Appius Claudius was hard-pressed in Etruria. He sent increasingly gloomy dispatches to the Senate in Rome reporting that Egnatius continued to receive reinforcements, most notably from the Umbrians and the Gauls. The existing confederate camp was too small to contain the Four Nations, as Appius dubbed them, and a second had to be established. This news, coupled with the scare in northern Campania, prompted the Senate to enforce an emergency levy. This went far beyond the usual conscription of iuniores. Seniores and even freedmen (that is slaves who had bought their freedom or been released by their masters) were formed into cohorts, each of three maniples, to act as reserves and for the defence of the city. The decision was also taken to guard the Via Appia and approaches to Latium from future raids by the establishment of colonies at Minturnae, where the road crossed the mouth of the Liris, and at Sinuessa (founded in 295 BC). However, these were not large-scale Latin colonies, but small Roman citizen colonies. Despite the fact that a citizen colony required only 300 adult male settlers who would retain their superior Roman status, volunteers were in short supply:
The tribunes of the plebs were assigned the task of obtaining a plebiscite directing Publius Sempronius [Sophus] the praetor to appoint three commissioners (triumviri) to conduct the colonists to these places. Yet it was not easy to find men who would enrol, since they regarded themselves as sent, not to settle on the land, but to serve almost as a perpetual outpost in hostile territory.
Despite the gloomy mood in Rome, life went on as before. The aediles (junior magistrates) were busy prosecuting moneylenders and fining those who were exploiting public land for grazing (indicative of the scale of recent conquests). The curule aediles, the brothers Gnaeus and Quintus Ogulnius, used the possessions seized from the convicted to fund lavish adornments to the shrines on the Capitol. These included a bronze statue group of Jupiter being carried in a chariot drawn by four horses, but more notably they commissioned a statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf to be set up by the sacred fig tree (ficus Ruminalus) associated with Romulus on the Palatine. This demonstrates the belief in the well-known, but probably only fairly recently developed, foundation myth that Rome was established by Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the war god Mars. The tale has the essential elements of the Sacred Spring – Mars’ sacred wolf is elsewhere found as a pathfinder animal, for example of the Hirpini, and the Twins go on to form a war band and carve out a territory in Latium. The Romans were probably aware of the Samnites’ belief that they had been led out of the Sabine country by a bull sent by Mamers/Mars, but the Romans could better that boast by asserting they were in fact, through Romulus, the children of Mars and therefore divinely favoured.
The Battle of the Nations
The consuls elected for 295 BC were the old partners Fabius Rullianus and Decius Mus. Both consuls were to take their armies into Etruria and attempt to defeat Egnatius but, to Mus’ annoyance, overall responsibility for the command was assigned to the more experienced Rullianus and this made for friction. Volumnius Flamma’s imperium was prorogued for a full year and he would continue the war in Samnium. He retained the command of two legions. Appius Claudius, who was still in the field, was elected praetor and recalled to Rome to oversee the administration of the city in the absence of the consuls. He might also be called on to organize its defence.
The seriousness of the military situation facing Rome is indicated by the number of experienced military men who were made propraetors and given imperium, thus allowing them to command armies, despite them having held no magistracy in the previous year. Postumius Megellus and Fulvius Centumalus were charged with guarding the northern approaches to Rome. Megellus’ army was positioned not far from Rome in the ager Vaticanus, that is, the land on the far bank of the Tiber including the Janiculum. Centumalus was sent into the Faliscan territory where his army could straddle the important routes into Etruria and Umbria. Scipio Barbatus was also propraetor in 295 BC, but it is uncertain if, like Megellus and Centumalus, he was given imperium by the Senate and People of Rome. It is possible that he was originally attached to Rullianus’ army as a legate and subsequently imbued with imperium by the consul to enable him to command a legion independently of the consular army. If so, this would be the first example of a consul using his powers to invest a private citizen (admittedly a consular) with imperium.
There were nine legions in service in 295 BC. As noted above, Flamma continued to command two legions, possibly his consular legions but we cannot be certain. Megellus and Centumalus had at least one legion apiece. Rullianus could have raised two new legions but he chose to enrol only one with an unusual double complement of cavalry; Livy reports this legion had 4,000 infantry, probably rounded down from the standard 4,200, and 600 equites. The consul also took over the legions of Appius Claudius, which had wintered on the Umbrian frontier. Mus’ consular army had the usual complement of two, presumably newly levied, legions.
Appius Claudius established his winter camp at Aharna in Umbria, just across the Tiber from Perusia. The camps of Gellius Egnatius and his allies were close by and Appius’ outnumbered army was confined to its camp. Early in 295 BC Rullianus and Mus arrived with their three legions and 1,000 select Campanian cavalry; it is uncertain if these were Roman citizens from the north of the region, allies from farther south, or a mixture of both. The 12,000 allies attached to Appius’ consular army may have spent the winter of 296/5 BC at Aharna, but it is possible that they were dismissed in the autumn of 296 BC. In the precarious military situation Rome needed more troops than ever before, but she could not risk alienating the allies by keeping them away from their homes for too long. Fresh contingents of Latins and other socii probably accompanied the consuls. At the subsequent Battle of Sentinum there were more allied troops than Romans but we remain ignorant of the exact number.
If at full strength, the nine legions would have contained 40,800 men, including Rullianus’ 300 extra equites. The total contributions of the allies, including those in the armies of the proconsul and propraetors, would have at least equalled, and probably exceeded, the number of legionaries. Thus in this critical year Rome had 80,000 to 100,000 men in the field, and more in reserve.
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.
Livy makes it very clear that the consuls were concerned about the great size of Egnatius’ army. Unfortunately its actual strength is not reported by Livy or any other source, but it was probably the largest army yet assembled in Italy. One wonders, therefore, if Rullianus’ (and perhaps also his colleague’s) plan to draw off the Etruscans was actually underway before deserters apparently brought news of Egnatius’ dastardly plan. Fulvius Centumalus was especially well placed to march up the valley of the Tiber, or through the Ciminus, to threaten Clusium, once the stronghold of Lars Porsenna. Centumalus’ time in the Faliscan country had not been without incident. Even with the propraetor’s army on their territory, Rome’s perceived weakness encouraged some Faliscans to take up arms and they made an incursion into neighbouring ager Romanus, but Centumalus caused the enemy force to disperse by a simple ruse:
When a force of Faliscans far superior to ours [an exaggeration] had encamped in our territory, Gnaeus Fulvius [Centumalus] had his soldiers set fire to certain buildings at a distance from the camp in order that the Faliscans, thinking that their own men had done this, might scatter in hope of plunder.
Centumalus must have reached the territory of Clusium before Megellus and began the work of devastation. It seems that Megellus arrived to take over this task, allowing Centumalus to march on Perusia and intercept the Perusine and Clusian forces that had returned from Sentinum. The Etruscans were defeated, losing 3,000 men and 20 of their sacred military standards.
The consuls were keen to bring the Samnites and Senones to battle. It was not certain that the propraetors would defeat the Etruscans or that the Umbrians, or even more Gauls, would rejoin Egnatius. Even in its reduced state, the consuls wondered if they had enough men to defeat the army of the Samnite general. For two days the consuls sent troops to harass the enemy. The troops involved would have been cavalry and light infantry, that is, soldiers suited to skirmishing and hit and run tactics. The Samnites and Senones responded in kind, neither side winning any real advantage but, as the consuls intended, Gellius Egnatius was suitably provoked and on the third day he led all of his troops from his camp and offered battle. The Battle of the Nations, as it became known, was at hand; Romans, Latins and Campanians facing Samnites and Gauls.
The actual location of the battle in the territory of Sentinum is uncertain. There is a suitable plain immediately to the north of the town. A small river, now called the Sanguerone, cuts through the centre of the plain. Egnatius’ army fought in two divisions. If the battle was fought on this plain, the river might have separated the divisions and the opposing consular armies.
Gellius Egnatius drew up his Samnites on the left wing of the confederate army. Samnite cavalry, although not mentioned by Livy, presumably covered the left flank of their infantry. The Senones formed up on the right, with a very substantial cavalry force protecting their right flank; the infantry on the right flank of any army were vulnerable because this was their unshielded side. Assuming that the Sanguerone separated the Gauls and Samnites, the watercourse protected the unshielded side of the Samnite infantry.
On the Roman side, Rullianus took up position on the right opposite the Samnites with his First and Third Legions. Decius drew up the Fifth and Sixth Legions on the left against the Senones. The Campanian cavalry are reported only on the right flank with Rullianus, but it may be that the 1,000 troopers were shared by the consuls and divided into two alae (wings). Unless the legion annihilated at Camerinum was the regiment raised in Rome with the double complement of cavalry, Rullianus should have had 300 more equites than his colleague. However, mountainous Samnium was not cavalry country and it is probable that more Gallic cavalry confronted Mus, and Rullianus could have transferred some of his horsemen to Mus.
The positions of the Latin and allied forces at Sentinum is unclear. In Livy’s account all of the fighting is carried out by the legionaries and Roman and Campanian equites. Livy does refer to subsidia, that is, reserves, being brought into action at a critical stage of the battle. These reserves may be the allied cohorts, drawn up behind the legionary battle lines, but the allied cohorts were organized into maniples and interchangeable lines of hastati, principes and triarii, and so could have formed up on the flanks of the legions. Livy’s reserves would then be legionary and allied triarii, and the allied cavalry turmae would have reinforced the Roman and Campanian troopers on the wings.
If the four legions at Sentinum were up to strength, Rullianus and Mus had 16,800 legionary infantry and 1,200 or 1,500 equites (18,000 – 18,300 in total). The force of Latins and allies, perhaps including the 1,000 Campanians, is said to have been greater than the number of Roman troops. We should recall that Appius Claudius and Volumnius Flamma had a total of 27,000 allied soldiers with them in Etruria. It would not be unreasonable to assume that a similar number joined Rullianus and Mus and this would bring the size of the Roman army up to c. 45,000, but the situation was different to that of 296 BC. There were three other Roman armies in the field, all requiring allied contingents, and it may be that the number of allies at Sentinum was only slightly greater than the number of Roman troops, and a total figure of less than 40,000 may be appropriate.
As noted above, Livy does not report or estimate the size of Egnatius’ army at Sentinum. He does relate, with considerable disdain, that some of the sources he consulted put forward a grossly exaggerated total for the enemy army:
Great as the glory of the day on which the Battle of Sentinum was fought must appear to any writer who adheres to the truth, it has by some writers been exaggerated beyond all belief. They assert that the enemy’s army amounted to 330,000 infantry and 46,000 cavalry, together with 1,000 war chariots. That, of course, includes the Umbrians and Tuscans who are represented as taking part in the battle. And by way of increasing the Roman strength they tell us that Lucius Volumnius commanded in the action as well as the consuls, and that their legions were supplemented by his army.
An army of this size would be impossible to provision or manoeuvre. However, if the number of enemy casualties, prisoners and fugitives that Livy records is accepted as reasonably accurate, the combined total suggests that Egnatius had at least 38,000 soldiers and the consuls’ concerns about the size of his army, even without Etruscans and Umbrians, probably indicates that he had considerably more warriors at his disposal. The total number of troops at Sentinum was probably in excess of 80,000 and may have been as great as 100,000. According to Diodorus, Duris of Samos put the number of enemy casualties at 100,000, perhaps another gross exaggeration but possibly a reflection of the total size of the forces engaged.
The pivotal engagement in Rome’s conquest of Italy was probably fought in April 295 BC. It was usual for generals to lead their armies out of their camps at dawn and, considering the vast numbers present, it must have taken some time to arrange the soldiers into battle lines. Something extraordinary happened as the Italian armies faced off:
As they stood arrayed for battle, a deer, pursued by a wolf that had chased it down from the mountains, fled across the plain and between the two battle lines. The animals then turned in opposite directions, the deer towards the Gauls and the wolf towards the Romans. For the wolf a space was opened between the ordines, but the Gauls killed the deer. Then one of the Roman front rankers (antesignanus) called out, ‘Where you see the animal sacred to Diana lying slain, that way flight and slaughter have shaped their course. On this side the wolf of Mars, unhurt and sound, has reminded us of the race of Mars and of our founder Romulus.’
This was clearly a sign from Mars, progenitor of the Roman race, and Mus’ legionaries were elated by the portent of the Gauls’ demise. It is, of course, extremely doubtful that a wolf chased a deer between the armies, but it is likely that the Romans saw a wolf that day and it was taken as a good omen. It is also possible that the Gauls, immediately prior to engaging the Romans, sacrificed a deer. Such battlefield sacrifices, carried out before the front rank, were not unusual in the Ancient World. If something went wrong with the ceremony, the opponent observing it would take heart knowing that the gods did not favour their enemy.
Rullianus’ strategy was to stand firm and absorb the charges of the enemy. When the Samnites inevitably tired he would launch a decisive counter-charge. He believed that the same tactic would defeat the Gauls: ‘They are more than men at the start of a fight, but by the end they are less than women!’ He had presumably attempted to convince Mus to adhere to this strategy, yet the other consul was desirous of accomplishing victory more quickly and gloriously and, inspired by the omen of the wolf and the deer, led his maniples forward in an impetuous attack.
The maniples of hastati would have closed with the Gauls at the run (impetus), pausing only momentarily to hurl their pila, roar their war cry (clamor), and draw their swords. The centurions and soldiers in the front would have surged ahead, aiming to batter down Gallic warriors with the bosses of their shields, force their way into the ranks and set to work with their cut-and-thrust swords. The soldiers in the rearmost ranks of the maniples would follow up more steadily in good order, drumming weapons against their shields, shouting encouragement to their comrades and perhaps lobbing pila over their heads and into the ranks of the enemy.
But the Senones resisted fiercely. They too were armed with pila-like missiles, which must have thinned the ranks of the attacking Romans, and their long swords could hack through shields and armour. The two sides were evenly matched in fury and prowess and the infantry action gradually waned. We may presume that Mus called up the principes to relieve or reinforce the hastati, but when they too failed to break the Senones, the consul looked to his cavalry to hasten victory. Riding from turma to turma he exhorted the mostly rich and aristocratic troopers: ‘Yours will be a double share of glory if victory comes first to the left wing and to the cavalry!’
The cavalry on the left wing would have moved forward to protect the flank of the advancing infantry, but until now, there was no all-out cavalry assault. Mus attached himself to the bravest turma (perhaps actually his mounted bodyguard) and led two charges against the Gallic horse. The first charge drove the Gauls back and the second scattered them, exposing the unshielded right flank and rear of their infantry, but the Romans were unable to exploit the opportunity. The war chariots of the Senones had been held in reserve behind the battle line. The sudden and unexpected counter-charge panicked both horses and riders, and the Roman cavalry fled in disorder as the clattering chariots pursued them. Mus was unable to halt their flight, and the fugitives appear to have swept past the flank of their own infantry. The charioteers broke off their pursuit and turned instead on the vulnerable infantry, driving into the intervals between maniples and ordines. Many of the antesignani, that is the hastati or principes in the leading battle line, were trampled down. The Gallic infantry took advantage of the chaos and attacked.
With the cavalry in flight and the leading battle line of infantry almost overrun, it seemed that the Roman left might collapse. If the left fell, Rullianus’ wing would surely also succumb and with it Rome’s hard won conquests in Italy. Decius Mus decided that the time had come for him to follow the example of his illustrious father: he would ride to his death as a devotus and through his own sacrifice bring about the destruction of the enemy. Livy has him utter: ‘Now I will offer up the legions of the enemy, to be slaughtered along with me, as victims to Tellus [Mother Earth] and the divine Manes [gods of the Underworld].’
Livy informs us that throughout the battle Mus kept the pontifex, Marcus Livius Denter, close. Such a senior state priest was necessary to lead a devotus through the correct ritual. That Mus had Denter by his side at all times suggests that his decision to perform devotio was not spontaneous. The consul’s heritage must have led to expectations that he too would perform devotio if the situation facing Rome became desperate and Sentinum was such an occasion. It is likely that he informed Rullianus of his intention to devote himself if his initial tactics failed. The legionaries and allies would have been told as well. If they were not prepared, they would most likely panic at the sight of the consul being cut down.