Rome vs Carthage- Part 4: Spartan to the Rescue

With the successive naval victories, the Romans moved ever-closer to Carthage. The consul Regulus would finally land in North Africa, and thus begin an invasion of the Carthaginian homeland. Will Carthage be so quickly knocked out of the First Punic War? Not quite…

255 B.C was the first year in which Carthage would feel the tension and distress of an enemy army moving towards the capital itself. (It was, certainly, not the last time). Roman consul Marcus Atilius Regulus, with an army of 15,000, had captured the town of Clupea, only 40 miles east of Carthage. The enemy was coming closer and closer.

Marcus Regulus

The Carthaginians immediately recalled all its generals back todeal with the crisis, and the generals resolved to meet the Romans at the city of Adis, 40 miles southeast of Carthage where the Romans were advancing. The Carthaginians possessed a superior cavalry to the Romans, and even had a division of war elephants for its own use (something which the Romans certainly were lacking), but its soldiers were ill-trained; the generals decided that the best place to resist would be on a hill overlooking the plains of Adis.

And yet the Carthaginian army was crushed. Regulus’s army sneaked behind the hill at night, and attacked from both sides of the hill at dawn; they succeeded in chasing away the entire Carthaginian army and capturing the enemy camp. This pulled Carthage into deeper distress. The Roman consul demanded a surrender, with harsh terms: Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia must be seceded, the navy must renounced, and an indemnity be paid. Carthage was to effectively become Rome’s vassal.  And Carthage’s situation was becoming critical. The Numidians, a people in which the Carthaginians had previously had under control, rose up against their masters; refugees streamed into the city and a food crisis arose. Yet the Romans also advanced nearer and nearer to the city, and none of the Carthaginian generals seemed capable of stopping them.

Who was there who could turn the tide? It was not to be a Carthaginian general after all.  The armies of Carthage have long used mercenaries, and this time Carthage resolved to hire a Spartan general: Xanthippus. According to Polybius, Xanthippus “expressed his opinion to his friends that the Carthaginians had owed their defeat, not to the superiority of the Romans, but to the unskilfulness of their own commanders.” Xanthippus wasted no time. Quickly, albeit hastily, Xanthippus raised up a phalanx of civilian soldiers, reinforced with his own mercenary troops, Carthaginian cavalry and a line of war elephants.

Xanthippus learned from the Carthaginian mistakes. The battle of Adis had been conducted in a hill with ravines and ragged outcrops; only on an open plain would Carthage’s cavalry and elephants be made to the best use. The Spartan mercenary decided that at Tunis, Rome and Carthage would fight. The Greek writer Diodorus Siculus writes about Xanthippus’s decision:

Xanthippus, the Spartan, kept advising the generals to advance against the enemy. He did this, he said, not so that by urging and spurring them on he might himself remain out of danger, but that they might know that he was confident of their ready victory if they would do so. As for himself, he added, he would lead the attack and would display his valor at the foremost point of danger.

-Diodorus Siclus

And Regulus was well aware that the Carthaginian army has resurged after their initial defeat. But Regulus was pressed with another more alarming concern. His term as consul was nearing its end. Even though Regulus had with him only two legions, he still needed a victory; how could he allow another general to snatch the glory that should be his?

The battle started with a Carthaginian elephant attack, followed by a complete defeat of the Roman cavalry. The Carthaginian cavalry finished off the Roman army, leaving only 2000 Roman troops to be rescued by their fleet. Diodorus describes the bravery of Xanthippus in the battle:

During the battle Xanthippus, the Spartan, rode up and down, turning back any foot-soldiers who had taken flight. But when someone remarked that it was easy for one on horseback to urge others into danger, he at once jumped down from his horse, handed it over to a servant, and going about on foot, begged his men not to bring defeat and destruction upon the whole army.

-Diodorus Siculus

Regulus was taken prisoner by the Carthaginians, and thus ended his dream of winning the glory of being the conqueror of Carthage. Rome’s hope of defeating Carthage in Africa was over. The rest of the war would be fought where it started: Sicily, and in the seas.

And what of Xanthippus, the Spartan general who averted Carthage’s disaster? Historians differ on his ultimate fate. Some say that he would later be given a leaking ship by jealous allies and would drown at sea. Others say he would go on to receive the governorship of an Egyptian province, granted by the Ptolemy dynasty. Regulus, meanwhile, would remain a prisoner of the Carthaginians- and he would still play an important role in the future.

The war, in fact, was about to ender a long, bloody stalemate. Follow us next week as we continue to tell the story- and the ending- of the First Punic War.

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