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Welcome to the streets of Rome, where a mob of starving plebeians (a.k.a. lower class folks or "Citizens") are in full on riot mode.
Rome is experiencing a famine and the patricians (a.k.a. the wealthy ruling class that controls the Senate) are hogging all the food.
We find out the patricians in the Senate have set the price of grain so high that the plebeians (who have zero say in the matter) can't afford it.
Enemy #1 on the plebeians' list is a snotty patrician named Caius Martius. The plebs blame him for the high cost of food and figure that if they kill him, they'll get to set their own grain prices.
While most of the mob chants that Caius Martius deserves to die, lowly Citizen 2 points out that maybe the mob should take it easy on Caius Martius since he's a big war hero and has done a lot for Rome and all.
Next, there's some brief chatter about why the people think Caius Martius is a total mudbucket. Aside from being a grain hoarder he's 1) proud, 2) snotty toward the lower classes, and 3) kind of a creeper with his mom.
As the mob gets more and more unruly, a smooth talking patrician named Menenius strolls onto the scene and is all "Hey fellas, what's up with all heat? Is something the matter?"
We find out that the plebeians really dig Menenius--they wish all the other patricians were as "honest" and "lov[ing]" toward the common people.
Before the plebeians can storm the capitol and kill Caius Martius, Menenius tells them that the famine is all the gods' fault. Plus, the patricians love the lower classes just like fathers love their children.
And just like a good dad, Menenius tells them a little story.
In the fable, Menenius compares Rome to a human body. The Senate is like the stomach and the common people are like the other body parts. The stomach is in charge of collecting all the food before dispersing the nutrients to the rest of the body, just like the Senate is in charge of collecting the city's grain and dispersing it to the people. Menenius points out that the people of Rome (a.k.a. body parts) are being fed but they just don't realize it.
(Get your highlighters out kids because this is important. Literary critics and historians call this story the "fable of the belly." Go to "Symbols" for the deets.)
Menenius is an awesome politician slash story teller so he's soon got the plebeians eating out of the palm of his hands (metaphorically) and forgetting all about how literally hungry they are.
But, just as it's looking like Menenius has got the angry mob calmed down, in walks Caius Martius.
Instead of sweet talking the angry mob that wants to tear him to shreds, Caius Martius insults and berates them. He calls them a bunch of "rogues," "scabs," and "curs," and accuses them of being fickle cowards who have got no business in politics. This guy needs some PR training STAT.
Next, Caius Martius delivers the news that, back at the Capitol, the Senate has decided to let the plebeians have five tribunes to represent their political interests.
Brain Snack: In ancient Rome, tribunes were elected officials. The point of having them was to protect the common people from getting their rights trampled all over by the upper classes, who controlled the government. Seems like
Two of the newly elected tribunes are guys named Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus. We're going to be getting friendly with them, so let's just say Sicinius and Brutus.
Caius Martius lets everyone know that he's totally disgusted that the "vulgar" "rabble" now has a group of tribunes to represent them. Ooh, that'll go over well.
Just then, a Messenger (conveniently named "Messenger") rushes in with news that the "Volsces," led by a dude named Tullus Aufidius, are getting ready to invade Rome.
Brain Snack: Historically, these some of ancient Rome's biggest enemies. You can read more about them here.
Caius Martius thinks a war between Rome and the Volscians sounds rad. It'll be a great opportunity for Rome to get rid of a bunch of "musty" plebeians who will likely die in battle.
Now a bunch of Roman senators troop in wanting to know what's up with the Volscians.
Caius Martius tells everyone that the Volscian leader, Tullus Aufidius, is one bad dude. He adds that he totally respects him and absolutely cannot wait to go toe-to-toe with the guy in battle.
The Senators declare that a guy named Cominius is going to be Rome's military leader against the Volsces. Caius Martius will be his lieutenant.
Everyone except for the newly elected tribunes Sicinius and Brutus leaves the stage to prep for war.
Since they're alone now, our new tribunes throw some shade at Caius Martius. The tribunes think the guy needs to be taken down a notch. They also doubt he'll be a good lieutenant since he hates taking orders from others.
Sicinius and Brutus declare that Caius Martius is a "fame" monger and that he's going to get all the credit if Rome wins the war.