Pyrrhus - Jacob Abbott

The Retreat from Italy

The force with which Pyrrhus returned to Tarentum was very nearly as large as that which he had taken away, but was composed of very different materials. The Greeks from Epirus, whom he had brought over with him in the first instance from his native land, had gradually disappeared from the ranks of his army. Many of them had been killed in battle, and still greater numbers had been carried off by exposure and fatigue, and by the thousand other casualties incident to such a service as that in which they were engaged. Their places had been supplied, from time to time, by new enlistments, or by impressment and conscription. Of course, these new recruits were not bound to their commander by any ties of attachment or regard. They were mostly mercenaries—that is, men hired to fight, and willing to fight, in any cause or for any commander, provided they could be paid. In a word, Pyrrhus's fellow- countrymen of Epirus had disappeared, and the ranks of his army were filled up with unprincipled and destitute wretches, who felt no interest in his cause—no pride in his success—no concern for his honor. They adhered to him only for the sake of the pay and the indulgences of a soldier's life, and for their occasional hopes of plunder.

Besides the condition of his army, Pyrrhus found the situation of his affairs in other respects very critical on his arrival at Tarentum. The Romans had made great progress, during his absence, in subjugating the whole country to their sway. Cities and towns, which had been under his dominion when he went to Sicily, had been taken by the Romans, or had gone over to them of their own accord. The government which he had established at Tarentum was thus curtailed of power, and shut in in respect to territory; and he felt himself compelled immediately to take the field, in order to recover his lost ground.

He adopted vigorous measures immediately to re-enforce his army, and to obtain the necessary supplies. His treasury was exhausted; in order to replenish it, he dispatched embassadors to his various allies to borrow money. He knew, of course, that a large portion of his army would abandon him immediately so soon as they should find that he was unable to pay them. He was, therefore, quite uneasy for a time in respect to the state of his finances, and he instructed his embassadors to press the urgency of his wants upon his allies in a very earnest manner.

He did not, however, wait for the result of these measures, but immediately commenced active operations in the field. One of his first exploits was the recapture of Locri, a city situated on the southern shore of Italy, as will be seen by the map. This city had been in his possession before he went to Sicily, but it had gone over to the Romans during his absence. Locri was a very considerable town, and the recovery of it from the Romans was considered quite an important gain. The place derived its consequence, in some considerable degree, from a celebrated temple which stood there. It was the temple of Proserpina, the Goddess of Death. This temple was magnificent in its structure, and it was enriched with very costly and valuable treasures. It not only gave distinction to the town in which it stood, but, on account of an extraordinary train of circumstances which occurred in connection with it, it became the occasion of one of the most important incidents in Pyrrhus's history.

Proserpina, as has already been intimated, was the Goddess of Death. It is very difficult for us at the present day to understand and appreciate the conceptions which the Greeks and Romans, in ancient times, entertained of the supernatural beings which they worshiped—those strange creations, in which we see historic truth, poetic fancy, and a sublime superstition so singularly blended. To aid us in rightly understanding this subject, we must remember that in those days the boundaries of what was known as actual reality were very uncertain and vague. Only a very small portion, either of the visible world or of the domain of science and philosophy, had then been explored; and in the thoughts and conceptions of every man, the natural and the true passed by insensible gradations, on every hand, into the monstrous and the supernatural, there being no principles of any kind established in men's minds to mark the boundaries where the true and the possible must end, and all beyond be impossible and absurd. The knowledge, therefore, that men derived from the observation of such truths and such objects as were immediately around them, passed by insensible gradations into the regions of fancy and romance, and all was believed together. They saw lions and elephants in the lands which were near, and which they knew; and they believed in the centaurs, the mermaids, the hippogriffs, and the dragons, which they imagined inhabiting regions more remote. They saw heroes and chieftains in the plains and in the valleys below; and they had no reason to disbelieve in the existence of gods and demi-gods upon the summits of the blue and beautiful mountains above, where, for aught they knew, there might lie boundless territories of verdure and loveliness, wholly inaccessible to man. In the same manner, beneath the earth somewhere, they knew not where, there lay, as they imagined, extended regions destined to receive the spirits of the dead, with approaches leading to it, through mysterious grottoes and caverns, from above. Proserpina was the Goddess of Death, and the queen of these lower abodes.

Various stories were told of her origin and history. The one most characteristic and most minutely detailed is this:

She was the daughter of Jupiter and Ceres. She was very beautiful; and, in order to protect her from the importunity of lovers, her mother sent her, under the care of an attendant named Calligena, to a cavern in Sicily, and concealed her there. The mouth of the cavern was guarded by dragons. Pluto, who was the god of the inferior regions, asked her of Jupiter, her father, for his wife. Jupiter consented, and sent Venus to entice her out of her cavern, that Pluto might obtain her. Venus, attended by Minerva and Diana, proceeded to the cavern where Proserpina was concealed. The three goddesses contrived some means to keep the dragons that guarded the cavern away, and then easily persuaded the maiden to come out to take a walk. Proserpina was charmed with the verdure and beauty which she found around her on the surface of the ground, strongly contrasted as they were with the gloom and desolation of her cavern. She was attended by nymphs and zephyrs in her walk, and in their company, she rambled along, admiring the beauty and enjoying the fragrance of the flowers. Some of the flowers which most attracted her attention were produced on the spot by the miraculous power of Jupiter, who caused them to spring up in wonderful luxuriance and splendor, the more effectually to charm the senses of the maiden whom they were enticing away. At length, suddenly the earth opened, and Pluto appeared, coming up from below in a golden chariot drawn by immortal steeds, and, seizing Proserpina, he carried her down to his own abodes.

Ceres, the mother of Proserpina, was greatly distressed when she learned the fate of her daughter. She immediately went to Jupiter, and implored him to restore Proserpina to the upper world. Jupiter, on the other hand, urged Ceres to consent to her remaining as the wife of Pluto. The mother, however, would not yield, and finally her tears and entreaties so far prevailed over Jupiter as to induce him to give permission to Ceres to bring Proserpina back, provided that she had not tasted of any food that grew in the regions below. Ceres accordingly went in search of her daughter. She found, unfortunately, that Proserpina, in walking through the Elysian fields with Pluto, had incautiously eaten a pomegranate which she had taken from a tree that was growing there. She was consequently precluded from availing herself of Jupiter's permission to return to Olympus. Finally, however, Jupiter consented that she should divide her time between the inferior and the superior regions, spending six months with Pluto below, and six months with her mother above; and she did so.

Proserpina was looked upon by all mankind with feelings of great veneration and awe as the goddess and queen of death, and she was worshiped in many places with solemn and imposing ceremonies. There was, moreover, in the minds of men, a certain mystical significancy in the mode of life which she led, in thus dividing her time by regular alternations between the lower and upper worlds, that seemed to them to denote and typify the principle of vegetation, which may be regarded as, in a certain sense, alternately a principle of life and death, inasmuch as, for six months in the year, it appears in the form of living and growing plants, rising above the ground, and covering the earth with verdure and beauty, and then, for the six months that remain, it withdraws from the view, and exists only in the form of inert and apparently lifeless roots and seeds, concealed in hidden recesses beneath the ground. Proserpina was thus considered the type and emblem of vegetation, and she was accordingly worshiped, in some sense, as the goddess of resuscitation and life, as well as of death and the grave.

One of the principal temples which had been built in honor of Proserpina was situated, as has already been said, at Locri, and ceremonials and festivals were celebrated here, at stated intervals, with great pomp and parade. This temple had become very wealthy, too, immense treasures having been collected in it, consisting of gold and silver vessels, precious stones, and rich and splendid paraphernalia of every kind—the gifts and offerings which had been made, from time to time, by princes and kings who had attended the festivals.

When Pyrrhus had reconquered Locri from the Romans, and this temple, with all its treasures, fell into his power, some of his advisers suggested that, since he was in such urgent need of money, and all his other plans for supplying himself had hitherto failed, he should take possession of these treasures. They might, it was argued, be considered, in some sense, as public property; and, as the Locrians had revolted from him in his absence, and had now been conquered anew, he was entitled to regard these riches as the spoils of victory. Pyrrhus determined to follow this advice. He took possession of the richest and most valuable of the articles which the temple contained, and, putting them on board ships which he sent to Locri for the purpose, he undertook to transport them to Tarentum. He intended to convert them there into money, in order to obtain funds to supply the wants of his army.

The ships, however, on their passage along the coast, encountered a terrible storm, and were nearly all wrecked and destroyed. The mariners who had navigated the vessels were drowned, while yet the sacred treasures were saved, and that, too, as it would seem, by some supernatural agency, since the same surges which overwhelmed and destroyed the sacrilegious ships and seamen, washed the cases in which the holy treasures had been packed up upon the beach; and there the messengers of Pyrrhus found them, scattered among the rocks and on the sand at various points along the shore. Pyrrhus was greatly terrified at this disaster. He conceived that it was a judgment of Heaven, inflicted upon him through the influence and agency of Proserpina, as a punishment for his impious presumption in despoiling her shrine. He carefully collected all that the sea had saved, and sent every thing back to Locri. He instituted solemn services there in honor of Proserpina, to express his penitence for his faults, and, to give a still more decisive proof of his desire to appease her anger, he put to death the counselors who had advised him to take the treasures.

Notwithstanding all these attempts to atone for his offense, Pyrrhus could not dispel from his mind the gloomy impression which had been made upon it by the idea that he had incurred the direct displeasure of Heaven. He did not believe that the anger of Proserpina was ever fully appeased; and whenever misfortunes and calamities befell him in his subsequent career, he attributed them to the displeasure of the goddess of death, who, as he believed, followed him every where, and was intent on effecting his ruin.

It was now late in the season, and the military operations both of Pyrrhus and of the Romans were, in a great measure, suspended until spring. Pyrrhus spent the interval in making arrangements for taking the field as soon as the winter should be over. He had, however, many difficulties to contend with. His financial embarrassment still continued. His efforts to procure funds were only very partially successful. The people too, in all the region about Tarentum, were, he found, wholly alienated from him. They had not forgiven him for having left them to go to Sicily, and, in consequence of this abandonment of their cause, they had lost much of their confidence in him as their protector, while every thing like enthusiasm in his service was wholly gone. Through these and other causes, he encountered innumerable impediments in executing his plans, and his mind was harassed with continual disappointment and anxiety.

Such, however, was still his resolution and energy, that when the season arrived for taking the field, he had a considerable force in readiness, and he marched out of Tarentum at the head of it, to go and meet the Romans. The Romans themselves, on the other hand, had raised a very large force, and had sent it forward in two divisions, under the command of the two consuls. These two divisions took different routes; one passing to the north, through the province of Samnium, and the other to the south, through Lucania—both, however, leading toward Tarentum. Pyrrhus divided his forces also into two parts. One body of troops he sent northwardly into Samnium, to meet the northern division of the Roman army, while with the other he advanced himself by the more southern route, to meet the Roman consul who was coming through Lucania. The name of this consul was Curius Dentatus.

Pyrrhus advanced into Lucania. The Roman general, when he found that his enemy was coming, thought it most prudent to send for the other division of his army—namely, the one which was marching through Samnium—and to wait until it should arrive before giving Pyrrhus battle. He accordingly dispatched the necessary orders to Lentulus, who commanded the northern division, and, in the mean time, intrenched himself in a strong encampment at a place called Beneventum. Pyrrhus entered Lucania and advanced toward Beneventum, and, after ascertaining the state of the case in respect to the situation of the camp and the plans of Curius, he paused at some distance from the Roman position, in order to consider what it was best for him to do. He finally came to the conclusion that it was very important that his conflict with the Romans under Curius should take place before Lentulus should arrive to re-enforce them, and so he determined to advance rapidly, and fall upon and surprise them in their intrenchments before they were aware of his approach. This plan he accordingly attempted to execute. He advanced in the ordinary manner and by the public roads of the country until he began to draw near to Beneventum. At the close of the day he encamped as usual; but, instead of waiting in his camp until the following day, and then marching on in his accustomed manner, he procured guides to lead his troops around by a circuitous path among the mountains, with a view of coming down suddenly and unexpectedly upon the camp of the Romans from the hills very early in the morning. An immense number of torches were provided, to furnish light for the soldiers in traversing the dark forests and gloomy ravines through which their pathway lay.

Notwithstanding all the precautions which had been taken, the difficulties of the route were so great that the progress of the troops was very much impeded. The track was every where encumbered with bushes, rocks, fallen trees, and swampy tracts of ground, so that the soldiers made way very slowly. Great numbers of the torches failed in the course of the night, some getting extinguished by accident, and others going out from exhaustion of fuel. By these means great numbers of the troops were left in the dark, and after groping about for a time in devious and uncertain paths, became hopelessly lost in the forest. Notwithstanding all these difficulties and discouragements, however, the main body of the army pressed resolutely on, and, just about daybreak, the van came out upon the heights above the Roman encampment. As soon as a sufficient number were assembled, they were at once marshaled in battle array, and, descending from the mountains, they made a furious onset upon the intrenchments of the enemy.

The Romans were taken wholly by surprise, and their camp became immediately a scene of the wildest confusion. The men started up every where out of their sleep and seized their arms. They were soon in a situation to make a very effectual resistance to the attack of their enemies. They first beat the assailants back from the points where they were endeavoring to gain admission, and then, encouraged by their success, they sallied forth from their intrenchments, and became assailants in their turn. The Greeks were soon overpowered, and forced to retire altogether from the ground. A great many were killed, and some elephants, which Pyrrhus had contrived by some means to bring up to the spot, were taken. The Romans were, of course, greatly elated at this victory.

In fact, so much was Curius gratified and pleased with this success, and so great was the confidence with which it inspired him, that he determined to wait no longer for Lenttilus, but to march out at once and give Pyrrhus battle. He accordingly brought forth his troops and drew them up on a plain near his encampment, posting them in such a way as to gain a certain advantage for himself in the nature of the ground which he had chosen, while yet, since there was nothing but the open field between himself and his enemy, the movement was a fair and regular challenge to battle. Pyrrhus accepted this challenge by bringing up his forces to the field, and the conflict began.

As soon as the combatants were fairly engaged, one of the wings of Pyrrhus's army began to give way. The other wing, on the contrary, which was the one that Pyrrhus himself personally commanded, was victorious. Pyrrhus himself led his soldiers on; and he inspired them with so much strength and energy by his own reckless daring, that all those portions of the Roman army which were opposed to them were beaten and driven back into the camp. This success, however, was not wholly owing to the personal prowess of Pyrrhus. It was due, in a great measure, to the power of the elephants, for they fought in that part of the field. As the Romans were almost wholly unaccustomed to the warfare of elephants, they knew not how to resist them, and the huge beasts bore down all before them wherever they moved. In this crisis, Curius ordered a fresh body of troops to advance. It was a corps of reserve, which he had stationed near the camp under orders to hold themselves in readiness there, to come forward and act at any moment, and at any part of the field wherever their services might be required. These troops were now summoned to advance and attack the elephants. They accordingly came rushing on, brandishing their swords in one hand, and bearing burning torches, with which they had been provided for the occasion, in the other. The torches they threw at the elephants as soon as they came near, in order to terrify them and make them unmanageable; and then, with their swords, they attacked the keepers and drivers of the beasts, and the men who fought in connection with them. The success of this onset was so great, that the elephants soon became unmanageable. They even broke into the phalanx, and threw the ranks of it into confusion, overturning and trampling upon the men, and falling themselves upon the slain, under the wounds which the spears inflicted upon them.



A remarkable incident is said to have occurred in the midst of this scene of confusion and terror, which strikingly illustrates the strength of the maternal instinct, even among brutes. It happened that there was a young elephant, and also its mother, in the same division of Pyrrhus's army. The former, though young, was sufficiently grown to serve as an elephant of war, and, as it happened, its post on the field of battle was not very far from that of its mother. In the course of the battle the young elephant was wounded, and it uttered immediately a piercing cry of pain and terror. The mother heard the cry, and recognized the voice that uttered it through all the din and uproar of the battle. She immediately became wholly ungovernable, and, breaking away from the control of her keepers, she rushed forward, trampling down every thing in her way, to rescue and protect her offspring. This incident occurred at the commencement of the attack which the Roman reserve made upon the elephants, and contributed very essentially to the panic and confusion which followed.

In the end Pyrrhus was entirely defeated. He was compelled to abandon his camp and to retire toward Tarentum. The Romans immediately advanced, flushed with victory, and carrying all before them. Pyrrhus retreated faster and faster, his numbers continually diminishing as he fled, until at last, when he reached Tarentum, he had only a few horsemen in his train. He sent off the most urgent requests to his friends and allies in Greece to furnish him aid. The help, however, did not come, and Pyrrhus, in order to keep the small remnant that still adhered to him together, resorted to the desperate expedient of forging letters from his friends, promising speedy and abundant supplies, and showing these letters to his officers, to prevent them from being wholly discouraged and abandoning his cause. This miserable contrivance, however, even if successful, could only afford a momentary relief. Pyrrhus soon found that all hope and possibility of retrieving his fortunes in Italy had entirely disappeared, and that no alternative was left to him but to abandon the ground. So, pretending to wonder why his allies did not send forward the succors which they had promised in their letters, and saying that, since they were so dilatory and remiss, he must go himself and bring them, but promising that he would immediately return, he set sail from Tarentum, and, crossing the sea, went home to his own kingdom. He arrived safely in Epirus after an absence of six years.