Last Updated on November 27, 2023 by Vladimir Vulic
Life: c. 446 – 365 BC
“alter conditor Romae” by ‘Andraeus Papadopolus Dacicus Maximus’
M. Furius Camillus was the most illustrious member of the family of Furia and is known as one of the most outstanding personalities of the early Republic, perhaps even more important than Brutus the Elder or than Publius Valerius Publicola, who put the final touches on the new Republican government (successor of Brutus and consul for three times).
Camillus lived in a very shadowy time and therefore all his great deeds that were so highly praised by Roman historians cannot be considered more than semi-mythical. The ancients left a Camillus-themed literature that presents the dictator who defeated the famous Gaulic invasion as a true hero. His name has also survived on the ancient so-called “consular fasces”, a list of consuls from the earliest times till the abolishion of the institution during Justinian’s reign (Eastern emperors had still continued to call themselves consuls at their coronations, and they used the office only as a way to hold festivities for the populace).
Camillus seems to have been a very powerful politician in his time. He received the right to march in triumphal processions for three times, was awarded the office of dictator for five times and received the nickname “second founder of Rome”. As a censor, he had already become celebrated for his law which forced (young) bachelors to marry the wives of soldiers killed on the battlefield, and enacted a penalty for those who refused to obey this law. However, Camillus was not an important public figure before the siege of Veii, nor did he possess any great power, although he held the military tribunate several times. It was only during the assault on Veii that Camillus was offered a real military command.
Siege of Veii, Falerii; Treasons and Intrigues
Camillus was given the job because the siege works had been developed for over ten years and the Romans were afraid the Etruscan city would resist its attack longer than Troy. Despite Camillus’ presence and reputation, Veii still did not fall. At such an early time in Roman history, neither was the civilization of the City of Romulus was not higher than that of any other civilization in Italy, nor were its technical abilities superior to that of the enemy (much technology was still held by Etruscan hands). The Roman forces also lacked engineers.
The Senate concluded that Veii could not be overrun unless the gods spoke to Rome. Also, complete disaster was now facing the army, as the lake Alba overflowed and destroyed all the Roman siege works, making the presence of engineers even more necessary in order to stop any further rise in water level.
Camillus decided it was necessary to gain the support of an Etruscan haruspex and thus find out how he could achieve his assignment with honour. To the Romans, help came in a rather unusual way. One day, a soldier heard the voice of an old man saying that the Romans would not conquer Veii unless the water of Alba returned to its initial condition. The soldier silently approached the priest — who seemed to be actually willing to help his Roman enemies — and captured him without any difficulty.
The man pretended to resist but was later carried by the soldiers directly into the Curia. His apparent sadness did not stop him from immediately telling his auditors how the water could be stopped. At the same time, Roman delegates pretending to return from the Oracle of Delphi offered the senatorial audience the same solution. In fact, the entire comedy with the priest had been prearranged by the Senate: thus did the Romans have both the support of the gods and a useful engineer working for the army — the priest had been much earlier “bought” by the Senate and “planted” on the battlefield, only to be discovered by a naive loyal guard. The entire show had been arranged because it was already felt that the low morale of the army could only be positively changed by a “divine” intervention.
The Senate was successful. The army regained courage, the water of Alba was drained and Camillus was proclaimed dictator, thus gaining full power to bring the war to an end. He dug a secret tunnel under the walls of the city and called all the citizens of Rome who were able to fight, telling them the booty would be huge. After all those efforts, victory was essential.
On a day propitious to the attack he launched all his forces through the underground tunnel. Unknown even to the Romans was that it led right to the temple of Juno. When the first soldiers arrived at the end of the tunnel, the king of Veii was just offering a sacrifice to the goddess. Whilst still in the undregorund, they heard the voice of the priest telling the king: “Those who will cut out the victim’s viscera (intestines) are the ones who will gain victory”. The soldiers got out of their hiding place, slaughtered the audience and gutted them, sending the viscera back to Camillus in the camp. Victory was complete indeed. To the populace of the Veii, it was an apocalyptic disaster. It is said that when Camillus himself saw the effects of plunder and destruction, he wept and prayed: “If my own luck and that of the Roman people seem too much, may we have to suffer the jealousy of the gods by as much sorrow as possible”. And indeed it was so, for the commander would be banished by his fellow citizens and his beloved home that he had protected would be burnt and pillaged by the invading Gauls. Camillus’ tears may cause deep emotions among some low-spirited enthusiasts, but they are the “crocodile tears” of the deadly predator who is bewailing the fate of those he has devoured.
Camillus returned to Rome in triumph, standing in a chariot which was drawn by four white horses. He wore a purple cap; usually, the colour served as adornment for the heads of the gods’ statues. The people did not find the general’s gesture amusing at all. They believed divine honours should be awarded to the gods and to the gods only, and that he was mocking at them.
His war against the Etruscan city of Falerii (Aequum Faliscum, Falisca), today known as Fallari, did not make him popular. People became jealous of his prestige. Whilst he besieged the Falerians, a local school magister brought him the children of the noblest families in the city. The wise commander realised that the teacher’s horrendous treason towards the pupils would damage his own reputation; he also realised that the traitor’s gesture could not be of any help, as the city was about to fall soon anyway; so he allowed the children to return home free. On the way back, they used sticks to torture their tied up teacher. (Nice model for the Communist regime of Mao Zedong indeed!) It defies imagination what whill have happened to the school master when he arrived back in Falerii.
The city’s defenders, deeply “touched” by their besieger’s generosity, immediately agreed to surrender without any conditions. This in turn annoyed the Roman soldiers, as they knew that the city’s docility would be rewarded with it being left unharmed. During those times, “military plunders” were normal form of pay/reward to the vistor’s army. So back in Rome (where the conquering army had been recruited), people believed that Camillus’ clemency was a direct offense to the public welfare and an outrageous siding with the enemy. Or at least that is how jealous senators presented the facts in the Curia…
Even worse for Camillus, the soldiers began to protest after he ordered them to concede the tenth part of the Veian booty in favour of the gods. It is on this occasion that the Roman matrons gave an admirable example of modesty and unselfishness: the Senate announced its intention to send a huge golden vase to the oracle in Delphi, but nowhere in Rome could enough of the precious metal be found for this purpose; so, in order to show their devotion, the noble women gave up all their jewelry. They were rewarded by a special decree of the Senate – beginning from that moment, at the funerals of dead women relatives would have to deliver memorial speeches. Until then, this had been a special privilege reserved for deceased males only.
One final event brugh about Camillus’ downfall. Touched by Veii’s natural beauty and technology, some powerful individuals in the City of Romulus – some of them were the tribunes with consular power – wanted to send colonists to Veii. Perhaps the idea had been generated because at that moment Veii became Roman territory it should be treated accordingly. But if sending colonists was not a problem as such, what arose was that all the patricians with all their slaves and clients, et cetera – totalizing most of the population of Rome – decided to go to Veii. Only to make him a greater hero, the legend tells that Camillus was the only one who publicly erupted with indignation. According to Titus Livius, he delivered an impressive speech to the people in Rome – just another example of Livian poetic and wonderful rhetorical creation, nevertheless totally ficticious : “Does nothing link us to the earth of our homeland, to this land that we call our mother? […] Citizens, all of you should sooner be conquered by love for our motherland, and stay inside your homes, than later be torn to pieces by homesickness after you will have abandoned it!” (Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita, V, 54)
The Exile – Coming of the Gauls
So his dear fellow citizens, bored with this admirable, but nevertheless futile patriotic outrage, found the means to send dictator Camillus on a long and quiet vacation. Away.
Some of the charges they brought against him might amuse modern eyes or ears. First, they accused him of having deprived the army of the booty that it deserved and of having mocked at the gods. All but perfectly expected complaints. Then they accused him of having built bronze doors at his house. Apparently strange, but its real meaning was that the Veian booty had been used by the accused for his private needs.
To make all the situation worse, at the same time with the trial one of Camillus’ sons happened to fall ill and die. His father ignored the calls that had been made by his prosecutors to appear in public and locked himself away in the women’s quarters in order to mourn for his lost child…
By the time of the sentencing he called for his friends and allies and asked them to show their support. But everyone in Rome knew he was doomed. They refused to get involved any further – they only promised that they would pay whatever penalty would be asked of him. Camillus understood that the prosecutors wanted much more than just to impose a fine and left the city alone into a voluntary exile, taking refuge in the city of Ardea.
Plutarch recounts that “he walked in silence until he reached the Porta Trigemina; after he arrived there, he turned his face to the Capitolium and raising his hands towards the hill which he had reached during his triumph, he asked the gods to make these ungrateful people say at some time or other that they needed Camillus”.
His prayer would not remain unheard.. Some time after he had left Rome, the Gauls commanded by a ruthless king named Brennus invaded Latium and laid siege to the Urbs. Most of the Romans who hadn’t left Rome for Veii were defending the fortress located on the Capitolium. By then, the rest of the city was being pillaged by the barbarians. The Roman citizens of Veii announced their intention to name Camillus as commander of the troops against the invaders who had occupied all of northern Italy. Even so, the respect for the laws was so highly praised that they didn’t dare to name him general because they needed the agreement of the Senate. The situation was nearly impossible, for the Senate was virtually imprisoned behind the walls of the Capitolium.
The Gauls who pillaged Rome at the beginning of the fourth century BC were an early phase of the great mysterious wave of Gallic invasions which came to a conclusion with the settling of some of these invaders in Asia Minor (early 3rd century BC) – they were known as Galatians and the province which thereafter remained in their hands received the name Galatia. The barbarians had swept through most of southern Europe and didn’t stop until they divided their strong hordes into smaller bands, which in turn were easier to fight; some managed to find homes in desirable places such as what is the central part of modern Turkey. The contact with the civilized local peoples hellenized almost completely.
A young man named Pontius Cominus was sent by the Veian Romans to ask the Senate to call for the exiled dictator. He succeeded in doing so by navigating the Tiber – which was not controlled by the enemy – until he reached his destination. The more than goodwilling senators listened to his request in silence and agreed to rename Camillus as dictator and put an official end to his exile, by the virtue of the law Curiata. At last Camillus could rejoin Rome’s cause and protect his ungrateful motherland.
But at that time it was late in the hour. Camillus’ intervention did nothing to help free the hungry, ill and tired Romans on the Capitoline Hill. The Gauls, however, thought again and realised that they had better business somewhere else and that the sack of the Rome so far was quite enough for them.
So they agreed to withdraw their forces – on the condition that the defenders had to buy their freedom. They agreed on 1000 pounds of gold. Livy abandons his faith in the traditions of the ancient history of Rome and at this point denies the existence of the shameful treaty which saved the city from ultimate destruction, but nevertheless mentions it: one of the tribunes who were more or less in charge of the city complained that the barbarians had used a phoney weight for the agreed sum of gold. Hearing these words, one of the barbarians, possibly Brennus himself, dropped his sword onto the scales which weer used for mesauring, making the gold of the Romans seem yet lighter and insufficient. He is then to have said: “Vae victis!” – “Woe to the vanquished!”
Obvious, the philosophy of the scornful attitude of the barbarian king is that one who has received humiliation has lost his right to speak as an equal to his enemies and is certainly a fool if he tries to equalize his situation with that of his victor. No doubt the message of the barbarian king was such that, should any any vanquished be silly enough to protest he is bound to make his plight only worse.
Legend has it that just as the Gauls were preparing to leave with the gold, Camillus arrived at the scene with his companions and ordered the enemies to withdraw leaving the prey where they stood. Even victorious, the barbarians were tired at that time and the idea of continuing the fight with the (more powerful) Romans was certainly irrational. Camillus had brought fresh supplies and well trained troops from Veii. The Gauls had been continuously fighting for a long time and were in a thoroughly hostile. deciding hence that diplomacy was the best choice, the Gauls demanded to know by what right Camillus could order them to leave. Hadn’t a treaty been signed already ?
Camillus explained that the treaty was simply null, for according to Roman law only the supreme magistrate of the Republic – that was Camillus – could agree to any treaty; and that the treaty concluded prior to his arrival was illegal and inacceptable to his standards.
Faced with such arguments, the Gauls decided to abandon diplomacy and opted for battle instead. But Camillus simply arrranged his soldiers in offensive positions, attacked, dispersed and slaughtered the stubborn barbarian warriors.
The Livian account of Camillus’ final victory is perhaps phoney, but it might be the proof that Rome, even conquered and humiliated, managed to create – or was part of – an alliance of the cities in northern Italy that drove out the Gauls, once and for all.
Final Achievements and Triumph
Once again, Camillus triumphantly returned to the Capitolium; but the people and the tribunes were not entirely pleased with his glory. To the politicians, he was nothing anything else than a necessary evil which had been summoned in order to clear the way for the return of the statu quo ante. Now that the Gallic danger was gone, Camillus was little more than a weight on their shoulders. More than ever – due to the partial destruction of Rome – the tribunes were determined to continue colonizing Veii and the dictator stood in their way. Before resigning from his post, he began rebuilding the city of Rome; according to the ancient historians, it is to him that the Romans owed the survival of the Urbs and its quick further development. However, the destruction caused by the Gauls modified the way the city had been built. At first, it had had a precise plan, dating back to the times of Romulus and his successors. The rebuilding of the city transformed it into the more chaotic Rome that Caesar and his brethren would be accustomed to. At least this is how Livy explained to himself the appearance of the capital of the civilized world.
Camillus’ struggle to rebuild it was not well received by his old enemies. Once again (BC 389), the tribunes ordered him to appear in public and face a renewed trial, accusing him of having misused his dictatorial power; to their surprise, he came supported by all the senators – they were all in favour of his absolution. The charges were subsequently dropped.
But the pressure on Camillus was maintained. He continued his work over the next years and served several times as dictator. In 367 he was asked to reinstore the Consulate, which had been replaced with the leadership of the tribunes in the fifth century BC. He was also asked to name one of the consuls from a plebeian family. Old, tired and successful in his life, he accepted. The next year, after having enjoyed a long and prosperous political career, Camillus resigned. He is said to have died of plague.