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Many people have heard the phrase a pyrrhic victory but rather less will know of its origin. In the Pyrrhic War, King Pyrrhus defeated Roman armies at the battles of Heraclea and Asculum but his army suffered heavy losses. After the second of these battles Plutarch1 reports Pyrrhus as saying, 'One more victory like this will be the end of me.' From this comes the phrase a pyrrhic victory meaning one achieved at an unacceptable cost.
This is the story of Pyrrhus of Epirus - the fool of hope.
The territory of Epirus was the mountainous coastal region of modern north-western Greece and southern Albania. To the north was Illyria and to the east Macedonia. To the Greeks the Epirotes were barbarians, although their ancestry was Dorian. Epirus was a poor land, rich only in warriors. The dominant tribe of Epirus were the Molossians.
The only Epirotes whom the Greeks regarded as Greek were the Aeacidae, royal house of the Molossians. Pyrrhus was a member of this family. The Aeacidae claimed descent from Achilles. Olympias, wife of Philip II of Macedon and mother of Alexander the Great, was an Aeacidae princess; making Pyrrhus a cousin of Alexander. In 334BC, when Alexander the Great began his conquest of the Persian Empire, the King of Epirus, Alexander the Molossian (uncle of Pyrrhus), attempted to conquer southern Italy. In 331BC he died in battle against the Romans. He was succeeded by Aeacides, father of Pyrrhus, but in 317BC Aeacides was driven from Epirus by a rebellion2. After this Epirus became a tribal federation instead of a kingdom.
His Early Career
His Path to a Throne
Glaucias, King of Illyria, gave sanctuary to Pyrrhus as a child, and placed him on the throne of Epirus when he was twelve. He allied himself with Demetrius, son of Antigonus I3 of Macedon. In 302BC, whilst absent from his kingdom, he was dethroned by a palace coup and replaced by a kinsman Neoptolemus4. Lacking a kingdom, he fought for Demetrius in Syria, earning himself a reputation as a brave and talented warrior. Sent to Alexandria as a hostage under the terms of the peace treaty between Demetrius and Ptolemy I Soter5, he was befriended by Ptolemy, who restored him to the throne of Epirus in 297BC. Initially Pyrrhus shared his throne with Neoptolemus but soon had him assassinated. His rule in Epirus was absolute from now on.
The next stage in his career was in 294BC when he took advantage of a dynastic dispute in Macedon to seize Macedonian territories bordering Epirus. Astute choice of wives also gained him more territory and allies. In 288BC he went to war against his former ally, Demetrius I Poliorcetes6, now King of Macedon. Allied with Lysimachus7, King of Lysimachia8, he conquered Thessaly and western Macedonia, and relieved Athens, besieged by Demetrius. He was briefly recognised as King of Macedon but in 285BC was driven back into Epirus by Lysimachus. Back to square one!
The Pyrrhic War
Other opportunities beckoned to Pyrrhus. Having defeated the Samnites in central Italy9 the young Roman Republic was now looking southward. The Lucanians and Bruttians, native to southern Italy, continued to attack the Greek city-states10 of Magna Graecia as the region was then known. Pre-eminent amongst them was Tarentum, rich from trade and possessing a powerful navy. Since 302BC it also had a treaty with Rome, a clause of which forbade Roman fleets from entering the Bay of Tarentum. In 282BC a coalition of Greek cities, including Locri, Rhegium, Croton and a small city located on the Bay of Tarentum called Thurii (but not Tarentum), requested Roman aid against the Lucanians. Rome sent a fleet carrying troops to garrison Thurii. Angered by this breach of their treaty with Rome, and fearing an expansion of Roman power into Magna Graecia, the Tarentines sank the fleet and expelled the garrison from Thurii. Rome sent an envoy to demand that Tarentum make amends for this, but their envoy was insulted and Rome declared war. Tarentum prepared for war, but finding few allies in Magna Graecia, called on Pyrrhus for assistance.
Pyrrhus began recruiting troops in Epirus and neighbouring states11. Despite being separated from his fleet by a storm, both Pyrrhus and his army arrived safely in Italy in 280BC. He had an army of 25,000 men, including 3,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers, and 20 war elephants. His forces were equipped in the manner of the Greek Successor States12 and included a substantial number of hoplites. This was the most modern and well-equipped army ever seen in Italy. The Tarentines, hoping that Pyrrhus would fight their war for them, were soon disappointed. Pyrrhus garrisoned Tarentum, closed the places of entertainment, and instituted military training for the male citizens of the city. Tarentum found it had gained a master, not a servant.
The Battle of Heraclea
A Roman army of 50,000 men marched into Lucanian territory to prevent them from joining Pyrrhus. Although he had little more than his Epirote army Pyrrhus met the Roman army in battle near the small coastal town of Heraclea. The Romans had never seen elephants before (calling them Lucanian Oxen) and their cavalry panicked, fleeing back into and causing disorder among their own infantry. The Romans were saved from complete annihilation by a wounded elephant that panicked the other elephants and caused them to turn on Pyrrhus's own army. Pyrrhus had to call off his pursuit of the fleeing Roman troops. Ancient writers estimated casualties as between 7,000 to 15,000 Romans and 4,000 to 13,000 Epirotes. Although Rome lost the battle it had no difficulty raising fresh armies, while Pyrrhus could not replace the Epirote troops he had lost and those replacements he could recruit in Italy were of inferior quality.
Pyrrhus now marched on Rome, hoping to recruit additional allies. Italian Greeks, Samnites, Lucanians and Bruttians all joined his army, but most of Rome's allies in central Italy remained loyal. Pyrrhus took his army to within four miles of Rome's walls. Pyrrhus now offered peace to Rome if she would guarantee the independence of the Italian Greeks but his envoy, Cineas13, was told Rome would not negotiate so long as foreign troops remained on Italian soil. Facing several Roman armies and with winter approaching, Pyrrhus withdrew to Tarentum to rebuild his army.
The Battle of Asculum
Come spring, his army now numbering over 40,000 men (some historians say over 70,000), Pyrrhus marched on Rome again. At Asculum, in Apulia, his army faced two Roman consular armies. The battle was fought over two days. The first day, fought on rough terrain unfavourable to the unwieldy Epirote phalanx, proved inconclusive, but on the second day Pyrrhus manoeuvred the Romans into accepting battle on more favourable level ground. His phalanx charged into the Roman line, followed by the elephants. The Roman line broke and their army was driven in disarray from the battlefield. Although it was a decisive victory Pyrrhus's elite Epirote troops had again suffered heavy casualties. It was after this battle, when congratulated on his victory by a sycophantic courtier, that Pyrrhus made his famous remark. However, he did manage to get Rome to agree to a status quo ceasefire now.
There and Back Again
In the meantime Carthage had allied with Rome, and was faring well in its own war against the Sicilian Greeks, who called upon Pyrrhus for assistance, offering to make him king of Sicily. In 278BC he crossed over to Sicily and drove the Carthaginians back, capturing most of their cities, but not the naval fortress of Lilybaeum. The Sicilian Greeks rebelled against his autocratic rule and he returned to Italy in 276BC. On his return voyage the Carthaginian fleet attacked and Pyrrhus lost several ships. His Italian Greek allies now refused to supply him with more troops and money. Growing increasingly desperate Pyrrhus marched on Rome again. Thousands of Samnites and other Italians flocked to his banner again.
The Battle of Beneventum
A Roman army marched south to meet him and erected a fortified camp near the town of Malventum14. Pyrrhus approached Malventum with an army estimated at 20,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 15 elephants, but most of the infantry were Italian. The Roman army, weakened by defections of Italian allied troops to Pyrrhus, numbered about 17,000 infantry and 1,200 cavalry. Pyrrhus's scouts located the Roman encampment and he took the risky option of a surprise night attack. In the best traditions of such it went badly wrong. His troops took longer to reach the camp than planned and the Romans detected their approach. They drove off the Epirote attack and Pyrrhus lost eight of his irreplaceable elephants. The next day the Romans took to the offensive. Their initial assault failed due to Pyrrhus's skillful use of his remaining elephants and the stalwart resistance of the Epirote hoplites, but a second attack succeeded in stampeding the elephants onto the Epirote phalanx, which withdrew from the battlefield in disorder. Pyrrhus was left with no choice but to retreat and the Romans had won a narrow victory.
Defeated and running out of allies Pyrrhus abandoned the Italian Greeks to Rome, taking back 8,000 infantry and 500 cavalry to Epirus. His last words before leaving Italy are said to have been, 'What a battlefield I am leaving for Carthage and Rome'. In 272BC Tarentum surrendered to Rome. In 270BC Rome conquered the last independent Italian Greek city, Rhegium. She was now mistress of the whole of what is now called Italy, except for the part north of the river Po, known then as Cisalpine Gaul.
The Romans, while not generally regarded as a creative people, were noted for technical innovation. The Pyrrhic War saw various examples of this, some more successful than others.
At the Battle of Asculum the Romans deployed anti-elephant chariots. These were basically ox-drawn wagons with added wooden shielding and iron-tipped rams. Pyrrhus dealt with them by having his archers kill the oxen and his hoplites drive off the crews. The charging elephants then brushed them aside.
The Battle of Beneventum is perhaps the first example of a Roman fortified camp playing an important part in a battle. Since the Epirotes lacked even basic siege equipment once they had lost the element of surprise their attack against the fortified camp had little chance of success. The towers of the Roman camp were equipped with scorpions15. The projectiles from these, possibly wrapped in cloth that had been soaked in oil or tar and set alight, may have been responsible for the heavy losses amongst Pyrrhus' elephants during the assault on the fortified camp.
The Pyrrhic War also saw the Romans adopt the pilum16, copied from their Samnite enemies. This helped compensate for the Roman lack of archers and slingers. Volleys of pila may have been used to stampede the elephants.
A last innovation, mentioned by Dionysius17, but considered dubious by many historians was Roman use of flaming pigs. Supposedly the Romans tarred pigs with pitch, set them alight, and sent them in the general direction of the elephants causing them to stampede. No less a historian than the highly reputable H H Scullard18 considered Roman use of flaming pigs not only possible but also probable.
A Fitting End
In 274BC Pyrrhus attacked Macedon, defeating Antigonus II Gonatas (son of Demetrius), and winning the loyalty of the Macedonian army. In 272BC he allied with Cleonymus, deposed King of Sparta, and invaded the Peloponnese. Antigonus II regained control of Macedonia and sent an army against Pyrrhus who was trapped between the Macedonian army and that of King Areus of Sparta whilst interfering in a civic dispute in Argos. Pyrrhus died in street-fighting in Argos, supposedly slain by a roof tile thrown by an old woman who saw him fighting her son.
The Character of Pyrrhus
In Pyrrhus's wild career of restless troublemaking, we see a soul incapable of satisfaction. He was a mighty man of war, and nearly conquered Rome, but he could never finish what he started before getting distracted by a new project.
Claiming he nearly conquered Rome is an exaggeration. Like Hannibal Barca in the Second Punic War he was adept at defeating Roman armies but lacked sufficient resources to besiege Rome. Unlike Hannibal, he lacked consistency of purpose.
Pyrrhus was much admired by the Epirotes who called him the 'Eagle' because of his great courage on the battlefield. When he heard this he told his soldiers 'It is because of you that I am an eagle, because your arms are my wings'.
Despite the eventual failure of all his wars Pyrrhus was much admired in antiquity. Hannibal rated him second only to Alexander the Great as a general. His memoirs and writings on strategy (now lost to us) were much-read and respected by the Greeks and Romans, including Cicero.
Pyrrhus was regarded as brave, honourable, charismatic and generous to both friend and foe. His greatest flaw seems to have been a lack of purpose other than the pursuit of glory. A conversation he had with Cineas before leaving Epirus for Italy illustrates this.
Cineas: The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors and conquerors of many warlike nations; if God permit us to overcome them, how should we use our victory?
Pyrrhus: You ask, a thing evident of itself. The Romans once conquered, there is neither Greek nor barbarian city that will resist us, but we shall presently be masters of all Italy, the extent and resources and strength of which any one should rather profess to be ignorant of than yourself.
Cineas: And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?
Pyrrhus: Sicily next holds out her arms to receive us, a wealthy and populous island, and easy to be gained; for since Agathocles left it, only faction and anarchy, and the licentious violence of the demagogues prevail.
Cineas: You speak what is perfectly probable, but will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?
Pyrrhus: God grant us, victory and success in that, and we will use these as forerunners of greater things; who could forbear from Libya and Carthage then within reach, which Agathocles, even when forced to fly from Syracuse, and passing the sea only with a few ships, had all but surprised? These conquests once perfected, will any assert that of the enemies who now pretend to despise us, any one will dare to make further resistance?
Cineas: None for then it is manifest we may with such mighty forces regain Macedon, and make an absolute conquest of Greece; and when all these are in our power what shall we do then?
Pyrrhus: We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.
Cineas: And what hinders us now, sir, if we have a mind to be merry, and entertain one another, since we have at hand without trouble all those necessary things, to which through much blood and great labour, and infinite hazards and mischief done to ourselves and to others, we design at last to arrive?
Plutarch described Pyrrhus as 'infected with that innate disease of leaders: the urge to expand their authority', and as being like a gambler who didn't know when to quit.
Whatever Pyrrhus won, he lost by going on to new adventures, like a lucky gambler who does not know when to stop. What he won by great actions he lost by vain hopes. Because of his desires for new conquests, he lost what he had already won. On and on he went, building new ambitions on the ruins of old ones, and never finishing what he started.