On the Shores of the Great Sea - M. B. Synge

A Great Conflict

"The Greek shall come against thee,

The conqueror of the East."


As the years rolled on, the power of Rome grew greater. While King Alexander was conquering in the East, she was subduing tribe after tribe in Italy. But still on the sea-coasts of the south, there were many towns built by the Greeks, who had sailed over the sea and settled there. Now there was a quarrel between the Greeks of a city called Tarentum and the Romans. The people of Tarentum, unable to defend themselves against so powerful a foe as Rome, sent to the mother country for help.

One winter's night, in the midst of a boisterous storm, the waves of the Mediterranean washed upon the shores of Southern Italy a brave man. He was more dead than alive, for he had thrown himself overboard, from the prow of a royal Greek ship, and had been sorely buffeted by the wind and the waves. They had no respect for a royal crown; they knew not, that he was a king ruling over a strong people, and that he had left his kingdom, with thousands of archers and footmen and knights, together with a quantity of huge elephants.

It was no less a person than Pyrrhus, king of a part of Greece. He had taken Alexander the Great as his model, and already conquered Macedonia. Hearing that his fellow-countrymen were in trouble with the Romans, he made up his mind to go and help them. And this is how he came to be voyaging in haste to Italy, and how he came to be shipwrecked on this winter's night.

Before he started one of his counsellors asked the king, what he should do, if he beat the Romans, who were reputed great warriors.

"The Romans overcome," answered the king, "no city would dare to oppose me, and I should be master of all Italy."

"And Italy conquered, what next?" asked the counsellor.

"Sicily next holds out her arms to receive us," he answered. "She is a wealthy and populous island and easy to be gained."

"And what next?" asked the counsellor again.

"There is Africa and Carthage," said the king. "Then I should be able to master all Greece."

"And then?" continued the counsellor.

"Then I would live at ease, eat and drink all day, and enjoy pleasant conversation."

"And what hinders you now, from taking the ease, that you are planning to take, after so much risk and bloodshed?"

Pyrrhus could not answer this question. His ambition to be like the great king, Alexander, led him on.

Once landed on the shores of Italy, he marched to Tarentum. There he found an idle colony of Greeks, given up to pleasure. Pyrrhus soon shut up their places of amusement and trained the young men as soldiers.

A great battle took place. The Romans could easily see, which was the Greek king, by his splendid armour and scarlet mantle. So marked was he, that presently he gave his glittering arms and mantle to one of his officers, knowing well that if he were killed, the Romans would easily win the day. The battle was long and fierce. The officer wearing the king's scarlet mantle was suddenly killed. The Greeks thought that Pyrrhus was killed and began to retreat. But the king threw off his helmet, rode bareheaded through the ranks, and rallied his soldiers.

Then he ordered a charge of the elephants. The Romans had never seen these monsters in battle before; their horses were terrified in the same way that Alexander's had been in the battle with Porus, the Indian king, and they turned and fled in confusion. When Pyrrhus looked at the field of battle, and saw the Romans lying dead, with their faces to the foe, he cried out, "Oh, how easy would it be for me to conquer the world, if I had the Romans for my soldiers."

The following year another great battle was fought between the Greeks and Romans; but the Romans no longer feared the elephants in battle, for they had learnt that these animals are afraid of fire. They got ready bundles of sticks, dipped in pitch, which they lighted and threw among them. The elephants were terrified of the fire; they turned round and ran wildly about among the Greeks, trampling down a great many and killing more. So the battle ended; Pyrrhus fled at once from Italy and sailed away to Greece.

And Rome gloried in her victory. The houses were decked with flowers; every window was filled with faces; the streets were crowded to see the great procession wending its way to the Capitol. First in the procession, walked the senators; then, guarded by Roman soldiers, came the spoils taken from the Greeks, piled high on waggons—beautiful pictures and statues, robes and armour, were there; together with all sorts of things, made by the skilful Greeks and never even seen by the simple Romans. Here, too, were the great elephants, seen for the first time in the streets of Rome.

There were soldiers of Greece too, the finest foot-soldiers in the world; and at last came a triumphal car, in which sat the Roman general, who had gained this victory for his country. He wore a splendid mantle, embroidered with gold, he was crowned with a laurel wreath, and in his right hand, he carried a laurel bough. Behind him rode his officers, with laurel garlands, twisted round their spears, singing the praises of their successful general.

So the Romans mounted the steep way to the Capitol, to give thanks to their god, for the victory and deliverance from the Greeks.