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The Pyrrhic War (280275 BC) was a complex series of battles and shifting political alliances among the Greeks (specifically Epirus, Macedonia, and the city states of Magna Graecia), Romans, the Italian peoples (primarily the Samnites and the Etruscansmarker), and the Carthaginiansmarker

The Pyrrhic War initially started as a minor conflict between Romemarker and the city of Tarentummarker over a naval treaty violation by one of the Roman consuls. Tarentum had, however, lent aid to the Greek ruler Pyrrhus of Epirus in his conflict with Corcyramarker, and requested military aid from Epirus. Pyrrhus honored his obligation to Tarentum and joined the complex series of conflicts involving Tarentum, the Romans, Samnites, Etruscansmarker, and Thurii (as well as other cities of Magna Graecia). To further complicate historical analysis of the conflict, Pyrrhus also involved himself in the internal political conflicts of Sicily, as well as the Sicilian struggle against Carthaginianmarker dominance.

Pyrrhus' involvement in the regional conflicts of Sicily reduced the Carthaginian influence in Sicily drastically. In Italy, his involvement seems to have been mostly ineffectual but had long term implications. The Pyrrhic war proved both that the states of ancient Greece had essentially become incapable of defending the independent colonies of Magna Graecia and that the Roman legions were capable of competing with the armies of the Hellenistic kingdoms — the dominant Mediterranean powers of the time. This opened the way for Roman dominance over the city states of Magna Graecia and advanced the Roman consolidation of power in Italy greatly. Rome's proven record in international military conflicts would also aid its resolve in its rivalry with Carthagemarker, which was eventually to culminate in the Punic Wars.

Linguistically, the Pyrrhic War is the source of the expression "Pyrrhic victory," a term for a victory won at too high a cost. It is attributed to Pyrrhus himself by Plutarch, who described Pyrrhus' reaction to the report of a victorious battle:

The two armies separated; and we are told that Pyrrhus said to one who was congratulating him on his victory, "If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined."


Map showing the location of the Etruscan civilization and the twelve Etruscan League cities, circa 500 BC.
Etruscan influence had been reduced a great deal from this representation by the time of the Pyrrhic war.
By the time of the Pyrrhic War, the Italian peninsula had been undergoing a gradual consolidation under Roman hegemony for centuries. The Latin War (340–338 BC) had placed the Latium region under Roman dominance, if not outright control, and the resistance of the Samnites against Roman control was coming to an end with a few minor conflicts being the only remnants of the Samnite Wars (343–290 BC).

To the north of Roman-controlled Latium lay the Etruscanmarker cities, and to the south of Roman-controlled Samnium lay the Greek city states of Magna Graecia: politically independent cities in southern Italia and Sicily, settled by Greek colonists in the 7th and 8th centuries BC (also the source of the Hellenization of Roman culture).

On the island of Sicily, conflict between the cities of Magna Graecia and the Carthaginianmarker colonies, which had also been settled in the 7th and 8th centuries BC, was an ongoing concern.

The patchwork of Italian and Sicilian cultures and nations had resulted in an onging web of conflicts and territory changes, which many would argue had seen a steady expansion of Roman influence over Italy. Rome was, however, a "local Italian concern", never having tried its hand in the larger international affairs of the Mediterranean, nor pitted its military strength against any of the dominant Greek cultures. The Pyrrhic war would change both of these facts.

Tarentum asks for help

In 282 BC, Rome was called by the city of Thurii for military assistance in a dispute it had with another city. In response, Rome sent out a fleet of ships that entered the Bay of Tarentum. This act violated a longstanding treaty between it and the city of Tarentummarker, which forbade Rome from entering Tarentine waters. Enraged by what it considered a hostile aggression, the city attacked the fleet, sinking several ships and sending the rest away. Rome was shocked and angered by this incident and sent out diplomats to defuse the situation. However, negotiations turned sour, leading to a declaration of war against Tarentum.

Seeking reinforcements, Tarentum then turned to mainland Greece for military aid and called on the King of Epirus to help it defeat the Romans. Pyrrhus, hoping to build a vast empire, saw this opportunity as a good starting point and accepted.

The war begins

Pyrrhus arrives in Italy with his Troops.

In 280 B.C. Pyrrhus landed with 25,000 troops, including a score of war elephants, in Italy. A Roman army of 50,000 led by Publius Laevinius was sent into the Lucanian territory, where the first battle took place near the city of Heracleamarker. During this battle, a wounded elephant made the other beasts panic, thereby ruining what would otherwise have been a complete victory for Pyrrhus. Casualty lists differ, ranging from 7,000 to 15,000 for the Romans and 4,000 to 13,000 for the Greeks.

This battle proved to be crucial in showing the stability of the Roman republic. Pyrrhus had expected the Italic tribes to rebel against the Romans and join him. However, by now the Romans had stabilized the area, and only a few Italics actually joined the Greeks.

Battle of Asculum

In 279 B.C. Pyrrhus fought the second major battle of the war at Asculum. This one was of a much greater scale, taking two days in the hills of Apuliamarker. The Roman general Publius Mus managed to use the terrain to reduce the effectiveness of the Greek cavalry and elephants. Thus the first day ended with a stalemate. The second day Pyrrhus made another attack with war elephants supported by infantry, which finally overwhelmed Mus's position. The Romans lost about 6,000 men while Pyrrhus' army suffered 3,500 casualties.

The battle still was not quite as glorious, and according to the Greek historian Plutarch, Pyrrhus said that "that one other such (victory) would utterly undo him." Thus, the phrase "Pyrrhic victory" entered the language.

Alliance with Carthage

Pyrrhus next offered to negotiate a truce with Rome, but Rome refused to talk as long as Pyrrhus remained on Italian soil. Appius Claudius, who built the Appian Way, now an old man and blind, exhorted the Romans to refuse negotiations with Pyrrhus, who was really only asking at this point for freedom for Tarentum and her allies.

Rome formed an alliance with Carthagemarker against Pyrrhus. (A dozen years later, Rome’s interests in the Mediterranean would come into conflict with those of Carthage, and they would be at war.) The terms of the third treaty with Carthage now concluded an effectual alliance between Rome and Carthage against Pyrrhus. The effect was to limit Pyrrhus' career in the west to aggression against the Greek states which he had nominally come to protect, for it destroyed his hopes of allying with either Rome or Carthage against the other. Carthage naturally thought otherwise and sent a squadron up to the Tiber mouth to offer help against Pyrrhus. The Italian dominion was not for him; he had come too late. If Carthage were the real enemy, as he learned from Agathocles of Syracuse, there was nothing to be gained by quarreling with Rome, too.

Sicilian campaign

Veterans of Agathocles, settled now at Messanamarker, offered their help, but Campania and most of the south gave Pyrrhus no encouragement. Only Etruria thought the tide had turned against Rome, quickly to discover its mistake.

After two campaigns in which, though he always won battles, Pyrrhus was losing more men than he could afford, he moved on to Sicily (278 BC) to aid the Greeks there, who were being hard pressed by the Carthaginians. The Romans had little difficulty in dealing with his friends and rear guards on the Italian mainland.

The Carthaginians had not waited to be attacked. When Pyrrhus sailed for Sicily, they were besieging Syracusemarker, his necessary base, and looking for him with their fleet. He evaded their ships, however, and drove off their field army, captured the cities of Panormus and Eryx and refused their offer to surrender everything in Sicily except for Lilybaeummarker, which they direly needed if they sought to keep their hold on Sardinia.

All the while, his losses had been heavy and his reinforcements few. Tarentum was hard pressed by the Romans, and between them and the Carthaginian fleet he might have been trapped in Sicily. So in a desperate attempt he returned once more to Italy, to fight one more campaign.

Battle of Beneventum

In 275 BC, Pyrrhus was back in Italy. He faced the Romans at the town of Maleventummarker (translation: Bad Event) in southern Italy and was defeated. After the battle, the Romans renamed the town to Beneventummarker (Good Event) in recognition of their victory over Pyrrhus. He then retreated into Tarentum for the duration of the war. Pyrrhus soon left Italy forever and returned to the Greek mainland. He had lost two thirds of his army during the fighting and had little to show for his efforts. He was severely defeated, as the Romans had meanwhile learned how to deal with his spearmen and elephants. The Romans had learned that they could wound the elephants in the side using their pila, the short throwing spears that had come into use during the Samnite Wars. This would in turn panic the elephants, which became out of control and trampled their own troops. (This was more than sixty years before the famous campaign of Hannibal of Carthage in which he crossed the Alps with an army employing elephants.)

The tide having turned against him, Pyrrhus returned home. His parting words were memorable, What a battlefield I am leaving for Carthage and Rome! Leaving a sufficient force to garrison Tarentum, Pyrrhus now set sail for Epirus. He had scarcely embarked before Tarentum surrendered to the Romans (272 BC). Rome treated the defeated Tarentum leniently, allowing Tarentum the same local self-rule it allowed other cities. Tarentum in turn recognized Rome's hegemony in Italy and became another of Rome's allies, while a Roman garrison remained in Tarentum to ensure its loyalty. Other Greek cities and the Bruttian tribes with their valuable forest-country surrendered likewise, undertaking to supply Rome with ships and crews in future. Some Greek cities may still have seen themselves as mere allies of Rome.


Map showing Roman gains after the war.

The victory over Pyrrhus was a significant one as it was the defeat of a Greek army which fought in the tradition of Alexander the Great and was commanded by the most able commander of the time. In 272 BC Pyrrhus' life came to an end - one version is that, during a street battle in Argosmarker, a woman threw a roof tile down upon his head. Stunned, he fell off of his horse, allowing an Argive soldier to kill him easily.

After its defeat of Pyrrhus, Rome was recognized as a major power in the Mediterranean, as evidenced by the opening of a permanent embassy of amity by the Macedonian king of Egypt in Rome in 273 BC.

New Roman colonies were founded in the south to further secure the territory to Roman domination. In the north the last free Etruscan city, Volsinii, revolted and was destroyed in 264 BC. There, too, new colonies were founded to cement Roman rule.Rome was now mistress of all the peninsula from the Straits of Messinamarker to the Apennine frontier with the Gauls along the Arnusmarker and the Rubicon rivers.

Conflict chronology

281 BC
  • The city of Tarentummarker helps Pyrrhus of Epirus regain control of Corcyramarker.
  • Roman consul Publius Cornelius Dolabella mounts a 10-ship exploratory expedition along the southern coast of Italiamarker.
  • Philocharis of Tarentum views Cornelius' expedition as a violation of an ancient naval treaty, attacks the expedition, sinking 4 ships and capturing 1.
  • Tarentum attacks the Roman garrison at Thurii, and defeats it, sacking the city.
  • Rome dispatches an embassy to Tarentum, which is rejected and insulted by The Tarentines.
  • The Roman senate declares war on Tarentum.
  • Consul Lucius Aemilius Barbula ceases hostilities with the Samnites, and moves against Tarentum.
  • The Tarentines call on Pyrrhus to protect them against the Romans; Pyrrhus is encouraged to go by an oracle from Delphi.
  • Pyrrhus makes an alliance with Ptolemy Keraunos and gets help from Macedonia for his expedition to Italy.
280 BC
  • Pyrrhus sends Cineas ahead to Tarentum.
  • Pyrrhus sets sail for Italy.
  • Pyrrhus arrives in Italy, bringing war elephants to back up his army.
  • The Samnites join Pyrrhus.
  • Pyrrhus offers to negotiate with the Romans.
  • A Roman garrison is sent to Rhegiummarker.
  • Pyrrhus defeats the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea.
  • Locrimarker and other places desert from the Romans.
  • Two new legions levied for consul Publius Valerius Laevinus are deployed against Pyrrhus, reinforced by the existing legions of consul Tiberius Coruncanius from Etruria.
  • Pyrrhus advances on Rome, as far as Anagnia in Latium.
  • Pyrrhus retires to Campania.
  • Cineas arrives at Rome as the ambassador of Pyrrhus, and unsuccessfully attempts to win support with bribes.
  • The senate rejects Pyrrhus' peace terms, after a speech by Ap. Claudius Caecus.
  • Cineas returns to Pyrrhus, and calls the Roman senate "a parliament of kings".
  • Gaius Fabricius Luscinus is sent on a mission to Pyrrhus to negotiate the release of Roman prisoners of war. Pyrrhus attempts to bribe Fabricius, and when he cannot, releases the prisoners without ransom.
  • Pyrrhus invades Apulia, and is confronted by the Roman army.
  • Pyrrhus defeats the Romans at the Battle of Asculum, but suffers heavy losses.
  • Mago the Carthaginian admiral offers support to the Romans, and a further treaty is signed between Rome and Carthage.
  • Mago visits the camp of Pyrrhus on his way back from Rome.
279 BC
  • When Fabricius discovers a plot by Pyrrhus' doctor Nicias to poison him, he sends warning to Pyrrhus.
  • The Roman garrison at Rhegium mutinies and seizes the town.
  • The Sicilians send an embassy to Pyrrhus, asking him to help them against the Carthaginians. Pyrrhus agrees.
  • The Mamertines make an alliance with the Carthaginians and try to stop Pyrrhus crossing to Sicily.
  • Cineas goes to Rome again, but he is unable to negotiate peace terms.
  • Pyrrhus leaves Italy and crosses over to Sicily.
  • Pyrrhus arranges peace between Thoenon and his opponents at Syracuse.
  • Embassies from many Sicilian cities come to Pyrrhus offering their support.
  • Pyrrhus is proclaimed king of Sicily.
  • Pyrrhus takes control of Acragas and thirty other cities which previously belonged to Sosistratus.
  • Pyrrhus attacks the territory of the Carthaginians in Sicily.
  • Pyrrhus captures Eryx
  • The rest of the Carthaginian possessions in Sicily go over to Pyrrhus.
  • Pyrrhus defeats the Mamertines.
278 BC
  • Negotiations begin between Pyrrhus and the Carthaginians.
  • Pyrrhus prepares to attack Lilybaeum.
  • Pyrrhus has Thoenon of Syracuse killed on suspicion of treason, and his despotic behaviour makes him unpopular with the Sicilians.
  • Pyrrhus abandons the siege of Lilybaeum.
  • The Italians appeal to Pyrrhus to return to help them.
  • Pyrrhus defeats the Carthaginians in a final battle.
  • Pyrrhus leaves Sicily and returns to Italy; he is attacked and defeated by the Carthaginian fleet en route.
  • Manius Curius Dentatus enlists an army to fight against Pyrrhus.
  • Pyrrhus sacks the town of Locrimarker, together with the temple of Persephone.
  • Pyrrhus' fleet is caught in a storm after leaving Locri.
  • Pyrrhus asks Antigonus of Macedon for aid to continue the war in Italy.
  • Hiero, general of Syracusemarker, makes an alliance with Pyrrhus.
  • Pyrrhus attempts to raise recruits in Samnium.
  • The Romans defeat Pyrrhus at the Battle of Beneventum.
  • Pyrrhus punishes some of the Tarentines for treachery.
  • Pyrrhus leaves Italy; the end of the war between Rome and Pyrrhus.

See also



  1. although most historical treatments of the conflict concentrate on the conflicts between Pyrrhus of Epirus and Rome
  2. Carthage and Rome were not strong allies in this conflict. While Carthage did, in fact, pledge aid to Rome in 280 BC, it is unclear what this aid consisted of, or how influential it was in the war. Later in the conflict Carthage was involved in its own war with Pyrrhus in Sicily. There seems to have been no coordinated military efforts between Rome and Carthage.
  3. Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus, 21:8.

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