M. Furius Camillus (1)

Marcus Furius Camillus (c.435-365 VC): Roman general and statesman, captured Veii, annexed Tusculum and put an end to the conflict of the orders. He was called the "second founder" of Rome.

Preliminary remarks

Map of Latium in the age of the early republic
Map of Latium in the age of the early republic

Every discussion of the career of Marcus Furius Camillus must start with several introductory remarks. To start with, it should be noted that in his age, the usual republican magistracy of consul was not common. We are discussing the early Roman republic, which is different from the better known late republic. As we will see below, the Romans were deeply divided and the consulship was a contested office.

A second remark concerns chronology. We cannot convert the Roman chronology of this period to our era. Therefore, all years mentioned in this article (with one exception) are given according to the Varronian chronology, which is out of step with our chronology with about three years. E.g., the capture of Veii, usually dated in 396 V, almost certainly has to be dated in 393 BCE.

Another question is: can we trust our main source, the Roman historian Livy, and other sources? The answer used to be "no". Following the great historian Julius Beloch (1864-1929), many twentieth-century scholars have taken a skeptical view on the possibility to know anything about Roman history before, say, 300 BCE. However, since the 1970s, archaeology has provided us with a wealth of new information, which has given some support to the story of Livy. In the present article, the backbone of his account is accepted: names of the magistrates, places of the battles, and the like.

Another point is the social world of Marcus Furius Camillus. He belonged to an ancient Roman family that was reckoned among the patricians, the aristocracy of Rome. Until the end of the sixth century, the Roman kings had ennobled wealthy people, who had received certain minor privileges. When Lucius Junius Brutus and Publius Valerius Publicola had expelled the kings and established the republic (in the last decade of the sixth century), the patrician families started to monopolize the office of consul, the supreme magistracy in Rome.

This was no longer a minor privilege, but essentially a coup d'├ętat that caused resentment. After all, there were nouveaux riches who were excluded from the supreme offices. As a concession, the consulship was more or less abolished after 444. Instead, army officers, the tribunes, received consular powers. As long as one tribune was patrician and the rituals could be performed, there was no obstacle against nouveaux riches sharing the supreme magistracy. Colleges of three, four, or six tribunes with consular powers were to rule Rome for about seventy years. (Although there were several years with consuls.)

Finally, it needs to be stressed that Rome was more or less of besieged. After the expulsion of the kings, the Latin towns near Rome had revolted -Tusculum was their leader- and when this rebellion had been suppressed, the mountain tribes of the central Apennines came down to the coastal plain, looking for better pastures. The Aequi and Volsci easily conquered the towns in east and south Latium. At the same time, war broke out between Rome and the south-Etrurian town Veii. War was a yearly event, and the Romans were as often defeated as they were victorious.

The Gens Furia

The origins of the Furii are unknown. We may ignore a Spurius Fusius who is mentioned during the reign of the legendary king Tullus Hostilius as a treaty-maker. The story (Livy 1.24) probably has its origins in the second century BCE and is suspect. In 495 V the territory of Rome was divided in seventeen districts (the tribus rusticae), which received the names of patrician families (e.g., Cornelia, Horatia, Fabia). There is no tribus Furia, which suggests that the Furii were not very influential.

A possible explanation is their connection to Tusculum, a Latin town to the southeast of Rome, close to modern Frascati. A family tomb of the gens Furia has been discovered near Tusculum and as we will see below, Marcus Furius Camillus annexed this town without bloodshed - which suggests that he had some influence in Tusculum. Since Tusculum was at the head of the anti-Roman coalition at the beginning of the fifth century BCE, it is possible that the Romans suspected the Furii.

The first member of the Furius family to become 'visible' in our sources, is a man named Sextus Furius Fusus, one of the consuls of 488 V. He had to defend Rome against the Volscian general Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus, a very skilled commander who liberated many Latin towns from the Roman yoke. It is possible that Furius was elected because of his Tusculan connection: many towns in the southeast surrendered to Coriolanus, but not Tusculum.

Family tree of the Gens Furia (fifth and fourth centuries BCE)
Family tree of the Gens Furia (fifth and fourth centuries BCE)

From now on, Furii are mentioned as magistrates. They occupied the consulship in 481, 474, and 472. In 464, it was the turn of one Spurius Furius Medullinus. According to Livy, he was defeated by the Aequi but was able to prevent the capture of his camp, where he was relieved by the other consul. During the fighting, he was wounded and lost his brother. When in 453 one of the consuls died, the cripple war hero was again made consul.

The Furii were by now an important family. At this time, Spurius' cousin was pontifex maximus (high priest), and two other cousins were to occupy the supreme magistracy in 446 and 441. His son Lucius Furius Medullinus was tribune with consular powers in 432, 425 and 420. (Livy credits him with only two tribuneships but is probably mistaken.)

Lucius had at least three sons. The oldest had the same name as his father: Lucius Furius Medullinus. He had a brother Spurius. The third one, Marcus, received the surname Camillus, which was the title of a noble boy who served as the priest's assistant. The name suggests that Marcus Furius started his career as a camillus. Since he was born in 445, it is tempting to connect this with the fact that at that moment, his relative Quintus Furius Paculus was pontifex maximus.

Marcus' older brother Lucius had a dazzling career. He was consul in 413 and 409, and tribune with consular powers in 407, 405, 398, 397, 395, 394, and 391. When he was elected for the first time, he had to cope with great troubles: in the preceding year, a military tribune named Postumius had been stoned to death by his own soldiers. This was a symptom of the social conflict between the rich and the poor, to which we shall return below. Lucius Furius and his fellow consul were able to reconcile the people, although Livy also mentions some dissent. Later in the year, the consul fought against the Volsci.

This was a very successful consulship and it comes as no surprise that Lucius Furius was reelected (409). People knew that he was no hard-liner in the conflict between the patricians and the nouveaux riches and the struggle between the rich and the poor. During his second term in the supreme office, he accepted the demand of the nouveaux riches that the quaestorship (a financial magistracy) was to be opened to non-patricians.

This was an important moment in the history of Rome, because the social tensions between patricians and nouveaux riches were now less intense and an era of military expansion could be inaugurated. The introduction of soldier's pay in 406 was a similar measure, designed to appease the poor.

In 407, he was tribune with consular powers, and in 405 he occupied this office again. During the first of these years, the cease-fire with the Etruscan city of Veii ended; in 406, war started; and in 405, Lucius Furius was involved in the siege of the enemy town. Although the Veientes were divided, the war was to last for ten years. The capture of Veii in 396 was the first success of Lucius' younger brother Marcus.