Third Samnite War – Battle of Sentinum 295 BC I

JD19 Sentinum (295 BC)

The essedarius (from the Latin word for a Celtic war-chariot, essedum).

With regard to other possible sources of information on a military role for chariots in Italy, texts written by later Roman and Greek authors frequently refer to warfare in Italy at the time of the (Etruscan) kings and the Republic of Rome, but usually do not mention vehicles as being involved.  Clearly, not only the Romans of that time but also other Italic peoples relied on infantry and, to varying degrees, on mounted troops. When wheeled vehicles are mentioned – in the battles at Sentinum in Umbria (in 295), Telamon in Toscana (in 225) and Clastidium in Emilia Romagna (in 222) – they belong to invaders: Gauls, i. e. Celtic tribes. Unfortunately, the texts yield no information on what these vehicles looked like or on their numbers. As to the way in which the vehicles were employed, Livy, in his account of the battle at Sentinum, refers to a sudden attack by Gauls with two types of vehicles (the terms used are essedum and carrus) on the mounted troops on the Roman left wing. Tough Livy’s account provides no details of their tactics, the headlong attack clearly took the Romans by surprise, quite probably because of their unfamiliarity with military vehicles. At Telamon in 225 BC, the chariots were on the flanks of the infantry and the cavalry used in a single independent mass, supported by the light troops. This would support the view that chariots were rarely put to active use in battle in Italy.

The Romans first came face to face with a modern Hellenistic army in 280 BC when Pyrrhus came to the aid of the Greek city of Tarentum in Southern Italy in its conflict with Rome. After two major defeats, the Romans were finally able to defeat the King of Epirus in 275 at Malventum, but the stubborn resilience of Roman legionaries had more to do with this success than any inspired generalship. In many respects the Roman style of command belonged to an older, simpler era, with far less expectation of prolonged manoeuvring prior to a pitched battle as each side searched for as many little advantages as possible. Yet once the fighting started, the behaviour of the Roman general differed markedly from his Hellenistic counterpart. A magistrate rather than a king, the Roman had no fixed place on the battlefield, no royal bodyguard at whose head he was expected to charge. The consul stationed himself wherever he thought the most important fighting would occur and during the battle moved along behind the fighting line, encouraging and directing the troops. Hellenistic armies rarely made much use of reserves, but the basic formation of the Roman legion kept half to two-thirds of its men back from the front line at the start of the battle. It was the general’s task to feed in these fresh troops as the situation required.

Rome had certainly not abandoned all heroic traditions and at times generals did engage in combat. Many aristocrats boasted of the number of times they had fought and won single combats, although by the third century BC at the latest they had most likely done this while serving in a junior capacity. At Sentinum in 295 BC one of the two consuls with the army – an exceptionally large force to face a confederation of Samnite, Etruscan and Gallic enemies – performed an archaic ritual when he ‘devoted’ himself as a sacrifice to the Earth and the gods of the Underworld to save the army of the Roman People. Once he had completed the rites this man, Publius Decius Mus, spurred his horse forward into a lone charge against the Gauls and was swiftly killed. Livy claims that he had formally handed over his command to a subordinate before this ritual suicide (a gesture which was something of a family tradition, for his father had acted in the same way in 340 BC). Sentinum ended in a hard fought and costly Roman victory.

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In the Third Samnite War (298–290 BC), Rome faced an alliance of Etruscans, Umbrians, Samnites and Gauls; and the war would culminate in one of the most decisive battles in Italian history: a battle, in effect, to decide whether or not the whole of Italy would become Roman.

Such was its geographical extent, the enemy coalition had the Roman line across Italy stretched thin, and in 296 BC the main Samnite army broke through, moved north, and linked up with the Etruscans, Umbrians and Gauls. The following year, they repeated this feat, and this time turned on the pursuing Roman army and crushed it at the Battle of Camerinum. The Roman state was plunged into crisis. The constitution was suspended as special commands were created and incumbent officeholders continued beyond their normal terms. Older men and ex-slaves were mobilized to fill the ranks of new legions, and another two consular armies, 35,000 men in total, were sent into the field before the end of the summer of 295 BC. Even so, as the Romans approached the coalition army encamped at Sentinum on the border between Umbria and Picenum, they were heavily outnumbered. To improve the odds, a detached Roman force invaded Etruria, hoping that the threat of devastation would draw off the Etruscan and Umbrian forces; which it did. Despite this, when the Romans offered battle, the remaining Samnites and Gauls accepted the challenge (an almost essential precondition of combat in ancient warfare, since an army which chose to remain in its fortified camp, often defensively sited, could be attacked only at grave disadvantage).

The Samnites were deployed on the coalition’s right flank, facing the consular army of Quintus Fabius, the Gauls on the left, facing the consul Publius Decius. Roman military doctrine was essentially offensive, though it counselled caution in preparing for this and choosing an opportune moment. On this day, the older consul Fabius represented caution, his younger colleague Decius the spirit of the offensive. Fabius was determined to hold back on the left, confident that the enthusiasm of the barbarian warriors opposite would erode more quickly in a long wait than that of the stolid citizen-peasants of Latium. But Decius was determined to attack on the right as soon as the battle opened.

The Roman army that fought at Sentinum was very different from the hoplite phalanx of the 5th century BC. A century of wars against lightly equipped enemies who fought in more open, fast-moving formations, wars often fought in difficult terrain favourable to the guerrilla and the skirmisher, had transformed Roman equipment, organization and tactics. The Second Samnite War may have completed the transition. The dense blocks of men with spears and overlapping shields who had formed the phalanx had become looser formations of men armed mainly with javelin (pilum) and a lighter oval or rectangular shield (scutum). Large units – the legion (legio) of approximately 4,200 men – were divided into small subunits of 120 called ‘maniples’ (manipuli means ‘handfuls’), and these were deployed in an open chequerboard formation and trained to manoeuvre independently. The new legions were designed for mobile, offensive warfare. Unlike the relatively slow, cumbersome and defensive phalanx, they were expected to deploy, advance, wheel and, if necessary, alter front rapidly; and when the time came to close, they would hurl javelins to disorganize the enemy ranks, and then charge in with sword and shield.

Even so, Sentinum was hard-fought. Decius’ attack on the right was soon bogged down in a head-on clash with the Gallic line, and when he unleashed his cavalry on the far right in an effort to turn the enemy flank, they were met by the Gallic cavalry and, once embroiled, counter-charged and routed by the Gallic chariot force. The panic quickly began to infect the legionaries, and, as it did so and their line faltered, the Gallic infantry pushed forwards. Decius, unable to shore up the collapsing Roman right, was soon lost to a bizarre religious frenzy. Calling on Mother Earth and the Gods of the Underworld to accept the legions of the enemy along with himself as a sacrifice, he galloped his horse into the Gallic line and perished. Fabius offered more practical help. Detaching units from the rear line of his legions on the left, he was able to stem the rout and launch a counter-attack on the right – a complex sequence of manoeuvres made possible only by the greater flexibility of the new legions. The Gallic advance was halted, and, as the Romans reformed and renewed their attack, the Gallic warriors formed a defensive shield-wall. Meantime, probing on the left, Fabius found the spirit of the Samnites in front of him flagging – as anticipated. Launching his infantry frontally and his cavalry on the left flank, he broke the Samnite line after brief resistance, leaving the Gallic shield-wall isolated on the battlefield. Mentally and physically exhausted by hours of fighting and now surrounded, the Gallic units disintegrated and fled. The carnage of battle and pursuit claimed, it is said, 25,000 Samnites and Gauls, with another 8,000 taken prisoner; but Roman losses, at 9,000, were also heavy, especially in the wake of yet heavier losses at Camerinum earlier that year. Nonetheless, Sentinum had secured Roman hegemony in Italy.

Events between 293 and 264 BC are obscure, since the relevant parts of Livy’s History of Rome, our principal source, are lost. But if we do not know a precise chronology, the overall thrust and outcome are clear. Sentinum left the anti-Roman coalition broken backed, and relentless year-on-year Roman offensives thereafter precluded any possibility of its restoration. Samnium, Etruria, Umbria, and the land of the Gallic Senones were conquered and made subject to Rome, mainly as ‘allies’ bound by treaty, though some land was annexed to the Roman state or settled with Latin colonists. Victory at Sentinum made the Roman Republic the only Italian superpower, and within a generation it had absorbed most of the minor states. Some still clung to independence – such as the Greek cities of the far south, foremost among which was Tarentum. Others, unwilling allies of Rome, still aspired to break free – the democrats ruled by pro-Roman oligarchs in the cities of Campania, and many among the Oscan-speaking peoples of the central and southern Apennines. But, too weak to take on Rome alone, rebels against the Pax Romana were forced to look abroad for a more powerful ally. The Greeks, at least, soon found one – a latter-day Alexander, a military adventurer and would-be champion of Greek ‘freedom’: King Pyrrhus of Epirus.

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In 296 BC Appius’ legions bore the numerals I and IV, but when Rullianus assumed command they were renumbered. At Sentinum, Rullianus’ legions had the numerals I and III but we cannot be certain that both were the regiments originally enrolled by Appius, as one may be the legion with extra cavalry that Rullianus recruited from volunteers in Rome. Scipio Barbatus’ imperium allowed him to assume command of one of Rullianus’ three legions and take it over the Apennines to defend Camerinum, Rome’s key Umbrian ally. This legion had the numeral II.

The circumstances that took Barbatus and the Second Legion to Camerinum are uncertain. Egnatius certainly moved his army into Umbria, maybe with the intention of forcing Camerinum to join him, or simply to let his plunder-hungry troops sack it, but Barbatus got there before him. A possible scenario is that the consuls received intelligence of Egnatius’ intention, but for some reason their armies were unable to march, so Rullianus made Barbatus propraetor and invested him with imperium. Barbatus then made a rapid march over the Apennines with legio II and established a camp in the vicinity of Camerinum. The consuls followed up when they able to do so.

The propraetor was probably the first of his branch of the Cornelii clan to bear the famous cognomen Scipio. It is conceivable that he took the name when elected consul; a scipio was a staff that signified magisterial rank. His other cognomen tells us that he was bearded (barbatus). The elogium inscribed on his sarcophagus declares that the bearded propraetor was as handsome as he was brave, but caution was the better part of valour when Egnatius’ host loomed into sight. We do not know if Barbatus’ small army included allies, but it was clearly no match for the great forces arrayed against it. Fearing his camp would be overrun, Barbatus abandoned the position and made for a hill sited between it and Camerinum. The hill would be easier to defend, but the wily Egnatius anticipated the Roman general and had already sent troops to occupy the summit of the hill. Barbatus failed to send scouts (exploratores) ahead to reconnoitre the position. His troops ascended the hill and found themselves face-to-face with Samnite and Gallic warriors. The rest of the confederate army swarmed up behind the Romans. Barbatus, the Second Legion, and any allied cohorts he had, were trapped.

Meanwhile, Rullianus and Mus were following up with their consular forces. As they neared Camerinum, Gallic horsemen rode up to taunt and harass the Roman marching column. The Senonian troopers had freshly severed heads impaled on their spears or hanging from their horses’ tack. It is uncertain how long Barbatus and his small army were trapped on the hill, but when the consuls appeared the legion was almost destroyed and the propraetor was surely anticipating death or ignominious capture. Luckily for Barbatus, Egnatius withdrew his troops before they were in turn trapped by the new Roman army. The Samnite general then marched to Sentinum, some 50 miles to the north and made ready to give battle. The Four Nations were again divided between two camps, the Samnites and Senones in one, and the Etruscans and Umbrans in the other. Egnatius planned to engage one consular army with his Samnites, and the Senones would fight the second. While the Romans were fully occupied, the Etruscans and Umbrians would emerge from their entrenchments, skirt around the embattled armies and capture the lightly defended Roman camp located 4 miles away, thus leaving the legions and allied cohorts with nowhere safe to retreat to and vulnerable to attack from the rear. Egnatius may have hoped that this would be enough to cause the Roman army to surrender or flee. Livy informs us that deserters from Egnatius’ army brought news of this plan to Rullianus and the consul therefore sent orders to Megellus and Centumalus to leave their positions above Rome and invade the territory of Clusium in Etruria. This diversionary attack has the effect of persuading the Etruscans to hurry back home. They do not feature in Livy’s account of the Battle of Sentinum (the principle account), nor do the Umbrians, some of whom may have opted to aid the Etruscans (more natural allies than Samnites or predatory Gauls), while other Umbrian contingents, seeing the coalition weakened, chose to depart to their home towns.

 

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