What was the Battle of Bagradas River (255 BC)?

Introduction

The Battle of the Bagradas River (the ancient name of the Medjerda), also known as the Battle of Tunis, was a victory by a Carthaginian army led by Xanthippus over a Roman army led by Marcus Atilius Regulus in the spring of 255 BC, nine years into the First Punic War. The previous year, the newly constructed Roman navy established naval superiority over Carthage. The Romans used this advantage to invade Carthage’s homeland, which roughly aligned with modern-day Tunisia in North Africa. After landing on the Cape Bon Peninsula and conducting a successful campaign, the fleet returned to Sicily, leaving Regulus with 15,500 men to hold the lodgement in Africa over the winter.

Instead of holding his position, Regulus advanced towards the city of Carthage and defeated the Carthaginian army at the Battle of Adys. The Romans followed up and captured Tunis, only 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Carthage. Despairing, 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, and eventually operational control, to the Spartan mercenary general Xanthippus.

In the spring of 255 BC, Xanthippus led an army strong in cavalry and elephants against the Romans’ infantry-based force. 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 wiped them out; 500 survived and were captured, including Regulus. A force of 2,000 Romans avoided being surrounded and retreated to Aspis. The war continued for another 14 years, mostly on Sicily or in nearby waters, before ending with a Roman victory; the terms offered to Carthage were more generous than those proposed by Regulus.

Background

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; Rome had recently unified mainland Italy south of the Arno River under its control. Rome’s expansion into southern Italy probably made it inevitable that it would eventually clash with Carthage over Sicily on some pretext. The immediate cause of the war was the issue of control of the Sicilian town of Messana (modern Messina).

By 256 BC the war had grown into a struggle in which the Romans were attempting to decisively defeat the Carthaginians and, at a minimum, control the whole of Sicily. The Carthaginians were engaging in their traditional policy of waiting for their opponents to wear themselves out, in the expectation of then regaining some or all of their possessions and negotiating a mutually satisfactory peace treaty. The Romans were essentially a land-based power and had gained control of most of Sicily. The war there had reached a stalemate, as the Carthaginians focused on defending their well-fortified towns and cities; these were mostly on the coast and so could be supplied and reinforced without the Romans being able to use their superior army to interfere.

The focus of the war shifted to the sea, where the Romans had little experience; on the few occasions they had previously felt the need for a naval presence they relied on small squadrons provided by their allies. In 260 BC Romans set out to construct a fleet using a shipwrecked Carthaginian quinquereme as a blueprint for their own ships. Frustration at the continuing stalemate in the land war on Sicily, combined with naval victories at Mylae (260 BC) and Sulci (258 BC), led the Romans to develop a plan to invade the Carthaginian heartland in North Africa and threaten their capital (close to what is now 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.

It was the long-standing Roman procedure to appoint two men each year, known as consuls, to each lead an army. The Roman fleet of 330 warships plus an unknown number of transports sailed from Ostia, the port of Rome, in early 256 BC, jointly commanded by both consuls for the year, Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus. They embarked approximately 26,000 legionaries from the Roman forces on Sicily. 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. With a combined total of about 680 warships carrying as many as 290,000 crew and marines, the battle was possibly the largest naval battle in history by the number of combatants involved. When they met at the Battle of Cape Ecnomus, the Carthaginians took the initiative, hoping their superior ship-handling skills would be decisive. 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.

Prelude to the Battle

As a result of the battle, the Roman army, commanded by Regulus and Longus, landed in Africa near Aspis (modern Kelibia) on the Cape Bon Peninsula and began ravaging the Carthaginian countryside for supplies to feed their 90,000 rowers and crew, and 26,000 legionaries. They captured 20,000 slaves, vast herds of cattle, and after a brief siege the city of Aspis. The Roman Senate sent orders for most of the Roman ships and a large part of the army to return to Sicily under Longus, probably due to the logistical difficulties of supplying more than 100,000 men over the winter. Regulus was left with 40 ships, 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry to overwinter in Africa. Regulus was an experienced military commander, having been consul in 267 BC, when he was awarded a triumph for his victory against the Salentini. His orders were to weaken the Carthaginian army pending reinforcement in the spring. It was expected he would achieve this by raids and by fomenting rebellion among Carthage’s subject territories, but consuls had wide discretion. Regulus chose to take his relatively small force and strike inland. He advanced on the city of Adys, 60 kilometres (40 miles) south-east of Carthage, and besieged it. The Carthaginians, meanwhile, had recalled Hamilcar from Sicily with 5,000 infantry and 500 cavalry. Hamilcar and two previously unknown generals named 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 Roman force.

The Carthaginians established a camp on a hill near Adys. The Romans carried out a night march and launched a surprise dawn attack on the camp from two directions. After confused fighting the Carthaginians broke and fled. Their losses are unknown, although their elephants and cavalry escaped with few casualties. The Romans followed up and captured numerous towns, including Tunis, only 16 km (10 miles) from Carthage. From Tunis the Romans raided and devastated the immediate area around Carthage. Many of Carthage’s African possessions took the opportunity to rise in revolt. The city of Carthage was packed with refugees fleeing Regulus or the rebels, and food ran out. In despair, according to most ancient sources, the Carthaginians sued for peace. Polybius differs in stating that Regulus initiated the negotiations, hoping to receive the glory of ending the war before his successors arrived to replace him. In either case Regulus, within sight of what he took to be a thoroughly defeated Carthage, demanded harsh terms: Carthage was to hand over Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica; pay all of Rome’s war expenses; pay tribute to Rome each year; be prohibited from declaring war or making peace without Roman permission; have its navy limited to a single warship; but provide 50 large warships to the Romans on their request. Finding these completely unacceptable, the Carthaginians decided to fight on.

Xanthippus

The Carthaginians were recruiting fighting men from all over the Mediterranean region, and at around this time a large group of recruits from Greece arrived in Carthage. Among them was a Spartan mercenary commander, Xanthippus. Polybius states he had taken part in Spartan training methods and that he knew both how to deploy and how to manoeuvre an army. He made a good impression with the troops of the Carthaginian army, and was able to persuade the Carthaginian Senate that the strongest elements of their army were their cavalry and elephants and that to be deployed to best effect they needed to fight on open level ground. The historian John Lazenby speculates he may have previously faced elephants when Pyrrhus of Epirus attacked Sparta in the 270s BC. Xanthippus was put in charge of training over the winter, although a committee of Carthaginian generals retained operational control. As the prospect of a decisive battle drew nearer, and as Xanthippus’s skill at manoeuvring the army became more evident, full control was given to him. Whether this was a decision of the Senate, the generals, or was forced on them by the wishes of the troops, who included many Carthaginian citizens, is not clear.

The Battle

Xanthippus led the army of 100 elephants, 4,000 cavalry and 12,000 infantry – the latter included the 5,000 veterans from Sicily and many citizen-militia – out of Carthage and set up camp close to the Romans in an area of open plain. The precise site is not known, but it is assumed to be close to Tunis. The Roman army of about 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry advanced to meet them, and set up camp about 2 km (1 mile) away. The next morning both sides deployed for battle. Xanthippus placed the Carthaginian citizen-militia in the centre of his formation; with the Sicilian veterans and the freshly hired infantry divided on either side of them; and with the cavalry equally divided on either side of these. The elephants were deployed in a single line in front of the centre of the infantry. The Romans placed their legionary infantry in their centre, arranged in a deeper and denser formation than usual. Polybius considered this to be an effective anti-elephant formation, but points out that it shortened the frontage of the Roman infantry and made them liable to being out-flanked. Light infantry skirmishers were positioned in front of the legions, and the 500 cavalry were divided between the flanks. Regulus apparently hoped to punch through the elephants with his massed infantry, overcome the Carthaginian phalanx in their centre and so win the battle before he needed to worry about being attacked on the flanks.

The battle opened with attacks by the Carthaginian cavalry and elephants. The Roman cavalry, hopelessly outnumbered, were soon swept away. The Roman legionaries advanced, shouting and banging their sword hilts on their shields in an attempt to deter the elephants. Part of the Roman left overlapped the line of elephants, and they charged the infantry of the Carthaginian right, who broke and fled back to their camp, pursued by the Romans. This part of the Roman force probably consisted of Latin allies. The rest of the Roman infantry had difficulties with the elephants, who were not deterred by their noise but charged home, inflicting casualties and considerable confusion. At least some of the legionaries fought their way through the line of elephants, and attacked the Carthaginian phalanx. But they were too disordered to fight effectively and the phalanx held firm. Some units of the Carthaginian cavalry were now returning from their pursuit and started to attack or feint against the Roman rear and flanks. The Romans attempted to fight on all sides which brought their forward momentum to a halt.

The Romans held firm, possibly partly because of the way their dense formation jammed them close together, but the elephants continued to rampage through their ranks, and the Carthaginian cavalry pinned them in place by hurling missiles into their rear and flanks. Then Xanthippus ordered the phalanx to attack. Most of the Romans were packed into a space where they could not resist effectively and were slaughtered. Regulus and a small force fought their way out of the encirclement, but were pursued and shortly he and 500 survivors were forced to surrender. A total of about 13,000 Romans were killed. The Carthaginians lost 800 men from the force on their right which was routed; the losses of the rest of their army are not known. A force of 2,000 Romans survived, from the left wing who had broken through into the Carthaginian camp; they escaped the battlefield and retreated to Aspis. This was Carthage’s only victory in a major land battle during the war.

Aftermath and Legacy

Xanthippus, fearful of the envy of the Carthaginian generals he had outdone, took his pay and returned to Greece. Regulus died in Carthaginian captivity; later Roman authors invented a tale of him displaying heroic virtue while a prisoner. The Romans sent a fleet to evacuate their survivors and the Carthaginians attempted to oppose it. In the resulting Battle of Cape Hermaeum off Africa the Carthaginians were heavily defeated, losing 114 ships captured and 16 sunk. The Roman fleet, in turn, was devastated by a storm while returning to Italy, 384 ships having been sunk from their total of 464 and 100,000 men lost, the majority non-Roman Latin allies. The war continued for a further 14 years, mostly on Sicily or the nearby waters, before ending with a Roman victory; 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 their relationship was tense. When Carthage besieged the Roman-protected town of Saguntum in eastern Iberia in 218 BC, it ignited the Second Punic War with Rome.

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