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This edited article about Marcus Regulus first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.
Shading his eyes from the hot sun, Marcus Regulus took one last look at the little farm upon which he sustained his family on the outskirts of Rome. Then he kissed his wife Marcia and his two sons goodbye and mounted his horse. The brief act in the life of Regulus that was to give him an amazing place in history had begun.
Regulus was mindful of it. As he rode towards the Senate House in Rome, his mind dwelt on the circumstances that were projecting him, a poor farmer, into a limelight he had never sought.
In this year of 256 BC Rome was at war with Carthage, her bitter enemy on the north coast of Africa. In time of war, the Senate decreed that the command of the army should go to the two consuls elected for that year – one from the rich patrician class and one from the plebian, or working class.
The patrician consul was Lucius Manlius. And his plebian counterpart was Marcus Atilius Regulus, the farmer.
Regulus had no fear of war, not even with the barbarian Africans of Carthage, who were known to feed their prisoners to the flames of the furnace in the belly of their giant, grotesque idol Moloch. But he was justified in being apprehensive of this particular war, for Carthage was famed for her fleet which ruled the Mediterranean, and to defeat the Africans Rome had first to win the war at sea.
To that end, the shipyards of Rome had been at full strength for months, building a fleet to match that of Carthage. Nearly 150,000 sailors were planned to man the new ships – helmsmen, oarsmen, and perhaps most important of all, handlers of the corvus, the secret weapon with which Rome’s architects of war hoped to win the sea battle – the victory they had to have before the land battle on Carthagian territory.
The corvus was simply a grappling iron. With it the Romans planned to pull the Carthaginian ships to their side so that their soldiers, who had little or no experience of fighting at sea, could turn the fight into a land battle, the land being the decks of the two ships linked by the corvus.
Regulus dwelt on all these things as, with his orders from the Senate, he embarked with his co-consul Manlius at the head of Rome’s 330 glittering new fighting ships. It wasn’t long before, off the coast of Sicily, they sighted the Carthaginian fleet, larger still, and commanded by Hanno and Hamilcar, two of ancient history’s shrewdest, battle-hardened admirals.
The Romans used ships as they used men – always in tight formation. To break that formation was the enemy’s first priority. Hanno and Hamilcar sailed their great quinqueremes straight at the Roman wedge formation, splitting it in two. Then they split the two into three, isolating each section before bringing it under fire.
Regulus had one strategy, and only one. That was the corvus. If it failed, if he could not bring his ships close in to the enemy, he would be at the mercy of their superior seamanship. Through the Carthaginian broadsides of deadly arrows and huge, burning darts, he sailed remorselessly closer – and closer.
The iron chains of the grappling irons rattled ominously as they swung out through the air, fell, and anchored themselves on the Carthaginian decks. Wooden prows struck and splintered as the Romans, glistening with sweat, pulled on the chains, dragging the enemy ships full against their sides, crunching the outstretched oars as the gap between them closed. Up went the drawbridge and over them went the Roman soldiers, shield to shield, spears poised to strike a thousand lethal blows.
They had turned the sea battle into a ‘land’ battle. And on land they were the masters.
Their ships fastened thus against the enemy’s, the Romans made short work of the Carthaginian fleet. Some they sank, but these losses were nearly equal to their own. Sixty-four giant men-o’-war they captured after slaughtering the crews, while not a single Roman ship was forced to surrender.
Nothing now lay between Regulus and Manilius and the invasion of Carthage. Regrouping their fleet they set a course for that unknown North African land, which legend said was ruled by devils, fiends and dragon-like monsters.
Off the Carthaginian city of Aspis Regulus ordered the fleet to drop anchor so that he could lead the first assault wave to the shore. The army disembarked, he laid siege to Aspis, which quickly fell before the Roman attack.
At Aspis Regulus set up his headquarters while he sent out scouts and foraging parties. They found a country rich with all the luxuries that the Mediterranean world could supply. Regulus could only curb, but not wholly prevent, the orgy of looting in which his men indulged themselves.
From Rome came letters on a supply boat. The first was from Marcia, wife of Regulus, to say that their farm near Rome was falling into ruin for lack of attention and their family was suffering. The second was from the Senate, decreeing that one of the two consuls must return forthwith to Rome. The consul chosen to return was Manlius.
Since the Roman landing, the Carthaginians had not been idle. Under their renowned general Hamilcar, they gathered a great army and advanced on the Romans near Adys. Here Regulus took the initiative, and without waiting to give the Carthaginians time to take up a strategic position, he flung his legions into the attack. The speed of the onslaught told, and again victory went to the Romans.
The city of Carthage itself was now in a desperate position. Cut off from its supplies by the pillaging invaders, its people were beginning to starve. Refugees from the countryside seeking the safety of its walls were bringing the plague with them and multiplying the food problem. But when Regulus, desperate to end the war in order to get back to Rome, proposed crushing peace terms, they threw them back in his face.
The Carthaginians stoked up the fire in the belly of their vast idol Moloch and beseeched his aid. The temple priests gave the idol’s answer – Moloch would help only when he had received an offering of the lives of all the eldest sons of Carthage’s noble families.
Moloch, squatting like the huge Buddha, had giant hands driven by pulleys and chains which propelled whatever was placed in them upwards and into the furnace of his stomach. The sons of Carthage bowed to their fate, as, one by one, before the frenzied crowd, they were raised in the idol’s palms and thrown alive into his fire.
Regulus had gathered his army around the city walls, preparatory to the final assault on the enemy’s last stronghold. Would the idol answer the city’s supreme mass human sacrifice?
The Carthaginians believed that it did for there now arrived in Carthage a veteran Greek officer from Sparta, a man named Xanthippus. His offer of advice on how to conduct the war was accepted and soon Regulus heard that the Carthaginians were tactically re-positioning their soldiers outside the city – not in the hills, where they had been before, but on the open plains.
Xanthippus had counselled them that it was on the plains that they would be able to use their elephants – their secret weapons of which the Romans were terrified.
Regulus and his senior officers knew about the elephants. They had met them before. They knew, too, that the Carthaginians had 112 elephants which would charge en masse. If that charge could be halted by a solid block of legionaries, they could deal with those great beasts.
Xanthippus thought otherwise. Using his elephants like a modern commander uses his tanks, he set them against the Romans at full thundering gallop as his first move in the battle.
The legions did stand their ground, but the slaughter was terrific. Confused and bewildered, the Romans fell like scythed corn under the pounding hooves and the flashing spears and arrows propelled from the elephants’ turrets. As they fell Xanthippus sent in his cavalry on two flanks to add to the mayhem.
Under the triple onslaught the invaders were savagely crushed. The dead piled on top of the wounded while those who could turned and fled. Among them was Regulus himself, who, in that single moment of panic, obliterated all his triumphs of the past.
There was to be no escape, however. With ruthless efficiency the jubilant Carthaginians hunted the hills for the Roman survivors and loaded them with chains. Among those they caught was the great consul of Rome himself.
In all, they had 500 prisoners, whom they took triumphantly back to their delivered city. For that deliverance, Moloch, the all consuming idol, was to have the greatest feast of his life.
Regulus watched with horror as, two by two, the remnants of his army were placed in the upturned hands of the idol and cranked upwards to be tipped into the glowing furnace in the stomach of the pagan god.
At last it was his turn. But then, instead of placing him in the idol’s hand, the Carthaginians bundled him away to a prison cell.
Their plan for him was long term, but it was shrewd. Regulus, who was equal to a captured general, was to be their trump card. At that moment the war between Carthage and Rome was being pursued on another front, in Sicily. When it suited the Carthaginians, Regulus would be sent back to Rome with their peace terms – terms which would be so harsh that they would cripple the expanding power of Rome.
For four years the defeated, disgraced consul had to languish in a Carthaginian dungeon. Then, apparently broken in spirit, his head bowed pathetically, he was brought before the nobles of Carthage.
‘You have shamed your country,’ they told him. ‘Now you must take our peace terms to your Senate.’
‘And if they do not accept them?’
‘In that case you will be bound, with whatever shred of honour you have left, to return to Carthage and accept your fate. And, as you are aware, the fate of a defeated general in Carthage is crucifixion.’
Many days later a neutral ship anchored at the port of Rome. The people watched curiously as the bowed, abject man, his face twisted with suffering, shuffled from the ship and walked sadly in the direction of the Forum and the Senate House.
Regulus entered the Senate in awed silence. While the Senators listened breathlessly, he read out the harsh peace terms from Carthage. Then, drawing himself upright, he found his real voice.
In ringing tones he urged the Senate to reject utterly the terms he had brought. ‘These conditions will bring shame to our republic. They will ruin generations of our Roman sons. It is your duty to pursue the war, to eliminate the barbarians, to uphold the glory of Rome. . . .’
When he had finished he turned from the Senate chamber, without waiting for their answer. The senators, crowding to the door, watched him walk off.
For the first time in four years Regulus felt his mind at peace. His disgrace was vindicated. Only the cross at Carthage awaited him now.