Episode 24 – Spartans and Elephants

Elephants at Zama
Artistic depiction of charging elephants. Although this engraving is intended to picture the Battle of Zama during the Second Punic War, it still gives a good impression of how a long line of charging elephants would appear to the hapless Roman footmen awaiting the collision. Engraving by Henri-Paul Motte, circa 1890.
Battle_of_Tunis diagram
German diagram of the Battle of Tunis. The Carthaginians (identified by the dark colored blocks) under Xanthippus deployed their one hundred war elephants in a long single file line in front of their citizen phalanx while their superior cavalry held the wings against the Romans (identified by the lightly colored blocks). Once battle commenced, the elephants drove in on the Roman lines and the Carthaginian cavalry routed the outnumbered Roman horsemen. As the disordered Roman legionaries tried to regroup, the victorious Carthaginian cavalry attacked them in the flank while the citizen phalanx charged them from the front, pinning the troops in. In the resulting carnage, twelve thousand Romans lost their lives.
First Punic War
After Ecnomus, the Romans landed on the Cape Bon Peninsula to raid the rich country estates of the Carthaginian nobility. However, the Carthaginians under the Spartan Xanthippus met the Romans in the Battle of Tunis and inflicted such a heavy defeat on the Roman forces that only two thousand men out of fifteen thousand escaped the battlefield.

With Carthage on the ropes after the Battle of Cape Ecnomus, the Romans landed on the Cape Bon Peninsula, a mere forty miles from Carthage, and began ravaging the rich countryside. Confident of victory, Regulus, the Roman consul in command, offered such harsh terms to the Carthaginians that they chose to continue fighting rather than submit to such a humiliating peace. All seemed lost until Xanthippus, a Spartan mercenary soldier who had recently arrived in Carthage, advised the Carthaginian generals of their mistakes and was subsequently promoted to drill the Carthaginian levies in Spartan fashion. Under his strict regime, the Carthaginian army was transformed overnight, and Xanthippus led them to battle against the Romans at Tunis. At the Battle of Tunis, the Carthaginians under Xanthippus inflicted a spectacular defeat on the Roman legionaries by using their new training, their superior cavalry, and their large corps of war elephants. Five hundred Romans, including Regulus, were captured, and only two thousand made their escape, leaving over twelve thousand Roman legionaries dead on the field. With their victory in Africa, Carthage was reinvigorated to fight another day. The First Punic War would continue.

Download: Episode 24 – Spartans and Elephants

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