O Pyrrhus

You have heard about Pyrrhic victories right?

A Pyrrhic victory is a battlefield triumph that comes at so great a cost that it proves to be more ruinous for the victor than the vanquished.

You know where the term came from?

From the Greek conqueror Pyrrhus of Epirus.

Pyrrhus was the son of Aeacides and Phthia, a Thessalian woman, and a second cousin of Alexander the Great.

The Greek city of Tarentum, in southern Italy, fell out with Rome due to a violation of an old treaty. In 282 BC, the Romans installed garrisons in the Greek cities of Thurii, Locri, and Rhegium, and sent warships to Thurii. The Tarentines grew nervous and attacked the Romans in Thurii, driving the Roman garrison from the city and sinking several Roman warships. Tarentum was now faced with a Roman attack. They asked Pyrrhus to lead their war against the Romans. Pyrrhus was encouraged to aid the Tarentines by the Oracle of Delphi.

Pyrrhus first invaded Italy in 280 B.C. He arrived with a force consisting of 20,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers, and 20 war elephants—the first the Roman legionaries had ever faced—and immediately scored a famous victory in his first battle at Heraclea. In the opinion of Dionysius, the Romans lost 15,000 soldiers and had thousands taken prisoner; Hieronymus states 7,000. Dionysius totalled Pyrrhus’ losses at around 11,000 soldiers, 3,000 according to Hieronymus.

The following year, the armies clashed at Asculum. According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Pyrrhus had 70,000 infantry, of whom 16,000 were Greeks. The Romans had more than 70,000 infantry, of whom about 20,000 where Romans, the rest being troops from allies. The Romans had about 8,000 cavalry and Pyrrhus had slightly more, plus nineteen elephants. The 1st century AD Roman senator Frontinus estimated a strength of 40,000 men for both sides. In Plutarch’s account, the battle was fought over two days. In the accounts of Cassius Dio and Dionysius of Halicarnassus it lasted one day.

Plutarch noted that according to Hieronymus of Cardia the Romans lost 6,000 men and that, according to Pyrrhus’ own commentaries, he lost 3,500 men. Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote that over 15,000 men on both sides fell in the battle.

Pyrrhus had hoped his invasion would give his empire a foothold in Italy. But while he’d routed the Romans at both Heraclea and Asculum, he had also lost more than 7,500 of his most elite fighters, including many officers. Pyrrhus had no way of replacing his casualties, and his failure to deal the enemy a deathblow sent morale plummeting within his ranks. According to the ancient historian Plutarch, the warrior king was quoted as muttering, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”


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