Battle of Tunis, 255 BC

After the Roman invasion of Africa in 256, Carthage was close to defeat in the First Punic War. With a Roman army on African soil, Carthage even began negotiations in 256 BC, but the Roman terms were harsher than those eventually agreed on fifteen years later, and Carthage refused them. Over the winter of 255 Carthage reformed her defeated army, importing a group of Greek mercenaries, amongst whom was the Spartan Xanthippus, who after making noisy public criticism of the defeated Punic commanders was appointed as a military advisor. Hellenistic warfare was much more professional than either Roman or Punic, and Xanthippus appears to have been able to train the Carthaginian army to a much higher standard than before. Finally, Carthage was able to field an army of 12,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 100 elephants, probably equal in size to the Roman army.

The Roman army under Marcus Atilius Regulus was based at Tunis. Faced by the resurgent Carthaginian army Regulus was keen to gain another victory rather than risk the chance that someone else would get the glory of eventual victory. Xanthippus is credited with the Carthaginian formation, with a hastily raised phalanx of civilians in the centre, mercenary infantry on their right and a line of elephants in front of the infantry, with the cavalry split between the two wings. The Romans were formed in their normal formation, with the legionary infantry in the centre and the outnumbered cavalry on the wings.

The Carthaginians started the battle with an attack by the elephants. This tied up the main force of Roman infantry. The Roman cavalry, outnumbered four to one, was quickly defeated. Only on their left did the Romans have any success, where 2,000 troops, possibly allied troops, defeated the mercenaries facing them, and chasing them back past to their camp. Meanwhile, in the centre the elephant attack had been withstood, but only a few isolated units of Roman infantry managed to get past them to attempt to attack the Carthaginian phalanx, and they were quickly defeated. Finally, the Carthaginian cavalry charged the already shaken Romans from both sides, destroying what cohesion was left. Only the 2,000 troops successful earlier in the battle escaped, to be rescued by the Roman fleet. Regulus himself was taken prisoner. The defeat, and a serious disasters in storms at sea, ended any chance that Rome would defeat Carthage in Africa, and made sure that the rest of the war was fought on Sicily and at sea.

cover The Punic Wars, Adrian Goldsworthy. An excellent work which covers all three Punic wars. Strong on both the land and naval elements of the wars.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (14 December 2001), Battle of Tunis, 255 BC,

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