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Polybius: the First Punic War

Map of ancient Sicily. Map design Jona Lendering. According to the Greek historian Polybius of Megalopolis (c.200-c.118), the First Punic War (264-241) between Carthage and Rome was "the longest and most severely contested war in history". And indeed, it lasted almost a quarter of a century and probably, a million people lost their lives. In the end, Rome had conquered the island of Sicily, and had become a Mediterranean superpower.

Polybius' World History was translated by W.R. Paton.

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A war elephant. Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam (Holland). Photo Jona Lendering.
A war elephant (Allard Piersonmuseum, Amsterdam)

Book 1, chapter 34

[255 BCE]No sooner had Xanthippus ordered the elephant-drivers to advance and break the enemy's line and the cavalry on each wing to execute a turning movement and charge, than the Roman army, clashing their shields and spears together, as is their custom and uttering their battle-cry, advanced against the foe.

As for the Roman cavalry on both wings it was speedily put to flight owing to the superior numbers of the Carthaginians; while of the infantry, the left wing, partly to avoid the onset of the elephants, and partly owing to the contempt they felt for the mercenary force, fell upon the Carthaginian right wing, and having broken it, pressed on and pursued it as far as the camp.

But the first ranks of those who were stationed opposite the elephants, pushed back when they encountered them and trodden under foot by the strength of the animals, fell in heaps in the mle, while the formation of the main body, owing to the depths of the ranks behind, remained for a time unbroken. At length, however, those in the rear were surrounded on all sides by the cavalry and obliged to face round and fight them, while those who had managed to force a passage through the elephants and collect in the rear of those beasts, encountered the Carthaginian phalanx quite fresh and in good order and were cut to pieces.

Henceforth the Romans were in sore straits on all sides, 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. Only quite a small body of these tried to effect their escape, and of these, as their line of retreat was over level ground, some were dispatched by the elephants and cavalry, and about 500 who got away with their general Regulus shortly afterwards fell into the enemy's hands and were made prisoners, himself included.

It resulted that in this battle the Carthaginians lost about 800 of the mercenaries, who had faced the Roman left wing, while of the Romans there were saved but about 2000, whom the pursuit of the mercenaries I mentioned above carried out of the main battle. All the rest perished with the exception of the general Regulus and those who took to flight together with him. The maniples which escaped got through by extraordinary luck to Shield. The Carthaginians stripped the dead, and taking with them the consul and the other captives, returned to the city in high glee at the turn of affairs.

[At this point, Polybius interrupts is account for a moral lesson; he resumes his history here.]


to book 1, chapter 35

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