At the end of the Roman Republic it was necessary for Caesar Augustus to continue to support the Republican form of Rome while having the substance of an Empire. Yet, necessity of this devotion to the Republican form under the Empire makes one wonder whether the Roman Republic was ever a Republic in substance or simply a Republic in form. William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus ponders this same question through an examination of both the life of Coriolanus and his relationship to the Republic; and so by looking at the play, at least in this one instance, one may be able to understand the nature of the Roman Republic. Through the examination of the people of Rome as portrayed by Shakespeare, the relationship of the people to their rulers and the city, and the general comments made about the city and the constitution one may better understand whether Rome was a Republic both in form and substance.
The beginning of Coriolanus shows a mass of people crowded around two primary speakers identified as First and Second Citizen. They have gathered to discuss the question of Caius Martius and whether he should be put to death as an enemy of the Roman people for his part in restricting access to grain. The crowd seems willing to go along with the plan for execution, yet they are further provoked by First Citizen. First Citizen presents the problem of democratic political power and whether the people are necessary for law, or if they can simply use the law to hurt each other. In the Roman Republic the people were of high importance as they alone could held the power to elect consuls and sentence people to death. The very existence of Roman political power depended on a politically active populace. First Citizen is able to play upon the people’s devotion to the Republic, and also their distrust of Caius.
When Second Citizen asks, “Consider you what services he has/done for his country?” First Citizen responds, “I say unto you, what he hath done/ famously he did it to that end. Though soft/conscienced men can be content to say it was for/his country, he did it to please his mother….” Rome’s people expect the same devotion to the city and it’s constitution as they expect from themselves. First Citizen wins out and the masses head to the capitol where they are confronted by a patrician named Menenius Agrippa. First Citizen notices one approaching and calls out for who it is; Second citizen informs him that it is Menenius, “one that hath always loved the people.” To which First Citizen responds, “He’s one honest enough. Would all the/rest were so!” The sentiments expressed by First Citizen indicate that for some of the people of Rome the Patricians have less care for the city and it’s people than they should have. Menenius calls the mass his, “masters, my good friends, and mine honest/neighbors….” As a Patrician Menenius is a class above the mass of people, yet as the people have the power in Rome they are his masters. To indicate a common bond and a sense of equality with the Plebian mass, he infers that they are his friends and neighbors. Menenius then goes on to explain the relationship of the Patricians to the Plebians:
I tell you, friends, most charitable care
Have the patricians of you. For your wants,
Your suffering in this dearth, you may as well
Strike at the heave with your staves as lift them
Against the Roman state, whose course will on
The way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs
Of more strong link asunder than can ever
Appear in your impediment. For the dearth,
The gods, not the patricians, make it, and
Your knees to them, not arms must help. Alack,
You are transported by calamity
Thither where more attends you, and you slander
The helms o’the’state, who care for you like fathers,
When you curse them as enemies.
Shakespeare argues from the Patrician point of view that Rome is a Republic in substance as well as form; however the Plebeians counter Menenius’s speech. Second Citizen says, “Care for us? True, indeed! They ne’er cared for us yet,” And complaints that the Plebeians urge against Patricians and their supposed care for the people of the city. The Plebeians see themselves as guardians against the encroachments of an ambitious Patrician such as they see in Caius Martius Coriolanus.
At the same time the Plebeians seek to not only gain access to corn and to execute Coriolanus for treason, but also to introduce a democratic element into the Roman Constitution through the creation of two Tribunes. This change would allow the form of the Republic to remain, but would change the substance of the Roman Constitution. Menenius attempts to dissuade the Plebs in his conversation with Second Citizen explaining that the Patricians have always protected the Plebs even in the time of the Kingship. He equates the Plebeians and Coriolanus to the belly of the ancient kingship. Menenius says, “There was a time when all the body’s members/ Rebelled against the belly….” And he goes on to say, “Not me this, good friend;/ Your most grave belly was deliberate,/ Not rash like his accusers…” The belly is Coriolanus, who according to Menenius was deliberate in his actions unlike the accusers who have not though their actions through.
Yet, the Patricians in turn see themselves as the guardians of Rome’s Constitution against Rome’s Plebeians. Coriolanus sums up the fear of the Plebeians gaining power by calling them a “Hydra”. The distrust in Coriolanus by the Plebs is no less than the distrust Coriolanus has in the Plebs. He says about allowing the Plebs any political power, “You are plebeians,/ If they be senators; and they are no less/ When, both your voices blended,/ the great’st taste/ Most palates theirs.” Coriolanus fears the same fate for Rome as Greece should the people be granted equal authority over the city as the Patricians. Of Greece Coriolanus states, “Though there [Greece] the people had more absolute power,/I say they nourished disobedience, fed/ The ruin of the state.” The quality that makes Rome’s Constitution superior to the Greek Constitution for Coriolanus is the position of the Patricians over the Plebs. The organized masses of the Athenian Democracy were far more dangerous than the unorganized, leaderless Plebs of Rome. In addition to fearing the masses of people, Coriolanus fears the creation of Plebeian Tribunes who Coriolanus believes could be more powerful than the Consuls. At the end of his speech Coriolanus states concerning the creation of Tribunes, “To know, when two authorities are up,/ Neither supreme, how soon confusion/ May enter ‘twixt the gap of both and take/The one by th’ other.” Like many Patricians, Coriolanus is fearful of allowing a democratic element from being introduced to the Roman Republic.
In a similar manner, Menenius fears allowing the people a larger role in the Republic, instead arguing for a small deliberative body that handles the governing of the city. As the ruling class, the Patricians were a truly aristocratic class who sought out honors through both valor in war and deliberation in politics. By allowing the people a share in the rule of the city, then they can share in the honors of the aristocracy. To protect their station and to protect the liberty of the city the Patrician aristocrats treated the people as lowly as they could get away with. Their devotion to the Roman Constitution as it is, while rooted in selfish reasons, exemplifies the lack of respect both Coriolanus and the Plebeians have for the Roman Republic.
Yet, ultimately, Coriolanus does not support the Roman Constitution as he chooses personal honor over defending the city. Coriolanus’s choice demonstrates that he in fact was not a Roman. Coriolanus receives this dedication to familial and personal honor from his mother Volumia. Unlike other Patricians, Coriolanus places less emphasis on the honor acquired by his ancestors and like Hector wants personal honor over what is best for his city. In this way, Coriolanus is an enemy of Rome in many ways that the Plebeians threatening revolution are enemies of Rome’s unique Constitution. Shakespeare departs from Plutarch’s account of Coriolanus and has Coriolanus die in Coriolus, the city where Coriolanus received his honorific name to demonstrate his choice for personal honor over what is best for the city.
Shakespeare presents Rome at this critical period in her history, within the same generation as Lucrecia sacrificed herself for Rome’s freedom, in order to show what it meant to be a Roman. Coriolanus is represented by Shakespeare as the greatest enemy of Rome because his concern is not with res publica, but instead with his familial and personal honor. Yet if devotion to Rome’s constitution is what makes one a Roman, then the Plebeians can also be charged with not being Roman. Shakespeare presents the Plebs at the beginning of the play on their way to execute Caius Martius Coriolanus because he has prevented them access to corn; however at the same time the Senate is contemplating the addition of Plebeian Tribunes. Through the introduction of the Tribunes to represent the democratic element of Rome, the Constitution of Rome would fundamentally be altered. The Plebeians appear less concerned with the Roman constitution than with the changing of the constitution under threat of rebellion. Both Coriolanus and the Plebeians seem more concerned with the form of Republicanism, than with the substance.
 Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 2009.) Act 1 scene 1.