The Hellenistic period of the ancient world lasted from Alexander the Great’s death in Babylon in 323 BCE to the eventual Roman conquest of the Alexandrian empire in 31–30 BCE. Contributing indirectly and unintentionally to Rome’s success in empire-building were the “pyrrhic victories” of Pyrrhus of Epirus, leader of the Greek colonial resistance. Although they were technically military victories, the costly battles exhausted the Greek empire’s military and ultimately led the way to the Roman takeover.
One night in 280 BCE, the warrior-leader Pyrrhus of the Greek kingdom of Epirus met with his exhausted generals. He’d just wound up a costly victory against Roman forces in southern Italy, and took stock of the condition of his troops. His army of 25,000 troops defeated the Romans and secured the southern port town of Taras, but it was a bloody victory, costing the lives of thousands of Pyrrhus’s valiant warriors. And their work was not done.
They had made a long and hazardous journey across the sea from Epirus, a Greek state adjacent to both Thessaly and Macedonia, in response to an appeal from Greek colonists in Taras for aid in defending against Roman invaders. At that time, much of Italy south of Rome, including Sicily, was a far western outpost of Alexander the Great’s mighty Greek Empire – and the legions of Rome were moving south.
Pyrrhus was successful in defending Taras; he had also received another urgent request for military assistance, this time from the Greek-held southern Italian town of Heraclea. Pyrrhus conferred with his surviving generals, and his message to his followers was simple: Despite the huge number of casualties they had suffered, he and his army would proceed to Heraclea and secure it against Roman invasion. And they would do it with the same strategy – push forward against all resistance, fighting aggressively to complete victory.
Focusing his sights on re-establishing the strategically important Heraclea as a Greek stronghold, he rallied his forces against the advancing Roman legions. Again, it was in no way a tidy battle; Pyrrhus lost many more of his key troops, not to mention a large number of generals and commanders.
For a broader view of the transfer of power between the Greeks and Romans, please take a look at the MagellanTV article titled The Age of Greece: Rise and Decline of the Ancient Greek City-States.
With no more troops available to replenish his losses, Pyrrhus was acutely aware that the odds against him were increasing with every bloody victory. According to Greek historian Plutarch, Pyrrhus famously declared after his winning engagement at Heraclea, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”
Nevertheless, fight on he did; and eventually, Pyrrhus won himself into defeat. The Romans were able to rely on a seemingly limitless pool of troop replacements and were easily able to replenish the legions even after what appeared to be complete routs.
So how did Pyrrhus come to this predicament? A look into the aftermath of his cousin Alexander’s reign provides some clues.
The empire that Alexander the Great struggled so mightily to create and expand lasted about 300 years after his death in 323 BCE. Alexander’s untimely death precipitated a power struggle among his generals, and an unsteady period followed as his military leadership struggled to plan for a future without the charismatic “god-man.”
Macedonia was the source of Alexander’s regal status. For more on his reign and rise to imperial power, view Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth and Alexandria: The Greatest City, both on MagellanTV.
The circle of generals who had served closely with Alexander became known as the Diadochi, a Greek term meaning “successors.” Their discussions led to the division of Alexander’s vast realm. For close to 50 years, the Diadochi squabbled, took up arms, and engaged in skirmishes and regional conflicts in an attempt to establish who had the right to ascend to the vacated throne.
In the end, there was no single winner. Instead, the various regions were carved up into a handful of separately ruled but loosely confederated provinces led by satraps, or, literally, “protectors.” The westernmost region was the rather rural state of Epirus, a coast-hugging kingdom cut off by mountains from both Macedonia and Greece.
Epirus was a backwoods compared with the more sophisticated corners of the Greek empire, but its residents, mostly villagers, were quite proud of one unique location in the region – the Temple of the oracle at Dodona, the closest thing Epirus had to a tourist destination.
Pyrrhus was a second cousin to Alexander (through Alexander’s mother, a native of Epirus), and he ascended to the throne in 297 BCE. He pledged to protect his land and its people, as well as to preserve and promote Dodona. By all reports he was, at that time, a kind and cultured king. He brought great prosperity to his kingdom, erecting a grand open-air amphitheater in the town of Dodona and building a new capital for himself and his people.
No less a military genius than Hannibal considered Pyrrhus to be second only to Alexander in fierceness and resourcefulness in battle. And Roman philosopher Cicero wrote approvingly of Pyrrhus’s own treatises on war and military campaigns. But we know Pyrrhus today more for the unintended consequences of the crucial battles he led. These fraught and tenuous wins on the battlefield, where Pyrrhus fought back Roman forces at great loss to his own troops, became known as “pyrrhic victories.”
In the 3rd century BCE, Rome was a prosperous and populous city-state – governed as a republic – that had not yet awakened to its later imperial ambitions. Formerly a kingdom, Rome witnessed a popular uprising against its despotic final king, Tarquin the Proud, that instituted a new form of government that allowed for some power to the plebeians, or common people (along with special rights given to gentlemen of wealth and/or property). The new government was run by two consuls, who were both in charge of ruling civilly as well as running the military.
Rome’s expansionist ambitions were more strategic – even defensive – in nature, as the city well remembered the destructive war with the Gauls that resulted in the burning and sacking of Rome in 390 BCE. But the Romans also had their eyes on the Greek colonial outposts at the southern edge of their lands, and territorial ambitions arose among the Roman military just about a hundred years after the losses they suffered at the hands of the Gauls.
Rome was in an expansionist mood and saw an opportunity, in the newly decentralized Hellenistic order, to extend its rule deep into the south of the Italian peninsula. Rome instigated its plan to extend its borders, in 281 BCE, with attacks on the southern Italian port city of Taras, an outpost in the Greek colony of southern Italy and Sicily.
Taras was a key strategic location sitting at the northernmost head of the expansive gulf that separates the “heel” from the “toe” of Italy’s distinctive boot shape. As a Greek colony it was called Taras, but under Roman control it went by its Latin name of Tarentum. Today, it is called Taranto.
The Roman military, under the steady hand of Camillus, broke through the ineffective resistance of the Greek colonists and advanced upon Taras. Victory would give Romans convenient access to Mediterranean Sea trade, as well as to more lands currently under Greek control.
Despite Rome’s fervent desires, resistance in Taras kept the Romans at bay and outside the fortified port town. Alarms went out from the Greek colonists of southern Italy for military assistance, and one of these entreaties was directed at the nearby Greek satellite of Epirus.
And this is where Epirus’s King Pyrrhus comes into the picture. He accepted the call to arms, raising a large army and traveling by ship directly to Taras to assist the colonists.
Once in southern Italy, Pyrrhus launched a plan to secure all the lands threatened by Roman invasion. For six years, Pyrrhus fought against the Romans in southern Italy and Sicily, a period known as the “Pyrrhic Wars.” With an army of approximately 25,000 men, he was successful, despite great cost to his forces, in wresting both Taras and Heraclea from the northern conquerors.
Next he fought the Roman army at Ausculum, again suffering heavy casualties, and decided to take what was left of his army down through the “toe” of the Italian peninsula to cross over to the less contested island of Sicily. Pyrrhus’s ferocious approach to military strategy was indeed required, as the Roman forces were everywhere more numerous.
Was Pyrrhus wise, or was he foolhardy? He stormed into battle against a better equipped and larger army, and survived each of the battles of the Pyrrhic Wars with fewer and fewer troops, raising the concern of allies that the military successes were unsustainable.
Pyrrhus continued advancing, despite great losses and alarmingly high body counts. And he eventually prevailed. He “succeeded” by eventually losing more than half his troops and much of his treasure. Though he secured the land and its towns from Roman takeover for about three years, the colonists’ resistance to the Romans ultimately failed while Pyrrhus’s attention was diverted to other conquests in other lands. The Romans simply had many more troops to send to battle and to replace fallen combatants.
Haunted by his bloody wins, Pyrrhus established a Sicilian stronghold where he tried being a king again. Yet the magic seemed to have abandoned him. Rather than burnishing the reputation as an enlightened leader that he’d earned in Epirus, he became a despot. The Greek Sicilians, whom he was supposedly protecting against Roman incursion, grew tired of his bellicose and despotic methods and tossed him back across the isthmus to Italy. In 275 BCE, Pyrrhus once again drew his troops together for yet another attack on the Roman military, this time at the town of Beneventum (Benevento), where his luck ran out. Suffering heavier losses, he and his remaining troops pulled back into Greece.
But Pyrrhus still wasn’t done. He was made king of Macedonia after taking on Antigonus II, satrap of Macedon. Choosing next to attack the Spartans, he was not so successful; in fact, his army was routed. Retreating north of Sparta to the town of Argos, he finally lost his own life in a night skirmish on the streets there.
Without Pyrrhus to lead his diminishing army into battle, the Greek colonists of southern Italy quickly capitulated when Roman troops eventually broke through the fortifications of Taras and occupied the city, and then subjugated the entire southern region of Italy. As the news spread, resistance throughout the region fell. Their control the former Greek colonies on the peninsula secure, the Romans then proceeded eastward with the goal of capturing all of what had been Alexander’s fabled empire.
Despite all the virtues and status they possessed as Romans, it was widely perceived that their culture was inferior compared to the Greeks, whose literature, theater, philosophy, and science had spread across the known world. Now, the Romans had their sights set on gaining access to the wealth, lands, and culture – and respected status – that the Greeks possessed.
It is easy to see from this distance in time how ineffective Pyrrhus’s defense ultimately was. But it’s also apparent that he fought to win, and win he did. Perhaps a different, more strategic approach would have secured the victories for longer, perhaps for a generation or beyond. But eventually Greece was fated to fall; the death of Alexander and the lack of a clear plan of succession doomed the lasting union that he had envisioned.
And while Greece did fall to Rome, Greek culture survived – as, perhaps ironically, did Pyrrhus’s name.
The influence of Greece was altered in some ways by that of the ruling Romans. Nevertheless, Greek – or, more properly, Hellenistic – style and culture prevailed in the lands captured by Alexander, then conquered by Camillus, and later still by the Caesars.
The Romans came to champion Greek thought, build Greek-influenced architecture, and even produce Latin-translated Greek theater. When it comes to a verdict on Greece versus Rome for cultural reach and grandeur, I’d call it a draw.
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