Pyrrhus - Jacob Abbott


The result of the battle on the banks of the Siris, decisive and complete as the victory was on the part of the Greeks, produced, of course, a very profound sensation at Rome. Instead, however, of discouraging and disheartening the Roman senate and people, it only aroused them to fresh energy and determination. The victory was considered as wholly due to the extraordinary military energy and skill of Pyrrhus, and not to any superiority of the Greek troops over those of the Romans in courage, in discipline, or in efficiency in the field. In fact, it was a saying at Rome at the time, that it was Lævinus that had been conquered by Pyrrhus in the battle, and not the Romans by the Greeks. The Roman government, accordingly, began immediately to enlist new recruits, and to make preparations for a new campaign, more ample and complete, and on a far greater scale than before.

Pyrrhus was much surprised when he heard these things. He had supposed that the Romans would have been disheartened by the defeat which they had sustained, and would now think only of proposals and negotiations for peace. He seems to have been but very imperfectly informed in respect to the condition of the Roman commonwealth at this period, and to the degree of power to which it had attained. He supposed that, after suffering so signal and decisive a defeat, the Romans would regard themselves as conquered, and that nothing remained to them now but to consider how they could make the best terms with their conqueror. The Roman troops had, indeed, withdrawn from the neighborhood of the place where the battle had been fought, and had left Pyrrhus to take possession of the ground without molestation. Pyrrhus was even allowed to advance some considerable distance toward Rome; but he soon learned that, notwithstanding their temporary reverses, his enemies had not the most remote intention of submitting to him, but were making preparations to take the field again with a greater force than ever.

Under these circumstances, Pyrrhus was for a time somewhat at a loss what to do. Should he follow up his victory, and advance boldly toward the capital, with a view of overcoming the Roman power entirely, or should he be satisfied with the advantage which he had already gained, and be content, for the present, with being master of Western Italy? After much hesitation, he concluded on the latter course. He accordingly suspended his hostile operations, and prepared to send an embassador to Rome to propose peace. Cineas was, of course, the embassador commissioned to act on this occasion.

Cineas accordingly proceeded to Rome. He was accompanied by a train of attendants suitable to his rank as a royal embassador, and he took with him a great number of costly presents to be offered to the leading men in Rome, by away, as it would seem, of facilitating his negotiations. The nature of the means which he thus appears to have relied upon in his embassy to Rome may, perhaps, indicate the secret of his success in the diplomatic duties which he had performed in Greece and in Asia, where he had acquired so much distinction for his dexterity in negotiating treaties favorable to the interests of his master. However this may be, Cineas found that the policy which he contemplated would not answer in Rome. Soon after his arrival in the city, and in an early stage of the negotiations, he began to offer his presents to the public men with whom he had to deal; but they refused to accept them. The Roman senators to whom the gifts were offered returned them all, saying that, in case a treaty should be concluded, and peace made between the two nations, they should then have no objections to an interchange of such civilities; but, while the negotiations were pending, they conceived it improper for them to receive any such offerings. It may, perhaps, be taken as an additional proof of the nature of the influences which Cineas was accustomed to rely upon in his diplomatic undertakings, that he offered many of his gifts on this occasion to the ladies of the Roman senators as well as to the senators themselves; but the wives were found as incorruptible as the husbands. The gifts were all alike returned.

Not discouraged by the failure of this attempt, Cineas obtained permission of the Roman senate to appear before them, and to address them on the subject of the views which Pyrrhus entertained in respect to the basis of the peace which he proposed. On the appointed day Cineas went to the senate-chamber, and there made a long and very able and eloquent address, in the presence of the senate and of the principal inhabitants of the city. He was very much impressed on this occasion with the spectacle which the august assembly presented to his view. He said afterward, in fact, that the Roman senate seemed to him like a congress of kings, so dignified and imposing was the appearance of the body, and so impressive was the air of calmness and gravity which reigned in their deliberations. Cineas made a very able and effective speech. He explained the views and proposals of Pyrrhus, presenting them in a light as favorable and attractive as possible. Pyrrhus was willing, he said, to make peace on equal terms. He proposed that he should give up all his prisoners without ransom, and that the Romans should give up theirs. He would then form an alliance with the Romans, and aid them in the future conquests that they meditated. All he asked was that he might have the sanction of the Roman government to his retaining Tarentum and the countries connected with and dependent upon it; and that, in maintaining his dominion over these lands, he might look upon the Roman people as his allies and friends.

After Cineas had concluded his speech and had withdrawn from the senate-chamber, a debate arose among the senators on the propositions which he had made to them. There was a difference of opinion; some were for rejecting the proposals at once; others thought that they ought to be accepted. Those who were inclined to peace urged the wisdom of acceding to Pyrrhus's proposals by representing the great danger of continuing the war. "We have already," said they, "lost one great and decisive battle; and, in case of the renewal of the struggle, we must expect to find our enemy still more formidable than he was before; for many of the Italian nations of the eastern coast have joined his standard since hearing of the victory which he has obtained, and more are coming in. His strength, in fact, is growing greater and greater every day; and it is better for us to make peace with him now, on the honorable terms which he proposes to us, rather than to risk another battle, which may lead to the most disastrous consequences."

In the midst of this discussion, an aged senator, who had been for a long time incapacitated by his years and infirmities from appearing in his seat, was seen coming to the assembly, supported and led by his sons and sons-in-law, who were making way for him in the passages and conducting him in. His name was Appius Claudius. He was blind and almost helpless through age and infirmity. He had heard in his chamber of the irresolution of the senate in respect to the further prosecution of the war with Pyrrhus, and had caused himself to be taken from his bed and borne through the streets by servants on a chair to the senate-house, that he might there once more raise his voice to save, if possible, the honor and dignity of his country. As he entered the chamber, he became at once the object of universal attention. As soon as he reached his seat, a respectful silence began to prevail throughout the assembly, all listening to hear what he had to say. He expressed himself as follows:

"Senators of Rome,—I am blind, and I have been accustomed to consider my blindness as a calamity; but now I could wish that I had been deaf as well as blind, and then I might never have heard of the disgrace which seems to impend over my country. Where are now the boastings that we made when Alexander the Great commenced his career, that if he had turned his arms toward Italy and Rome, instead of Persia and the East, we would never have submitted to him; that he never would have gained the renown of being invincible if he had only attacked us, but would, on the other hand, if he invaded our dominions, only have contributed to the glory of the Roman name by his flight or his fall? These boasts we made so loudly that the echo of them spread throughout the world. And yet now, here is an obscure adventurer who has landed on our shores as an enemy and an invader, and because he has met with a partial and temporary success, you are debating whether you shall not make an ignominious peace with him, and allow him to remain. How vain and foolish does all our boastful defiance of Alexander appear when we now tremble at the name of Pyrrhus—a man who has been all his life a follower and dependent of one of Alexander's inferior generals—a man who has scarcely been able to maintain himself in his own dominions—who could not retain even a small and insignificant part of Macedon which he had conquered, but was driven ignominiously from it; and who comes into Italy now rather as a refugee than a conqueror—an adventurer who seeks power here because he can not sustain himself at home! I warn you not to expect that you can gain any thing by making such a peace with him as he proposes. Such a peace makes no atonement for the past, and it offers no security for the future. On the contrary, it will open the door to other invaders, who will come, encouraged by Pyrrhus's success, and emboldened by the contempt which they will feel for you in allowing yourselves to be thus braved and insulted with impunity."

The effect of this speech on the senate was to produce a unanimous determination to carry on the war. Cineas was accordingly dismissed with this answer: that the Romans would listen to no propositions for peace while Pyrrhus remained in Italy. If he would withdraw from the country altogether, and retire to his own proper dominions, they would then listen to any proposals that he might make for a treaty of alliance and amity. So long, however, as he remained on Italian ground, they would make no terms with him whatever, though he should gain a thousand victories, but would wage war upon him to the last extremity.

Cineas returned to the camp of Pyrrhus, bearing this reply. He communicated also to Pyrrhus a great deal of information in respect to the government and the people of Rome, the extent of the population, and the wealth and resources of the city; for while he had been engaged in conducting his negotiations, he had made every exertion to obtain intelligence on all these points, and he had been a very attentive and sagacious observer of all that he had seen. The account which he gave was very little calculated to encourage Pyrrhus in his future hopes and expectations. The people of Rome, Cineas said, were far more numerous than he had before supposed. They had now already on foot an army twice as large as the one which Pyrrhus had defeated, and multitudes besides were still left in the city, of a suitable age for enlisting, sufficient to form even larger armies still. The prospect, in a word, was very far from such as to promise Pyrrhus an easy victory.

Of course, both parties began now to prepare vigorously for war. Before hostilities were resumed, however, the Romans sent a messenger to the camp of Pyrrhus to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. The name of this embassador was Fabricius. Fabricius, as Pyrrhus was informed by Cineas, was very highly esteemed at Rome for his integrity and for his military abilities, but he was without property, being dependent wholly on his pay as an officer of the army. Pyrrhus received Fabricius in the most respectful manner, and treated him with every mark of consideration and honor. He, moreover, offered him privately a large sum of money in gold. He told Fabricius that, in asking his acceptance of such a gift, he did not do it for any base purpose, but intended it only as a token of friendship and hospitality. Fabricius, however, refused to accept the present, and Pyrrhus pressed him no further.

The next day Pyrrhus formed a plan for giving his guest a little surprise. He supposed that he had never seen an elephant, and he accordingly directed that one of the largest of these animals should be placed secretly behind a curtain, in an apartment where Fabricius was to be received. The elephant was covered with his armor, and splendidly caparisoned. After Fabricius had come in, and while he was sitting in the apartment wholly unconscious of what was before him, all at once the curtain was raised, and the elephant was suddenly brought to view; and, at the same instant, the huge animal, raising his trunk, flourished it in a threatening manner over Fabricius's head, making at the same time a frightful cry, such as he had been trained to utter for the purpose of striking terror into the enemy, in charging upon them on the field of battle. Fabricius, instead of appearing terrified, or even astonished at the spectacle, sat quietly in his seat, to all appearance entirely unmoved, and, turning to Pyrrhus with an air of the utmost composure, said coolly, "You see that you make no impression upon me, either by your gold yesterday or by your beast to-day."

Pyrrhus and Fabricius


Pyrrhus was not at all displeased with this answer, blunt as it may seem. On the contrary, he seems to have been very deeply impressed with a sense of the stern and incorruptible virtue of Fabricius's character, and he felt a strong desire to obtain the services of such an officer in his own court and army. He accordingly made new proposals to Fabricius, urging him to use his influence to induce the Romans to make peace, and then to go with him to Epirus, and enter into his service there.

"If you will do so," said Pyrrhus, "I will make you the chief of my generals, and my own most intimate friend and companion, and you shall enjoy abundant honors and rewards."

"No," replied Fabricius, "I can not accept those offers, nor is it for your interest that I should accept them; for, were I to go with you to Epirus, your people, as soon as they came to know me well, would lose all their respect for you, and would wish to have me, instead of you, for their king."

We are, perhaps, to understand this rejoinder, as well as the one which Fabricius made to Pyrrhus in respect to the elephant, as intended in a somewhat jocose and playful sense; since, if we suppose them to have been gravely and seriously uttered, they would indicate a spirit of vanity and of empty boasting which would seem to be wholly inconsistent with what we know of Fabricius's character. However this may be, Pyrrhus was pleased with both; and the more that he saw and learned of the Romans, the more desirous he became of terminating the war and forming an alliance with them. But the Romans firmly persisted in refusing to treat with him, except on the condition of his withdrawing first entirely from Italy, and this was a condition with which he deemed it impossible to comply. It would be equivalent, in fact, to an acknowledgment that he had been entirely defeated. Accordingly, both sides began again to prepare vigorously for war.

The Romans marched southward from the city with a large army, under the command of their two consuls. The names of the consuls at this time were Sulpicius Saverrio and Decius Mus. These generals advanced into Apulia, a country on the western coast of Italy, north of Tarentum. Here they encamped on a plain at the foot of the Apennines, near a place called Asculum. There was a stream in front of their camp, and the mountains were behind it. The stream was large and deep, and of course it greatly protected their position. On hearing of the approach of the Romans, Pyrrhus himself took the field at the head of all his forces, and advanced to meet them. He came to the plain on which the Roman army was encamped, and posted himself on the opposite bank of the stream. The armies were thus placed in close vicinity to each other, being separated only by the stream. The question was, which should attempt to cross the stream and make the attack upon the other. They remained in this position for a considerable time, neither party venturing to attempt the passage.

While things were in this condition—the troops on each side waiting for an opportunity of attacking their enemies, and probably without any fear whatever of the physical dangers which they were to encounter in the conflict—the feeling of composure and confidence among the men in Pyrrhus's army was greatly disturbed by a singular superstition. It was rumored in the army that Decius Mus, the Roman commander, was endowed with a species of magical and supernatural power, which would, under certain circumstances, be fatal to all who opposed him. And though the Greeks seem to have had no fear of the material steel of the Roman legions, this mysterious and divine virtue, which they imagined to reside in the commander, struck them with an invincible terror.

The story was, that the supernatural power in question originated in one of the ancestors of the present Decius, a brave Roman general, who lived and flourished in the century preceding the time of Pyrrhus. His name, too, was Decius Mus. In the early part of his life, when he was a subordinate officer, he was the means of saving the whole army from most imminent danger, by taking possession of an eminence among the mountains, with the companies that were under his command, and holding it against the enemy until the Roman troops could be drawn out of a dangerous defile where they would otherwise have been overwhelmed and destroyed. He was greatly honored for this exploit. The consul who commanded on the occasion rewarded him with a golden crown, a hundred oxen, and a magnificent white bull, with gilded horns. The common soldiers, too, held a grand festival and celebration in honor of him, in which they crowned him with a wreath made of dried grasses on the field, according to an ancient custom which prevailed among the Romans of rewarding in this way any man who should be the means of saving an army. Of course, such an event as saving an army was of very rare occurrence; and, accordingly, the crowning of a soldier by his comrades on the field was a very distinguished honor, although the decoration itself was made of materials so insignificant and worthless.

Decius rose rapidly after this time from rank to rank, until at length he was chosen consul. In the course of his consulship, he took the field with one of his colleagues, whose name was Torquatus, at the head of a large army, in the prosecution of a very important war in the interior of the country. The time arrived at length for a decisive battle to be fought. Both armies were drawn up on the field, the preparations were all made, and the battle was to be fought on the following day. In the night, however, a vision appeared to each consul, informing him that it had been decreed by fate that a general  on one side and the army  on the other were to be destroyed on the following day; and that, consequently, either of the consuls, by sacrificing himself, might secure the destruction of the enemy. On the other hand, if they were to take measures to save themselves, the general on the other side would be killed, and on their side the army would be defeated and cut to pieces.

The two consuls, on conferring together upon the following morning, immediately decided that either one or the other of them should die, in order to secure victory to the arms of their country; and the question at once arose, what method they should adopt to determine which of them should be the sacrifice. At last it was agreed that they would go into battle as usual, each in command of his own wing of the army, and that the one whose wing should first begin to give way should offer himself as the victim. The arrangements were made accordingly, and the result proved that Decius was the one on whom the dire duty of self-immolation was to devolve. The wing under his command began to give way. He immediately resolved to fulfill his vow. He summoned the high priest. He clothed himself in the garb of a victim about to be offered in sacrifice. Then, with his military cloak wrapped about his head, and standing upon a spear that had been previously laid down upon the ground, he repeated in the proper form words by which he devoted himself and the army of the enemy to the God of Death, and then finally mounted upon his horse and drove furiously in among the thickest of the enemy. Of course he was at once thrust through with a hundred spears and javelins; and immediately afterward the army of the enemy gave way on all hands, and the Romans swept the field, completely victorious.

The power which was in this instance supernaturally granted to Decius to secure the victory to the Roman arms, by sacrificing his own life on the field of battle, afterward descended, it was supposed, as an inheritance, from father to son. Decius Mus, the commander opposed to Pyrrhus, was the grandson of his namesake referred to above; and now it was rumored among the Greeks that he intended, as soon as the armies came into action, to make the destruction of his enemies sure by sacrificing himself, as his grandfather had done. The soldiers of Pyrrhus were willing to meet any of the ordinary and natural chances and hazards of war; but, where the awful and irresistible decrees of the spiritual world were to be against them, it is not strange that they dreaded the encounter.

Under these circumstances, Pyrrhus sent a party of messengers to the Roman camp to say to Decius, that if in the approaching battle he attempted to resort to any such arts of necromancy to secure the victory to the Roman side, he would find himself wholly unsuccessful in the attempt; for the Greek soldiers had all been instructed not to kill him if he should throw himself among them, but to take him alive and bring him a prisoner to Pyrrhus's camp; and that then, after the battle was over, he should be subjected, they declared, to the most cruel and ignominious punishments, as a magician and an impostor. Decius sent back word, in reply, that Pyrrhus had no occasion to give himself any uneasiness in respect to the course which the Roman general would pursue in the approaching battle. The measure that he had referred to was one to which the Romans were not accustomed to resort except in emergencies of the most extreme and dangerous character, and Pyrrhus ought not to flatter himself with the idea that the Romans regarded his invasion as of sufficient consequence to require them to have recourse to any unusual means of defense. They were fully convinced of their ability to meet and conquer him by ordinary modes of warfare. To prove that they were honest in this opinion, they offered to waive the advantage which the river afforded them as a means of defense, and allow Pyrrhus to cross it without molestation, with a view to fighting the battle afterward upon the open field; or they would themselves cross the river, and fight the battle on Pyrrhus's side of it—whichever Pyrrhus himself preferred. They asked for no advantage, but were willing to meet their adversaries on equal terms, and abide by the result.

Pyrrhus could not with honor decline to accept this challenge. He decided to remain where he was, and allow the Romans to cross the stream. This they accordingly did; and when all the troops had effected the passage, they were drawn up in battle array on the plain. Pyrrhus marshaled his forces also, and both parties prepared for the contest.

The Romans stood most in awe of the elephants, and they resorted to some peculiar and extraordinary means of resisting them. They prepared a great number of chariots, each of which was armed with a long pointed spear, projecting forward in such a manner that when the chariots should be driven on toward the elephants, these spears or beaks should pierce the bodies of the beasts and destroy them. The chariots, too, were filled with men, who were all provided with fire-brands, which they were to throw at the elephants, and frighten them, as they came on. These chariots were all carefully posted in front of that part of Pyrrhus's army where the elephants were stationed, and the charioteers were strictly ordered not to move until they should see the elephants advancing.

The battle, as might have been expected from the circumstances which preceded it, and from the character of the combatants, was fought with the most furious and persevering desperation. It continued through the whole day; and in the various parts of the field, and during the different hours of the day, the advantage was sometimes strongly on one side, and sometimes on the other, so that it was wholly uncertain, for a long time, what the ultimate result would be. The elephants succeeded in getting round the chariots which had been posted to intercept them, and effected a great destruction of the Roman troops. On the other hand, a detachment of the Roman army made their way to the camp of Pyrrhus, and attacked it desperately. Pyrrhus withdrew a part of his forces to protect his camp, and that turned the tide against him on the field. By means of the most Herculean exertions, Pyrrhus rallied his men, and restored their confidence; and then, for a time, the fortune of war seemed to incline in his favor. In the course of the day Decius was killed, and the whole command of the Roman army then devolved upon Sulpicius, his colleague. Pyrrhus himself was seriously wounded. When, at last, the sun went down, and the approaching darkness of the night prevented a continuance of the combat, both parties drew off such as remained alive of their respective armies, leaving the field covered with the dead and dying. One of Pyrrhus's generals congratulated him on his victory. "Yes," said Pyrrhus; "another such victory, and I shall be undone."

In fact, after trying their strength against each other in this battle, neither party seemed to be in haste to bring on another contest. They both drew away to places of security, and began to send for re-enforcements, and to take measures to strengthen themselves for future operations. They remained in this state of inaction until at length the season passed away, and they then went into winter-quarters, each watching the other, but postponing, by common consent, all active hostilities until spring. In the spring they took the field again, and the two armies approached each other once more. The Roman army had now two new commanders, one of whom was the celebrated Fabricius, whom Pyrrhus had negotiated with on former occasions. The two commanders were thus well acquainted with each other; and though, as public men, they were enemies, in private and personally they were very good friends.

Pyrrhus had a physician in his service named Nicias. This man conceived the design of offering to the Romans to poison his master on condition of receiving a suitable reward. He accordingly wrote a letter to Fabricius making the proposal. Fabricius immediately communicated the letter to his colleague, and they both concurred in the decision to inform Pyrrhus himself of the offer which had been made them, and put him on his guard against the domestic traitor. They accordingly sent him the letter which they had received, accompanied by one from themselves, of the following tenor:

"Caius Fabricius and Quintus Æmilius to King Pyrrhus, greeting:

"You seem to be as unfortunate in the choice of your friends as you are in that of your enemies. The letter which we send herewith will satisfy you that those around you, on whom you rely, are wholly unworthy of your confidence. You are betrayed; your very physician, the man who ought to be most faithful to you, offers to poison you. We give you this information, not out of any particular friendship for you, but because we do not wish to be suspected of conniving at an assassination—a crime which we detest and abhor. Besides, we do not wish to be deprived of the opportunity of showing the world that we are able to meet and conquer you in open war."

Pyrrhus was very much struck with what he considered the extraordinary generosity of his enemies. He immediately collected together all the prisoners that he had taken from the Romans, and sent them home to the Roman camp, as a token of acknowledgment and gratitude on his part for the high and honorable course of action which his adversaries had adopted. They, however, Roman-like, would not accept such a token without making a corresponding return, and they accordingly sent home to Pyrrhus a body of Greek prisoners equal in number and rank to those whom Pyrrhus had set free.

All these things tended to increase the disinclination of Pyrrhus to press the further prosecution of the war. He became more and more desirous every day to make peace with the Romans, preferring very much that such a people should be his allies rather than his enemies. They, however, firmly and pertinaciously refused to treat with him on any terms, unless, as a preliminary step, he would go back to his own dominions. This he thought he could not do with honor. He was accordingly much perplexed, and began earnestly to wish that something would occur to furnish him with a plausible pretext for retiring from Italy.