More Than a Founder, Marcus Furius Camillus Was an Exemplar of Roman Virtue
While ancient Rome achieved many awe-inspiring feats, it is also remembered for its controversial citizens—especially its leaders—who embraced unrestrained decadence. Their conduct was so outlandish that tales of their misbehavior still circulate today. If the ancient authors are to be believed, then gluttony, greed, treachery and violations of sexual mores permeated the later Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.
Of course, ancient writers enjoyed exaggerating details and passing unsubstantiated rumors off as veritable facts. Regardless of their embellishments, as Rome’s might grew, well-placed Romans noticed unmistakable instances of moral depravity. Luckily for them, all hope was not lost because Rome boasted some worthwhile role models, at least those from much earlier in its history. One particular Roman stood above all others—Marcus Furius Camillus—who was an exemplar of Roman virtue and considered Rome’s second founder for his invaluable contributions to the city-state.
The Enigmatic Legacy of Marcus Furius Camillus: Separating Fact from Fiction
Throughout much of Rome’s existence, Camillus was a household name, and tales of his exploits survive even to this day. Unfortunately, there are virtually no extant documents—save for some fragments—from Camillus’ era. Most of what we know, or think we know, about Camillus stems from authors from much later dates, and their writings come with limitations. These documents are sometimes contradictory, bear falsehoods, stand in contrast with archaeological discoveries and often rely on Varronian chronology, which ensures that some dates are erroneous. Nevertheless, while no serious historians doubt that Camillus existed and accomplished great feats, modern scholars cannot be sure how much of Camillus’ canonical biography is true.
Marcus Furius Camillus was a Roman soldier and statesman of patrician descent. (Public Domain)
According to ancient accounts, Camillus was born sometime around 447/446 BC to an ascendant family with Latin origins. While his circumstances may not have originally suggested it, Camillus was destined for greatness and a long public career, and by no later than 431 BC, the teenage Camillus began serving in the Roman city-state’s military. Under the dictatorship of Aulus Postumius Tubertus, Camillus and thousands of other Romans fought a pivotal battle against the bellicose Aequians and Volscians at Mount Algidus, in the Alban Hills. Despite being a youth, Camillus demonstrated his mettle as he engaged the enemy. Even though he suffered a leg wound in the battle, he refused to retreat. Rather he urged his steed toward the enemy, fought admirably and earned great acclaim, while Rome earned a decisive victory.
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Camillus: The Triumphs and Trials of His Military Leadership
The next couple decades of Camillus’ life are shrouded in uncertainty, but by around 404 BC, Camillus decided to enter the public sphere and embarked on a wildly successful military and political career. Throughout his life, he purportedly held the censorship once, five dictatorships, and as many as six consular tribune ships and led Rome’s armies into battle myriad times. Fortunately for the Romans, he was never defeated in war, and for his victories, he enjoyed four different triumphs. The one patrician-dominated post that he never held was the consulship. It was often at the heart of controversy between the plebeians and patricians, and Plutarch claimed that Camillus avoided it purposefully because “he would not consent to become consul over a reluctant people.”
One of Camillus’ greatest tests came in 396 BC when the Romans appointed him dictator and tasked him with ending the roughly 10-year war with the formidable city-state of Veii—a conflict that had been floundering. After numerous generals had failed to breach Veii’s defenses and sack the city, Camillus settled on a novel strategy: he planned to undermine its walls. Digging day and night, his troops carved a tunnel under Veii’s fortifications, which eventually gave them a means of entering Veii’s interior.
With this access, Camillus planned to attack Veii’s walls and simultaneously send his shock troops into the mine to outflank the Veientes and throw open its gates. Before giving his troops final orders to breach Veii, Camillus made an oath to the Pythian Apollo—promising to deliver a tithe of the spoils to the god in exchange for victory. With this pledge made, the Roman legionaries charged their enemy, and they overwhelmed, seized and despoiled the once-great city.
After bearing witness to Veii’s fall, Camillus worried that its destruction might offend the gods, and he prayed that they would hold him accountable, not the broader Roman populace. He reportedly cried out, “If, as counterpoise to this our present success, some retribution is due to come upon us, spare, I beseech you [greatest Jupiter and ye gods], the city and the army of the Romans, and let it fall upon my own head, though with as little harm as may be.”
The Treacherous Act: The Faliscan Schoolmaster's Betrayal
Shortly after sacking Veii, Camillus committed two blunders that haunted him, although they pale in comparison to his successors’ misdeeds. First, he didn’t collect Apollo’s promised spoils. He either forgot to do so or always intended for the Romans to voluntarily surrender ten percent of what they plundered from Veii. Either way, Roman officials ultimately asked the people to donate the tithe from their takings, which irked many of them. Second, when Camillus returned to Rome, he enjoyed a sumptuous triumph through the city, but he unwisely chose to ride in a chariot pulled by four white horses. This offended the Romans who believed that this symbolism was only appropriate for the god Jupiter. This lack of humility was out of character for Camillus, and he realized his mistake and never repeated it.
Painting called, Triumph of Furius Camillus by Francesco Salviati. (Public Domain)
Even though he had upset many Romans, his military career was far from over. By 394 BC, the people of Falerii roused the Romans to war again, and they asked the competent Camillus to neutralize the Faliscans. First, he defeated them in battle, and then he began besieging their city. Yet Camillus witnessed a curious turn of events. A Faliscan schoolmaster gathered together children from affluent families and marched them out of the city toward the Roman outposts. He subsequently surrendered them to Camillus—believing that the Roman general would use the youths as hostages to force Falerii’s surrender. The instructor evidently also concluded that he would be greatly rewarded for his treachery.
Despite the teacher’s plans, Camillus was furious that someone trusted with faithfully caring for children would violate that trust and attempt to use innocent youths as pawns in war. Camillus turned to the schoolmaster and said, “War is indeed a grievous thing, and is waged with much injustice and violence; but even war has certain laws which good and brave men will respect, and we must not so hotly pursue victory as not to flee the favors of base and impious doers. The great general will wage war relying on his own native valor, not on the baseness of other men.”
Camillus delivers the schoolmaster from Faléries to his schoolchildren - Nicolas Poussin - Louvre (Public Domain)
After displaying his disgust, Camillus ordered his soldiers to strip the Faliscan teacher of his clothing and hand the children rods with which to beat him. Then Camillus sent them back to Falerii, and the youths likely flogged their schoolmaster along the way. Seeing Camillus’ honorable response to the teacher’s conspiracy, the Faliscans believed that they could coexist peacefully with Rome. As such, they flung open their gates and formally surrendered. On this occasion, Camillus claimed victory through honor, rather than brute force.
The Plot Against Camillus: Lucius Apuleius' Accusations
Camillus was wildly popular in Rome, but not everyone was pleased with his leadership. In fact, a plebeian tribune named Lucius Apuleius plotted against the great commander. The tribune filed baseless charges against Camillus, accusing him of illegally embezzling spoils from Veii, which the ancient writers emphatically stated was false. Nevertheless, Apuleius had organized a kangaroo court, and it became exceedingly clear that Camillus would be found guilty. Instead of giving Apuleius the satisfaction of convicting him, Camillus decided to live in exile.
He yearned to be vindicated, “Ye gods and genii who watch over the deeds of men, I ask you to become the judges of the measures I have taken with respect to the fatherland and of all my past life. Then, if you find me guilty of the charges on which the people have condemned me, that you will put a bad and shameful end to my life; but if in all the duties with which I have been entrusted by the fatherland both in peace and in war you find me to have been pious and just and free from any shameful suspicion, that you will become my avengers.” After kissing his family goodbye, Camillus marched out of Rome to live in the nearby city of Ardea.
The Gauls were significant enemies of Rome. (Massimo Todaro /Adobe Stock)
Shortly after the Romans turned against Camillus and he left his homeland, disaster struck. Around 390 BC, a massive barbarian horde of Gauls—from a particular tribe known as the Senones—attacked Rome, routed its legionaries who fled for the safety of the ruined city of Veii, and managed to sack Rome—save for its Capitoline Hill. The Gauls then settled into Rome intent on capturing the Romans who took refuge on the Capitoline. Facing obliteration, the Romans looked to the only man whom they felt could save them—Camillus.
The Romans begged for his assistance. Despite living in exile and being ostracized by his countrymen, his sense of duty and patriotism convinced him that he must come to their aid. Without exhibiting any resentment, Camillus took command of Rome’s troops at Veii and their allies, and together, they pushed the Gauls out of Rome and massacred them in a battle beyond the city. Rome was once again safe, and it was due to Camillus’ faithful leadership.
The Divine Intervention: The Senate's Sign from the Gods
According to ancient accounts, the Gauls had razed much of Rome and left it in ruins—although archaeological evidence doesn’t support these assertions—and many Romans pondered abandoning Rome for good. They recoiled at the thought of reconstructing their city and believed that they ought to relocate wholesale to Veii, which was allegedly in better shape than Rome. Camillus and the Senate steadfastly opposed this and believed that the migration would offend the gods and set a terrible precedent.
Camillus led the campaign against the proposal, and in time, the Senate retreated to discuss how to respond to the pleas to move to Veii. While the Senate was convened, the members heard a centurion bark orders at one of his subordinates in the Comitium. He yelled, “Halt, standard-bearer! Plant the standard; it will be best for us to stop here.” To the senators, this was a clear sign from the gods that they ought to remain in Rome, and they relayed the message to their fellow citizens who were subsequently pleased to rebuild their city. While the Romans gave the gods credit for this turn of events, Camillus was instrumental, and the success should, in large part, be attributed to him.
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Camillus' Enduring Legacy: The Second Founder of Rome and the Ideal Roman
Camillus spent the following years observing Rome’s reconstruction and fighting its foreign foes, but by around 382 BC, he felt that his body was too old and sick to adequately hold public office and lead troops into battle. Even so, the Romans elected him against his will to the consular tribuneship of 381 BC with plans to make him commander in an upcoming war. Unlike many others who would have eagerly accepted this position of power, Camillus declined it after learning of his election. However, the Romans refused to take no for an answer. Seeing that his people needed him, the aging Camillus acquiesced, accepted the position and led Rome’s legions victoriously again, although all wasn’t well in the Roman Republic.
Writers may have exaggerated his accomplishments, however Marcus Furius Camillus clearly played a dominant role in Rome’s recovery in the decades after the Gallic sack of the city. (Public Domain)
Political turmoil pervaded Rome before and during this period. The plebeians complained that they were burdened by the heavy yoke of debt and had little political influence. Meanwhile, the patricians sought to hold onto their power and wealth. Each class saw the other as an impediment to their goals. This caused the conflict of the orders, and it became a dominant theme from around 375-367 BC—even leading to a supposed period of anarchy. The two classes were on the verge of violence, and the plebs even seemed amenable to a secessio plebis—essentially a general strike in which they would abandon Rome. Facing this prospect, Camillus rose to the occasion and helped orchestrate a grand compromise between the plebs and patricians, which ultimately created peace and held Rome together for years to come.
After living a long life dedicated to his fellow Romans, in 365 BC at around the age of 81 or 82 years old, Camillus died from a plague that had gripped Rome. Of all the deaths caused by it, none was lamented more than Camillus’ passing. The Romans had lost their loyal champion, and they went into mourning.
While modern historians debate how much of Camillus’ legend is factual, the ancient Romans remembered Camillus for his selfless dedication to the state, unyielding integrity and critical contributions to Rome. The ancient annalist Livy even wrote, “[Camillus] lived fully up to his reputation, and was counted worthy to be named next to Romulus, as the second founder of the City.” To the Romans, there was no other person like Camillus, and as the later Romans dealt with mad emperors and moral decline, they had Camillus’ example to serve as the epitome of what it meant to be a good Roman.
The author Marc Hyden has just released his latest book Marcus Furius Camillus: The Life of Rome’s Second Founder (Pen & Sword, 2023), available from Amazon.
Top image: This group of figures depict an early Roman victory. Marcus Furius Camillus, sometimes called the second founder of Rome, is shown in his victory over Brennus, King of the Gauls. Source: Slices of Light/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at a Washington DC-based think tank, a weekly newspaper columnist, and a Roman historian. He graduated from Georgia State University with a degree in philosophy. He has had a long-standing fascination with ancient Rome and has written extensively on various aspects of its history. He is the author of Gaius Marius: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Saviour (Pen & Sword, 2017), Romulus: The Legend of Rome’s Founding Father (Pen & Sword, 2020), and his latest release, Marcus Furius Camillus: The Life of Rome’s Second Founder (Pen & Sword, 2023).