Pyrrhus of Epirus Unhorsed at the Battle of Heraclea

Pyrrhus of Epirus Unhorsed at the Battle of Heraclea

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Pyrrhic War

By 290 BC, at the end of the Samnite Wars, the Roman Republic had established its hegemony in central and southern Italy, cementing its rule through alliances with various Italic peoples on the peninsula. Rome's southward expansion came to threaten the independent Greek colonies in Magna Graecia, especially the Spartan city-state of Tarentum, the most powerful among them. Tarentum had provoked Rome by attacking their ships and harassing their envoys, and, worried about the Roman response, the Tarentines voted to send an embassy to Epirus to ask for assistance in 281 BC. Epirus' ruler, Pyrrhus, had already made a name for himself as a military adventurer who had engaged in several failed attempts to create an empire in Macedonia and Greece. He agreed, but demanded that Tarentum must pay the costs of the war and give him supreme command of the allied forces. To further pressure his western rival into going to Italy so that he could concentrate on the East, King Ptolemy Keraunos offered Pyrrhus 5,000 more phalangites for the campaign.


In early 280 BC, Tarentum sent its fleet to transport Pyrrhus' Epirote army into Italy. Pyrrhus' army included 20,000 Macedonian and Epirote sarissa pikemen, 3,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers, and 20 war elephants. After landing, the King began to militarize Tarentum and deal with any political enemies there, while the Romans did the same in the cities under their control. Consul Publius Valerius Laevinus was given command of four legions and sent against Tarentum, where they would force Pyrrhus into battle before his Greek allies arrived. The Romans ravaged the countryside as they marched south, and Pyrrhus marched to meet his new foe near the Greek city of Heraclea. The ensuing Battle of Heraclea was close-fought, with the Romans losing 9,000 men and the Greeks losing 4,000 however, Pyrrhus lost some of his best veteran officers during the course of the battle. Though Pyrrhus had won his first major battle against Rome, it had been difficult, and he would soon learn that, despite his own martial prowess, he truly met his match. Rome dismissed Pyrrhus' offer of surrender terms and began recruiting a new army meanwhile, Pyrrhus began to patch up his own and prepare for the next battle.

In the wake of the defeat at Heraclea, Consul Laevinus returned to Rome, and the Roman recruiting machine intensified and quickly replaced the losses from Heraclea. Pyrrhus marched on Rome, with his army being swelled by the Italian Greeks and Rome's rebellious Italic allies. However, the Roman levy system was faster, again matching the Greeks. Pyrrhus released the prisoners from Heraclea in a gesture of kindness after an honorable Roman diplomat named Fabricius warned him of his physician's plot to poison him for money, having said that Rome would not defeat Pyrrhus through treachery. The Greek army then marched north and attempted to take Capua, but Laevinus reached Capua first and prevented Pyrrhus from taking the city. Pyrrhus then failed in his attempt to take Neapolis and the cities of Campania, so he marched up the Latin Road to Rome and stopped just six kilometers from the city. The walls had been strengthened and the garrison size increased since the 390 BC Sack of Rome, so Pyrrhus retreated south to Tarentum rather than besiege Rome over the winter.


The campaign continued into 279 BC, and the Samnites, Lucanians, Bruttii, and other Italic tribes (who viewed Pyrrhus as a "liberator") sent contingents to join his army. Instead of attacking Rome directly, Pyrrhus decided to campaign up the Adriatic coast in Apulia to win over more of Rome's allies and secure his supply line to Epirus. The Roman army was forced to intervene to prevent the fall of Apulia, and the two armies met at the Battle of Asculum. The two sides again fought to a standstill until the Greeks narrowly secured a victory, although, at the end of the battle, Pyrrhus declared, "One more such victory and I am lost." Pyrrhus was once again forced to march back to Tarentum to refill his depleted ranks and recover.

As Pyrrhus recovered, two embassies arrived with unique opportunities. One, from Macedon, announced Ptolemy's death in battle with the Gauls in 279 BC, and they invited Pyrrhus to become their King. The other envoy came from the Greek Cities of Sicily, who were under threat from the mercenary Mamertines and the Carthaginians. Pyrrhus opted for the Sicilian option, hoping to use Sicily as a springboard to conquer Carthage. Pyrrhus and his army marched away from Tarentum, horrifying his Tarentine allies.

Sicilian campaign

The high water mark of Pyrrhus' Sicilian campaign

In the later summer of 278 BC, Pyrrhus, 8,000 infantry, and 2,000 cavalry landed near Tauromenia in Sicily, where the local tyrant Tyndarion had pledged his loyalty to Pyrrhus. He then marched to Catania, where the citizens welcomed him as a liberator and gave him 3,000 reinforcements. Pyrrhus then marched on Syracuse, which was besieged by the Carthaginians. Despite their numerical advantage, the Carthaginians decided to retreat, giving Pyrrhus control of Syracuse' 140-ship fleet. He then marched west on Agrigentum, whose tyrant was allied to him. He wintered there and gathered his troops, and, next year, he stormed Heraclea Minoa and crossed the Halicus River into Carthaginian territory. The next majorcities in the west, Selinus and Segesta, surrendered without a fight, but this would be Pyrrhus' last walkover in Sicily. Pyrrhus went on to attack the mountain fortress of Eryx, and he was the first to scale the walls, fighting heroically during the storming of the Carthaginian garrison. He then went to capture the outlying fortresses of Panormus before taking the port city itself, taking over the finest harbor in Sicily. Finally, he turned west to Lilybaeum. In his attempt to capture the final holdout of Carthaginian power in Sicily, Pyrrhus had to raise intense taxes and levies on his Sicilian Greek subjects, who came to view him as an unwelcome tyrant. Tarentum then sent an envoy to Pyrrhus and informed him that Rome had undone all of his gains, and, having seen his Sicilian campaign fall apart, Pyrrhus marched back to the eastern city of Messana and sailed back to Italy.

Return to Italy

Pyrrhus and his army looted the Temple to Persephone at Locri to fund Pyrrhus' campaigns, but his ships were destroyed in a storm while carrying the stolen offerings Pyrrhus considered himself cursed by the gods. In the spring of 275 BC, his army returned to Tarentum, and he began to rebuild his army. He failed to find the veteran troops that he had lost in his previous battles, and the core of his phalanxes, Greeks and Balkans, were in short supply in Italy he instead hired Greek militia to replace them. Tribes such as the Samnites had resented Pyrrhus for abandoning them and offered little support.

Pyrrhus now marched north to defeat two Roman armies in detail, sending a contingent of his army to Lucania to delay the approach of a consular army while taking his remanining 35,000 troops to face Manius Curius Dentatus on a hill near the town of Beneventum. The ensuing Battle of Beneventum was a disaster, as Pyrrhus' flanking maneuver failed, and, whenever he attempted to send in elephants in desperate attempts to turn the tide, the Roman skirmishers repositioned on their flanks, fired javelins at them, and sent them panicking and stomping into their own lines. Pyrrhus' defeat at Beneventum was the final straw for him. Bankrupted and defeated, Pyrrhus left a strong garrison in Tarentum before returning to his capital at Ambracia with 8,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry.

Pyrrhus of Epirus Unhorsed at the Battle of Heraclea - History

By Jeffrey A. Easton

By the middle of the 4th century bc, the Roman Empire had steadily expanded its reach into the southern half of Italy. In 343, the Romans came into conflict with the Samnites, who were unable to stop the unwelcome intrusion into their homeland. When Roman armies threatened Apulia, the Greeks in southern Italy called upon the renowned mercenary general Pyrrhus, who ruled the kingdom of Epirus in northwestern Greece, for help against the intruders. Pyrrhus answered the pleas of his fellow Greeks and landed in southern Italy in early spring of that year with 20,000 infantrymen, 3,000 cavalry, 2,500 skirmishers, and 20 elephants. This force was slightly smaller than the one that had departed from Epirus, as a violent storm had blown some of Pyrrhus’s transport vessels off course during the Ionian Sea crossing. The storm seemed an ill omen for the coming campaign, but Pyrrhus entered the conflict with a celebrated military reputation and the lofty expectations of the southern Italian cities pinned on his success. Undeterred, he gathered his forces for what he anticipated would be another triumphant enterprise.

The Greek Way of War

Pyrrhus commanded a typical Hellenistic army. Heavily armored phalangists made up the core of his army. The battle tactics of the phalanx had undergone many changes in the Greek world since its inception in the 7th century bc. The most recent adaptation had come under Philip of Macedon in the middle of the 4th century bc. The typical rank of a phalanx had been eight men deep, but Philip increased the depth to 12 men. Accordingly, he equipped his infantrymen with a longer spear, which was perhaps 15 feet long. This applied additional weight to the formation, allowing it more staying power in battle. The aim of the heavier phalanx was meant not so much to overwhelm enemy infantry lines as to preoccupy them. In this way, the Macedonian infantry served as the anvil of the army.

Famed mercenary general Pyrrhus of Epirus gave birth to the phrase “pyrrhic victory” after defeating the Roman forces in a costly battle at Asculum.

The hammer came in the form of the heavy Macedonian cavalry, which loomed on the outskirts of a battle until an enemy began to waver. Alexander had become a master at anticipating the key moment when he could exploit disunity in the ranks of his opponents. The mixture of Greek and Macedonian infantrymen that Pyrrhus commanded served in a similar capacity. Pyrrhus’s cavalry composed a significant portion of his total force. The core of the cavalry was his agema, the 2,000 or so elite horsemen who made up his personal guard. In the same fashion as Alexander, Pyrrhus stationed himself in battle at the head of his agema. In addition to heavy infantry and cavalry, Pyrrhus’s army included lightly armed skirmishers such as archers, slingers, and javelin throwers. These auxiliary troops proved to be of particular use against the unique Roman battle formation.

Pyrrhus also had 20 war elephants at his disposal, as these exotic creatures had become a common part of Hellenistic armies following Alexander’s campaigns in the east. The deployment of elephants was an improvement on Alexander’s army, and Pyrrhus used them effectively against the Romans. The final component of his army was the mercenary units. The dissolution of Alexander’s empire had dispersed thousands of well-trained soldiers throughout the Greek world. These soldiers-for-hire became an important part of the armies of the successor kingdoms. The mercenaries practiced the most cutting-edge tactics of the day and provided a professional element to Pyrrhus’s army. Among the mercenaries who served under Pyrrhus in Italy were various Greeks, Italians, and Gallic tribesmen.

Facing a Reformed Roman Army

Pyrrhus faced a dynamic Roman army in southern Italy. The legions had undergone drastic organizational changes throughout the course of the 4th century bc, and by the time Pyrrhus came to the aid of the southern Italian cities the Romans had developed a unique military structure. Roman armies of the early Republic resembled other Mediterranean armies, using the phalanx as their primary battle formation. The phalanx served them well throughout the 5th and early-4th centuries, as they completed their conquest of northern Italy as far as the Po River with few significant setbacks. By the middle of the 4th century, the expanding Romans stumbled into conflict with the Samnites, another emerging Italian people. Their homeland, Samnium, was situated just south of Latium, the Roman homeland. The Apennine Mountains ran directly through Samnium, and its warriors had developed an unorthodox fighting style that suited the environment. When hostilities erupted, the Roman phalanxes performed terribly on the uneven terrain of Samnium. The greatest disaster came in 321 bc, when a Roman army of 40,000 was ambushed and forced to surrender to a Samnite force at the Caudine Forks.

Following this humiliation, the Roman Senate embarked on a number of reforms, including the extension of the Via Appia, a road running south into Campania that allowed for improved troop movement and communication. The most enduring military improvement came with the development of the manipular legion. The name for the formation came from its basic unit, the maniple. One maniple was composed of two centuries of varying size. In Roman armies of the late Republic, the century became the smallest tactical element of the legion and was in turn a component of the larger cohort. In the structure of the manipular legion, however, centuries were combined to form the fundamental unit of the maniple. A Roman legion deployed in three lines, with each line being composed of a strict categorization of maniples. The categories of legionaries were based on wealth and experience in battle. The first line was formed by the hastati, the youngest and most inexperienced legionaries. The principes, men in their late 20s or early 30s with considerable battle experience, formed the second line. The third line of was composed of the triarii, seasoned veterans of many campaigns.

The hastati and principes supported each other by complex maneuvers during battle, while the triarii often did not engage the enemy unless the battle was particularly difficult. The legionaries in this period were citizen soldiers, men who served willingly in the ranks of the army but still owned property around Rome that they had to cultivate. This limited the campaigning season of Roman armies but still provided the military might necessary to subdue their Italian neighbors. Only in times of crisis, such as Pyrrhus’s invasion, did the Senate call for additional recruits. The alacrity with which Roman citizens volunteered for military service during the conflict with Pyrrhus revealed a unique characteristic of the Roman psyche. They viewed war as an activity of all the Roman people and refused to submit even in the face of defeat. This was a concept that dumbfounded Pyrrhus. The core of the army had its legions, but many troops from Rome’s Italian dependents supplemented the heavy infantry as skirmishing or cavalry troops. The typical size of a manipular legion was perhaps 4,500 men. The cavalry did play a role in the armies of the Republic, but Roman horsemen were often unreliable in battle as well as on scouting missions. Despite its success in Italy, the Roman army was yet to encounter a sophisticated force such as the one Pyrrhus commanded.

A “Pyrrhic Victory” at Heraclea

Soon after Pyrrhus arrived in Tarentum, the Roman Senate sent the consul Publius Valerius Laevinus with two legions into the region of Lucania. A few of the cities in southern Italy contributed additional troops to Pyrrhus’s army as the Roman force approached. The Tarentines themselves, as Pyrrhus discovered, were not eager to fight the Romans personally. Pyrrhus imposed martial law to remedy the situation in Tarentum, prohibiting all public gatherings, impressing all men of military age into service, and creating military training programs for the local youth. The troops under Pyrrhus’s command now numbered about 30,000 men, including several thousand cavalrymen, Greek and Italian allies, and 20 elephants. He had not yet received additional troops from other southern Italian cities and preferred to wait for these additional reinforcements before facing the Romans in battle. However, the Roman army under Laevinus marched toward Pyrrhus’s position along the Siris River, near the coastal city of Heraclea, forcing him to give battle with his forces at hand.

The steady growth of the Roman empire caused the Italians in the southern part of the country to call on Greek mercenary leader Pyrrhus to check the Romanb advance.

Pyrrhus had stationed an advance cavalry force along the river, but these troops were soon overrun as the Romans crossed the river in force. Pyrrhus quickly ordered his army to assemble for battle and personally rode to the river at the head of 3,000 cavalry to slow the Roman crossing. Once the Romans reached the far side of the river, the main battle began. The Roman and Greek infantry clashed violently, with the advantage swaying back and forth. The balance of the battle was tipped decidedly toward the Greeks once and for all when Pyrrhus threw his elephants into action. This was the first time any of the Roman soldiers had faced these exotic animals, and they were terrified. The elephants particularly unnerved the Roman cavalry, and Pyrrhus unleashed his own Thessalian cavalry into the disordered Roman ranks at the key moment, driving them from the field. The casualties from Heraclea were 15,000 Romans lost and 13,000 for Pyrrhus, according to the historian Dionysius. However, the Greek historian Hieronymus placed the figures much lower, reporting 7,000 for the Romans and only 4,000 for Pyrrhus. Whatever the actual casualty count, Pyrrhus supposedly said, “Another such victory and we are lost,” adding the phrase “pyrrhic victory” to the world’s lexicon.

A Winter of Negotiations

Following his victory over Laevinus at Heraclea, Pyrrhus marched north and camped just 37 miles from the gates of Rome. Pyrrhus now wanted peace with the Romans and immunity for his allies in southern Italy, and he hoped the strength of his position would prompt the Romans to accept his terms. He sent his most trusted diplomat, Cineas, to Rome with a peace offering. Cineas quickly acquainted himself with the most influential Romans, extolling the merit of Pyrrhus’s proposal. He finally entered the Senate to formally present the terms. Cineas’s rhetoric seemed to sway a number of the senators, before the elderly Appius Claudius entered the chamber. Appius promptly chastised his fellow Romans for even considering submitting to Pyrrhus after only one defeat and thus surrendering lands that had been conquered by their ancestors. Accordingly, the Senate rejected the peace proposal and maintained that they would not negotiate with Pyrrhus while his army remained on Italian soil.

Laevinus faced harsh criticism from his fellow Romans for the defeat at Heraclea, but he was not removed from his position as consul. Instead, the Senate quickly raised new troops to bolster his legions. Cineas observed the many new recruits before departing from Rome, and commented that the Roman people were like a hydra—when one head was cut off many more grew in its place. In addition to outfitting new troops, the Romans also renewed an alliance treaty with Carthage, since Pyrrhus now posed a threat to Carthaginian control of Sicily as well.

Being denied a settlement with Rome, and without the resources and equipment to even consider laying siege to the city itself, Pyrrhus resigned himself to plundering the region of Apulia. His army ravaged the region of Bruttium as well. At this time, many Samnites, Lucanians, Bruttians, and other groups in southern Italy joined Pyrrhus’s cause. Despite his personal bitterness at their hesitation in joining his ranks earlier, Pyrrhus accepted the much-needed additions. During the winter of 280-279 bc, he entertained a Roman delegation that wanted to free the prisoners taken at Heraclea. Negotiations soon failed, as did Pyrrhus’s attempt to bribe a prominent Roman emissary. However, Pyrrhus paroled his Roman prisoners shortly thereafter so that they could attend a festival in Rome. He hoped they would pressure the Senate to make peace with him, but Rome again refused to negotiate and the prisoners were sent back to Pyrrhus’s camp. Pyrrhus divided his replenished army and wintered in Apulia and Campania.

Assembling at Asculum

In the spring of 279, the two sides once again began to maneuver in southern Italy. The stage was set for a second engagement between Pyrrhus and a resurgent Roman army, this time led by both consuls. At Asculum, in northwestern Apulia, Pyrrhus camped with his army, which numbered around 40,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 19 elephants. Only a quarter of his troops were Greeks who had originally journeyed to Italy with him. The rest were contributed by the citizens of southern Italy to Pyrrhus’s cause.

The Roman army that marched into Apulia was led by the newly elected consuls Caius Fabricius and Quintus Aemilius, and consisted of four legions and at least as many allied contingents—about 40,000 foot soldiers and 8,000 cavalry. The large Roman force surprised Pyrrhus, indicating that his intelligence network in southern Italy was either flawed or nonexistent. Typically, it was the Romans who performed poorly in scouting operations, but in this campaign they succeeded in engaging Pyrrhus on equal numerical footing, and on terrain of their choosing. The ground around Asculum was poorly suited for Pyrrhus’s army, but in the face of the approaching Roman force he had to give battle. The field was heavily wooded and a small tributary (possibly a branch of the modern Carapelle River) flowed nearby. The environment was too confining for Pyrrhus’s phalanx infantry to operate effectively, and the uneven terrain inhibited the numerous Greek cavalry units and elephants.

Pyrrhus arranged his forces in line, with his weaker troops—the Bruttian, Lucanian, and Tarentine allies—at the center. On the flanks he placed the Samnite phalanx on the left and the powerful Macedonian phalanx on the right. Cavalry units protected both wings of the army, and reserve skirmishing troops and elephants were held back behind the lines along a slight incline. Pyrrhus positioned himself with the 2,000 members of his agema behind the infantry line so that he could quickly ride to any spot on the field. Meanwhile, the Romans deployed the I, II, III, and IV Legions in three lines at spaced intervals in a checkerboard pattern. The Italian allies were intermingled throughout the formation or held in reserve. The consuls placed javelin men and other skirmishers in front of the Roman lines, along with 300 wagons. The wagons were an ingenious innovation meant to deal with Pyrrhus’s elephants. They were four-wheeled vehicles outfitted with spikes, tridents, grappling hooks, and other iron implements, and some even contained fire throwers manned by archers. Their design was meant to frighten and slow the progress of the elephant charge that had confused the legions at Heraclea.

Holding Ground, Losing Camp

Asculum began as a typical battle, with cavalry units skirmishing before the infantry lines clashed. The Roman cavalry crossed the river and engaged the Greeks, allowing the legions time to cross and deploy. The Roman horsemen charged the Greek lines and Pyrrhus’s cavalry countercharged, the Greek horsemen attempting to maneuver around their foes, while the Romans opted for a head-on charge. When the Greeks pressed the Roman horsemen hard, the latter retired behind their infantry lines. Once the two infantries engaged, the battle began in earnest. The two sides clashed for some time, with neither gaining an advantage. The first major development came when the Macedonian phalanx routed the I Legion and drove it from the field. About the same time, the II Legion overrran some of the Greek troops near Pyrrhus’s center. At this point Pyrrhus unleashed his elephants against the advancing Roman infantry, hoping to deliver a knockout blow and decide the outcome instantly.

Despite the confined space, uneven ground, and unexpected Roman wagons, Pyrrhus’s elephants drove the Romans back. The Romans manning the wagons fled their vehicles and fell in behind the legions, disrupting the infantry lines in the process. The Roman and Greek infantry engaged on and off for several hours. Each confrontation probably lasted no longer than 10 to 15 minutes, since anything longer would have been too exhausting for the heavily armed soldiers. When the infantry lines of the two armies engaged again in the late afternoon, the Bruttian and Lucanian section of Pyrrhus’s line was finally routed and fled from the field. The Tarentines standing next to them in line, all carrying distinctive white shields, also withdrew from the action upon seeing their comrades flee. Pyrrhus quickly plugged the gap by sending a timely cavalry countercharge to the vacant spot in his line.

Pyrrhus’s mighty elephants struck terror into the hearts of hardened Roman infantry and cavalry, often turning the tide of the battle.

By early evening, the situation had worsened for Pyrrhus. An army of 4,500 Daunians allied with Rome happened upon the raging battle. They had been sent into Apulia to aid the consuls and had the great good fortune to approach the conflict from the rear. The Daunians could not discern which side was which in the melee occurring two miles in front of them, so they proceeded to attack Pyrrhus’s camp instead. Pyrrhus had left few soldiers to guard his camp, and he probably had no idea that a Daunian relief force was even in the area. He quickly realized the danger, however, and sent cavalry and elephants to reinforce his rear. The Greek phalanxes had been fighting well and holding the line during the crisis, but Pyrrhus left them vulnerable to Roman flank attacks when he sent the cavalry and elephant reinforcements back to his camp.

In any event, Pyrrhus was too late to save his camp—the Daunians had overpowered the Greek guards and set the camp aflame. The cavalry and elephant handlers marching to the rear saw that the camp was lost and turned to attack the III and IV Legions, which had routed their opponents and advanced well beyond the original Roman line of battle. The legionaries saw the approaching onslaught of Greek horsemen and elephants and retreated into some woods at the top of a hill. Pyrrhus’s men could not get at the Romans, who threw the last of their javelins and fired arrows into the Greek troops from the heights. To make matters worse, Pyrrhus’s flank was seriously threatened at this point, and he pulled infantrymen from the main battle line and sent them against the Romans at his rear. The consuls countered by sending additional cavalry to further exploit the Roman gains on the flank.

The battlefield quickly shifted from its original ground to the area in Pyrrhus’s rear. Pyrrhus moved back most of his remaining heavy infantry, and the Romans countered with additional cavalry and infantry. The battle intensified around Pyrrhus’s camp, with both sides feeling a renewed fervor at the prospect of driving their enemy from the field. The struggle finally subsided as darkness crept onto the field, and the two sides separated. The Romans crossed back over the river to their camp, and Pyrrhus’s army spent the night under the stars, as the Greek camp had been destroyed.

A Second Chance at Victory

With the loss of most of his food and supplies, Pyrrhus and his men were in dire straits. His wounded troops could not receive medical attention, and many died during the night. Among the dead were a number of Pyrrhus’s finest troops and officers. Pyrrhus himself had suffered a wound in the arm from a Roman javelin—his wound total rivaled that of Alexander, underscoring his lead-from-the-front mentality. Meanwhile, the Romans rested in camp, having also taken significant casualties.

The prosperous Samnite tribes of the southern Apennines faced constant threat from the land-hungry Roman armies to the north.

Rather than retreat or allow the Romans to retain the momentum, Pyrrhus repositioned his battered army on an open plain. This must have been a grueling procedure in the dark, and its success was a testament to the discipline of Pyrrhus’s troops. When day broke, the astonished Romans found themselves in a vulnerable position and had to either retreat or face Pyrrhus on ground of his choosing. The consuls chose the latter and lined up to face the Greeks on the open plain. Most Roman commanders during the Republic were eager and often overly aggressive in seeking battle. Their brief time in office, only 12 months, required them to actively pursue victory before their terms were up, as military glory could be cultivated into political power in Rome. Throughout the 3rd century bc, this mind-set often became a hindrance to Roman success, as generals willingly gave battle under unfavorable circumstances simply because the enemy was near.

Pyrrhus’s new position at Asculum compelled the consuls to give battle. The engagement started in a similar fashion to the day before. The two cavalries rode out first and skirmished with each other, while the opposing infantry lines summoned their courage for battle. The infantry clash favored Pyrrhus’s men. The Roman legions, unable to dislodge the Greeks, began to falter. This was the opportunity Pyrrhus had been waiting for, and he unleashed a thunderous elephant charge. The elephants put the wavering Roman infantrymen to flight, and the real slaughter began. Pyrrhus’s pursuing cavalry cut down many Romans as they fled the field. Hieronymus, taking his figures from Pyrrhus’s own account of the battle, claims the Romans lost 6,000 men and Pyrrhus 3,505.

An Interlude in Sicily

Pyrrhus had inflicted heavy casualties on the Romans in his second Italian victory, but he had also suffered severe losses. The remaining Roman forces headed north, while Pyrrhus withdrew south into allied territory. Both armies needed time to recuperate, and neither displayed any desire to engage again during the campaigning season of 279 BC. During the stalemate, Pyrrhus received a summons from a number of cities on Sicily, most notably Syracuse, to help them resist Carthaginian expansion on the island. Feeling that his position in southern Italy was secure from an immediate Roman threat, he crossed over to Sicily. The Tarentines and other southern Italian allies were disillusioned at Pyrrhus’s abandonment of the campaign against Rome, but he left behind his trusted officer Milo and a garrison force at Tarentum.

Once in Sicily, Pyrrhus enjoyed great initial success in the Carthaginian-controlled territory, conquering every city except one major port. At Lilybaeum on the western coast of the island, a well-supplied Carthaginian force held off his siege of the city and subsequently pushed him out of western Sicily. When stalemate set in on his campaign, Pyrrhus alienated his Sicilian hosts, much as he had alienated the Tarentines. After two years on the island, he received word that the Romans had begun punishing the southern Italian cities that previously had allied with him, laying siege to Tarentum. This news, combined with the growing resentment of the Sicilian Greeks, provided Pyrrhus all the motivation he needed to leave Sicily in 276 bc.

When he returned to Italy, he found the regions formerly under his control in shambles. Much to his dismay, Pyrrhus found almost no new native units to bolster his ranks. The peoples of southern Italy had grown increasingly dissatisfied with his leadership and abandoned the cause. The loss of the Samnites hit Pyrrhus particularly hard, as they had previously been his most steadfast allies. Pyrrhus also had lost a number of troops during the return voyage to Italy. A Carthaginian fleet had harassed his crossing of the Strait of Messina, and a mercenary force allied to Rome had opposed his landing. Pyrrhus returned from Sicily with only 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. He desperately needed a victory to regain the confidence of his soldiers and his Italian allies.

Defeat at Beneventum

A triumphant Manius Curius Dentatus returns from Beneventum after defeating the Greek forces of Pyrrhus at the Battle of Beneventum in 275 BC.

In the spring of 275 bc, the Senate dispatched the two Roman consuls to southern Italy to once again face Pyrrhus. One Roman army marched into Lucania and another, under the consul Manius Curius Dentatus, into Samnium. Pyrrhus sent a portion of his forces into Lucania and marched the bulk of his army into Samnium. He located Curius’s army near the Samnite city of Beneventum and set an ambush of the Roman camp. However, during the night many of the Greek torches burned out and the soldiers became lost in the woods, causing the ambush to unravel. At daybreak, Roman sentries became aware of the lead elements of Pyrrhus’s army, and Curius sent out his cavalry to occupy the Greeks while the legions could form for battle.

When the main engagement began, Curius’s legions routed a number of Greek units. He had learned a valuable lesson from the first day at Asculum and had camped near a wooded area. In this confined space, the Greeks’ well-practiced phalanx tactics became ineffective. In turn, Pyrrhus unleashed an elephant charge that tore through the Roman lines and threatened their camp. Curius rallied the Romans and commanded a valiant defense. At this point, Pyrrhus’s secret weapon was turned on him. The Romans loosed many javelins and arrows at the charging elephants, causing them to change direction. In the confusion of the two converging masses and the confined space around the Roman camp, the elephants rampaged into Pyrrhus’s own units. Exploiting the chaos, Curius’s legions surged forward and drove the Greeks from the field.

With his defeat at Beneventum, Pyrrhus lost a significant part of his army as well as the confidence of his allies. Having alienated most of the cities in southern Italy, he had no viable source for new recruits or supplies. In contrast, the Romans had a seemingly inexhaustible pool of manpower from which to draw new troops. Under the circumstances, Pyrrhus abandoned his campaigns in the western Mediterranean and sailed back to Greece. During the next three years he continued to pursue military glory, until he was killed in a street fight in the Greek city of Argos in 272 bc.

Rome: From Obscurity to Fame

Pyrrhus’s defeat stunned the Greek world, as little was known of Roman civilization prior to his intervention in Italy. The unexpected Roman success inspired Greek historians such as Hieronymous and Timaeus to collect information on Rome’s history and culture. In addition, Pyrrhus’s invasion and initial success motivated the Romans to ensure that no future enemy would set foot on Italian soil. This led them into conflict with the Carthaginians, their former allies against Pyrrhus, only a decade later. Pyrrhus’s place in military history is often tainted by the heavy cost of his victories, a legacy to which he gave his name, but his accomplishments rival those of any general during the period from the breakup of Alexander’s empire until the late 3rd century bc. During his short military career, he ruled a vast kingdom in Greece under the constant threat of invasion. Just as impressive, Pyrrhus held in check two emerging powers in the western Mediterranean. His abilities as a battlefield tactician were never more apparent than at Asculum, where he executed a daring nighttime move that wrested control of the battle from the Romans and achieved a remarkable—if short-lived—triumph. In every way, it had been a true “Pyrrhic victory.”

Battle of Heraclea: The Romans Find Their Match

The Battle of Heraclea was fought in 280 B.C.E., between the forces commanded by Pyrrhus of Epirus and those of the Roman Republic led by consul Publius Valerius Laevinus. This battle was the first of the three major battles the renowned Epirote general fought against the Romans. It was also the first instance when the Romans encountered war elephants in battle.

Rome, Tarentum, and Pyrrhus before the battle

Rome before the battle

Prior to Pyrrhus’ arrival in Italy and the battle of Heraclea, the Romans had efficiently practised the concept that centuries later took the name “Lebensraum”. First fighting and conquering their neighbours, and then, the neighbours’ neighbours, they stretched into the Po valley north and in the heel of Italy south. In the latter frontier, the Roman conquest of Capua in Campania in 343 B.C.E. marked the beginning of the Roman advance. In between 326 and 290, the Romans fought with success the Samnites for control of central Italy.

Depiction of a legionnaire of the triarii, the most experienced soldier of the Roman Republican army.

By the early III century B.C.E., it was the turn of the Greek colonies at the heel of Italy to deal with the Roman imperial ambitions. The Roman rise in power included commerce too commercial products produced from the interior were competing successfully with those produced in Magna Graecia. The Hellenic colonies here, lacking military strength, not only did not pose a threat to the Romans but even sought their help in fighting the native Lucanians. Thus, the colonies of Thurii/Thourioi (modern Sibari), Croton (Crotone), Locris (Locri), and Rhegion (Reggio Calabria), all placed themselves under Roman hegemony admitting Roman garrisons in their cities. Only the city of Tarentum (Taranto) or Taras tried to maintain its full independence.

Tarentum before the battle

In 333, Tarentum established a treaty with the Roman Republic where the latter agreed not to sail beyond Cape Colonna in Lacinium. Yet, on the pretext of reaching the city of Thourioi by sea, the Roman warships sailed across Magna Graecia, beyond Cape Colonna, practically breaking the treaty with Tarentum. At first, the Tarentines remained passive, but when a Roma navy of ten triremes approached their harbour and seeked anchorage, they revolted. The citizens of Tarentum assaulted all the nearby Roman ships, sinking four of them.

This incident brought the war between Rome and Tarentum into the horizon, but the latter, unlike the former, was unprepared for the military struggle. Thus, Tarentum sought assistance and salvation from abroad, finding the right leader in the figure of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus from across the Ionian Sea. Contacts between the Tarentines began in 283 and materialized in 281.

Pyrrhus before the battle

Before venturing at the aid of Tarentum, Pyrrhus had become in 297, king of Epirus, the region washed by the waters of the northern Ionian Sea. From then onward, he had ruled in the fashion of Hellenistic kings, pretending to best represent Alexander the Great. Accordingly, he invested heavily in recruiting mercenaries, made several attempts at gaining the throne of Macedon, and initiating major public works. He founded new cities such as Antigonea (modern Saraqinisht, named after his first wife Antigone) and Berenice (modern Kastrosikia, named after his first mother-in-law). Also, he declared Ambracia (Arta), conveniently located on the forefront of the major sea routes with Italy, as the new capital of Epirus. Meanwhile, he kept Dodona as the state’s spiritual center.

When embassies from Tarentum appeared at Pyrrhus court, the latter had just lost the throne of Macedon to Lysimachus. For an expedition against the Romans, Pyrrhus needed a substantial army that the remote areas of Epirus could not muster alone. Thus, he sought help from abroad securing financial aid from Antiochus I Soter, 30 ships for transport by Antigonus II Gonatas, and a substantial military force by his major ally Ptolemy Keraunos. The force provided by Ptolemy consisted of 5,000 Macedonian phalangites, 4,000 cavalry men (of note in this unit were the Thessalian riders), and 50 Indian elephants. After mustering additional units himself, Pyrrhus arrived in southern Italy in 280.

Position and Composition of the Pyrrhus’ army

After arriving with the main army in southern Italy, Pyrrhus marched out of his base at Tarentum with about thirty thousand men. Most of his troops he had brought with him from across the sea. They consisted of three thousand Thessalian cavalries, 3,000 advance troops, 20,000 infantry, 2,000 archers, 500 Rhodian slingers, and, of note, 20 Indian elephants (30 elephants short from the initial contingent). He lacked support from the locals, having only enrolled a contingent from Tarentum into his ranks.

Light armed Epirote foot soldiers.

The army of Pyrrhus advanced in the plain between Pandosia (modern Santa Maria d’Anglona, Tursi) and Heraclea (modern Policoro), southwest of Metapontum (modern Metaponto, Bernalda). Here, the conqueror smartly set out his camp with the river Siris (modern Sinnis) in front. In addition, a contingent of about 3,000 missile men was placed as guards on their side of the river bank. Himself with the main army Pyrrhus stood at a distance, with troops in relaxed mode. The Epirote king, giving any potential ally time to join him, had no reason to initiate a fight yet, he would not avoid a battle if pressed by the enemy.

Position and Composition of the Roman army

The Romans, led by Laevinus, also arrived at the site via Lucania, setting up themselves at the other side of the river. They numbered some 40,000 soldiers, larger in size than the opposition. This Roman Republican army did not have professional soldiers in its ranks. The legionnaires that came to Heraclea were gathered for that occasion alone, on the spot so to speak. It would take another two hundred years for the Romans to establish full-time professional Roman legions. Now/however, that did not mean they were not strong fighters, on the contrary they relied on strength and persistence more than strategy. Thus, they carried no reconnaissance prior to the battle, believing Pyrrhus’ elephants from their camp distance to be Lucanian buffalos.

Depiction of the cavalry fighting for the Romans they were largely composed of allied cavalrymen as early Romans themselves preferred hand to hand combat instead.

The main unit of the Roman legion was the maniple. Distinct maniples formed three (or four) lines in the legions, each based on wealth, age, and fighting skills and experience. The soldiers of the front lines formed what was called the hastati, young men with no particular fighting experience. These were armed with a scutum (shield), pilum (throwing spear), and a sword/gladius. Against professional armies, the hastati would be able to only throw their scutum against the enemy.

In the following line, the principes, armed as the hastati but with stronger helmet and body armors, were somewhat more experienced. They commonly replaced the hastati in combat and some time changed places with them.

The third line, the triarii, was composed of war-torn veterans, often kept in reserve and engaged only in key moments. Armed with the hasta, they used these spears to thrust against the enemy and not throw it like the pilum.

The Battle

Initial Fight

The Romans, not much fond of tactical “chess play”, took the initiative first. They began crossing the river with their legionnaires at a fordable place. Their cavalry followed dashing through the rivers. This took the Pyrrhic river guard force by surprise. Overrun by the enemy, they fled to the main camp raising the alarm of the main army.

Depiction of an Indian war elephant being prepared for battle by the Epirotes.

Pyrrhus responded by quickly leading himself 3,000 Thessalian cavalrymen into the enemy. “But when he saw a multitude of shields gleaming on the bank of the river and the cavalry advancing upon him in good order, he formed his men in close array and led them to the attack”. The Thessalians, then the best riders in the world, engaged and overcame the enemy. However, the Romans continued their crossing, engaging the Pyrrhic forces in mass numbers. The Epirote commander managed to halt the Roman infantry and cavalry advance until his phalanx approached and entered the fight.

In the chaos created at the front lines, Pyrrhus became dangerously involved. His horse followed by his companions came close to fighting distance with many from the enemy. Pyrrhus himself fought dressed in royal apparel distinct from the rest of his troops and even his companions. As such, enemies seeking glory would simply rush to kill the leader of the opposition.

Depiction of Pyrrhus of Epirus losing his horse and getting wounded at the battle of Heraclea.

Deeds of the Roman Allied Cavalry

From this point, the accounts describing the battle, and notably that of Plutarch, resemble Homeric poems. A Frentanian named Oplax, commander of a cavalry regiment from the Roman side threw his spear at the king and killed his horse. Leonnatus the Macedonian, a companion of the king, neutralized the risk by hitting Oplax’ horse, with the latter eventually killed on the ground. Pyrrhus also would have hit the ground hard had he not been saved by his surrounding bodyguards.

Pyrrhus, aware that his garments were to his detriment, gave “his cloak and armor [including his helmet] to one of his companions, Megacles” (Plu. Pyrrhus. XVII. I). The king himself went into back lines pushing the phalanx forward, pressing into an enemy with backs on the river. Now, the Romans, initially exploiting the surprise element, were paying for the inferior position on the battlefield.

Megacles, general of Pyrrhus, switches his clothes with those of Pyrrhus.

Changing his clothing proved vital if we are to believe the narratives of Plutarch and that transmitted by Joannis Zonarae. Thus, when the Pyrrhic forces were dominating the enemy, killing many and throwing others back into the river, an event risked these gains. Many of the enemies attacked Megacles, now carrying the royal clothes. A certain Dexous slew him took his helmet and cloak, and “rode up to Laevinus, displaying them, and shouting as he did so that he had killed Pyrrhus…there was joy and shouting among the Romans…until Pyrrhus, learning what was the matter, rode along his line with his face bare stretching out his hands to the combatants and giving them to know him by his voice”. (Plu. XVII. II-III).

Unleash of the Beasts

Seeing Pyrrhus alive and well, Laevinus ordered all his reserve cavalry to engage and try to outflank the enemy. Determined to avoid further surprises and prevent outflanking, Pyrrhus ordered the launch of his elephants, until then kept in reserve.

Depiction attributed to T.H. McAllister showing a war elephant charging enemy cavalry.

The Roman consul, learning of the opposing beast not much prior to the battle, may have tried to calm his fellow soldiers. For example, when it came to facing opposing cavalry, Roman generals often instructed their soldiers not to fear the animal rather deal with the ones riding them. And they were right war horses ride the battlefield usually without smashing and stomping into humans. However, that’s not true for war elephants. Once deployed into battle, a war elephant will try to fatally hit with its tusks and trunk and stomp with its feet every human in its way.

The Romans, never having faced elephants before realized their immense power the hard way. Zonara confirms bafflement not that different than that experienced by the French when they faced the first English tanks in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. Accordingly, “…at the sight of the animals, which was out of all common experience, at their frightful trumpeting, and also at the clatter of arms which their riders made, seated in towers, both the Romans themselves were panic-stricken and their horses became frenzied and bolted, either shaking off their riders or bearing them away…the Roman army war turned to flight, and in their rout some soldiers were slain by the men in the towers on the elephants’ backs, and others by the beasts themselves, which destroyed many with their trunks and tusks (or teeth) and crushed and trampled under foot many more”. (Zonara. VIII. III).

At the point of elephant charge, while Roman horses went rogue, Republican foot soldiers had no capacity of dealing with the beasts either. The gladius, the short stabber then common among all Roman soldiers, had no effect on the opposing elephants. In a short time, the whole Roman army went into a massive and chaotic retreat. Many of them fell trying to leave the battlefield chased by the Thessalian cavalry.

Illustration of Angelo Todaro showing the elephants of Pyrrhus crushing Roman cavalry at the Battle of Heraclea.

Aftermath of the Battle

Despite the tendency of Roman literary tradition to turn the narrative in their favor, the battle of Heraclea ended in a decisive, splendid victory for Pyrrhus. On the casualties, Plutarch mentions two authors as sources to his narrative. According to Dionysius, as transmitted by Plutarch, there fell fifteen thousand on the Roman side and thirteen thousand on the side of Pyrrhus. According to Hieronymus of Cardia, as again transmitted by Plutarch, seven thousand Romans fell on the battle while less than four thousand fell from the side of Pyrrhus. The figure based on Dionysius counting the casualties suffered by Pyrrhus is clearly exaggerated while that of Hieronymus is more realistic. Yet, Hieronymus also kept casualties on the Roman side at a low seven thousand in what could have been a more costly defeat for the Republic.

The battle of Heraclea, beyond victory on the field, also marked a political and strategic victory for Pyrrhus. Thus, acting on the news of a Pyrrhic victory, the Hellenic colonies of southern Italy (especially Locris and Croton) now rallied to the side of the Epirote, abandoning their ties with the Romans. Also, the indigenous populations of the Samnites and the Lucanians officially declared themselves on the side of Pyrrhus. After receiving these new allies Pyrrhus could expand his territory of safe march and secure a reliable supply line that stretched at a greater distance. More importantly, he quickly replaced his losses by drawing troops from the new allies and even increasing the size of his army.

With the inflated army, Pyrrhus moved north, as far as Praeneste (modern Palestrina), only 37.5 kilometers (about twenty miles) from the city of Rome itself. After circuiting around Campania, Pyrrhus retreated to winter in Tarentum.


Aeliani, Claudii. De Animalium Natura.

Cross, Geoffrey Neale (1932). Epirus, A study in Greek Constitutional Development.

Diodori. Bibliotheca Historica.

Dionis Cassi Cocceiani. Historia Romana.

Dionysi Halicarnassensis. Antiquitatum Romanarum.

Frontini, Julii. Stratagematon.

Iustini, M. Iuniani. Epitoma. Historiarum Philippicarum.

Pausaniae. Descriptio Graeciae.

Pyrrhus of Epirus and the Roman Republic. Retrieved from:

Recaldin, J. (2010). Pyrrhus of Epirus: Statesman or Soldier? An analysis of Pyrrhus’ political and military traits during the Hellenistic Era.

1775 Bunker/Breed’s Hill

Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill by John Trumbull.

“A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.”

These were the words of British General Henry Clinton after the battle of Bunker Hill.

Bunker Hill was a battle fought during the United Colonies’ siege of British-controlled Boston. In an effort to secure Boston harbor the British set out to take Bunker and Breed’s Hills which prompted their fortification by the besieging colonials. Breed’s Hill was heavily fortified and that is where many of the British regulars were sent.

The British landed largely unopposed on the peninsula and marched straight up as well as around Breed’s Hill. The fortified militia gunned down the tight British formations coming up the hill while the British attempting to circumvent the position were repulsed by hastily built, but effective fortifications.

The Battle of Bunker Hill was devastating to the early British momentum during the war. The loss of so many officers was difficult to recover from especially as their home base was across the Atlantic.

Three attacks were launched against the colonials with the British incurring heavy losses, particularly among the officers as they were specifically targeted. Eventually, the Colonials ran low on ammunition resulting in the iconic command “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” – though that may not have actually been said during the battle. Once the colonials ran completely out of ammunition they were repulsed by the British but led an orderly retreat out of the peninsula.

The British had won, but at the cost of over 1,000 killed or wounded, compared to less than 500 for the colonials. The British lost dozens of officers, including two majors and a lieutenant colonel. The battle was a loss for the colonials but gave them hope that they could stand up to the powerful and professional British army. The British were eventually forced out of Boston as well.

Battle [ edit | edit source ]

Pyrrhus did not march against the Romans while he was waiting for his allies' reinforcements. When he understood that reinforcements were not coming, he decided to fight the Romans on a plain near the river Siris (modern Sinni), between Pandosia and Heraclea. Pyrrhus took up position there and waited. Before the fight he sent diplomats to the Roman consul, proposing that he could arbitrate the conflicts between Rome and the population of south Italy. He promised that his allies recognised him as a judge and demanded the same from the Romans. The Romans denied his request, and entered the plains on the right of the Siris river where they set up camp.

It is unknown how many troops Pyrrhus had left in Tarentum, but he probably had about 25-35,000 troops with him at Heraclea. He took up position on left bank of the Siris, hoping that the Romans would have difficulty crossing the river, which would allow him more time to prepare his attack. He set up some light infantry units near the river to let him know when the Romans began to cross, and planned first to attack them with his cavalry and elephants. Valerius Laevinus had about 30,000 soldiers under his command, including many cavalry, peltasts, and spearmen. It would be the first time in history that two very different juggernauts of war clashed: the Roman Legion, and the Macedonian Phalanx.

At dawn, the Romans started to cross the river Siris. The Roman cavalry attacked on the flanks the scouts and light infantry, who were forced to flee.

When Pyrrhus learned that the Romans had begun crossing the river he led his Macedonian and Thessalian cavalry to attack the Roman cavalry. His infantry, with peltasts and archers and heavy infantry, began their march as well. The Epirote cavalry successfully disrupted the Roman battle formation, and then withdrew. Pyrrhus' peltasts and archers began to fire and his phalanxes began to attack. The infantry line was near equal to the Romans' in length. Although Pyrrhus had a small advantage in number, the phalanx was by design deeper than the legion.

The phalanxes made seven attacks, but failed to pierce the legion. It had met a foe that was stronger than it had ever encountered. The Romans made seven attacks, yet it could not break the phalanx. The battle hung in the air. At one point, the battle became so pitched that Pyrrhus—realizing that if he were to fall in combat, his soldiers would lose heart and reason—switched armor with one of his bodyguards. This bodyguard was subsequently killed, and word spread through the ranks that the Pyrrhus had fallen. His force began to waver, and the Romans gave a thunderous cheer at the turn of events. Grasping the magnitude of the situation, Pyrrhus rode forward, bare-headed, along the lines of his men to show he was still living. This show of bravery strengthened their resolve, and the battle raged on.

Unable to make any significant gains in action, Pyrrhus deployed his elephants, held in reserve until now. The Roman cavalry was threatening his flank too strongly. Aghast at the sight of these strange and brooding creatures which none had seen before, the horses galloped away and threw the Roman legion into rout. Pyrrhus then launched his Thessalian cavalry among the disorganized legions, which completed the Romans' defeat. The Romans fell back across the river and Pyrrhus held the field. 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. In any rate this could be considered the earliest of his Pyrrhic victories against Rome.

Order of battle [ edit | edit source ]

This is a possible order of battle for Heraclea. ΐ]

Epirus and Tarentum [ edit | edit source ]

  • 3,000 hypaspists under Milon command
  • 20,000 phalangites, Epirotes including 5,000 Macedonian soldiers given by Ptolemy
  • 6,000 Tarentine levy hoplites
  • 4,000 horsemen, including the Thessalian contingent and 1,000 Tarentine horsemen
  • 2,000 archers
  • 500 Rhodian slingers
  • 20 war elephants with towers holding troops.

Roman Republic [ edit | edit source ]

Commander: Publius Valerius Laevinus

  • 20,000 Roman legionaries, in four legions
  • 16,800 allied legionaries, in four legions
  • 2,400 light infantry, Bruttians and Campanians
  • 1,200 Roman horsemen
  • 3,600 allied horsemen
  • 1,200 light horsemen from Southern Italian allies

Some of these were probably guarding the camp, thus not fighting the battle.

The battle

Pyrrhus didn't march against the Romans while he was waiting for his allies' reinforcements. When he understood that reinforcements were not coming, he decided to fight the Romans on a plain near the river Siris, between Pandosia and Heraclea. Pyrrhus took up position there and waited. Before the fight he sent diplomats to the Roman consul, proposing that he could arbitrate the conflicts between Rome and the population of south Italy. He promised that his allies recognised him as a judge and demanded the same from the Romans. The Romans denied his request, and entered the plains on the right of the Siris river where they set up camp.

It is unknown how many troops Pyrrhus had left in Taranto, but he probably had about 25-30 000 troops with him at Heraclea. He took up position on left bank of the Siris, hoping that the Romans would have difficulty crossing the river, which would allow him more time to prepare his attack. He set up some light infantry units near the river to let him know when the Romans began to cross, and planned first to attack them with his cavalry and elephants. Valerius Laevinus had about 30 000 soldiers under his command, including many cavalry, peltasts, and spearmen.

At dawn, the Romans started to cross the river Siris: the Roman cavalry attacked on the flanks the Greek scouts and light infantry, which were forced to flee.

When Pyrrhus learned that the Romans had begun crossing the river he led his Macedonian and Tessalian cavalry to attack the Roman cavalry. His infantry, with peltasts and archers and heavy infantry, begun their march as well. The Greek cavalry successfully disturbed the Roman battle formation, and then withdrew. Pyrrhus' peltasts and archers began to fire and his phalanxes began to attack.

The phalanxes made three attacks, and the Roman infantry made three counterattacks. The phalanx succeeded in breaking the first Roman lines, but it could not pursue the Roman units without breaking its own formations, dangerously exposing itself to the Roman counterattacks.

When Pyrrhus saw the line of Roman infantry beginning to break, he sent his elephants to attack. The Romans were frightened when they saw elephants and their cavalry refused to charge against them. Pyrrhus' cavalry then attacked the wings of the Roman infantry. The Roman infantry fled and the Greeks captured the Roman camp. The surviving legions returned to Venusia.

In the opinion of Hieronimus of Cardia the Romans lost 7000 soldiers and had thousands taken prisoner. Pyrrhus lost about 4000 soldiers.

The Story Of The Man Behind The Phrase “Pyrrhic Victory”

Most learned men know of the term “Pyrrhic victory”, an achievement against so brutal a force that the success both advances and ruins oneself. Derived from Pyrrhus of Epirus, the voracious king of the most powerful state in the Greek world. This is his story, of the man who seized every opportunity and lost everything.

The Battle of Heraclea

It was the year 280 BC. The Greek colony of Tarentum in southern Italy was soon to face definite defeat from the hostile and powerful early Roman Empire.

The most famous soldier of his time, Pyrrhus accepted an offer to protect the city. In this endeavor though, as in others, he actually only played the field to dominate for himself.

Outnumbered 40,000 to 30,000, Pyrrhus’s army consisted of Thessalian cavalry, the best of all Greece twenty catastrophically disruptive war elephants and Alexander’s devastatingly effective Macedonian phalanx, as well as many archers and slingers.

As cavalry collided and ranged units rained fire, the renowned infantry lines met. Seven offenses from the phalanxes could not break past the Roman legionaries, the strongest opponents they had ever faced. The battle remained unsettled.

During the vicious battle, Pyrrhus knew if he faltered in combat his soldiers would lose the morale to continue. He wisely switched armor with a bodyguard, who was later swarmed and killed.

As word spread, his men wavered while the Romans roared in success at what they thought was a decisive turning point. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Pyrrhus took off his helm, and in a display of pure courage and leadership, fearlessly rode along his frenzied front lines to reveal himself. Now his army returned the cheer in their own massive uproar. The heated battle flamed onward.

Realizing they were equally matched, Pyrrhus finally deployed his elephants to surprise the flanking Roman cavalry. The frightened horses fled at the sight of the bizarre, jagged gargantuans and caused chaos among the Romans.

Finally he launched the Thessalians to secure victory. Augmented by surrounding tribes after his victory at Heraclea and emboldened by the success, he marched forward to invade the heart of the empire, Rome herself.

The Battle of Asculum

Pyrrhus met opposition at Asculum, both sides double their previous number and nearly equivalent at 70,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and others, with 300 Roman wagons of various ingenious designs created to counter the triumphant war elephants.

This is where he would state his famed comment of Pyrrhic victory. The Battle of Asculum was so vast and disastrous that three accounts exist that claim completely different strategies and even victors: that of Plutarch, Cassius Dio, and Dionysius.

What is undeniable is that through coordinated maneuvers and routing, the armies engaged in colossal pandemonium as Roman swords slashed against the thrusts of Macedonian sarissas.

Plutarch’s account determined that Pyrrhus had defeated the Roman commander, but his personal Epirot army, amongst mercenaries and allies, was nearly decimated. Though Rome lost 6,000 men, Pyrrhus lost 3,500 as well as many commanding officers.

If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.

A majority of his men, especially his leadership, had been lost. His Italian allies had no more interest to battle the Romans, and against the home field advantage of swift replenishment and supplies, he knew he could not win a war without such reinforcements.

Against Carthage and Sparta

Pyrrhus turned his sights to other conquests, but his fortunes had fallen. Asked to become ruler of Macedonia after his ally King Ptolemy Keraunos had been killed, he chose instead to campaign in Sicily against Carthage, the other most powerful state of the western Mediterranean beside Rome, for greater gain.

Though militarily successful, he acted tyrannically to the Sicilians in an attempt to gather the manpower and resources he required, soon falling out of their favor. He returned to southern Italy to defend against Rome once more in the Battle of Beneventum, but the outcome was inconclusive.

Pyrrhus Sure Got Off Easy.

. Aside from his death, that is. That sounded like a harsh way to go.

But what I'm talking about is Pyrrhus' tendency to leave an unfinished battlefront to start another war. The only instance I know of is that an enemy took advantage of this and attacked his assets while he was away was the Romans attacking the Samnites and Tarentum while he fought in Sicily, and the Carthaginians attacking his fleet when he left.

Why didn't Antigonos attack Epirus itself while Pyrrhus was overseas?

For that matter, the Romans didn't seem to press their grievances with Pyrrhus after he left Italy. The Romans began fighting overseas themselves soon after, why did they leave Pyrrhus be?


The Romans probably wouldn't have felt comfortable attacking Epirus without first taking Magna Graecia. If they had sailed for Epirus in 274 they would have left enemies to their rear. After all, there was still an Epirote garrison in Tarentum, and that garrison didn't surrender Tarentum to the Romans until 272, the year of Pyrrhus' death. On some level one also imagines that the Romans would have just been happy to see Pyrrhus leave Italy. They had suffered defeats to him at Heraclea and Ascalum, and while they had defeated him at Beneventum, it was a hard fought battle and he was able to make an orderly retreat with part of his army. With hostile Samnites and Greeks to subdue, the Romans probably would have wanted a breather before heading off on what would have been the first overseas expedition in their history. They probably would have also wanted time to prepare a good navy, as they had to do in the case of the Carthaginians in 261/60.

In the case of Antigonus, they weren't really at war when Pyrrhus left for Italy in 280. Pyrrhus had fought Demetrius' forces from 288 to 285, but after Lysimachus kicked Pyrrhus out of western Macedon in 285, he didn't press any claims to the region. In theory, Antigonus could have acted opportunistically against Pyrrhus' territories, but the Gallic threat meant that there were bigger fish to fry. That war was no doubt draining in terms of manpower and finances. It probably helps to explain Antigonus' inaction and the fact that Pyrrhus toppled him fairly easily in 274.

With all that said, Pyrrhus' failure to finish what he started did come back to bite him. Even though the Romans never got around to invading Epirus, the forces that helped to inflict the final defeat in Argos included Antigonus and the Spartans, two enemies whom he failed to finish off before moving on to a new goal.

You’ll find the Assassin’s Creed Valhalla best weapons in chests scattered across the world. They’re in the chests labelled as gear, so quite often can be found lurking in church crypts or deep underground.

Going to have to disagree with this one, since I felt like Origins had pretty much unfulfilling and basic stealth, compared to the rest of the series. The AI is a bit weird I find it strange that enemies can pinpoint exactly where I fired an arrow from, even though I’m more than 50 metres away, on a rooftop.

Watch the video: Battle of Heraclea 280 BC - Pyrrhic Wars DOCUMENTARY (May 2022).