Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

The Invasion of Africa

Hanno hastened home with the news of the disaster of Ecnomus (though home, as we have seen, was not the place to which a defeated Carthaginian general would naturally desire to go), and bade his country-men prepare for defense. But Carthage was, now as ever, almost helpless when attacked in her own dominions. Her subjects were always disaffected and ready to rebel; and even her own colonies were not permitted to protect themselves with walls. No resistance could be offered to the invaders, who found the country much the same as Agathocles had found it fifty years before, a singularly rich and perfectly defenseless region. They collected a rich booty, part of which consisted of as many as twenty thousand slaves. It is possible that if, instead of busying themselves with plunder, they had advanced on Carthage at once, they might have finished the war at a single blow.

If this had ever been possible, it certainly ceased to be so when an order came from the Senate at Rome that one of the consuls was to remain in Africa with such forces as might be necessary to finish the war, while the other was to return home with the rest of the expedition. Regulus was left accordingly with fifteen thousand infantry and six hundred horse and a squadron of forty ships; the rest of the force, with the vast booty that had been collected, Manlius put on shipboard and carried back to Italy.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


The Carthaginians, on the other hand, were doing their best to strengthen their force. They appointed two new generals, and sent for a third from Sicily, who at once came back, bringing with him between five and six thousand men. It seems strange that the Romans, who must now have been masters of the sea, made no attempt to interrupt him. On his arrival the Carthaginians resolved to take the offensive. The wealthy citizens could not bear to see their estates plundered and their country houses burnt to the ground, and resolved to risk a battle. What might have been the result if they had had skillful generals is doubtful; but, unfortunately, skillful generals could not be found. Hamilcar and his colleagues marched out of the city and took up their position upon a hill. As their strength was in cavalry and elephants they ought, of course, to have remained on level ground, where both these could have been brought into use.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


The Roman general, whose military ability was great, saw his advantage. Half the enemy's force was useless in the position which he was occupying, and in that position he resolved to attack him. He ordered a simultaneous advance against both sides of the hill on which the Carthaginian camp was pitched. The cavalry and the elephants were, as he had foreseen, quite useless; and though some of the mercenaries stood firm against the first charge, these too gave way when they were taken in the rear. The Romans won a decided victory, though they were too weak in cavalry to inflict much loss upon the enemy in his retreat. The next day they advanced and took up a position at Tunes, a town which, as we have seen, was not more than five miles from Carthage.

The Carthaginians were in despair. Both their fleet and their army had suffered terrible defeats, and their subjects and allies were in rebellion—the Africans ravaging the territory of their late masters even more mercilessly than did the Romans. In fact they had nothing left to them but the city itself; and this, crowded with the multitude of fugitives that had fled into it from all the country round about, was threatened with famine. Affairs were in this condition when envoys arrived from Regulus, who was afraid that his year of office might expire before the war was finished, offering to treat for peace. Envoys were at once sent from Carthage; but they could do nothing. The Roman general, probably aware that the Senate at home would not sanction any great concessions, demanded terms which it was impossible to grant. The Carthaginian government felt that they could not be more entirely humiliated by absolute conquest, and they broke off the negotiation, resolving to resist to the last.

Then came one of those singular turns of fortune of which history is so full. The pride of the Roman general was "the pride that goeth before a fall." The Carthaginians had not hesitated to use their almost boundless wealth in hiring mercenaries from abroad, and now there came to Africa a body of these troops in command of one of those soldiers of fortune who have had the luck to have great opportunities and to make good use of them. Xantippus came from the best school of soldiers in the world—Sparta. It was a Spartan who had turned the tide when Athens seemed likely to conquer Syracuse; and another Spartan was to do the same service for Carthage against Rome. Xantippus heard the story of the late battle; he saw the strength of the Carthaginian forces, the numbers of their cavalry and of their elephants, and he came to the conclusion—a conclusion which he did not hesitate to announce to his friends—that their disasters had been due, not to the inferiority of their army, but to the unskillfulness of the generals. The Senate sent for him. Introduced into the council-chamber, he set forth the causes of the late defeat, and the strategy which ought to be pursued in the future, with such clearness as to convince his hearers. The generals were displaced, and the "care of the army was committed" to the Spartan.

Every one hoped much from the change, and Xantippus soon began to show himself equal to his task. Even in drilling the troops—and this he began to do at once—his skill was so manifestly superior to that of his colleagues, that the soldiers began to feel the utmost confidence in him. They loudly asked that they might be led against the enemy, and that the general who was to lead them should be Xantippus. The other generals offered to give up their commands to their comrade; and the army, which numbered twelve thousand foot and four thousand horse, and which was accompanied by the enormous number of a hundred elephants, was led out against the enemy. Xantippus arranged the elephants in a single line in front. Behind these he placed what Polybius calls "the Carthaginian phalanx." Probably the desperate condition of the country had brought a force of native Carthaginians into the field. On the right wing were posted the heavy-armed mercenaries. With them were ranged also some of the light-armed troops and of the cavalry. The left wing was made up entirely of the two latter kinds of troops.

Regulus, on the other hand, when he saw that the Carthaginians were bent on fighting, arranged his line of battle with the special view of holding his ground against the elephants, which his men greatly feared. The light-armed troops were, as usual, posted in front; but behind them stood the legions in unusually deep and close order. The cavalry were posted as usual on the wings. These tactics were well contrived to resist the elephants, but laid the army, with its narrow front, open to the flank attacks of the powerful Carthaginian cavalry.

Xantippus began the battle by a forward movement of his elephants against the Roman centre. His cavalry charged at the same time on either wing. The Roman horse, five hundred only against four thousand if these numbers are right—was speedily overpowered. The Roman left wing at first fared better. Charging fiercely, with not the less zeal because they were not called to encounter the dreaded elephants, they fell on the heavy-armed mercenaries, routed them, and pursued them as far as their camp. The centre, too, held its own for a time. The front ranks, indeed, were trampled down in heaps by the elephants, but the main body, with its deep, close files, stood firm. But they had to face about to resist attacks in front, on the sides, and in the rear. One part, after driving back the elephants, was met by the phalanx of native Carthaginians, which was fresh and unbroken, and indeed had not been in action at all; another had to resist the furious charges of the cavalry; nor were there any reserves to be brought up. The greater part of the army fell where they stood: some crushed by the elephants, others struck down by the javelins showered on them by the nimble African horsemen, some slain in more equal conflict with the Carthaginian heavy-armed. The few that sought safety in flight died but with less honour. The way to the fortified post which they held upon the sea-coast (it was called Aspis or Clypea from its resemblance to a shield) was over a flat and open country; the cavalry and the elephants pursued the fugitives, and few reached the fort. A solid body of two thousand men, however, which had broken through the mercenaries, was able to make good its retreat to Aspis. Five hundred, prisoners were taken, among them the Consul Regulus. All the rest of the army, scarcely less than twelve thousand in number, perished on the field or in the flight. The great historian Polybius, from whom I have taken this account, concludes his narrative of the campaign with reflections on the changes of fortune which bring men down in the course of a day from the heights of prosperity to the depths of misery, and on the marvelous results which the genius of a single man can effect; but he says nothing either here or afterwards of the romantic story of the fate of the prisoner Regulus. We are not certain to what year it belongs—we are not even sure that it is true at all; on the other hand, it is too famous, too noble in its meaning and moral, to be omitted. I may therefore tell it now where it will fitly close the career of one of the great soldiers of Rome, the simple, frugal men who were called from the plough to command the armies of the republic.

I do not know that the story can be better told than in Horace's noble ode, perhaps the very noblest that he ever wrote. Regulus, we may say, by way of preface, after being kept in prison at Carthage for several years, was sent to Rome to negotiate a peace, under the promise to return if he failed. Among the terms which he was to offer was that of a ransoming or exchanging of prisoners. When brought into the Senate, which at first he refused to enter as being now a mere Carthaginian slave, he strongly advised his countrymen. At the same time he gave his voice against peace generally.

With warning voice of stern rebuke

Thus Regulus the Senate shook:

He saw prophetic, in far days to come,

The heart-corrupt, and future doom of Rome.

"These eyes," he cried, "these eyes have seen

Unblooded swords from warriors torn,

And Roman standards nailed in scorn

On Punic shrines obscene;

Have seen the hands of free-born men

Wrenched back; th' unbarred, unguarded gate,

And fields our war laid desolate

By Romans tilled again.

"What! will the golden franchised slave

Return more loyal and more brave?

Ye heap but loss on crime!

The wool that Cretan dyes distain

Can ne'er its virgin hue regain;

And valour fallen and disgraced

Revives not in a coward breast

Its energy sublime.

"The stag released from hunter's toils

From the dread sight of man recoils,

Is he more brave than when of old

He ranged his forest free? Behold

In him your soldier! He has knelt

To faithless foes; he, too, has felt

The knotted cord: and crouched beneath

Fear, not of shame, but death.

"He sued for peace tho' vowed to war;

Will such men, girt in arms once more

Dash headlong on the Punic shore?

No! they will buy their craven lives

With Punic scorn and Punic gyves.

O mighty Carthage, rearing high

Thy fame upon our infamy,

A city eye, an empire built

On Roman ruins, Roman guilt?"

From the chaste kiss, and wild embrace

Of wife and babes, he turned his face,

A man self-doomed to die,

Then bent his manly brow, in scorn,

Resolved, relentless, sad but stern,

To earth, all silently;

Till counsel never heard before

Had nerved each wavering Senator;—

Till flushed each cheek with patriot shame,

And surging rose the loud acclaim;—

Then, from his weeping friends, in haste,

To exile and to death he passed.

He knew the tortures that Barbaric hate

Had stored for him. Exulting in his fate,

With kindly hand he waved away

The crowds that strove his course to stay.

He passed from all, as when in days of yore,

His judgment given, thro' client throngs he pressed

In glad Venafrian fields to seek his rest,

Or Greek Tarentuin on th' Ionian shore.'

Translation by Sir Stephen De Vere. (Bell and Sons, 1885.)

What is the truth about the "tortures of barbaric hate" we cannot say. The Romans had a horrible story of how the hero on his return was cruelly put to death. But then they were never scrupulous about the truth when they were writing of their enemies; and about Carthage and its doings they were, we have reason to believe, particularly apt to exaggerate and even to invent. On the other hand, the Carthaginians showed no mercy to their own generals when these were unsuccessful; and it is very probable that they showed as little to an enemy, especially when he had done them such damage and had treated them as haughtily as had Regulus.

But there is at least equal authority for a story not less horrible which is told against the Romans themselves, or rather against a Roman woman. The Senate handed over two noble Carthaginians to the wife of Regulus as hostages for the safety of her husband. When she heard of his death she ordered her servants to fasten the two prisoners in a cask, and to keep them without bread and water. After five days one of them died. The savage creature kept the living shut up with the dead, giving him now a little bread and water that his torments might be prolonged. But the servants themselves rebelled against these horrible doings, and informed the Tribunes of the people of what was going on. By them the poor wretch was rescued; and the people would not allow him to be ill-treated any more.