A famine in ancient Rome is causing the common people, known as plebeians, to demand that the government allow them access to the city’s grain supply. A mob of angry plebeians armed with staves and clubs feels it is Caius Marcius and his ambitious mother, believed to be sworn enemies of the people, who have denied them the grain stored in the warehouses. Eventually, the rulers, known as patricians, grant the plebeians five representatives, or tribunes, “to defend their vulgar wisdoms.” Caius Marcius, a proud and aristocratic patrician soldier, is enraged at the decision, since he has nothing but contempt for the lower classes. He accuses them of cowardice in battle and threatens to slaughter the malcontents.
War erupts with a neighboring people, the Volscians, whose leader, Tullus Aufidius, is Marcius’s bitter rival. Marcius is delighted at this threat to Rome and revels in the prospect of so many of the rabble being killed, and is even more delighted at the prospect of facing Aufidius in battle again. Virgilia, Marcius’s wife, sees only horror and the possibility of her husband’s death while Volumnia, Marcius’s mother, sees him covered in the blood of his enemies and the glory of a victory.
A campaign ensues and the Roman defeat the Volscians. In the process, the city of Corioles is taken, due largely to the single-handed bravery of Marcius, who charges into the enemy alone, looking for the detested Aufidius. In honor of his heroism, he is granted a new name, Coriolanus.
Rome lavishes Coriolanus with a hero’s welcome, and the senate offers to make him a consul, assuming that he can win the votes of the detested plebeians. Reluctantly, Coriolanus goes about winning the needed votes, at least temporarily. Due to the efforts of two clever tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, who consider Coriolanus an enemy of the people, the plebeians reverse their decision. Coriolanus, always quick of temper, flies into a rage and speaks out, inadvisably, against the very idea of popular rule. Brutus and Sicinius see an opportunity in his outburst and denounce Coriolanus as a traitor to Rome, driving him into exile.
In vengeful fury and in spite of his wife’s tearful pleadings, Coriolanus turns to his Volscian enemy, Aufidius, and makes peace with him. Aufidius is only too happy to have Coriolanus’s assistance, since he is planning a new campaign against Rome. Before long, however, Aufidius begins to fear that he is being overshadowed by his former foe. Rome is thrown into a panic. Roman armies are helpless to stop the Volscian advance, and soon Coriolanus and his forces are encamped outside the walls of Rome.
Even the pleadings for mercy of two of his oldest friends fail to move Coriolanus. He will not hear them. To turn back, to relent, has always been a sign of weakness to him. But then, his mother, Volumnia, the only person to whom he has ever been truly devoted, begs him to make peace, in spite of all she has taught her son about honor and uncompromising bravery. For the first time in his life, Coriolanus yields. Volumnia is hailed as the savior of Rome, and Coriolanus and the Volscians return to Antium, where Coriolanus is hailed as a hero for avoiding war and bringing equal honor to both sides.
Aufidius, however, orders his people not to accept the treaty and sees only treachery in Coriolanus’s failure to take Rome. In the argument that ensues, Coriolanus calls for a fight with Aufidius and six of his men. Aufidius and his co-conspirators rush at Coriolanus with their swords, and he falls. The body is ordered to be honorably burned, and a noble monument is to be erected in Coriolanus’ memory.