothing of that agreement, and sat without testifying the least concern to see them dragged away like slaves and their goods seized upon as formerly, there began now to be open disorders and dangerous meetings in the city. The Romans' enemies, hearing of this rebellion, did straight enter the territories of Rome with a marvellous great power, spoiling and burning all as they came.
The consuls now gave notice that all those which were of lawful age to carry weapons should come and register to go to the wars, but no man obeyed their commandment. Whereupon their chief magistrates, and many of the Senate, began to be of divided opinion among themselves. For some thought it was reasonable, they should somewhat yield to the poor people's request, and that they should a little qualify the severity of the law. Others held hard against that opinion, Marcius in particular. For he alleged that the creditors losing their money they had lent was not the worst thing that was thereby: but that the lenity that was favoured was a beginning of open revolt against the laws, which it would become the wisdom of the government to check at the earliest moment.
The Senate met many days in consultation about it: but in the end they concluded nothing. The poor common people seeing no redress, gathered themselves one day together, and one encouraging another, they all forsook the city, and encamped themselves upon a hill, called to this day "The Holy Hill," alongst the Tiber, offering no creature any hurt or violence, or making any show of actual rebellion: saving that they cried, as they went up and down, that the rich men had driven them out of the city, and that all Italy through they should find air, water, and ground to bury them in. Moreover, they said, to dwell at Rome was nothing else but to be slain, or hurt with continual wars, and fighting for defense of the rich men's goods. The Senate, being afraid of their departure, sent the most moderate and popular men of their own order to treat with them. Menenius Agrippa, their chief spokesman, after much entreaty to the people, and much plain-speaking on behalf of the Senate, concluded, at length, with this celebrated fable.
- "That on a time all the members of man's body, did rebel against the belly, complaining of it, that it only remained in the midst of the body, without doing anything, neither did bear any labour to the maintenance of the rest: whereas all other parts and members did labour painfully, and was very careful to satisfy the appetites and desires of the body. And so the belly, all this notwithstanding, laughed at their folly, and said: ‘It is true, I first receive all meats that nourish man's body: but afterwards I send it again to the nourishment of other parts of the same.' Even so, (quoth he), O you, my masters and citizens of Rome: the reason is alike between the Senate and you. The counsels and plans that are there duly digested convey and secure to all of you your proper benefit and support."
A reconciliation ensued, the senate agreeing to the request of the people for the annual election of five protectors for those in need of succour, the same that are now called the "tribunes of the people"; and the first two they pitched upon were Junius Brutus and Sicinnius Vellutus, who had been the causers and procurers of this sedition.
Hereupon the city being grown again to good quiet and unity, the commoners stood presently to their arms, and followed their commanders to the war with great alacrity. Marcius also, though he was not a little vexed himself to see the greatness of the common people thus increased, considering it was to the embasing of the nobility; and also saw that other noble patricians were troubled as well as himself: he did persuade the patricians to show themselves no less forward and willing to fight for their country than the common people were; and to let them know, by their deeds and acts, that they did not so much pass the people in power and riches, as they did exceed them in true nobility and valiantness.
Narration and Discussion
If you were a Roman leader, would you have reacted differently to the protests of the common people?
Creative narration: Interview (on paper if necessary) one of the new tribunes, to get his point of view on these events in Rome.
For older students and further thought: The Christian scriptures sometimes use the metaphor of a body as well (1 Corinthians 12). Does the message given in this fable have a similar or a different viewpoint?
This is the opening sequence of the play. Menenius tries to avert a riot by telling "a company of mutinous Citizens" the story about the stomach. As he seems to be calming things down, Marcius enters, calls the citizens "scabs," and gives the news that the senate was creating the position of tribunes "to defend their vulgar wisdoms."
In Plutarch's story, the character of Menenius is mentioned only once, in this scene. In Shakespeare's play, he becomes a major character, a close friend and loyal supporter of Marcius.
This lesson and the one following it describe a war between the Romans and the Volsci (see the introductory notes), and particularly the siege of the city of Corioli. Because of his bravery, Marcius won the attention of the Roman general, and gained an extra name.
sally: a charge out of a besieged place against the enemy
Volsci: sometimes Volscians; a tribe which was a rival power to Rome
Cominius: Postumus Cominius Auruncus, consul in 501 and 493 B.C.
Lartius: Titus Lartius, a former consul (501 and 498 B.C.)
Cato: a Roman statesman and historian of a later time
493 B.C.: The siege of Corioli
On the Map
Corioli: also spelled Coriolis or Corioles; a town of the Volsci
Antium (Antiates): capital city of the Volsci (see introductory notes)
The Romans were now at war with the Volscian nation, whose principal city was Corioli. When, therefore, Cominius the consul had laid siege to this important place, the rest of the Volscians, fearing it would be taken, mustered up whatever force they could from all parts to relieve it, designing to give the Romans battle before the city, and so attack them on both sides. Cominius, to avoid this inconvenience, divided his army, marching himself with one body to encounter the Volscians on their approach from without, and leaving Titus Lartius, one of the bravest Romans of his time, to command the other and continue the siege.
Wherefore all the other Volsci fearing least that city should be taken by assault, they came from all parts of the country to save it, intending to give the Romans battle before the city, and so attack them on both sides. The consul Cominius, understanding this, divided his army also in two parts, and taking the one part with himself, he marched towards them that were drawing to the city, out of the country: and the other part of his army he left in the camp with Titus Lartius (one of the valiantest men the Romans had at that time) to resist those that would make any sally out of the city upon them.
So the Coriolans, making small account of them that lay in camp before the city, made a sally out upon them, in the which at the first the Coriolans had the better, and drove the Romans back again into the trenches of their camp. But Marcius being there at that time, running out of the camp with a few men with him, he slew the first enemies he met withal, and made the rest of them stay upon a sudden, crying out to the Romans that had turned their backs, and calling them again to fight with a loud voice. For he had what Cato thought a great point in a soldier, not only strength of hand and stroke; but also a voice and look that of themselves were a terror to an enemy.
Then there flocked about him immediately a great number of Romans: whereat the enemies were so afraid, that they soon retreated. But Marcius, not content to see them draw off and retire, did chase and follow them to their own gates that fled for life. And there, perceiving that the Romans retired back for the great number of darts and arrows which flew about their ears from the walls of the city, and that there was not one man amongst them that dared follow the fleeing enemies into the city, for that it was full of men of war, very well armed, and appointed: he did encourage his fellows with words and deeds, crying out to them that Fortune had opened the gates of the city, not so much to shelter the vanquished as to receive the conquerors. Seconded by a few that were willing to venture with him, he bore along through the crowd, made good his passage, and thrust himself into the gate through the midst of them, nobody at first daring to resist him.
But he, looking about him, and seeing he was entered the city with very few men to help him; and perceiving he was environed by his enemies that gathered round about to set upon him; did things then, as it is written, wonderful and incredible, as well for the force of his hand, as also for the agility of his body; and with a wonderful courage and valiantness, he made a lane through the midst of them, and overthrew also those he laid at. Some he made run to the furthest part of the city, and others for fear he made yield themselves, and to let fall their weapons before him; thus affording Lartius abundant opportunity to bring in the rest of the Romans with ease and safety.
Corioli being thus surprised and taken, the greater part of the soldiers employed themselves in spoiling and pillaging it, while Marcius indignantly reproached them, and exclaimed that it was a dishonourable and unworthy thing to do so, when the consul and their fellow-citizens had now perhaps encountered the other Volscians, and were hazarding their lives in battle. Howbeit, cry and say to them what he could, very few of them would hearken to him. Wherefore, taking those that willingly offered themselves to follow him, he went out of the city, and took his way towards that part where he understood the rest of the army was: exhorting and entreating them that followed him not to be fainthearted, and oft holding up his hands to heaven, he besought the gods to be so gracious and favourable unto him, that he might come in time to the battle, and in good hour to hazard his life in defense of his countrymen.
It was customary with the Romans of that age, when they were moving into battle array, and were on the point of taking up their shields, and girding their coats about them, to make at the same time an unwritten will, and to name who should be their heirs, in the presence of three or four witnesses. Marcius came just while the soldiers were a-doing after that sort, and that the enemies were approached so near, as one stood in view of the other. When they saw him at his first coming, all bloody, and in a sweat, and but with a few men following him: some thereupon began to be afraid. But soon after, when they saw him run with a lively cheer to the consul and to take him by the hand, declaring how he had taken the city of Corioli, and that they saw the consul Cominius also embrace and salute him: then there was not a man but took heart again to him, and began to be of a good courage, some hearing him report, from point to point, the happy success of this exploit, and others also conjecturing it by seeing their gestures afar off. Then they all began to call upon the consul to march forward, and to delay no longer, but to give charge upon the enemy.
First, however, Marcius desired to know of him how the Volscians had arrayed their army, and where they had placed their best men; and the consul answered that he took the troops of the Antiates in the center to be their prime warriors, that would yield to none in bravery. "Let me demand and obtain of you," said Marcius, "that we may be posted against them." Cominius granted the request, with much admiration for his gallantry.
Then Marcius, when both armies came almost to join, advanced himself a good space before his company, and went so fiercely to give charge on those that came right against him, that they could stand no longer in his hands: he made such a lane through them, and opened a passage into the battle of the enemies. But the two wings of either side turned one to the other, to compass him in between them: which, the consul Cominius perceiving, he sent thither straight off the best soldiers he had about him. So the battle was marvellous bloody about Marcius, and in a very short space many were slain in the place. But in the end the Romans were so strong that they distressed the enemies, and broke their array; and scattering them, made them flee.
Then they prayed Marcius that he would retire to the camp, because they saw he was able to do no more, he was already so wearied with the great pain he had taken, and so faint with the great wounds he had upon him. But Marcius answered them that it was not for conquerors to yield, nor to be fainthearted: and thereupon he began afresh to chase those that fled, until such time as the army of the enemies was utterly overthrown, and numbers of them slain and taken prisoners.
Narration and Discussion
Tell the story of the battle at Corioli. How did Marcius show valour?
Did Marcius' concern for others surprise you?
Creative narration: Write about these events from the perspective of the Coriolans.
In the play, the victory at Corioli takes up most of Act I. Like Menenius, Titus Lartius is mentioned by name only once by Plutarch; but Shakespeare gives him more action and lines.
In this lesson, we see Marcius at a high point in his life: so honoured, in fact, that he is able to be magnanimous, sharing his reward with someone in much greater need.
Note: the reading has been shortened as Plutarch takes a long meander through the giving of names and nicknames, from flattering to downright insulting. Reading his examples would probably be less helpful than having an actual conversation about naming customs and the power that names/nicknames can have on one's self-concept.
trappings and ornaments: an ornamental covering and other accessories
mercenary: concerned only with money
contentation: contentment with what one has
covetousness: wanting what one does not have
Christian name: first name
The day after, Marcius went to the consul, and the other Romans with him. There the consul Cominius, going up to his chair of state, in the presence of the whole army, gave thanks to the gods for so great, glorious, and prosperous a victory; then he spoke to Marcius, whose valiantness he commended beyond the moon, both for that which he himself saw him do with his eyes, as also for that Marcius had reported unto him. So in the end he willed that Marcius should choose out of all the horses they had taken of their enemies, and of all the goods they had won (whereof there was great store) ten of every sort which he liked best, before any distribution should be made to others. Besides this great honourable offer, he gave him a goodly horse with trappings and ornaments: which the whole army, beholding, did marvellously praise and commend.
But Marcius stepping forth, told the consul he most thankfully accepted the gift of his horse, and was a glad man, besides, that his service had deserved his general's commendation; and as for his other offer, which was rather a mercenary reward than an honourable recompense, he wanted none of it, but was contented to have his equal part with the other soldiers. "Only this grace," said he, "I crave, and beseech you to grant me. Among the Volsci there is an old friend and host of mine, an honest wealthy man, and now a prisoner, who living before in great wealth in his own country, liveth now a poor prisoner in the hands of his enemies: and yet notwithstanding all this his misery and misfortune, it would do me great pleasure if I could save him from this one danger: to keep him from being sold as a slave."
The soldiers hearing Marcius' words, made a marvellous great shout among them: and there were more that wondered at his great contentation and abstinence, when they saw so little covetousness in him, than they were that highly praised and extolled his valiantness. The very persons who conceived some envy and despite to see him so specially honoured, could not but acknowledge that one who so nobly could refuse reward was beyond others worthy to receive it; and were more charmed with that virtue which made him despise advantage, than with any of those former actions that have gained him his title to it. It is the higher accomplishment to use money well than to use arms; but not to need it is more noble than to use it [these are Dryden's phrases; see North's translation below].
After this shout and noise of the assembly was somewhat appeased, the consul Cominius began to speak in this sort:
"We cannot compel Marcius to take these gifts we offer him, if he will not receive them: but we will give him such a reward for the noble service he hath done, as he cannot refuse. Therefore we do order and decree that, henceforth, he be called Coriolanus, unless his valiant acts have won him that name before our nomination."
And so ever since, he still bore the third name of Coriolanus.
(The first name the Romans have, such as "Gaius," was our Christian name now. The second, such as "Marcius," was the name of their house and family. The third was some addition given, either for some act or notable service, or for some mark on their face, or of some shape of their body, or else for some special virtue they had.)
[omission for length and content]
Narration and Discussion
Why did Marcius turn down the extra rewards he was offered?
See the note about names at the beginning of the lesson. Discussion on this topic may lend itself to some form of creative narration.
For older students: North's translation says, "They esteemed more the virtue that was in him, that made him refuse such rewards, than that which made them to be offered him, as unto a worthy person. For it is far more commendable to use riches well than to be valiant: and yet it is better not to desire them, than to use them well." Small differences in translation can change the meaning of a passage: for instance, whether one "needs" or "desires" money. However, without splitting hairs over the words, can you explain what Plutarch meant by this?
Shakespeare places the scene where Marcius is offered various rewards back in Act I, right after the battle.
A rumour was started in Rome that a grain shortage had been engineered by the nobility, as a form of revenge on the common people. At the same time, the city of Velitrae was depopulated by a plague, so the government planned to send some of the "surplus Romans" in that direction and start a new colony. They also planned to send a large number of men out to fight against the Volsci, to put some of their restless energy to constructive use.
However, the tribunes wanted to know why they should send Roman citizens to live in a disease-ridden area "under a strange god"; and they were equally unsupportive of the military campaign. The people refused to participate in either plan, until Marcius stepped in.
Fueled by success, he then decided to run for consul, and expected an easy win. But the public, fickle as always, suddenly began to see him in a less friendly light.
popular orators: tribunes of the people.
pretext: excuse; reason given that is not the true reason
arable: able to be farmed
provision, victuals: food supplies
corn: grain such as wheat or barley
necessity: great need due to an unfortunate situation
happy hour: good timing
mutinous and seditious: rebellious
the elements of disease. . . : the rebels were like germs causing the disease of rebellion in Rome
supply the desolation: fill the empty spaces
upon the consular summons: when the consuls called them
mustered up his own clients: hired his own soldiers
pompous: full of pomp and display
the proud and contentious element. . . : the tendency towards arrogance, unwillingness to bend to others (though he enjoyed being in a position to be generous to those of lower status), and even his hot-temperedness, all of which Marcius saw as natural to his dignity as a nobleman.
equanimity: composure and calmness in a difficult situation
ulcerations: an ulcer is a break on the skin or on an organ inside the body, which does not heal quickly. This image shows Marcius' anger bursting out and perhaps having similar long-term effects.
493 or 492 B.C.: The consular elections described in this passage
On the Map
Velitrae: or Velletri. An ancient city of the Volsci tribe.
The war against the Volsci was no sooner at an end than the popular orators revived domestic troubles, and raised another sedition, without any new cause or complaint or just grievance to proceed upon, but merely turning the very mischiefs that unavoidably ensued from their former contests into a pretext against the patricians. The greatest part of their arable land had been left unsown and unplowed, and the time of war allowing them no means or leisure to import provision from other countries, there was an extreme scarcity. The movers of the people then observing that there was no corn to be bought, and that if there had been they had no money to buy it, began to spread false tales and rumours against the nobility, that they, in revenge of the people, had purposely contrived the famine.
Furthermore, in the midst of this stir, there came ambassadors from Velitrae, that offered up their city to the Romans, and prayed them they would send new inhabitants to replenish the same: because the plague had been so extreme among them, and had killed such a number of them, as there was not left alive a tenth of the people that had been there before. So the wise men of Rome began to think that the necessity of Velitrae fell out in a most happy hour, and how by this occasion it was very meet, in so great a scarcity of victuals, to disburden Rome of a great number of citizens: and by this means as well to take away this new sedition, and utterly to rid it out of the city, as also to clear the same of many mutinous and seditious persons, so to say, the elements of disease and disorder in the state.
The consuls, therefore, singled out such citizens to supply the desolation at Velitrae; and gave notice to others that they should be ready to march against the Volsci (hoping, by the means of foreign war, to pacify their sedition at home). Moreover they imagined, when rich as well as poor, plebeians and patricians, should be mingled again the same army and the same camp, and engage in one common service for the public, it would mutually dispose them to reconciliation and friendship.
But Sicinnius and Brutus, the popular orators, interposed, crying out that the consuls disguised the most cruel and barbarous action in the world under that mild and plausible name of a "colony"; and were simply precipitating as many poor citizens into a mere pit of destruction, bidding them settle down in a country where the air was charged with disease, and the ground covered with dead bodies, and expose themselves to the evil influence of a strange and angered deity. And then, as if it would not satisfy their hatred to destroy some by hunger, and offer others to the mercy of a plague, they must proceed to involve them also in a needless war of their own making, so that no calamity might be wanting to complete the punishment of the citizens for refusing to submit to that of slavery to the rich.
By such addresses, the people were so possessed that none of them would appear, upon the consular summons, to be enlisted for the war; neither would they be sent out to this new colony: so that the Senate was at a loss what to say or do. But Marcius, who began now to bear himself higher and to feel confidence in his past actions; conscious, too, of the admiration of the best and greatest men of Rome; openly took the lead in opposing the favourers of the people. The colony was dispatched to Velitrae; those that were chosen by lot being compelled to depart upon high penalties; and when they obstinately persisted in refusing to enroll themselves for the Volscian service, he mustered up his own clients, and as many others as could be wrought upon by persuasion, and with these made inroad into the territories of the Antiates. There, finding a considerable quantity of corn, and collecting much booty both of cattle and prisoners, he reserved nothing for himself in private, but returned safe to Rome; while those that ventured out with him were seen laden with pillage, and driving their prey before them. This sight filled those that had stayed at home with regret for their perverseness, with envy at their fortunate fellow-citizens, and with feelings of dislike to Marcius, and hostility to his growing reputation and power, which might probably be used against the public interest.
Shortly after this, Marcius stood for the consulship: and the common people favoured his suit, thinking it would be a shame to them to deny and refuse the chiefest nobleman of blood, and most worthy person of Rome, and especially him that had done so great service and good to the commonwealth. For the custom of Rome was, at that time, that such as did sue for any office should, for certain days before, be in the marketplace, with only a poor gown on their backs, and without any tunic underneath, to pray the citizens to remember them at the day of election: which was thus devised either to promote their supplications by the humility of their dress, or else because they might show the people their wounds they had gotten in the wars in service of the commonwealth, as manifest marks and testimony of their valiantness.)
[omission for length]
Now Marcius following this custom, showed many wounds and cuts upon his body, which he had received in seventeen years' service at the wars, and in many sundry battles, being ever the foremost man that did set out feet to fight. So that there was not a man among the people, but was ashamed of himself to refuse so valiant a man: and one of them said to another, "We must needs choose him consul, there is no remedy."
But when the day of election was come, and Marcius appeared in the Forum, with a pompous train of senators attending him; and the patricians all manifested greater concern, and seemed to be exerting greater efforts, than they had ever done before on the like occasion; the commons then fell off again from the kindness they had conceived for him, and in the place of their former benevolence, began to feel something of indignation and envy: passions assisted by the fear they entertained that if a man of such aristocratic temper, and so influential among the patricians, should be invested with the power which that office would give him, he might employ it to deprive the people of all that liberty which was yet left them. In conclusion, they rejected Marcius, and made two others consul.
The Senate was marvellously offended with the people; but Marcius took it in far worse part than the Senate, and was out of all patience. He had always indulged his temper, and had regarded the proud and contentious element of human nature as a sort of nobleness and magnanimity; reason and discipline had not imbued him with that solidity and equanimity which enters so largely into the virtues of the statesman. He had never learned how essential it is for anyone who undertakes public business, and desires to deal with mankind, to avoid above all things that self-will, which, as Plato says, belongs to the family of solitude; and to pursue, above all things, that capacity, so generally ridiculed, of submission to ill-treatment.
Marcius, straightforward and direct, and possessed with the idea that to vanquish and overbear all opposition is the true part of bravery; and never imagining that it was the weakness of his nature that broke out, so to say, in these ulcerations of anger, retired, full of fury and bitterness against the people.
[omission for length]
Narration and Discussion
Marcius had shown excellent leadership in the recent unrest, and he also had his share of admirable scars; why then did he lose the election for consul? What was his reaction?
Plutarch disagrees with the idea that "to vanquish and overbear all opposition is the true part of bravery." If bravery (or valour) is not solely about being strong enough to win the battle, what is its purpose? You might incorporate this discussion into a creative narration.
For older students: Plutarch says that potential leaders must pursue "that capacity, so generally ridiculed, of submission to ill-treatment." What does he mean? Do you agree?
In the play, the choice of Marcius for consul appears to flow directly out of his military victory and current popularity with the people, rather than as the separate event that Plutarch describes. The question of whether or not he will be chosen consul is drawn out until the end of Act II; and even then, in the major scene that follows (Act III. Scene i.), it's not quite clear whether Marcius knows that the tide has turned against him (Cominius addresses him as Lord Consul).
One other thing to note about Shakespeare's version is that, also in Act III. Scene i., Brutus says, "And of late, / When corn was given them gratis, you repin'd, / Scandall'd the suppliants for the people, call'd them / Time-pleasers, flatterers, foes to nobleness." In Plutarch's story, the arrival of the grain supplies, and the argument over its distribution, doesn't happen until after the consulship election is over (Lesson Six).
Around this time, large amounts of grain finally arrived in Rome from various sources. The first thought of the governors was that some of it should be sold cheaply, and some should be given away. Marcius violently disagreed; he said that the common people would think the grain was only given out an attempt to appease them; and that they would take advantage of that and grow even more violent, demand even more. He proposed that the experiment with the "tribuneship" be cancelled as well, since it only caused dissent. "Only a few old men" disagreed with him. It was obvious that matters in the Republic were not going well; and they were about to get much worse, especially for Marcius.
inveighed against: criticized
petulance: rudeness, insolence
gratis: at no cost
rang it out: declared
break in upon the Senate: force their way into the meeting room
repulsed: shoved away
aediles: see introductory notes. One of the duties of an aedile was to enforce public order.
wonted: customary, usual
stirred coals among the people: angered them
Tarpeian Rock: a cliff on the southern side of the Capitoline Hill, commonly used as an execution site
beseeching the multitude: begging the crowd
what the heads of the indictment: what charges
impeached for attempting usurpation: put out of office for attempting to take over the government
designing to establish arbitrary government: as above; also translated "aspiring to be king"
carriage: the way he walked
even in that taking: in the state just described
491 B.C.: The conflict described in this lesson
On the Map
Syracuse: A Greek colony in Sicily
In the midst of this, a large quantity of corn reached Rome, a great part bought up in Italy, but an equal amount sent as a present from Syracuse, from Gelo, then reigning there. Many began now to hope well of their affairs, supposing the city, by this means, would be delivered at once both of its want and discord. A council, therefore, being presently held, the people came flocking about the senate-house, eagerly awaiting the result of the deliberation, expecting that the marketplaces would now be less cruel, and that what had come as a gift would be distributed as such. There were some within who so advised the Senate; but Marcius, standing up, sharply inveighed against those who spoke in favour of the multitude, calling them "flatterers of the rabble, traitors to the nobility"; and alleging that,
"by such gratifications, they did but cherish those ill seeds of boldness and petulance that had been sown among the people, which they should have done well to observe and stifle at their first appearance, and not have suffered the plebeians to grow so strong by granting them magistrates of such authority as the tribunes. They were, indeed, even now formidable to the state since everything they desired was granted them; no constraint was put on their will; they refused obedience to the consuls and, overthrowing all law and magistracy, gave the title of magistrate to their private factious leaders. Therefore (said he), they that persuaded that the corn should be given out to the common people gratis, as they used to do in cities of Greece, where the people had more absolute power, did but only nourish their disobedience, which would break out in the end, to the utter mine and overthrow of the whole state [omission for length]."
Marcius, dilating the matter with many such like reasons, won all the young men, and almost all the rich men to his opinion: insomuch they rang it out that he was the only man, and alone in the city, who stood out against the people, and never flattered them. There were only a few old men that spoke against him, fearing least some mischief might fall out upon it, as indeed there followed no great good afterward.
For the tribunes of the people, being present at this consultation of the Senate, when they saw that the opinion of Marcius was confirmed with the more voices, they left the Senate, and went down to the people, crying out for help, and that they would assemble to save their tribunes. The sum of what Marcius had spoken, having been reported to the people, excited them to such fury that they were ready to break in upon the Senate. The tribunes prevented this by laying all the blame on Coriolanus, whom, therefore, they cited by their messengers to come before them and defend himself. And when he contemptuously repulsed the officers who brought him the summons, they came themselves, with the aediles, proposing to carry him away by force; and, accordingly, began to lay hold on his person. The patricians, however, coming to his rescue, not only thrust off the tribunes, but also beat the aediles, that were their seconds in the quarrel; but the night approaching put an end to the contest.
[Omission for length: the next morning, the senate agreed to send the two consuls to speak to the people, which they did. The consuls promised that the grain would be sold at a low cost, which seemed to calm most people down. Then the tribunes stood up and demanded that Marcius come and answer for the things he had said, and also that he be charged with violence against the aediles.]
All this was spoken to one of these two ends, either that Marcius, against his nature, should be constrained to humble himself, and to abase his haughty and fierce mind; or else, if he continued still in his stoutness, he should incur the people's displeasure and ill will so far that he should never possibly win them again. Which they hoped would rather fall out so, than otherwise: as indeed they guessed unhappily, considering Marcius' nature and disposition.
So Marcius came and presented himself to answer their accusations against him, and the people held their peace, and gave attentive ear to hear what he would say. But where they thought to have heard very humble and lowly words come from him, he began not only to use his wonted boldness of speaking (which of itself was very rough and unpleasant, and did more aggravate his accusation, than purge his innocence) but also gave himself in his words to thunder, and look therewithal so grimly, as though he made no reckoning of the matter. This stirred coals among the people, who were in wonderful fury at it; and their hate and malice grew so toward him, that they could no longer bear nor endure his bravery and careless boldness.
Whereupon Sicinnius, the cruellest and stoutest of the tribunes, after he had whispered a little with his companions, did openly pronounce in the face of all the people, Marcius as condemned by the tribunes to die. He commanded the aediles to apprehend him, and carry him straight to the Tarpeian Rock, and to cast him headlong down the same. When the aediles came to lay hands upon Marcius to do that which they were commanded, divers of the people themselves thought it too cruel and violent a deed. The noblemen also being much troubled to see such force and rigour used, hurried up with cries to the rescue; and while some made actual use of their hands to hinder the arrest, and surrounding Marcius, got him in among them, others, as in so great a tumult no good could be done by words, stretched out theirs, beseeching the multitude that they would not proceed to such furious extremities.
[Omission for length: the tribunes were finally persuaded that it would be more civilized, and less dangerous, to give Marcius a proper trial. The patricians worried that if the tribunes were given full authority in the case, the common people would want even more power; others said that it would encourage a spirit of co-operation.]
Marcius, seeing the Senate in great doubt how to resolve, partly for the love and goodwill the nobility did bear him, and partly for the fear they stood in of the people, asked aloud of the tribunes what the crimes were which they intended to charge him, and what the heads of the indictment they would oblige him to plead to before the people; and being told by them that he was to be impeached for attempting usurpation, and that they would prove him guilty of designing to establish arbitrary government, stepping forth upon this, "Let me go then," he said, "to clear myself from that imputation before an assembly of them; I freely offer myself to any sort of trial, nor do I refuse any kind of punishment whatsoever; only," he continued, "let what you now mention be really made my accusation, and do not you play false with the Senate." They consented to these terms.
[Omission for length: However, when Marcius came to be tried, he was accused of quite different things, including the manner in which he had distributed the spoils won at Antium. The vote went against him, and he was sentenced to perpetual (everlasting) banishment. The common people went home in triumph; the senators, in shame and confusion.]
There needed no difference of garments, I warrant you, nor outward shows, to know a plebeian from a patrician: for they were easily discerned by their looks. For he that was on the people's side, looked cheerily on the matter: but he that was sad, and hung down his head, he was surely of the noblemen's side.
Marcius alone, himself, was neither stunned nor humiliated. In mien, carriage, and countenance, he bore the appearance of entire composure, and, while all his friends were full of distress, seemed the only man that was not touched with his misfortune. Not that either reflection taught him, or gentleness of temper made it natural for him to submit; he was wholly possessed, on the contrary, with a profound and deep-seated fury, which passes with many for no pain at all. For when sorrow (as you would say) is set afire, then it is converted into spite and malice, and driveth away for that time all faintness of heart and natural fear. And this is the cause why the choleric man is so altered, and mad in his actions, as a man set afire with a burning ague: for when a man's heart is troubled within, his pulse will beat marvellous strongly. Now that Marcius was even in that taking, it appeared true soon after by his doings.
For when he was come home to his house again, and had taken his leave of his mother and wife, finding them weeping, and shrieking out for sorrow, and had also comforted and persuaded them to be content with his chance: he went immediately to the gate of the city, accompanied with a great number of patricians that brought him thither, from whence he went on his way with three or four of his friends only, taking nothing with him, nor requesting anything of any man.
Narration and Discussion
Marcius made a deal with the tribunes that he would only answer to one charge, that of attempting to take over the government. What happened at his trial?
How does Plutarch explain Marcius' apparent lack of emotion after his banishment?
Creative narration #1: Plutarch says that after the events described, the common people went home "cheerily," but the nobility, in shame and grief. Create a conversation or diary entry from the viewpoint of the observers.
Creative narration #2: You are a reporter who has been given an exclusive interview with Marcius. What questions will you ask him?
In Act III. Scene i., Coriolanus says, in front of the tribunes, "Let what is meet be said it must be meet, / And throw their power i' th' dust." Officers are called in to arrest him, and, after a scuffle, the tribunes propose that he be thrown from the Tarpeian Rock; but eventually they agree to a trial by law. Act III ends with Marcius' banishment; Act IV opens with his farewell to his family.
Marcius, after the initial shock of his banishment, began to think of a way to get revenge on Rome.
striving in all emulation of honour: trying to be the most admired
the common quarrel between them: the Roman-Volsci enmity
horde: group, crowd
for my surname of Coriolanus: Marcius earned his name because of his victory over the Volsci.
sufferance: tolerance (in this case, of injustice)
dastardly: wicked, evil
that thou dare not: if you will not trust me to help you, and will therefore have me put to death
proffering: offering, holding something out
palsy: paralysis, especially accompanied by tremors
litter: stretcher, movable bed
Tullus Aufidius: Commander of the Volscian army; enemy of Marcius.
Marcius continued solitary for a few days in a place in the country, distracted with a variety of counsels, such as rage and indignation, suggested to him; proposing to himself no honourable or useful end, but only that he might best satisfy his revenge on the Romans, he resolved at length to raise up a heavy war against them from their nearest neighbours.
He determined first to make trial of the Volsci, whom he knew to be still vigorous and flourishing, both in men and treasure; and he imagined their force and power was not so much abated, as their spite and anger increased, by the recent overthrows they had received from the Romans.
Now in the city of Antium, there was one called Tullus Aufidius, who for his riches, as also for his nobility and valiantness, was honoured among the Volsci as a king. Marcius knew very well that Tullus did more malice and envy him than he did all the Romans besides; because that many times in battles where they met, they were ever at the encounter one against another, like lusty courageous youths, striving in all emulation of honour. Insomuch, as besides the common quarrel between them, there was bred a marvellous private hate one against another. Yet notwithstanding [omission for length], he disguised himself in such array and attire as he thought no man could ever have known him for the person he was, seeing him in that apparel he had upon his back; and as Homer said of Ulysses,
So did he enter into the enemies' town.
It was even twilight when he entered the city of Antium, and many people met him in the streets, but no man knew him. So he went directly to Tullus Aufidius' house, and when he came thither, he got him up straight to the chimney of the hearth, and sat him down, and spoke not a word to any man, his face all muffled over. They of the house spying him, wondered what he should be, and yet they dared not bid him rise. For ill-favouredly muffled and disguised as he was, yet there appeared a certain majesty in his countenance, and in his silence; whereupon they went to Tullus, who was at supper, to tell him of the strange disguising of this man. Tullus rose presently from the horde, and coming towards him, asked him what he was, and wherefore he came. Then Marcius unmuffled himself, and after he had paused a while, making no answer, he said unto him:
"If thou knowest me not yet, Tullus, and seeing me, dost not perhaps believe me to be the man I am indeed, I must of necessity bewray myself to be that which I am. I am Gaius Marcius, who hath done to thyself particularly, and to all the Volsci generally, great hurt and mischief, which I cannot deny for my surname of Coriolanus that I bear. For I never had other benefit, nor recompense, of all the true and painful service I have done, and the extreme dangers I have been in, but only this surname: a good memory and witness of the malice and displeasure thou shouldst bear me. Indeed, the name only remaineth with me: for the rest, the envy and cruelty of the people of Rome have taken from me, by the sufferance of the dastardly nobility and magistrates, who have forsaken me, and let me be banished by the people. This extremity hath now driven me to come as a poor suitor, to take thy chimney hearth, not of any hope I have to save my life thereby. For if I had feared death, I would not have come hither to have put my life in hazard: but pricked forward with spite and desire, I have to be revenged of them that thus have banished me, whom now I begin to be avenged on, putting my person between thy enemies. Wherefore, if thou hast any heart to be wrecked of the injuries thy enemies have done thee, speed thee now, and let my misery serve thy turn, and so use it, as my service may be a benefit to the Volsci: promising thee, that I will fight with better goodwill for all you, than ever I did when I was against you, knowing that they fight more valiantly, who know the force of their enemy, than such as have never proved it. And if it be so that thou dare not, and that thou art weary to prove Fortune anymore: then am I also weary to live any longer. And it were no wisdom in thee, to save the life of him who hath been heretofore thy mortal enemy, and whose service now can nothing help nor pleasure thee."
Tullus, hearing what he said, was a marvellous glad man, and taking him by the hand, he said unto him: "Stand up, O Marcius, and be of good cheer, for in proffering thyself unto us, thou doest us great honour; and by this means thou mayest hope also of greater things at all the Volscian hands."
So he feasted him for that time, and entertained him in the honourablest manner he could, talking with him in no other matters at that present: but within a few days after, they fell to consultation together, in what sort they should begin their wars.
Now on the other side, the city of Rome was in marvellous uproar and discord, the nobility against the commonalty, and chiefly for Marcius' condemnation and banishment. Moreover the priests, the soothsayers, and private men also, came and declared to the Senate certain sights and wonders in the air, which they had seen, and were to be considered of: amongst the which, such a vision happened. There was a citizen of Rome called Titus Latinus, a man of mean quality and condition, but otherwise an honest sober man, given to a quiet life, without superstition, and much less to vanity or lying. This man had a vision in his dream, in the which he thought that Jupiter appeared unto him, and commanded him to signify to the Senate that they had caused a bad and unacceptable dancer to go before a procession. Having beheld the vision, he said, he did not much attend to it at the first appearance; but after he had seen it a second and third time, he had lost a son, and was himself struck with a palsy. He was brought into the senate on a litter to tell this, and the story goes that he had no sooner delivered his message there, but he at once felt his strength return and got upon his legs, and went home alone without need of any support.
[Omission for length: The dreams of Titus Latinus, and the efforts of the Romans to placate the gods with a new procession, do not seem to have directly involved Martius; but they illustrate the belief that the banishment of Martius had also displeased those gods.]
Narration and Discussion
Do you think Marcius will fully give himself to the Volscian cause, or should Tullus perhaps be cautious about trusting him? What about the other way around: can Marcius trust the Volscians?
For older students and further thought: Richard Brookhiser, writing about Benedict Arnold (Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2019), said that one thing that set Arnold apart from those who did not defect was that his honour, though genuine, "seems to have been fatally self-contained." In other words, he recognized no purpose other than what he himself decided was important. If Coriolanus lived by the same beliefs, did that make him a hero, or was it a flaw in his character?
Creative narration: This scene lends itself to dramatization. If you are working with a group, act out the conversation between Marcius and Tullus; then read or watch Shakespeare's version.
These events are dramatized in Act IV, Scenes iv. and v. (Did you know that Shakespeare uses the word "thwack?")
Marcius, as agreed, began to use his military skills on behalf of the Volsci; and they, on their side, started to value him as a gifted leader and "their only captain." But being too good at a job can sometimes become a problem.
dissension: conflict, disagreement
they had sworn to a truce. . . : they had made a peace treaty
spectacles: the athletic games and other events relating to the holiday
tract of time: delay
munition and furniture: military equipment, weapons
malice: desire to harm
stir and broil: disturbance, tumult
in garrison: in the fort; acting as defense
provide all conveniences. . . : send weapons, armour, and food to the part of the army that was fighting away from home
On the Map
Lavici: a town near modern-day Colonna
Bola: or Bolae. An ancient city believed to be on the same site as present-day Labico, a municipality within the Metropolitan City of Rome
Now Tullus and Marcius conferred secretly with the greatest personages of the city of Antium, declaring unto them that now they had good time offered them to make war with the Romans, while they were in dissension one with another. And when shame appeared to hinder them from embracing the motion, as they had sworn to a truce and cessation of arms for the space of two years, the Romans themselves soon furnished them with a pretense. For on a holy day, they made a proclamation, out of some jealousy or slanderous report, in the midst of the spectacles, that all the Volscians who had come to see them should depart the city before sunset. Some affirm that this was a contrivance of Marcius, who sent a man privately to the consuls, falsely to accuse the Volscians of intending to fall upon the Romans during the games, and to set the city on fire.
This open proclamation made all the Volsci more offended with the Romans than ever they were before; and Tullus, aggravating the matter, did so inflame the Volsci against them, that in the end they sent their ambassadors to Rome, to summon them to deliver their lands and towns again which they had taken from them in times past, or to look for present wars.
The Romans hearing this, were marvellously nettled: and made no other answer but thus: "If the Volsci be the first that begin war, the Romans will be the last that will end it." Immediately upon the return of the Volsci ambassadors, and the delivery of the Romans' answer, Tullus caused an assembly general to be made of the Volsci, and concluded to make war upon the Romans. This done, Tullus did counsel them to take Marcius into their service, and not to mistrust him for the remembrance of anything past, but boldly to trust him in any matter to come: for he would do them more service in fighting for them than ever he did them displeasure in fighting against them.
So Marcius was called forth, who spoke so excellently in the presence of them all, that he was thought no less eloquent in tongue than warlike in show: and declared himself both expert in wars, and wise with valiantness. Thus he was joined in commission with Tullus as general of the Volsci, having absolute authority between them to follow and pursue the wars.
But Marcius, fearing lest tract of time to bring this army together, with all the munition and furniture of the Volsci, would rob him of the means he had to execute his purpose and intent, left orders with the rulers and chief of the city to assemble the rest of their power, and to prepare all necessary provision for the camp. Then he, with the lightest soldiers he had, and those that were willing to follow him, stole away upon the sudden, and marched with all speed, and entered the territories of Rome before the Romans heard any news of his coming. Insomuch the Volsci found such spoil in the fields, as they had more than they could spend in their camp, and were weary to drive and carry away that they had. Howbeit, the gain of the spoil and the hurt they did to the Romans in this invasion was the least part of his intent.
For his chiefest purpose was to increase still the malice and dissension between the nobility and the commonalty: and to draw that on, he was very careful to keep the noblemen's lands and goods safe from harm and burning, but spoiled all the whole country besides, and would suffer no man to take or hurt anything of the noblemen's. This made greater stir and broil between the nobility and people than there was before. For the noblemen fell out with the people, because they had so unjustly banished a man of so great valour and power. The people, on the other side, accused the nobility, how they had procured Marcius to make these wars to be revenged of them: because it pleased them (the nobility) to see their goods burnt and spoiled before their eyes, whilst they themselves were well at ease, and did behold the common people's losses and misfortunes, and knowing their own goods safe and out of danger, and how the war was not made against the noblemen, that had the enemy abroad, to keep that which they had in safety.
Now Marcius, having done this first exploit (which made the Volsci bolder, and less fearful of the Romans), brought home all the army again, without loss of any man.But when the whole strength of the Volsci was brought together in the field, with great expedition and alacrity, it appeared so considerable a body that they agreed to leave part in garrison, for the security of their towns; and with the other part to march against the Romans. So Marcius bade Tullus choose, and take which of the two charges he liked best. Tullus answered that he knew by experience that Marcius was no less valiant than himself, and how he ever had better fortune and good hap in all battles, than he himself had. Therefore he thought it best for him to have the leading of those that should make the wars abroad: and he himself would keep home, to provide for the safety of the cities and of his country, and to provide all conveniences for the army abroad.
So Marcius, being stronger than before, went first of all unto Circaeum, a Roman colony, who willingly yielded themselves, and therefore had no hurt. From thence, he entered and laid waste the country of the Latins, where he expected the Romans would meet him, as the Latins were their confederates and allies, and had often sent to demand aid from them. The people, however, on their part, showing little inclination for the service, and the consuls themselves being unwilling to run the hazard of a battle when the time of their office was almost ready to expire, they dismissed the Latin ambassadors without any effect; so that Marcius, finding no army to oppose him, marched up to their cities; and having taken by force Toleria, Lavici, Peda, and Bola, all of which offered resistance, he not only plundered their houses, but made a prey likewise of their persons. Meantime he showed particular regard for all such as came over to his party, and, for fear they might sustain any damage against his will, he removed his camp as far from their confines as he could.
When he took the city of Bola by assault, he had a marvellous great spoil; and put every man to the sword that was able to carry weapons. The other Volsci that were appointed to remain in garrison for defense of their country, bearing this good news, would tarry no longer at home, but armed themselves, and ran to Marcius' camp, saying they did acknowledge no other captain but him. Hereupon his fame ran through all Italy, and universal wonder prevailed at the sudden and mighty revolution in the fortunes of two nations which the loss and the accession of a single man had effected.
Narration and Discussion
What was Marcius' real goal, according to Plutarch?
What were the strategies that Marcius and Tullus used against the cities under Roman rule? Why did the Romans not offer a better defense?
Creative narration: "Universal wonder prevailed at the sudden and mighty revolution in the fortunes of two nations. . . ." As the editor, reporter, and political cartoonist of the Rome Daily News, how would you express this to your readers?
Shakespeare writes this section from an unexpected point of view: the Romans, including Menenius and the tribunes, receiving the news that the Volscians are camped in their territory and planning to attack. "And who's that with them?" "Can't be . . ."
As Marcius continued on the warpath against Rome, the belief that he should be called home again was spreading; however, the senators were reluctant to act. When he camped right outside their gates, they finally agreed to send some envoys to discuss matters with him. Perhaps now that he had shown everyone what he could do, he would be happy to be welcomed home.However, the Roman ambassadors found that the new "General of the Volsci" was not so easily appeased.
averse from. . . : refusing to do something
humour: stubborn desire
strait: tight situation
appeased: soothed, calmed
kinsman: relative; one of the same tribe
respite: period of rest
Aeneas: the legendary founder of Rome
On the Map
Lavinium: A port city that was considered sacred by the Romans.
All at Rome was in great disorder: they were utterly averse from fighting, and spent their whole time in schemes, disputes and reproaches against each other; until news was brought that the enemy had laid close siege to Lavinium, in which were all the temples and images of the gods their protectors, for they believed that Aeneas at his first arrival into Italy did build that city.
Then fell there out a marvellous sudden change of mind among the common people, and far more strange and contrary in the nobility. For the people thought good to repeal the condemnation and exile of Marcius; whereas the Senate, being assembled to consider the decree, opposed and finally rejected the proposal, either out of the mere humour of contradicting and withstanding the people in whatever they should desire; or because they were unwilling, perhaps, that he (Marcius) should owe his restoration to their kindness; or having now conceived a displeasure against Marcius himself, who was bringing distress upon all alike, though he had not been ill-treated by all, and was become a declared enemy to his whole country, though he knew well enough that the principal and all the "better" men condoled with him, and suffered in his injuries. Report being made of the Senate's resolution, the people found themselves in a strait: for they could authorize and confirm nothing by their voices, unless it had been first propounded and ordained by the Senate.
But Marcius hearing this stir about him, was in a greater rage with them than before: insomuch as he raised his siege immediately before the city of Lavinium, and, going towards Rome, lodged his camp at the Cluilian ditches, about five miles from the city. His encamping so near Rome did put all the whole city in a wonderful fear: howbeit for the present time it appeased the sedition and dissension betwixt the nobility and the people. For there was no consul, senator, nor magistrate, that dared once contrary the opinion of the people for the calling home again of Marcius. When they saw the women in a marvellous fear, running up and down the city; the temples of the gods full of old people, weeping bitterly in their prayers to the gods; and finally, not a man either wise or hardy to provide for their safety: then they were all of opinion that the people had reason to call home Marcius again, to reconcile themselves to him, and that the Senate, on the contrary part, were in marvellous great fault to be angry with him, when it stood them upon rather to have gone out and entreated him. So they all agreed together to send ambassadors unto him, to let him understand how his countrymen did call him home again, and restored him to all his goods, and besought him to deliver them from this war.
The ambassadors that were sent were Marcius' familiar friends and acquaintance, who looked at the least for a courteous welcome of him, as of their familiar friend and kinsman. Howbeit they found nothing less. For at their coming, they were brought through the camp, to the place where he was set in his chair of state with a marvellous and an unspeakable majesty, having the chiefest men of the Volsci about him: so he commanded them to declare openly the cause of their coming. Which they delivered in the most humble and lowly words they possibly could devise, and with all modest countenance and behaviour agreeable for the same.
When they had done their message: for the injury they had done him, he answered them very hotly, and in great choler. But as general of the Volsci, he willed them to restore unto the Volsci all their lands and cities they had taken from them in former wars: and moreover, that they should give them the like honour and freedom of Rome, as they had before given to the Latins. For otherwise they had no other means to end this war, if they did not grant these honest and just conditions of peace. Thereupon he gave them thirty days' respite to make him answer.
Narration and Discussion
Why were the Romans in a "strait" as to what to do about Marcius?
Why did Marcius' arrival near Rome actually ease some of the tension between the nobility and the common people?
Creative narration: You are one of the ambassadors sent to plead with Marcius to end the war and come back to Rome. Consider what you might say to persuade him.
For further thought: In the Book of Genesis, Joseph is approached by his brothers who have come to beg for food; but he acts the part of a stern Egyptian ruler and does not immediately disclose his true identity. Would you guess that Coriolanus is also stretching out the scene, and planning to give in when it suits him; or does he have no intention of returning?
The play proceeds pretty much in order from this point on, although Shakespeare does make a few changes. It's clear, in the play, that Aufidius plans to get rid of Marcius, and that all his co-operation has been only for his own purposes.
The back-and-forth continued between Marcius and various envoys from Rome. He was determined not to back down until the Volscian cities were restored and their other demands were granted; but he seemed to have to continually prove his fitness for that position, as even a small retreat (during the short truce with Rome itself, though not with its allies) brought his loyalties into question.
blemished: damaged, dirtied
malcontents: those who were not happy with the situation
safe conduit: safe passage through the Volscian lines.
repulse: repel, push back
ill-boding: ominous, bad-sounding
So the ambassadors returned straight to Rome, and Marcius forthwith departed with his army out of the territories of the Romans. This was the first matter wherewith the Volsci (those that most envied Marcius' glory and authority) did charge Marcius with. Among those, Tullus was chief: who though he had received no private injury or displeasure of Marcius, yet the common fault and imperfection of man's nature wrought in him; and it grieved him to see his own reputation blemished through Marcius' great fame and honour, and so himself to be less esteemed of the Volsci than he was before. This fell out the more because every man honoured Marcius, and thought he only could do all, and that all other governors and captains should be content with that share of power which he might think fit to accord.
From hence the first seeds of complaint and accusation were scattered about in secret, and the malcontents met and heightened each other's indignation, saying that to retreat as he did was in effect to betray and deliver up, though not their cities and their arms, yet what was as bad, the critical times and opportunities for action, on which depend the preservation or the loss of everything else; since in less than thirty days' space, for which he had given a respite for the war, there might happen the greatest changes in the world. Yet Marcius spent not any part of the time idly, but attacked the confederates of the enemy, ravaged their land, and took from them seven great and populous cities in that interval. The Romans dared not once put themselves into the field to come to their aid and help: they were so fainthearted, so mistrustful, and loath besides to make wars [omission for length].
Wherefore, the time of peace expired, and Marcius being returned into the dominions of the Romans again with all his army: they sent another embassy unto him, to pray peace and the remove of the Volsci out of their country, that afterwards they might with better leisure fall to such agreements together as should be thought most meet and necessary. For the Romans were no men that would ever yield for fear. But if he thought the Volsci had any ground to demand reasonable articles and conditions, all that they would reasonably ask should be granted unto by the Romans, who of themselves would willingly yield to reason, conditionally that they did lay down arms.
Marcius, to that, answered that, as general of the Volsci, he would reply nothing unto it. But yet as a Roman citizen, he would counsel them to let fall their pride, and to be conformable to reason, if they were wise: and that they should return again within three days, delivering up the articles agreed upon, which he had first delivered them. Or otherwise, that he would no more give them assurance or safe conduit to return again into his camp, with such vain and frivolous messages.
When the ambassadors were returned to Rome, and had reported Marcius' answer to the Senate: their city being in extreme danger, and as it were in a terrible storm or tempest, they threw out (as the common proverb sayeth) their holy anchor. For then they appointed all the priests, keepers of holy things, and soothsayers to go to Marcius, appareled as when they do their sacrifices: first to entreat him to leave off war, and then that he would speak to his countrymen, and conclude peace with the Volsci.
Marcius suffered them to come into his camp, but yet he granted them nothing the more, neither did he entertain them or speak more courteously to them than he did the first time that they came unto him, saving only that he willed them to take the one of the two: either to accept peace under the first conditions offered, or else to receive war.
When this solemn application proved ineffectual, the priests, too, returning unsuccessful, they determined to sit still within the city and keep watch about their walls, intending only to repulse the enemy, should he offer to attack them; and placing their hopes chiefly in time and in extraordinary accidents of fortune. As to themselves, they felt incapable of doing anything for their own deliverance; mere confusion and terror and ill-boding reports possessed the whole city.
[omission for length]
Narration and Discussion
Why did Marcius refuse to explain why the Volsci believed they had a reasonable right to the captured cities? Why did he then give them a second reply "as a Roman citizen?"
Creative narration: ". . . mere confusion and terror and ill-boding reports possessed the whole city." You are again the entire staff of the Rome Daily News. What will the headlines be? Will there be an advice column, or a cartoon?
Plutarch speaks generally of "ambassadors" that were sent to try to talk Marcius into retreating; Shakespeare makes more deliberate use of the characters, moving from the lowest personal involvement (Cominius) through close friendship (Menenius) and then finally the scene with his mother and wife (described in Lesson Eleven).
Marcius had a close relationship with his family, especially his mother. Yet it was not the rulers who thought of asking her to go and offer a final plea to her son, but another woman who had spent a lifetime observing Roman politics: Valeria, the sister of Publicola.
suppliants: those who pray or worship
expedient: way to solve a problem; means of attaining an end
clemency: mercy, forgiveness
to be chronicled: to be put into the history books
Publicola: see notes for Lesson One
In the perplexity which I have described, the Roman women went, some to other temples, but the greater part, and the ladies of highest rank, to the altar of Jupiter Capitolinus. Among these suppliants was Valeria, sister to the great Publicola, who did the Romans eminent service both in peace and war. Publicola himself was now deceased, as is told in his Life; but Valeria lived still, and enjoyed great respect and honour at Rome. She, happily lighting, not without divine guidance, on the right expedient, both rose herself, and bade the others rise, and went directly with them to the house of Volumnia, the mother of Marcius. And coming into her, they found her, and Marcius' wife, her daughter-in-law set together, and having her young children in her lap.
Now all the train of these ladies sitting in a ring round about her: Valeria first began to speak in this sort unto her:
"We that now make our appearance, O Volumnia, and you, Vergilia, are come as mere women to women, not by direction from the Senate, nor commandment of other magistrate: but through the inspiration (as I take it) of some god above. Who, having taken compassion and pity of our prayers, hath moved us to come unto you, to entreat you in a matter as well beneficial for us, as also for the whole citizens in general: but to yourselves in especial (if it please you to credit me) and shall redound to our more fame and glory, than the daughters of the Sabines obtained in former age, when they procured loving peace, instead of hateful war, between their fathers and their husbands. Come on, good ladies, and let us go all together unto Marcius, to entreat him to take pity upon us, and also to report the truth unto him, how much you are bound unto the citizens: who notwithstanding they have sustained great hurt and losses by him, yet they have not hitherto sought revenge upon your persons by any discourteous usage, neither ever conceived any such thought or intent against you, but do deliver ye safe into his hands, though thereby they look for no better grace or clemency from him."
When Valeria had spoken this unto them, all the other ladies together with one voice confirmed that which she had said. Then Volumnia in this sort did answer her:
"My good ladies, we are partakers with you of the common misery and calamity of our country, and yet our grief exceedeth yours the more, by reason of our particular misfortune: to feel the loss of my son Marcius' former valiancy and glory, and to see his person environed now with our enemies in arms, rather to see him forthcoming and safe kept, than of any love to defend his person. But yet the greatest grief of our heaped mishaps is to see our poor country brought to such extremity, that all hope of the safety and preservation thereof is now unfortunately cast upon us simple women: because we know not what account he will make of us, since he hath cast from him all care of his natural country and commonweal, which heretofore he has held more dear and precious than either his mother, wife, or children. Notwithstanding, if ye think we can do good, we will willingly do what you will have us: bring us to him I pray you. For if we cannot prevail, we may yet die at his feet as humble suitors for the safety of our country."
Her answer ended, she took her daughter-in-law, and Marcius' children with her, and being accompanied with all the other Roman ladies, they went in troop together unto the Volsci camp: whom when they saw, they of themselves did both pity and reverence her, and there was not a man among them that once dared say a word unto her.
Now was Marcius set then in his chair of state, with all the honours of a general; and when he had spied the women coming afar off, he marvelled what the matter meant: but afterwards recognizing his wife, who came foremost, he determined at the first to persist in his obstinate and inflexible rancour. But overcome in the end with natural affection, and being altogether altered to see them, his heart would not serve him to tarry their coming to his chair; but coming down in haste, he went to meet them, and first he kissed his mother, and embraced her a pretty while, than his wife and little children. And nature so wrought with him that the tears fell from his eyes, and he could not keep himself from making much of them, but yielded to the affection of his blood, as if he had been violently carried with the fury of a most swift running stream.
After he had thus lovingly received them, and perceiving that his mother Volumnia would begin to speak to him, he called the chiefest of the council of the Volsci to hear what she would say. Then she spoke in this sort:
"If we held our peace (my son) and determined not to speak, the state of our poor bodies, and present sight of our raiment, would easily bewray to thee what life we have led at home, since thy exile and abode abroad.
"But think now with thyself, how much more unfortunately, than all the women living we are come hither, considering that the sight which should be most pleasant to all other to behold, spiteful fortune hath made most fearful to us: making myself to see my son, and my daughter here, her husband, besieging the walls of his native country. So as that which is the only comfort to all other in their adversity and misery, to pray unto the gods, and to call to them for aid: is the only thing which plunges us into most deep perplexity. For we cannot (alas) together pray, both for victory, for our country, and for safety of thy life also: but a world of grievous curses, yea more than any mortal enemy can heap upon us, are forcibly wrapped up in our prayers. For the bitter sop of most hard choice is offered thy wife and children, to forego the one of the two: either to lose the person of thyself, or the nurse of their native country [omission for length].
"For as to destroy thy natural country, it is altogether unmeet and unlawful: so were it not just, and less honorable, to betray those that put their trust in thee. But my only demand consisteth, to make equal delivery of all evils, which delivereth equal benefit and safety, both to the one and the other, but most honorable for the Volsci. For it shall appear, that having victory in their hands, they have of special favour granted us singular graces: peace, and amity, albeit themselves have no less part of both than we. Of which good, if so it came to pass, thyself is the only author, and so hast thou the only honour. But if it fail, and fall out contrary: thyself alone deservedly shall carry the shameful reproach and burden of either party. So, though the end of war be uncertain, yet this notwithstanding is most certain: that if it be thy chance to conquer, this benefit shalt thou reap of thy goodly conquest, 'to be chronicled the plague and destroyer of thy country. And if fortune also overthrow thee, then the world will say that through desire to revenge thy private injuries, thou hast forever undone thy good friends, who did most lovingly and courteously receive thee."
Marcius gave good ear unto his mother's words, without interrupting her speech at all: and after she had said what she would, he held his peace a pretty while, and answered not a word. Hereupon she began again to speak unto him, and said:
"My son, why dost thou not answer me? Dost thou think it good altogether to give place unto thy choler and desire of revenge, and thinkest thou it not honesty for thee to grant thy mothers request, in so weighty a cause? Dost thou take it honourable for a nobleman to remember the wrongs and injuries done him: and dost not in like case think it an honest nobleman's part, to be thankful for the goodness that parents do show to their children, acknowledging the duty and reverence they ought to bear unto them? No man living is more bound to show himself thankful in all parts and respects, than thyself: who so unnaturally showeth all ingratitude. Moreover, my son, thou hast sorely taken of thy country, exacting grievous payments upon them in revenge of the injuries offered thee: besides, thou hast not hitherto showed thy poor mother any courtesy. And therefore, it is not only honest, but due unto me, that without compulsion I should obtain my so just and reasonable request of thee. But since by reason I cannot persuade thee to it, to what purpose do I defer my last hope?"
And with these words, herself, his wife and children, fell down upon their knees before him. Marcius seeing that, could refrain no longer, but went straight and lifted her up, crying out: "Oh mother, what have you done to me?" And holding her hard by the right hand, "Oh mother," said he, "you have won a happy victory for your country, but mortal and unhappy for your son: for I see myself vanquished by you alone." These words being spoken openly, he spoke a little apart with his mother and wife, and then let them return again to Rome, for so they did request him.
Narration and Discussion
What is it that Volumnia and the other women wanted Marcius to do?
"Oh mother," said he, "you have won a happy victory for your country, but mortal and unhappy for your son: for I see myself vanquished by you alone." What did Marcius mean?
Creative narration: This scene lends itself easily to dramatization, art, and other creative expression.
Shakespeare gives us a conversation (Act V Scene iv.) between Menenius and Sicinnius (spelled Sicinius Velutus), where they wonder if Marcius will listen to his mother's pleas. It includes these lines:
Sicinius Velutus: Is't possible that so short a time can alter the condition of a man!
Menenius Agrippa: There is differency between a grub and a butterfly; yet your butterfly was a grub. This Coriolanus is grown from man to dragon: he has wings; he's more than a creeping thing.
Sicinius Velutus. He loved his mother dearly.
Menenius Agrippa. So did he me: and he no more remembers his mother now than an eight-year-old horse.
Lesson Twelve and Examination Questions
Plutarch says that the Volscian soldiers followed Marcius' command to retreat, but more from respect for his virtue than from fear of his authority. Even with amount of that support behind him, he seemed to fear what might happen when they arrived back at Antium.
unfavourable to neither: they were fine with both Marcius and his decision
compulsion: force, power
despatch: kill, or at least get rid of
suborned: bribed, induced
partisans: supporters, friends
pretense and enterprise: plot
killed him in the marketplace: Plutarch states that Marcius was killed at this time. Not all historians agree, however.
Aequians: or Aequi; see introductory notes for this study
488 B.C.: Possible date of the death of Coriolanus
And so remaining in camp that night, the next morning he broke up his camp, and led the Volscians homeward, variously affected with what he had done: some of them complaining of him and condemning his act; others, who were inclined to a peaceful conclusion, unfavourable to neither. A third party, while much disliking his proceedings, yet could not look upon Marcius as a treacherous person, but thought it pardonable in him to be thus shaken and driven to surrender at last, under such compulsion. None, however, opposed his commands; they all obediently followed him, though rather from admiration of his virtue than any regard they now had to his authority.
Now the citizens of Rome plainly showed in what fear and danger their city stood of this war, when they were delivered. For so soon as the watch upon the walls of the city perceived the Volsci camp to remove, there was not a temple in the city but was presently set open, and full of men, wearing garlands of flowers upon their heads, sacrificing to the gods, as they were wont to do upon the news of some great obtained victory.
But the joy and transport of the whole city was chiefly remarkable in the honours and marks of affection paid to the women, as well by the Senate as the people in general; everyone declaring that they were, beyond all question, the instruments of the public safety. And the Senate having passed a decree that whatsoever they would ask in the way of any favour or honour should be allowed and done for them by the magistrates, they demanded simply that a temple might be erected to Female Fortune, the expense of which they offered to defray out of their own contributions, if the city would pay the cost of sacrifices, and other matters pertaining to the due honour of the gods out of the common treasury.
The Senate, much commending their public spirit, caused the temple to be built and a statue set up in it at the public charge.
[omission for length]
When Marcius came back to Antium, Tullus, who thoroughly hated and greatly feared him, proceeded at once to contrive how he might immediately despatch him, as, if he escaped now, he was never likely to give him another such advantage. Having therefore got together and suborned several partisans against him, he required Marcius to resign his charge, and give the Volsci an account of his administration. Marcius, fearing to become a private man again while Tullus held the office of general and exercised the greatest power among his fellow-citizens, made answer that he was ready to lay down his commission whenever those from whose common authority he had received it should think fit to recall it; and that in the meantime he was ready to give the Antiates satisfaction as to all particulars of his conduct, if they were desirous of it.
The people hereupon called a common council, in which assembly there were certain orators appointed, that stirred up the common people against him: and when they had told their tales. But when Marcius stood up to answer, the more unruly and tumultuous part of the people became quiet on a sudden, and out of reverence, allowed him to speak without the least disturbance. Moreover, the most honest men of the Antiates, and who most rejoiced in peace, showed by their countenance that they would hear him willingly, and judge also according to their conscience. Whereupon Tullus feared that if he did let him speak, he would prove his innocence to the people, because amongst other things he had an eloquent tongue; besides that the first good service he had done to the people of the Volsci did win him more favour than these last accusations could purchase him displeasure; and furthermore, the offence they laid to his charge was a testimony of the goodwill they owed him, for they would never have thought he had done them wrong for that they took not the city of Rome, if they had not been very near taking of it, by means of his approach and conduction.
For these causes Tullus thought he might no longer delay his pretense and enterprise, neither to tarry for the mutinying and rising of the common people against him: wherefore, those that were of the conspiracy began to cry out that he was not to be heard, nor that they would not suffer a traitor to usurp tyrannical power over the tribe of the Volsci, who would not yield up his estate and authority.
And in saying these words, they all fell upon him, and killed him in the marketplace, none of those that were present offering to defend him. But it quickly appeared that the action was in nowise approved by the most part of the Volsci: for men came out of all parts to honour his body, and did honourably bury him, setting out his tomb with great store of armour and spoils, as the tomb of a worthy person and great captain.
When the Romans heard tidings of his death, they showed no other honour or malice, saving that they granted the ladies the request they made, that they might mourn ten months for him; and that was the full time they used to wear blacks for the death of their fathers, brethren, or husbands [omission for length].
Now Marcius being dead, all the Volsci heartily wished him alive again. For first of all they fell out with the Aequians (who were their friends and confederates) touching pre-eminence and place: and this quarrel grew on so far between them, and frays and murders fell out upon it one with another.
After that, the Romans overcame them in battle, in which Tullus was slain in the field, and the flower of all their force was put to the sword: so that they were forced to submit and accept of peace upon very dishonourable terms, becoming subjects of Rome, and pledging themselves to submission.
Narration and Discussion
In Lesson One, Plutarch quoted two common beliefs: first, that growing up (even in Rome) without a father did not prevent people from being seen as virtuous or from being respected for excellent achievements; and, second, "that a generous and worthy nature without proper discipline, like a rich soil without culture, is apt with its better fruits to produce also much that is bad and faulty." How was Coriolanus an example of both?
Creative narration: You are the head of the monument-designing committee for Coriolanus. What might it have looked like?
For older students: What is the real irony at the end of the story?
Again, Shakespeare plays up the drama of Aufidius' conspiracy to have Marcius assassinated. The final scene includes these lines:
Aufidius: At a few drops of women's rheum [tears], which are
As cheap as lies, he sold the blood and labor
Of our great action; therefore shall he die,
And I'll renew me in his fall.
It's also interesting that, in the final scene, Marcius appears taken aback that the Volscians aren't pleased with his actions. He enters almost cheerfully, waving the terms of peace, and then wonders why nobody is patting him on the back. This seems to conflict with the fact that he knew he was signing his own death warrant by agreeing to the women's request; so we might think that he is just putting on a brave show here. Or maybe, in the excitement of everything, he ignored or just forgot about the danger. What do you think?
1. How did Marcius come to be called Coriolanus? Tell the whole story.
2. Describe the visit of Volumnia and the other Roman ladies to Marcius.
1. Marcius said that "by such gratifications, they did but cherish those ill seeds of boldness and petulance that had been sown among the people, which they should have done well to observe and stifle at their first appearance, and not have suffered the plebeians to grow so strong by granting them magistrates of such authority as the tribunes." Give some account of this rebellion of the people, and the behaviour of Marcius.
2. (High school) Describe and discuss the character of Gaius Marcius, as shown when he stood for the consulship after he gained the name Coriolanus.
Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Englished by Sir Thomas North. With an introduction by George Wyndham. Volume II. London: Dent, 1894.
Plutarch's Lives: The Dryden Plutarch. Revised by Arthur Hugh Clough, Volume I. London: J.M. Dent, 1910.
AmblesideOnline Plutarch Readings:
Aemilius Agis Alcibiades Alexander Aristides Brutus Julius Caesar Camillus Cato Cicero Coriolanus Crassus Demetrius Demosthenes Dion Fabius Gracchus Nicias Pericles Philopoemen Phocion Pompey Publicola Pyrrhus Solon Themistocles Timoleon Titus Flamininus
Aemilius Agis Alcibiades Alexander Aristides Brutus Julius Caesar Camillus Cato Cicero Coriolanus Crassus Demetrius Demosthenes Dion Fabius Gracchus Nicias Pericles Philopoemen Phocion Pompey Publicola Pyrrhus Solon Themistocles Timoleon Titus Flamininus