The First Punic War: The Years 256-255 BCE


  • Decisive Roman victory at the naval Battle of Ecnomus (256 BCE);
  • The consuls Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus sail to Africa with an army and capture the town of Aspis;
  • After his colleague Vulso returns to Italy, the consul Regulus defeats the Carthaginians at the Battle of Adys (255 BCE);
  • Carthage seeks peace, but refuses to accept the harsh Roman conditions;
  • The Spartan mercenary captain Xanthippos comes to the aid of Carthage;
  • Xanthippos wins a decisive victory over Regulus at the Battle of Tunis. Regulus is captured;
  • Roman survivors of the defeat hold out at Aspis;
  • A Roman fleet defeats a Carthaginian fleet at Cape Hermaia and evacuates the survivors, but many ships and lives are lost in a maritime disaster off the coast of Sicily.

The Battle of Ecnomus (Eknomos) easily ranks among the largest naval battles in military history. Even if we take the numbers of ships and men provided by Polybius with a pinch of salt, it was still an enormous confrontation. The Greek historian claims the Romans sent a fleet of 330 ships and some 140.000 men to Messana this year. Each ship was manned by 300 rowers and 120 marines. The Carthaginians assembled a fleet of 350 ships crewed by 150.000 men in Lilybaeum. Lilybaeum was their most important military base on the island, its status as a fortress illustrated by the fact that it was administered by a military governor instead of magistrates and a city council. The Romans sailed south and rounded Cape Pachynus. The Carthaginians sailed east and the two fleets met at Ecnomus, about halfway along the southern coast of Sicily.

The Battle of Ecnomus

The Roman fleet was divided into four squadrons. It was clearly an invasion fleet, as the third squadron was towing several horse transports. These horses would be used by the cavalry and senior officers once the army had landed in Africa. But before that, the Romans would have to defeat the enemy fleet. Both Roman consuls, Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus, were present. It should be noted that Regulus was only suffect consul, as the consul originally elected, Quintus Caedicius , had died unexpectedly and a replacement had to be chosen. The consuls commanded their ships from a hexareme or sexireme, a ‘six’, which would have been larger and heavier than the standard quinquereme. They had arranged their ships in a triangular formation, with the ships towing the vulnerable horse transports as the base of the triangle. This base was protected by a fourth line of ships called the triarii.

Map of Sicily (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

The Carthaginians formed three of their four squadrons into a single line. Their right wing extended beyond the Roman formation and the aim was clearly to envelop the Roman fleet. Their left wing, formed by the fourth squadron, was positioned at an angle. It was commanded by Hanno, the man who had been punished after his defeat at Agrigentum, but had apparently been pardoned. The right wing was commanded by Hamilcar, who had fought the Romans to a draw at Tyndaris the previous year.

The outcome of the battle was a decisive victory for Rome, although the result was not as lopsided as at Mylae in 260 BCE. The Romans lost 24 ships, while they managed to sink 30 Carthaginian ships and capture another 64. Polybius does not give any figures for casualties on both sides, but these must have been considerable, especially on the Carthaginian side.

There were two main reasons for the Roman victory. First, the Romans were now much more experienced than they were at the beginning of the war. They were capable during this battle of turning their ships around and coming to the aid of squadrons that were under heavy pressure from enemy ships. These are complex manoeuvres, which require a lot of skill and coordination. An even more important reason is the fact that the Carthaginians had not yet found an effective remedy against the corvus, a device they rightly feared.

Regulus’ campaign in Africa

Hercules-Melqart, one of the chief deities in Carthage (Musée du Louvre).

Hercules-Melqart, one of the chief deities in Carthage (Musée du Louvre).

After their victory at Ecnomus, the Romans did not immediately sail to Africa. They first returned to Sicily to rest the crews, bring the wounded ashore, gather new supplies, repair whatever ships had been damaged and reorganise the fleet, perhaps adding some of the captured ships to the Roman squadrons. The reorganised fleet then set out for Africa and reached Cape Hermaia (present-day Cape Bon) without facing any opposition from the Carthaginians. The Carthaginian fleet had been shattered and was in no condition to confront the Romans again. The Roman army landed near the fortified town of Aspis (Clupea in Latin; both names mean ‘shield’). The Romans drew up their ships onto the beach, dug a moat and constructed a palisade.

Aspis was not a large town, and although the inhabitants resisted the Roman siege, it was quickly taken. The Romans left a garrison and then sent couriers back to Rome to report to the Senate about the results of the operation so far. Polybius claims the couriers were also “to inquire what they should do in future and how they were to deal with the whole situation”. This passage is somewhat puzzling, and implies the Romans had sailed to Africa without a proper plan of operations. Roman commanders on campaign enjoyed great freedom to act as they saw fit, and the action of sending a delegation back to Rome to ask for instructions from the Senate does not make much sense, especially since it would have taken weeks for the couriers to get to Rome and back again. In the meantime, the Romans did not sit still. The continually pillaged the rich Carthaginian villas and estates, captured livestock and some 20.000 slaves. Cassius Dio claims they also freed many Roman and Italian prisoners of war that had apparently been taken to Africa after their capture.

The Battle of Adys

With winter approaching, the couriers returned with instructions from the Senate. The consul Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus was to return to Rome with most of the fleet and all the booty. The other consul, Regulus, was to stay behind and continue the war in Africa. He was given a small fleet of 40 ships and a slightly understrength consular army of some 15.000 infantry and 500 cavalry. Such a small force could never hope to capture a huge city like Carthage and it is clear that the Romans never even thought about trying. Rather, they wanted to continue raiding Carthaginian territories and try to defeat their opponents in one or two pitched battles. Then their leaders would surely ask for peace and Rome would grant it on her terms.

In early 255 BCE, Regulus marched his army towards the town of Adys and began besieging it. The Carthaginians had divided command of the army between three generals: Hasdrubal, son of Hanno, Bostar and Hamilcar, who had been recalled from Sicily. The commanders do not seem to have cooperated well and initially they achieved nothing. They came to the aid of Adys and occupied a strategic hill there, but did not dare come down to confront the Romans. Regulus then decided to stage a daring attack on their camp. After a risky night march, his men attacked the Carthaginians from two sides. This two-pronged attack was very dangerous, as the Romans had to fight uphill and would have been very vulnerable if the attack was discovered prematurely. Surprise was the key element to success. The whole operation nearly came to disaster when Carthaginian mercenaries drove back the first Roman legion and forced it to flee, but then they were attacked in the rear by the second Roman force advancing from the other side.

Punic cuirass, made of bronze (reverse side; Bardo Museum).

Punic cuirass, made of bronze (reverse side; Bardo Museum).

The Romans won the battle and took the Carthaginian camp. Adys would have fallen soon afterwards. Regulus then advanced on Tunis, captured the town and made his camp here. The Carthaginians were now in a very difficult situation. They were also at war with some of the Numidian kingdoms to the west, who were ravaging the countryside. Many people from the country had fled to the city and Carthage was unable to feed so many mouths. The Carthaginians sent envoys to Regulus to ask for peace. This was exactly what the Romans wanted, but their terms were exceptionally harsh. Cassius Dio claims that the Carthaginians were to hand over both Sicily and Sardinia to the Romans, release all Roman prisoners without ransom while paying a handsome sum for their own, pay a large indemnity and annual tribute to the Romans. In addition, the Carthaginians were not allowed to wage war or end wars without Rome’s consent. They were to reduce their fleet to just one warship, yet come to the aid of Rome with 50 when requested.

There can be some doubt about whether these were indeed the Roman demands. These demands have not been recorded by Polybius, our most contemporary surviving source. Yet it is clear that Regulus basically asked for an unconditional surrender (deditio): the Carthaginians had to admit total defeat and then Regulus would show mercy. The Roman terms were unacceptable to the Carthaginian gerousia, the Council of Thirty. The war in Africa would continue.

The Battle of Tunis

Things were beginning to look a bit brighter for Carthage when a recruiting officer returned to the city with a strong contingent of Greek mercenaries. Since Greek mercenaries had fought for the kings of Persia and the Egyptian pharaohs, it should not surprise us that officials from Carthage sailed all the way to Greece to recruit these soldiers. Among the mercenaries was a Spartan named Xanthippos. Not much is known about his background, but Spartans still enjoyed a solid military reputation. Xanthippos quickly realised why the Carthaginians failed to achieve anything against the Romans. Although their cavalry was superior in both numbers and skills, they did not make effective use of their horsemen. The same was true with regard to their use of elephants. At Adys, the Carthaginian commanders had made their camp on a hill, where the broken ground had favoured the Roman infantry.

Xanthippos apparently impressed his Carthaginian superiors and he was given command of the army. The Spartan immediately began drilling the Carthaginian phalanx, which at this time was mostly composed of citizens. This is a good indication of how dire the situation for Carthage was, because the city seldom relied on her citizens to fight her wars. Whatever mercenaries had been recruited were added to the army, and Xanthippos advanced on Tunis with a force of 12.000 infantry, 4.000 cavalry and almost 100 elephants. The army deliberately chose to march on even terrain, because that was where Xanthippos wanted to confront Regulus.

Map of North Africa (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

In March of 255 BCE, the two armies met at Tunis. Regulus realised he was heavily outnumbered in cavalry and formed up his infantry in a very deep formation to confront the elephants. The Roman horse were quickly routed, and although the Roman left wing routed the Carthaginian mercenaries, the Roman centre and right wing faced tremendous difficulties against the elephants. Many were trampled to death by the large beasts, and they were also attacked from all sides by the victorious Carthaginian cavalry. Only the depth of the Roman formation prevented the troops from being quickly overrun. Some of the Romans managed to fight their way past the elephants, but they were then confronted by the Carthaginian phalanx. These men were still fresh, while the legionaries and allies were tired and battered.

In the end, the Romans suffered a sharp defeat. Regulus and some 500 men managed to escape, but were soon captured. 800 Carthaginian mercenaries were killed and some 2.000 Roman survivors managed to reach the original Roman camp at Aspis. The rest of the Romans died on the battlefield and their casualties must have numbered in the thousands. Although the survivors managed to hold out in Aspis, it was clear the Romans’ African expedition had come to an end. The Carthaginians were elated with their success and took the consul, their most valuable captive, to Carthage.

In later times, many legends sprung up with regard to Regulus’ fate. Some of these claim that several years later, the Roman general was turned into an envoy for the Carthaginians and sent to Rome on a peace mission after swearing an oath to return to Carthage. The mission was a failure, but Regulus kept his promise and returned to Carthage, where he was tortured and had his eyelids cut off, before being trampled to death by an elephant. It is, however, most likely that he was either executed soon after the battle or died in captivity a few years later. Xanthippos, who had saved the day for Carthage, probably sailed back to Sparta and may have later been employed by the Ptolemies in Egypt.


The Roman expedition in Africa that had begun so well had ended in disaster. As soon as news of Regulus’ defeat and capture had reached Rome, plans were made to evacuate the survivors from Aspis. They had bravely fought off Carthaginian attacks, but were still stuck deep inside enemy territory. In the summer of 255 BCE, the new consuls Marcus Aemilius Paullus and Servius Fulvius Paetinus Nobilior sailed to Africa with a fleet of 350 ships. A Carthaginian fleet of some 200 ships tried to intercept them, but was annihilated near Cape Hermaia. Polybius claims the Romans captured 114 enemy ships and their crews, although Diodorus Siculus mentions only 24 ships captured. It is quite possible that the Romans at Aspis came to the aid of their fellow Romans during the battle, as is claimed by Cassius Dio. After all, there were still some 40 ships present in Africa. After their victory, the consuls picked up the survivors at Aspis and took them back to Sicily.

Mask representing either Demeter or Medusa, 3rd or 2nd century BCE (Musée national de Carthage).

Mask representing either Demeter or Medusa, 3rd or 2nd century BCE (Musée national de Carthage).

Unfortunately for the Romans, their misery did not end here. The Roman commanders refused to listen when their experienced captains advised against taking a route south of the Sicilian coast. Between 4 and 28 July, “between the rising of Orion and that of Sirius”, the weather was usually very bad and dangerous here. The commanders, probably the consuls, ignored all warnings, and the result was that most of the 346 Romans ships were either sunk or smashed against the rocks and cliffs. Only 80 ships survived and casualties must have been horrible. Although Roman arrogance and hybris were the main cause of this tragedy, it is possible that the corvus was in part to blame as well. Goldsworthy argues that “the corvus was mounted near the bow of the ship and its weight may well have made the galley bow-heavy, which would clearly be a major problem in a rough sea”. This may very well be the reason why the Romans at an unspecified time chose to abandon the device altogether.

Meanwhile, the Carthaginians had taken the initiative again. The Romans had been driven from Africa and the Numidian incursions had been stopped as well. They now sent Hasdrubal with a fleet of 200 ships and some 140 war elephants to Sicily. The First Punic War was far from over.




  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 84-92 and 109-116;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 133 and p. 185-189.


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