Enemy At The Gates “Pyrrhus became famous for his victory and acquired a great reputation from it, to such an extent that many who had been remaining neutral came over to his side and all the allies who had been watching the turn of events joined him. He did not openly display anger towards them nor did he entirely conceal his suspicions; he rebuked them somewhat for their delay, but otherwise received them kindly.”
Victory in the Samnite Wars had opened the way for the Rome Republic to begin its expansion into southern Italia early in the third century BC. Inevitably this brought the Romans into conflict with the fiercely Greek – though largely autonomous from Greece now – cities in the south of the peninsular, which the Greeks referred to as “Magna Graecia”. When a Roman fleet sailed south in 282 BC, it was attacked by the people from Tarentum, setting the stage for war.
Some Senators argued for diplomacy, needing to completely subdue the Samnites, Etruscans and Lucanians first, but the war faction won out. In Tarentum, many argued for peace, but their war faction had a different idea – seeking help from across the Adriatic.
Envoys were thus sent east, to King Pyrrhus of Epirus.
Pyrrhus had designs on annexing southern Italia and Sicily, and so this seemed a golden opportunity. He was a competent military general, though had no intention of starting a war without due cause – which was now being presented to him. The other Greek kings were happy to support his endeavour, particularly as it would see him campaigning in the west, rather than disturbing the status quo in the east.
Antiochus I of the Seleucid Empire was asked for money, and Antigonus II of Macedon for ships, while Ptolemy II of Egypt donated 5,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry for his expedition – and was duly appointed guardian of Epirus in Pyrrhus’ absence in return. The Tarentines promised that Pyrrhus would be greeted by a force of 50,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry from the cities of Magna Graecia to support his campaign. The Epirotes now looked to have a large army secure for their war in Italia, with Pyrrhus ready to take the war to Rome.
For their part, the Romans had yet to face a major Greek or foreign power. The success of Alexander’s phalanx 50 years earlier meant that it was still the undisputed choice of formation on the battlefield. However, the Romans abandoned the tactic due to its inflexibility in combating the mountainous Samnites.
Head on, and on flat ground, the phalanx was invincible.
Any attacker would face five spearheads of the 20-foot-long sarissae before reaching the first of the phalangites, and if any soldiers fell, those in the ranks behind could replace them.
With the formation 16 ranks deep, each soldier would wield his long pike in two hands, being protected by a small buckler and the raised sarissae of those behind him to deflect missiles.
Each man had a small sword, the xiphos, for close quarters combat. The phalanx’s weakness was over broken terrain, and in its flanks – a man cannot turn around swiftly when locked in formation with long poles either side of him.
Alexander had mitigated this weakness with an indomitable cavalry, his Companions, though these had largely been phased out in the following decades as phalanxes fought each other in the Wars of the Diadochi, rather than fighting hoards of Persians.
Another novelty Pyrrhus would bring to Italy were war elephants, something the Romans had never encountered before but were becoming increasingly common in Greece due to the Hellenic world now encompassing Egypt and the Indian borderlands.
Seleucus famously received 500 war elephants from Chandragupta Maurya as part of the terms for him to abandon much of his Indian territories, which was to his advantage anyway given his focus was in the west, and these elephants played a decisive role at the Battle of Ipsus that concluded the Wars of the Diadochi.
Elephants would be an awesome battlefield sight, but were often unwieldy and just as likely to be panicked and charge into their own troops – hence they had a ‘mahout’ who sat awfully exposed on its shoulders, and would hammer a peg through its skull should the elephant turn on its own men (in practice, the mahout was often one of the first to be killed when they charged).
The elephants had more advantages than their brute strength, being trained to use their feet and trunks as weapons, with steel lashed to their tusks.
Their smell would often spook cavalry, as Alexander’s men discovered when they struggled and suffered heavy losses in his Indian victory at the Hydaspes River.
However, they too could be spooked with strange sounds and smells, such as panicked pigs.
Nevertheless, just imagine what a daunting experience it must have been to come up against such a raging beast on the battlefield!
Despite their imposing nature, Roman tactics to counter them evolved relatively swiftly, and within two centuries they were largely obsolete, with Caesar’s victory at Thapsus in 46 BC the last time they were deployed in western battle.
Pyrrhus crossed to Italy. But, on the voyage over suffered the loss of a number of ships and troops in a storm, with some washing up as far away as Sicily and Africa. The Epirote king himself jumped from a ship to swim ashore to ensure he was with his army.
Plutarch wrote that of his 20,000 infantry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers, 3,000 cavalry and 20 elephants, in fact just 2,000 infantry and two elephants made the initial landing.
While he was swollen by local support in Magna Graecia, he soon turned out to be a despotic ruler.
Taking command of Tarentum, he banned public gatherings for debates and the theatre, banned the gymnasium and festivals, made all “men” conscripts and forced them into military training, prevented anyone from leaving the city, and billeted his soldiers in homes to enforce these draconian rules.
Publius Valerius Laevinus, one of Rome’s two Consuls for 280 BC, marched south with a large army.
Furthermore, plundering Lucania as they sought to keep the Greeks as far from Rome as they could. Pyrrhus offered to act as an arbitrator for the disputes between Rome and the Greeks so violence could be avoided, but the Senate rejected these terms.
The two forces clashed at the Battle of Heraclea.
Pyrrhus was looking to defend his camp at the River Siris, though the Romans decided to attack before he had time to receive reinforcements, and forded the river. Seeing the advance of a large Roman infantry and cavalry, Pyrrhus formed up tightly and attacked.
As the cavalry gave way, Pyrrhus pressed forward with his infantry, and the battle became deadlocked. The Greek elephants pushed back and startled the Roman legionaries and cavalry, and the deployment of Pyrrhus’ Thessalian cavalry broke them into rout.
A wounded elephant threw much of the Greek force into confusion, preventing them from completing their victory by annihilating the broken Roman force. Despite this, some 15,000 Romans lay dead on the battlefield – though so did some 13,000 Greeks (other sources cite 7,000 Romans and 4,000 Greeks, but either way both sides lost large numbers of troops). Pyrrhus is also reported to have lost some of his best troops and most trusted generals.
Pyrrhus looked to wrap up the war following his swift victory, and marched to within 60 km (40 miles) of Rome, being reinforced by Samnites and Lucanians as he marched.
He was shocked when the Romans did not open talks for peace, merely asked to release hostages. He sent his advisor Cineas to persuade them, and many in the Senate supported calls for peace following this defeat.
However the elderly and blind Appius Claudius Caecus was carried to the Senate, and in an impassioned speech warned that Pyrrhus must not be trusted. Instead Cineas was expelled from Rome, and the Senate voted to continue the war, and begin preparations for the next year. Envoys were sent to Egypt in an attempt to isolate Pyrrhus.
The Epirote King failed to take Capua. He retreated south when Laevinus marched an even larger army to Campania. Pyrrhus was now aware that he was not facing a fellow Greek power that could be swiftly defeated. He was facing the belligerent Roman hydra, which would fight to its annihilation before accepting defeat.