Battle of Sentinum (295 BCE) was the victory of the Romans over the Samnites. The battle was reportedly the largest battle fought on Italian soil since the founding of Rome. According to Livy’ account, the legions’ victory was decided by “devotio” – ritual sacrifice of the leader in exchange for the victory of the legions.
Background of events
The ancient Romans were extremely militant towards the rest of the world they knew. They were also characterized by a great belief that gods often get involved in mortal affairs. An example of this could be the death of their mortal enemy – king Pyrrhus. They believed that he had died as a result of the goddess interfering. For the Romans, the intervention of the gods on the battlefields was something normal and obvious. They persisted in the belief that the most important Roman gods – Jupiter, Mars and Bellona – always favour and support the legions. Livy in his “History of Rome” describes such a sign during the battle of Sentinum in 295 BCE.
Third Samnite War broke out in 298 BCE when the Samnites attempted to attract the Lukans to the Samnites Union – initially by diplomacy, then by force. On the other hand, the Lucans turned to the Romans with an alliance, which the Romans agreed to, realizing that another war with the Samnites was inevitable. The two nations that pursued expansionist politics, having powerful warriors in their ranks, could not coexist peacefully side by side. The harbour of the Romans at the request of the Lukans meant an immediate start of hostilities. Unfortunately, the very location of Lucania made it impossible to attack Samnium from the south, and the existence of an alliance meant that Rome controlled its allies around the Samnites. If, however, the Samnites did not encounter any resistance, the Lucans would have been forced to join the Samnites Union, and other southern Italian tribes would follow suit. In such a situation, Samnite forces – which were already significant without it – would outweigh the Roman forces considerably. So the Third Samnite War was a war for the right to dominate the Apennine Peninsula.
The forces of the strong anti-Roman coalition were formed by the female commander Gelius Egnacjus and they numbered about 40,000 warriors. The Roman army was commanded by Quintus Fabius Rullianus called Maximus (the Greatest) and Publius Decius Mus. Initially, the female commander did not want to fight, so he withdrew towards the Samnium – probably hoping that he would receive reinforcements in the form of Etruscan and other troops. This was due to the fact that some Italian tribes were dissatisfied with the rise of Rome and could support the Samnites as they marched north to meet the Gauls. Rullianus Maximus, who subjected his legionaries to murderous training in the winter, finally began to harvest his work, because the Roman army was on its heels. Musius’ Decius legions arrived two or three days later and camped four miles from their enemy. For two days there was harassment of Samnites by Roman troops, and on the third day, the provoked anti-Roman coalition army came out of the camp in crowds to fight the battle. Due to the strength of both sides, the battle of Sentinum was to be the largest battle fought so far in Italian soil. So many warriors facing each other had to arouse the gods’ interest and Mars gave the sign:
On the third day, both parties marched out their whole force to the field: here, while the armies stood in order of battle, a hind, chased by a wolf from the mountains, ran through the plain between the two lines: there the animals taking different directions, the hind bent its course towards the Gauls, the wolf towards the Romans: way was made between the ranks for the wolf, the Gauls slew the hind with their javelins; on which one of the Roman soldiers in the van said, “To that side, where you see an animal, sacred to Diana, lying prostrate, flight and slaughter are directed; on this side the victorious wolf of Mars, safe and untouched, reminds us of our founder, and of our descent from that deity.”
The Romans were very happy with this prophecy and they were in a hurry to fight, especially the people of Decius Mus. He launched a daring attack on the enemy but his attack was repulsed by Senna warriors. Rullianus Maksymus moved along with his soldiers, slowly remaining in formation. Decius Mus legionaries fell into disarray, despite the help of the Roman cavalry, and Decius Mus himself tried in vain to stop the retreat.
At this point, he decided it was time to make devotio – sacrificing himself for the deity in exchange for fulfilling the request. It is worth mentioning that his father devoted himself to the battle of Weser in 340 BCE. The prayer by Decius Mus senior was:
Janus, Jupiter, father Mars, Quirinus, Bellona, ye Lares, ye gods Novensiles, ye gods Indigetes, ye divinities, under whose power we and our enemies are, and ye dii Manes, I pray you, I adore you, I ask your favour, that you would prosperously grant strength and victory to the Roman people, the Quirites; and that ye may affect the enemies of the Roman people, the Quirites, with terror, dismay, and death. In such manner as I have expressed in words, so do I devote the legions and auxiliaries of the enemy, together with myself, to the dii Manes and to Earth for the republic of the Quirites, for the army, legions, auxiliaries of the Roman people, the Quirites.
– Titus Livy, History of Rome, 8.9.6-8.9.8
In contrast, his son at Sentinum added more spells to the vow of death.
[…] he drove before him dismay and flight, slaughter and blood, and the wrath of the gods celestial and infernal, that, with the contagious influence of the furies, the ministers of death, he would infect the standards, the weapons, and the armour of the enemy, and that the same spot should be that of his perdition, and that of the Gauls and Samnites.
– Titus Livy, History of Rome, 10.28.16-10.28.17
Having said these words, Decius Mus, like his father before, mounted a horse, broke through the outgoing Roman legionaries and headed into the middle of the Senna infantry. Livy says that at the same time when the Roman consul came across the enemy’s weapon, the scales of victory tilted to the side of the Romans. In most cases, the death of the chief led his army to flee, but the death of Decius Mus caused the legionaries turned back and faced the enemies who had just hunted them down, and at that moment paralyzed their consul’s deed. Ultimately, the Romans won the battle, leaving about 8.7 thousand fallen legionaries on the battlefield, and annihilating 25,000 enemies and more 8,000 captured.
To sum up, the result of the battle of Sentinum was determined not only by the huge numbers of people involved on both sides or the tactical manoeuvres used. First of all, divine interference decided.