Society / War

280BC May , Duration 6Y

Event #2915: Pyrrhic War

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Text #9243

"Pyrrhic War", in Wikipedia.

The Pyrrhic War (280–275 BC) was a complex series of battles and shifting political alliances among the Greeks (specifically Epirus, Macedonia, and the city states of Magna Graecia), the Italian peoples (primarily the Roman Republic, Samnites and the Etruscans), and the Carthaginians. Most historical treatments of the conflict concentrate on the conflicts between Pyrrhus of Epirus and Rome. Carthage and Rome were allies in this conflict. While Carthage did, in fact, pledge aid to Rome in 280 BC, it is unclear what this aid consisted of, or how influential it was in the war. Later in the conflict Carthage was involved in its own war with Pyrrhus in Sicily. There seems to have been no coordinated military efforts between Rome and Carthage.

The Pyrrhic War initially started as a minor conflict between Rome and the city of Tarentum over a naval treaty violation by one of the Roman consuls. Tarentum had, however, lent aid to the Greek ruler Pyrrhus of Epirus in his conflict with Korkyra, and requested military aid from Epirus. Pyrrhus honored his obligation to Tarentum and joined the complex series of conflicts involving Tarentum and the Romans, Samnites, Etruscans, and Thurii (as well as other cities of Magna Graecia). Pyrrhus also involved himself in the internal political conflicts of Sicily, as well as the Sicilian struggle against Carthaginian dominance.

Pyrrhus’ involvement in the regional conflicts of Sicily reduced the Carthaginian influence there drastically. In Italy, his involvement seems to have been mostly ineffectual but had long term implications. The Pyrrhic War proved both that the states of ancient Greece had essentially become incapable of defending the independent colonies of Magna Graecia and that the Roman legions were capable of competing with the armies of the Hellenistic kingdoms — the dominant Mediterranean powers of the time. This opened the way for Roman dominance over the city states of Magna Graecia and advanced the Roman consolidation of power in Italy greatly. Rome’s proven record in international military conflicts would also aid its resolve in its rivalry with Carthage, which was eventually to culminate in the Punic Wars.

Linguistically, the Pyrrhic War is the source of the expression “Pyrrhic victory,” a term for a victory won at too high a cost. Its origin can be seen in Plutarch’s description of Pyrrhus’ reaction to the report of a victorious battle:

The two armies separated; and we are told that Pyrrhus said to one who was congratulating him on his victory, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”

In 282 BC, Rome was called by the city of Thurii for military assistance in a dispute it had with another city. In response, Rome sent out a fleet of ships that entered the Bay of Tarentum. This act violated a longstanding treaty between it and the city of Tarentum, which forbade Rome from entering Tarentine waters. Enraged by what it considered a hostile aggression, the city attacked the fleet, sinking several ships and sending the rest away. Rome was shocked and angered by this incident and sent out diplomats to defuse the situation. However, negotiations turned sour, leading to a declaration of war against Tarentum.

Seeking reinforcements, Tarentum then turned to mainland Greece for military aid and called on the King of Epirus to help it defeat the Romans. Pyrrhus, hoping to build a vast empire, saw this opportunity as a good starting point and accepted.

In 280 BC, Pyrrhus landed with 25,000 troops, including a score of war elephants, in Italy. A Roman army of 50,000 led by Publius Laevinius was sent into the Lucanian territory, where the first battle took place near the city of Heraclea. During this battle, a wounded elephant made the other beasts panic, thereby ruining what would otherwise have been a complete victory for Pyrrhus. Casualty lists differ, ranging from 7,000 to 15,000 for the Romans and 4,000 to 13,000 for the Greeks.

This battle proved to be crucial in showing the stability of the Roman republic. Pyrrhus had expected the Italic tribes to rebel against the Romans and join him. However, by now the Romans had stabilized the area, and only a few Italics actually joined the Greeks.

In 279 BC, Pyrrhus fought the second major battle of the war at Asculum. This one was of a much greater scale, taking two days in the hills of Apulia. The Roman general Publius Mus managed to use the terrain to reduce the effectiveness of the Greek cavalry and elephants. Thus the first day ended with a stalemate. The second day Pyrrhus made another attack with war elephants supported by infantry, which finally overwhelmed Mus’s position. The Romans lost about 6,000 men while Pyrrhus’ army suffered 3,500 casualties.

The battle still was not quite as glorious, and according to the Greek historian Plutarch, Pyrrhus said that “one other such (victory) would utterly undo him.” Thus, the phrase “Pyrrhic victory” entered the language.

Pyrrhus next offered to negotiate a truce with Rome, but Rome refused to talk as long as Pyrrhus remained on Italian soil. Appius Claudius, who built the Appian Way, now an old man and blind, exhorted the Romans to refuse negotiations with Pyrrhus, who was really only asking at this point for freedom for Tarentum and her allies.

Pyrrhus tried to ally with Carthage against Rome, but the Carthaginians, seeing Pyrrhus as the greater threat, refused and sent a squadron up to the Tiber mouth to offer help against him. The third Roman treaty with Carthage now concluded an effectual alliance between them and against Pyrrhus. (A dozen years later, Rome’s interests in the Mediterranean would come into conflict with those of Carthage, and they went to war.) The effect was to limit Pyrrhus’ career in the west to aggression against the Greek states which he had nominally come to protect.

Veterans of Agathocles, settled now at Messana, offered their help, but Campania and most of the south gave Pyrrhus no encouragement. Only Etruria thought the tide had turned against Rome, quickly to discover its mistake.

After two campaigns in which, though he always won battles, Pyrrhus was losing more men than he could afford, he moved on to Sicily (278 BC) to aid the Greeks there, who were being hard pressed by the Carthaginians. The Romans had little difficulty in dealing with his friends and rear guards on the Italian mainland.

The Carthaginians had not waited to be attacked. When Pyrrhus sailed for Sicily, they were besieging Syracuse, his necessary base, and looking for him with their fleet. He evaded their ships, however, and drove off their field army, captured the cities of Panormus and Eryx and refused their offer to surrender everything in Sicily except for Lilybaeum, which they direly needed if they sought to keep their hold on Sardinia.

All the while, his losses had been heavy and his reinforcements few. Back in Italy, his Samnite allies were defeated by the Romans at the Battle of the Cranita hills. In addition, Tarentum was being hard pressed by the Romans, and between the Romans and the Carthaginian fleet he feared becoming trapped in Sicily. So in a desperate attempt he returned once more to Italy, to fight one more campaign.

In 275 BC, Pyrrhus was back in Italy. He faced the Romans at the town of Maleventum (translation: Bad Event) in southern Italy and was severely defeated, as the Romans had learned how to deal with his spearmen and elephants. The Romans had learned that they could wound the elephants in the side using their pila, the short throwing spears that had come into use during the Samnite Wars. This would in turn panic the elephants, which ran out of control and trampled their own troops. (This was more than sixty years before the famous campaign of Hannibal of Carthage in which he crossed the Alps with an army employing elephants.)

After the battle, the Romans renamed the town to Beneventum (Good Event) in recognition of their victory over Pyrrhus. He then retreated into Tarentum for the duration of the war. Pyrrhus soon left Italy forever and returned to the Greek mainland, leaving a sufficient force to garrison Tarentum. He had lost two thirds of his army during the fighting and had little to show for his efforts. His parting words were memorable: “What a battlefield I am leaving for Carthage and Rome!”

He had scarcely embarked before Tarentum surrendered to the Romans (272 BC). Rome treated the Tarentines leniently, allowing them the same local self-rule it allowed other cities. Tarentum in turn recognized Rome’s hegemony in Italy and became another of Rome’s allies, while a Roman garrison remained in Tarentum to ensure its loyalty. Other Greek cities and the Bruttian tribes with their valuable forest-country surrendered likewise, undertaking to supply Rome with ships and crews in future. Some Greek cities may still have seen themselves as allies, rather than subjects, of Rome.

The victory over Pyrrhus was a significant one as it was the defeat of a Greek army which fought in the tradition of Alexander the Great and was commanded by the most able commander of the time. Moreover, Greek armies were considered the most effective military force in the ancient world at the time. In 272 BC Pyrrhus’ life came to an end - one version is that, during a street battle in Argos, a woman threw a roof tile down upon his head. Stunned, he fell off his horse, allowing an Argive soldier to kill him easily.

After its defeat of Pyrrhus, Rome was recognized as a major power in the Mediterranean, as evidenced by the opening of a permanent embassy of amity by the Macedonian king of Egypt in Rome in 273 BC.

New Roman colonies were founded in the south to further secure the territory to Roman domination. In the north the last free Etruscan city, Volsinii, revolted and was destroyed in 264 BC. There, too, new colonies were founded to cement Roman rule. Rome was now mistress of all the peninsula from the Straits of Messina to the Apennine frontier with the Gauls along the Arnus and the Rubicon rivers.

Text #1696

Dio Cassius. Roman History. Vol. 1
[DioCass. 10.48. Translated by Earnest Cary. Harvard University Press. 1914. (9 Vols.) p. 363]


When the allies were unwilling to contribute anything for the support of Pyrrhus, he betook himself to the treasuries of Proserpina, which were widely famed for their wealth, plundered them and sent the spoils by ship to Tarentum. And the men nearly all perished in a storm, while the money and offerings were cast up on shore.

Text #4028

Plutarch. Lives. Vol. 9
[Plut. Pyrrh. 15. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Harvard University Press. 1920. (11 Vols.) pp. 389--393]


First, he sent away Cineas to the Tarentines with three thousand men; presently after, many vessels for transport of horse, and galleys, and flat-bottomed boats of all sorts arriving from Tarentum, he shipped upon them twenty elephants, three thousand horse, twenty thousand foot, two thousand archers, and five hundred slingers1.

All being thus in readiness, he set sail, and being half-way over, was driven by the wind, blowing, contrary to the season of the year, violently from the north, and carried from his course, but by the great skill and resolution of his pilots and seamen, he made the land with infinite labour, and beyond expectation. The rest of the fleet could not get up, and some of the dispersed ships, losing the coast of Italy, were driven into the Libyan and Sicilian Sea; others, not able to double the cape of Japygium, were overtaken by the night; and, with a boisterous and heavy sea, throwing them upon a dangerous and rocky shore, they were all very much disabled except the royal galley.

She, while the sea bore upon her sides, resisted with her bulk and strength, and avoided the force of it, till the wind coming about, blew directly in their teeth from the shore, and the vessel keeping up with her head against it, was in danger of going to pieces; yet on the other hand, to suffer themselves to be driven off to sea again, which was thus raging and tempestuous, with the wind shifting about every way, seemed to them the most dreadful of all their present evils. Pyrrhus, rising up, threw himself overboard. His friends and guards strove eagerly who should be most ready to help him, but night and the sea, with its noise and violent surge, made it extremely difficult to do this; so that hardly, when with the morning the wind began to subside, he got ashore, breathless and weakened in body, but with high courage and strength of mind resisting his hard fortune. The Messapians, upon whose shore they were thrown by the tempest, came up eagerly to help them in the best manner they could; and some of the straggling vessels that had escaped the storm arrived; in which were a very few horse, and not quite two thousand foot, and two elephants.

  1. In May 280 BC, at the beginning of the Pyrrhic War, Pyrrhus of Epirus helped the Greek city of Tarentum (in southern Italy), after the city had requested his help against the Romans. The army of Pyrrhus was one of the most powerful in the Mediterranean world: 20000 infantry, 3000 cavalry, 2000 archers, 500 slingers and 20 war elephants. However, in mid-crossing towards Italy, a powerful storm hit his fleet, so devastating that it almost killed him. Out of his powerful army, only 2 elephants and 200 infantry remained: Garouphalias P, Pyrrhus King of Epirus, 1979, p.326 [nE]

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