“The Romans legions, when cut to pieces, merely grow whole again – like a hydra.”
Pyrrhus Abandons Rome For Carthage Both the Roman Republic and the expeditionary force of King Pyrrhus of Epirus spent the winter of 280BC preparing for the resumption of hostilities.
When the campaigning season began, the Greeks invaded Apulia and captured a number of towns. The Roman legions came across the Greeks at Asculum, though avoided battle for several days.
There were rumors that Publius Decius Mus, one of the Consuls for the year, would “devote” himself as his father. And grandfather had – a devotion saw a commander launch a suicidal charge into the enemy, usually to rally faltering troops.
Pyrrhus’ Italian followers were spooked by this, aware of how much this galvanised troops, and Pyrrhus ordered that anyone wearing the garments of the Decius family must be captured alive. When Pyrrhus’ emissaries told the Romans that if Decius should try this he would merely be captured and die miserably, the Romans responded that no devotion was needed as they would win anyway.
The accounts of the battle that followed are a confused affair:
Plutarch reports a two-day battle which Pyrrhus won, Cassius Dio a one-day battle which the Romans won. And Dionysius does not detail the winner of his one-day battle. The historical consensus tends to lie on a victory for the Greeks – though again, at great cost.
Plutarch notes the Romans losing 6,000, and the Greeks 3,505. He had Pyrrhus stating: “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”
Pyrrhus had brought an expeditionary force from Greece, and thus could not easily call forth reinforcements across the Adriatic.
His lack of progress was causing indifference among his Italian allies, who were too fickle to continue supporting him when they faced Roman reprisals after his departure.
In contrast, the Romans could swiftly replenish their forces from their strong alliance system forged in the Samnite Wars, and their legions appeared “as if a fountain, gushing forth indoors.” They did not lose courage nor conviction from defeats, merely adapted to the latest setbacks.
Pyrrhus was realizing that he could not win a war against the Romans – despite winning the battles.
From his travails came the term “Pyrrhic victory”, the concept of winning a battle at too great an expense to the war effort.
Given Pyrrhus now realised that war with Rome was futile. As a result, he turned to address the other Greek concern in southern Italy – Carthage.
The Greek city states in eastern and southern Sicily invited his intervention, and Pyrrhus was only too glad to abandon the Greeks in southern Italy to look to secure the Sicilian breadbasket to his domains instead.