Pyrrhus, King of Epirus in Northwest Greece and related by blood to the line of Alexander the Great, was himself a man of great ambition.
Having lost his crown while still a child, he made a name for himself in service to the Diadochi, the successors of the great Alexander, and gained a great deal of military experience before Ptolemy helped restore him to his throne.
Pyrrhus was a man of great physical courage who possessed a shrewd eye for political and military gain.
So when the people of the city of Tarentum, a Greek colony in southern Italy, requested that he come to aid them against the tyranny of Rome, he saw an opportunity to take his proper place on the world’s stage as the champion of the Greeks.
According to Plutarch, the Tarentines promised him 350,000 foot and 20,000 cavalries to aid him in overthrowing the Rome.
The resources of Epirus were limited, but with such support, even the Romans and their Latin and Italian allies might be defeated. He also expected that other southern Italian peoples would also swell his ranks once he was in Italy–the Bruttians and Apulians had no love for Rome.
So Pyrrhus weathered a fierce storm and arrived in Tarentum to command a somewhat motley army of 20,000 foot, 3,000 cavalry, and 20 elephants. With these, he faced the Romans at Heraclea. His elephants won him the day there by panicking the Roman horse and he marched almost to the gates of the Eternal City before withdrawing to his base at Tarentum.
Undaunted by their defeat, the Romans raised new armies and advanced on Apulia, forcing Pyrrhus to march out again to attempt to defeat this “Lernean Hydra that grows two heads for each one cut off.” At Asculum, the two armies faced each other. Estimates of their numbers vary but they were probably about equal to around 40,000 men each.
Each army had made some tactical changes since their last meeting.
Seeing how much more maneuverable the Roman forces were than his phalanx, Pyrrhus alternated the units of his phalanx with the lighter forces of his Allies. The Romans, for their part, had made a radical innovation in order to deal with Pyrrhus 20 elephants.
Battle of Asculum
They had taken a number (perhaps 300?) chariots and equipped them with long spikes to wound the elephants, pots of fire to scare the elephants and manned them with troops who would hurl javelins at the elephants to drive them back.
Both armies deployed with their cavalry on the wings and infantry in the center. Pyrrhus held his Guard cavalry in reserve behind the center under his personal command. The Elephants were also kept initially in reserve.
The subsequent Battle of Asculum was fought over two days.
On the first day, of the Battle of Asculum, the battlefield appears to have been marshy and broken, which stopped Pyrrhus from using his cavalry and Elephants to full effect. The Pyrrhic phalanx appears to also have been affected by the ground. The day ended in stalemate.
Battle of Asculum
The next morning, before the Romans had emerged from their camp, Pyrrhus seized the previous day’s battlefield forcing the Romans to fight on a more open field. The Roman infantry advanced swiftly to attempt to close with the phalanx before the elephants were engaged. The phalanx held firm. The Elephants advanced, preceded by psiloi who negated the anti-elephant chariots of the Romans.
The Elephants then hit the Roman infantry who buckled under the pressure.
Simultaneously, Pyrrhus launched a charge by the Royal Guard, which completed the victory.
The Romans withdrew in some disorder to their camp. Pyrrhus did not pursue them closely fearing they might yet turn and fight. Roman losses were probably 6,000 while Pyrrhus lost 3,500 men, including many of his ablest officers.
As he was congratulated on the victory, Pyrrhus is reported to have said, “If we defeat the Romans in one more such battle, we shall be completely ruined,” thus coining the phrase “Pyrrhic victory.”
His logic was sound for the Romans could raise more armies while Pyrrhus, away from home, could not replace his losses, especially in the officer corps.
The Romans needed only to outlast Pyrrhus, who eventually left Tarentum for a stint in Sicily before abandoning the Greeks in Italy to Rome’s mercy.
*This article was originally published at http://www.fanaticus.org/