Sentinum 295 BC – Roman-Samnite Wars DOCUMENTARY

Sentinum 295 BC – Roman-Samnite Wars DOCUMENTARY

Rome’s wars in the third century BC against
Epirus, Carthage, Macedon, and Seleucid Empire were the crucible in which its empire was
forged, opening the way for the conquest of the Mediterranean. While the third century
BC saw Roman dominion spread over the known world, it was a series of three prior wars
– the Samnite Wars – which turned the Roman legions into the most resilient and distinctive
military of the ancient world. Welcome to our video on the Samnite Wars! Shoutout to Imperator: Rome and Paradox Interactive
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for by clicking the link in the description! In the middle of the fourth-century BC Italy
was still divided between Latins, Greeks, Etruscans and others, with one of the most
powerful groups on the peninsula being the Samnites. They were an Oscan-speaking tribal
federation of semi-nomads living in a landlocked region of the southern-central Apennine Mountains
called Samnium. The area was politically divided into four tribal units, or ‘toutos’, each
made up of a series of economically self-sufficient villages. These tribes were the Pentri, Hirpani,
Caudini and Carricini. These four, often divided, tribes made up
the Samnite League, forming a union which was far less centralised than the Roman Republic
to the northwest. A scant and possibly biased Livy tells us that the League was normally
governed by a central council made up of all four tribes, and a single commander-in-chief
who would hold command in war. Possessing common enemies in their Volsci
neighbors, Rome and the Samnites concluded an alliance in 354 BC, but relations quickly
soured. Just over a decade later, the latter attacked the Sidicini and Campanians who came
to aid them. Despite their alliance, Rome was unwilling to risk a rival power gaining
hegemony over Campania’s agriculturally rich land. They broke their alliance and intervened
on behalf of the beleaguered coastal coalition, whose members submitted themselves to the
Republic. The consular armies marched to war, and in 343 BC defeated the Samnites in a series
of battles at Mons Gaurus, Saticula and Suessela. Before they could take advantage of these
wins, however, a serious revolt among Rome’s Latin subjects broke out in 342 BC, forcing
both sides into a mutually beneficial peace and a renewal of their previous alliance.
This shift led the Campanians and Sidicini, only recently allies of Rome, to switch sides
and join the anti-Roman uprising, igniting the Latin War. Roman armies quickly triumphed
in the largest battle of the war in 340 BC at Mount Vesuvius, but isolated bouts of violence
continued springing up for the next few years until 337 BC, when the Republic imposed a
settlement on its defeated rivals which reshaped its relations with the allies and subject
peoples. A hierarchy was created in which Rome’s Latin subordinates no longer had
any military or diplomatic dealings with other powers, but were only bound together by their
‘alliance’ with Rome . Citizens in some loyal cities such as Lanuvium and Aricia received
full Roman citizenship, while some other disloyal but strategically crucial ones such as Antium,
received the same perk, as well as a Roman garrison.
However, hostilities between the eternal city and the Samnite League began to resurface
in 328 BC when a Roman colony was established at Fregellae. It was on the eastern bank of
the Liris river, on the Samnite side of what had long been considered a boundary between
the two powers. Tensions escalated over the next couple of years over Fregellae and the
expanding Roman presence in Campania. The spark for war breaking out again finally came
in 326 BC when a pro-Roman faction in Neapolis expelled its Samnite garrison and handed the
key city over to Roman control. The war began with a swift Roman offensive
into western Samnium in the same year. In the campaigning season of that year, Quintus
Rullianus disobeyed orders and attacked a nearby enemy army, winning a great victory
at Imbrinium. Roman pressure continued to build in the years after, and in 321 BC, with
defeat looking increasingly likely, the Samnite council appointed a prominent statesman named
Gaius Pontius as commander for the year. He made a speech decrying any thought of surrender
and proclaiming the just nature of their war against Rome. Then he marched out with his
army and encamped at Caudium, primary center of the Samnite Caudini tribe.
The Samnite general made sure to keep his army hidden, and from his new base he sent
ten soldiers disguised as shepherds to the consular army encamped at nearby Calatia.
There they spread false rumours that a Roman-allied city called Luceria was about to fall. The
consuls for the year – Calvinus and Albinus – chose to take a shorter but more difficult
route to the supposedly besieged city through the Caudine Forks – a series of increasingly
narrow defiles with wooded hills and sheer, overhanging cliffs on each side.
The unwieldy Roman phalanx units began descending into the first narrow pass and emerged from
it safely onto a small plain. However, when they reached the entrance of the second, they
found it blocked with a barricade. At about the same time, the Romans began observing
Samnite warriors on the various areas of high ground surrounding them, prompting the consuls
to retreat in the direction from which they had come. They returned to find their only
exit blockaded as well, and themselves entirely surrounded by jeering Samnite warriors.
As the entrapped army debated among itself how to get out, the surprised Pontius wrote
to his retired father Herennius asking what he should do. The retired Herennius rode to
join the Samnite army and immediately advised either that his son kill all of the Roman
soldiers or let them all go uninjured, because such extreme options would either bring a
lengthy peace through generosity or weaken Rome severely.
Uneasy with the choices, Pontius and the other tribal leaders asked what would come from
taking a middle-path. Herennius stated to them that – “The Romans are a nation who
know not how to remain quiet under defeat. Whatever disgrace this present extremity burns
into their souls will rankle there forever, and will allow them no rest until they have
made you pay for it many times over.” With that Herennius departed, but his wisdom went
unheeded. After numerous other Roman attempts to break
out of the trap failed, they were forced to treat with Pontius. In return for their lives,
Rome would suffer a humiliation which they would never forget. Each member of the army,
from ordinary legionary to consul, was shamefully forced to walk bowed under the yoke of spears
at sword point. 600 equites were taken by the Samnites as hostages to guarantee the
peace and that the offending Roman colonies would be relinquished.
A five year-long break in hostilities followed this humiliation, either because of Roman
reluctance to continue the war against an enemy which had so easily beaten them, or
because of the unknown terms imposed after the Caudine Forks. It is possible that this
is the moment Rome’s inflexible Greek-style phalanx was finally replaced by the famously
adaptable manipular legion, and that the five years of peace were used to re-arm, train
and drill in the new style. Rome renewed the conflict armed with their
distinctive new way of war in 315 BC and quickly captured Saticula, but were then met and defeated
in a pitched battle at Lautulae, a defeat which allowed the Samnites to sack Roman lands.
The legions returned with vigor at the start of 314 BC though, and crushed a Samnite army
at Terracina. This proved to be the tipping point. Other Roman armies quickly took Luceria
and the lands around it, while in 313 BC they recovered Fregellae.
In the next year, the Republic began to solidify its conquests by founding more colonies and
constructing the famous Appian Way in order to facilitate military logistics. Samnium
was now surrounded by the territory of Rome and its allies. There was a last-minute intervention
by the Etruscans which forced the legions to fight on two fronts, but the northern foe
was decisively crushed at Lake Vadimo in 310, their warmaking capacity curtailed. With that
enemy dealt with, Rome concluded its war against Samnium in just over a half a decade, using
their ring of allies and better road network to overpower the mountain region.
In 304 BC, the battered tribes of the league pleaded for peace and the Romans granted it,
having almost tripled their territory during the war. Though the Samnites had earned a
brief reprieve, other nearby peoples weren’t so lucky. From 302 through 298 BC the Gates
of Janus remained open, and the expansionist Republic fought annual campaigns in Umbria
and Etruria simultaneously. By this point, Roman empire-building in the
Italian peninsula alarmed many of the remaining independent peoples. In 298 BC, the Samnites
crossed their southern frontier and invaded Lucania, laying waste to it and prompting
them to send panicked emissaries to Rome. Fearing the increasing strength of the Samnites,
and sensing an opportunity for a ‘just’ war, the senate concluded an alliance with
the Lucanians and then demanded that the invaders withdraw. When the latter refused this demand,
the Third Samnite War began. It began as a walkover, with destructive campaigns
by the legions being undertaken in both Samnite and Etruscan territory. It was clear that
the allies would have to wage a smart war, or the ever-increasing might of Rome would
grind them down. With the aim of doing just that, the Samnite general Gellius Egnatius
abandoned his native lands and boldly marched the league’s army north into Etruria, where
he joined forces with the allied Etruscan armies there. While Egnatius’ united army
was defeated in a minor battle during 297 BC, it was clear that Rome had more trouble
with such a united front. This probably prompted Egnatius to finalise the formation of a grand
alliance to curb Roman expansion, made up of Samnites, Etruscans, and Umbrians. Even
the Senone Gauls were brought in as mercenaries. The united double-consular army which crossed
the Apennine mountains into Umbria in 295 was probably the largest army Rome had yet
put into the field. Its core was made up of four Roman, in addition to four allied, legions,
trained in the new manipular style, along with a large quantity of cavalry, including
a thousand elite horsemen from Campania. Overall, the two consuls probably fielded about 36,000
troops – absolutely massive for the time. When this giant Roman force encamped only
four miles away from the four-nation allied army near Sentinum, the latter decided to
divide their forces. The Gallic and Samnite contingents, being the most experienced and
ferocious warriors, would engage the Roman legions. As the fighting was going on, the
Etruscans and Umbrians would sweep around, attack the enemy camp and hopefully hit them
in the rear when the fighting was at its fiercest. Unfortunately for the allies, deserters from
their camp snuck over to their Roman enemies at night and revealed these plans in detail
to the consuls, allowing Rullianus to come up with a countermeasure. He sent swift messengers
to two smaller Roman armies nearby under Gnaeus Fulvius and Lucius Postumius with orders to
advance north and raze the Etrurian lands around Clusium.
When the Etruscan and Umbrian contingents of the grand alliance discovered this, they
split off and moved to protect their ravaged territories. Deprived of almost half their
army, the Samnites and Gauls refused to engage with the Romans in battle for two days, waiting
for their allies to return. However, constant Roman cavalry raids and harassment caused
casualties which, at dawn on the third day, led the anti-Roman forces to march onto the
plain near Sentinum and line up for the coming battle. The legions formed up to meet them.
On the Gallo-Samnite right was the horde of Senone Gauls from Northern Italy, facing the
half of the Roman line including the fifth and sixth Roman legions under Publius Decius
Mus. On the other side of the field, the Samnites, led in person by their general Gellius Egnatius,
drew up opposite Rullianus and the other half of the Roman army, including the first and
third legions. Cavalry on each side was placed on both flanks of the field. The Romans also
had a small reserve contingent behind their lines, while the Gauls were backed up by about
100 formidable war chariots. Perhaps the greatest battle that had ever
taken place in Italy was joined with a disciplined, methodical advance on the Roman side and the
notoriously ferocious charge of the Samnite and Gallic warriors opposite them. The charge’s
impact was a heavy one, and initially sent the first line of Romans reeling back, but
they quickly recovered, after which the fighting descended into a hard-fought contest along
the entire line, with neither side looking able to land a decisive blow anywhere.
However as the grueling combat took its toll, fighting on each wing of the battlefield began
to differ in its quality, influenced by the temperament and experience of its commander.
The aged and patient consul Rullianus’ knew his Samnite foe’s tendency to tire after
a powerful initial charge and therefore ordered a defensive approach, taking as few losses
as possible whilst making orderly withdrawals as needed. It would take time, Rullianus believed,
but the Romans would outlast their enemy. On the other wing, Rullianus’ younger colleague
Decius was having a worse time of it, his legions suffering harsh losses at Gallic hands,
anchored as they were behind a firm shield wall which pushed the Romans back. The consul,
who was unwilling to wait to see if the Gauls would tire, instead took action, riding out
to his left wing and personally leading a successful cavalry charge which twice drove
the Gallic horse from the field. However, on the third assault Decius’ contingent
charged too far and became encircled by enemy mounted troops. Yet despite the bad tactical
situation, they still could not be broken. The Gauls now sent their chariot units into
the fray, each trailing a baggage wagon behind it. A combination of Roman unfamiliarity with
chariot warfare and their horses becoming frightened by the noise made by the wheels
of the Gauls’ baggage carts, quickly led to the rout of Decius’ horsemen. Having
lost control of their mounts, many of the Roman cavalry ran uncontrollably into the
infantry line, spreading the disarray and demoralising some of them into fleeing from
the battle completely. Sensing an opportunity, the Gauls launched
another violent infantry charge against the disorganised Romans, which further routed
Decius’ section. The consul’s father had sacrificed himself during the Latin War decades
earlier to grant the Romans victory, and now Decius realised it was his turn to do the
same. He proclaimed loudly, so that all the superstitious Roman soldiers would hear him7:
“I carry before me terror, rout, carnage, blood and the wrath of all the gods, those
above and below! I will infect the standards, the armour, the weapons of the enemy with
dire and manifold death. The place of my destruction shall also witness that of the Gauls and Samnites!
” With his intentions made clear Decius charged his steed into the part of the line
where the Gallic ranks were thickest and was instantly slain by throwing spears and other
missiles. He had performed his devotio, dying in the same way his father had decades earlier.
Witnessing this sacrifice and being fully aware of its prophetic meaning, Decius’
faltering troops rallied together, turned back around and rejoined the fight, once again
holding the Gauls where they were. Realising that the situation on the other side of the
field was still precarious, Rullianus sent a portion of his serves – led by Scipio Africanus’
great-grandfather – to shore the left up. In short order, the fresh Roman troops quickly
turned the tide on that wing, gradually beginning to push the Gauls back.
The surviving consul, who had maintained a defensive stance on his side of the field
since the start of the battle, began to receive reports that his strategy was paying off – the
Samnites opposing him were starting to tire, their stamina exhausted by the long fight.
Rome’s remaining reserves were fed into the fray at this point, and the right wing
cavalry swept into the Samnite flank. This general advance finally broke the enemy line
and Egnatius and his troops routed past their Gallic allies, back towards their camp.
It was only at this moment that Rullianus learned of his colleague’s death. Seeking
to secure the victory, he sent 500 of the most elite Campanian cavalry and the principes
of his third legion on a deep flanking maneuver around the wavering Gauls. This was the end
of the battle – the allied army was scattered and broken. The Roman Republic had prevailed
in its most massive contest so far, and the new manipular system proved its superior adaptability
and flexibility. Yet, the victory was not a cheap one. 8,700 Roman soldiers lay dead
on the field, most of them on Decius’ wing. This must have seemed like a preferable fate
to the Gauls and Samnites, who had collectively suffered a total of 25,000 killed and a further
8,000 taken prisoner. Meanwhile, Fulvius’ contingent not only
managed to distract but also decisively defeat the Etruscan and Umbrian units in Etruria,
inflicting 3,000 casualties. Though the gallant Samnites would continue to resist for a further
half decade, to the admiration of commentators such as Livy, Sentinum decided the fate of
Italy. In 290 BC the Third Samnite War ended, the vast majority of central Italy was under
Roman control, and the stage was set for Rome’s total domination of the peninsula and the
Mediterranean beyond. We will talk more about the Roman history
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