Regulus and the First Negotiations

The Situation

     After losing the Battle of Adys, even if casualties were not substantial, the Carthaginians began to seriously consider the option of ending the war with a negotiated peace. They had recently lost the major naval battle at Ecnomus and Rome had also won the recent victory at Adys on land just a few months later. Regulus had also been taking towns in northern Africa and had been razing the countryside with little resistance. To be fair, even Polybius notes that the Carthaginian soldiers were not wanting in valor, but that all the generals that led them were just incapable. 
     To make matters worse for Carthage, the local Numidian peoples that essentially surrounded Carthage’s territories began to see this weakness and exploit it. “The Numidians, attacking them at the same time as the Romans, inflicted not less but even more damage on the country than the latter.” (Polybius 1.31)1 As the situation deteriorated in Carthage’s territories, the city itself began to take in refugees from the countryside. In the ancient world this usually created an unpredictable powder keg. The outbreak of plague in Athens during their strategy of taking in all citizens within the long walls is a good example. Clearly, the state of affairs in Carthage warranted negotiations as at least an option to consider.

Regulus and Carthage entered negotiations after the Battle of Adys.

The Invitation

     There is some debate as to which power initiated these first peace negotiations. Polybius asserts that it was actually Regulus who offered up peace talks to the Carthaginians initially. He had sensed that he had put Carthage on the ropes and was now only a short march to Carthage. So why would he then offer terms? Polybius declares that it was because he was afraid the next year’s consul that would replace him would likely take the credit for defeating Carthage. The city of Carthage would also be a daunting task to besiege, very improbable indeed for Regulus’ army. If the next consul “defeated” Carthage by making her agree to terms favorable to Rome, that person would earn far more gloria than he would. This was a legitimate concern for many Roman commanders of the Republic and may have prompted Regulus to try to the end the war at this point.
     The problem with this argument is twofold. First, there are quite a few other sources that indicate that indicate that it was actually Carthage that first proposed negotiations. These include Eutropius, Orosius, and Cassius Dio/Zonaras. (Granted these are late sources.) Also, Diodorus Siculus mentions that Carthage sent three ambassadors to negotiate, led by a Hanno. (23.12)2
     Secondly, all sources are unanimous in that the conditions Regulus dictated were overly severe and heavy-handed. The ambassadors returned to the city “not only dissatisfied with the conditions proposed but offended by Regulus’s harshness.” (Polybius 1.31)3 Eutropius states that Regulus only offered the “hardest conditions.” (2.21)4 If Regulus had really wanted the credit and honors associated with ending the war, it does seem odd that he would have been so callous and harsh with his demands. He must have known that Carthage would have refused them and therefore kept the war going.

The Beginnings of Regulus’ Public Image

     There is one other facet of the situation that can be addressed here. The tradition of the ancient authors is pretty clear that Regulus was not a wealthy man and that he was actually rather poor. (Almost unheard of in the senatorial elite of Rome.) In fact, this relative poverty actually led him to request to be relieved of command. “The Senate did not send him a successor. He complained in a letter to the Senate…” (Livy 18)After being denied a replacement by the Senate, he was forced to continue on leading the force in Africa against Carthage. It seems that he wanted to be relieved of duty so that he could tend and manage his small estate and farm, which was not doing well without him.

     Atilius Regulus, though he had been in charge of the greatest enterprises [i.e. the army in Africa], was so poor that he supported himself, his wife, and children on a small farm which was tilled by a single steward. Hearing of the death of this steward, Regulus wrote to the Senate requesting them to appoint someone to succeed him in the command, since his property was left in jeopardy by the death of his slave, and his own presence at home was necessary. (Frontinus 4.3.3)6
     Essentially, Regulus was “poor” in that he only had one slave tending his farm which fell into disuse when he died. Some interesting non-historical later sources also reinforce this position. Apuleius the playwright (of The Golden Ass fame, an amusing story and a recommended read) stated, as part of his legal defense (perhaps a story for another day), “Atilius Regulus, whose lands on account of his own poverty were cultivated at the public expense…” (18)7 Likewise, the philosopher and author Seneca echoed these remarks. “Whereupon it was decreed that as long as Regulus was absent, it should be cultivated at the expense of the state.” (12)8 
     The reason that we are taking so much time here on Regulus’ personal matters is that it seems to contradict the events that did occur. First of all, it would have been exceedingly rare for a roman commander to voluntarily request to be replaced. Secondly, if Regulus knew that he was not going to be replaced, Polybius would be wrong in stating that his motive for starting negotiations was because of his fear of his successor surpassing him. Lastly, if he really did want to go home, as the later sources imply, it makes even less sense that Regulus dealt such hard terms to the Carthaginians. As we will see right now, the terms were quite ridiculous.

Regulus’ Terms

     Even though many sources remark on Regulus, only Cassius Dio relates the terms themselves. I’ll let these terms speak for themselves.
     The Carthaginians fearing capture, first made overtures to the consul, in the hope that they might by some satisfactory arrangement secure his withdrawal and thus escape the danger of the moment. But since they refused to retire from all Sicily and from Sardinia, to release the Roman captives free of cost and to ransom their own, to make good all the expenses incurred by the Romans for the war and also to pay more as tribute each year, they accomplished nothing. Indeed, in addition to those just mentioned, there were the following demands which displeased them: they were to make neither war nor peace without the consent of the Romans, were to keep for their own use not more than one warship, yet come to the aid of the Romans with fifty triremes as often as notice should be sent them, and were not to be on an equal footing in some other respects. In view, then, of these demands, they decided that the truce would mean their utter subjugation, and they chose rather to fight with the Romans. (11)9

Carthage’s Reaction to Hubris

     Regulus had certainly overstepped his bounds and vastly overreached his hand. If these were the terms, it is hard to understand how he thought Carthage would respond to them. This is especially true whether it be he wanted to tend the war to go home or to receive the most gloria. Here I think Carthage should get some deserved credit for their resolve in the face of such arrogance. As Polybius puts it, Carthage’s resolve was “one of such manly dignity that rather than submit to anything ignoble or unworthy of their past they were willing to suffer anything and to face every exertion and every extremity.” (1.31)10
     This audacity of Regulus certainly contrasts with his image as a poor and humble small landowner and the legend attributed to him that we will get to down the road. Zonaras, to further demonstrate Regulus’ attitude, writes, “he even wrote to Rome that
he had sealed up the gates of Carthage with fear.” (8.13)11 But this hubris would not stand for long, as, in the words of Diodorus Siculus, “Now in so acting the consul both failed to observe the custom of his country and to guard against divine retribution, and in a short time he met with the punishment that his arrogance deserved.” (23.12)12
     It is to the beginning of this punishment that we will turn to in our next post. 
  1. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  2. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
  3. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  4. Eutropius. Abridgment of Roman History. Translated by John Selby Watson. 1853.
  5. Livy. Periochae. Translated by Jona Lendering. Latin and English translation found at
  6. Frontinus. The Strategemata. Translated by Charles Bennett. 1925.
  7. Apuleius. Apologia. Translated by H. E. Butler.
  8. Seneca. De Consolatione ad Helviam Matrem. Translated by Aubrey Stewart. 1900.
  9. Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.
  10. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  11. Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.
  12. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.