“If We Are Victorious In One More Battle, We Shall Be Utterly Ruined.”

3rd century B.C.: a young Greek commander named Pyrrhus put the Romans to flight in spite of heavy losses. From his experience on the battlefield was coined the expression ‘Pyrrhic victory’ — a success overshadowed by its overwhelming cost.

Usually would victory be celebrated with sonorous bugle calls, followed by the metallic clash of brothers-in-arms’ armors clasping together. Afterwards came the time of popular festivities — magnified by Caesar’s notorious triumphs featuring gladiatorial combat, public exhibition of the gold plundered, and joyful bands of musicians and entertainers. Other victors displayed more restraint: Alexander the Great paid tribute to his enemies (usually paying for their majestic funerals), while most commanders sacrificed to the moody gods of war. So was victory celebrated in Ancient times.

However Pyrrhus I, King of Epirus (now Albania), did not feel like giving epic speeches and drinking good wine. He had won the war, though: but it had been a costly one.

Rubens Roman Triumph National Gallery
Peter Paul Rubens, A Roman Triumph, ca. 1630. (Credit: The National Gallery/Creative Commons)

Greco-Roman disputes

The year 280 B.C. featured a decisive Western battle pitting Roman against Greek troops at Heraclea, Italy. A clash of superpowers. Macedonian phalanx versus Roman cohorts. 80,000 soldiers at the least, both armies about equal in size. Pyrrhus I commanded the Molossians, who were not actually Greek, but had been immersed in Hellenic civilization for decades. The Molossian race supposedly descended from Achilleus; Pyrrhus himself had the blood of Alexander the Great (probably his uncle) running through his veins.

The Macedonian phalanx in action. (Credit: John Steeple Davis via Wikipedia/Public Domain)

Facing them, across the Siris river, were eight Roman legions eager to drive the invaders out of the peninsula. A master strategist — probably owing that to his family tree –, Pyrrhus carefully studied the battlefield and exploited its weaknesses; following hours of an indecisive battle (“for a long time the issue of the battle remained undecided; it is said that there were seven turns of fortune, as each side either fled back or pursued” Plutarch wrote) he deployed his elephants of war. The furious pachyderms ultimately kicked the Romans across the river. The battle was won. But at what cost?

The bad smell of victory

Pyrrhus looked around him: the battlefield was sowed with dead bodies. Between 7,000 and 15,000 Romans had fallen, twice the losses of the King of Epirus. “These, however, were his best troops; and besides, Pyrrhus lost the friends and generals whom he always used and trusted most.” Despite the number of casualties, Pyrrhus’ Italian campaign had not come to an end. He ordered his armies to march north towards Rome. In 279 B.C., he faced yet again the Roman legions at Asculum. This would be the deciding battle.

Pyrrhic wars map
Stages of the Molossians’ Italian campaign. (Credit: Piom/Pamela Butler via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

This time, the Romans had learnt their lesson the hard way; they attracted the Molossians on loose ground, where both elephantry and cavalry would be tricky to use. Pyrrhus ordered instead his slingers and archers forward. Then, in a violent metallic clash, the spiky Macedonian phalanx collided with the sword-swirling Romans. The battle lasted until the sun sat low on the horizon. 6,000 Romans and 3,000 Greeks now laid face down on the ground, their blood mixing in the guts of the earth. Pyrrhus himself had gotten “wounded in the arm by a javelin” according to Plutarch.

The jaws of victory

When the sun rose again over the blood-splattered battlefield, a general congratulated Pyrrhus for his victory. The latter bitterly replied, “if we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” Why so defeatist? Plutarch explains:

“For he had lost a great part of the forces with which he came, and all his friends and generals except a few; moreover, he had no others whom he could summon from home, […] while the army of the Romans, as if from a fountain gushing forth indoors, was easily and speedily filled up again.”

Borodino Napoleon Pyrrhic victory 1812
Pyrrus’ legacy: Napoleon’s Russian campaign featured notorious bloodbaths such as the Battle of Borodino (1812). It enabled the French to capture Moscow, but the ‘Little Corporal’ lost 30,000 soldiers in the process… (Painting: N.S. Samokish via Wikipedia/Public Domain)

These mixed fortunes convinced King Pyrrhus to leave Italy for Sicily — he was ultimately driven out of the Republic altogether in 275. But he did not stop fighting. Three years later, he took part in the Siege of Sparta. Riding his horse through the narrow streets of Argos, the commander got isolated from the rest of his troops. He was wounded — again — as an enemy spear was driven through his armor. Fighting the culprit, he did not notice an old woman (the guilty soldier’s own mother) who, standing on a nearby rooftop and fearing for her boy, was throwing a tile at him. “It fell upon his head below his helmet and crushed the vertebrae at the base of his neck, so that his sight was blurred and his hands dropped the reins.” For good measure, another enemy dropped to his knees and severed Pyrrhus’ head. This was no Pyrrhic victory this time. The headless army withdrew.




Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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