Why Did Pyrrhus Leave Italy to fight in Sicily?

Why Did Pyrrhus Leave Italy to fight in Sicily?

Roman Empire

“They begged Pyrrhus to drive to Carthaginians out of Sicily, and to rid the island of its tyrants.”

Pyrrhus collected the Greek cities of Sicily into his coalition to attack Carthage, and soon had a force of 30,000 infantry, 1,500 cavalry, his war elephants, and 200 ships.

He moved this force west across Sicily, accepting vassalage from the various Greek cities and attacking those that remained steadfast in their loyalty to Carthage. Various cities were attacked, besieged, stormed and captured as Pyrrhus’ war machine drove back the Carthaginians and reduced their territory. 

The Greek campaign soon saw Pyrrhus controlling all of the former Carthaginian dominions on Sicily except for Lilybaeum, the major port on the west coast.

While this siege was ongoing, the Carthaginians shipped over a large army to relieve the city, and with them large quantities of African grain – throughout antiquity, Rome’s Africa province (Tunisia) remained a hugely fertile and productive breadbasket. The city’s defences were also strengthened, making it almost impregnable. Pyrrhus kept his forces advancing elsewhere on the island, including executing the tribute collectors for the Mamerintes and then defeating their mercenaries in battle, seizing many of their strongholds.

Another factor that contributed to Pyrrhus’ failure to take Sicily was the lack of support from the Greek cities on Sicily. Despite his reputation as a powerful and capable military leader, many of the Greeks on the island saw him as a foreign invader and were reluctant to support his efforts to take control of the island.

The Carthaginians initiated negotiations, proffering a huge indemnity and ships. Pyrrhus refused to accept these terms, though was forced to accept that his siege of Lilybaeum was fast becoming a lost cause. Pyrrhus engaged in skirmishes near the city walls, but the Carthaginians now had so many catapults and ballistae that they could not even fit all of them onto the ramparts at once.

When Pyrrhus set out to build siege equipment, Carthaginian sorties against him continued to be disruptive.

After two months he abandoned the siege, and instead began to focus on building a large fleet with which to attack Africa and besiege Carthage itself – perhaps not a sensible idea when he had already failed in his siege of one of Carthage’s colonies!

After three years of campaigning in Sicily, the Greeks were becoming war weary of the despotic Pyrrhus – just as their Italian cousins had before them. Pyrrhus treated them as a tyrant and overlord, imposing fines at will to help raised funds for his war making. Any leaders who opposed him were rounded up and executed for the slightest whiff of treason. Far from being welcomed as a Greek liberator from Carthage, Pyrrhus was now derided for his “ingratitude and faithlessness”. Without the popular support of the Sicilian Greeks, his position on the island – let alone invading Africa – was fast becoming untenable. 

The situation in Sicily had deteriorated so much for Pyrrhus that some of the Greeks began aligning themselves with the Carthaginians, and some called for aid from the Mamertines.

Into this storm of discontent and a coalition reversing to oppose him, Pyrrhus received calls to aid from the Tarentines and the Samnites. Absence really had made the heart grow fonder. And Pyrrhus’ transgressions in Italy would become forgiven if he would just return and help put those troublesome Romans back in their place – something he thought to have done with two victories already.

The Samnites had become further expelled from their rural areas. Furthermore, were finding it increasingly difficult to defend themselves from Roman aggression. The Tarentines were facing further encroachment from Rome, and were determined to defend their Greek identity against these Italian interlopers.

Thus, just as he had in southern Italy three years earlier, Pyrrhus packed up his forces, leaving behind the huge mess that his constant warring and despotic governance had wrought, and leaving his allies wondering how they would prevent Carthaginian domination of Sicily now. He sailed back to southern Italy, there to reassert his claims to sovereignty and finally put the Romans back in their place – as a small, regional city state in central Italy, not to interfere with the Greeks in the south.

Ultimately, Pyrrhus’ campaign in Sicily was characterized by a lack of resources and logistical support; as well as by opposition from powerful enemies. These factors combined to make it difficult for him to achieve his objectives.

Why Did Pyrrhus Leave Italy to fight in Sicily?

Written by Jack Tappin

Roman Empire

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