Rome vs Carthage; the Romans sail towards Libya

Here we present selected excerpts from Polybius’ book ‘The Histories‘ (The Loeb Classical Library).


“Next year (Note: 257 B.C.) Gaius Atilius Regulus the Roman Consul, while anchored off Tyndaris, caught sight of the Carthaginian fleet sailing past in disorder. Ordering his crews to follow the leaders, he dashed out before the rest with ten ships sailing together. The Carthaginians, observing that some of the enemy were still embarking, and some just getting under weigh, while those in the van had much outstripped the others, turned and met them. Surrounding them they sunk the rest of the ten, and came very near to taking the admiral’s ship with its crew. However, as it was well manned and swift, it foiled their expectation and got out of danger. The rest of the Roman fleet sailed up and gradually got into close order. As soon as they faced the enemy, they bore down on them and took ten ships with their crews, sinking eight. The rest of the Carthaginian fleet withdrew to the islands known as Liparaean.

The result of this battle was that both sides thought that they had fought now on equal terms, and both threw themselves more thoroughly into the task of organizing naval forces and disputing the command of the sea, while in the mean time the land forces accomplished nothing worthy of mention, but spent their time in minor operations of no significance.


The Romans, therefore, after making preparations (Note: 255 B.C.), as I said, for the coming summer, set to sea with a fleet of three hundred and thirty decked ships of war and put in to Messene. Starting again from there they sailed with Sicily on their right hand, and doubling Cape Pachynus they came round to Ecnomus, because their land forces too happened to be just in that neighbourhood. The Carthaginians, setting sail with three hundred and fifty decked vessels, touched at Lilybaeum, and proceeding thence came to anchor off Heraclea Minoa.

The plan of the Romans was to sail to Libya and deflect the war to that country, so that the Carthaginians might find no longer Sicily but themselves and their own territory in danger. The Carthaginians were resolved on just the opposite course, for, aware as they were that Africa is easily accessible, and that all the people in the country would be easily subdued by anyone who had once invaded it, they were unable to allow this, and were anxious to run the risk of a sea-battle. The object of the one side being to prevent and that of the other to force a crossing, it was clear that their rival aims would result in the struggle which followed. The Romans had made suitable preparations for both contingencies for an action at sea and for a landing in the enemy’s country.

For the latter purpose, selecting the best men from their land forces, they divided into four corps the total force they were about to embark. Each corps had two names; it was called either the First Legion or the First Squadron, and the others accordingly.


The fourth had a third name in addition; they were called triarii after the usage in the land forces. The whole body embarked on the ships numbered about a hundred and forty thousand, each ship holding three hundred rowers and a hundred and twenty marines.

The Carthaginians were chiefly or solely adapting their preparations to a maritime war, their numbers being, to reckon by the number of ships, actually above one hundred and fifty thousand. These are figures calculated to strike not only one present and with the forces under his eyes but even a hearer with amazement at the magnitude of the struggle and at that lavish outlay and vast power of the two states, if he estimates them from the number of men and ships.

The Romans taking into consideration that the voyage was across the open sea and that the enemy were their superiors in speed, tried by every means to range their fleet in an order which would render it secure and difficult to attack. Accordingly, they stationed their two six-banked galleys, on which the commanders, Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius, were sailing, in front and side by side with each other. Behind each of these they placed ships in single file, the first squadron behind the one galley, the second behind the other, so arranging them that the distance between each pair of ships in the two squadrons grew ever greater. The ships were stationed in column with their prows directed outwards.

Having thus arranged the first and second squadrons in the form of a simple wedge, they stationed the third in a single line at the base, so that when these ships had taken their places the resulting form of the whole was a triangle. Behind these ships at the base they stationed the horse-transports, attaching them by towing-lines to the vessels of the third squadron. Finally, behind these they stationed the fourth squadron, known as triarii,
making a single long line of ships so extended that the line overlapped that in front of it at each extremity.

When all had been put together in the manner I have described, the whole arrangement had the form of a wedge, the apex of which was open, the base compact, and the whole effective and practical, while also difficult to break up.


About the same time the Carthaginian commanders briefly addressed their forces. They pointed out to them that in the event of victory in the battle they would be fighting afterwards for Sicily, but that if defeated they would have to fight for their own country and their homes, and bade them take this to heart and embark. When all readily did as they were ordered, as their general’s words had made clear to them the issues at stake, they set to sea in a confident and menacing spirit. The commanders when they saw the enemy’s order adapted their own to it. Three-quarters of their force they drew up in a single line, extending their right wing to the open sea for the purpose of encircling the enemy and with all their ships facing the Romans. The remaining quarter of their force formed the left wing of their whole line, and reached shoreward at an angle with the rest. Their right wing was under the command of the same Hanno who had been worsted in the engagement near Agrigentum. He had vessels for charging and also the swiftest quinqueremes for the outflanking movement. The left wing was in charge of Hamilcar, the one who commanded in the sea-battle at Tyndaris, and he, fighting as he was in the centre of the line, used in the fray the following stratagem. The battle was begun by the Romans who, noticing that the Carthaginian line was thin owing to its great extent, delivered an attack on the centre. The Carthaginian centre had received Hamilcar’s orders to fall back at once with the view of breaking the order of the Romans, and, as they hastily retreated, the Romans pursued them vigorously. While the first and second squadrons thus pressed on the flying enemy, the third and fourth were separated from them, the third squadron towing the horse-transports, and the triarii remaining with them as a supporting force. When the Carthaginians thought they had drawn off the first .and second squadrons far enough from the others, they all, on receiving a signal from Hamilcar’s ship, turned simultaneously and attacked their pursuers. The engagement that followed was a very hot one, the superior speed of the Carthaginians enabling them to move round the enemy’s flank as well as to approach easily and retire rapidly, while the Romans, relying on their sheer strength when they closed with the enemy, grappling with the ravens every ship as soon as it approached, fighting also, as they were, under the very eyes of both the Consuls, who were personally taking part in the combat, had no less high hopes of success. Such then was the state of the battle in this quarter.

At one and the same time Hanno with the right wing, which had held its distance in the first attack, sailed across the open sea and fell upon the ships of the triarii, causing them great embarrassment and distress. Meanwhile that part of the Carthaginian force which was posted near the shore, changing their former formation and deploying into line with their prows facing the enemy, attacked the vessels which were towing the horse-transports.

Letting go their tow-lines this squadron met and engaged the enemy. Thus the whole conflict consisted of three parts, and three sea-battles were going on at a wide distance from each other. As the respective forces were in each case of equal strength owing to their disposition at the outset, the battle also was fought on equal terms. However, in each case things fell out as one would expect, when the forces engaged are so equally matched. Those who had commenced the battle were the first to be separated, for Hamilcar’s division was finally forced back and took to flight. Lucius was now occupied in taking the prizes in tow, and Marcus, observing the struggle in which the triarii and horse-transports were involved, hastened to their assistance with such of the ships of the second squadron as were undamaged.

When he reached Hanno’s division and came into conflict with it, the triarii at once took heart, though they had had much the worst of it, and recovered their fighting spirit. The Carthaginians, attacked both in front and in the rear, were in difficulties, finding themselves surrounded, to their surprise, by the relieving force, and giving way, they began to retreat out to sea. Meanwhile both Lucius, who was by this time sailing up and observed that the third squadron was shut in close to the shore by the Carthaginian left wing, and Marcus, who had now left the horse-transports and triarii in safety, hastened together to the relief of this force which was in grave peril; for the state of matters now
was just like a siege, and they all would evidently have been lost if the Carthaginians had not been afraid of the ravens and simply hedged them in and held them close to the land instead of charging, apprehensive as they were of coming to close quarters.

The Consuls, coming up rapidly and surrounding the Carthaginians, captured fifty ships with their crews, a few managing to slip out along shore and escape. The separate encounters fell out as I have described, and the final result of the whole battle was in favour of the Romans. The latter lost twenty-four sail sunk and the Carthaginians more than thirty. Not a single Roman ship with its crew fell into the enemy’s hands, but sixty-four Carthaginian ships were so captured.


After this the Romans, laying in a further supply of provisions, repairing the captured ships, and bestowing on their men the attention which their success deserved, put to sea and sailed towards Libya, reaching the shore with their advanced ships under the promontory known as the Hermaeum which lies in front of the whole Gulf of Carthage
and stretches out to sea in the direction of Sicily.

Having waited there until their other ships came up, and having united their whole fleet, they sailed along the coast till they reached the city of Aspis. Landing there and beaching their ships, which they surrounded with a trench and palisade, they set themselves to lay siege to the town, the garrison of which refused to surrender voluntarily. Those Carthaginians who made good their escape from the naval battle sailed home, and being convinced that the enemy, elated by their recent success, would at once attack Carthage itself from the sea, kept watch at different points over the approaches to the city with their land and sea forces. But when they learnt that the Romans had safely landed and were laying siege to Aspis, they abandoned the measures taken to guard against an attack from the sea, and uniting their forces devoted themselves to the protection of the capital and its environs. The Romans, after making themselves masters of Aspis, where they left a garrison to hold the town and district, sent a mission to Rome to report on recent events, and to inquire what they should do in future and how they were to deal with the whole situation. They then hastily advanced with their whole force and set about plundering the country. As nobody tried to prevent them, they destroyed a number of handsome and luxuriously furnished dwelling-houses, possessed themselves of a quantity of cattle, and captured more than twenty thousand slaves, taking them back to their ships. Messengers from Rome now arrived with instructions for one of the Consuls to remain on the spot with an adequate force and for the other to bring the fleet back to Rome. Marcus Regulus, therefore, remained, retaining forty ships and a force of fifteen thousand infantry and five hundred horse, while Lucius, taking with him the ship’s crews and all the prisoners, passed safely along the coast of Sicily and reached Rome.

The Carthaginians, observing that the Romans were preparing for a long occupation, in the first place (Note: 265 B.C.) elected two generals from among themselves, Hasdrubal, the son of Hanno, and Bostar, and next sent to Heraclea to Hamilcar, ordering him to return instantly. Taking with him five hundred horse and five thousand foot, he came to Carthage where, being appointed third general, he held a consultation with Hasdrubal and his staff as to what steps should be taken. They decided on marching to the assistance of the country and no longer looking on while it was plundered with immunity. A few days later Regulus had begun to advance, taking by assault and pillaging the unwalled places and laying siege to those which had walls. On reaching Adys, a town of some importance, lie encamped about it and busied himself with raising works to besiege it. The Carthaginians, being anxious to relieve the town, and having decided to attempt to regain the command of the open country, led out their forces. They took possession of a hill which, while overlooking the enemy, was not a favourable position for their own army; and there they encamped. In this manner, though their best hope lay in their cavalry and elephants, yet by quitting the level country and shutting themselves up in a precipitous place, difficult of access, they were sure to make it plain to their adversaries how best to attack them, and this is exactly what did happen. For the Roman commanders, perceiving from their experience of war that the most efficient and formidable part of the enemy’s force was rendered unserviceable by their position, did not wait for the Carthaginians to come down and offer battle on the plain, but, seizing on their own opportunity, advanced at daybreak on the hill from both sides. And so their elephants and cavalry were absolutely useless to the Carthaginians, but their mercenaries sallying out with great gallantry and dash compelled the first legion to give way and take to flight; but on their advancing too far and being surrounded and driven back by the force that was attacking on the other side, the whole Carthaginian army were at once dislodged from their camp. The elephants and cavalry, as soon as they reached level ground, effected their retreat in safety, and the Romans, after pursuing the infantry for a short distance and destroying the camp, henceforth over-ran and plundered the country and its towns unmolested. Having made themselves masters of the town named Tunis, which was a suitable base for these raids, and also well situated for operations against the capital and its immediate environs, they established themselves there.


The Carthaginians, having thus been twice defeated, shortly before at sea and now on land, in both cases owing to no lack of bravery in their troops, but owing to the incompetence of their commanders, had now fallen into a thoroughly difficult position. For, in addition to the misfortunes I have mentioned, the Numidians, attacking them at the same time as the Romans, inflicted not less but even more damage on the country than the latter. The terror-stricken inhabitants took refuge in the city of Carthage where utter despondency and extreme famine prevailed, the latter owing to overcrowding and the former owing to the expectation of a siege. Regulus, perceiving that the Carthaginians were utterly worsted both by land and sea and expecting to capture the city in a very short time, was yet apprehensive lest his successor in the Consulate should arrive from Rome before Carthage fell and receive the credit of the success, and he therefore invited the enemy to enter into negotiations. The Carthaginians gave a ready ear to these advances, and sent out an embassy of their leading citizens.

On meeting Regulus, however, the envoys were so far from being inclined to yield to the conditions he proposed that they could not even bear listening to the severity of his demands. For, imagining himself to be complete master of the situation, he considered they ought to regard any concessions on his part as gifts and acts of grace. As it was evident to the Carthaginians that even if they became subject to the Romans, they could be in no worse case than if they yielded to the present demands, they returned not only dissatisfied with the conditions proposed but offended by Regulus’s harshness. The attitude of the Carthaginian Senate on hearing the Roman general’s proposals was, although they had almost abandoned all hope of safety, yet one of such manly dignity that rather than submit to anything ignoble or unworthy of their past they were willing to suffer anything and to face every exertion and every extremity.”


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

One thought on “Rome vs Carthage; the Romans sail towards Libya

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: