Gaius Stern Retired from University of California, Berkeley, USA

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In August 216 BC, Hannibal offered Rome a chance to ransom 10,000 POWs (prisoners of war), but the Senate, even though it was desperate for manpower, rejected his offer and instead purchased and freed 8,000 slaves to enlist in the army. The message was that Rome preferred newly freedmen who would fight for Rome over the men who had not fought their way out of the enemy's grasp. Hannibal sold the POWs into slavery. Thereafter, disdain for prisoners became a permanent feature of the Roman war machine. Diodorus, Livy, Plutarch, and Dio acknowledge that the Romans used to ransom and exchange POWs just like everyone else, but after Cannae they stopped. Cannae revived traumatic memories of how Rome had surrendered to Brennus and ransomed the city in 387 BC and surrendered to the Samnites in 321 BC at Caudine Forks and signed an unfavorable peace. Although Romans invented stories of salvation and exacting revenge in both cases, these humiliating events left deep scars in the Roman psyche, which never completely healed.

The defeat and capture of Atilius Regulus in Africa in 255 directly relates to the above-mentioned disasters. Although Romans transformed Regulus into a hero and martyr for integrity, claiming that he returned to Rome in 250 BC (five years after his death!) and denounced a prisoner exchange he had promised to endorse, the legend obscured the fact that Rome did exchange prisoners out of necessity in 249.

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  • Frank, T. (1926). Two Historical Themes in Roman Literature: Regulus and Horace, III, 5. Classical Philology, 21: 311316.

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  • Harris, W.V. (1979). War and Imperialism in Republican Rome, 327–70 BC .Clarendon Press, Oxford.

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  • Niebuhr, B.G. (1842). The History of Rome .Vol. III. English translation of the 2nd German edition of 1828, by W. Smith and I. Schmitz.

  • Radin, M. (1920). The Lex Pompeia and the Poena Cullei. Journal of Roman Studies, 10: 119130.

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  • Stern, G. (2006). Brennus, Caudine Forks, Regulus, Cannae, and Flamininus: The Changing Roman Ethos towards POWs. Lecture in CAMWS Southern Section, online at

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  • Stern, G. (2022). Pyrrhus and the Roman POWs. Lecture on The Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Split, Croatia, 5–7 April 2022.

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  • Stern, G. (2023). Pyrrhus, Fabricius, an Elephant, and the Roman POWs. Roman Reception of their own Legend. Lecture in the Classical Association, Cambridge, England, 21–23 April 2023.

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  • Thallon, I.C. (1928). The Tradition of Antenor and Its Historical Possibility. American Journal of Archaeology, 28(1): 4765.

  • Trizio, R. (2022). I bastardi che vinsero Annibale .Cairo Editore, Milano.

  • The Conspiracy of Aeneas & Antenor Against the State of Troy: A Poem. Printed for John Spicer, London, 1682.

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