The Battle of Adys (or Adis) was a battle in late 255 BC of the First Punic War between a Carthaginian army jointly commanded by Bostar, Hamilcar and Hasdrubal and a Roman army led by Marcus Atilius Regulus. Earlier in the year, the new Roman navy established naval superiority and used this advantage to invade the Carthaginian homeland, which roughly aligned with modern 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 Carthaginian capital, Carthage. The Carthaginian army established itself on a rocky hill near Adys (modern Uthina) where Regulus was besieging the town. Regulus had his forces execute a night march to launch twin dawn assaults on the Carthaginians’ fortified hilltop camp. One part of this force was repulsed and pursued down the hill. The other part then charged the pursuing Carthaginians in the rear and routed them in turn. At this the Carthaginians remaining in the camp panicked and fled.
The Romans advanced to and captured Tunis, only 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Carthage. Despairing, the Carthaginians sued for peace. The terms offered by Regulus were so harsh that Carthage resolved to fight on. A few months later, at the Battle of the Bagradas River (Battle of Tunis), Regulus was defeated and his army all but wiped out. The war continued for a further 14 years.
The First Punic War between the states of Carthage and Rome began in 264 BC. Carthage was the leading maritime power in the Western Mediterranean; its navy dominating both militarily and commercially. Rome had recently unified mainland Italy south of the Arno. The immediate cause of the war was a wish to control the Sicilian town of Messana (modern Messina). More broadly both sides wished to control Syracuse, the most powerful city-state in Sicily. By 260 BC the war had grown into a struggle in which the Romans at least wanted 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 using their army. 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 by sea 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 had 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.
Naval victories at Mylae and Sulci, and their frustration at the continuing stalemate in Sicily, led the Romans to focus on a sea-based strategy and to develop a plan to invade the Carthaginian heartland in North Africa and threaten their capital, Carthage (close to what is now Tunis). Both sides were determined to establish naval supremacy and invested large amounts of money and manpower in increasing and maintaining 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. 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.
Prelude to the Battle
As a result of the battle, the Roman army, commanded by Regulus, landed in Africa near Aspis (modern Kelibia) on the Cape Bon Peninsula in the summer of 256 BC and began ravaging the Carthaginian countryside. They captured 20,000 slaves, “vast herds of cattle”, and after a brief siege, captured the city of Aspis. They also formented rebellions in many of Carthage’s subject territories. The Roman Senate sent orders for most of the Roman ships and a large part of the army to return to Sicily, probably due to the logistical difficulties of feeding these more than 100,000 men over the winter. Regulus was left with 40 ships, 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry to overwinter in Africa. His orders were to weaken the Carthaginian army pending reinforcement in the spring. It was expected he would achieve this by raids and by encouraging Carthage’s rebellious 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 (modern Uthina), only 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 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.
Determined to prevent the Romans further despoiling the countryside, the Carthaginians advanced to Adys, where they set up a fortified camp on a rocky hill near the town. They did not wish to commit to a battle on the open ground around Adys too hastily. Polybius is critical of this decision by the Carthaginians, as their main advantages over the Romans were their cavalry and their elephants, neither of which could be deployed to advantage from behind fortifications, on steep ground, or in rough terrain. Modern historians point out that the Carthaginian generals would have been well aware of the strength of the legions when formed up in open battle and that to pause in a strong position while scouting the enemy and formulating a plan was not obviously a mistake. This was especially the case as their army was newly formed and not yet fully trained or used to operating together; although the modern historian George Tipps describes this deployment as a “total misuse” of their cavalry and elephants.
With the Carthaginian army overlooking him from a fortified hill Regulus immediately made the audacious decision to split his army in two and have each carry out a night march to launch a surprise dawn attack on the camp. The Romans would be attacking uphill against the Carthaginians’ prepared position, but an attack from two directions would be difficult to respond to. Tipps describes the plan as a demonstration of Regulus’s “recklessness”. Both Roman forces were in position on time and successfully launched their attacks, although apparently not simultaneously. Complete surprise cannot have been achieved, as at least a large part of the Carthaginians were able to form up and confront one half of the Roman assault. This column was thrown back by the Carthaginians – it is assumed at the line of their fortifications, although this is not certain – and driven down the hill in disorder. The situation was confused, with the rest of the Carthaginians taking no effective action and failing to co-ordinate with their victorious colleagues. According to the military historian Nigel Bagnall, the cavalry and elephants were promptly evacuated, as it was recognised they would not be able to play any useful role, either in defending the fortifications or on the broken terrain of the hill more generally.
Those Carthaginians pursuing the first Roman force chased them off the hill, and all or part of the second Roman column, rather than attacking the Carthaginian camp, charged downhill into the rear of the now over-extended Carthaginians. It is possible this group of Carthaginians also faced a frontal counter-attack by Roman reserves after leaving the hill. In any event, after some further fighting they fled the field. At this the Carthaginians in the camp, the fortifications of which had not been breached, panicked and withdrew. The Romans pursued for some distance, although Polybius provides no figures for Carthaginian losses. Modern historians suggest the Carthaginians suffered few or no losses to their cavalry and elephants. Breaking off their pursuit, the victorious Romans plundered the hilltop camp.
Aftermath and Legacy
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, the Carthaginians sued for peace. 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 terms completely unacceptable, the Carthaginians decided to fight on.
They gave charge of the training of their army to the Spartan mercenary commander Xanthippus. In 255 BC Xanthippus led an army of 12,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 100 elephants against the Romans and decisively defeated them at the Battle of Tunis. Approximately 2,000 Romans retreated to Aspis; 500, including Regulus, were captured; the rest were killed. Xanthippus, fearful of the envy of the Carthaginian generals he had outdone, took his pay and returned to Greece.
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. The Roman fleet, in turn, was devastated by a storm while returning to Italy, with 384 ships 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 when Carthage besieged the Roman-protected town of Saguntum in eastern Iberia in 218 BC, it ignited the Second Punic War with Rome.