The two Consuls of the year were in command of the fleet at Heraclea, and the historian attributes some of the energy and determination with which the battle was fought to the encouragement of their presence. The junior of the two, M. Atilius Regulus, is one of the most romantic heroes of Roman story, and it is impossible not to give a short account of the rest of his career. It was by an accident, the death of the duly elected Consul of the year very shortly after his coming into office, that Regulus happened to share the command of the expedition to Africa. But he had held the Consulship before, and had then so distinguished himself—he had in fact the glory of completing the Roman conquest of Italy—that he had obtained the honour of a triumph. After the victory at Heraclea, he effected a successful landing on the African coast. The departure of his colleague, who was summoned home, left him in sole command. Aided by an insurrection of the native tribes, always ready to revenge themselves on their oppressive masters, he reduced Carthage to great straits. That haughty State even brought itself to ask for peace. Regulus demanded such conditions—what they were we are not told—that the Carthaginians unanimously resolved to bear any extremity of suffering rather than submit to them.
And now there was a change of fortune. It came with dramatic suddenness, and signally illustrated the aphorism which the moralists of antiquity repeated with such frequency and emphasis, "pride goeth before a fall." The Carthaginian recruiting agents, when they visited Greece, found a man who was admirably suited for their purpose. Xanthippus was one of those Spartan soldiers of fortune who in several conspicuous instances affected the course of history. It was the Spartan Gylippus who saved Syracuse when it was almost in the grasp of Athens; and now it was another Spartan who at least prolonged for a century the existence of Carthage. Xanthippus had, it would seem, taken service in some subordi- nate capacity as an officer of mercenaries. He was an acute observer, and saw that the resources of Carthage were but ill-employed. In the two arms of elephants and cavalry her army was so superior to the Romans that defeat could not but be the result of mismanagement. These opinions, freely expressed to his comrades, came round before long to the ears of the authorities. Xanthippus was summoned before them; he explained his views and pointed out some changes in the management of the campaign which it would be necessary to make. His hearers were greatly impressed by the force and clearness of his statement, and gave him what was probably a provisional command of the army. He had now the opportunity of showing his military abilities. He began by manœuvring bodies of troops, and showed such tactical skill as to excite the admiration of the men. They loudly demanded to be led against the enemy, stipulating that the leader should be Xanthippus. It is needless to describe the battle which followed. The hundred elephants which Xanthippus put in part of his line were used to good effect.
They did not actually break the Roman legions, but they inflicted a great deal of damage, and prepared the way for the infantry behind them. In cavalry the Carthaginian army was so much stronger than the Roman—four thousand, we are told, to five hundred—that there was practically no conflict. In the end the army of Regulus was nearly annihilated. Two thousand men made good their retreat to the town of Aspis on the coast; five hundred, among whom was the Consul himself, were taken prisoners; the rest, more than twelve thousand in number, perished on the field of battle.
For five years Regulus remained in captivity. Then—so runs the story—he was sent to Rome in company of some ambassadors who were to propose a treaty of peace. It was expected of him that he should do his best to recommend the proposal to his countrymen; his release was to be the reward of his help. But Regulus had very different views of the situation. He thought that peace, at least on any such terms as Carthage was willing to accept, would not be for the interest of Rome, and he determined to oppose. He asked permission to speak; his right to deliver an opinion as a member of the Senate he considered himself to have lost by having fallen into the hands of the enemy. Leave granted, he delivered an oration in which he did his best to dissuade his countrymen from making peace, and succeeded. But his success was fatal, not only to his chances of liberty, but to his life. He was taken back to Carthage, and there—so the story has it—put to death by cruel tortures. The tale is told by many writers, but Polybius, who is by far the best authority for events of the time, is absolutely silent about it, and his silence, in view of the strong feeling in favour of the Romans which is noticeable in him, is a very important consideration. According to another story, which seems to have as little or as much foundation, the Senate handed over to the widow of Regulus two noble Carthaginian prisoners. The woman, in revenge for her husband's death, treated them with such barbarity that, for very shame, the Senate took them out of her hands. Perhaps we shall be justified in regarding both legends as specimens of that wonderful crop of inventions which springs up whenever the feelings of a nation are greatly roused by the agitations of war.
This was not the only loss that Rome suffered during the latter part of the war. She lost one fleet by a storm, and another by the folly of its commander. This man was one of the Claudian family, a house which showed more ability in politics than in war. He seems to have fallen into the mistake of underrating the enemy, made an attack upon them from which he was compelled to withdraw, and when he saw that the day was lost, made his own escape with a discreditable precipitancy. The battle was fought in and outside the harbour of Drepanum, a town in the extreme west of the Island. Claudius was indicted on his return to Rome, heavily fined, and thrown into prison. He is said to have committed suicide. In later writers we find a story which has something of the look of having been invented to point a moral. It was represented to him on the morning of the battle by the keepers of the sacred chickens, that the sacred birds, whose conduct was held to foretell the future, would not eat. This was a most sinister sign. The insolent soldier received the intimation with contempt. "If they won't eat," he cried, "they shall at least drink!" and he gave orders that they should be thrown into the sea. It is certainly, whether true or not, a characteristic illustration of the arrogance of the Claudian family. Such, too, is the other story which supplements it. Some years afterwards a sister of the unlucky or impious general was greatly incommoded by the crush of people coming out of the amphitheatre. "I wish," she cried, "that my brother were alive again, and would take another fleet to Sicily, and ease us of some of this superfluous crowd." She was fined for her incivility, the use of language unbecoming a citizen.
In b.c. 241 this long war at last came to an end. Both sides had suffered fearfully both in men and means. The Romans lost 700 ships of war and the Carthaginians about 200 less, for though they had not shown themselves a match for their antagonists in fighting, they knew better how to deal with bad conditions of weather. The Romans had a way of going straight to their point, whatever obstacles were in their way. Storm or no storm, they went on, and the result of their obstinacy was often not a little disastrous.
On the whole the balance of success was considerably in favour of Rome, and the conditions of the peace showed a distinct gain. The most important article was the total withdrawal of Carthage from Sicily. For more than three centuries she had renewed her attempts to possess herself of the Island. Now she was compelled to definitely renounce her ambition. This renunciation marks an important stage in the history of the world.