Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Furius Camillus was a very celebrated Roman, who did so much service for his country that he was called a second Romulus. He filled many important offices, and early distinguished himself in a great battle against the Aquians and Volscians. On that occasion he received a wound in the thigh which would have driven most men from the field, but Camillus pulled the javelin from the wound and then engaged with the bravest of the enemy until he put them to flight.

One of the most wonderful of his achievements was the taking of the city of Veii, after it had been under siege for ten years. Veii was the chief city of Tuscany, and equal to Rome in the number of her soldiers, as well as in her wealth, luxury, and refinement. The Veientes, after many fights with the Romans, in which they were generally defeated, became discouraged, and contented themselves at last with building strong walls, filling their city with warlike provisions, and then waiting an attack. As soon as the Romans saw their intention, they laid siege to Veii, but as years passed by and the city did not succumb, the generals were blamed for not showing sufficient energy, and many of them were removed. Among those put in their places was Camillus, who was then tribune for the second time.

In the midst of the war a remarkable occurrence aroused the superstition of the Romans. It was this: Alban lake lies embedded in the midst of hills, from the springs of which it is fed. Now, in the autumn succeeding a long, unusually dry summer, when all the lakes, brooks, and springs of Italy were dried up and the rivers ran low, Alban lake began suddenly to rise without apparent cause. It rose and rose until its surface was nearly on a level with the tops of the hills. Such a size and depth it had never attained before, and everybody was amazed. But the increased bulk and weight of the lake broke away the earth which had held it in place like a great dam, and the water flowed in a torrent over the ploughed fields and plantations below until it found its way to the sea. Not only the shepherds and herdsmen, but all the Italians, were stricken with terror. They felt sure that some extraordinary event was pending. Those in the camp before Veii thought that this omen had been sent to them by the gods, but whether its portent was good or evil they could not even guess.

One of the warriors who, during the long siege, had had opportunities for conversation with the enemy, had made the acquaintance of a man of Veii who was versed in ancient traditions and supposed to be uncommonly skilled in the art of divination. Finding this man inclined to rejoice at the strange behavior of Lake Alba, the Roman hit upon a scheme for getting his opinion of it without asking questions. So, pretending to treat the matter with the utmost indifference, he said, "Oh, I could tell you of many prodigies that have happened of late to the Romans, some of which are far more wonderful than the rising of Lake Alba."

Thinking to gain some personal benefit, the man urged the Roman to communicate freely with him, and became so absorbed in the stories invented to deceive him that he suffered himself unconsciously to be led far away from the gates of the city. Suddenly, as the two approached the camp, the Roman snatched up his companion in his arms and held him fast until two or three others came up and carried him before the commanders. He was ordered to declare the secret oracles of Veii. Knowing that he would be forced to speak if he refused, he wisely decided to do so at once. "The city of Veii shall never be taken," he said, "until the waters of Alban lake, which have found new passages, be turned back, and not allowed to mingle with the sea."

The senate held a consultation, and decided to get the opinion of the oracle of Delphi also. For that purpose three persons of distinction were selected. On their return from the voyage they reported, among other answers, that some of the ceremonies relating to the Latin feasts had been neglected. With regard to the lake, the oracle had said that it should be shut up in its ancient bed, if possible, but, if that could not be done, canals and trenches should be dug, through which it was to be drained off. Without a moment's loss of time, the priests set to work to offer sacrifices, and the people to dig new channels for Alban lake.

This happened in the tenth year of the siege, and then Camillus was made dictator. He selected Cornelius Scipio for his general of horse. After making a vow to the gods that if they would grant a happy termination to the war he would celebrate the great games to their honor, and also dedicate a temple to the goddess Matuta, or Mother, Camillus resolved to try a new plan for the capture of Veii. The soil about the city being easy to work, he ordered mines to be dug, and this was done in such a secret manner as to remain unnoticed by the enemy. Then Camillus began an assault which drew the Veientes to the walls, and enabled part of his army to make their way under ground to the citadel close to the Temple of Juno, the most important one in the city.

At that moment the Tuscan general was offering a sacrifice. The priest who stood by exclaimed, "The gods promise victory to him who shall finish this sacrifice." No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the Romans, who had heard them, burst through the floor with loud shouts and the clashing of arms, which so frightened the Tuscans that they fled, leaving the entrails of the animal they were offering. These were gathered up and carried to Camillus.

Thereupon the city was taken by storm, and while the soldiers were occupied in gathering the spoils, Camillus raised his hands on high and offered a prayer of thanksgiving to Jupiter. At its conclusion he turned to the right, which was the Roman custom after prayer, but in doing so he fell. His friends were uneasy at this, and regarded it as a presage of evil, but Camillus reassured them by saying that it was just what he had prayed for,—a small mishap as a counterbalance to his great success, lest the gods should become jealous of his uniform good fortune.

Veii was sacked, and the dictator resolved to carry the statue of Juno to Rome. Workmen were employed to remove it, but, before they began, Camillus sacrificed to the goddess, and asked her if she would be pleased to accept of his devotion, and if she would vouchsafe to consent to be placed among the gods that presided at Rome. It is said that the statue answered in a low voice that she was ready and willing to go. This is one among innumerable circumstances mentioned by ancient historians for which we of the present day can easily account by a natural course of reasoning. Words uttered by persons who had no concern in their affairs were interpreted by the heathens as good or bad omens if they happened in any way to apply, and they were so superstitious as to believe that statues really did speak, groan, and give other signs on occasions. A bright flame from an altar was always considered a good omen, as was also a sneeze from a person standing at the right hand of the priest engaged in sacrificing.

Like many a hero before and since his time, Camillus was so puffed up by the praise he received on all sides, on account of his having conquered so famous and important a city as Veii, that it turned his head somewhat and made him very haughty. On his return to Rome he drove through the city in a triumphal chariot drawn by four white horses. No general had ever done such a thing, that sort of conveyance being considered sacred to the king and father of the gods, and the Romans were therefore shocked and displeased.

Their disfavor was still further increased when a plan was proposed for dividing the city. The tribunes desired the senate and people to be divided into two equal parties, one to remain at Rome and the other to remove to the newly-taken city. This was a very popular project, for it promised great advantages to the poor, but the senate and the nobler of the citizens feared that in time the two cities might become so independent of each other as to go to war, and thus fall into the hands of their common enemies. They therefore opposed it, and applied to Camillus for assistance, but, fearing the result of a decision, he managed to occupy the people with other matters, and so gain time. Such underhanded behavior was displeasing, and still more so was the manner of disposing of the spoils of Veii. For Camillus had vowed, before undertaking the siege, that if he conquered the city he would dedicate to Apollo one-tenth of the spoils. Instead of doing so, he had permitted the soldiers to divide everything they could lay hands on among themselves.

Some time after, the senate and priests announced that their sacrifices showed signs of divine anger, and that something must be done to satisfy the gods. So the soldiers were required to give up a tenth of the treasure they had appropriated. This decree created a great deal of dissatisfaction in the army, but Camillus excused himself by saying that he had forgotten all about his vow. The soldiers had to submit, therefore, and when the spoils were gathered it was decided to make a bowl of massive gold to be sent to Delphi. But there was a scarcity of gold in the city, and the bowl could not have been manufactured at all had it not been for the Roman matrons, who nobly came forward and gave up their ornaments to supply the required amount. As a reward for this act of self-denial the matrons were granted leave to ride in chariots at the public games and sacrifices, and in open carriages on other occasions. As soon as the golden bowl was ready, three of the prominent citizens were sent in a large, well-manned ship to carry it to Delphi and place it on the altar of Apollo with all due ceremony.

Before the division of the city could be completed, the Falerians declared war, and Camillus was appointed to command the Roman forces. He marched at once to the enemy's territory, and laid siege to Falerii, their chief city. Trusting to the strength of their fortifications, the Falerians did not trouble themselves much about the siege, but left the guarding of their walls to those whose duty it was during times of peace, and continued their usual occupations.

Now, it so happened that in Falerii there was a school-master who had under his charge a large number of boys, and after their lessons were finished he would take them daily to the outskirts of the town for play and exercise. He constantly assured them that they had nothing to fear from the enemy at their walls, and they followed their master with perfect confidence wherever he chose to lead them. One day he approached the Roman advance-guard, surrounded by all the boys, whom he delivered up to be carried to Camillus. When questioned by the commander, he told who he was, and said "that he preferred the favor of Camillus to the obligations of duty, and that he had come to hand over to him the Falerian children, and through them the whole city."

The commander was shocked at such base treachery. "War is at best a savage thing," he said, "but it has its laws from which men of honor will never depart; though desirous of victory, they do not avail themselves of acts of villany." So saying, he ordered the lictors to tear off the wretch's clothes and tie his hands behind him, then to furnish each boy with a rod and a scourge, with which to whip the traitor back to the city.

Meanwhile, the Falerians had heard of the fate of their boys, and men and women crowded to the gates in a state of distraction, filling the air with their lamentations. Suddenly they beheld the school-master running towards them pursued by his pupils, who did not spare their blows, but shouted and yelled with delight, while they proclaimed the Roman commander "their God, their Deliverer, their Father." The citizens were so struck by the generosity of Camillus that it was decided in council to send deputies to the noble commander to surrender the city to him. Camillus took time to consult the senate of Rome, who advised him to demand a sum of money of the Falerians, but on no account to accept anything more. Peace was then restored, and the Roman army returned home.

But the soldiers were disappointed at being forced to go back empty-handed when they had expected rich spoils, and determined to vent their anger on Camillus. So before many days, while he was mourning over the death of a dearly-beloved son, they accused him of having appropriated more than his share of the Tuscan spoils. His indignation at such a shameful charge may be better imagined than described, but he was in no mood to defend himself, so he summoned those of the citizens who were friendly and requested them to do it for him. They decided that it was impossible to prevent sentence from being passed, but offered to club together to pay whatever fine might be imposed. Camillus was too proud and upright a man to submit to such an indignity, and therefore resolved to absent himself from Rome at once. So, after bidding farewell to his wife and his only surviving son, he went into voluntary exile.

In course of time misfortune overtook the Romans, and they felt the loss of Camillus most keenly. This was when the Gauls, in tremendous numbers, marched through Italy, splendidly equipped for battle, and spread terror right and left, never stopping until they reached the very gates of Rome. The tribunes led out the army, but it happened to contain at that time many men who had had no experience in the field; the consequence was a total defeat and flight of the Romans in the very first engagement, which took place on the banks of the river Allia.

Had the Gauls followed up their advantage they might have taken possession of Rome itself, but, not being aware of the full extent of their victory, they contented themselves with gathering and dividing the plunder of the deserted camp. Thus the Roman citizens who desired to escape had ample time given them, while those whose duty it was to defend the city lost not a moment in making the necessary preparations. The latter assembled in the Capitol, which they fortified and supplied with arms; but their first care was for the holy things, which were hidden in a safe spot, while the Vestal Virgins fled with the sacred fire and vestments.

Some of the priests and older senators could not bear to leave the city of their birth, so they put on their holy robes, made their vows to the gods, and sat down in the ivory chairs in the Forum, prepared to sacrifice themselves to their country.

When the Gauls arrived, they were surprised to find the gates unguarded. After placing a strong force about the Capitol, Brennus, their leader, went down to the Forum, where the priests and senators had placed themselves. There they sat, perfectly motionless, and apparently unconscious of the approach of the enemy. The Gauls gazed and wondered, but for a long time were afraid to touch the men, who they thought must be superior beings of some sort. At last one of them ventured up to a senator named Papirius and timidly stroked his long beard, whereupon Papirius struck him on the head with his staff. The Gaul drew his sword and killed him on the spot. That was a signal for the rest, who forthwith despatched all who came in their way, pillaged the houses, and finally set fire to the city. When provisions failed they foraged the country mercilessly, laying waste the towns and villages. It so happened that the best disciplined part of their army went against Ardea, where Camillus had been living in retirement ever since his exile. The noble Roman forgot the ingratitude of his countrymen, and burned to relieve them from the hands of so formidable an enemy. So he interested the young men of Ardea in the Roman cause, and then, with the consent of the magistrates and senate, armed all those who were of the proper age, and drew them together within the walls, that the enemy might not suspect what he was about.

The Gauls, elated with their success, became careless, and encamped upon the plains in a most disorderly manner. Night found many of them intoxicated with wine, and so soundly did they sleep that the Ardeans, led by Camillus, were in their very midst before they were aware of it. Most of them were killed that night, and those who were sober enough to make their escape were overtaken and despatched the next day.

When the neighboring cities heard of this action, their warriors agreed to send for Camillus and place themselves under his leadership. Among these were many Romans who had escaped from the battle of Allia. But Camillus answered that he could not command them unless he should be appointed to do so by those of their countrymen who were shut up in the Capitol. Though Rome lay in ashes, he would take no step against the constitution of his country.

To get a messenger to the Capitol while the enemy held the city seemed impossible; however, a young man named Pontius Cominius undertook the difficult task. He carried no letters, that in case he should be seized would betray Camillus, but, dressed in mean attire, he travelled without fear by day and entered Rome after dark. He could not cross the bridge, because it was guarded by the Gauls, but he swam across the river unobserved, walked through deserted streets, and climbed up to the Capitol on the side of the hill which is steepest and roughest. He called out to the guards, told them his name, and was received with great joy, and conducted to the magistrates.

The senate were speedily assembled and informed of the victory of Camillus. They were then asked to appoint him commander, as the citizens out of Rome would obey none but him. This was done, and Pontius returned by the same road by which he had come. When Camillus joined the Romans at Veii he found twenty thousand of them in arms; to these he added a still larger number, and marched out against the Gauls.

Meanwhile, the marks that Pontius had made with his feet and hands when he clambered up the precipitous rock to the Capitol were discovered by the Gauls, and their leader urged them to follow the example set by their enemy and make an attack from that side. The nimblest of them were selected, and they began the ascent at midnight, with great difficulty, but in silence. The Romans would certainly have been taken by surprise had it not been for some sacred geese kept near the Temple of Juno. These creatures, not being so well fed as in time of peace, had grown restless and watchful; the slight noise made by the Gauls excited them, and they ran up and down cackling so loudly that the whole camp was roused. Each man seized the nearest weapon he could lay hands on, while the Gauls, finding themselves discovered, boldly advanced to the assault.

Manlius, a powerful, courageous Roman, distinguished himself on this occasion. He fought two Gauls at once, cut off the right arm of one just as it was raised to strike, and, running his target full in the face of the other, pitched him headlong down the steep rock; then he mounted the rampart, and, with the assistance of others, drove off the rest of the enemy. A reward of half a pound of bread and one-eighth of a pint of wine from each citizen was voted to Manlius after the fight. The captain of the guard was punished for allowing danger to come so near by being flung down the rock on the heads of the enemy. Thus was the Capitol saved from falling into the possession of the Gauls.

After the siege of the Capitol had lasted seven months, the condition of both the contending armies was so dreadful, and suffering, disease, and death had increased to such an alarming extent, that it was agreed to propose a treaty. For this purpose Sulpicius, one of the military tribunes, had an interview with Brennus, and agreed that the Romans should pay a thousand pounds of gold to the Gauls on condition that they would at once quit the country. After the necessary oaths were taken, the gold was brought, but the Gauls used false weights. The Romans soon detected the cheat, and openly expressed their indignation. Thereupon Brennus, with an insulting remark, took off his sword and belt and threw them into the scale with the gold. Sulpicius asked what that meant. "What should it mean," returned Brennus, with an air of contempt, "but woe to the conquered?" The Romans were so angry that some of them wanted to take back their gold and endure the siege to the bitter end, while others argued that since it was a disgrace to settle their quarrel with gold, it was better, in consideration of their necessities, to submit to the insult offered by the Gaul.

It must be remembered that Camillus had not yet made his way to Rome, but he arrived at the gates with his army just at the right moment, before the gold question was decided. As soon as he heard about it he ordered the main body of his army to advance slowly and in good order, while he, with a select few, hastened to join the Romans, who received him with all the respect due their dictator. He advanced towards the scales, took out the gold, which he handed to the lictors, and ordered the Gauls to begone with their weights, saying, proudly, "It is the custom of Romans to deliver their country with steel, and not with gold."

Brennus flew into a rage, and declared that he had been unjustly dealt with. His men drew their swords, and a fight ensued, but it was conducted in such a disorderly manner that, after a few had fallen, the Gauls were ordered back to their camp. During the night they marched away, and returned to their own country.

Thenceforth Camillus was regarded as the deliverer of Rome, and this time, when he made his triumphal entry, he was followed by a long train of men, women, and children, while those who had been shut up in the Capitol and almost starved to death went out to receive him, weeping for joy, and embracing the friends and relations whom they had feared they should never behold again. The priests brought back all the holy things that they had hidden or carried out of the city at the approach of the enemy, Camillus offered sacrifices, and then set to work to rebuild the temples where they had stood before the entrance of the Gauls.

As the city lay in ruins, it became necessary to rebuild it also, and Camillus effected this only with constant words of encouragement to the people and incessant exertion on his own part. The walls and buildings were all completed in one year, but in consequence of the hurry and confusion the streets were narrow and crooked, and the houses were badly planned and huddled together without order or design, each man pitching on any plot of ground that happened to strike his fancy.

No sooner was the work of rebuilding Rome finished than a new war broke out. This time it was three hostile tribes that invaded the Roman territory. Camillus was appointed dictator for the third time, and crowned himself with additional glory by the victory he gained. The citizens acknowledged his ability, but some of them were envious of his success; among these, the one who made himself most notorious was Marcus Manlius, surnamed Capitolinus, on account of his heroic conduct when the Capitol was surprised by the Gauls. He was ambitious to be considered the greatest man in Rome, and it galled him to see honors heaped on another. So he gradually drew the poorer class of citizens about him, defended them against their creditors, and encouraged them to such lawless acts that he made himself obnoxious to the magistrates, and was sent to prison. The people put on mourning for their leader. This was never done except in times of great public calamity, so the senate, fearing an insurrection, ordered Manlius to be set at liberty. Instead of profiting by the lesson he had had, he became more troublesome than ever, and incited the populace to riots. He was again arrested, and condemned to be thrown headlong from Capitol rock, the scene of his former glory. Then his house was pulled down and a temple erected in its place.

At this period Camillus was appointed tribune for the sixth time, but he was in ill health and declined the honor. However, the Romans declared that they could not do without his advice, particularly as a new enemy was just then laying waste their territory, so he consented to go into camp, without intending to take an active part in the fight. But Lucius Furius, who was in command, acted so rashly in leading on his forces that he was driven back. Thereupon Camillus jumped from his bed, old and feeble though he was, fought his way to the battlefield, urged his countrymen on, and soon regained for them the ground they had lost. The next day he killed nearly all of the enemy and took possession of their camp. Then he marched to Satricum, overcame the Tuscans, and returned to Rome with great spoils.

A Roman named Licinius Stolo created a disturbance between the senate and the people, by urging the latter to insist upon having one of their consuls chosen from among the Plebeians, and not both from the Patricians, as they had always been. In order to settle this matter, Camillus was chosen dictator for the fourth time, but, finding that he was a better soldier than politician, he resigned his office on the plea of illness. Before the election for consuls took place, news came that the Gauls were again advancing upon Rome. Everybody was terrified; nobles, senate, and people all relied on Camillus to save them, and he was unanimously chosen dictator for the fifth time. Although nearly eighty years of age, the noble Roman would not desert his country in her hour of need, but at once undertook the command of the army. He proved that his military genius was not yet on the wane, for he had the honor of beginning the attack, and won a glorious victory.

The conflict with regard to the consuls had yet to be settled, and to that matter the people turned their attention as soon as the army returned. As dictator, Camillus presided in the senate, where there were lengthy debates and various opinions on the subject. At last it was decided that one of the consuls should be a Plebeian; this satisfied the populace; but at the same time the Patricians had a new officer appointed, called Prætor, who was to be next in dignity to the consuls, and this was an offset to the point they had yielded. The military tribuneship was at this period abandoned forever.

It was Camillus who announced to the multitude the decision of the senate. Loud shouts of applause greeted his welcome speech, and he was conducted to his home in triumph.

The next day it was unanimously agreed that the temple Camillus had vowed to Concord should be built in commemoration of the victory the people had gained over the senate instead. One more feast-day, in honor of the victory, was added to the list, and at the sacrifices offered on each anniversary the Romans were ordered to appear adorned with garlands.

The election was held at the regular time, when Marcus Æmilius was the consul chosen from among the nobles, and Lucius Sextius from among the commons. The latter is to be remembered as the first Plebeian who held the position of consul in Rome.

We have nothing further to relate of Camillus, except that during the following year he fell a victim to the dreadful pestilence that visited Rome, and his death was much lamented by his countrymen.