David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Parshat Matot – The dictator

The biblical generals appreciated their support from the home front, and rewarded all participants accordingly; the Roman generals should have taken a page from their book (Matot)
Francesco Salviati, 'Triumph of  Furius Camillus,' Fresco on the east wall of the Sala dell'Udienza, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Francesco Salviati, 'Triumph of Furius Camillus,' Fresco on the east wall of the Sala dell'Udienza, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Nowadays, the term “dictator” usually means someone (actually, a man — there have never been any female dictators) who rules undemocratically, usually until death. Almost always, a dictator is supported by the army and often rules ruthlessly and with great cruelty.

However, originally a dictator was a Roman magistrate who was appointed to lead the army in a military emergency. Upon achieving victory, he would go back to his normal life.

Normally, being a Roman dictator was a once in a lifetime opportunity. But Marcus Furius Camillus served five times and was so important to the city’s development that he was honored with the title of Second Founder of Rome (the mythical founders Romulus and Remus were the first founders).

Camillus lived from 446 – 365 BCE, at the very end of Roman prehistory. His father, Lucius Furius Medallinus was a patrician. Camillus was one of at least four sons, and his name implies that he was designated to be a priest. But instead, he became a soldier.

Map showing Rome and Veii in 450 BC. (CC BY-SA, ColdEel & Ahenobarbus/ Wikimedia Commons)

Camillus’s first, and greatest victory was in 396 BCE when he conquered the Etruscan city of Veii. The city was only 16 kilometers (10 miles) north of Rome, on the other side of the Tiber River, and was the richest city of the Etruscan League. Rome had long wanted to conquer the city, and the two city-states had been at war on and off for over 300 years. In 406 BCE, Rome declared war against Veii and began a siege. However, Veii was well fortified and the siege continued for many years. By 401 BCE, the war was becoming increasingly unpopular, so Camillus was appointed consular tribune.

Falerii and Capena, two allies of Veii, were quickly captured by Camillus. But by 396 BCE, after 10 years of war against Veii and a series of defeats, Rome named Camillus dictator.

Camillus ordered his men to tunnel into the soft ground beneath the city walls. When the tunnels were completed his men entered the sewer system (sewers were an idea the Etruscans had taken from the Greeks). While some Roman troops launched a frontal assault on the gates of the city, others emerged from the Temple of Juno in the center of the city, made straight for the main gate and threw it open to advancing Romans. Camillus then slaughtered all the men in the city, sold the women and children as slaves and brought the statue of Juno from Veii to Rome.

Upon his return to Rome, Camillus paraded through the city in a horse-drawn chariot. The celebrations lasted four days, but the dictator overstepped his bounds.

According to Plutarch (Lives: Life of Camillus):

Camillus… assumed more to himself than became a civil and legal magistrate; among other things, in the pride and haughtiness of his triumph, driving through Rome in a chariot drawn with four white horses, which no general either before or since ever did; for the Romans consider such a mode of conveyance to be sacred, and especially set apart to the king and father of the gods. This alienated the hearts of his fellow-citizens, who were not accustomed to such pomp and display.

However, his failure to fulfil his vow caused greater problems for Camillus.

Before the battle, the dictator had vowed that if he was victorious he would send ten percent of the plunder to Delphi as a tribute to the Greek and Roman god Apollo. However, instead of giving the tithe, Camillus divided the spoils amongst the soldiers, taking a large share for himself.

The soothsayers announced that the gods were displeased by Camillus’s failure to pay his pledged tithe, and the Senate eventually forced the citizens to return their share of the tithe. Understandably Camillus was not very popular after this.

Piety and Generosity of Roman Women by Nicolas-Guy Brenet French 1785, depicting Camillus accepting the wealth of Roman women to fulfill his vow of a tenth of the treasure captured in the defeat of Veii. (CC BY-SA, Mary Harrsch/ Wikimedia Commons)

As military leader, Camillus increased Roman territory by 70 percent, and made the city the most powerful nation of the central peninsula.

However, the people were frustrated that they had not gained as much plunder as they had expected and disagreed with Camillus’s policies. So he was impeached on charges that he had appropriated Etruscan spoils, and sent into exile.

However, in July 390 BCE, the Gauls marched on Rome. The Roman army was defeated and retreated to Veii.

Camillus heard what was going on, organized a group of local soldiers, snuck up on the drunk and distracted celebrating Gauls in Ardea, and defeated them easily in a night raid. On hearing of this, the Senators appointed Camillus dictator for a second time, and he gathered an army of some 12,000 men and took Rome back from the Gauls.

Marcus Furius Camillus from Guillaume Rouillé’s ‘Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum.’ (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

While the Romans were rebuilding their city after the damage caused by the Gauls, the Volsci and Aequi invaded Roman territory, and joined up with the Etruscans and came to besiege Rome. In 389 BCE, Camillus was once again appointed dictator and defeated the invaders. He managed to regain almost all of the lost territory and returned triumphant to Rome.

By 368 BCE, Camillus was almost 80, in poor health and had wanted to retire for decades, but he was once again appointed dictator, mainly to calm down the plebeians who were angry because of a severe economic slump. The people demanded a representative on the ruling council of Rome. Camillus tried to defuse the situation, but eventually, the protestors forced him to hide out in his house, pretend to be sick, and finally renounce his dictatorship.

A year later, the Gauls were once more marching on Rome. The city again turned to Camillus, appointing him dictator to defend the city. He once again drove back the foreign enemy and once again celebrated triumphantly in Rome.

However, just over a year later, in 365 BCE, a plague struck Rome, striking down many of its leaders including Camillus.

The first part of this week’s’ double Torah portion of Matot-Massei, deals, in part, with the themes of vows and of military conquest.

Numbers 30 teaches the importance of fulfilling a vow and the ways in which a vow can be nullified. In the following chapter, the Israelites were commanded to attack the Midianites, in revenge for that tribe’s attempt to destroy the fledgling nation (Numbers 31:1-2):

God spoke to Moses saying: Take revenge for the Children of Israel upon the Midianites, afterwards you shall be gathered to your people.

The Israelites sent 12,000 men against the Midianites, led by Pinchas, son of the newly appointed high priest, Moses’s nephew Elazar. The soldiers totally defeated Midian and returned to camp with the spoils.

Moses and Elazar came out to meet the victorious troops and instructed them on how to divide the spoils. Half would be distributed among the soldiers, and the other half among those who had stayed behind to defend the camp. But a fiftieth of the spoils were to be dedicated to God. The fiftieth of the soldiers’ spoils was to be offered by Elazar as sacrifices, while the fiftieth from those who remained in the camp was to be given to the priests and used in the Tabernacle.

Unlike Camillus who reneged on his vow to dedicate a share of the spoils of Veii to the Delphi, the Israelites fulfilled their vow. Huge amounts of gold and jewels were brought to the Tabernacle.

But this was not the first time in Jewish history that the spoils of a military victory had been divided between the soldiers and those who remained in camp, nor was it the first time a share was given to the priests.

Many hundreds of years earlier, Abraham (who was still named Abram) miraculously defeated the four kings who had taken his nephew Lot captive.

After the battle, Abram came to Malchizedek, King of Salem who was “a priest to the Most High God,” (Genesis 14:18). Malchizedek blessed Abram, and the patriarch, “Gave him a tithe from everything,” (Genesis 14:20).

Following his visit to the priest, Abram divided up the spoils (Genesis 14:24). Though he himself refused to take anything, he insisted that:

Only… the share of the men who went with me, [and the share of] Aner, Eshkol and Mamre.

The soldiers who fought shared the wealth of battle with Abram’s three allies who had protected his camp while he went out to fight.

Centuries later, King David followed the example. I Samuel 30 describes how the eternal enemy of Amalek attacked the city of Ziglag, destroyed the city and took the women as captives. Among the captives were two of David’s wives.

David, along with 600 soldiers set off after Amalek. When they came to the Besor River, 200 remained behind, while 400 continued on with David. Upon their victorious return, David shared the spoils between the two groups (I Samuel 30:24):

The portion of those who went down to battle shall be like the portion of those who remained with the supplies, they shall divide it together.

David recognized the importance of those who remained to guard the supply chain and protect the camp. He enacted a rule that, “From that day and onwards it was a rule and a law in Israel, until the present day,” (I Samuel 30:25).

Camillus failed to fulfill his vow to bring a share of the spoils to the Delphi. As a result, he was banished from Rome. In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelite soldiers continued a long tradition of sharing the spoils of battle not only with those who remained to defend the camp but did not fight on the front lines, but also gave a share to the priests and the Tabernacle.

This perhaps teaches us and reminds us that any victory or success is never truly ours alone. Anything we achieve was only possible because of all those who supported us in our endeavors, and with blessing from above.

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About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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