Famous Men of Rome - John Haaren



About three hundred and eighty years before the birth of Christ the Romans had another war with the Veientians. During this war they tried to take the rich city of Veii, which was about twelve miles from Rome. But there was a great wall of stone all around the city, and the gates, which were of brass, were very high and very strong. So the Romans, though they tried as hard as they could for seven years, were not able to take Veii.

And to make matters worse for them it was reported that twelve Etruscan cities were going to send armies to help the Veientians. It was also said that as soon as the twelve armies had driven the Romans away from the walls of Veii, they would march to Rome and destroy the city.

The Romans were much alarmed by these reports, and they resolved that there should be a dictator. So the Senate appointed a dictator, and the man appointed was Marcus Furius Camillus.

Camillus was one of the greatest men of Rome. He belonged to a very rich and powerful family, and he was a great soldier. When he was made dictator he raised a large army and marched at once to Veii. He tried a long time to break down the walls or gates, but he could not do it. Then he thought of the plan of digging a tunnel under the walls.

This seemed a good idea, so Camillus set a great number of his men to work. Soon they had a tunnel dug under the walls and so far under the city that they thought they were as far as the great temple of Juno, which was in the fort or strongest part of Veii. Here they stopped to consider what next to do. Suddenly the sound of voices, as of people talking in the temple above them, reached their ears. So they sent for Camillus, and when he came he listened to the voices.

Now it happened that at that moment the king of Veii was in the temple preparing to offer an ox as a sacrifice to Juno and praying to the goddess to save the city from the Romans. The ox was killed and its carcass was ready to be laid on the altar. After the king had prayed one of the priests, pretending that he had received an answer from Juno, cried out:

"The goddess declares she will give victory to him who offers this as a sacrifice upon the altar."

As soon as Camillus, who was listening all the time, heard these words of the priest, he ordered his men to break an opening in the earth over their heads. This was quickly done, and the Romans sprang through into the midst of the worshipers. They at once seized the carcass of the ox, and Camillus himself offered it upon the altar to Juno. Then he and his companions rushed out of the temple and opened the gates of the city before the astonished and frightened people knew what was being done.

As soon as the gates were opened the Roman soldiers poured in by thousands. The Veientians fought bravely, but they were quickly defeated, and their great and rich city was at last in the hands of the Romans.

In those times, as has already been said, it was the custom to divide among the victorious soldiers the valuable things taken from a defeated enemy. The riches of Veii were, therefore, divided among the Roman soldiers, and there were so many precious things—gold and silver and jewelry—that the men were quite rich when each got his share.


Some time after the taking of Veii the Romans were at war with the Faliscians, another people of Etruria, and Camillus went with an army to besiege their chief town, which was called Falerii. He made his camp in front of the walls, stationed soldiers all round and tried hard to take the town. But the Faliscians were very strong and brave, and they defended their town so well that Camillus began to be afraid he would not be able to take it at all.



Now there was at that time in Falerii a schoolmaster who taught the sons of the chief citizens of the town. This schoolmaster used to take his boys every day for a walk outside the walls. One day he led them within the lines of the Roman army and brought them into the camp of Camillus.

Camillus was surprised at seeing the boys. He asked the schoolmaster who they were and why he had brought them there. The schoolmaster told who the boys were and then said:

"I bring them here to give them up to you. In doing this I give you up the city, for their fathers will surrender the city to you in order to get back their children."

Camillus stood for a moment in silence, gazing at the traitor with a look of disgust. Then in an angry voice he cried out:

"Villain, we Romans are not so base as you are. We do not make war upon children, but upon men who do us wrong."

He then ordered some of his soldiers to tie the schoolmaster's hands behind his back and to give each of the boys a rod, telling them to scourge the traitor before them into the city. This the boys did with a hearty good-will. They whipped the unworthy schoolmaster into Falerii, and when the people saw the sight and heard of the noble conduct of Camillus, they resolved not to fight any more against so good a man. So they sent ambassadors to Rome to make peace, and the Romans and Faliscians became good friends.


Not long after this time one of the tribunes brought a charge against Camillus that he had kept for his own use more than his fair share of the spoils of Veii. Some valuable things were noticed in his house, and it was said that he had not got them as part of his share. It was believed, therefore, that he had taken them secretly from Veii.

The Romans were very particular upon this point. They had strict laws for the division of spoils obtained in war, and no one was permitted to take more than he was entitled to, according to his rank in the army.

Camillus was summoned to appear in the people's court to answer the charge made against him. But he would not humble himself so much as to go before the plebeians to be tried. He preferred rather to leave Rome forever. So the great Camillus departed from his native city, intending never to return. As he passed out of the gates he prayed to the gods that some dreadful thing might happen to the Romans, so that they would be forced to call him back again to Rome to save the city.

And very soon something did happen which compelled the Romans to ask for the help of Camillus. For a long time a people called the Gauls had been doing a great deal of mischief in some parts of Italy. These people came from the country now known as France, which in ancient times was called Gaul. Thousands of them made their way across the high mountains called the Alps and settled on the plains of northern Italy. For many years they lived in this region. Then they heard that further south the country was very beautiful and was rich in corn and cattle, so they started out in great numbers to conquer it.

They were a strange, savage people, very different from the Romans or the Etruscans. They were very tall and strong and had long, shaggy black hair and dark, fierce faces, so that they appeared very terrible to the Italians. In battle they showed all their savage nature. They rushed furiously at their enemies, yelling at the top of their voices, flourishing enormous swords, and blowing trumpets.

The chief or king of the Gauls at this time was called Brennus. He was a man of great strength and size. He wore a golden collar around his neck, and on his arms, which were bare, he sometimes wore bracelets of gold.

The Gauls found the southern lands very much to their liking. They robbed farms, attacked some of the Etruscan cities, and then, after a short time, they marched for Rome. A great Roman army went out to fight them, and the two armies met on the banks of a river called the Allia.

The Roman soldiers had never before seen the dreadful Gauls. They were, therefore, greatly terrified when the tall, fierce-looking savages came running over the plains in vast numbers, shouting furiously and blowing their trumpets. And though the Roman general, Marcus Manlius, tried to make his men go forward bravely to meet the Gauls it was useless. They fought badly and were killed by thousands. At last they ran from the field and fled toward Rome.


When the defeated soldiers reached Rome and told what had happened, there was great terror in the city. Most of the people bundled up their household goods and fled to hiding-places in the mountains close by, where they thought they would be safe from the Gauls.

But many of the senators and other brave men, both nobles and plebeians, instead of running away from the city went up to the Capitol, fastened the gates, and made ready for a siege. The Capitol was the most sacred part of the city. It contained splendid statues of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, and, as you know, the famous Sibylline Books.

Some old men who had been consuls resolved to remain in the city and wait for the Gauls to come. They thought that if the Gauls should kill them they would then be satisfied and would spare the city. So the patriotic old men dressed themselves in their finest robes and sat in chairs in the Forum, each with an ivory staff in his right hand.

When the Gauls reached the city there was no one to oppose them. They marched on to the Forum and found the old men, with long white beards, sitting in their chairs, so still that they looked like statues. A Gaul went up to one of them and pulled his beard to see if he were a living person. Instantly the old man raised his staff and struck the barbarian in the face. The Gauls then fell upon the patriots and killed them. Then they began to plunder.

After destroying the greater part of the city the Gauls turned their attention to the Capitol. The rock on which it was built was high and steep.

Brennus led his soldiers up the hill, but the Romans in the Capitol rushed down the narrow road and after a few minutes of brave fighting drove them back. The Gauls made another attempt, but it was no more successful than the first.

Brennus saw that the Romans could not be driven from the Capitol. He therefore decided to starve them out. He put a strong guard at the entrance, so that the Romans could not come out to get food. For weeks the Capitol was thus besieged, but its faithful defenders held out manfully.

Meanwhile the people who had fled from Rome took courage again. They gathered at the city of Veii and organized a strong army to fight the Gauls. But they wanted a commander, and then they thought of Camillus. All agreed that he would be the right man to be their general. So they resolved to send for him, but first they thought they must have the approval of the Senate. Here was a difficulty. How could a messenger get to the Senate while the Gauls were around the Capitol? This puzzled them for a good while, but at last a young man named Pontius Cominius volunteered to carry a message to the Capitol.

So on a very dark night Pontius left Veii and swam down the Tiber until he reached the Capitoline Hill. Then he went on shore and crept up the hill as far as the great rock. The Gauls had put no guard there, for they thought no one could climb the rock because it was so steep.

By great efforts Pontius managed to climb up. Several times he was near falling. But by clinging to the vines and bushes that grew on the rock he came to the top at last. His countrymen in the Capitol were delighted to see him. They were also very glad when they heard about the army at Veii, and the Senate at once approved of the proposal about Camillus. It was agreed not only to make him general, but to make him dictator. Then Cominius went down the rock and the hill by the way he had come up and hastened off to Veii.


The next day some of the Gauls, while walking along this side of the hill, noticed footmarks in the soil. They also noticed that bushes, growing high up on the rock, were crushed and torn. Then they knew that some one had gone up or come down the cliff, and they resolved to try to go up themselves that night.

So shortly after midnight, when they thought that the Romans would be fast asleep, a party of Gauls began cautiously and silently to clamber up the steep rock. Some placed their shields across their shoulders for others to stand upon, and in this way they supported one another, until at last some of them made their way very near to the top and one got just to the edge of a balcony of the Capitol. No one within the building heard them, not even the watch-dogs.

But at that moment there was a loud cackling of geese. These birds were thought to be favorite birds of the goddess Juno. Many were kept in the Capitol, and some of them happened just then to be at the side the Gauls were climbing up. The movements of the climbers, quiet though they were, disturbed the geese and they began to cackle and flap their wings.

The noise aroused Marcus Manlius from his sleep. He sprang from his bed, seized his sword and shield, and ran to the balcony. There he saw a Gaul climbing on to the parapet and others scrambling up behind. Marcus rushed upon him, struck him in the face with his shield, and tumbled him headlong down the rock.

As the Gaul fell he knocked down some of his companions who were climbing behind him. The geese still kept up their loud cackling, and soon all the Romans were awakened and came quickly to the assistance of Marcus. The Gauls were hurled back as they mounted the rock, and in a few minutes all who had come up were dashed down the steep cliff and killed. Thus the Capitol was saved by the cackling of geese. For his brave action on this occasion Marcus Manlius was honored by being called Marcus Capitolinus.


Brennus now saw that he could not take the Capitol, so he thought it would be useless to remain any longer in Rome. He therefore offered to go away if the Senate would give him a thousand pounds of gold. The Senate thought it better to do this. Food was very scarce in the Capitol and in a few days the brave men there would have none at all. They had heard nothing further from the army at Veii and they were not sure that help could come in time to save them.

So the Senate resolved to give the thousand pounds of gold to the Gauls, and an officer named Quintus Sulpitius was sent with some lictors to deliver it to Brennus. But the gold had to be weighed and the Gauls attempted to cheat the Romans by using false weights. When Sulpitius complained of this, Brennus took off his sword and threw it, belt and all, into one of the scales, and when Sulpitius asked what that meant Brennus answered:

"What should it mean but woe to the conquered?"



At that moment Camillus appeared at the gates with his army. He soon learned what was going on. Quickly he marched to the spot and ordered the lictors to take the gold out of the scale and carry it back to the Roman treasury. Then he turned to Brennus and addressing him in a stern voice said:

"We Romans defend our country, not with gold, but with steel."

Immediately there was a battle, and the Gauls were defeated and driven out of the city. Next day there was another battle a few miles from Rome, and the Gauls were again defeated and thousands of them slain.

Camillus then returned to Rome at the head of his victorious army. The people received him with shouts of joy and for several days they had celebrations in his honor. They called him the second Romulus, meaning that he was the second founder of the city. They also called him the FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY.


It was in the time of Camillus that a great hole or chasm, caused perhaps by an earthquake, suddenly appeared in the ground in the middle of the Forum. Workmen were sent to fill it up, but no matter how much earth they threw into it the hole seemed to be as large and deep as before. The Senate then consulted the augurs and they said the hole could not be filled up until what was most valuable in Rome was cast into it. Then the people began to throw in gold and silver and jewelry, but still the hole was as deep as ever. At last a young man named Curtius said that the most valuable things the Romans had were their arms and their courage. Then he put on his armor and his sword and mounting his horse rode into the Forum and leaped into the great hole. Immediately it closed up behind him, and neither he nor his horse was ever seen again.

In the old Roman stories Curtius is much praised as a patriot and hero. The people thought he had saved his country from some great evil, which they believed would have happened to it if the hole in the Forum had not been closed up.