Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

Camillus at the Seige of Veii

We have now to tell the story of another dictator of Rome. Like Cincinnatus, Camillus is largely a creature of legend, but he plays an active part in old Roman annals, and the tale of his doings is well worth repeating.

Rome was at war with the city of Veii, a large and strong city beyond the Tiber, and not many miles away. In the year of Rome 350 (or 403 B.C.) the siege of Veii began, and was continued for seven years. We are told that the Romans surrounded the city, five miles in circumference, with a double wall, but it could not have been complete, or the Veientians could not have held out against starvation so long. For the end of the siege and the taking of the city we must revert to the legendary tale.

For seven years and more, so the legend says, the Romans had been besieging Veii. During the last year of the siege, in late summer, the springs and rivers all ran low; but of a sudden the waters of the Lake of Alba began to rise, and the flood continued until the banks were overflowed and the fields and houses by its side were drowned. Still higher and higher the waters swelled till they reached the tops of the hills which rose like a wall around the lake. In the end they overflowed these hills at their lowest points, and poured in a mighty torrent into the plain beyond.

The prayers and sacrifices of the Romans had failed to check the flood, which threatened their city and fields, and despairing of any redress from their own gods they sent to Delphi, in Greece, and applied there to the famous oracle of Apollo. While the messengers were on their way, it chanced that a Roman centurion talked with an old Veientian on the walls whom he had known in times of peace, and knew to be skilled in the secrets of Fate. The Roman condoled with his friend, and hoped that no harm would come to him in the fall of Veii, sure to happen soon. The old man laughed in reply, and said,—

"You think, then, to take Veii. You shall not take it till the waters of the Lake of Alba are all spent, and flow out into the sea no more."

This remark troubled the Roman, who knew the prophetic foresight of his friend. The next day he talked with him again, and finally enticed him to leave the city, saying that he wished to meet him at a certain secret place and consult with him on a matter of his own. But on getting him in this way out of the city, he seized and carried him off to the camp, where he brought him before the generals. These, learning what the old man had said, sent him to the senate at Rome.

The prisoner here spoke freely. "If the lake overflow," he said, "and its waters run out into the sea, woe unto Rome; but if it be drawn off, and the waters reach the sea no longer, then it is woe unto Veii."

This he gave as the decree of the Fates; but the senate would not accept his words, and preferred to wait until the messengers should return from Delphi with the reply of the oracle.

When they did come, they confirmed what the old prophet had said. "See that the waters be not confined within the basin of the lake," was the message of Apollo's priestess: "see that they take not their own course and run into the sea. Thou shalt take the water out of the lake, and thou shalt turn it to the watering of the fields, and thou shalt make courses for it till it be spent and come to nothing."

What all this could possibly have to do with the siege of Veii the oracle did not say. But the people of the past were not given to ask such inconvenient questions. The oracle was supposed to know better than they, so workmen were sent with orders to bore through the sides of the hills and make a passage for the water. This tunnel was made, and the waters of the lake were drawn off, and divided into many courses, being given the duty of watering the fields of the Romans. In this way the water of the lake was all used up, and no drop of it flowed to the sea. Then the Romans knew that it was the will of the gods that Veii should be theirs.

Despite all this, the army of Rome must have met with serious difficulties and dangers at Veii, for the senate chose a dictator to conduct the war. This was their ablest and most famous man, Marcus Furius Camillus, a leader among the aristocrats, and a statesman of distinguished ability.

Under the command of Camillus the army hotly pressed the siege. So straitened became the Veientians that they sent envoys to Rome to beg for peace. The senate refused. In reply, one of the chief men of the embassy, who was a skilled prophet, rebuked the Romans for their arrogance, and predicted coming retribution.

"You heed neither the wrath of the gods nor the vengeance of men," he said. "Yet the gods shall requite you for your pride; as you destroy our country, so shall you shortly after lose your own."

This prediction was verified before many years in the invasion of the Gauls and the destruction of Rome,—a tale which we have next to tell.

Camillus, finding that Veii was not to be taken by assault over its walls, began to approach it from below. Men were set to dig an underground tunnel, which should pass beneath the walls, and come to the surface again in the Temple of Juno, which stood in the citadel of Veii. Night and day they worked, and the tunnel was in course of time completed, though the ground was not opened at its inner extremity.

Then many Romans came to the camp through desire to have a share in the spoil of Veii. A tenth part of this spoil was vowed by Camillus to Apollo in reward for his oracle; and the dictator also prayed to Juno, the goddess of Veii, begging her to desert this city and follow the Romans home, where a temple worthy of her dignity should be built.

All being ready, a fierce assault was made on the city from every side. The defenders ran to the walls to repel their foes, and the fight went vigorously on. While it continued the king of Veii repaired to the Temple of Juno, where he offered a sacrifice for the deliverance of the city. The prophet who stood by, on seeing the sacrifice, said, "This is an accepted offering. There is victory for him who offers the entrails of this victim upon the altar."

The Romans who were in the secret passage below heard these words. Instantly the earth was heaved up above them, and they sprang, arms in hand, from the tunnel. The entrails were snatched from the hands of those who were sacrificing, and Camillus, the Roman dictator, not the Veientian king, offered them upon the altar. While he did so his followers rushed from the citadel into the streets, flung open the city gates, and let in their comrades. Thus both from within and without the army broke into the town, and Veii was taken and sacked.

From the height of the citadel Camillus looked down upon the havoc in the city streets, and said in pride of heart, "What man's fortune was ever so great as mine?" But instantly the thought came to him how little a thing can bring the highest fortune down to the lowest, and he prayed that if some evil should befall him or his country it might be light.

As he prayed he veiled his head, according to the Roman custom, and turned toward the right. In doing so his foot slipped, and he fell upon his back on the ground. "The gods have heard my prayer," he said. "For the great fortune of my victory over Veii they have sent me only this little evil."

He then bade some young men, chosen from the whole army, to wash themselves in pure water, and clothe themselves in white, so that there would be about them no stain or sign of blood. This done, they entered the Temple of Juno, bowing low, and taking care not to touch the statue of the goddess, which only the priest could touch. They asked the goddess whether it was her pleasure to go with them to Rome.

Then a wonder happened; from the mouth of the image came the words "I will go." And when they now touched it, it moved of its own accord. It was carried to Rome, where a temple was built and consecrated to Juno on the Aventine Hill.

On his return to Rome Camillus entered the city in triumph, and rode to the Capitol in a chariot drawn by four white horses, like the horses of Jupiter or those of the sun. Such was his ostentation that wise men shook their heads. "Marcus Camillus makes himself equal to the blessed gods," they said. "See if vengeance come not on him, and he be not made lower than other men."

There is one further legend about Camillus. After the fall of Veii he besieged Falerii. During this siege a school-master, who had charge of the sons of the principal citizens, while walking with his boys outside the walls, played the traitor and led them into the Roman camp.

But the villain received an unexpected reward. Camillus, justly indignant at the act, put thongs in the boys' hands and bade them flog their master back into the town, saying that the Romans did not war on children. On this the people of Falerii, overcome by his magnanimity, surrendered themselves, their city, and their country into the hands of this generous foe, assured of just treatment from so noble a man.

But trouble came upon Camillus, as the wise men had predicted. He was an enemy of the commons and was to feel their power. It was claimed that he had kept for himself part of the plunder of Veii, and on this charge be was banished from Rome. But the time was near at hand when his foes would have to pray for his return. The next year the Gauls were to come, and Camillus was to be revenged upon his ungrateful country. This story we have next to tell.