Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Greeks and their “Pyrrhic” Victory

I ended the last post talking about the Roman’s growing interest in the foot of Italy after the appeal of Thurii in 285 B.C. Later, in 282, Thurii again asked for help so Rome sent a small fleet to the Gulf of Tarentum to assess the situation. More than likely the Romans were exercising a show of support for the aristocrats of Tarentum who were trying to regain power from the democratic faction running the city. Whatever the reason, the convoy was attacked by the Tarentines, and four of the Roman ships were sunk.

Rome dispatched an envoy carrying a protest and he was purposely insulted. The Tarentines clearly wanted a war and they appealed to the Greek King Pyrrhus of Eprius for support.

In 281, the consul L. Aemilianus Barbula was sent with an army and an ultimatum for Tarantum to compensate for the attack on the convoy or face the consequences. The Tarentines were at the point of capitulation when the envoy from Pyrrhus arrived with a message saying the king would lend them a hand.

Pyrrhus, always the adventurer, was ready to move away from the frustrations of Greek politics and pursue something more interesting. As the son-in-law of Agathocles King of Syracuse and a relative of Alexander the Great, he had a legacy to apply to empire building in the west. Courageous, ambitious, and skillful, Pyrrhus would present a challenge to the Roman citizen army.

He arrived in Tarentum in 280 with 25,000 professional soldiers and 20 elephants. That summer he met the consul Valerius Laevinus in the Battle of Heraclea. The Romans had never fought the Greek Phalanx before and the horses of their cavalry were frightened by the elephants. Pyrrhus won the battle, leaving 4,000 men on the field versus Rome’s 7,000, but his victory was dubious (dubbed Pyrrhic later) because in a foreign land he could not afford significant losses with no way to obtain new recruits.

After the battle, Pyrrhus, anticipating Hannibal, raced for Rome hoping to turn the Roman allies to his side. Forty miles from the city, he gave up and returned to Tarentum after the Roman allies closed their gates to him. In the spring of 279, he fought the Romans again at Asculum and won a second dubious victory, but by then he had become bored with Italy and looked to move on to the next adventure. He transferred his army to Sicily in 278 after an appeal for help from Syracuse, was proclaimed king, and defeated the Carthaginians before heading back to Tarentum in 276.

The Romans used two consular armies to push Pyrrhus out of Italy in 275 and he was finished in Rome for good. Two years later he was killed in Argos when he was hit in the head by a roof tile thrown by a woman during a riot.

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