Pyrrhus Victories I


The ambassador from the northern tribes was a man of the most absurd dignity, with a hook nose and a robe cut too long for him. His Greek was so bad as to be comic, and the people in the agora laughed as he demanded reparations for the four ships their mob had destroyed. They all knew—their orators had told them—that those four ships had no right in their harbor and the mob had merely executed an unofficial act of justice according to law. They laughed, then, and pelted the ambassador with clods. After a while he ceased trying to reason with them, held up the dirtied toga, made some remark in his incorrect Greek to the effect that it would take a good deal to wash it clean, and stalked out.

After he had left, it occurred to the city fathers that those tribesmen were very numerous and could make a good deal of trouble for farmers in the back country. They decided to send an embassy across the Adriatic to ask King Pyrrhus of Epirus to help them in the name of homonoia, the union of all Greeks against all barbarians, promising him that he could keep anything he could take from the tribesmen. This was precisely the opportunity for which King Pyrrhus had been waiting. He was now nearly forty and all his life had been something of an adventurer, beginning with the time when, as an infant, he had been carried by night and cloud to take refuge with the Illyrians from those who had usurped his father’s throne. Grown to young manhood, he took part as a free-lance in that great Battle of Ipsus, where it was decided that the heritage of Alexander should not remain one, but be split into separate kingdoms. He chose the wrong side, and was carried away a hostage into Egypt.

There he set his cap at Berenice, one of the king’s wives, and made such an impression on that forceful woman that she gave him her daughter in marriage and later saw to it that Pyrrhus was furnished with money enough to raise an army and was sent back to his own land. This was also good politics, since King Ptolemy of Egypt was engaged in a struggle with the dynasty that had inherited Macedon, and anything that would weaken the old kingdom was pleasant to him.

Pyrrhus was a collateral relative of the great Alexander, and himself a descendant of Achilles, as proved by the red hair he shared with the son of that Homeric hero. In Epirus he proved himself every bit the man Ptolemy had hoped. Very quickly he raised an army on the Macedonian border and took half of Macedon, which recognized his people as at least as much Greek as themselves. His military skill was prodigious; like Alexander, he was a man who enchanted all hearts, and like Philip, he gave sound administration and honest justice. It was said of his race, the Aecides, that they were more war-strong than wisdom-strong, but in every respect he belied the judgment.

Not that he lacked being war-strong. In his army he had forged an instrument at least equal to that of Philip of Macedon, and over Philip he had the advantage of being in friendly relations with Seleucus Nicator, to whom had fallen the Great East on the breakup of the Alexandrian empire, and that monarch had furnished him with a supply of elephants, one of the most formidable weapons yet discovered. In India they had demonstrated that they could put any cavalry to flight, even Alexander’s.

The only trouble was that Pyrrhus, with an ambition as boundless as that of Alexander and a perfectly attuned military instrument, had nowhere to go. The only prospect of war was against another Hellenistic kingdom nearly as well equipped as his own. Experience showed that conquest in this direction would provoke a general alliance against him; it was the custom of these states to pull down the strongest. This was the reason why the appeal from Tarentum, saying she was menaced by barbarian tribes, was so very pleasant. In the barbarian West there ought to be opportunities as wide as Alexander had found in the barbarian East; and the Red King of Epirus responded at once.

In the spring of 280 B.C. he arrived at Tarentum through a storm so violent that it blew some of his ships all the way to Libya. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi had promised him a victory. Cineas, his orator, philosopher, and man of business, had gone on ahead with 3,000 men, and was ready with a report. As to the people of Tarentum, it was not too favorable. They might as well have been Corinthians; luxurious, indolent, and unstable, inclined toward democratic government. In their favor it could be said that they had brought the city of Thurii into alliance; as this place lay on the opposite shore of the Tarentine Gulf, it afforded an excellent base for menacing the rear of the barbarian bands, who were working eastward along the shore.

As to the tribesmen, Cineas said they were reported quite skilled fighters. They had formed one of those confederations which so readily assemble and so readily dissolve among barbarians, and had lately been engaged in war with the Samnites, a strong hill people of the central peninsula, who would probably furnish some auxiliaries. Pyrrhus approved the sending of ambassadors to these Samnites and sat down to wait for the rest of the troops, only 2,000 with two elephants having come with him.

When all were arrived he had 20,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers, and 20 elephants. The king immediately closed the walks and places of public exercise and prohibited all festivities and drinking parties as unseasonable during a war. This did not endear him to the Tarentines, but they turned out to drill under the eyes of his officers and furnished a contingent of hoplites to the army, probably few more than enough to balance the garrison he left in the citadel.

These arrangements may be conceived as taking a couple of months. When they were complete, Pyrrhus marched out from the town along the Tarentine Gulf with an army that, except for the elephants, was almost a carbon copy of the one Alexander had taken to Asia. Like the Macedonian army, that of Pyrrhus had a solid core of phalangites, thoroughly trained, with hypaspists to link with the cavalry in the wings. His personal bodyguard was less numerous than the Companions, the Epirotes not being so much a horse-riding people, but he had adopted Alexander’s practice of brevetting to this corps d’èlite the best men he could find anywhere, regardless of origin, and it would grow. Meanwhile the bulk of his horse were Thessalians, very good men. Cineas had arranged with some of the other cities of Italian Greece to send allied contingents of hoplites, but these hardly seemed necessary in dealing with a barbarian force that was reported no greater than his own.

The Red King moved forward at once, then, and, as common courtesy demanded, sent on ahead a herald to offer to arbitrate between Tarentum and the tribesmen. This man presently returned with the proud reply that they neither accepted him as an arbitrator nor feared him as an enemy. Pyrrhus pushed on, and near Heraclea at the river Liris camped at the top of a hill and rode forward to examine the camp of the tribesmen on the opposite slope.

He was looking at a Roman consular army.

From where he stood, the king could see the neatly palisaded wall of the Roman camp, the guards posted all in order, the muscular small men filing down to the river for water, with good helmets and mail of iron bands. He turned to one of his generals and friends. “This order of the barbarians is not at all barbarian in character.”

He did not have a chance to say much more. No sooner had the Romans sighted his approach than they poured out of their camp and down to the fords, covered with a foam of light-armed. This was an impudence not to be borne, and moreover, for reasons customary and honorific rather than tactical, it was considered at the time desirable to fight on the far slope of a stream after having crossed, as Alexander had done at the Granicus. Pyrrhus dispatched Megacles to draw up and bring on the phalanx, while he himself led the cavalry in a charge to halt this audacious advance.

Instantly he found himself in the fight of his life. The Roman cavalry were not as numerous as he expected, but they were much better fighters than they had any right to be, and behind them he came up against the legionary soldiers, something utterly new in Greek experience. They had big cylinder shields, which they locked together from man to man against attack, short spears, and heavy shortswords. They were formed in little blocks, the maniples, which lined up checkerboardwise instead of in the solid Greek formations, and these maniples displayed an amazing mobility. Attack one of them in the flank and you were promptly flanked by another. Pyrrhus’ horse was killed under him, his Companions were rudely thrown back, and he barely reached the shelter of the phalanx before the two main lines came in contact.

The shock was terrific, and as the cavalry filed into the wings, there followed one of the hardest fights of history. The phalanx found it had to tighten up in close order; the gaps in the Roman checkerboard formation tended to split it apart as it advanced into the open spaces, while the Roman soldiers seeped into every interstice, stabbing with their shortswords and using the upper edges of their big shields under the chins of their adversaries. The Romans could not gain against the solid ranks of the phalanx, but neither could it do more than defend itself. Seven times the lines separated and clashed together again. The casualties were terrific; the Roman line, though thinner, was longer than that of Pyrrhus, the hypaspists on the flanks were definitely outmarched, Megacles was killed, and the phalanx itself began to shake when Pyrrhus at last succeeded in bringing the slow-moving elephants around from the rear against the cavalry of the Roman right wing.

No Roman had seen or heard of these huge beasts before, and the horses, as horses always, could not bear them. The Roman cavalry fled and in its flight broke up the legionary formations, Pyrrhus put in the Thessalian horse against the broken line and the battle was won.

It was not an Alexandrian victory. The Romans had lost 7,000 killed and 2,000 prisoners, but Pyrrhus had lost 4,000 men in killed alone, 16 per cent of his total force—a whole forest had to be cut down to burn the dead—and there could be no pursuit. The Romans held their fords and their camp until they were ready to go. On a precedent established by Alexander it had become the custom among the Hellenistic monarchies to offer prisoners service with their captor, and Pyrrhus made the usual offer. To his surprise, it was unanimously refused; he did not get a man.

On top of the battle itself this should have given him a sense that he was dealing with some very peculiar phenomena indeed, and there is evidence that to a certain extent it did, but he continued to apply the accepted formulae. In view of the fact that all the Greek cities of south Italy now enthusiastically joined him, he had every reason for doing so. The way to break up a confederation of barbarians is to strike at its nexus, as Alexander had in Bactria and again in India; the Red King marched straight on Rome.

He received another surprise; the confederation showed no signs of dissolution. Neapolis and Capua refused him admittance, the local people sniped his campfires with arrows from the woods at night, and as he neared the city he found it garrisoned by another consular army, larger than the one he had beaten. The Romans even found resources to reinforce their retreating field force by two additional legions.

Barbarians with such a military organization could clearly be quite as useful allies as the Thessalians. Moreover, Pyrrhus already had offers that would take him into fabulously rich Sicily, where he could make gains far beyond what he might get out of these tough hillsmen. He sent Cineas to Rome with presents for the leading ladies and political personages and an offer of peace and friendship. He would release his prisoners; the Romans were to pledge autonomy and liberty to the Greek cities, let the Samnites alone in the future and, at least by implication, withdraw the colonies they had placed at Luceria and Venusia in south Italy. That is, there was to be an alliance and a delimitation of boundaries, with the south and west of the Mediterranean open for the empire of Pyrrhus.

The experience of Cineas in Rome, the first nonhostile impact of two utterly different civilizations, has been justly celebrated. The orator’s presents were declined with dignity, but he was heard with respect, and voices were raised in the Senate for the acceptance of his offer. At this moment there was led into the hall the aged Appius Claudius, blind and very patrician, who made a fighting speech, the first one we have of Roman record. It was his misfortune, he said, that he was not deaf as well as blind before he heard Romans propose such things; did they not realize that peace with Pyrrhus after a defeat would be an invitation to other invaders from the dynasts, world without end? Rome should make no peace with anyone on her soil.

He convinced them; Cineas was sent back to report that the Romans had already enlisted more new troops than they had lost in the battle. They were not Roman citizens alone, but men from the allies all over central Italy; this business was going to be like fighting the Lernaean hydra, and the Romans had two new generals, P. Sulpicius and Decius Mus, who might be good.

Pyrrhus seems not to have been too deeply impressed. After all, Heracles had found a means of dealing with the hydra, and he himself was conscious of something close to military genius; he had proved it. His direct march on Rome would have been perfectly correct if the assumptions underlying it were true. Now he adopted a more careful strategic approach, retiring to his widespread base in southern Italy, where he picked up important allied contingents, then moved north along the Adriatic coast, with the anti-Roman southern Samnites protecting his communications. Well north of Rome, where he expected to pull in more anti-Roman groups and establish a forward base for direct operations against the city, he turned inland to pass the spine of the Apennines . . .

And encountered a double consular army, about 40,000 men, equal to his own strength, even including the allies he had gathered. There were as many pro-Romans as anti-Romans in those hills, and the consuls had excellent intelligence. The place they chose to stop Pyrrhus was at Asculum, on the Aufidus River, an area rough and wooded, with marshes along the banks of the stream to hinder the operations of Pyrrhus’ cavalry and elephants. The Romans got across the stream to set up a parallel order battle with their flanks on marshes, and in April 278 the contest was engaged.

Pyrrhus placed his phalanx in the center and, to avoid the outflanking that had almost ruined him at Heraclea, prolonged its line in both directions with hoplites from the Greek cities and Samnites in semi-manipular formation. The two armies fought a set piece of a battle, with neither side able to make much impression on the other, the usual thing in ancient battles unless one side began to break. At night they drew off by a kind of mutual agreement. At this point it occurred to the Red King that one of the things which made these barbarians so dangerous was the fact that they applied what were essentially cavalry tactics to infantry—charging in intervaled tight shock groups, which withdrew to allow the second line of maniples to charge, then the third. He needed to cramp them, hinder their free movement. He sent forward the light-armed to seize and fortify the flanking marshes for this purpose, at the same time gaining more elbowroom for his own movements. He wanted to use the elephants, but had been unable to find a place to put them in on the first day without opening a fatal gap in his line.

In the morning the Romans attacked him again, and he sent forward the elephants through the low ground, mixed with light-armed. They had provided chariots bearing long sharp spears as a defense against the big beasts, but the ground was too rough for their operation; the elephants broke through. They succeeded in driving off the Roman horse and reaching the legions, but even so, it was a very near thing; the allies on the wings of the phalanx were just giving way, and Pyrrhus himself was badly wounded. The Romans lost 6,000 men, but they held their fords and their camp.

Asculum was the Pyrrhic triumph of the famous quotation, when the king remarked in answer to congratulations, “One more such victory and I am undone.” The 3,500 killed on his side included most of his generals and his best friends, the flower of the army; the Companions were practically wiped out, and he was visibly no nearer the end of the war than before Heraclea. The Romans began raising more legions.

At this point the Red King began to be conscious of a lack of strategic support. The reinforcements that reached him from across the Adriatic were insufficient to make good his losses, especially in officers, and the troops he could get from the Italian cities were showing an increasing disinclination to fight legionaries. It was therefore with fairly sound strategic logic that he decided to let the Roman war hang while he broadened his base by accepting the offers from Sicily.

These offers were to place him in control of Syracuse, Agrigentum, and Leontini if he would only drive off the Carthaginians, who were threatening to conquer the whole island and already had most of it. For the Carthaginians, Pyrrhus could only have felt the contempt he began by feeling for the Romans. They were un-Hellenized Orientals, not steady in the field. Possession of the main Greek cities of Sicily—and Syracuse was one of the largest in the Hellenistic world—would give him a huge reservoir of manpower, which needed only leadership, drill, discipline, things the Red King could most specifically supply. Moreover, he was sure that the Romans had been hard hit in the two battles. It would take them time to recover, and in that time he would gain faster than they, until he returned with all the resources of Sicily behind him.

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