Only two ways seemed open to Rome to terminate the struggle: to take the offensive more actively against the Punic province in Sicily, or to strike at Africa. As the former plan offered no prospect of a speedy conclusion, the latter was adopted. Rome braced herself for the effort. The fleet was raised to 250 battleships and 80 transport ships, while perhaps 100,000 men were required for the crews. The Carthaginian navy was also increased, to a figure perhaps a little less than the Roman. In the summer of 256 the Roman fleet, under the command of L. Manlius Vulso and M. Atilius Regulus, sailed round the eastern coast of Sicily and encountered the enemy off Cape Ecnomus. The Romans advanced in four squadrons on a narrow front, the Carthaginians sailed in order of battle in one long line abreast with the intention of outflanking their enemy. But the Roman first two squadrons, led by the two flagships, broke through the Punic centre and thanks to the corvus were soon victorious. Meanwhile the Roman third squadron had been forced inshore by the Carthaginian left wing, while the fourth Roman squadron was faring badly at the hands of the Carthaginian right. But part of the victorious Roman squadron returned in time to save their fourth line by driving off the Carthaginian right wing, and then the combined victorious squadrons converged against the enemy’s left wing near the shore; here they captured 50 vessels, having sunk 30 others. The Roman losses were only 24. It was a great victory, the fourth that Rome had won at sea; the passage to Africa was now secure.14
After refitting their ships the Romans sailed to Africa and disembarked at Clupea (Aspis) on Cape Bon, the promontory to the east of Carthage, as Agathocles had done before. Here they were in good communication with Sicily, and could threaten Carthage from the rear, while cutting her off from many of her rich subject cities. After capturing Clupea and ravaging the district, unopposed by Carthage, the Roman generals reported their success to the Senate, who recalled one consul with the fleet and left Regulus with a small squadron and two legions. This force, which was inadequate to attack Carthage, could have maintained the Roman position and have seriously embarrassed Carthage if Regulus had supplemented it by winning the support of the Numidian princes who were ready to revolt; Agathocles had already shown what a small army could achieve. But Regulus was no Agathocles; though brave and confident, he lacked the Greek’s ability.
When the Carthaginians realized that the Romans intended to continue the campaign, they raised forces and recalled others from Sicily. Then, advancing against Regulus who was besieging Adys (Uthina), they suffered defeat on hilly ground which crippled their cavalry and elephants. Regulus could now advance to Tunis, where he confidently encamped for the winter. Thinking that the Carthaginians were hard pressed, especially as the Numidians were restive, he offered terms of peace (possibly after overtures from Carthage), but these were far too severe to be accepted. Apart from his folly in trying to negotiate on unreasonable terms, it is unlikely that a peace could have been arranged, for Rome would probably have insisted on the complete evacuation of Sicily, while Carthage, though ready to make concessions in order to rid herself of the African war, could hardly have sacrificed the western end of the island.
In the spring of 255 the Carthaginians were again ready to try conclusions, for during the winter their army had been drilled and trained on Greek lines by a Spartan mercenary officer named Xanthippus. Before Regulus had bestirred himself Xanthippus led out the Punic army; instead of waiting for reinforcements from Italy Regulus advanced and gave battle in a plain on ground chosen by the enemy. Xanthippus formed his main troops into a phalanx with a hundred elephants in front and the cavalry on the wings. In vain the Romans strengthened their centre; they were only trampled to death more easily. The battle was decided by the Punic cavalry who outflanked and surrounded the Romans; a small division on the Roman left routed the Punic mercenaries, but retreated with heavy losses after the general defeat. Regulus and 500 others were captured; only 2,000 Romans escaped to Clupea. The African expedition had failed.15
Meanwhile the Romans had prepared a fleet, intending to blockade Carthage by sea while Regulus attacked by land. This scheme was now wrecked, but nevertheless the fleet of about 210 vessels, commanded by the two consuls, sailed to Africa to face the Punic navy and to rescue the survivors at Clupea. Off the Hermaean Promontory they met and defeated the fleet of perhaps 200 ships with which the Carthaginians, encouraged by their victory over Regulus, were contesting the right of way. After capturing many vessels by jamming them against the shore, and having won the fifth naval victory of the war, the consuls rescued the survivors at Clupea and sailed for home. But fresh tragedy awaited them. In taking to the sea the Romans had minimized their inexperience by adopting grappling tactics, but they could not compensate for their admirals’ lack of skill and experience in navigation. Natural forces, rather than the Punic fleet, threatened them. On returning from Africa they encountered a terrific storm between Camarina and Cape Pachynus, and only 80 vessels survived.16 However, the two consuls were voted triumphs for their previous victory and a columna rostrata was erected to commemorate it.