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Rome’s war with Pyrrhus

(282-272 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Hastati fighting the elephant Pyrrus
Hastati fighting the elephant Pyrrus | Illustration from Rex Aqvila, Daniel Cuadrado Morales

One of the most staunch enemies of the Republic was Pyrrhus, king of Epirus (or hegemon of the Epirus Union – different sources say). Pyrrhus is a very famous figure – probably everyone knows the saying “Pyrrhic victory” – but about its origins later.

Background of the conflict

Pyrrhus was expelled from the country in 303 BCE, but with the support of his father-in-law, Ptolemy I Soter, returned to the throne in 297 BCE. He tried to free his country from Macedonian influence and turn it into a Hellenistic-type monarchy. He intervened in dynastic disputes in Macedonia. Then he tried to oppose Rome.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

The war with Epirus cost Rome a lot of effort and suffering, it took many thousands of lives. Let us start with the fact that this war was caused by the Greek colony in Italy. It was Tarantum. Rome became the greatest force in Lazio and the central Apennine Peninsula. The Romans, desiring to expand their influence, turned to the south. Tarentum was the biggest obstacle on the way to dominating southern Italy. Taranto had a treaty with Rome stating that the Romans would not send their ships to the Gulf of Taranto. It is not known whether this treaty was up-to-date, but the fact is that in 282 BCE Rome strengthened the garrisons in 3 Greek cities – Turija, Locri and Regium. In general, the purpose of these efforts was to protect themselves against a possible attack by the Lucans – the Italian people living further north. Turija, however, was situated on the western shore of the Bay of Tarentum. Sending Roman ships there was probably supposed to be a demonstration of strength.

The Tarentians watched with concern as Rome grew in strength, and in the end, decided to act. Taranto troops attacked and sank many Roman ships, they also drove the garrison of the Republic out of Turia. The Tarentians were determined to fight Rome, and on behalf of all Greek cities in Italy, they sent an invitation to Pyrrhus to intervene in the Apennine Peninsula. Plutarch reports that as a contribution to the joint military effort they offered not only the troops of Tarentum but also numerous units of indigenous tribes, namely the aforementioned Lucans, as well as Messapians and Samnites. In total, this was 20,000 cavalry and 350,000 infantry. We do not know if Plutarch’s data is fully correct, but we do know that these troops had to be really large to encourage the ruler of Epirus – the brave but unfulfilled leader – Pyrrhus to war.

Pyrrhus military campaign in Italy

Pyrrhus did not think long – he sent his trusted officer Cineas (from Thessaly) to Taranto along with 3,000 soldiers. He himself took care of gathering the main invasion forces. The Tarentians came to Epirus with transport ships that were to carry Pyrrhus’s army across the Adriatic Sea, as well as ships that were tasked with covering the transported army. Pyrrhus himself, on the other hand, was sailing in a massive septirema. Why am I talking about this? Because halfway up the north wind, some of Pyrrhus’s fleet strayed off course and sailed past Sicily for Libya. However, thanks to the aforementioned massiveness, the septiram of the leader of the invasion forces managed to keep the proper course. When Pyrrhus reached the shore, he was well received by the Messapia, who gave him all the help he needed (they were allies of Taranto). Pyrrhus travelled overland to Taranto to join forces with the rest of his forces. As he reached his destination, Cineas met him, with the troops already in the city with him. While in Taranto, Pyrrhus did not do anything that would offend the inhabitants of the city. However, as we well know, all that is good ends quickly. It was not different this time. When the dispersed fleet finally reached the port of Taranto, Pyrrhus introduced a kind of dictatorship in the city. He closed all entertainment and sports centres, forbade any holidays, celebrations, and as if that were not enough, he decided to call the entire population of Taranto underarms. Of course, he did as he thought. Some of the inhabitants were simply overwhelmed by this situation and they left Taranto as an act of objection.

Map showing the Roman expansion on the Apennine Peninsula in the years 400-264 BCE

Pyrrhus soon learned that the mighty army of the Roman Republic was approaching Taranto, ravaging the lands of Lucan (Pyrrhus’s allies) in the process. The ruler of Epirus would have preferred to wait a while before starting the fighting, as the allied troops promised by the Tarentians had not yet reached him, but strategically it would be a mistake, as it meant leaving the initiative in the hands of the enemy, which was certainly not good for the morale of the army. So Pyrrhus led his army and set out to meet the Romans. He was a very ingenious commander and in order to gain time he sent a herald to the enemy asking if the Romans would agree to his Pyrrhic arbitration in their dispute with Taranto. Pyrrhus expected and received a negative answer, but he achieved his goal and gained some time.

Battle of Heraclea

Pyrrhus set up a camp near Heraclea, near the River Siris. From his camp, he watched the Romans cross the river. He was surprised by the discipline of the Republic troops. He was willing to expect reinforcements from the Italian allies, but the Romans did not want to let that happen. So Pyrrhus set up defensive troops on the river bank. If his plan were to succeed, Roman troops would find it very difficult to cross the river. However, the Romans turned out to be faster, whose infantry unit crossed Siris with a ford. This threatened the surroundings of the Epirus and Tarentum armies, so Pyrrhus was forced to withdraw. It was under these circumstances that the battle of Heraclea took place. Pyrrhus realized that he could not delay any further and must take the initiative. To this end, following the traditional tactics of Alexander of Macedon, he left his phalanx to hold back the Roman front. He himself, at the head of 3,000 horsemen, launched the attack. However, he chose the wrong moment – the Romans usually had a small amount of cavalry, but this time they were supported by numerous horse troops of Italian allies, and Pyrrhus’s Thessalian cavalry was repulsed this time.

A lot can be said about the ruler of Epirus: that he was brave, inventive, sometimes daring, that he did not lose his head even in hopeless situations, but he certainly cannot be called an excellent strategist, for tactics was not his strongest point. So a strange move seems to be the order to attack the phalanx by Pyrrhus. This was not her standard task and the phalanx was usually not used in this role, as it could be easily surrounded by enemy cavalry. Luckily for Pyrrhus, he had elephants. War elephants were a very unpredictable unit that was able to change the tide of the battle, but when the enemy caused panic in their ranks, they ran furiously, often trampling their own army. However, Pyrrhus was lucky, the elephants caused panic among the Roman horses, which prevented the Roman cavalry from making any coordinated maneuvers to encircle the enemy’s phalanx. Then Pyrrhus’s Thessalian cavalry attacked again, but this time successfully, the Romans were driven out.

Pyrrhus won a victory – greater than what we call “Pyrrhic” – but suffered considerable losses. And here comes the problem: what was the real loss of both in this battle? The data is quite inconsistent. Dionysius reports that the Romans lost 15,000 soldiers and Pyrrhus 13,000. In turn, Hieronim reports that 7,000 soldiers of the Republic died, while the combined forces of Taranto and Epirus lost 4,000 people. In any case, Pyrrhus captured the camp abandoned by the Romans. The appreciation of the ruler of Epirus also increased, and the hesitant Lucans, Samnites, and other allies joined the Tareno-Epirus forces.

Pyrrhus did not want to conquer Rome, but he made it 60 km from the city and it was from here, taking advantage of the victory at Heraclea, he wanted to negotiate. However, his presence did not intimidate the Romans – the fear of abandonment by the allies or the siege of the capital did not induce Rome to conclude a peace that would guarantee the security of Taranto. The Romans made friendly relations with Taranto dependent on Pyrrhus and his army unconditionally leaving Italy.

Battle of Ausculum

However, the Romans did not idle – the composition and armament of both consular armies were supplemented. Pyrrhus could not ignore them, because they threatened his rear, allies, communication lines, and could also damage the prestige and image of the leader of the invaders and lower the morale of his army. Therefore, Pyrrhus could not delay starting military operations again. He broke off negotiations with Rome and began a new war campaign. Pyrrhus encountered the Romans in Apulia, near Ausculum. The tactical weakness of the ruler of Epirus made itself felt again – he gave the enemy a battle in wooded, mountainous terrain, which – looking at the composition of Pyrrhus’s army (phalanx, cavalry, elephants, missile troops) – does not seem like a very reasonable move. Let us now look at the data on the armed forces of both sides of the conflict, and more specifically their meeting in 279 BCE at the Battle of Ausculum.

Allied forces of Epirus, Taranto, Samnite, Lucan and others under the command of Pyrrhus:

  • 20,000 infantry
  • 3000 rides
  • 2000 archers
  • 500 slingers
  • 20 elephants
  • 3000 vanguard
  • the gaps resulting from the losses near Heraclea were filled by the allied forces

Forces of the Roman Republic under the command of consul Fabrizio Quintus Emilius:

  • 2 consular armies fully mobilized
  • riding allies
  • about 40,000 people in total

As a result of terrain unfavourable for Pyrrhus, the battle soon turned into an infantry fight. The Romans adopted the tactic of harassing the enemy, which was perfectly allowed by the ubiquitous bushes. They dragged out the battle all day, and it was not resolved. The next day, Pyrrhus decided to move the battle into an open space that would allow him to use the entire military potential of his army. The aggressors managed to conquer the forest, so the Romans had to fight in an area that suited the enemy. Despite this, the infantry of the Republic kept the fields of Pyrrhus’s phalanx, heavy clashes between the legions and the enemy’s phalanxes took place. The soldiers of Rome tried to win the battle in their favour before the elephants entered the fight.

Pyrrhus himself showed great courage, but he was wounded in the shoulder with a javelin. Who knows, maybe he wanted to be like Alexander again, who sometimes showed bravado during the fight (once he even went to the battle site without a helmet). In any event, when the elephants were brought into battle, the Romans were forced to retreat. The elephants again tilted the scales of victory to Pyrrhus. The latter, in turn, withdrew from Ausculum as well.

Map showing the operations of King Pyrrhus’s troops.
Author: PioM | Under the Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

At the beginning of this text, I mentioned that I would explain the genesis of the well-known “Pyrrhic victory “. This phrase means winning but at too great a cost. It primarily relates to the Battle of Ausculum. 6,000 soldiers of Fabricius Quintus Emilius and 3,550 Pyrrhus were killed there. Someone may say: “How is it at too high a cost, after all, Pyrrhus won again, and in addition, the Romans once again suffered greater losses!” Yes, I agree with that, however, there are several reasons for calling the Battle of Ausculum a “Pyrrhic victory”. First, many of Pyrrhus’s most capable, best officers were killed in this clash. Second, the ruler himself was injured. Third and most importantly, the Romans were at home and could still recruit new soldiers, and Pyrrhus, being in enemy territory, could not do it. It is worth noting that if Pyrrhus had been a better strategist, his army would not have suffered such costly losses.

Pyrrhus suffered from a very ungrateful ailment, namely that he could not completely solve any problem. I would compare it to a child who wants to acquire a new skill (learning a foreign language, playing a musical instrument, etc.). As long as it is easy, he learns with enthusiasm, but when difficulties arise, he gives up his current activity and becomes interested in something else. It was no different with the ruler of Epirus.

Activities in Sicily

After the battle of Ausculum, he abandoned the war in Italy and became interested in Sicily, where Greek cities without a commander like Agathocles were threatened by the Carthaginians. He decided to start his new campaign there. He thought that in this way he would manage to withdraw from Italy, where his situation was becoming unfavourable. Taranto was very dissatisfied with the new actions of Pyrrhus, because the initial peace negotiations with Rome did not end successfully, and the commander, having left the garrison in the city, took 30,000 infantry and 25,000 horsemen and sailed towards Sicily.

There he was clearly successful, for Carthage was famous for its excellent navy, but its army was rather average. The Carthaginians were pushed west of the island. Soon Pyrrhus’s troops reached the heavily fortified Carthaginian city on the western edge of Sicily – Eryx. Eryx was taken by storm. The trumpet signal confused the defenders on the walls and marked the beginning of the attack. The ladders were brought in and Pyrrhus himself rushed into the fray, sowing death wherever he turned. This time, however, his bravado did not pay for any wound. It was a triumph that Pyrrhus had always dreamed of, so he celebrated it with sports games in honour of Heracles. After this severe defeat, the Carthaginians were prone to peace negotiations. In turn, the Italic robbers, living, one could say, outside the law, once hired in Campania as Agathocles’ troops, began to extort charges from the Sicilian cities. They were called Mamertines, which in their own dialect meant the people of the god of war. Why am I talking about them, not from pear or parsley? Well, they played an important role in subsequent events. Pyrrhus tamed the Mamertines, captured their strongholds, and smashed them in a decisive battle. However, this problem was not fully resolved by Pyrrhus. The Mamertines survived and later swallowed Pyrrhus a lot of blood. Let’s get back to the topic.

The ruler of Epirus refused the Carthaginians the peace they asked for, and as if that were not enough, demanded that they withdraw completely and definitively from Sicily. However, at this point, Pyrrhus began a dispute with Greek cities in Sicily. Some of them even supported the Carthaginians, while others recruited remnants of Mamertines. The Epirus ruler also received news of a serious threat to Taranto from the Romans. This created another excuse for which Pyrrhus could withdraw from another problematic situation. He planned to attack Carthage in Africa but became unpopular due to the forced recruitment of rowing crews. The fact that the invaders returned to Italy was determined by the Carthaginians repulsion of Pyrrhus from the Lilybaeum – the westernmost Punic stronghold. Thus, Pyrrhus, leaving another unfinished war, left Sicily.

Roman Carthaginian Alliance

Now I would like to say something about a certain, in retrospect, unusual and perhaps even shocking for some events. I mean the alliance of the Roman Republic and Carthage. When Pyrrhus campaigned in Italy and Sicily, dating back to 281-275 BCE, Rome and Carthage were bound by many treaties, the number of which is unknown. A lot could be said about these agreements, but I will come straight to the point, namely the Roman-Carthaginian treaty on Pyrrhus. It was dated to 279 BCE and assumed that if Rome or Carthage had come to an agreement with Pyrrhus, it should contain a provision about the possibility of a joint fight against Pyrrhus if the Romans or Carthaginians were to be invaded by the ruler of Epirus. In this case, Carthage was to provide transport ships, while both countries paid their soldiers separately. It can be said that in the event of an attack by Pyrrhus, Rome and Carthage would share their duties – fighting at sea is the Carthaginians’ speciality and there they were to “take care of” Pyrrhus, while the Romans’ domain was to fight on land and there they were to defeat the aggressor. Carthage was not obliged to deploy any land forces. The parties to the treaty swore it solemnly, each by their gods, and its text was immortalized on bronze tablets and placed in the temple of Jupiter in Rome.

While other Roman-Carthaginian treaties can be called trade deals, this one was purely military. Its purpose was to counter the intervention of Pyrrhus in Sicily. As you may have guessed, the collaboration between Carthage and Rome, two, I dare say, the most powerful countries in the Mediterranean, aspiring to become a superpower, if not even a superpower, could not let Pyrrhus cheer. Soon the Carthaginian commander came to Rome with 120 ships to revive the Romans peace with Pyrrhus. The Romans were initially inclined to do so. Then the Carthaginians sailed away to negotiate with the ruler of Epirus, but these talks also did not bring results. They then returned to the capital of the Republic. This time the hosts turned out to be more accommodating. The Carthaginian legation achieved its goal, 120 ships tipped the scales. The Romans, therefore, decided to continue the war with Pyrrhus’s allies on land. The Carthaginian commander also transported 500 Roman soldiers to fortify the garrison in the Regium on the Strait of Messina.

Battle of Benevento

The Carthaginian diplomatic action against Pyrrhus undoubtedly turned out to be very effective. Moreover, the Carthaginian fleet attacked Pyrrhus’s army returning from Sicily, sinking his numerous ships. In addition, she transported to Italy a unit of 1,000 Mamertines, who tortured the ruler of Epirus with partisan war. And Pyrrhus’s army began to crumble. The Samnites were very disappointed that Pyrrhus had so neglected their cause. They no longer wanted to hold such a large contingent in his army. The Roman consular armies operated separately from then on. Pyrrhus sent half his army to fight the enemies in the lands of Lucan, while himself, at the head of the remaining forces, marched north. He met the Romans near Benevento.

Pyrrhus had 20,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and elephants at his disposal, while the Roman consul Manius Curius had 17,000 infantry and 1,200 allies. And again the leader of the invaders “flashed” stupidity. This time he decided to try the night attack. Admittedly, it wasn’t very smart. The forested, unlit area made it impossible to successfully complete this project. Anyway, what can I say, even Alexander of Macedon himself rejected the option of a night attack at Gaugamela, and who was Pyrrhus against the famous Macedonian. In any case, the Epirus front guard got lost during the night march. At dawn, it turned out that she was not where she should be. Alarmed by the unexpected arrival of the enemy, the Romans realized that it was only the vanguard, so they quickly attacked and smashed it. Another fact that must have worried Pyrrhus is that the Romans found a way to deal with elephants. After these large mammals were introduced into action, the Romans had to withdraw. But then the reserve troops of the Republic began a counterattack. They managed to get a few elephants. The rest were scared and directed at the Epirian troops.

The defeat of Pyrrhus

Pyrrhus suffered a painful defeat, after which he returned to Epirus. Only 8,000 infantry and 500 horsemen remained under his command. Plutarch says the ruler had no money to support them, so he had to look for a new war. He decided to “visit” Macedonia, which had been captured by Antigonus Gonatas. At that time, there were Gauls in southern Europe, whose advantage was that they did not require high wages, so although they posed a threat to Greek civilization, they were hired by Greek chiefs. Pyrrhus and Antigonus were no exception. Pyrrhus defeated the army of Antigonus, who fled Macedonia, failing. However, the Macedonian people soon became estranged from the ruler of Epirus. So, one could say that the tradition would be followed, he left the problem unfinished and, responding to another invitation, got involved in the political conflict in Sparta.

Map showing Rome’s territorial acquisitions after the war.

Meanwhile, in Puglia, the garrison left by Pyrrhus in Taranto resisted the Romans until 272 BCE, when it decided to surrender. The Romans allowed him to go on honorary terms, and they did not avenge too much on the people of Italy who supported Pyrrhus. The greatest leaders usually died with such a sublime, perhaps even poetic death. Philip II was murdered, his son Alexander died exhausted by disease, Hannibal (about him in the next part of the cycle, if any) took poison, Caesar was stabbed to death. Pyrrhus may not have been one of the most outstanding commanders, but the circumstances of his death are simply bizarre. On his way to Sparta, he must have thought he would become lord of the Peloponnese, but meanwhile, he found himself in Argos during the riots. And our Pyrrhus, unfortunately, died. But in what way? He was hit in the head… with a tile thrown by some woman. Do you sometimes remember the Polish proverb “where the devil can’t succeed, he’ll send a woman“?

Author: BarTu12 (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Warry John, Armie świata antycznego, Warszawa 1995

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