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Pyrrhic War
Route of Pyrrhus of Epirus
The route of Pyrrhus of Epirus during his campaigns in southern Italy and Sicily.
Date 280–275 BC
Location Southern Italy, Sicily
Result Roman victory
Belligerents
Roman Republic
Carthage
Epirus
Magna Graecia
Samnium
Commanders and leaders
Publius Valerius Laevinus
Publius Decius Mus
Pyrrhus of Epirus
Casualties and losses
24,000+ dead 18,000+ dead

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 Roman Republic, the Italian peoples (primarily the 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."[1][2]

Background[edit]

Map showing the expansion of Roman power over the Italian peninsula prior to and just after Pyrrhic War, 400-264 BC.

To the north of Roman-controlled Latium lay the Etruscan cities, and to the south of Roman-controlled Samnium lay the Greek city states of Magna Graecia: politically independent cities in southern Italia and Sicily, settled by Greek colonists in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Both in Sicily and on the mainland, conflict between all of these groups was ongoing. The Second Latin War (340–338 BC) had placed the Latium region under Roman dominance, if not outright control, and the resistance of the Samnites against Roman control was coming to an end with a few minor conflicts being the only remnants of the Samnite Wars (343–290 BC).

The patchwork of Italian and Sicilian cultures and nations had resulted in continuing conflicts and territory changes, which in recent decades had seen an expansion of Roman influence over Italy. Rome was, however, a "local Italian concern", never having tried its hand in the larger international affairs of the Mediterranean, nor pitted its military strength against any of the dominant Greek cultures. The Pyrrhic war would change both of these facts.

Tarentum asks for help[edit]

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.

Beginning[edit]

Further information: Battle of Heraclea
Modern caricature: "Pyrrhus arrives in Italy with his Troops."

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.

Battle of Asculum[edit]

Further information: Battle of Asculum

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 "that one other such (victory) would utterly undo him." Thus, the phrase "Pyrrhic victory" entered the language.

Roman alliance with Carthage[edit]

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.

Sicilian campaign[edit]

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.

Battle of Beneventum[edit]

Further information: Battle of Beneventum (275 BC)

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.

Aftermath[edit]

Map showing Roman gains after the war.

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.

Conflict chronology[edit]

281 BC

  • The city of Tarentum helps Pyrrhus of Epirus regain control of Corcyra.
  • Roman consul Publius Cornelius Dolabella mounts a 10-ship exploratory expedition along the southern coast of Italia.
  • Philocharis of Tarentum views Cornelius' expedition as a violation of an ancient naval treaty, attacks the expedition, sinking 4 ships and capturing 1.
  • Tarentum attacks the Roman garrison at Thurii, and defeats it, sacking the city.
  • Rome dispatches an embassy to Tarentum, which is rejected and insulted by The Tarentines.
  • The Roman senate declares war on Tarentum.
  • Consul Lucius Aemilius Barbula ceases hostilities with the Samnites, and moves against Tarentum.
  • The Tarentines call on Pyrrhus to protect them against the Romans; Pyrrhus is encouraged to go by an oracle from Delphi.
  • Pyrrhus makes an alliance with Ptolemy Keraunos and gets help from Macedonia for his expedition to Italy.

280 BC

  • Pyrrhus sends Cineas ahead to Tarentum.
  • Pyrrhus sets sail for Italy.
  • Pyrrhus arrives in Italy, bringing war elephants to back up his army.
  • The Samnites join Pyrrhus.
  • Pyrrhus offers to negotiate with the Romans.
  • A Roman garrison is sent to Rhegium.
  • Pyrrhus defeats the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea.
  • Locri and other places desert from the Romans.
  • Two new legions levied for consul Publius Valerius Laevinus are deployed against Pyrrhus, reinforced by the existing legions of consul Tiberius Coruncanius from Etruria.
  • Pyrrhus advances on Rome, as far as Anagnia in Latium.
  • Pyrrhus retires to Campania.
  • Cineas arrives at Rome as the ambassador of Pyrrhus, and unsuccessfully attempts to win support with bribes.
  • The senate rejects Pyrrhus' peace terms, after a speech by Ap. Claudius Caecus.
  • Cineas returns to Pyrrhus, and calls the Roman senate "a parliament of kings".
  • Gaius Fabricius Luscinus is sent on a mission to Pyrrhus to negotiate the release of Roman prisoners of war. Pyrrhus attempts to bribe Fabricius, and when he cannot, releases the prisoners without ransom.
  • Pyrrhus invades Apulia, and is confronted by the Roman army.
  • Pyrrhus defeats the Romans at the Battle of Asculum, but suffers heavy losses.
  • Mago the Carthaginian admiral offers support to the Romans, and a further treaty is signed between Rome and Carthage.
  • Mago visits the camp of Pyrrhus on his way back from Rome.

279 BC

  • When Fabricius discovers a plot by Pyrrhus' doctor Nicias to poison him, he sends warning to Pyrrhus.
  • The Roman garrison at Rhegium mutinies and seizes the town.
  • The Sicilians send an embassy to Pyrrhus, asking him to help them against the Carthaginians. Pyrrhus agrees.
  • The Mamertines make an alliance with the Carthaginians and try to stop Pyrrhus crossing to Sicily.
  • Cineas goes to Rome again, but he is unable to negotiate peace terms.
  • Pyrrhus leaves Italy and crosses over to Sicily.
  • Pyrrhus arranges peace between Thoenon and his opponents at Syracuse.
  • Embassies from many Sicilian cities come to Pyrrhus offering their support.
  • Pyrrhus is proclaimed king of Sicily.
  • Pyrrhus takes control of Acragas and thirty other cities which previously belonged to Sosistratus.
  • Pyrrhus attacks the territory of the Carthaginians in Sicily.
  • Pyrrhus captures Eryx
  • The rest of the Carthaginian possessions in Sicily go over to Pyrrhus.
  • Pyrrhus defeats the Mamertines.

278 BC

  • Negotiations begin between Pyrrhus and the Carthaginians.
  • Pyrrhus prepares to attack Lilybaeum.
  • Pyrrhus has Thoenon of Syracuse killed on suspicion of treason, and his despotic behaviour makes him unpopular with the Sicilians.
  • Pyrrhus abandons the siege of Lilybaeum.
  • The Italians appeal to Pyrrhus to return to help them.
  • Pyrrhus defeats the Carthaginians in a final battle.
  • Pyrrhus leaves Sicily and returns to Italy; he is attacked and defeated by the Carthaginian fleet en route.
  • Manius Curius Dentatus enlists an army to fight against Pyrrhus.
  • Pyrrhus sacks the town of Locri, together with the temple of Persephone.
  • Pyrrhus' fleet is caught in a storm after leaving Locri.
  • Pyrrhus asks Antigonus of Macedon for aid to continue the war in Italy.
  • Hiero, general of Syracuse, makes an alliance with Pyrrhus.
  • Pyrrhus attempts to raise recruits in Samnium.
  • The Romans defeat Pyrrhus at the Battle of Beneventum.
  • Pyrrhus punishes some of the Tarentines for treachery.
  • Pyrrhus leaves Italy; the end of the war between Rome and Pyrrhus.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus, 21:9.
  2. ^ Plutarch. "Pyrrhus 21.9". Plutarch's Lives. Bernadotte Perrin (translator). Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, William Heinemann Ltd.  Available online at the Perseus Project.

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