Xanthippus and the Battle of Tunis – 255 BCE

Failed Negotiations

     Regulus’ dismal negotiation tactics left Carthage in a furor. By pushing for ludicrous terms, he had ruined any chance of peace between Rome and Carthage at this point in the war. I like how Orosius puts Carthaginian sentiment at this time, “that it was better to die in arms than to live in misery.” (4.9)1 Rome may have won at Adys, but Carthage’s army was not annihilated. While Rome went into winter quarters in some of the cities they had taken over, Carthage continued their war effort in different ways.

     Carthage’s army did have components of Carthaginian soldiers and militia, but these were used sparingly and often only in Africa. Her real military strength lay in the mercenary contacts that she had established over the years. Carthage was able to contract for military service mercenary units from all over the Mediterranean including Spanish and Gallic units. However, at this time, Carthage had sent to recruit some mercenary professionals from the eastern Mediterranean. It was with these dealings that Xanthippus arrived at Carthage none too soon.


     Carthage had managed to purchase the aid of Xanthippus and a “considerable number” of Greek soldiers. Xanthippus is described as “Xanthippus of Lacedaemon, a man who had been brought up in the Spartan discipline, and had had a
fair amount of military experience.” (Polybius 1.32)2 It is unclear whether he was an actual Spartiate, an actual Spartan male citizen that had grown up through the agoge system. Many sources imply this and Appian even goes as far as to say that Sparta actually sent Xanthippus out when Carthage was trying to find a “leader” for its forces. (8.3)3 This probably wasn’t technically true. The agoge (and really the whole Lycurgan order) was falling into disuse in the third century BCE and Xanthippus would likely have been a mothax or perhaps a perioikoi. These were free individuals in Sparta that were not citizens, but fought for the Spartan army. (I’m sure some day we will do a foray into Spartan history and society to explain these terms fully.) He certainly wouldn’t have been sent in some sort of official function at any rate and was clearly a mercenary captain.
     Xanthippus took stock of the current situation in Africa and of the Carthaginian forces. He understood that Carthage was vastly superior in mobile forces such as cavalry and elephants and deduced that “the Carthaginians owed their defeat not to the Romans but to themselves, through the inexperience of their generals.” (Polybius 1.32)4 In an interesting series of events, Xanthippus’ opinions spread quickly among the ranks and throughout Carthage. Eventually Xanthippus was summoned before Carthage’s Senate or perhaps the Council of 104 (the upper levels of Carthaginian government). Here he again explained what his opinions of how he would conduct the war. Instead of being hostile to Xanthippus, Carthage’s “leading generals accepting what he said and resolving to follow his advice, at once entrusted their forces to him.” (Polybius 1.32)5

     Xanthippus then began to orchestrate formations, drills, and maneuvers with the Carthaginian army. He apparently did this was such excellence that the Carthaginian troops themselves were impressed and gave cheers to him. Morale was restored among the soldiers and they were ready to take to the field once again. It seems that the army was still in command by presumably the generals from earlier, Hasdrubal, Bostar, and Hamilcar, but tactical command for battle was in the hands of Xanthippus. With this in mind, the army left Carthage.

Xanthippus led the Carthaginians to victory at the Battle of Tunis.

Preparing for Battle

     The Roman army learned of Carthage’s movements and went out to meet them. This time, under Xanthippus’ advice, the Carthaginian host traversed on flat terrain. When the two forces were within sight they encamped something on the order of a mile apart, probably somewhere in the area of Tunis. Carthage’s leaders were hesitant at first; however, the soldiers were not. Once the Carthaginian generals understood the “enthusiasm and keenness of the soldiers, Xanthippus at the same time imploring them not to let the opportunity slip, ordered the troops to get ready and gave Xanthippus authority to conduct operations as he himself thought most advantageous.” (Polybius 1.33)6 With that authority Xanthippus drew up the Carthaginain battle line to face the Romans.
     The army that had been brought out of Carthage had about 12,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and 100 elephants. He had the Carthaginians form a phalanx (probably the bulk of his army). On the right wing of this infantry line he placed some mercenaries, though they are not described further. He placed cavalry on each wing as well, slightly in front of the infantry. (It also seems that he may have had mercenary cavalry as well. In front of this whole formation, the elephants were arrayed in a long single line. 
     The Romans, noticing the Carthaginians ordering themselves for battle, did likewise. They probably had somewhere around the strength of the 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry originally left in Africa, though some might have been in other towns as garrisons. Aware of the Carthaginian elephants, Regulus placed the velites on the front lines. Velites were light infantry/skirmishers that threw javelins to harass the enemy and usually this allowed them to easily pester elephants. The legionnaires were placed behind the velites, we are told, “many maniples deep.” Usually the Roman legions were arrayed in lines three maniples deep, so presumably, the line was shortened and and the lines of maniples increased. This was done to brace for the impetus of the elephants striking their lines. The limited cavalry was placed on both wings. The two armies then stared each other down.

The Battle of Tunis – 255 BCE

     Both armies began advanced towards each other roughly at the same time. Xanthippus ordered the cavalry to charge the wings of the Roman lines as the elephants continued to lumber forward. The Roman infantry then was forced to engage the wall of elephants before they could reach the Carthaginian phalanx. However, the Roman left was able to avoid the elephants somehow and they assaulted the Carthaginian right, which was the mercenary force. Eventually, the Romans gained the upper hand against the mercenaries and continued harassing them as the retreated off the battlefield.
     At seeing the routed mercenaries, there is a story about how Xanthippus tried to rally them by riding among them and turning them back towards the fight. When he was criticized that it was easy to be on horseback and tell other people to go back into battle, Xanthippus dismounted and proceeded to harangue the men on foot.7 Even so, it doesn’t seem to have rallied enough men to repulse the Roman left wing.
     Yet, while this was occurring, the battle was being lost for the Romans. The elephants hadn’t broken through the deep Roman lines even though they had trampled and killed many underfoot. The Romans may have been able to deal with elephants in some time, but time was not to be had. The Carthaginian cavalry had utterly wiped out the small Roman cavalry contingents and now flanked and charged the rear of the packed Roman force.
     The Romans broke quickly thereafter. As Polybius describes, “henceforth the Romans were in sore straits on all sides.” (1.34)Some tried to rush past the elephants but were then descended upon by the fresh Carthaginian phalanx. Many were simply ground down by the elephants. A portion of the Roman army escaped the melee, but over the open ground were rounded up and captured by the Carthaginian cavalry. Regulus was among these five hundred or so captured Romans. The only fortunate enough Romans to escape were those that had pursued the mercenary force. They somehow were able to flee the battlefield and make their way back to Aspis.
     Xanthippus had won a crushing victory for Carthage over the Romans. The entire Roman army was slain save the two thousand able to flee to Aspis and the five hundred captured with the proconsul Regulus. The Roman African expedition had been decisively dealt with. Carthaginian losses were light. Some 800 of the mercenaries had died, but losses among the other units were small enough to not be mentioned.

Xanthippus After Tunis

     Not long after Tunis Xanthippus appears to have headed back home to Sparta. The Carthaginian elite were probably not too happy that a foreign mercenary captain was the reason for a stunning Carthaginian victory. Instead of being pleased at Roman defeat, it is implied that they became jealous of Xanthippus. The Spartan was smart enough to see that he had worn out his welcome and departed.
     In contrast to their earlier attitude of agreeing with Xanthippus, there are many accounts of the Carthaginian elites, wary and bitter towards this foreigner, actually attempted or succeeded in drowning Xanthippus as he returned to Greece. In some accounts he outwits his foes and still makes it to Greece, other times not. I personally like the suggestion that Ptolemy III of Egypt hired or recruited Xanthippus to be a military governor of the new province of Mesopotamia.9 This may be far-fetched, but there may be some weight to this line of thought. Xanthippus is a fairly rare name in the ancient sources and the only other Xanthippus that comes to mind is Xanthippus the father of the great Athenian statesman Pericles. Also, the time of this governor’s appointment is in 245 BCE, right around the time period we are dealing with right now. This would be a position that would have highlighted Xanthippus’ strengths and rewarded him for lifetime of mercenary service around the Mediterranean. 

     Next we return, we will look at the famous legend of Regulus and his life post-capture.

  1. Orosius. Seven Books of History Against the Pagans. https://sites.google.com/site/demontortoise2000/orosius_book4
  2. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  3. Appian. Roman History. Translated by Horace White. 1912.
  4. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
  8. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  9. “Ptolemy III Chronicle.” Livius.org. Cuneiform tablet translated by Bert van der Spek.     http://www.livius.org/cg-cm/chronicles/bchp-ptolemy_iii/bchp_ptolemy_iii_03.html