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Re'gulus, Ati'lius

3. M. Atilius Regulus, M. F. L. N., was consul for the first time in B. C. 267, with L. Julius Libo, conquered the Sallentini, took the town of Brundusium, and obtained in consequence the honour of a triumph. (Eutrop. 2.17; Flor. 1.20 ; Zonar. 8.7; comp. Liv. Epit. 15.) Eleven years afterwards, B. C. 256, he was consul a second time with L. Manlius Vulso Longus, and was elected in the place of Q. Caedicius, who had died soon after he came into office. This was the ninth year of the first Punic war. The Romans had resolved to make a strenuous effort to bring the contest to a conclusion, and had accordingly determined to invade Africa with a great force. The two consuls set sail with 330 ships, took the legions on board in Sicily, and then put out to sea from Ecnomus in order to cross over to Africa. The Carthaginian fleet, however, was waiting for them under the command of Hamilcar and Hanno at Heraclea Minoa, and immediately sailed out to meet them. In the battle which followed, the Romans were victorious ; they lost only twenty-four ships, while they destroyed thirty of the enemy's vessels, and took sixty-four with all their crews. The passage to Africa was now clear; and the Carthaginian fleet hastened home to defend the capital. The Romans, however, did not sail straight to Carthage, but landed their forces near the town of Clypea or Aspis, which they took, and there established their head quarters. From thence they devastated the Carthaginian territory with fire and sword, and collected an immense booty from the defenceless country. On the approach of winter, Manlius, one of the consuls, returned to Rome with half of the army, by order of the senate ; while Regulus remained with the other half to prosecute the war. He carried on operations with the utmost vigour, and was greatly assisted by the incompetency of the Carthaginian generals. The enemy had collected a considerable force, which they intrusted to three commanders, Hasdrubal, Bostar, and Hamilcar; but these generals avoided the plains, where their cavalry and elephants would have given them an advantage over the Roman army, and withdrew into the mountains. There they were attacked by Regulus, and utterly defeated with great loss; 15,000 men are said to have been killed in battle, and 5000 men with eighteen elephants to have been taken. The Carthaginian troops retired within the walls of the city, and Regulus now overran the country without opposition. Numerous towns fell into the power of the Romans, and among others Tunis, at the distance of only 20 miles from the capital. To add to the distress of the Carthaginians, the Numidians took the opportunity of recovering their independence, and their roving bands completed the devastation of the country. The Carthaginians in despair sent a herald to Regulus to solicit peace. But the Roman general, who was intoxicated with success, would only grant it on such intolerable terms that the Carthaginians resolved to continue the war, and hold out to the last. In the midst of their distress and alarm, success came to them from an unexpected quarter. Among the Greek mercenaries who had lately arrived at Carthage, was a Lacedaemonian of the name of Xanthippus, who appears to have already acquired no small military reputation, though his name is not mentioned previously. He pointed out to the Carthaginians that their defeat was owing to the incompetency of their generals, and not to the superiority of the Roman arms; and he inspired such confidence in the people, that he was forthwith placed at the head of their troops. Relying on his 4000 cavalry and 100 elephants, Xanthippus boldly marched into the open country to meet the enemy, though his forces were very inferior in number to the Romans. Regulus was neither able nor willing to refuse the battle thus offered; but it ended in his total overthrow. Thirty thousand of his men were slain; scarcely two thousand escaped to Clypea; and Regulus himself was taken prisoner with five hundred more. This was in the year B. C. 255. (Plb. 1.26-34; Liv. Epit. 17, 18; Eutrop. 2.21, 22 ; Oros. 4.8; Zonar. 8.12, 13; Aurel. Vict. de Vir. Ill. 40.)

Regulus remained in captivity for the next five years, till B. C. 250, when the Carthaginians, after their defeat by the proconsul Metellus, sent an embassy to Rome to solicit peace, or at least an exchange of prisoners. They allowed Regulus to accompany the ambassadors on the promise that he would return to Rome if their proposals were declined, thinking that he would persuade his countrymen to agree to an exchange of prisoners in order to obtain his own liberty. This embassy of Regulus is one of the most celebrated stories in Roman history. The orators and poets related how Regulus at first refused to enter the city as a slave of the Carthaginians; how afterwards he would not give his opinion in the senate, as he had ceased by his captivity to be a member of that illustrious body : how, at length, when he was allowed by his countrymen to speak, he endeavoured to dissuade the senate from assenting to a peace, or even to an exchange of prisoners, and when he saw them wavering, from their desire of redeeming him from captivity, how he told them that the Carthaginians had given him a slow poison, which would soon terminate his life; and how, finally, when the senate through his influence refused the offers of the Carthaginians, he firmly resisted all the persuasions of his friends to remain in Rome, and returned to Carthage, where a martyr's death awaited him. On his arrival at Carthage he is said to have been put to death with the most excruciating tortures. It was related that he was placed in a chest covered over in the inside with iron nails, and thus perished; and other writers stated in addition, that after his eyelids had been cut off, he was first thrown into a dark dungeon, and then suddenly exposed to the full rays of a burning sun. When the news of the barbarous death of Regulus reached Rome, the senate is said to have given Hamilcar and Bostar, two of the noblest Carthaginian prisoners, to the family of Regulus, who revenged themselves by putting them to death with cruel torments. (Liv. Epit. 18 ; Gel. 6.4; Diod. xxiv. p. 566, ed. Wesseling ; Appian, App. Sic. 2, Pun. 4; Dio Cass. Fragm. p. 62, ed. Reimarus, p. 541. ed. Maii; Zonar. 8.15; V. Max. 1.1.14, 9.2. ext. 1; Aurel. Vict. de Vir. Ill. 40; Flor. 2.2; Cic. de Off. 3.26, pro Sext. 59, Cat. 20, in Pison. 19, de Fin. 5.27, 29, et alibi ; Hor. Carm. 3.5; Sil. Ital. 6.299, &c.)

This celebrated tale, however, has not been allowed to pass without question in modern times. Even as early as the sixteenth century Palmerins declared it to be a fable, and supposed that it was invented in order to excuse the cruelties perpetrated by the family of Regulus on the Carthaginian prisoners committed to their custody. (See the remarks of Palmerius, in Schweighäuser's Appian, vol. iii. p. 394.) This opinion has been adopted by many modern writers; but their chief argument is the silence of Polybius respecting it. Niebuhr believes (Hist. of Rome, vol. iii. p. 599) that Regulus died a natural death; but since all the ancient authorities agree in stating that he was put to death by the Carthaginians, we see no reason for disbelieving this fact, though the account of his barbarous treatment is probably only one of those calumnies which the Romans constantly indulged in against their hated rivals. The pride and arrogance with which he treated the Carthaginians in the hour of his success must have deeply exasperated the people against him; and it is therefore not surprising that he fell a victim to their vengeance when nothing was any longer to be gained from his life. The question of the death of Regulus is discussed at length by Halthaus (Geschichte Roms im Zeitalter der Punischen Kriege, Leipzig, 1846, pp. 356-369), who maintains the truth of the common account.

Regulus was one of the favourite characters of early Roman story. Not only was he celebrated on account of his heroism in giving the senate advice which secured him a martyr's death, but also on account of his frugality and simplicity of life. Like Fabricius and Curius he lived on his hereditary farm which he cultivated with his own hands ; and subsequent ages loved to tell how he petitioned the senate for his recall from Africa when he was in the full career of victory, as his farm was going to ruin in his absence, and his family was suffering from want. (Comp. Liv. Epit. 18; V. Max. 4.4.6.)

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hide References (6 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (6):
    • Appian, Sicily and the Other Islands, 1
    • Polybius, Histories, 1.34
    • Polybius, Histories, 1.26
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 6.4
    • Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, 1.1.14
    • Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, 4.4.6
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