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Third Samnite War (298- 90 BC):

Battle of Sentinum (295 BC)

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Third Samnite War:  Main Page      Battle of Sentinum (295 BC)  

Red = Roman allies

Blue = Latin colonies founded between the second and third Samnite wars

Adapted from the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

Dramatis Personae

Livy noted that, in 295 BC:

  1. “... no-one felt the slightest doubt that Fabius would be unanimously elected [as consul]. ... as on the former occasion ... , he again requested that Decius might be his colleague.”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 22: 1-2).

Decius therefore entered his 4th consulship (and his third with Fabius as his colleague).  Since, given the serious nature of the crisis, the services of the consuls of the previous year were also still needed:

  1. “Appius Claudius was returned as praetor; ... [and] the Senate passed a resolution ... that Volumnius' command] should be extended for a year”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 22: 1-2).

Livy described a number of versions of the way in which these respective assignments were decided.  Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 283) suggested that the simplest of these was the most likely: Livy had

  1. “... [found] it stated in some authorities that Fabius and Decius both started for Etruria immediately on entering office, no mention being made of their not deciding their provinces by lot, or of the quarrel between the colleagues that I have described”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 26: 5).

Thus, Appius, as praetor, governed Rome in the consuls’ absence and Volumnius continued to operate in Samnium as proconsul. 

Furthermore, we learn from Livy that:

  1. “... two other armies were stationed not far from the Rome, confronting Etruria: one in the Faliscan district [north of Rome]; and the other in the neighbourhood of the Vatican [just across the Tiber, to the west of Rome].  The propraetors:

  2. Cnaeus Fulvius [Maximus Centumalus, the consul of 298 BC]; and

  3. Lucius Postumius Megellus [the consul of 305 BC];

  4. had been instructed to fix their standing camps in those positions”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 26; 15).

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 288) observed that this arrangement:

  1. “... is entirely credible: in such a great crisis, with both consuls [and their armies] away in the north, [other] forces would have been needed to guard the approach from Etruria to [Rome].”

As we shall see, Livy also named two other ex-consul who served as propraetor in this war:

  1. Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, the consul of 298 BC, whom Fabius placed in command of the Roman camp at Camerinum (see 10: 25: 11 and 10: 26: 12); and

  2. Marcus Livius Denter, the consul of 302 BC, whom Decius designated as propraetor (see 10: 29: 3)

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at pp. 311-3) explained that propraetorian powers could be established:

  1. by the extension of an existing praetorship into the following year;

  2. by the delegation of power by a serving consul or other magistrate; or

  3. for privati, by the Senate and popular vote.

He observed that, since none of the four propraetors of 295 BC had held curule office in the previous year, the first possibility could be discounted here.  He concluded that

  1. if Livy is to be believed, then Livius had clearly received propraetorian imperium from Decius as consul (p. 311);

  2. while Livy’s wording is unclear, Scipio had probably similarly received his from Fabius (see p. 312 and also Oakley’s note to this effect at p. 305); but

  3. since Fulvius and Postumius had each operated separately from the serving consuls, they had probably been appointed by the Senate and popular vote as privati cum imperium (see p. 313).

Initial Roman Deployment in Etruria and Umbria

It seems that Appius had passed the the winter of 296/5 BC in the north with the army that was now to be transferred to the new consuls.  Thus, according to Zonoras:

  1. “[When Fabius and Decius] had come with speed to Etruria, and had seen the camp of Appius, which was fortified by a double palisade, they pulled up the stakes and carried them off, instructing the soldiers to place their hope of safety in their weapons”, (‘Epitome of Cassius Dio, 8:1: 5)

Livy also reported a version of this anecdote, the point of which was to illustrate Appius’ putative reluctance to engage with the enemy.  However, he placed it in one of the more complicated of his various accounts of these preliminaries, in which Fabius, who had initially underestimated the seriousness of the situation, had insisted on having sole responsibility for Etruria and marched north with only a small army:

  1. “... to the town of Aharna (modern Civitella d’ Arno, just across the Tiber from Perusia), which was not far from the enemy, and from there went on to Appius’ camp.  He was still some miles distant from it when he was met by some [of Appius’] soldiers ... Fabius asked them where they were going, and on their replying that they were going to cut wood, ... he inquired: ‘surely you [already] have a ramparted camp?’  They informed him that they had a double rampart and ditch round the camp, and yet they were in a state of mortal fear [of the enemy].   ‘Well, then,’ he replied, ‘go back and pull down your stockade, and you will have quite enough wood.  They returned into camp and began to demolish the rampart, to the great terror of those who had remained in camp, and especially of Appius himself, until the news spread from one to another that they were acting under Fabius’ orders.  On the following day, the camp was moved and Appius was sent back to [the safety of] Rome to take up his duties as praetor”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 25: 4).

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at pp. 284-5) asserted that:

  1. “... the historicity of the tale of the dismantling of the double palisade  ... is ... doubtful. ... Although it cannot be disproved, the idea that the Claudii were not suited to war is a common motif in annalistic narrative, and disputes between Fabius and Appius, [which] are a regular theme of this book, may [also be the product of] annalistic elaboration ... .”

Livy concluded this account by recording that:

  1. “From that time the Romans had no permanent camp: Fabius said that it was bad for an army to remain fixed in one spot, and that frequent marches and changes of position made [the men] became healthier and fitter.  [The army therefore] made marches as long and as frequent as the season allowed, for the winter was not yet over.  As soon as spring set in, he left the second legion at Clusium [modern Chiusi], formerly called Camars, and placed [Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus] in charge of the camp as propraetor”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 25: 10-11).

As we shall see in the following section, it is more likely that Scipio and the second legion were stationed at Camerinum: as Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 286) pointed out, Livy’s ‘Camars’, which he said was the original name of Clusium, is similar to ‘Camers’, the adjective corresponding to Camerinum.

Roman Defeat at Clusium or Camerinum

Polybius reported an early Roman defeat immediately before the major engagement at Sentinum:

  1. “... the Samnites and Gaul ... gave the Romans battle in the neighbourhood of Camerinum, and slew a large number” (‘Histories’, 2:19: 5).

Livy reported two versions of this engagement, which he located at Clusium.  In the first of these:

  1. “... before the consuls arrived in Etruria, the Senonian Gauls came in immense numbers to Clusium  with the intention of attacking the Roman camp and the legion stationed there.  Scipio, who was in command [as propraetor], thinking to [make up for] the scantiness of his numbers by taking up a stronger position, marched his force on to a hill that lay between his camp and the city.  [Unfortunately,] the enemy appeared so suddenly that he had had no time to reconnoitre the ground, and he continued towards the summit after the enemy had already seized it ... So the legion was... completely surrounded.   Some authors say that the entire legion was wiped out there, not a man being  left to carry the tidings, and that, although the consuls were not far from Clusium at the time, no report of the disaster reached them until Gaulish horsemen appeared with the heads of the slain hanging from their horses' chests and fixed on the points of their spears, whilst they chanted war-songs after their manner”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 26: 7-11).

In the second version, the assailants:

  1. “... were not Gauls at all, but Umbrians.  Nor was there a great disaster; [rather, ] a foraging party commanded by Lucius Manlius Torquatus, a staff officer, was surrounded and, when the propraetor Scipio sent assistance from the camp, ...  the Umbrians were defeated and the [Roman] prisoners and booty were recovered, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 26: 12).

Livy then expressed the opinion that:

  1. “It is more probable that this defeat was inflicted by Gauls rather than by Umbrians: dread of a Gallic attack ... were especially present to the minds of the citizens this year”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 26: 13).

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at pp 285-6) pointed out that the Roman sources used by Polybius and Livy are unlikely to have invented a Roman defeat, and that the men who inflicted it might have included Gauls and Umbrians, although he thought that Polybius’ inclusion of Samnites here was probably a mistake.  However, as Oakley pointed out (at p. 286) that, since the subsequent major engagement:

  1. “... probably took place in Umbria (much closer to Camerinum than to Clusium), most scholars believe that Livy was mistaken, and was persuaded by [one or more] aberrant sources to transfer to Clusium a battle that, in fact, took place at Camerinum.”

Oakley also noted (at p. 282) that:

  1. “Camerinum is said to have made an alliance with [Rome] in 310/9 BC [see my previous page], which perhaps continued unbroken.  Roman concern for the protection of Camerinum would explain this [unsuccessful engagement], which almost certainly occurred in her territory.”

Course of the Battle

Tales of the battle at Sentinum reached Duris, the Greek historian who became tyrant of Samos and who was still alive at this time,  Thus, Diodorus Siculus noted that:

  1. “According to Duris, the Romans slew 100,000 men in the war with the Etruscans, Gauls, Samnites and the other allies in the consulship of Fabius [295 BC]”, (‘Library of History’, fragment, 6: 1)

Polybius recorded that, in 295 BC:

  1. “... the Gauls made a league with the Samnites and, engaging the Romans in the territory of Camerinum, inflicted on them considerable loss.  [However], the Romans, determined on avenging their reverse, advanced again a few days after with all their legions and, attacking the Gauls and Samnites in the territory of Sentinum, put the greater number of them to the sword and compelled the rest to take precipitate flight to their [respective] homes”, (‘Histories’, 2: 19: 1-4).

According to Livy:

  1. “The force with which the consuls had taken the field consisted of four legions and a large body of cavalry, in addition to 1000 picked Campanian troopers detailed for this war, whilst the contingents furnished by the allies and the Latin League formed an even larger army than the Roman army. But in addition to this large force two other armies were stationed not far from the City, confronting Etruria; one in the Faliscan district, another in the neighbourhood of the Vatican. The propraetors, Cnaeus Fulvius and Lucius Postumius Megellus, had been instructed to fix their standing camps in those positions”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 26: 14-15).

At Sentinum, the Romans, led by Fabius and Decius, first set up a diversionary attack on Clusium , which:

  1. “... drew the Etrurians from Sentinum to protect their own region”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 27: 6). 

The strategist Frontinus was to use this as an example of diversionary tactics in a treatise he wrote in the 1st century AD:

  1. “In the 5th consulship of Fabius Maximus, the Gauls, Umbrians, Etruscans, and Samnites had formed an alliance against the Roman people.  Against these tribes Fabius first constructed a fortified camp beyond the Apennines in the region of Sentinum.  Then, he wrote to Fulvius and Postumius, who were guarding [Rome], directing them to move on Clusium with their forces.  When these commanders complied, the Etruscans and Umbrians withdrew to defend their own possessions, while Fabius and his colleague Decius attacked and defeated the remaining forces of Samnites and Gauls” ‘Stratagems’, 8:3).

This tactic does indeed seem to have been decisive: Livy observed that, had the Etruscans and Umbrians been present at the subsequent engagement at Sentinum,

  1. “... the Romans must have been defeated”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 27: 11).

Even without them, the battle was evenly balanced until Decius:

  1. “... spurred forward his horse to where he saw the line of the Gauls thickest and, [deliberately] rushing upon the enemy's weapons, met his death”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 28: 18). 

The Roman soldiers took heart at this act of heroic self-sacrifice and the tide of battle turned. 

Livy continued:

  1. “Fabius, ... having heard of the [heroic] death of his colleague [Decius Mus], ordered [his men] ... to attack the rear of the Gallic line ..., [further] ordering that, wherever they should see the enemy's troops disordered by the charge, ... [they should] cut them to pieces ... .  After vowing a temple and the spoils of the enemy to Jupiter Victor, he proceeded to the camp of the Samnites, whither all their forces were hurrying in confusion.  The gates not affording entrance to such very great numbers, those [Samnites] who were necessarily excluded attempted resistance just at the foot of the rampart, and here fell Gellius Egnatius, the Samnite general.  ... [Victory followed]: 25,000 enemy soldiers were slain on that day and 8,000 taken prisoner.  Nor was the victory an unbloody one [for the Romans themselves]; of the army of Publius Decius, 7,000 were killed; of the army of Fabius, 1,200.  Fabius, after sending men to search for the body of his colleague, had the spoils of the enemy collected into a heap and burned them as an offering to Jupiter  Victor.  [The body of Decius Mus was recovered] and Fabius, discarding all concern about any other business, solemnised the obsequies of his colleague in the most honourable manner, passing on him the high encomiums which he had justly merited”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 29: 15-20).

As Timothy Cornell (referenced below, 1995, at p. 362) recorded:

  1. “... Fabius [then] returned to Rome in triumph, with an assured place in the Roman tradition as the hero of the Samnite Wars.  Sentium sealed the fate of Italy [which now inevitable and progressively fell under Roman control].” 

“The remains of the Samnite army attempted to escape through the Pelignian territory, but were intercepted by the native troops, and out of 5000 as many as 1000 were killed”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 30: 3).

“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 1,000,000 infantry and 46,000 cavalry, together with 1000 war chariots.  That, of course, includes the Umbrians and Etruscans, 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.  In the majority of the annalists, the victory is assigned only to the two consuls; Volumnius is described as campaigning during that time in Samnium and, after driving a Samnite army on to Mount Tifernus, he succeeded, in spite of the difficulty of the position, in defeating and routing them”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 30: 3-7).

Read more:

S. Oakley, “A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X:Volume IV: Book X”, (2007) Oxford

T. Cornell, “The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (ca. 1000-264 BC)”, (1995) London and New York

Third Samnite War:  Main Page      Battle of Sentinum (295 BC)  

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