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The Story of Marcus Atilius Regulus
Roman Virtue and Dubious Historicity
In 264 BC war broke out, for the first of three times, between the two preeminent powers of the Mediterranean world. The Roman Republic and Carthaginian Empire.
Nine years into the war the Roman general and consul Marcus Regulus was captured after losing a battle in North Africa.
The Carthaginians sent him back to Rome to secure a peace deal or prisoner exchange with the Roman senate. He promised that if he failed to convince the senate he would voluntarily return to Carthage for them to do whatever they wish with him. Upon arrival back in Rome he relayed the Carthaginian’s proposals, urged the senate to reject them both, and stated that the Carthaginian’s were on their last leg and Rome could secure a decisive victory if they kept fighting. The senate agreed that the fight must continue with no compromise.
Then, as he promised he would, and against the protestations of his fellow Romans, he went back to Carthage to inform them that the Romans were rejecting all their proposals.
After he arrived in Carthage he informed the Carthaginians that the Romans would not agree to a peace deal or a prisoner exchange. He was promptly tortured to death.
Or at least that’s what the historian Livy relayed to us when he wrote his histories of Rome some 200 year later. Polybius, a Greek historian who covered the Punic Wars in detail, and was alive much closer to when the event supposedly took place, doesn’t mention it at all. Diodorus, another Greek historian, who was alive after Polybius and before Livy, implies that Marcus died of natural causes. He further tells us that Marcus’ widow, upon hearing of her husband’s death in Carthaginian captivity, had two Carthaginian prisoners put to death. The story of Marcus being extremely virtuous and being executed by the Carthaginians for it would be great ex post facto justification for his widow’s behavior.
It makes a fantastic story and an ideal of civic virtue for Romans to strive towards, but it’s probably just 2276 year old fake news.