The Most Odious Of All Treacheries

There is an instructive historical anecdote that appears in the writings of both Frontinus (Stratagems IV.4) and Valerius Maximus (VI.5).  It describes an incident that took place in 394 B.C. during the consulship of Camillus. 

Camillus was laying siege to the Etrusan city of Falerii, which was located about 31 miles northeast of Rome; it is now known as Fabrica di Roma.  Camillus’s army was encamped outside the walls of the city, and the siege had gone on longer than expected.  Then a strange and fateful incident occurred.  One day, a schoolteacher led a group of pupils outside the city walls to the Roman camp.  The students represented, of course, the future of the city.  The teacher’s belief was that, if he offered up his students as hostages to the Romans, the city’s leadership would be more likely to capitulate to the Romans.  He was, in effect, exploiting the youth to satisfy his own selfish, cowardly desire to see the fighting end. And he was willing to betray his people’s future–their children–to achieve this despicable end.  

The teacher approached Camillus and explained his mission.  But rather than be greeted with open arms, Camillus treated the man with utter contempt.  He ordered his attendants to bind the teacher’s hands behind his back; he then gave the students wooden switches.  Camillus told the students to return to their parents.  He told them to drive the teacher back to the city and beat him with the switches along the way.  This they did.  When the inhabitants of Falerii heard this news, they were overcome with gratitude, knowing that they were dealing with a just and civilized man.  They surrendered the city to the consul, and opened the gates to his forces.  “Through kindness he won a victory that he did not wish to gain by fraud (Adeptus beneficio victoriam, quam fraude non concupierat),” says Frontinus. 

It is easy to see this tale as an example of just retribution for perfidy.  But I think there is another dimension to it.  What disgusted Camillus was not just the schoolteacher’s treachery, but his willingness to use children as his instrument of vice.  Treason is bad enough; but to exploit those who are helpless, innocent, or unsophisticated:  this is truly despicable, and deserving of the severest punishment.  It demonstrates a heightened level of malice.  Just as the children of Falerii were exploited to advance the moral corruption of the schoolteacher, we see children today exploited to advance the political and social agendas of people equally corrupt.  The exploitation of children is the most odious of treacheries, and Camillus knew this.  This was why he acted as he did to the schoolteacher.  To place the light of innocence in the service of the corrupt agendas of adults:  this defies belief.  It is as Dante says,

If thou art, Reader, slow now to believe

What I shall say, it will no marvel be,

For I who saw it hardly can admit it.

[Inferno XXV]



Read more on this topic, and other related subjects, in the new translation of Sallust’s Conspiracy of Catiline and War of Jugurtha: