Xanthippus of Carthage

Battle of Bagradas: Regulus’s defeat: Libya 255 BC.

255–245 BC Carthaginian Empire             

Spartan mercenary general hired by the Carthaginians to aid in their war against the Romans during the First Punic War. Credited for developing military tactics used by Carthage, he led Carthaginian soldiers into the battle of Tunis where the Roman expeditionary force was routed and the Roman consul Marcus Atilius Regulus was captured.

By the end of 257 the Romans had confined the Carthaginians to the western third of Sicily, they had neutralized the Carthaginian forces in Sardinia and Corsica, and they were ready to invade Africa. They organized a fleet of 300 ships with crews of 300 oarsmen and 120 marines each (a total of about 100,000 men) and two legions of about 15,000 men. The invasion force of 256 B.C. was commanded by Marcus Atilius Regulus. Regulus had to fight for his passage against a Carthaginian fleet lying off Cape Ecnomus. The Roman “ravens” worked again, and the Romans captured fifty Carthaginian ships and sank thirty.

The Romans landed in Africa, seized the coastal city of Aspis, and ravaged the neighboring area. Regulus advanced into the Carthaginian hinterland (apparently he intended to cut Carthage off from its allies and revenues and force it to come to terms). When he was confronted by a much larger Carthaginian army, well supplied with cavalry and elephants, he feigned retreat, lured the Carthaginian army after him into rugged terrain (where their cavalry could not operate), and smashed them. Regulus then went into winter quarters at Tunis, from which he ravaged Carthaginian territory and persuaded Carthage’s Numidian allies (or subjects) to join him in ravaging Carthaginian territory. Regulus had every reason to be confident. The Romans outside Africa had won all but two (minor) engagements against the Carthaginians, he himself had defeated them in Africa, and he expected to defeat them again in the spring. Consequently, when he offered them terms, he named terms so harsh that he seemed to be goading them to further resistance rather than trying to settle the war.

During the winter, therefore, the Carthaginians sought, and found, help in a mercenary general, Xanthippus of Sparta; Xanthippus retrained and reorganized their army to fight the legion, and in the spring he met Regulus in battle.

The Battle

When campaigning began again in spring 255 they had the sense, too, to continue following his advice-it was hardly revolutionary-to operate on level terrain, bring the enemy to battle, and exploit their cavalry superiority and elephants. The Carthaginian army numbered only 12,000 infantry, which must have been roughly the same as Regulus’s, but its 4,000 cavalry vastly outnumbered his, and he had nothing to counter its ninety-odd elephants.

Regulus chose not to fight in the hilly country around Tunes or to undergo a siege there. He marched away to find open ground. Somewhere between Adyn and the Cape Bon peninsula, sometime in late May or in June 255, the clash took place. Here Xanthippus’s tactics were strikingly inventive. The elephants and elite mercenaries side by side formed the first line, the rest of the infantry stood behind in phalanx formation, and the cavalry as usual were on the wings, this time with the other mercenaries. Regulus deployed his legions in two closely packed divisions side by side-supposedly he thought this was how to cope with elephants- with the light-armed rorarii in front and his exiguous cavalry forming the usual wings. The infantry that clashed with the mercenaries made good headway, but the elephants’ charge against the other division bowled its leading ranks bloodily over. After the Carthaginian cavalry routed their opponents, they swung round to attack this division in its rear; at the same time the main Carthaginian phalanx moved into action against the wearied other Roman division.

Regulus’s army, trapped on every side on the open fields, was virtually annihilated. Two thousand did escape to make a perilous journey back to the bridgehead at Aspis; a mere 500 were captured-the consul among them. The rest had been slaughtered. Xanthippus’s tactics, to keep the Roman center occupied while its wings were swept away and then use his own wings to break it up, were essentially what Hamilcar had tried to do navally at Ecnomus. His tactics even more closely resemble Hannibal’s at Cannae forty years later and Scipio’s at Zama. A more immediate outcome was that the skillful Spartan was thanked by his employers and then dismissed: Carthage’s appreciation at being saved by a foreigner was not unalloyed. Romans later liked to visualize him being secretly murdered by Punic perfidy, but in reality he seems to have gone to work for the king of Egypt.

The defeat was severe but need not have been decisive; the Romans still held Aspis and their fleet of 350 ships defeated a Carthaginian fleet off Aspis and captured, or destroyed, over a hundred ships, but chance, and the Roman unfamiliarity with the sea, wrecked their plans. As their fleet was returning to Rome by way of the Messana strait, an enormous storm struck, hurled almost 300 of their ships on the rocks, strewed wreckage for fifty miles, and drowned the crews, perhaps as many as 100,000 freeborn Italians, a large number of whom were Roman citizens.

What Xanthippus did with the Carthaginian army is unclear. Despite what some modern writers claim, perhaps following Vegetius’ lead, there is no evidence that Xanthippus reorganised the Carthaginian army on Greek lines. It is impossible to ascertain what form Xanthippus’ `orthodox’ commands took, for instance. Assuming they were oral, rather than visual or horn signals, were they in Greek or Punic? The former might seem more likely in the context of a Spartan officer commanding a Hellenistic-era army, but Greek was at most a `language of command’ in this army. Diodorus records Xanthippus speaking with the Carthaginians through interpreters (Diod. 23.16.1) and, according to Polybius’ account of the Mercenaries’ War, Punic seems to have been something of a lingua franca for the army; he describes the Celtic chief Autaritas rising to prominence in the insurgent mercenary army through his fluency in Punic, a tongue with which all veterans were to some degree familiar (Polyb. 1.80.6). It is also significant that Xanthippus seems to have had no particular difficulty in manoeuvring the Celtic and Spanish elements in the army, neither of which were spear-armed; this perhaps suggests that it was not necessary for the Libyans or Carthaginians to serve as a spear-armed phalanx under him either. It therefore seems that the Carthaginian army was nowhere near as `Hellenistic’ as it might first appear.

Hannibal did not lead his army without assistance but, as one would expect, had help in planning and carrying out his decisions. Polybius refers to Hannibal consulting his `council’ on a number of occasions (Polyb. 3.71.5, 85.6, 9.24.4-8), and there are many instances of Hannibal delegating command of army sections, whether in battle or to conduct individual operations, to his officers (Gsell, 1928, p. 393). It is perhaps not surprising that there should have been a military council and a definite chain of command in the Barcid army-if Xanthippus had any long-term effects upon the Carthaginian army it is likely that the Carthaginian command structure was remodelled on something like Spartan lines. 21 The Spartan army had a clear chain of command, and Spartan commanders tended to be accompanied by their subordinate officers, who could offer advice and act upon orders (Anderson, 1970, pp. 69 ff.).

Carthaginian use of Elephants

Carthaginians first became acquainted with war elephants fighting against Pyrrhus of Epirus on Sicily between 278 and 276 BC. Having experienced the effect of this new weapon, Carthage quickly realized that she, too, could acquire it, as African forest elephants inhabited North Africa in great numbers. It was much easier to hire professionals to catch this variety of elephants rather than importing elephants from India. Soon Carthage had the most powerful elephant corps in the Mediterranean world, with stables housing up to 300 elephants located in the capital. At first drivers were Indians hired through Egypt, but later drivers were also recruited from other regions including Syria, Numidia and some other African states. Elephants now replaced chariots as the Carthaginians’ main striking power.

During the First Punic War (264-241 BC), the Carthaginians were only beginning to master this new arm of warfare and paid a high price for their lack of experience on the battlefield. In 262 BC, when the Romans besieged the Carthaginian city of Agrigentum on Sicily, Carthage dispatched to Agrigentum an expeditionary corps of 50,000 infantrymen, 6,000 horsemen and 60 war elephants. The Carthaginian general stationed his elephants behind the first infantry line. When the Romans destroyed this vanguard, the fleeing soldiers frightened the elephants into running away. The integrity of the combat formations was completely broken and victory cost the Romans little effort.

In spite of this bitter experience, the Carthaginians did not give up on the use of elephants. When Marcus Regulus, a Roman general and consul, landed in Africa in 256 BC, a large army was sent to prevent the Romans’ advance on Carthage, but the elephants’ contribution to the battle of Adys was slight. The Carthaginians realized that the commander of the elephant corps should be replaced and hired a Greek named Xanthippus. Xanthippus had participated in the defence of Sparta from Pyrrhus of Epirus in 272 BC and met with war elephants there. In the battle against Regulus on the Bagradas River in 255 BC, Xanthippus put nearly 100 Carthaginian elephants in file in front of the infantry lines, as was common. Although the legionaries `fell in heaps’, according to Polybius, they bravely fought elephants in the centre. On the wings, however, a larger Carthaginian cavalry force put Roman horsemen to flight. The Romans were effectively encircled and a Carthaginian victory was assured. Only a small part of the Roman army forced its way back, but `the greater number were trampled to death by the vast weight of the elephants, while the remainder were shot down by the numerous cavalry in their ranks as they stood’ (Polybius, I. 34).

This experience, and the tales of the Roman legionaries who survived, ensured that Rome did not dare to confront elephants for several years. Conversely, the Carthaginians began patently to overestimate war elephants’ abilities and soon paid a high price for it. Caecilius Metellus, Roman commander on Sicily in 251 BC, resorted to a ruse to counter the war elephant threat. He hid a considerable army in the well-fortified city of Panormus and ordered a deep ditch dug out in front of the walls. Then Metellus sent a detachment of light-armed warriors to harass the Carthaginian troops incessantly. This provocation finally forced the Carthaginian general to draw his army up in a combat formation with elephants in front, as was expected. The detachment continued to worry the elephants, without really clashing with them, ready to hide themselves in the ditch if attacked. Hopeful of gaining an easy victory before their commander’s eyes, elephant drivers were thus provoked into assailing the Romans. But the elephants failed to cross the ditch, and a hail of arrows and javelins poured onto them from the fortress walls. Injured, they rushed back, scattering their own troops. At that moment Metellus brought his main forces out of the city and completed the rout. This battle restored the Romans’ self-confidence and they were no longer afraid of facing war elephants.

2 thoughts on “Xanthippus of Carthage

  1. I’ve always wondered, Romans have faced elephants in battles numerous times, against Epirus and Carthage, but why they never bother to import some for their own? Would like to know your insights on it.

    Wonderful post by the way, I’m glad I found you.


    • They did.
      Although tactics were native at Rome, by the late third and second century BC there is clear evidence of Greek influence on Roman generalship and methods of fighting. Scipio, we are told, was a keen reader of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, a work in which the Greek expert offered in Persian guise his proposals for Greek military reform. By Paullus’s day Roman cavalry equipment had been reformed on the Greek model. The Romans had also begun actively seeking out specialist Greek troops, like the archers from Crete, rather than merely using them when sent by their allies. Elephants too were part of an integrated Hellenistic army. A force of them had been brought from Africa at the beginning of the war against Perseus, and Aemilius used them at Pydna. Thirty years before, Flamininus had used elephants to fight Philip V at Cynoscephalae. The Romans may have learned more about elephants from fighting Carthaginians than from reading Greek manuals, but this was Greek doctrine at second hand: the army of Carthage was modeled on Greek armies, and Hannibal himself was a Hellenized commander. Now the Romans were using Greek stratagems; now the Romans knew Greek lore like the path around the back of the pass at Thermopylae. Now Romans could be imagined debating questions like, Who is the greatest general of all time?—questions that implied that some of them at least had come to share the Greek conception of generalship as a competition in technical expertise.


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