Wednesday, 25 April 2012


For the people of Rome, the earliest days of the Republic were to be a dramatic struggle for their very survival. From the moment of the downfall of Tarquin the Proud, last of the Seven Kings of Rome, the Eternal City was plunged headfirst into ruinous war. But, at their hour of greatest need, came forth their greatest heroes (for this story, please click here). The might of Etruria had been humbled by Roman valour and steel, and for a time, all was good. But soon Rome would find that the greatest foe lies within...

The Secession of the Plebs
Engraving by Barloccini
Two hundred and fifty nine years after the Foundation of Rome, the great city was torn in two. Fourteen years had passed since the heroism of Horatius, Scaevola and Cloelia had stood proud in the face of towering adversity, and all Romans, rich and poor alike, stood together. In 494 BC, however, such times seemed as far away as ever they could be. For now, with no King to rule the city, the rich squabbled and the poor suffered. Such was the way of the Republic. One day, however, the people of Rome could bear their plight no more. Setting up camp upon the Sacred Mount, they refused to move until the Senate heard their call. War loomed. The Senate grew fearful. If there were no people, no armies could be raised. So the hands of the rich were forced, and the people could now appoint their own representatives in the Republic, the Tribunes of the Plebs. But whilst Rome tore itself apart, greater forces were on the move. Seizing their chance, the Volscian nation, a warlike people on the southern borders, pounced. Roman lands were ransacked, towns pillaged and people slaughtered. Rome could ill afford to fight itself now.

The Heroism of Gaius Marcius
Engraving by Augustyn Mirys
Heeding the call of duty, the Consuls summoned the people, and Rome marched to war. Even in their weakened state, and in the days before the Empire, the Roman legions were a mighty force indeed. Several Roman victories were gained, and the Volscians were thrown back to the city of Corioli, a place of towering walls. The legions began their siege, but one day, to their horror, they realised that all was a deception. A horde of Volscians fell upon the Roman rear, and the sons of Mars were in disarray. All, that was, except for one man. A young aristocrat serving in the army, Gaius Marcius, thought back to the glory days of Horatius at the Bridge (for this story, please click here), and stood firm. Calling to the Romans, he held his blade high, and with a powerful shout, raised his battle cry. Storming the gates, Marcius threw himself upon the stunned Volscians, fighting as though Mars himself had taken the field. Hope rippled through the Roman ranks, and morale soared. Her hour of splendour had returned at last. Shattered by the ferocity of this onslaught, the Volscians fled in terror, and Corioli fell to the renewed Romans. Marcius raised his sword high, and the roar of triumph shook the city to its very foundations, as the gods smiled once more upon Rome. For his valour, Marcius was granted the new name, Coriolanus, in honour of his victory. He returned a hero, like the Kings of old, and tears of admiration were to be found on many a face. For a time, all seemed well...

Gaius Marcius Coriolanus
Engraving by James Caldwell
But the winds of fortune are fickle indeed, as terrible famine struck the hallowed plains of Latium. Death stalked the fields of the city, and soon the animals fell to the earth, never again to rise. The poor began to starve, and threw themselves upon the mercy of the rich. Old wounds threatened to reopen. Coriolanus, a man of noble blood, soon found himself at the heart of Rome once again, but this time, desperation found itself the master of admiration. Rich though he may be, there was little he could do to find the much needed food. Rumours began to spread among the people of Rome, rumours started by the demagogues in the Senate - the Tribunes. Poisonous stories that Rome's new hero dined well whilst the people starved. When word reached the ears of the conqueror of Corioli, he was roused to terrible fury. Railing against the upstarts in the Senate, Coriolanus condemned the Tribunes for their malicious deceit and slanders. But it was too late. The man who had only days before been the most admired man in Rome soon became the most hated, or pitied. The further the stories spread, the greater his anger grew, and the more violent his words on the floor of the Senate. But then, when all hope had seemed lost, ships arrived, full to bursting with badly needed grain, generously gifted to Rome by the ruler of Syracuse. But pride and injustice can have a powerful effect on the minds of men. Coriolanus, blinded with fury, decreed that the food should only be released to the people if they surrender their rights and the Tribunes be abolished once and for all. When word of this reached the crowds in the Forum, the populace rose in rage, and would have stormed the Senate house itself had not a few loyal friends hurled themselves in front of their hero.

Seizing their chance, the Tribunes ordered the arrest of Coriolanus, demanding he stand trial for treason. Coriolanus, however, could stand things no longer. Nobles everywhere, torn between their loyalty to one of their own and fear of the mob, abandoned him. The man who had laid low the greatest threat to Rome for a generation was condemned to exile. Outraged at this betrayal, and the treachery of his own nation, Coriolanus at once marched forth from the city, with hideous vengeance on his mind. Little did the people of Rome know the horror they had unleashed...

Coriolanus before the Walls of Rome
Painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Cast out by his own countrymen, Coriolanus found the doors of all Roman towns barred to him, the lips of all allies closed. Friends old and new alike abandoned him in his evil plight, and soon he found himself alone, hated and cursed by his motherland. But the old fighting spirit was within him still. Coriolanus dared the passage to the southern borderlands, and marched without hesitation into the Volscian city, coming before the leader of their warlike nation, Attius Tullius. Both men, wronged at the hands of Rome, schemed together, one driven by malicious betrayal, the other by innate hostility. The conquered Volscian people, roused by the charismatic words of their former foe, were gripped by revolution. Generations of hatred against Rome boiled over into a torrent of retribution. Thousands rode to war under the banners of Tullius and Coriolanus, as nation after nation launched one titanic effort to destroy the Roman menace once and for all. City after city fell before Coriolanus' implacable advance. First to fall was Circeii, whose Roman settlers were hurled out of the city. Then came Satricum, then Longula, then Polusca, then Lavinium, and then Corbio, Vitellia, Trebium, Labici and Pedum. The horde soon found itself before the walls of Corioli once more, and not for the first time did Coriolanus storm its lofty ramparts. The city fell once more into his hands, and chaos reigned in Rome, as one by one all her conquests over the centuries fell like the heads of maize in the harvest. But no spoil of war could cool the fire of Coriolanus. Soon the exile was only five miles from the Eternal City itself. As his eyes caught sight of the city which had wronged him so, his thoughts were of fire and blood and the evils of revenge.

Within the city, the people of Rome were beside themselves. Were it not for the common threat of invasion, the people may well have collapsed into absolute anarchy, so unstoppable did their new foe appear. The Senate called at once for the Consuls to rally the legions, but the men of Rome had no heart for war this time. Furious at their politicians, the people demanded an embassy be sent for one last attempt at peace. Overruled, the Senate dispatched its envoys with all haste. The ambassadors entered the Volscian camp and came before Coriolanus, and to their shock, saw that exile "far from crushing his spirit, had strengthened his determination". Their mission futile, they made their swift escape. Trying one last time, the city sent forth an embassy of priests, who found the Volscian lines barred to them. All hope appeared lost, and Rome might become nothing more than a footnote in the pages in history.

But then, the women of Rome rushed to the house of Coriolanus' family in Rome. In their desperate passion, they called for Veturia, the mother of their one time hero, to help. Her face lined with age, she resolutely set forth, the wife and two sons of Coriolanus in tow. Stunned by the sight before them, the Volscians stood transfixed as Veturia, her son's mother, marched with unbridled determination. Coriolanus, about to give the command to storm the city, could not believe his eyes. Rising from his seat with a start, he made to embrace his mother, but his nerve was cowed by the face he saw before him now. Every inch of her aged face was lined with fury, as she began to speak the words which since entered legend:

Coriolanus and his Mother
Painting by Poussin
"I would know... before I accept your kiss, whether I have come to an enemy or to a son, whether I am here as your mother or as a prisoner of war. Have my long life and unhappy old age brought me to this, that I should see you first an exile, then the enemy of your country? Had you the heart to ravage the earth which bore and bred you? When you set foot upon it, did not your anger fall away, however fierce your hatred and lust for revenge? When Rome was before your eyes, did not the thought come to you, 'within those walls is my home, with the gods that watch over it - and my mother and my wife and my children?' Ah, had I never borne a child, Rome would not now be menaced; if I had no son, I could have died free in a free country! But now there is nothing left for me to endure, nothing which can bring to me more pain, and to you a deeper dishonour, than this. I am indeed an unhappy woman - but it will not be for long; think of these others who, if you cannot relent, must hope for nothing but an untimely death or life-long slavery."

At this, his wife and two young sons flung their arms around Coriolanus' neck, and at last, he could bear it no more. Tears flowed from his eyes as he saw the ruin he had brought upon Rome, and the burden of anger was borne away from his wrathful mind. Even the most savage of the Volscian men were turned to pity and compassion by the sight before their eyes, their hatred ebbing away. Coriolanus bade the Volscians stand down, and declared peace between the two nations, but, his honour of old still shining through, declared he could never set foot in Rome again, and of his own accord marched forth into exile. In Rome, meanwhile, where once there was violence and discord, euphoria now took its golden throne. The doors of the temples were thrown open, the people sang and danced in the streets, and rich and poor alike shouted their triumph to the stars...

United Kingdom

The Early History of Rome:
The Early History of Rome: Bks. 1-5 (Penguin Classics)
(The story of the Rise of Rome, written by her greatest historian, which contains the accounts of many of Rome's heroes, including Coriolanus)

United States

The Early History of Rome:
Livy: The Early History of Rome, Books I-V (Penguin Classics) (Bks. 1-5)
(The story of the Rise of Rome, written by her greatest historian, which contains the accounts of many of Rome's heroes, including Coriolanus) 

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