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Subject: Trampling down the Romans - Bagradas x3 rss

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Andrew Hobley
United Kingdom
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The battle of Bagradas, 255 BC, resulted from the Roman invasion of Africa during the First Punic War. A Carthaginian army of some 12,000 foot, 4,00 horse and 100 elephants met and defeated a Roman army of around 13,000 man and 1,000 cavalry. The Romans were led by the Consul Regulus, the Carthaginians by a mercenary Spartan general called Xanthippus, who arrives in the pages of history for this battle, and then vanishes afterwards.

The key feature of the battle as reported by Polybius (I:32-4) was the elephants. Regulus formed his men into a deep and narrow formation, the better to counteract the elephants. This failed; Polybius reports that apart from some legionaries who broke through on the Roman left the rest were trampled by the elephants, and then cut down by the cavalry and infantry. Regulus was captured. Traditionally he was sent back to Rome after a later Carthaginian defeat to negotiate a peace, spoke against the proposals he carried and then honourably returned to Carthage where he was killed. However this story dates from 250 years later and could be a later construct.

So to battle; a solo game using the historical set up.

Both sides pushed forward, the Carthaginian’s seeking to encircle the Romans with their superior cavalry. The numbers may have been superior, but only three units can attack from each zone, and cavalry and elephants count as two units. A second unit can attack, but with a –1 combat penalty. So the cavalry did not have as big an advantage as first seems. That (and the Carthaginian inability to throw even an average score) meant it was not until turn six that the breakthrough was achieved on both flanks.

In the infantry clash the elephants had a certain effect on the legionaries, but 1½ elephants v 3 legionary unit meant the pestilential pachyderms soon were shaken and retired behind the infantry while the Roman left made better progress than the centre.

The Carthaginian horse swept round the Roman flanks and rear and Hasdrubal (the Carthaginian flank commander) applied pressure to the Roman centre. It became a case of who broke first – and legionnaires are mighty tough (average legionaries are treated like veteran troops and get a +1 to their morale). In fact the Carthaginian right collapsed first and the veteran legionaries surged forward.

Eventually the pressure from all sides told on the Roman left and centre and they fled. But the Roman breakthrough force had attacked the flank of the Carthaginian centre and by the game end it was down to three shaken heavy infantry and only survived morale tests by virtue of seeing is side dominant elsewhere (+1 for having more than twice the number of its own units on the board than the enemy).

Counting the corpses the Carthaginians had 97 victory points, but the Romans 105, having so damaged Xanthippus’s force – and shattered three out of five elephants –to gain a narrow game victory.

The designer’s notes on the battle (in the Lost Battles book) suggest the Romans have a choice between a longer line and a historical narrow formation. So I decided to have another go with a more traditional Roman line up. The Carthaginian’s set up as before; the Romans with three zones of legionaries with the left wing weaker. The command points available would not allow the Roman right wing to advance to the centre while deploying all the units.

The Roman’s command points did not allow them to advance the right wing and the heavy cavalry on the left were soon routed, allowing the Carthaginian horse to attack the flank and rear. The Roman light horse resisted for longer, but soon the lines sloped diagonally across the battlefield.

As before the elephants soon were driven back and the battle degenerated into an infantry slog – the cavalry on the flanks not proving as effective as might have been hoped – again overcrowding in the small battlefield did not help. By turn seven all but one Carthaginian infantry unit were spent – it was a case of who broke first.

The next turn the Roman left and right collapsed, and Regulus and the centre began to retire. Caught by the light horse with a double hit Regulus tried to rally the second hit, only to go down into the dust himself and the remaining Romans fled.

Counting up this time it was Carthage 124, Rome 103; a narrow Carthaginian victory.

Thinking about these two refights I occurred to me that the elephants really were not a crucial factor, as Polybius suggests they were. What would happen if they were not there? Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk and said goodbye to the army ( So as to keep the disparity of fighting values the elephants were replaced with four units of heavy and one of light infantry (Xanthippus taking advantage of the ‘Buy one, get one free’ offer down at the Mercenary Market?). With no elephant threat the Romans deployed conventionally (but swapped the heavy and light cavalry round), and the Carthaginians in a similar way.

This time the Romans deliberately held back the right flank. Hasdrubal joined the cavalry in an attempt to get a quicker result with them. Even so it was not until turn four the Roman heavy cavalry were destroyed, and on the other flank the light cavalry survived until turn seven, a pretty impressive result for them.

The Roman right flank almost destroyed the Carthaginian left, before the cavalry joined in and swept the Romans away. By turn four the Roman left was close to a breakthrough – and stayed that way for the rest of the game, the exhausted mercenaries holding off the legions who even with combat bonuses could not roll high.

The Roman centre had not done as well and collapsed on turn nine when the Carthaginian horse arrived in its rear. The left wing followed the next turn.

So another Carthaginian table clearance, but the numbers were Carthage 114, Rome 127 – another Roman narrow victory.

My conclusions from this are that, at least the way I use them, the elephants are a marginal issue. It is the cavalry in the rear that will finally make the Romans run, and only then after the Carthaginian infantry have suffered grievous losses. I think it unlikely the Romans will drive the opposition off the table, but the battle is a closer run thing that it seems at first sight.
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Philip Sabin
United Kingdom
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Thanks for this report, Andrew. The close fought nature of this battle is entirely deliberate. Historically, the Carthaginians had been avoiding battle until Xanthippus stiffened their resolve, showing that they were far from confident of defeating the fearsome legionaries despite their advantages in cavalry and pachyderms. In the battle itself, the Romans broke through Xanthippus's mercenaries before the final encirclement. It was only the dominance of the Punic horse in pursuit and encirclement on the open plain that made the eventual outcome so one-sided.

Your points about the elephants being less central to the victory than Polybius claimed raise further interesting issues about how far the Romans of this era tended to blame their defeats on elephants rather than more 'conventional' factors such as enemy generalship and cavalry superiority. That said, the elephants do give the Carthaginians a significant boost in the slogging match. A lead elephant unit counts as only one rather than two against the attack limit, and has a +2 superiority against fresh legionaries compared to a lead infantry unit. It all makes for an exciting asymmetric confrontation.
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