“One wise counsel conquers many hands” – Regulus’ instructive defeat against the Carthaginians

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.

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Just about this time there arrived at Carthage one of the recruiting – officers they had formerly dispatched to Greece, bringing a considerable number of soldiers and among them a certain Xanthippus of Lacedaemon, a man who had been brought up in the Spartan discipline, and had had a fair amount of military experience. On hearing of the recent reverse and how and in what way it occurred, and on taking a comprehensive view of the remaining resources of the Carthaginians and their strength in cavalry and elephants, he at once reached the conclusion and communicated it to friends that the Carthaginians owed their defeat not to the Romans but to themselves, through the inexperience of their generals. Owing to the critical situation Xanthippus’s remarks soon got abroad and reached the ears of the generals, whereupon the government decided to summon him before them and examine him. He presented himself before them and communicated to them his estimate of the situation, pointing out why they were now
being worsted, and urging that if they would take his advice and avail themselves of the level country for marching, encamping and offering battle they could easily not only secure their own safety, but defeat the enemy. The generals, accepting what he said and resolving to follow his advice, at once entrusted their forces to him. Now even when the original utterance of Xanthippus got abroad, it had caused considerable rumour and more or less sanguine talk among the populace, but on his leading the army out and drawing it up in good order before the city and even beginning to manoeuvre some portions of it correctly and give the word of command in the orthodox military terms, the contrast to the incompetency of the former generals was so striking that the soldiery expressed their approval by cheers and were eager to engage the enemy, feeling sure that if Xanthippus was in command no disaster could befall them. Upon this the generals, seeing the extraordinary recovery of courage among the troops, addressed them in words suitable to the occasion and after a few days took the field with their forces. These consisted of twelve thousand foot, four thousand horse and very nearly a hundred elephants.

When the Romans saw that the Carthaginians were marching through the flat country and pitching their camps on level ground, they were surprised indeed and somewhat disturbed by this in particular, but yet were anxious on the whole to get into contact with the enemy. On coming into touch they encamped on the first day at a distance of about ten stades from him. On the following day the Carthaginian government held a council to discuss what should be done for the present and the means thereto. But the troops, eager as they were for a battle, collecting in groups and calling on Xanthippus by name, clearly indicated their opinion that he should lead them forward at once. The generals when they saw the enthusiasm and keenness of the soldiers, Xanthippus at the same time imploring them not to let the opportunity slip, ordered the troops to get ready and gave Xanthippus authority to conduct operations as he himself thought most advantageous. Acting on this authority he sent the elephants forward and drew them up in a single line in front of the whole force, placing the Carthaginian phalanx at a suitable distance behind them. Some of the mercenaries he stationed on the right wing, while the most active he placed together with the cavalry in front of both wings. The Romans, seeing the enemy drawn up to offer battle, issued forth to meet them with alacrity. Alarmed at the prospect of the elephants’ charge, they stationed the velites in the van and behind them the legions many maniples deep, dividing the cavalry between the two wings. In thus making their whole line shorter and deeper than before they had been correct enough in so far as concerned the coming encounter with the elephants, but as to that with the cavalry, which largely outnumbered theirs, they were very wide of the mark. When both sides had made that general and detailed disposition of their forces that best suited their plan, they remained drawn up in order, each awaiting a favourable opportunity to attack.

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No sooner had Xanthippus ordered the elephant drivers to advance and break the enemy’s line and the cavalry on each wing to execute a turning movement and charge, than the Roman army, clashing their shields and spears together, as is their custom and uttering their battle-cry, advanced against the foe. As for the Roman cavalry on both wings it was speedily put to flight owing to the superior numbers of the Carthaginians; while of the infantry, the left wing, partly to avoid the onset of the elephants, and partly owing to the contempt they felt for the mercenary force, fell upon the Carthaginian right wing, and having broken it, pressed on and pursued it as far as the camp. But the first ranks of those who were stationed opposite the elephants, pushed back when they encountered them and trodden under foot by the strength of the animals, fell in heaps in the mêlée, while the formation of the main body, owing to the depths of the ranks behind, remained for a time unbroken. At length, however, those in the rear were surrounded on all sides by the cavalry and obliged to face round and fight them, while those who had managed to force a passage through the elephants and collect in the rear of those beasts, encountered the Carthaginian phalanx quite fresh and in good order and were cut to pieces. Henceforth the Romans were in sore straits on all sides, the greater number were trampled to death by the vast weight of the elephants, while the remainder were shot down by the numerous cavalry in their ranks as they stood. Only quite a small body tried to effect their escape, and of these, as their line of retreat was over level ground, some were dispatched by the elephants and cavalry, and about five hundred who got away with their general Regulus shortly afterwards fell into the enemy’s hands and were made prisoners, himself included. It resulted that in this battle the Carthaginians lost about eight hundred of the mercenaries, who had faced the Roman left wing, while of the Romans there were saved but about two thousand, whom the pursuit of the mercenaries I mentioned above carried out of the main battle. All the rest perished with the exception of the general Regulus and those who took to flight together with him. The maniples which escaped got through by extraordinary luck to Aspis. The Carthaginians stripped the dead, and taking with them the Consul and the other captives, returned to the city in high glee at the turn of affairs.

In these events there will be found by one who notes them aright much to contribute to the better conduct of human life. For the precept to distrust Fortune, and especially when we are enjoying success, was most clearly enforced on all by Regulus’s misfortunes. He who so short a time previously had refused to pity or take mercy on those in distress was now, almost immediately afterwards, being led captive to implore pity and mercy in order to save his own life. And again Euripides’ words, so long recognized as just, that “one wise counsel conquers many hands” were then confirmed by the actual facts. For one man and one brain laid low that host which seemed so invincible and efficient, and restored the fortunes of a state which in the eyes of all was utterly fallen and the deadened spirit of its soldiers. This I mention for the sake of the improvement of the readers of this history. For there are two ways by which all men can reform themselves, the one through their own mischances, the other through those of others, and of these the former is the more impressive, but the latter the less hurtful. Therefore we should never choose the first method if we can help it, as it corrects by means of great pain and peril, but ever pursue the other, since by it we can discern what is best without suffering hurt. Reflecting on this we should regard as the best discipline for actual life the experience that accrues from serious history; for this alone makes us, without inflicting any harm on us, the most competent judges of what is best at every time and in every circumstance.

(Source: Polybius, The Histories, Vol.I, Loeb Classical Library)

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Research – Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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