The First Punic War was a turning point in the history of Republican Rome. For the first time, the Sons of Wolf moved the theatre of hostilities beyond the borders of Italy – to Sicily and the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Using the experience of their opponents, they built a powerful fleet and defeated at Mylae naval forces Carthage. However, the strong resistance of the Punics on the western shores of Sicily prevented them from successfully ending the protracted conflict. So the Senate decided to deal the opponent with a blow to the very heart by hitting the African coast.
The expedition was supposed to take 330 ships, most of them five-row ships. These forces were headed by consuls L. Manlius Vulso and M. Atilius Regulus. The Carthaginians, seeing a huge threat to their homeland, deployed 350 ships and with this fleet blocked the way of the Romans Cape Ecnomos. The clash brought victory to the Roman side, which had more infantry on board.
The victorious consuls landed with their army on Cape Bon near the city of Aspis. After the ships had been pulled ashore and surrounded by an embankment and a palisade, they occupied the city. Roman commanders asked the senate for further instructions, which ordered the army to be divided into two parts. According to these guidelines, one of the chiefs was to return to Rome with the majority of the fleet, while the other consul was ordered to stay with the land forces in Africa. Vulso left with the fleet towards Italy, while Regulus remained in place with 40 ships, 15,000-foot soldiers and 500 horsemen. Regulus was to hold positions at Aspis until the arrival of a mighty army and navy from Italy to block Carthage from the sea and land at the same time. The Roman plan was to gain an advantage in Carthaginian Africa, which would induce the elite of the Hadeshth to conclude peace. Consul Regulus sent out floating columns that ravaged the fertile land, destroyed the farms of rich Punics, kidnapped prisoners and cattle.
Eventually, the Romans besieged the city of Adysseus. The Carthaginians, not wanting to allow their territories to be destroyed, rushed to the rescue of the city. The Carthaginian group sent to help the besieged consisted of mercenary Celts and Iberians, numerous Numidian cavalry and many war elephants, called “tanks of the ancient world”. The Carthaginians took the hill towering over the Roman positions and watched the enemy. They did not want to attack him but preferred to wait for the opportune moment. The first to attack was the Romans, who attacked the fortified Punic camp on the hill from both sides. It is possible that the legionaries marched at night and at dawn attacked the unprepared Punics. A commotion broke out in the camp, and only part of the Punic army made up of mercenaries, put up fierce resistance. However, in pursuit of their attackers, they went too far and were attacked from the rear by the Romans. Most of the Carthaginian forces fled the hill in panic, however, the “armoured fist” of the Punic forces – cavalry and elephants, suffered negligible losses.
After these successes, Roman troops took over Tunis, which became their base for an attack on the territory of Adis. Meanwhile, in the Punic ranks, demoralization was spreading due to the suffered defeats, additionally fueled by conflicts with the Numidian kingdoms. In Carthage itself, refugees from the cities attacked by the Numids and Romans sowed panic and caused the depletion of food supplies. It is possible that the Roman consul, knowing the sentiment on the other side, then took the initiative of peace talks, although most sources say that the other side wanted it.
Cassius Dio gives the conditions of the Roman side, which demanded that the Punics return Sicily and Sardinia, release the Roman prisoners without ransom, pay an annual tribute to Rome and pay compensation. In addition, Carthage would give Rome its fleet, with the exception of one ship, and stop waging wars and concluding peace without the consent of the senate. The fulfilment of these conditions would mean the admission of the Carthaginian authorities to total defeat in the war. In the absence of concessions from the Romans, peace talks ended in a fiasco. In this difficult situation, the Carthaginian authorities began to reorganize the army, supplementing it with mercenaries from Greece. Among them was the Spartan Xantippos, an experienced and capable mercenary commander. The popularity of Xantippus in the Punic staff was certainly due to his origin, although Sparta was already a minor land in Hellas at that time. The Spartan critically assessed the current strategy of his Carthaginian colleagues, opting for the optimal use of the advantage of the Punic army in driving and elephants. As he himself claimed, precisely because of the advantage, the marches and stops of the Punics should take place on flat terrain. The undoubted merit of the Spartan appointed adviser in the staff was the training of the Carthaginian army.
Battle of Aspis
In May 255 BCE, the Carthaginian army of 12,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 100 elephants set out to meet the enemy. Its ranks included Greek mercenaries, Celts, Iberians and Carthaginian citizens creating heavy infantry. The cavalry was made up of the Numids and the Punic heavy cavalry. Xanthippus ‘sly plan has proved to be a great way to get Regulus’ army. When the Romans noticed that the Carthaginians were marching across the plains and setting up camps on flat ground, they decided to send their army against them. The Punic leaders, in the face of the upcoming fight, decided to give Xantippus the actual command of the army. It was customary in Carthage that the defeated leader was punished with death, so it was better to place the Spartan responsible for any possible defeat.
Xanthippus lined up the Punic army on two lines. The first was made up of a body of 100 elephants that occupied almost the entire front of the grouping. At the rear, the phalanx troops stood in the distance. On its right-wing were the mercenaries of Carthage, who were exposed because the front of the walkers was longer than the line of elephants preceding it. The cavalry took a position on the flanks and with them the light infantry soldiers.
Consul Regulus was aware of the destructive power of elephants, so he prepared heavy legionary infantry in deeper ranks than usual. It is not known exactly what the formation of the legions looked like in this battle. It is possible that the consul narrowed the gaps between the manipulators, now positioned not in three, but in six lines. Regulus could also place one legion in reserve in the rear. The most probable thesis is the traditional triple array arrangement of manipulators, with increasing the number of their rows and leaving gaps between them. There is no doubt that the Romans gave up the arrangement of the manipulators in a checkerboard pattern in favour of a more dense “community” of legionaries. There was a small cavalry on both flanks of the consular army, and auxiliary troops on the left flank (auxilia). To weaken the attack of the elephants in front of the front, light-armed men (velites) were set up to neutralize the charging animals with javelins.
At the behest of Xanthippus, a corps of 100 elephants led by mahouts entered the fray. Then velites threw their spears, which did not do much damage to the attackers. Light infantry soldiers, scantily armed and equipped only with small round shields, had no chance against the enemy colossi and retreated through the gaps between the heavy infantry manipulators. The legionaries, seeing the approaching swarm of elephants, wanted to scare them off by shouting loudly at them and hitting their shields with their weapons. When the two armies clashed, for a time it seemed that the solid thick wall of the legionaries would resist the elephants. The decision was made on the wings, where the many times stronger Carthaginian cavalry easily crushed the negligible forces of Roman cavalry. The victorious riders then struck the flanks and rear of the crowded Roman infantry. The fringe legionaries had to pivot to face the enemy cavalry attacking from the side and rear. Attacked by riders’ javelins and trampled by elephants, Roman infantrymen died en masse. Only a few manipulators and individual soldiers managed to break through the blockade of elephants. Deprived of spears, they easily succumbed to the second Carthaginian line, made up of phalanx troops.
On the left Roman wing, things took a different turn. The auxiliary soldiers defeated the mercenary troops standing in front of them and in pursuit of them reached the Punics’ camp. 500 soldiers, including Consul Regulus, survived the pogrom, but the group was soon surrounded by the Carthaginians. Only 2,000 left-wing fighters who defeated the Carthaginian mercenaries managed to retreat to Aspis, from where they were evacuated with the other survivors by the Roman fleet. The rest of the army was destroyed. Polybius estimates the losses of the Carthaginians at 800 people.
The course of the battle evokes analogies with the Second Punic War. As in 216 BCE, at Aspis, the Romans overestimated the strike force of their heavy-armed infantry, which was to break the centre of the Carthaginian army by means of a powerful attack and decide the result of the clash. However, this plan could not be successful in 255 because of the strong barrier in the form of the mass of war elephants from the enemy front. Much like at Cannae, the Romans underestimated the combat qualities of the enemy’s cavalry, which resulted in the crowding surrounding maniples and their slaughter. Only Scipio Africanus learned from past mistakes, forming larger driving quotas.
Consequences of the battle
The pogrom of the Roman army at Aspis shocked the senators who did not dare to undertake such bold actions in Africa until the end of the war. The defeat cooled the enthusiasm of the Romans in Sicily, who for the following years did not dare to take bold actions on land for fear of using elephants by the enemy. The victory at Aspis raised morale in the Carthaginian ranks, greatly weakened by the defeats at Myle, Eknomos and Adys. It enabled Carthage to gain some advantage in operations in Sicily and allowed it to defeat the enemy Numidian kingdoms. However, this stunning success could not bring her victory in the war with the Republic. The Carthaginian authorities had modest human resources and in this respect, they did not match the Romans with unlimited demographic potential.