Marcus Atilius Regulus: A Historiography and Transformation from Roman History to Legend

Turner's Regulus My paper today concerns the historigraphical treatment of Marcus Atilius Regulus, consul 267 and 256 BCE, in both ancient Greek and Roman historians and more modern historians, from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.  On the one hand, the story of Regulus’ heroic actions serve as an exemplum of roman virtues, while on the other hand, the story of Regulus has been called into account regarding its veracity.  My paper will look at examine Regulus’ story

The story enabled Greek and Roman historians to demonstrate both positive and negative behavior of Regulus.  Later artists, poets, playwrights, and historians have envisioned differently the story of Regulus throughout the past 2,300 years, seeking to reveal the life of a man whom they wish to portray, depending on their own objectives, for either positive or negative reasons.  Horace, for example, sought to use Atilius Regulus as an example to motivate Augustus to reclaim the standards and soldiers lost by Crassus in defeat by the Parthians in 53 BCE.  Cicero repeatedly used Regulus as an example of Stoic virtues in defining how a Roman should lead a happy life in the service of Rome.  Playwrights such as Hannah Moore and Lucien Arnault, among many others within a 160-year period, all wrote plays portraying the story of Regulus and attempt to create a citizenship more like Regulus.  Presently, Regulus remains a model of virtue and honor.

Now, the story.

I begin with Marcus Atilius Regulus as he is depicted in the ancient sources.  He had served as consul 13 years prior, in 267 BCE, campaigning in Calabria.  Zonaras, the Greek historian, recounts Regulus’ early career, and in fact, based on early successful military exploits, Regulus was chosen as consul suffectus, a job which he did not want, but was chosen for merit in 256 BCE.

During the First Punic War, Regulus demonstrated his skills and talents through engagements  both on land and on sea.  His career and successes in this war deserve much and close attention but our emphasis today will be on his career and actions, which form the legend that grew up around him.  Specifically, in 255 when Regulus engaged the Carthaginians at the battle of Tunis, 10 miles from Carthage, he was taken captive when the Romans were decimated.  Of an army of 15,000, only 1500 returned home, and another 500 were taken captive, including Regulus.

Many historians retell the accounts of Regulus’ life, but some historians are silent about his actions, or their writings are in fragments or missing.  However, from the sources available, I will account for his actions surrounding his role in the First Punic War.  Cassius Dio and Zonaras write that Marcus Atilius Regulus was selected for merit as consul suffectus, based on his role as consul in 167 BCE.  In his first actions as consul, Zonaras and Polybius, Marcus Atilius Regulus is mentioned as leading a Roman fleet from Messene toward Africa in 256 BCE.  The Romans landed at Aspis, after a victorious naval engagement with the Carthaginians off Ecnomus.  Polybius, along with Diodorus Siculus and Zonaras, then reports that RegThe Death of Regulus - Salvatore Rosaulus remained in Africa while Lucius Manlius returned to Rome.  Regulus garrisoned the city of Aspis as his base of operations in Africa.  Livy, Zonaras, Ionnes Damascenes, Silius Italicus, and Aulus Gellius each give an account of a fascinated story on how Regulus defeated a 120-foot serpent that attacked his troops, defeated it with catapults, and sent the skin to Rome for display.  In the battle of Adys, Regulus routes Carthaginian forces, according to Livy, Polybius, Zonaras, and Diodorus Siculus, and advances to Carthage.  Now, the Carthaginians offered peace negotiations, as Regulus led his army within ten miles of the city gates, according to Dio Cassius, Zonaras, Diodorus Siculus, and Polybius, which were so harsh that the Carthaginians chose, rather, to fight.  In the ensuing battle, Zonaras and Polybius mention how the Carthaginians, under the Spartan mercenary general Xanthiappus, routed the Roman forces, capturing 500 men, including Regulus, while only 1500 returning to Rome of the 15,000 men Regulus was left in Africa with.  Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus, consul in 129 BCE, is reported by Aulus Gellius, as well as Dio Cassius, Appian, Cicero, Livy, and Zonaras, to have returned to Rome while a prisoner to engage in peace negotiations around the year 250 BCE.  He swore an oath to the Carthaginian senate that he would return from his parole if he could not sway the Roman senate to peace, or at least a trade of prisoners.  Once in Rome, he, instead, told his fellow senators to continue to wage war against Carthage.  Upon his return from Rome he died; however the way he died is debated among ancient historians.  Tubero, in an extract in Gellius, along with Dio and Zonaras, say the Carthaginians tortured Regulus by sewing his eyelids open, turning his face upward towards the sun.  One extract from Diodorus, preserved by Tzertes, indicates Regulus was tortured by having his eyelids cut off with a knife, and was then crushed to death by a maddened elephant.  While none of the extant fragments of Diodorus mention the peace mission to Rome, but only that Regulus’ wife was under the impression that he died from lack of care.  Tuditanus and Appian agreed that Regulus did in fact die from being kept awake for a long time.  Furthermore, Cicero accounted that Regulus died from cruel torture.  Diodorus Siculus, Tuditanus, Zonaras, Dio Cassius, and Polybius account that the Roman senate turned over two highborn Carthaginian captives that the family of Regulus tortured in retribution for the Marcus Atilius Regulus’ death.

Until the seventieth century, the accounts of Regulus’s death by Carthaginian hands, had been widely believed to be true, as recorded in the fragments of Dio Cassius and Zonaras, as well as the writings of Horace, Cicero, Appian, and Livy.  However, the veracity of their accounts and indeed of the story of Regulus itself has been called into question.  Among those who question the story are Palmerius, de Beaufort, Niebhur, and Toland, all historians of ancient Rome.

In 1668, Palmerius published his “Exercitationes in Optimos fere Autures Graecos” endeavored to prove that the accounts of Regulus’ torture and death were fictional.  Palmerius claimed that Diodorus Siculus, being a Sicilian, would have better knowledge of Carthaginian interactions than a Roman, and thus his account was the correct one.  In addition, Palmerius interpreted Polybius’ silence on the story as an inability to trust the sincerity of both Philinus and Fabius’ accounts of Regulus’ death.  He then suggested that Polybius did not want to surpass the limits of historical certainty by recounting a popular Roman tale as truth, nor did he wish to incur Roman hatred by merely dismissing it as rumor.

Regulus John Toland, in his dissertation “The Fabulous Death of Atilius Regulus” of 1722, asserts that Regulus died of disease during his captivity.  Toland believed that Polybius’ silence proved the fiction of the account of his returning to Rome.  He also attested that the torture of Regulus was a legend that was created by Regulus’ wife and children to keep themselves out of jail for such inhumane tortures of their Carthaginian prisoners.  Toland assesses his belief that the women of Rome fostered the myth to keep his wife within her rights.

Louis De Beaufort supported Palmerius’ opinion on the death of Marcus Atilius Regulus in his “Dissertation sur l’incertitude des cinq premiers sicles de l’histoire romaine,” published in 1738.  De Beaufort attested that the contrasting accounts of Tuditanus, Tubero, Cicero, and Florus, coupled with the agreement of Appian and Silius about what proved the illegitimacy of the account.  Moreover, de Beaufort engaged in a topic that Palmerius did not: de Beaufort rejected Regulus’ mission to Rome.  De Beaufort asserted that Polybius’ silence on the account of Regulus’ mission was sufficient proof that the story was fictional.

B.G. Niebuhr treated Regulus with considerable space in his “Lectures on the History of Rome,” from 1849.  While he believed the account of Regulus’ mission to Rome to be true, he asserted that the account of Regulus’ heroism was exaggerated by later generations, or Regulus would have been branded with infamy for breaking an oath.  However, Niebhur observed that the letter Regulus supposedly sent, wishing his early return from Africa, was inconsistent with Polybius’ telling that Regulus wished to conclude the war in Africa by himself.  Niebuhr also supported the account that Regulus’ family was given Hasdrubal and Bodostor as hostages following Regulus’ death.

A number of modern historians, however, have treated his story more favorably.

IN 1846 Halthaus, in “Geschichte Roms im Zeitalter der punischen Krieger,“ rejected the silence arguments.  In 1846 of Regulus’ mission and torture.  He believed that “however off the vengeance sequel sounds, it is odder still to seek therein an argument for the ‘fiction’ of the gruesome death of Regulus.”  Halthaus believed the vengeance taken by Regulus’ wife seemed to call for better justification than just an argument of silence.

W. W. Fowler, who wrote “Roman Essays and Interpretations” in 1920, thought that the serpent that Regulus fought had been a member of a nearly extinct species, whose length is nearly sixty feet, and that merely its length and the number of victims was embellished, but more so, he supposed an attack with equipment was plausible.  Furthermore, he found the alleged savagery of the widow incredible and suggested that if the story of Regulus’ oath, his mission to Rome, and his heroic death was an invention, then it had as its purpose the illustration of Roman belief in the sanctity of oaths, and not the concealment of a barbaric crime.

Tenney Frank suggested, in 1926’s “Two Historical Themes in Roman Literature,” that the mission of Regulus to Rome took place around 248 BCE.  He found no reason to reject the accounts of the mission because of Polybius’ silence, despite Polybius’ relationship to Fabius Pictor and other Romans, and Polybius implies at one point his histories that more could be said on the subject.m503604_98de17030_v

Pais attempted to defend the validity of the accounts of Regulus’ torture, in his “I tormenti inflitti ad Attilio Regolo e l’autenticita della tradizione Romana.”  He found it difficult to reject an account of an event purported to have occurred in a period when roman historiography had seriously begun.  He also asserted that Diodorus’ statement that Regulus died of neglect was only proof to his wife that Regulus needed more attention, but not that he died of disease.  If Diodorus’ account that the government intervened to rescue Hasdrubal, it was only a sign that Roman society had begun to condemn excessive application of personal vendettas.  Moreover, by joining Diodorus account to Polybius’ selectivity, it gave credibility to the tradition.  Finally, Pias remarked that modern attitudes make it difficult to understand the character of Regulus, who would sacrifice his life for the greatness of Rome.

My conclusions are limited to these comments by modern historians regarding the historiographical treatment of Regulus.  The prevalence of Marcus Atilius Regulus in literature well after Rome suggests that the importance of the legend of Marcus Atilius Regulus is not to determine if the story is true or false, but to suggest that his is a worthy example to follow:  follow Regulus example to be honest in all oaths, while also keeping a composed mind.

Jacques Arnault, a French playwright, remarks in the preface to his own screenplay version, Regulus, that the admirable and dramatic elements in Regulus’ life are not so much the way he died as the motives that pointed him toward death, not so much his arrival in Carthage as his departure from Rome.  One could measure the success of this play, he felt, by the applause awarded by the youthful audience, the pride and hope of France.

Implicit in this is that the story of Marcus Atilius Regulus is meaningful and worthwhile.  Regulus is the military hero, whose life is at the service of Rome.  Otherwise, modern historians would not care whether the ancient historians are correct or not.  Modern historians examine the ancient sources for their credibility and trustworthiness.  Though they analyze the ancient sources, and how the story of Regulus was handed down throughout the years following his capture, they only do so to enlighten present and future generations on the issues surrounding Regulus’ story.

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