Conquest of Italy

Pyrrhic War

With the conclusion of the Samnite Wars, Rome had consolidated its position as master of central Italy. With its rising power in the Mediterranean, conflict with the Greek city-states (Magna Graecia) of southern Italy was inevitable. The Lucanians and Bruttians, in the early 3rd Century BC, continued attacks on these Greek colonies and they, in 283 BC, appealed to the Roman regional power for help. The most influential city of Magna Graecia at the time was Tarentum.

Its position in south eastern Italy made it an important hub for Mediterranean Sea trade and also isolated it from Roman naval activity on the Tryrrhenum Sea, between Rome and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. Due to its position, and relationship with Greece, Tarentum possessed the most powerful navy of any Italian city at the time and a standing treaty with Rome had been in place since 302 BC. This treaty denied access to Roman fleets into the bay of Tarantum (In Italy's heel) assuring the autonomy of the Greek navy.

Heeding the call for aid from regional city-states such as Locri, Rhegim, Croton and Thurii against the Lucanians, Rome sent troops by way of sea to garrison the town of Thurii in 282 BC. Despite the call for aid, Tarentum considered this a breach of the treaty and a hostile act of aggression. Tarentum's immediate reaction was to sink the Roman fleet and expel the garrison from Thurii. In response, the Roman Senate sent an embassy to Tarentum under L. Postumius Megellus to demand amends. During the exchange the Romans seem to have been insulted (a recurring theme in the histories of Livy and Polybius to justify Roman aggression) and Rome declared war. Tarentum, unable to defuse the situation mustered their own army and began creating trouble among the Greek cities and other Roman interests. Fearing Roman retaliation, Tarentum soon turned to King Pyrrhus of Epirus for assistance.

Pyrrhus, a distant relative of Alexander the Great, envisioned himself as another Alexander. Having recently confirmed his authority through war in Epirus, he anxiously looked to Italy for expansion and glory. The fertile soil of Sicily (according to Plutarch), rather than Italy, was probably the real objective but the excuse to do battle with the fledgling power of Rome was too good to pass up. The post Alexander Macedonian kingdoms maintained the most modern and well equipped armies of the time and the Epirotes were far more advanced than their Roman counterparts. Using his own forces and those pledged from other regional Greek Kings, on the understanding that they would be used abroad, Pyrrhus took up the challenge from Tarentum and sailed across the Adriatic.

In 280 BC, the Epirotes landed in Italy with 25,000 men, including 3,000 cavalry and 2,000 archers. Also, shocking to the Romans, Pyrrhus brought 20 war trained elephants along, the first time that the Italian people had seen them. Knowing the devastation they had caused among the Persians under Alexander, Pyrrhus thought that the Italian invasion was the perfect opportunity to emulate that success. The Romans, however, had no intention of giving up their regional authority and prepared to fight. They may have been encouraged by surrounding Greek cities, who expressed no interest in Pyrrhus' interference, but regardless, the war was on.

The first engagement of the war took place at the small coastal town of Heraclea. The Romans, under Publius Laverius Laevinius, with 50,000 men, had driven into Lucanian territory to prevent them from joining Pyrrhus. When the battle was joined the match was fairly evenly fought. The Epirotes would eventually use their elephants to drive through the Roman lines, creating panic and driving cavalry back upon its own troops. The Pyrrhic forces advanced and the Roman army may have been destroyed, save for the timely intervention of a wounded elephant that caused panic among the others. The elephants turned on Pyrrhus' own troops and he was forced to call off the pursuit of the Romans to preserve his own army. In the end, ancient writers suggest that the Romans lost between 7,000 and 15,000 but that the Epirotes lost between 4,000 and 13,000 men accordingly. Though the Romans technically lost the battle at Heraclea, Pyrrhus' losses were substantial. An invading army could not endure such terrible losses while outnumbered and he would have to retire for the season to wait for reinforcements. This condition of victory, with terrible casualties, would become a recurring theme throughout the campaign.

Pyrrhus had hoped that his invasion would lead to rebellion from Rome's traditional enemies, such as the Latins. He was counting on the support of these people in his efforts. However, by this time, the old rebellious attitudes had mostly subsided, and only some Samnites and the Lucanians joined with Pyrrhus. This is important that it shows the stabilization that was growing in accordance with Rome's power. These old allies/enemies were now firmly entrenched as members of the Republic and the changing tides of conflicts no longer had such an overwhelming effect as they had in the past. Additionally, treatment of his allies among the Greek cities in southern Italy would also turn their attitudes against him.

The next year, 279 BC, saw the second major conflict at the battle of Ausculum. A massive engagement (in terms of ancient armies) was fought over two days among the woods and hills of Apulia. The Romans led by Publius Dentius Mus, used terrain to their advantage to reduce the effect of the Epirote cavalry and elephants. The first day would end in a virtual draw. As at Heraclea, the second day's fighting was again a stalemate situation until the elephants could be brought to the front. The Roman's attempted using ox-drawn war wagons to subvert the elephants, but supporting infantry soon overwhelmed the defense and the Romans had to withdraw. At the end of the battle, estimates of 6,000 Roman and 3,500 Epirote casualties left Pyrrhus in command of the field, but again at great cost. It is the result of Ausculum where the term "Pyrrhic Victory" is attributed. According to Plutarch, when congratulated on his victory, Pyrrhus replied "that one other such (victory) would utterly undo him."

Pyrrhus acknowledging his costly 'victories' offered peace terms to Rome, but was refused as long as he remained in Italy. Appius Claudius a former consul and commissioner of the Appian Way, encouraged the Senate to refuse the simple terms of independence for Tarentum and the southern Greek cities. Instead, Rome negotiated an alliance with Carthage, who had reason to be concerned over Pyrrhic activities in Sicily. Pyrrhus, originally hoping to turn Rome and Carthage against one another, found himself the target of both state's animosity. Under pressure from a Carthaginian fleet and with no hope of converting Roman Italian allies, he left for Sicily to protect his interests there.

In 278 BC he sailed to Sicily to defend the Greek cities on the island. The Carthaginians, however, were already on the move and were besieging Syracuse, his logistical base, as Pyrrhus arrived. The powerful Carthaginian fleet was scouring the sea to find him, but he managed to evade capture and eventually defeat the Carthaginian army. Pyrrhus captured the cities of Panormus and Eryx but Carthage refused his offer of peace in fear that they would lose Sardinia. Meanwhile, on the Italian mainland, Rome was pressing hard against Tarentum and the situation was going badly for the Greeks. Pyrrhus had sustained heavy losses in Sicilia, as well, and he feared entrapment by two hostile forces on Sicily. In a final desperate gesture he would return to Italy for one more campaign.

He returned to Italy in 275 BC and faced the Romans at the town of Malventum in southern Italy. This time there was not even a 'Pyrrhic Victory" and the Epirotes, defeated, retreated to Tarentum. The Romans had learned to deal with war elephants by attacking their sides with spears, a tactic that not only stopped Pyrrhus, but would eventually play a key role against Carthage. Several years after the battle, the Romans renamed Malventum to Beneventum (Good Omen) in recognition of their victory, and before long the Appian Way would connect the town to Rome. Pyrrhus left Italy shortly after and returned to Epirus. By the end of his campaigns, he returned without the bulk of his army or gains in Italy and having lost his holdings in Sicily. Again according to Plutarch, his parting words upon returning home "What a battlefield I am leaving for Carthage and Rome", was a premonition that would end up shaking the power structure of the Mediterranean, and the western world.

With Pyrrhus gone, Tarentum, and any other remaining Greek cities, accepted Rome's usual lenient offer of peace to a defeated foe. The city was allowed self-rule under a Roman garrison and appropriate Latin laws, while the other city-states and remaining Italian tribes surrendered in kind. By 272 BC, Rome was now the confirmed master of the Italian peninsula, despite some thoughts among the Greeks that they may have been allies rather than subjects.

With this consolidation, the Conquest of Italy was complete, save for the Gauls in the far north. The Macedonian ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy II, confirmed Rome's power by opening a permanent embassy between the two nations. Roman colonies were founded all over Italy strengthening and affirming Rome's rule. In the end, the victory in the Pyrrhic war not only gained Rome all of Italy, but showed that the Roman ability to adapt and change was mightier than any force in the region. The Greek Phalanx and its static formation would lose its dominance and be replaced by the adaptable, and mighty legions of Rome. With Pyrrhus out of the way, and the clash between Carthage and Rome looming, the Romans knew that their greatest strength was perseverance. No matter the cost or effort, and despite defeats and setbacks, they wouldn't stop expanding for over half a millennium.

As for Pyrrhus, he returned to Epirus with his head held high. If nothing else he was a grand adventurer, and considered later, by Hannibal, to be among the greatest generals in history. Despite the near total destruction of his army at the hands of Rome and Carthage, he enlisted Gallic allies to invade Macedonia. Plundering as he went, he set his eyes on Sparta and then Argos, as well. Plutarch tell us that while fighting in the streets of Argos, in 272 BC (the same year as the final defeat of Tarentum) an old woman threw a tile down from her roof, and it happened to hit Pyrrhus on the neck. Stunned, Pyrrhus fell off his horse, and an Argosian soldier cut off his head.

continue to the Punic Wars and Expansion

Did you know?

The Greek overseas expansion of the 8th cent. B.C. founded a number of towns that became the centers of a new, thriving Greek territory. They were on both coasts from the Bay of Naples and the Gulf of Taranto southward. Unlike Greek Sicily, Magna Graecia began to decline by 500 B.C.