City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

How Camillus Captured Veii

About twenty miles north of Rome was a large and powerful city called Veii, with which the Romans were often at war. It was in a struggle with this city that the Fabii had been destroyed; and after that many other wars followed, until, about a hundred years after the kings were driven from Rome, a struggle began in which the Romans at last conquered their old enemy.

This was the fourteenth war between Rome and Veii. When the Romans had laid siege to the town for eight long years, and it seemed as though they would never be able to conquer it, the Senate and the people all became discouraged. Then a strange thing happened to make them more disturbed.

About as far south of Rome as Veii was north of it, was a lake called the Alban Lake, which was completely surrounded by hills, and had no inlet or outlet for its waters. News now came to Rome that the water of this lake had suddenly begun to rise higher and higher, without any heavy rains, or any other cause that could be discovered. The Romans, therefore, imagined that this was a miracle which was performed by the gods; and to find out the meaning of it, they sent messengers to the Oracle of the god Apollo, at Delphi. But before these messengers had returned, the Romans received an explanation of the matter from the Veientians themselves.

As often happens in long sieges, the soldiers of the two armies had got in the habit of calling back and forth at one another. One day, as they were doing this, an old man stood upon the walls of Veii and declared, like one uttering a prophecy, that "until the waters should be discharged from the Alban Lake, the Romans should never become the masters of Veii."

One of the Roman soldiers caught at this saying eagerly, thinking that perhaps it showed a way for them to become at last victorious. He persuaded the old man to come out from the walls, and talk with him in the open ground before the Roman camp; then, when they were alone, he seized him boldly about the waist, and carried him by main force into the camp. From there he was taken to the Senate at Rome; and here he was ordered to repeat the prophecy which he had spoken upon the walls of his city. He replied:

"The gods were angry with the Veientian people, that day, when they bade me show the way to ruin my country, from the walls of Veii. But, since it seemed to them well for me to speak it, it is better said than unsaid. It is written in the books of the fates that whenever the Alban water shall rise to a great height, and the Romans shall discharge it in the proper manner, victory will be granted to them. Until that is done, the gods will not desert the walls of Veii."

When the Romans found that the answer of the Oracle of Apollo agreed with the statement of the old man, they set eagerly to work to do what was required of them,

While some remained with the army to watch about the walls of Veii, others worked at the Alban Lake. There they cut a great tunnel through the rock of the hills, to make a passage for the imprisoned waters; and the remains of that tunnel can be seen to this day. Then ditches were dug through the country, and the water of the lake was let out upon the fields. This was in obedience to the commands of the Oracle, and by doing this the Romans believed that they prepared the way for the destruction of Veii.

After all this was done, a Roman named Camillus was appointed Dictator, to complete the capture of the city. When he reached the place he withdrew the Romans into their camp, and kept them closely there, in order that there might be no chance for speech with the enemy. Then he began a tunnel which was to lead from the camp, under the walls of the city, and into the very citadel of the town. Day and night his soldiers worked at this, each in his turn, so that no one should become exhausted by the hard labor. At last the work was all completed, except breaking through the last thin wall of earth, which would admit them into the city.

The Veientians still laughed and shouted from their walls at the silent Romans, all unconscious that the Alban Lake had disappeared into the earth, and that their enemies were ready to pour into the city from their tunnel. But Camillus was certain of his victory, and having given orders for the soldiers to take their arms, he went forth to beg the help and favor of the gods.

"Under thy guidance, O Apollo," he prayed, "I proceed to destroy the city of Veii, and I vow to thee a tenth part of the spoil."

Then some of the Romans attacked the walls. As the Veientians rushed to their defense, others of the Romans came out of the tunnel in the city and attacked them from behind. The Veientians were taken by surprise, and the Romans who were in the city soon succeeded in opening the gates of the town for their companions. In this way, the Romans soon won a complete victory. When the battle was over, the people of Veii were made slaves, and the town was stripped of all its treasures by the soldiers who had conquered it.

Then the Romans prepared to remove the gods also from the captured city. A band of young men was chosen, and, with their bodies freshly washed in pure water, and clad in white garments, they took their way in a solemn procession to the temple of the great Juno. She was the especial god of the Veientians, and they entered her temple with fear and awe. When they stood before the image of the goddess, one of the company asked:

"O Juno, art thou willing to go to Rome?"

The Romans believed that they saw the goddess bow her beautiful head in assent; and they all shouted with joy at this favorable response. Then they took up the statue of the goddess and carried her to Rome; and the statue seemed light and easy to move, as though the goddess went with them willingly and of her own accord.

For several years after this, the city of Veii was left standing with empty houses and temples, uncared for either by the gods or men. Some of the old neighbors of the Veientians, however, tried to make a stand against the Romans, even though Veii itself had fallen. So Camillus was sent against one of these cities, to lay siege to it, as he had done to Veii.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


This place was also a strong city, and the people seemed likely to defend themselves as long and as bravely as the Veientians had done. But, one day, the war suddenly ceased, and peace was made, as a result of the just dealing of Camillus with the people of the besieged city.

Several of the noblest families of the city had placed their boys in the charge of a schoolmaster, who was expected not only to teach them, but to care for them during their playtime also. Before the war began, this man had been in the habit of taking his boys beyond the city walls for play and exercise, and even when the city had been besieged he continued this custom.

One day, when they had passed through the gates as usual for their romp in the open field, and while the boys were all absorbed in their rough play, their teacher led them little by little up to the Roman lines, and to the tent of Camillus. Then, as he came before the Roman general, he said:

"Camillus, these are the children of the men who are highest in rank in the city. With them I deliver to you the city itself, for their rulers will be willing to sacrifice everything to regain their children; and I know that you will reward me for my deed."

When Camillus heard these words, he cried out:

"Wicked as thou art, thou hast not come with thy offering to a commander or a people like thyself. We do not carry arms against defenseless children, but against armed men."

Then he ordered the man's arms to be tied behind his back; and he put rods in the boys' hands, and told them to flog their treacherous master back to the city; where he was punished as he well deserved to be.

When the people of the city received their children again from Camillus, their feeling toward the Romans changed. Before this time, they had preferred the fate of the Veientians to making peace with the Romans, but now the virtue of Camillus filled them with admiration. They sent messengers to the Roman Senate, therefore, and surrendered themselves without further struggle, saying:

"Fathers, we are overcome by your good faith, and we give the victory to you of our own free will. We believe that we shall live more happily under your rule than we do now under our own laws; so send men to receive our arms, and our city."

By two such victories as these, and many smaller ones, Camillus became one of the greatest of the Romans. The citizens were grateful to him for his services to the city, and they were certain that no one could lead the Roman armies so well as he.

But Camillus was a proud man, and wished to rule the city as he did his army. Among other things, he was determined that the tenth part of the spoil of Veii should be given to Apollo, as he had promised before the battle, and this the people did not wish to do. But he forced it from them; and then they asked him, in return, what right he had to the great bronze doors which he had brought from the conquered city, and placed before his own house.

So Camillus and the people fell to quarreling, and, after a time, Camillus was forced to leave Rome. In rage and in sorrow, he went to find his home in another place; but it was harder for him to bear than if he had lost his life in battle, for to be obliged to live in exile was worse than death to a Roman.