What happens to the Romans in the absence of their greatest man, Camillus? Crushing losses, near-obliteration. Not to honor what is best and highest—in fact, to insult it, to belittle it, to attribute base motives to it: What can follow except an arrogant forgetfulness that preludes disaster?…
Titus Livius (or Livy), the Roman historian whose work our sophomores at Wyoming Catholic College are reading in Humanities 201, writes about an episode when the city temporarily forgot itself and its principles, roughly halfway between Rome’s legendary founding in 753 B.C. and Livy’s own day. In fact, it came very close to disappearing from history. Why? Because of its mistreatment of the one man who most embodied what Rome was.
Most of us remember a few figures from the time of Cicero and Caesar, or a few emblematic events, such as Horatius at the bridge holding off the forces of Lars Porsena. But without Camillus, Rome itself might have disappeared. As a citizen, he combined extraordinary military acumen with great piety and prudence. Piety was especially important to him—and it is recognizably a form of piety that still imbues the “Roman-ness” of the Roman Catholic Church. Shortly after he was put in charge of the war against Veii (a nearby Etruscan city), Camillus made the proper sacrifices, invoked the gods, and took the auspices in ways strictly true to Roman tradition. With characteristic decisiveness and intelligence, he ended the dispiriting ten-year siege with a great Roman victory.
And yet, after the first flush of enthusiasm, the common people of Rome thought they were better off without him; they wanted booty and he put the good of Rome above their immediate needs. The people resented the way that he distributed the massive spoils of Veii (keeping a promise he had made to Apollo) and the fact that he did not support a mass exodus of Roman citizens into the now-vacated city of their enemies. Despite everything he had done for them (and there was much more), they contrived a criminal charge of misappropriation against him, and Camillus went into exile rather than endure it. As he left the city, Camillus prayed that if he were innocent and wrongfully accused, the gods might “speedily cause his ungrateful country bitterly to regret that he had gone.”
The unexpected invasion of the Gauls in 390 B.C. appears to be the answer the gods give him. In the battle on the river Allia—their first encounter—the Romans (now without their greatest general) meet the fierce barbarians unprepared: “The Roman commanders had taken no precautions—no regular defensive position had been chosen, no fortifications prepared to give shelter in case of need; without sign from the flight of birds or the entrails of beasts (the very gods, to say nothing of man, forgotten)—they drew up their line on as broad a front as they could, hoping not to be outflanked by the enemy’s superior numbers; but the hope was vain.”
Not only do the Romans suffer a humiliating defeat, but the surviving soldiers who make it back to Rome leave the city gates wide open for the puzzled Gauls to enter—which of course they do; they loot and pillage and burn Roman houses and temples unopposed, while the remaining Romans hold out on the Capitol. Only after great suffering does the city drive out the Gauls, restore its temples, and regain its character—and only then because of the return of Camillus. Livy makes his central importance unmistakably clear in Book V of his History; in his Camillus, Plutarch hints that the man is almost a mortal Jupiter.
What happens to the Romans in the absence of their greatest man also happens to the Achaians in the absence of Achilles in the Iliad: crushing losses, near-obliteration. It happens in ancient Israel, too, of course, when the Israelites forget God and begin to accommodate themselves to the cultures around them: defeat, exile, humiliation. Not to honor what is best and highest—in fact, to insult it, to belittle it, to attribute base motives to it: What can follow except a decentered and arrogant forgetfulness that preludes disaster?
Some students always dislike Achilles; some also dislike Camillus. Their sentiments are unquestionably informed by a democratic sense of equality as well as by a Christian appreciation for humility. They do not like conscious assertions of importance—but just that assertion of importance constitutes the education we give them. Should God not assert that He is God? What is true is true: It is not simply a matter of “my truth” versus “your truth.” The same holds for what is best and what is most beautiful. There are degrees, of course, but that very fact means that something is highest.
Take away hierarchy, as Ulysses says in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, “and hark what discord follows.” Recently, the statue of Robert E. Lee—a figure worthy to stand by Camillus, but imbued with deep Christian humility—was lifted by crane away from a Dallas park. Meanwhile, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government very nearly made Chelsea Manning a Visiting Fellow. It’s all about opening those gates.
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