The Legend of Regulus


     Carthage had won a stunning victory at the Battle of Tunis in 255 BCE. With only minimal losses the Carthaginians had essentially eliminated the Roman expeditionary army sent to Africa. Only a small token force had survived and retreated back to the town of Aspis and handful had also been captured. Importantly, in this handful was the proconsul Marcus Atilius Regulus. It is from this imprisonment that Regulus’ fame grew and an important legend became attached to him.

     Regulus had earlier been Rome’s greatest success of the war. Having won victories at Ecnomus, in northern Africa, and at Adys he was arguably Rome’s best general so far. More importantly, he broke the stalemate that had developed in Sicily between the two powers and had put Carthage herself on the defensive. His African campaign was running smoothly and this confidence may have been the reason for his poor negotiation tactics. However, his fall came quickly after the Battle of Tunis and largely removed any successes he had gained in the past year.

The Legend

     A heroic legend has been attributed to Regulus for his actions after being made a prisoner to the Carthaginians. At some point after becoming a prisoner of war, Carthage made some sort of offer to Regulus. They would grant him leave on something akin to parole in order to negotiate on Carthage’s behalf to the Roman Senate. Carthage prompted Regulus to push for new peace terms and/or a prisoner exchange. Presumably if he could make this happen he, too, would be released.

     When he arrived at Rome and held the Senate’s attention he “expressed an opinion against making peace or consenting to an exchange of prisoners.” (Florus 1.18)1 He purposely went against the orders of his Carthaginian masters and argued for the Senate to not make any deals at all whatsoever. Of course, this meant that he would have to return to Carthage with a death sentence over his head.

     Eutropius’ account includes the most details, aside from Horace’s ode about Regulus (Ode 3.5 if you would like to check it out.) Here, he not only shuns his wife, but also decides not to stay in Rome even though he probably could have escaped Carthaginian captivity. This is because he didn’t feel that he was worthy to be considered a true Roman anymore. Here is Eutropius’ account of Regulus.

     Regulus, on arriving at Rome, and being conducted into the senate, would do nothing in the character of a Roman, declaring that, “from the day when he fell into the hands of the Africans, he had ceased to be a Roman.” For this reason he both repelled his wife from embracing him, and gave his advice to the Romans, that “peace should not be made with the Carthaginians; for that they, dispirited by so many losses, had no hope left; and that, with respect to himself, he was not of such importance, that so many thousand captives should be restored on his account alone, old as he was, and for the sake of the few Romans who had been taken prisoners.” He accordingly carried his point, for no one would listen to the Carthaginians, when they applied for peace. He himself returned to Carthage, telling the Romans, when they offered to detain him at Rome, that he would not stay in a city, in which, after living in captivity among the Africans, it was impossible for him to retain the dignity of an honourable citizen. Returning therefore to Africa, he was put to death with torture of every description. (2.25)2


Marcus Atilius Regulus returned to Rome despite the pleas of many Romans, including his children and wife.
Marcus Atilius Regulus returned to Rome despite the pleas of many Romans, including his children and wife.  “Marcus Atilius Regulus leaves for Carthage” by Michel Ghislain Stapleaux, 1832


     Essentially, Regulus was sacrificing himself in order to keep the war going because he believed that it still could be one and that his life would not be a fair price to conclude peace with Carthage. (Nor would it be worth saving the Roman POWs because they would have to give up many more Carthaginian ones in exchange as well.) Romans, for much of the rest of their history, looked back upon this story of Regulus as an instance of placing Rome before oneself. This of course was an exemplary virtue to emulate. As Florus remarks, “His voluntary return to his enemies and his final sufferings, whether in prison or on the cross, in no way sullied his dignity; nay, rendered by all this only the more worthy of admiration.” (1.18)3

     This legend of Regulus reinforced the concept of the Roman fides or being faithful/reliable towards ones allies and friends. Regulus had given his word, even to the enemy, and because of that he could not stay in Rome but voluntarily returned to Carthage to be killed. Diodorus Siculus goes into a fair amount of detail about how Regulus was put to death. He may have had his eyelids cut off and then was crushed by an elephant that the Carthaginians provoked into doing. (23.16)4

The Catch

     While many sources attest to this incident, including Livy (Periochae 18), Polybius is silent on the matter. While this argument from silence alone is not enough to completely disregard the legend, it is quite telling. It seems that he would have included such an attempt at Carthage using Regulus to broker an agreement since he brings up the former attempt again. Instead, Polybius, after the Battle of Tunis episode, writes a short chapter on Fortune and why one should not rely on it during the good times.
     It also makes little sense for Carthage to now sue for peace again after annihilating a consular invading army. While this did not completely cripple Rome, it was by far the costliest battle of the First Punic War so far. It even surpassed the Roman losses sustained against King Pyrrhus of Epirus, the costliest battles in Roman living memory. 

     In all likelihood, this event probably did not take place. Some have gone too far and suggest that this legend arose out of a need to save the Atilia family from a scandal. Diodorus Siculus, later in his work, seems to convey a story about how Regulus’ wife, now a widow, allowed and forced her family to starve and torture some Carthaginian prisoners that were being kept in Rome. The family was “very nearly brought them to trial on a capital charge, on the ground that they were bringing disgrace upon Rome.” (24.12)5 Some believe that the legend of Regulus was then promulgated to justify or exempt his widow from charges. It is hard to know what to do with stories. I am falling in the camp of while possible, it is most likely the case that Regulus did not return to Rome to broker negotiations.

What to Take Away

     Whether true or not, the Regulus legend lived on for many, many generations after Regulus’ death. He was an exemplar of certain Roman virtues that were taught to the Roman youth. These included honesty (and by extension Roman fides to other powers) and submitting oneself below the state. Just like many other Roman Republic foundation myths and legends, it didn’t matter so much if it had actually happened, just as long as it stood as a good example for later Romans to look back upon and follow in the same footsteps. 

     As a closing note, Polybius does provide some good words to remember in his chapter on the fickleness of Fortune.

     This I mention for the sake of the improvement of the readers of this history. For there are two ways by which all men can reform themselves, the one through their own mischances, the other through those of others, and of these the former is the more impressive, but the latter the less hurtful. Therefore we should never choose the first method if we can help it, as it corrects by means of great pain and peril, but ever pursue the other, since by it we can discern what is best without suffering hurt. Reflecting on this we should regard as the best discipline for actual life the experience that accrues from serious history; for this alone makes us, without inflicting any harm on us, the most competent judges of what is best at every time and in every circumstance. (1.35)6

     Even if not true, the legend of Regulus does leave us with important matters to ponder. And that is a good thing. The next time we return, we will head back to the struggle between Carthage and Rome in the First Punic War.

  1. Florus. Epitome of Roman History. Translated by E.S. Forster. 1929.
  2. Eutropius. Abridgment of Roman History. Translated by John Selby Watson. 1853.
  3. Florus. Epitome of Roman History. Translated by E.S. Forster. 1929.
  4. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.