Author:
Gaius Stern Retired from University of California, Berkeley, USA

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Abstract

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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2023  
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