Pyrrhic Wars in Italy

B.C. 280 to 275
Rome — versus — Italian Greeks

Although Pyrrhus of Epirus was the leading general of his age, and was engaged in wars and battles throughout the Hellenistic world during his career, he is most famous for his campaign in southern Italy, against the Romans. It is these battles which are generally referred to as the Pyrrhic wars. They are significant in terms of Roman history, because they concluded a sixty year campaign of Roman domination of the Italian Peninsula. They are significant in Greek History because they marked the point at which the Greek colonies in Italy could no longer be protected by the Hellenistic Empires.

At the turn of the third century BC, there were still Greek colonies throughout the southern part of Italy and the Island of Sicily. Some of these cities included Tarentum, Croton, Sybaris, Thurii, Heraclea, Cumae, and the overall region was referred to as Magna Graecia. Rome had become the dominant city in mainland Italy, but the Greek colonies, clustered around the coastal areas, were politically tied to the Hellenistic states, and considered the Romans barbarians. Hostilities between Rome and the Greek states commenced after a Roman ambassador was insulted at Tarentum, when seeking redress for a minor naval skirmish in the harbor of Tarentum. When Rome declared war, Tarentum called on Pyrrhus of Epirus, for help. He brought with him one of the best armies in the Hellenistic world, and at his first two battles with Rome, at Heraclea and Asculum, was victorious. His victories, however, were extremely costly and he was greatly impressed by the dedication and courage of the Romans, who even after their losses, would not submit to his peace terms.

Having held the Romans at bay in Magna Graecia, Pyrrhus sailed for Sicily, where he lent his talents to the Greeks of that island with their perpetual battles with Carthage. During his absence, the situation in southern Italy again became critical and he was recalled. By this time however, he had lost most of his trained and experienced officers, and had to meet Rome with local forces, who were not up to the task. With the defeat of Pyrrhus at Beneventum, all of Southern Italy fell under the sway of Rome, and the Hellenistic empires made no further attempt to reclaim their lost colonies.

DateBattle Summary
280 BC  
Battle of Heraclea (almohads ) Italian Greeks victory
Fought B.C. 280, between the Epirots, 30,000 strong, under Pyrrhus, and about 35,000 Romans, under P. Laverius Lavinus. The Romans crossed the Sirisin the face of the enemy, when they were attacked by Pyrrhus, and after a furious conflict, were at last broken by his elephants, and fled in disorder, losing about 7,000 men. The Epirots lost 4,000.
279 BC  
Siege of Asculum   Italian Greeks victory
Fought B.C. 279, between 45,000 Romans under Sulpicius Saverrio and P. Decius Mus, and the Epirots, with their Italian allies, in about equal force. The Romans fought to raise the siege of Asculum, but were finally routed by the Epirot cavalry and elephants, and driven back to their camp with a loss of 6,000. The Epirots lost 3,000.
275 BC  
Battle of Beneventum   Romans victory
Fought B.C. 275, when Pyrrhus with a strong force of Epirots and Italians made a night attack upon the consular army of M. Carius Dentatus, encamped in a strong position near Beneventum. Pyrrhus was repulsed with considerable loss, including eight elephants. Encouraged by this success, the Romans shortly afterwards advanced to meet Pyrrhus in the open plain, and were at first driven back by the elephants, but rallying, they drove these back through Pyrrhus' lines, and disordered the Epirot phalanx, and a charge of the legionaries completed the rout. This was Pyrrhus' last serious attack against the Roman power, and he soon afterwards left Italy.

Short Biography
Pyrrhus Renowned general, won victories in Macedon, Italy, and Greece, but failed to follow up wins.
P. Decius Mus Third of three 'Decius Mus' heroes of Ancient Rome. Died at battle of Asculum.

Story Links
Book Links
War in Italy  in  Pyrrhus  by  Jacob Abbott
Retreat from Italy  in  Pyrrhus  by  Jacob Abbott
Master of Strategy  in  Stories from Ancient Rome  by  Alfred J. Church
Fighting King  in  Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch  by  F. J. Gould
Pyrrhus and His Elephants  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Pyrrhus  in  Famous Men of Greece  by  John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland
Pyrrhus  in  Our Young Folks' Plutarch  by  Rosalie Kaufman
Pyrrhus, King of the Epirots  in  The Story of Rome  by  Mary Macgregor
Elephants at the Battle of Heraclea  in  The Story of Rome  by  Mary Macgregor
Pyrrhus Is Defeated  in  The Story of Rome  by  Mary Macgregor
Pyrrhus and the Romans  in  Historical Tales: Greek  by  Charles Morris
Great Conflict  in  On the Shores of the Great Sea  by  M. B. Synge

Book Links
Pyrrhus  by  Jacob Abbott

Image Links

Pyrrhus viewing the Roman Encampment.
 in Pyrrhus

The Trophies
 in Pyrrhus

The Assault
 in Pyrrhus

The Rout
 in Pyrrhus

The Fallen Elephant
 in Pyrrhus

The Charge
 in Pyrrhus

Death of Pyrrhus
 in Pyrrhus

An elephant stretched out his trunk over the roman's head and loudly trumpeted.
 in Stories from Ancient Rome

Pyrrhus and his Elephants
 in The Story of the Romans

Elephants of Pyrrhus
 in Famous Men of Rome

The armour of Pyrrhus was richer and more beautiful than that of his soldiers.
 in The Story of Rome