Ancient History & Civilisation

Africa 256-255 BC

The development of the Roman navy and the string of remarkable successes which the Romans enjoyed at sea will be discussed in the next chapter. Carthaginian ships had raided the Italian coast as early as 261, but in 256, whilst the war continued in Sicily, the Romans mounted not just a raid, but a full-scale invasion of Africa. After a brief pause to regroup and rest following their great victory over the Carthaginian fleet at Ecnomus, the Roman consuls, Lucius Manlius Vulso and Marcus Atilius Regulus, sailed to Cape Bon, and landed near the city of Aspis, later known to the Romans as Clupea - both words mean 'shield'. The ships were drawn up onto the beach and surrounded with a rampart and ditch and Aspis besieged. Once the city had fallen and a garrison was installed, the consuls despatched a report to Rome and then sent the troops out on a series of plundering expeditions throughout this highly fertile region. Cattle were rounded up, the farmhouses of wealthy Carthaginians put to the torch and over 20,000 slaves were captured or defected, including numbers of Romans and Italians taken prisoner earlier in the war according to Zonaras. It was quite probably during these operations that the excavated settlement at Kerkouane on the coast was taken, and its defences destroyed. The Senate replied to the report, instructing one consul to return to Italy with the fleet and the other to remain in Africa with an army. Vulso took the bulk of the ships, along with the prisoners, back, leaving a squadron of forty to support Regulus' land forces.15

Many myths came to surround Regulus and, as with all the other important figures of the First Punic War including Hiero and Hamilcar Barca, it is now impossible to know what sort of man he was. He was clearly an able commander, and if he was perhaps over-aggressive this was a common trait in Roman commanders and not considered a vice. One tradition claimed that Regulus was impoverished by senatorial standards, and that it was only reluctantly, following an assurance by the Senate that they would provide for his wife and children at state expense, that he accepted the African command. However, the moralizing tone of this anecdote strongly suggests a later invention as part of the Regulus myth. Regulus' army in Africa consisted of 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry. It was probably a standard consular army, if an understrength one, since Polybius later mentions a 'First Legion' which implies that he had at least two. The disproportionately low number of cavalry was a result of the difficulty of transporting horses by sea.16

Once the Carthaginians had realized that they were incapable of preventing the Romans from landing in Africa, they began to look to the immediate defence of Carthage itself. Two generals were elected, Hasdrubal, son of Hanno, and Bostar, whilst Hamilcar, the current commander in Sicily, was recalled from Heraclea Minoa with 5,000 foot and 500 horse. The three seem to have held a joint command, but the size of their united forces is not clear, although these evidently included a sizeable contingent of elephants and numerous cavalry. It is unlikely that they significantly outnumbered the Romans in overall numbers, since our sources do not imply a major disparity between the strengths of the two sides. In late 256 Regulus began to advance, plundering the countryside. Reaching the town of Adys (possibly Roman Uthina, modern Oudna), he began to besiege it. The Carthaginians had already decided that they must make some effort to prevent the Romans from devastating their territory with impunity, and moved their army to its relief. Arriving near Adys, they followed a similar policy to Hanno outside Agrigentum and built a fortified camp on a hill overlooking the town and the Roman siegeworks. Clearly their commanders were reluctant to commit themselves to a battle too hastily, before they had gained some advantage.17

Polybius is highly critical of the Carthaginian leaders for taking up a position on high, broken ground, where cavalry and elephants would be less effective, and thus denying themselves their greatest advantages over the Romans. He claims that the Roman commanders realized that this was a mistake as a result of their past experience of warfare. It is rather unclear which officers he means by this, the Greek term used being vague, but it was decided to mount an immediate attack on the Carthaginian camp. It was a very bold plan and the contrast with the tentative posturings of the rival armies outside Agrigentum is most striking. There, when first Hanno and then the Romans offered battle, they made no effort to force an encounter when the other side declined, being content with the moral victory of seeing their enemy refuse a direct challenge. However, the situation was very different in 256. In Sicily the war was fought for the control of cities, each side attempting to maintain or establish as permanent a presence as possible. Both were contesting a region which had no natural ties to either side. Regulus' army was far too small, and lacked a secure base of allied support, for him to consider attempting to subjugate the cities of Carthaginian Africa one by one. Agathocles had spent years in the same region and ultimately failed to achieve very much. The Roman invasion was a means of placing pressure on Carthage as part of the wider struggle. Its aim was to bring about Carthage's defeat, not conquer territory for a new province. The defeat of the main Punic army in the field was the best means of placing pressure on the elite of the city and encouraging them to seek peace. Therefore, the Roman plundering operations and capture of towns and villages had as its prime objective the provoking of the Carthaginians to open battle, though it also provided the Roman army with food and the plunder which all classes at Rome expected to gain from warfare. This main aim was achieved when the Carthaginians marched to Adys, but this does not explain why Regulus risked a surprise assault on the camp rather than simply waiting for the opportunity to give battle. It may be that the recent experience of the campaigns in Sicily, although not by Regulus himself, had accustomed the Romans to rapid raids and surprise assaults on towns and encouraged them to attempt this sort of action. If so, then it is surprising that Hamilcar was unprepared for this move.18

Polybius tells us that the Romans attacked the hilltop camp at dawn, but Zonaras says the assault occurred at night, although his claim that many Carthaginians were killed in their beds seems unlikely. It is possible that a night-time approach march was followed by a dawn attack, for it seems that the Carthaginians did not have sufficient warning to deploy more than a part of their army. Two Roman columns assaulted from opposite sides of the camp. A group of mercenaries did manage to form up and drove back the First Legion in considerable disorder, but pursued too rashly. They were attacked from the rear by the other Roman force and themselves routed. Their defeat seems to have marked the end of effective resistance and the rest of the army abandoned the camp in a panicked flight, although the cavalry and elephants escaped with few casualties once they reached the level ground. The bold attack had been an outstanding success, but the repulse of the First Legion emphasized the risks involved. The twin attack does not appear to have occurred simultaneously, perhaps as a result of the night-time approach march, although in the event this resulted in the fortuitous appearance of the second Roman force in the mercenaries' rear. Had the Romans been detected during their approach they risked having to fight a deployed Carthaginian army attacking down from the high ground. However, it is worth noting once again that a recently created Carthaginian force, (even Hamilcar's mercenaries were fighting alongside unfamiliar troops and leaders), failed to co-ordinate its different elements effectively, and the successful mercenary counter-attack was not supported.19

The Romans followed up their success by taking Tunis, using it as a base to mount raids on the area around Carthage itself. The Carthaginians were utterly despondent. In the last year their proud navy, which had put to sea with more ships than ever before, had been decisively defeated at Ecnomus, and now the army tasked with defending the capital itself had been beaten with consummate ease by Regulus. At the same time they were involved in bitter fighting with the Numidian kingdoms, resulting from attempts to expand Carthaginian territory in Africa, a policy which had been pursued alongside the struggle with Rome. Refugees from the areas raided by the Numidians as well as the Romans flooded into Carthage itself, spreading panic and creating some food shortages. According to Polybius it was at this point that Regulus guessed that the enemy might be willing to negotiate to end the war and sent peace envoys, which were welcomed by the Carthaginians. He was said to be nervous that his year of office had nearly expired and that he might not have finished the war before a successor arrived to gain an easy victory. Similar motivation clearly did influence the behaviour of other Roman magistrates. All our other sources agree that it was the Carthaginians who actually began the negotiations after their recent defeats.20

Only Dio claims to preserve the details of the terms dictated by Regulus, but their absence from all the earlier sources can only make their authenticity dubious. For what they are worth, these were that the Carthaginians should give up both Sicily and Sardinia, release all Roman prisoners freely whilst ransoming their own, pay the Romans an indemnity and annual tribute, only make war and peace on the approval of Rome, and only retain one warship for their own use, but provide 50 to serve under the Romans whenever requested. In several respects, notably the inclusion of Sardinia, these terms are harsher than the treaty which actually concluded the war in 241. Whatever the precise details, it is clear that Regulus sought to impose a treaty which forced the Carthaginians to admit total defeat in their war with Rome. All our sources state that the Carthaginians felt that the terms were far harsher than their actual fortunes in the war warranted. Despite its recent setbacks, the city was by no means at the end of its resources. Faced with a Roman refusal to grant any concession, the talks failed.21

During the winter of 255 the Carthaginians reformed their field army, adding drafts recruited from Greece - either 100 or 50 soldiers according to Diodorus. Amongst these was the Spartan-trained Xanthippus, a mercenary leader of some experience and ability. Polybius takes obvious pride in recounting the achievements of this Greek soldier, whose actions confirmed the deeply held Hellenic admiration for the Spartan military system, and it may be that Philinus described these incidents in a similar tone. Some of the stories about Xanthippus are probably later inventions, and Polybius himself was sceptical about the conflicting tales of his subsequent assassination by jealous Carthaginians, but there is no reason not to accept the basic narrative of this episode. Xanthippus was openly critical of the Carthaginian commanders who had let their army fight a battle on unfavourable ground when their advantages in cavalry and elephants could easily have been employed to defeat the Romans in the open plains. After explaining his views he was appointed as some sort of senior military adviser to the army and heavily involved in training the men. Polybius stresses his use of proper military commands and manoeuvres as he drilled the army beneath the walls of Carthage. The soldiers' confidence was renewed and the Punic generals gave them an encouraging speech and then moved out to confront Regulus. Their forces mustered 12,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and nearly 100 elephants. The infantry included the survivors of Hamilcar's mercenaries from the Sicilian army, presumably some of the newly recruited Greeks, and a contingent of Carthaginian citizens fighting as a phalanx of spearmen. Although the army was not huge, it probably enjoyed at least parity with Regulus' forces. The scene was set for the one battle which most resembled the formal clashes of the Second War. It was also to prove the only Carthaginian victory in a land battle.22

The Romans were surprised by their opponents' renewed confidence, but, now that the first round of negotiations had failed, eager to inflict another defeat. They advanced and camped just over a mile (10 stades) away from the Punic camp and eagerly accepted battle when the next day the enemy marched out and deployed. Precisely where the battle occurred is unknown, beyond Polybius' vague assertion that it occurred in level plains, but it is often referred to as the Battle of Tunis, since this was the place he mentioned that the Roman army had occupied. Xanthippus is given credit for the Carthaginian formation which placed the Citizen phalanx in the main line, with a body of mercenaries on their right. The cavalry were divided between the two wings, supported by more mercenaries, some of whom may have been skirmishers. The elephants were formed in a single line a 'suitable distance' in front of the infantry, although it seems that they did not fully cover the mercenaries on the right.23

The Romans were clearly concerned about the danger posed by the massed elephants and Regulus adapted his formation accordingly. Velites ran out ahead of the main line to skirmish, for elephants were vulnerable to missiles which might cause them to panic even if they did not inflict serious wounds. As usual the cavalry formed the wings and the legions the centre, but the latter were formed especially deep, or 'many maniples deep' in Polybius' description. It is unclear precisely what this means, but Polybius certainly believed that it was an appropriate formation for meeting elephants. Normally the legions deployed in the triplex acies with three lines of maniples, and it is possible that on this occasion Regulus formed the maniples into a larger number of lines. Lazenby suggested that they formed six lines, and probably closed the gaps normally kept between the maniples in each line, but contrasts this compact formation with Scipio's successful creation of lanes through his centre to channel the elephant attack at Zama. However, there are no other clear examples of a Roman legion forming in more than three lines until the first century BC when the maniple had ceased to be its main tactical unit. In the early second century BC, and possibly during the Hannibalic War, there were cases of an entire legion formed in the triplex acies being kept as a reserve behind the main line, but this usually occurred in actions which developed unexpectedly or when the enemy were significantly outnumbered. A more likely interpretation of Polybius is that Regulus' legions were formed in the usual three lines, but that each individual maniple took up position in a greater number of ranks than usual. The great danger in an elephant charge was that the terrifying appearance of the beasts would cause the waiting infantry to panic and run. A deeper formation made it harder for the men in the front ranks to do so, as those in the rear had to flee before they were able to go anywhere but forward. If a unit stood its ground when attacked by elephants there was a greater chance that its missiles would drive the beast off. It also seems likely that at least some intervals remained between the maniples, for the Roman infantry clearly covered a frontage at least as wide as the Carthaginian foot, since the Roman left wing managed to avoid the brunt of the elephant attack. This interpretation of the Roman deployment involves a slightly less natural reading of the Greek, but does seem to make better sense of the rest of his narrative. The main weakness of the Roman formation was that, as Polybius noted, it failed to protect their already grossly outnumbered cavalry. Perhaps Regulus hoped to defeat the enemy centre with his infantry before the Carthaginians could exploit their advantage on the wings.24

After a delay of the type so common before battles, Xanthippus ordered the elephants to attack and the Romans moved forward to meet them, raising their battle cry and rhythmically banging their weapons against their shields in what Polybius describes as their usual custom. The Roman horse, facing odds of at least four to one, were swiftly routed. The 2,000 men on the left flank of the Roman infantry line, who would normally have been allied troops, achieved considerable success. Eager to avoid the elephants and contemptuous of the mercenaries who had been defeated in the previous battle, they charged the units on the enemy right flank and routed them, chasing them back to their camp. Elsewhere, the Roman infantry reeled under the onslaught of the mass of elephants, but despite taking casualties, the depth of their formation prevented them from breaking. A few maniples and small groups fought their way past the animals, and after reforming moved against the Carthaginian phalanx. Weary, their pila almost certainly gone, and gready outnumbered, they were easily defeated. In the meantime the Punic horse had swept in against the flanks of the Roman infantry. Their attacks robbed the Roman formation of what forward impetus it had left, as flanking maniples had to turn to face the new threat. Struck by missiles from the cavalry or trampled by the elephants the Romans were destroyed whether they stood their ground or turned to flee. Regulus and 500 men initially made their escape, but were quickly captured. Only the 2,000 men who had broken through the mercenaries were able to retire in good order, eventually making their way back to Aspis which, with the troops left there, they successfully defended until evacuated by the Roman fleet later in the year. This was the only substantial part of the Roman army to escape. Polybius records losses of 800 men amongst the routed mercenaries, but does not give a figure for the casualties suffered by the rest of the army.25

This was the most striking success achieved by elephants throughout the course of the Punic Wars and had a great moral effect on the Roman armies in Sicily, who for the next few years did not dare contest control of the open ground with the Carthaginians for fear of these beasts. However, it is important to note that the victory had not been achieved by the elephants alone and owed a great deal to the successful cavalry actions which had allowed the envelopment of the Roman infantry. If Regulus' plan had been to use his superior infantry to break the enemy's main line before their numerically superior cavalry could come into play, it had failed because of the effectiveness of the elephants. At Trebia in 218 a substantial part of another Roman army which had been defeated on both wings was able to burst through the Carthaginian line and escape. Regulus' army was about one third of the size of that later force, which made it easier for the Punic cavalry to envelop the infantry centre, even more so as its deeper formation can only have reduced its frontage.

Xanthippus departed after his success, aware according to Polybius of the jealousy of the Carthaginian nobility, and may subsequently have served under the Ptolemies. Later a deeply romantic tradition developed around Regulus, claiming that the Carthaginians sent him as an ambassador to Rome to negotiate for the ransom of Roman prisoners, but that he advised the Romans against making the agreement. Bound with an oath to return to Carthage, Regulus nobly kept faith and refused to stay in Rome, in spite of the fact that he knew that going back would mean a cruel death by torture. One source says that first his eyelids were cut off and then he was finally trampled to death by an enraged elephant. Another tradition told how his wife was given two eminent Carthaginian captives and in vengeance for her husband had them brutally maltreated until one died. Sometimes scholars have been tempted to accept this part of the account and claim that the Regulus story was invented to excuse his family's cruelty, but it is probably safer to reject the entire tradition, especially since none of these events are mentioned by Polybius.26

The African campaign of 256-255 remains one of the most dramatic episodes of the war, even without these almost certainly mythical embellishments. The Carthaginians' victory restored their confidence, which had reached such a low ebb after Ecnomus and Adys, and began an upsurge in their fortunes. In the following year they gained some ascendancy in Sicily, whilst a brutal campaign suppressed the Numidian princes. The Romans made no attempt throughout the remainder of the conflict to land another invasion force in Africa, although several large raids were sent against the coastal areas.27

Why had the invasion been mounted in the first place? It is clear that the Romans saw this expedition as a way of putting further pressure on Carthage. At least since the fall of Agrigentum and the Roman decision to attempt the expulsion of the Carthaginians from the whole of Sicily, the war had become an open struggle between Rome and Carthage. The limited objectives of the early phases of the war, assistance to the Mamertines and gaining control of the Straits of Messina, had passed into the background. The Carthaginians might eventually have been driven from Sicily by the piecemeal capture of each of their strongholds, but this was an enterprise which would take many years to achieve, and considerable effort could be wasted when captured cities were retaken or betrayed to the enemy. Once the conflict had become an open war between Rome and

Carthage, then it would only end when one or the other side conceded defeat. The Roman invasion of North Africa was an attempt to apply sufficient pressure to force Carthage to do just that, and it is notable that it was the Romans who decided to escalate the conflict in this way. Our sources are apt to blame Regulus for excessive pride in offering terms that were too harsh to be acceptable to the Carthaginians, but it is unlikely that any other Roman commander would have been markedly more lenient. The Romans demanded that their enemies admit that they had been utterly defeated and accept terms reflecting this. It is the first clear reflection we have of the Roman attitude to warfare discussed in an earlier chapter. Roman wars ended only when the enemy ceased to be a threat by admitting total defeat and accepting their future as a subordinate ally. The only alternative was for the Romans themselves to suffer such a defeat. The Carthaginians' attitude to warfare was far less determined, for they, in accordance with Hellenistic practices, expected a war to be ended with a negotiated treaty which reflected the actual balance of power. They did not anticipate the total destruction of an enemy's capacity to do future harm to them, still less that such terms would be imposed on them. Whether they or Regulus in fact initiated the negotiations, it is notable that the Carthaginians were willing to seek peace terms when the enemy had the upper hand in the conflict. The contrast to the Roman attitude when Pyrrhus had defeated them in two battles, or Hannibal had inflicted a string of disasters, is most striking. Both generals sent ambassadors to Rome and could not understand when the Senate refused even to speak to them unless they, the victors, conceded defeat. The relentless Roman attitude to warfare was one of their greatest assets in the wars with Carthage.

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