The War is Brought to Carthage… and a Snake

Opening Moves in Africa

     Rome had successfully landed east of Africa and began besieging the town of Aspis. The Roman army was still under command of both consuls, Lucius Manlius Vulso and Marcus Atilius Regulus. In response, Carthage consolidated its forces by transferring its naval strength into the land army since the Romans were thoroughly engaged on land. Soon enough, Aspis fell to the Romans and a garrison was installed. Zonaras mentions that the Carthaginian force withdrew in the night so that battle was likely not needed. (8.12)1 Somewhat unsure of how to proceed, word was dispatched back to Rome for instructions on how to proceed going forward.

     At the same time Carthage organized her own army. Two generals, a Bostar and Hadrubal the son of Hanno (perhaps the right wing commander at Ecnomus), were elected. Hamilcar was also summoned from Heraclea Minoa in Siciliy to return to fight in Africa. He had brought 500 cavalry and 5,000 infantry with him from Sicily. (Polybius 1.30)2 After a brief war council, the three generals decided to march out of the city and not allow all of the countryside to be ravaged.


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     Even though Rome had sent messengers on “how they were to deal with the whole situation,” they weren’t going to just sit back doing nothing. They did what many ancient armies did while waiting for orders on the “whole situation.” They “hastily advanced with their whole force and set about plundering the country.” (Polybius 1.29)3 Carthage was apparently taking her time waiting for Hamilcar to eventually show up and muster the forces for her army because the countryside was thoroughly ransacked and wealthy estates were looted. Polybius claims cattle and some 20,000 prisoners were taken. Zonaras also mentions that many other towns defected and that many Roman prisoners from “previous wars” were liberated. (8.12)4 It isn’t clear what “previous wars” means, but it is likely that it is just referring to previous battles in this war.

New Orders

     Eventually a ship returned with instructions from the Senate. One consul would stay in Africa with substantial force while the other was to take the majority of the fleet back to Rome. Lucius Vulso returned to Rome with most of the fleet and the crews along with the prisoners taken in the countryside. Marcus Atilius Regulus remained with forty ships, 500 cavalry, and 15,000 infantry. This is roughly the strength of a consular army, though this army was rather weak in cavalry. Despite his weakened force, Regulus continued on.

A New Threat

     In the later sources there is a strange incident that appears during this time. Regulus and the army made camp at some point near a river. Unfortunately for the Romans they were not the only ones there. Some unsuspecting soldiers were slaughtered at the riverside until the rest of the army realized what was going on. A giant snake had apparently been killing men who came too near to its liking. 
     At least the consul reacted swiftly. According to Zonaras, “Regulus overcame it with a crowd of soldiers and with catapults.” (Zonaras 8.13)5 That’s right. The Roman army literally used catapults to slay a giant snake. However, in their defense the snake was one hundred and twenty feet long and was proportionally wide around. Yes, I wrote one hundred and twenty feet. This story is also recorded by John of Damascus, a major church theologian of the seventh and eighth centuries. He directly states that he is using Cassius Dio as a source here and gives the same figures for the snake’s size. After the serpent was defeated, it was skinned and the snake’s hide was sent back to Rome. Here, the Senate measured the snake so we can be sure that the length of the snake isn’t being exaggerated or anything like that.

     I’m not sure what to make of this tale regarding the hundred and twenty foot snake. Obviously no extant snake even comes remotely close to the size of the serpent involved here. It is possible that the entire episode is just made up completely to try and make Carthage and Africa seem more dangerous or exotic. My best guess is that maybe some sort of venomous viper (of real life size) may have bit and wounded or killed some of the Romans while they were in North Africa and started a whole story about the snakes there. After that, though, I have no idea how it morphed into the giant hundred and twenty foot monster described.

To Adys

     The reptilian menace taken care of, the Romans then continued on pressuring Carthage by pillaging the countryside until they reached the walled town of Adys. Polybius mentions this town was “a town of some importance.” (1.30)6 It isn’t certain where this town would have been located, though some scholars put it at the later Roman veteran colony of Uthina. In any case, this town was only a couple days march from Carthage itself. Regulus began constructing siege-works to take the town just as Hamilcar, Hasdrubal, and Bostar arrived with the Carthaginian army.

     On the next post we will discuss the first major confrontation between Rome and Carthage on Carthaginian soil at the Battle of Adys.

  1. Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.
  2. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.