The Roman withdrawal from Africa was the attempt by the Roman Republic in 255 BC to rescue the survivors of their defeated expeditionary force to Carthaginian Africa during the First Punic War. A large fleet commanded by Servius Fulvius Paetinus Nobilior and Marcus Aemilius Paullus successfully evacuated the remnants of the expedition, defeating a Carthaginian fleet en route, but was struck by a storm while returning, losing most of its ships.
The Romans had invaded the Carthaginian homeland (in what is now north eastern Tunisia) in 256 BC. After initial successes they had left a force of 15,500 men to hold their lodgement over the winter. This force, under Marcus Atilius Regulus, was decisively beaten at the Battle of Tunis in the spring of 255 BC and Regulus captured. 2,000 survivors were besieged in the port of Aspis. The Roman fleet of 390 warships was sent to rescue and evacuate them. A Carthaginian fleet of 200 ships intercepted them off Cape Hermaeum (the modern Cape Bon or Ras ed-Dar), north of Aspis. The Carthaginians were defeated with 114 of their ships captured, together with their crews, and 16 sunk. What losses the Romans suffered, if any, is not known; most modern historians assume there were none.
The Romans landed in Aspis, sortied, dispersed the besiegers and raided the surrounding country for food. All then re-embarked and left for Italy. Off the south-east corner of Sicily, a sudden summer storm blew up and devastated the Roman fleet. From their total of 464 of warships, 384 were sunk, as were 300 transports; and more than 100,000 men were lost. Despite the heavy losses of both sides, the war continued for a further 14 years, mostly on Sicily or the nearby waters, before ending with a Roman victory.
In 264 BC, the states of Carthage and Rome went to war, starting the First Punic War. Carthage was a well-established maritime power in the western Mediterranean; mainland Italy south of the River Arno had recently been unified under Roman control. According to the classicist Richard Miles, Rome’s expansionary attitude after southern Italy came under its control combined with Carthage’s proprietary approach to Sicily caused the two powers to stumble into war more by accident than design. The immediate cause of the war was the issue of control of the independent Sicilian city state of Messana (modern Messina).
Invasion of Africa
Largely because of the Romans’ invention of the corvus, a device which enabled them to grapple and board enemy vessels more easily, the Carthaginians were defeated in large naval battles at Mylae (260 BC) and Sulci (257 BC). Encouraged by these and frustrated at the continuing stalemate in Sicily, the Romans changed their focus to a sea-based strategy and developed a plan to invade the Carthaginian heartland in North Africa and threaten Carthage (close to Tunis). Both sides were determined to establish naval supremacy and invested large amounts of money and manpower in maintaining and increasing the size of their navies.
The Roman fleet of 330 warships plus an unknown number of transport ships sailed from Ostia, the port of Rome, in early 256 BC, commanded by the consuls for the year, Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus. They embarked approximately 26,000 picked legionaries from the Roman forces on Sicily. They planned to cross to Africa and invade what is now Tunisia. The Carthaginians were aware of the Romans’ intentions and mustered all available warships, 350, under Hanno and Hamilcar, off the south coast of Sicily to intercept them. A combined total of about 680 warships carrying up to 290,000 crew and marines met in the Battle of Cape Ecnomus. The Carthaginians took the initiative, anticipating that their superior ship-handling skills would tell. After a prolonged and confused day of fighting the Carthaginians were defeated, losing 30 ships sunk and 64 captured to Roman losses of 24 ships sunk.
As a result of the battle, the Roman army, commanded by Regulus, landed in Africa near Aspis (modern Kelibia) and captured it. Most of the Roman ships returned to Sicily, leaving Regulus with 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry to continue the war in Africa. Regulus advanced on the city of Adys and besieged it. The Carthaginians, meanwhile, had recalled Hamilcar from Sicily with 5,000 infantry and 500 cavalry. Hamilcar, Hasdrubal and Bostar were placed in joint command of an army which was strong in cavalry and elephants and was approximately the same size as the Romans’. The Romans carried out a night march and launched a surprise dawn attack on the Carthaginian camp from two directions. After confused fighting the Carthaginians broke and fled.
Roman Reversal and Withdrawal
The Romans followed up and captured Tunis, only 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Carthage. In despair, the Carthaginians sued for peace, but Regulus’s proposed terms were so harsh the Carthaginians decided to fight on. They gave charge of the training of their army to the Spartan mercenary commander Xanthippus. In the spring of 255 BC Xanthippus led an army of 12,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 100 war elephants against the Romans’ infantry-based army at the Battle of Tunis. The Romans had no effective answer to the elephants, their outnumbered cavalry were chased from the field and the Carthaginian cavalry then surrounded most of the Romans and decisively defeated them. Most of the Romans were killed, while approximately 500, including Regulus, were captured; another 2,000 Romans escaped and retreated to Aspis which was situated on a high and naturally strong position, and overlooked the natural harbour of the Bay of Clupea. Xanthippus, fearful of the envy of the Carthaginian generals he had outdone, took his pay and returned to Greece.
Battle of Cape Hermaeum
Later in 255 BC the Romans sent a fleet of 350 quinqueremes and more than 300 transports to evacuate their survivors, who were under siege in Aspis. Both consuls for the year, Servius Fulvius Paetinus Nobilior and Marcus Aemilius Paullus, accompanied the fleet. They captured the island of Cossyra en route.
The Carthaginians attempted to oppose the evacuation with 200 quinqueremes. They intercepted the Romans off Cape Hermaeum (the modern Cape Bon or Ras ed-Dar), a little to the north of Aspis. The 40 Roman ships which had been left to support Regulus’s force over the winter sortied from Aspis to join the fight. Few details of the battle have survived. The Carthaginians were concerned they would be encircled by the larger Roman fleet, and so sailed close to the coast. However, the Carthaginian ships were outmanoeuvred and pinned against the coast, where many were boarded via the corvus and captured, or forced to beach. The Carthaginians were defeated, and 114 of their ships were captured, together with their crews, and 16 sunk. What, if any, the Roman losses were is not known; most modern historians assume there were none. The historian Marc DeSantis suggests that a lack of soldiers serving as marines on the Carthaginian ships, compared with the Romans’, may have been a factor in their defeat and in the large number of vessels captured.
The fleet docked at Aspis, where the Roman garrison – reinforced by the fleet’s marines – sortied, dispersed the besiegers and raided the surrounding country for food. All then re-embarked and left for Italy. They sailed directly to Sicily, making landfall at its south-west corner, then proceeded along the south coast. In mid-July, somewhere between the friendly city of Kamarina and Cape Passaro, the south-east corner of Sicily, a sudden summer storm blew up and devastated the Roman fleet. From their total of 464 of warships, 384 were sunk, as were 300 transports; and more than 100,000 men were lost. DeSantis considers 100,000 to be a conservative estimate while the historian Howard Scullard breaks the loss down as 25,000 soldiers, who would have included many of the survivors of Regulus’s army; and 70,000 rowers and crew, with many of these probably being Carthaginians taken captive in the recent battle. The majority of the casualties are assumed to have been non-Roman Latin allies. It is possible that the presence of the corvus made the Roman ships unusually unseaworthy; there is no record of them being used after this disaster.
Polybius is critical of what he considers the poor judgement and seamanship displayed immediately prior to the storm. Both consuls survived, and despite the loss of most of their fleet, each was awarded a triumph in January 254 for their victory at Cape Hermaeum. As Scullard points out, this is a clear indication “the subsequent tragedy was regarded as due to natural causes rather than to bad seamanship”.
Aftermath and Legacy
Paullus built a column at his own expense on the Capitoline Hill in Rome celebrating the victory. In keeping with tradition he adorned it with the prows of captured Carthaginian ships. The column was destroyed by lightning in 172 BC.
The war continued, with neither side able to gain a decisive advantage. The Romans rapidly rebuilt their fleet, adding 220 new ships, and captured Panormus (modern Palermo) in 254 BC. The next year they lost 150 ships to another storm. Slowly the Romans had occupied most of Sicily; in 249 BC they besieged the last two Carthaginian strongholds – in the extreme west. They also launched a surprise attack on the Carthaginian fleet, but were defeated at the Battle of Drepana. The Carthaginians followed up their victory and most of the remaining Roman warships were lost at the Battle of Phintias; the Romans were all but swept from the sea. It was to be seven years before Rome again attempted to field a substantial fleet, while Carthage put most of its ships into reserve to save money and free up manpower.
After several years of stalemate, the Romans rebuilt their fleet again in 243 BC and effectively blockaded the Carthaginian garrisons. Carthage assembled a fleet which attempted to relieve them, but it was destroyed at the Battle of the Aegates Islands in 241 BC, forcing the cut-off Carthaginian troops on Sicily to negotiate for peace. The terms offered to Carthage were more generous than those proposed by Regulus. The question of which state was to control the western Mediterranean remained open, and when Carthage besieged the Roman-protected town of Saguntum in eastern Iberia in 218 BC, it ignited the Second Punic War with Rome.