The Battle of Adys – 256 BCE

Before the Battle

     Marcus Atilius Regulus had decided to lay siege to the prominent walled town of Adys, probably in late 256 BCE. The other consul, Lucius Manlius Vulso, had returned to Rome earlier at the request of the Senate. It was at this time that he was able to celebrate a naval triumph for the earlier victory at Ecnomus.1 This left Regulus with only a reduced force of about 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry. Still, Regulus kept advancing and razing the countryside and taking towns when he could.

     Of course, Carthage was eventually able to put together a substantial force to confront Regulus. Led by the generals Bostar, Hasdrubal, and Hamilcar, this Carthaginian army marched out of Carthage towards Adys. It isn’t possible to know for sure what the composition of this army exactly was. Hamilcar had brought 5,000 infantry and 500 cavalry from Sicily along with himself when he arrived. Presumably, Bostar and Hasdrubal had been able to muster an army already in Carthage and this was likely supplemented by the ample forces that used to be a part of the fleet. (Remember that Carthage had well over 200 ships withdraw from Ecnomus.) Polybius does mention that, “their best hope lay in their cavalry and elephants,” (1.30)2 indicating that there were strong contingents of these units even if the numbers are not known.

It is likely that Adys was the Roman colony of Uthina, just a few miles south of Tunis.

The Battle of Adys

     When the Carthaginian army arrived at Adys, seeing that Regulus was busy besieging it, they took control of a nearby hill and encamped on it. There are usually several good reasons for choosing a hill for the army to encamp on. Generally, they can be used to observe the enemy to great effect and can often be highly defensible positions. However, in these circumstances, this was not the best tactical course of action to take and our sources make note of it. 
     The Roman saw that the “most efficient and formidable part of the enemy’s force was rendered unserviceable by their position, did not wait for the Carthaginians to come down and offer battle on the plain.” (Polybius 1.30)3 Instead, the Romans assaulted the hill at dawn in some form of a two pronged attack. They knew that the Carthaginian cavalry wouldn’t have room to maneuver and that the elephants would be unwieldy on a crowded hilltop.
     That doesn’t mean that the battle became a cakewalk for the Roman forces. The first legionary prong began fighting with some of Carthage’s mercenaries on the hill. It was here that this mercenary force “with great gallantry and dash compelled the first legion to give way and take to flight.” (Polybius 1.30)4 As this first legion began to rout, the mercenaries pursued too far and began to be flanked by the second prong of the Roman army. In order to prevent being surrounded, the Carthaginian army decided to withdraw and abandon their position on the hill. 

<“text-align: justify;”>     Once the Carthaginians had retreated down off the hill, the elephants and cavalry were able to easily withdraw from the battlefield. The Carthaginian infantry was chased for a short distance by the Romans before the Romans decided to ransack the former Carthaginian camp. It is likely that the Romans then began to resume their siege of Adys.

After the Battle

Presumably, the walls of Adys gave way to Roman arms as the broken Carthaginian forces reorganized themselves, even though their morale was shattered. The losses were probably minimal on both sides and the only accounts that record casualties for this battle are absurd. Orosius relates, “seventeen thousand Carthaginians were slain, five thousand captured, eighteen elephants were led away, and eighty-two towns surrendered to the Romans.” (4.8)5 Eutropius relates the same thing except it was 18,000 slain and seventy-four towns. (2.21)6 Clearly these make no sense. In any case, Rome continued on raiding the countryside and even made their way to the city of Tunis and captured it as a base of operations.

Some Thoughts

     The Battle of Adys was a somewhat minor affair. Even though Rome was victorious, she did not have enough cavalry to pursue the retreating Carthaginians and most of them escaped in due order. This lack of cavalry, especially with no obvious reason given as to why so few were left in Africa, would continue to be a Roman weakness in the campaign. Also, much has been said of the Carthaginians deciding to make camp on hilly terrain instead of elsewhere in order to actually use their strength in cavalry and elephants. I’ll let Diodorus Siculus scathing remarks sum it up.

And certainly if they had gone down into the plain, and had engaged in battle on even terms and put into action every part of their army, they would easily have prevailed over the enemy. Instead, since they were intent on one thing only, the security afforded by the hill, and since they let slip some of their advantages through excessive caution and failed to recognize others because of their inexperience, they suffered a crushing defeat. (23.11)7

     Even if the Carthaginians were not actually crushed on the battlefield, their morale certainly was from losing at sea and in the homeland. In our next post we will examine the first serious peace overtures and negotiations to take place in the First Punic War.

  1. Fasti Triumphales.
  2. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Orosius. Seven Books of History Against the Pagans.
  6. Eutropius. Abridgment of Roman History. Translated by John Selby Watson. 1853.
  7. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.