Once, a long time ago, there was a man who lived in Rome. It was a time before Rome was the centre of an empire. Back then, it was a city competing with others in their tribal wars. This man was a brave soldier, a decorated military leader, a noble protector of his city. And that was both his biggest strength and his greatest weakness. He was too noble.
I do not mean his descent or family tree. No, it was his nature that was noble to a fault. He was readily offering all his strength, skills, and if need be, also his life to protect and serve his home, Rome. But he was not ready to sacrifice his personal integrity for the sake of popularity. This meant that he never lied and never changed his ways. His honour was dearer to him than even his own life.
So, when the time came and he had to start playing the political game, to win popularity among the people and obtain their vote, he couldn’t do it. He tried. But his nature did not allow him to bend along with the winds of people’s changing hearts. In fact, he despised them. Openly. The rabble, the plebeians, the commoners.
Was he too proud? Most certainly! But it was not a hunger for personal power. Or a sense of being superior by birthright. He was noble to a fault in his character. He served his city, protected it and all of its people selflessly. Went straight into the arms of danger and certain death without question.
It is no wonder, then, that he loathed anyone who changed his affections and his mind as easily and as quickly as the wind changes direction. That sort of behaviour and nature was hardly worthy to be alive, let alone to be respected. He could not bow and yield to something like that just to receive the politically required popularity. This was the beginning of his end.
Popularity among the people was growing in importance in Rome. As he did not bow to their wills, people grew angry and banished him into exile. The noble and brave protector of Rome was sent away from his city by the will of the people. His service was not enough. He had to be popular, too. But that was beyond him, as it meant compromising his integrity.
So when he came back to the gates of Rome with an army of his former enemy at his side to conquer his own city and give it over to its enemies whom he now served and whom he saw as being nobler than his own fellow Romans, his rage was terrifying to everyone in Rome. The aristocracy of the city felt his rage was just. The plebeians who banished him now changed their minds again and turned to blaming their official representatives for forcing them to mistreat this man who now threatens their very lives.
Envoys were sent to him, trying to convince him to have mercy and not to attack his own city. But they had banished him. And now, his service was pledged to the enemies of Rome. He did not quiver. The only force that was strong enough to make him change his mind was… his own mother.
She did not succeed by appealing to her son’s forgiveness or charitable mercy. She knew her son was noble to a fault. She managed to prevent bloodshed in Rome by convincing him to agree on a peace treaty between the two opposing forces. He agreed. It was a shameful peace for Rome but the city remained unconquered. And that was not enough for its enemies.
They took this noble soldier in so that he could help them defeat Rome. So they felt betrayed with this peace treaty that he delivered them. His gravest enemy, the commander of the enemy forces whom he had fought in the old days and from whom he had once protected Rome, called him a traitor. Nothing worse is imaginable to a man who is noble to a fault.
Yet, his integrity, his unwillingness to compromise for the sake of popularity (in whatever society or group) made him a danger. Being a military leader, he had to play the political game. But he wouldn’t. And so, his greatest strength became his downfall. He was killed.
How far would you go in compromising your personal integrity in order to gain popularity? This man’s story and the timeless internal struggle are presented in a captivating style by W. Shakespeare in one of his last tragedies: The Tragedy of Coriolanus.
1Image credit: By Gavin Hamilton – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID pga.00443.T Copyright holder: Adam Cuerden. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5854535