Just as the Athenian statesman and general Themistocles had saved his home city, and Greece as a whole, from being conquered by Xerxes and his Persians, so Marcus Furius Camillus saved Rome from annihilation by the Gauls.
Plutarch starts his biography of Camillus by remarking that his subject attained great fame without ever serving as one of Rome’s consuls. Instead, he was five time made its dictator, and celebrated four triumphs. He lived in troubled times, when military tribunes ran Rome.
Camillus first came to prominence during a battle with the Aequians and Volscians, when he dashed out on his horse in front of the Roman army, engaged the enemy despite a wound in his thigh, and put them to flight. He was rewarded with the office of censor, from which he persuaded single Roman men to marry some of the city’s many war widows.
One of the most costly campaigns had been the siege of the Tuscan city of Veii, which at the time was a match for Rome itself. That city was well fortified, and the Roman army had been forced to maintain the siege year-round, instead of spending the winters back in Rome.
In the tenth year of the war against Veii, Camillus was made dictator, the sole ruler, of Rome by its Senate. Camillus made a vow that, should Rome succeed in the war, he would celebrate with games, and dedicate a temple to the goddess Mater Matuta (later equivalent to Aurora), whose temple had been destroyed in 506 BCE.
Most of the paintings in this article are taken from the superb frescoes made by Francesco de’ Rossi (also known as Francesco Salviati) in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, between about 1543-45. In Camillus Receives the Charge of a Dictator, he shows a young bearded Camillus being made the ruler of Rome, to the amazement of his young wife.
When Camillus took command of the siege, he had mines dug while distracting the enemy defending their walls against conventional attacks. This allowed the underground tunnels to reach into the heart of Veii, from where the Romans took the city by storm. Veii was sacked, the war ended, and Camillus returned to Rome with an image of the goddess Juno. He there undertook his first triumph, in which his chariot was drawn by four white horses through the city – a unique event which the citizens found offensive, as only Jupiter was entitled to do that.
De’ Rossi’s frescoes show this as the Triumph of Furius Camillus. The young general rides high on a podium placed inside the chariot, at the left. Four white horses draw this, and the whole of Rome has come out to watch. At the right is the statue of the goddess Juno, with her trademark peacocks on its roof. There is even a suit of armour being paraded, in honour of the first such triumph.
Camillus also became unpopular because he opposed half of Rome being moved to populate Veii, something the poor felt would be to their advantage. Most of all, though, the Romans objected to Camillus allowing his soldiers full enjoyment of the spoils of Veii, rather than giving a tenth to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Camillus claimed that he had forgotten that he had vowed to give that share to the temple.
These matters were overtaken by events, when Camillus was one of six to be appointed to rule Rome as a military tribune, and was immediately called to lead the army in an invasion of the territory of the Faliscans, and to lay siege to the city of Falerii.
Being another well-fortified city, life went on as normal in Falerii during the siege. Its citizens employed one teacher for its boys, and he wanted to betray the city using his pupils. Each day, the teacher led his school further and further out from its city walls, until he reached the Roman forces. He then handed the children over to the enemy, and demanded to see Camillus.
The Roman commander was not swayed by this, and condemned the teacher’s action. Camillus said that a great general wages war using his own valour, not on the baseness of other men. He had the teacher stripped and his hands tied, then gave the boys rods with which to beat him back into the city. This action caused the citizens to sue for peace, and the Faliscans made an alliance with Rome.
This short story inspired Nicolas Poussin to paint Camillus Delivers the Schoolmaster of Falerii to His Pupils in 1637. The teacher grimaces at the right, as his pupils get their own back by beating him, for once. In the background is the fortified city of Falerii, high on a hill and not to be taken by force easily.
In about 1764-66, Domenico Corvi made this copy, after Poussin, of Camillus and the Schoolmaster of Falerii. Although less grand than Poussin’s surviving version above, the teacher is still getting a sound beating from his younger pupils.
Unfortunately, when the general and his army returned to Rome, his success made him even less popular, as the soldiers had not won any booty. Camillus also lost his two sons to sickness, and was overcome by his grief. He was then accused of the theft of bronze doors from Tuscan booty, and voluntarily went into exile.
It was then that the Gauls laid siege to the Tuscan city of Clusium, whose leaders asked the Romans for their assistance. Rome sent envoys to speak to the Gauls, but quickly realised that there was no coming to terms with them. The Roman envoys slipped into Clusium, where they encouraged the Tuscans to go out and fight the Gauls; one of those envoys led by example, and was recognised by the Gauls, who decided to attack Rome instead.
Instead of the Romans condemning the actions of their envoy, the people appointed him and his brothers to the military tribune, which strengthened the resolve of the Gauls to attack and defeat Rome.
In the absence of Camillus, the Roman army lacked good leadership, and was surprised by the Gaulish army when they were eleven miles from the city of Rome. The Gauls overwhelmed the Romans, who fled back to Rome or the city of Veii. The Gauls were taken aback at their success, so didn’t press on to take Rome, which had been abandoned by most of its citizens.
Three days after their rout of the Roman army, the Gauls entered the city of Rome, occupied it, and put a guard around its Capitol, which remained in the hands of Romans. Although this was peaceful at first, a Gaul and a Roman clashed, leading to overreaction by the Gauls, who then killed the remaining Romans, sacked and plundered the city.
Hearing of this, Camillus raised forces from Ardea, and with them attacked a Gaulish camp at night, when most of its troops were drunk and asleep. Surviving Romans rallied to the cause, but Camillus would not assume leadership of a reconstituted Roman army without the agreement of the Romans still defending the Capitol. Those remaining there eagerly agreed, and Camillus was again appointed dictator and military commander.
One night, the Gauls attempted an assault on the Capitol, and succeeded in scaling its cliffs. However, they were detected by the sacred geese of the temple of Juno, and the Gauls were repelled. Now the tide turned against those occupiers, who were effectively under siege by the threat of Camillus and his growing army. They were cut off from supplies of food obtained by foraging outside the city, the Gauls started suffering from outbreaks of disease, and were unable to cope with the heat of the late summer.
Conditions drove the Romans besieged in the Capitol to make peace with the Gauls besieged in the rest of the city. Rome was to pay the Gauls a thousand pounds of gold, but even there the Gauls cheated the Romans and tampered with the scales. While this was going on, Camillus entered Rome as its appointed leader, and told the Gauls to quit without any gold, as Rome delivered its city with iron instead.
De’ Rossi shows this in composite form in his fresco of the Attack on the Gauls who Sacked Rome. In the foreground, the Gauls and Romans are still arguing about the weight of gold, as Camillus’ forces start to take possession of the ruins of what had been Rome.
The Gauls withdrew with Camillus and his army in hot pursuit, killing and routing the Gauls until they were well clear of Rome. After seven months of occupation, the city was back in the hands of the Romans.
Camillus then oversaw the rebuilding. That was controversial at first, but eventually became so hasty that the city was rebuilt with confused and narrow streets, forming a maze of houses.
Camillus Inaugurates a Temple in de’ Rossi’s series of frescoes may refer to this time, or to the earlier vow to dedicate a temple to Mater Matuta.
Peace did not last long, though, and Latins, Tuscans, and other tribes laid siege to the city of Sutrium, an ally of Rome.
Camillus was appointed dictator a third time. He manoeuvred his army into a position so that it surrounded the enemy, who decided to fence themselves in behind a wooden palisade and await the arrival of reinforcements. Camillus attacked with fire, using the strong wind which blew to fan the flames and force the enemy out.
Camillus then invaded the enemy’s territory, and drove on towards the city of Sutrium, only to discover that its people had already surrendered and been forced to abandon it as refugees. The Roman commander attacked the occupied city, and recaptured it. This took Camillus back to his third triumph in Rome.
The Inhabitants of Sutrium Supplicate to Camillus to Free them from Tyranny is another of de’ Rossi’s frescoes, here showing some of the refugees from the city pleading with Camillus to recapture their city.
Once again, Camillus became unpopular because of jealousy. The people became seditious, under the leadership of Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, who had heroically defeated the Gauls when they had attacked the Capitol. He was arrested, and his trial started on the Capitol, from where he could arouse the emotions of his judges. Camillus moved the court outside the city, out of sight of the Capitol, and he was convicted and hurled from the Tarpeian Rock for his crime.
By now, Camillus was growing old, and refused appointment to the military tribune for a sixth time. But the people refused to let him quit, claiming that he didn’t need to physically lead the army into battle any more. He therefore appointed a field commander, who was such a disaster that the army was put to flight. Camillus then took charge, turned the fleeing soldiers around, and crushed their enemy. The following day, he led the army on to recapture the Roman city of Satricum, which had been taken by the Tuscans.
De’ Rossi may be referring to this episode in his fresco of Camillus Called to Battle. The general is noticeably older here, his beard fully white. At the left, he is helped into his clothes by a servant, then rides off in his armour at the right. Behind them are retreating Romans, travelling in the opposite direction – something that Camillus is just about to reverse.
On his return to Rome, the city was in turmoil again, and he was made dictator for the fourth time, against the wishes of the people, and against his own desire. As the crisis deepened, Camillus could see that he could not solve it, so he withdrew to his house, claimed to be sick, and finally resigned his office.
News reached Rome that the Gauls were again on the march, and heading for Rome. Camillus was made dictator for a fifth time, and prepared his army by having helmets forged for them, to protect against the slashing blows that were commonly used by Gaulish soldiers. The Romans also added bronze edging to the wooden shields, and Camillus trained them to use their javelins like spears.
Camillus led his soldiers out and caught the Gauls unawares when they were gorged with food and drink. When the Gauls tried to fight back, they found that their swords quickly blunted against the Romans’ helmets, and the javelins caught the Gauls defenceless. The Romans went on to capture Velitrae in this, the last campaign of Camillus’ long career.
His final public act was to see one consul chosen by the patricians, and the other from the plebeians, for the first time. The following year, Rome suffered an epidemic which killed many of its citizens, including Camillus.
Plutarch’s comparison between Themistocles and Camillus has not survived; given their long and heroic careers, maybe none is necessary.