Ancient History & Civilisation


The lack of progress in Sicily, coupled with their surprising naval success, in 256 BC led the Romans to decide to bypass the island and attack North Africa itself. It was an extremely risky enterprise, especially as the initial crossing to Sicily marked their only previous overseas campaign. Carthage was over 600 kilometres from Rhegium (where the troops would embark), meaning that supply lines would be stretched to the limit. Throughout the voyage the fleet, especially the animal transporters, was extremely vulnerable to attack.

However, none of these concerns detered the Roman effort, and a huge armada of 330 ships was mustered, under the joint command of the two consuls, Lucius Manlius Vulso and Marcus Atilius Regulus. The flotilla first sailed south to Sicily, where crack Roman infantry were picked up to serve as marines. Polybius informs us that 120 were assigned to each quinquereme (a total of 140,000 men). The Carthaginians had themselves assembled an even greater fleet (of 350 ships, with 150,000 men), which it is generally thought may have been intended to attack the Roman fleet and seize control of Sicilian waters, in order to land a new army.22

The two sides clashed at Cape Ecnomus off the southern coast of Sicily, in what was the largest naval battle of the ancient world. The Roman fleet was split into four different groups, shaped into a triangular formation with one squadron providing a rearguard. The Carthaginian fleet took on a far more conventional formation: a straight line, with the left wing angled towards the Sicilian shoreline. The Carthaginian plan seems to have been to attack the Roman formation and break it up, thereby provoking confusion. However, once again the Roman corvi served as the great equalizers, negating centuries of Carthaginian skill and experience.

The Carthaginian centre was the first to flee, leaving the remaining Roman ships free to assist their colleagues who were having difficulties against the Carthaginian left. Now over fifty Carthaginian ships found themselves surrounded. Some in their desperation to escape pretended to run aground in the shallows, but nothing could disguise the fact that Ecnomus was a total disaster for the Carthaginians.23 In all, 94 of their ships had been either sunk or captured, against Roman losses of just 24.24

The defeated Carthaginian fleet regrouped, probably at Lilybaeum, and played for time by sending Hanno, one of its commanders, with peace terms to the Romans. According to a story told by the Roman writer Valerius Maximus and others, the Romans were said to have considered arresting the Carthaginian, but Hanno argued that if the Romans did seize him then they would be no better than the Carthaginians, and then made good his escape.25

Realizing that if they confronted the Roman fleet on its way to North Africa they would be at a grave disadvantage numerically, the Carthaginian commanders decided to split the surviving fleet, with Hamilcar remaining in Sicily while Hanno returned to Carthage with the larger number of ships. Meanwhile the Roman flotilla carried on to North Africa, and landed near the town of Aspis, probably the modern town of Kebilia on the Cape Bon peninsula. Quickly capturing the city, they waited for further instructions from Rome.

The order that came back from Rome was that one consul, Manlius Vulso, was to return to Italy, leaving the other, Regulus, with a force of 40 ships, 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry. The Roman Senate was clearly not yet ready to chance everything on such a risky enterprise. For the Carthaginians, the delay and subsequent evacuation of a considerable part of the Roman force was an unforeseen boon. Hamilcar was recalled from Sicily with 5,000 infantry and 500 cavalry, and a three-man commission, made up also of Hasdrubal and Bostar, was given command of the Carthaginian forces.

By now Regulus and his army had advanced to the town of Adys (possibly the modern town of Oudna), which he put under siege. The Carthaginian army approached and built a fortified camp on a nearby hill, but this proved to be a tactical blunder, as the high ground negated the advantage that their elephants and cavalry might have given them. At the same time, it allowed them no opportunity to indulge in the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics that had worked so well in Sicily.26

The Romans were so confident of success that they quickly launched a dawn assault on the Carthaginian camp. The Roman vanguard was driven back by the defenders, but this advantage was soon lost when the Carthaginian troops chased the retreating Romans down the hill, whereupon they were promptly surrounded. The Carthaginian army now fled in disarray, leaving the victorious Romans to plunder their camp.

Tunes, just a few kilometres from Carthage itself, was the next city to fall to Regulus. Carthage was now crammed with refugees from the surrounding area fleeing not only the Romans but also Numidian attacks. Soon famine set in.

At this point there seems to have been peace negotiations between the two sides, although it is not clear who made the first overture. Polybius reports that it was Regulus, who was anxious to secure a triumphal victory before his term of office came to an end. Other sources, among them Diodorus and Livy, are equally adamant that it was a Carthaginian initiative, in a bid to avoid complete destruction. In fact the terms put forward by Regulus were so harsh that they were completely unacceptable to the Carthaginians. The Roman general demanded total Carthaginian withdrawal from Sicily and Sardinia, the release of all Roman prisoners, the paying of ransoms for all Carthaginian captives, the payment of all Rome’s war expenses, and an annual tribute. Furthermore Carthage would be allowed to make war or peace only with Roman consent, it would be permitted to retain only one warship for itself, and it would be expected to supply Rome with fifty triremes whenever Rome requested them. The terms themselves are a clear indication of how confident Regulus was of inflicting a decisive victory. Unforeseen circumstances, however, would give the lie to Roman confidence.27

The Carthaginians at last accepted the manifold shortcomings of their own commanders. New mercenary soldiers had been recruited in mainland Greece, and among their number was an experienced Spartan commander, Xanthippus, who quickly identified the tactical mistakes that the Carthaginian generals had made. He soon won over the high command, who appointed him to a senior advisory position overseeing the training of the troops. The army was now properly drilled under his tutelage outside the walls of Carthage, and, with morale restored, it was decided immediately to engage the enemy.

The Carthaginian force, which numbered 12,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and nearly 100 elephants, was deployed by Xanthippus to play upon its natural strengths. The main phalanx of the Carthaginian citizen levy was positioned in the centre, with the cavalry on the right and mercenaries on each wing. The elephants were drawn up on a single line in front of the infantry. These were intelligent tactics, because Regulus’ failure to strike an alliance with the Numidians, who might have been able to supply specialist horsemen, had left the Romans short of cavalry.

Although the massed Roman infantry withstood the elephant charge, their wings were quickly overwhelmed by the Carthaginian cavalry. The battle soon descended into a slaughter, with only 2,000 Roman troops managing to fight their way to safety. The only other survivors were Regulus and a further 500 soldiers, who were captured alive. The Roman general (despite a later canard that had him sent to Rome on a peace mission before returning to Carthage to an extremely painful death when the terms were rejected) probably died in captivity.28 Xanthippus did not remain long in Carthage to enjoy this triumph, for, aware of the jealousy that his great victory would provoke among the Carthaginian nobility, he returned home to Greece.

North Africa had been saved, but the victory was hardly decisive. Regulus’ army was not large, and Rome still had plenty more troops, and ambitious senators eager to lead them. More importantly, Rome was still dominant at sea, a fact compounded by another terrible defeat when a Carthaginian fleet had attempted to stop its Roman counterpart from evacuating its remaining troops from North African soil. Out of a total of 200 Carthaginian ships, 114 were lost or captured.

After this, Carthage again benefited from outside assistance, although this time it came not from a foreign mercenary captain, but from the weather. Against the advice of their most experienced captains, in 255 BC Roman admirals had decided to show their dominance by sailing down the Punic-held south-western coast of Sicily, but the fleet was caught up in a violent storm that resulted in many ships being driven on to the rocky shore. The Roman fleet was decimated, with only 80 out of 364 ships surviving. It has been calculated that around 100,000 Romans and Italians died in this catastrophe. Although the fleet was quickly rebuilt, it was to suffer another disastrous loss in a storm on the way back from raiding North Africa in 253, in which 150 ships were lost.29

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