The war against Carthage lasted many years, with sundry interruptions. The Carthaginians made many promises to the Romans, but broke them so often that "Punic faith" (that is, Carthaginian faith) came to mean the same as treachery or deceit.
When both parties were weary of the long struggle, the Romans resolved to end it by carrying the war into Africa. An army was therefore sent out under the command of Regulus. The men landed in Africa, where a new and terrible experience awaited them.
One day, shortly after their arrival, the camp was thrown into a panic by the appearance of one of the monster snakes for which Africa is noted, but which the Romans had never seen. The men fled in terror, and the serpent might have routed the whole army, had it not been for their leader's presence of mind.
Instead of fleeing with the rest, Regulus bravely stood his ground, and called to his men to bring one of the heavy machines with which they intended to throw stones into Carthage. He saw at once that with a ballista, or catapult, as these machines were called, they could stone the snake to death without much risk to themselves.
Story of Regulus.
Reassured by his words and example, the men obeyed, and went to work with such good will that the snake was soon slain. Its skin was kept as a trophy of this adventure, and sent to Rome, where the people gazed upon it in wonder; for we are told that the monster was one hundred and twenty feet long. Judging by this account, the "snake story" is very old indeed, and the Romans evidently knew how to exaggerate.
Having disposed of the snake, the Roman army now proceeded to war against the Carthaginians. These had the larger army, and many fighting elephants; so the Romans were at last completely defeated, and Regulus was made prisoner, and taken into Carthage in irons.
The Carthaginians had won this great victory under a Greek general named Xanthippus to whom, of course, the people were very grateful; but it is said that they forgot his services, and ended by drowning him.
The rulers of Carthage soon had cause to regret the loss of Xanthippus; for the Romans, having raised a new army, won several victories in Sicily, and drove the Carthaginian commander, Hasdrubal, out of the island.
As you have already seen, the people in those days rewarded their generals when successful; but when a battle was lost, they were apt to consider the general as a criminal, and to punish him for being unlucky, by disgrace or death. So when Hasdrubal returned to Carthage defeated, the people all felt indignant, and condemned him to die.
Then the Carthaginians, weary of a war which had already lasted about fifteen years, sent an embassy to Rome to propose peace; but their offers were refused. About this time Regulus was killed in Carthage, and in later times the Romans told a story of him which you will often hear.
They said that the Carthaginians sent Regulus along with the embassy, after making him promise to come back to Carthage if peace were not declared. They did this thinking that, in order to secure his freedom, he would advise the Romans to stop the war.
Regulus, however, was too good a patriot to seek his own welfare in preference to that of his country. When asked his advice by the Roman senate, he bade them continue the fight, and then, although they tried to detain him in Rome, he insisted upon keeping his promise and returning to captivity.
When he arrived in Carthage with the embassy, and it became known that he had advised the continuation of the war, the people were furious, and put him to death with frightful tortures.
The war went on for seven or eight years more, until even the Romans longed for peace. A truce was then made between Rome and Carthage, which put an end to the greatest war the Romans had yet waged,—the struggle which is known in history as the First Punic War.