Gateway to the Classics: Stories from the History of Rome by Emily Beesly
Stories from the History of Rome by  Emily Beesly

How the Romans Won Two Cities

T HERE was a town called Veii, which was on the border of Tuscany, some miles from Rome. The people of Veii, who were called Veientians, had often fought against the Romans; their town was as large and rich as Rome, and they boasted that their courage and skill in war were as great as those of the Romans. The quarrel between the two towns was so fierce, that it could plainly be seen that whichever people was conquered, would be destroyed by the other—so that there must either be no Romans, or else no Veientians left.

There were many battles fought, and on the whole the Romans got the best of the fighting. But the Veientians were many and brave; they built strong and high walls round their city, got together plenty of food and arms, and so waited without fear for the coming of their enemies.

The Romans heard how strongly Veii was defended; they knew how difficult it would be to take the town, and how many of their brave soldiers would be killed if they tried to do so. So they determined to blockade the city, that is, to encamp their army round the town, and watch it well, so that none of the Veientians could get out, and so that no one could bring them food or help. They hoped that when all the food was eaten, and the Veientians were tired of being shut up inside their walls, they would yield, and give up their town.

The Roman army marched to Veii, and while the summer lasted it was pleasant enough for the soldiers to live in their tents in the warm sunny air. But when the winter came, and the weather grew cold and stormy, the Roman leaders made their men build huts and little houses where they might all be sheltered.

Now, before this time, the Romans were used to make war only in the summer, and they were very angry at being kept away from their homes and wives and children for so long. They said that never, even in the old times when they were governed by the kings, had they been obliged to make war in the winter.

The people of Rome wished to order the army to come home; but Appius Claudius, one of the senators, made a speech to them and persuaded them not to do so.

"If you call your army back from Rome now," said he, "the Veientians will immediately come out of their city, and will attack us and plunder our cornfields and vineyards, and burn our cottages and our orchards; and then our work will all have to be done over again next year. For we must conquer the Veientians, or else they will destroy Rome."

In this way he persuaded the people to let the army stay on at Veii. But the siege went on year after year, and still the Veientians would not yield up the town, and still the Romans would not go to their homes, but watched and waited.

In the seventh year after the siege was begun a strange thing happened. There was a lake among the hills, some miles from Rome, called the Alban Lake. Most lakes have rivers running through them; but the Alban Lake had no stream either flowing into it at one end, or out it at the other. The water in the lake began in this year to rise higher, nobody knew why; and at last it rose so high that it overflowed, and the water ran down the hills across the country towards the sea. This curious thing was very much talked of in all the country round, and in the Roman camp, so that at last it was heard of by the besieged Veientians,—for the soldiers of the two armies would sometimes talk together, as often happens in long sieges.

A Roman soldier was one day talking to an old Veientian, who seemed to be very much pleased when he heard the strange story of the Alban Lake.

"For," said he, "we have an old saying or prophecy in our town, that the Romans will never take Veii if the water of the Alban Lake gets down to the sea."

The Roman was very much surprised to hear this; and he pretended he wanted to ask some other questions of the old Veientian, who was said by his townsmen to be a prophet who could tell beforehand what was going to happen. So it was agreed that they should meet one another between the town and the camp without their weapons. When the time came, they met as had been fixed; but then the strong young Roman threw his arms round the old man, and in spite of all his struggles carried him off to the camp and took him before the Roman general, who sent him to Rome. There he was taken before the Senate, the assembly of nobles who governed Rome, who asked him what was the meaning of his strange words.

"It is written in some of our old books at Veii," answered the man, "that if the Romans make a new channel for the waters of the Alban Lake when they overflow, they shall conquer Veii; but they are doing nothing."

The Senate then determined to send messengers to the temple of Apollo at Delphi, to ask the god what they must do. The messengers, when they returned, brought word that the water must not be allowed to flow away into the sea, but that the Romans must dig ditches and canals for it to run in, till it had all run away in watering the land. This was done, but still the siege of Veii went on.

In the tenth year of the siege, the Senate determined to change the generals, and they made Marcus Furius Camillus dictator. Camillus was well known to the Romans as being a brave and successful soldier, and the army were very glad to hear that he was to be their new leader. But before he joined the army at Veii, he got together a large body of fresh troops, and led them out to meet the people of Falerii, another town near Rome, who had attacked the Roman lands, hoping to do so safely while the Romans were busy fighting the Veientians. Camillus defeated the Falerians in a great battle, and drove them out of their camp, after which he led his army to Veii.

Soon after he got there, he ordered his soldiers to make a mine into the town. A mine is a passage underground, which the soldiers of a besieging army dig so deep that it goes quite under the walls, and comes up inside the town. Camillus made his soldiers work by turns, so that day and night there were always some of them digging at the mine, and there were fresh men to take their places as soon as they got tired, so that none of them need do too much. In this way the work was carried on quickly; and the Veientians knew nothing about it, and had no idea that the Romans were digging a passage under their walls.

When the mine was ready, Camillus, with part of his army, made an attack on the outside of the city, and the Veientians ran to defend their walls. Meantime the king and the priests were offering sacrifices to the gods in the temple of Juno.

Now it happened that the underground passage had been dug so far, that the end of it was just under the pavement of the temple of Juno, and the Romans in the passage could hear all that was going on in the temple, and they heard the priest say—

"The gods promise victory to whoever shall offer this animal to them."

Upon hearing this the Roman soldiers broke through the pavement, rushed up into the temple, and offered the sacrifice to the goddess, while the Veientians, astonished and frightened by their shouts and the clashing of their armour, fled away. Some of the Romans pursued them, and others ran to open the gates to Camillus and the rest of the army; soon the city was filled with the Romans, and there was fighting in every part of it. Camillus told his officers to forbid the soldiers to hurt the women and children; but he let them plunder the town.

Then Camillus resolved that he would take the statue of Juno, the protector of Veii, to Rome. He chose out a number of young men from the army, and bade them wash themselves and dress in white garments, and then he went with them to the temple, and sacrificed to the goddess.

"O Juno," said he, "we pray thee to accept our service, and to go with us and live among the gods of Rome."

It is said that the statue gently answered him, that she was willing and ready to go. So they carried her to Rome, and Camillus built a stately temple for her on Mount Aventine.

Not long after the taking of Veii, the Romans gave Camillus the command of an army, which he was to lead against his old enemies the Falerians. He soon entered their country, and so much did they fear him, remembering how he had before defeated them, that they shut themselves up in their town of Falerii, which was built among rocky hills, and defended with strong walls. But when they saw the Romans marching over their lands, burning their villages and wasting their fields, they could bear it no longer. They came out of the town and pitched their camp among the rough rocks not far from the gates. Camillus was glad to be able to fight them, and one night he marched his army to their camp, so that at break of day the Falerians saw their enemies close upon them. The Romans attacked them fiercely, and the Falerians fled out of their camp and ran as fast as they could to the shelter of their city; but many were killed and wounded before they could reach the gates.

Camillus resolved to besiege the town; but it was well defended and strong, and the Falerians had collected plenty of corn and food and arms, so that the siege might have lasted as long as the siege of Veii, if a strange thing had not happened.

The Falerians felt so sure that the Romans could not break through their strong walls, that everything went on in the town just as if there had been no army encamped before it. The people went about their business or amusement, and the children went to school as usual. There was one schoolmaster in Falerii who taught the sons of most of the nobles of the town, and he used in time of peace to take the boys for walks and games outside the walls. After the siege began he still took the boys as usual just outside the gates of the town, and the Roman soldiers never took any notice of this; so the schoolmaster made a wicked plan. Every day he led the boys a little further and a little further from the town, keeping them amused with talk or play, so that they should not see what he meant to do. At last one day he took them further than ever, and right among the Roman soldiers. He bade the soldiers take him to Camillus, and he and the children were led into the general's tent.

"See here, general," he said. "See these children. In giving them to you I am giving Falerii to you, for these are the sons of the greatest and noblest men of town, who will do whatever you please in order to save their sons out of your hands."

Camillus listened to the schoolmaster till he had done speaking, and then he said:

"Thou art come, thou base fellow, with thy hateful present to a people and a general who are very different from thyself. We have never been allies of the Falerians, but we do not forget that we are men as well as they are; and that it is right to be just as well as brave. We do not draw our swords against children, but against soldiers. Thou hast tried to conquer Falerii by such a wicked deed as was never seen before; I will conquer by the help of the good swords and brave hearts of my Romans. Here, lictors, strip off this villain's clothes, bind his hands behind his back; give your rods to the boys, and let them flog him back to the gates of Falerii."

In the meantime the people of Falerii had found out what had happened. The city was filled with cries of grief, and the fathers and mothers of the boys ran to the walls or gates not knowing what to do, and fearing that they had lost their dear children for ever. While they were in this state of grief, what was their surprise and joy to see their boys coming over from the Roman camp driving their wicked master before them. The Falerians were so much moved by the generous conduct of Camillus, that they resolved to give up their town and to make peace. They sent messengers to Camillus, who bade them go on to the Senate at Rome, to whom they gave this message.

"We men of Falerii give ourselves up to you, O Senators, because we see that the Romans love justice better than victory. We think that we shall be better governed by you than by our own laws; nor shall you ever repent of your generosity, nor we of being under your government."

Both friends and enemies thanked Camillus for what he had done, peace was made, and the army came back to Rome.

These great victories made Camillus very proud, and many men in Rome began to envy him, and to think that he was growing too great. And after many quarrels they persuaded the Senate to banish Camillus from Rome.

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