Roman History in a Nutshell: The Pyrrhic Wars – The Battle of Heraclea, 280 BCE

A little bit of where we are and a little bit of where we’re going! The Pyrrhic Wars lasted for approximately 5 years and saw the King of Epirus, Pyrrhus, cross the sea to air the Greek city of Tarentum. The first major battle took place at Heraclea (pictured southwest of Tarentum) (Credit: Piom By GDFL)

In order to know where we are with these pesky, war hungry Romans we need to talk about where we’ve been.

It started, like so many other empires of the time, with a tiny city state and a bunch of Kings. Under those Kings local disputes got sorted out, bringing more territory under the ‘Roman’ umbrella, leagues and alliances with local peoples like the Latins brought even more influence.

Eventually Rome became a city-state-with-benefits, but was still surrounded by near-equivalent, if not greater, powers in Etruscans and Samnites but, again, they all had it out in a few sound scraps and Rome sort-of won.

So from the year of its founding sometime in the mid-8th century BCE, to now, the mid-3rd century BCE, Rome had gone from an upstart little city state to controlling pretty much the entire Italian peninsula…Pretty much.

Some areas in the north were still under Gallic control but at this point this was not a concern to the Romans, and a thin band, a line of Greek influence, parts of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece) still kissed the very southern coast of the peninsula, and this tempting island, Siciliy, just off the coast was also under Greek (and at times Carthaginian) influence.

It’s that same map again! By 280 BCE Rome pretty much had control of everything from the yellow bit at the top to the dark orange bit in the middle and everything in between. Relations with the peachy-coloured bit at the bottom were mixed, as many of these cities were part of Magna Graecia – Greater Greece – and were basically independent Greek city states. Some had treaties or trade with Romans, others didn’t. Some liked the Romans, others didn’t. It was one of these cities, Tarentum, at the top of the heel of the boot of Italy, that was about to kick all this off! (Credit: Javierfv1212, Public Domain)

And it was about to kick off!

There’s an excellent lesson in this, too, about the bullshit of Ancient History, or rather it’s historiography – What we can learn from the shit written down.

What’s about to happen is this.

Rome and the Greek city of Tarentum are about to go to war.

No source agrees why.

Appian suggests the former consul Dolabella was simply out sailing with a large flotilla for some reason, when the people of Tarentum attacked due to an old treaty.

A Krater – a vessel for diluting wine with water – featuring Dionysus and the Nymphs. For all of his reputation as the God of vines, wines and good times Dionysiac festivals and rites often involved states of…bestial ecstasy…Involving stuff like beating shit out of each other, getting eaten by leopards or, according to Dio, starting wars with Rome. (Credit: New York Public Library, Public Domain)

Dio reckons that in an Dionysiac fit of pissed and leariness the Tarentines attacked this innocent flotilla of Roman ships unprovoked.

Have you ever seen an innocent flotilla of Romans? I don’t think anyone fucking has! It’s all bullshit. It’s not that the Roman’s or Tarentines weren’t fixing for a scrap – they clearly were. Just that the reasons the historians have written down are slightly propagandist.

What seems likely is the town of Thurii, not far from Tarentum, was under siege and due to historical ‘differences’ i.e. fucking wars, they did not feel comfortable asking their fellow Greek near neighbours at Tarentum for help, asking the Romans instead.

This caused tension between not only Thurii and Tarentum but Tarentum and Rome.

Of course one does not simply ‘ask Rome for help’ – once they are your saviour they are your de facto cultural overlord! I mentioned that after the pacification of the Samnites Rome’s influence was bumping and grinding on the influence of the Hellenistic world and so it came to pass.

For whatever reason it kicked off between Rome and Tarentum, Rome, according to Dionysius of Helicarnassus, sent envoys to broker peace but the Tarentines wanted none of it. Instead they asked King Pyrrhus of Epirus, the Hellenic (Part of the main ancient Greek states, not to be confused with ‘Hellenistic’ which includes anything influenced by Ancient Greek culture and took in a lot of the East – Asia and such – after the conquests of Alexander III of Macedon, AKA Alexander the Great) Kingdom just across the Adriatic roughly covering the southern part of modern Albania and Northern mainland Greece-ish, for a hand.

This teaches us a lot about the way the Greek world worked. Even during the seemingly Tyrannical reigns of Phillip II of Macedon and his son Alexander, when a Panhellenic, Greek-wide league of nations would ‘unite’ to defeat the ‘evil’ Persians – It was a lot of bullshit, politicking, borrowing, lending and mercenaries. ‘Unity’ in this sense, was mutual suspicion and constant undermining. Think the Tory party, but more capable of actual fighting.

Slightly after our time (closer to 200 BCE) but this diagram shows the fragmented nature of the Hellenistic Greece. For all his so-called ‘Greatness’ Alexander never found a solution to the problem of succession, probably because he thought he was going to live forever and so never bothered, the cocky little shit. Many states were ‘independent’ even under Alexander. Sparta refused to deal with him, Athens shook hands with him with their fingers crossed behind their back and much of the Asian territory he conquered was merely a vassal to him anyway. So this Hellenistic world, when faced with conflict (such as the Pyrrhic Wars) came together in leagues, contracts, favours such as lending of money and troops etc. (Credit: Raymond Palmer, Public Domain)

Pyrrhus was promised thousands of troops by the Tarentines, allegedly had to borrow money from Antiochus I of the Seleucid Empire for cash, Antigonus II of Macedon for ships and Ptolemy II of Egypt for even more troops.

When we think of ‘Ancient Greece’ we do tend to think of a united sphere of influence but it’s bollocks! Most of classical Greek history is not Greeks fighting outsiders but Greeks fighting other Greeks. In fact until Roman rule Greece had never been anything remotely like a unified force, but rather was able to come together in contracts, leagues, law and lending – albeit never, seemingly, without oneupsmanship, suspicion, undermining and often groups of mercenaries fighting on both sides!

It’s arguable that this fragmentation, this so-called ‘freedom’ is what truly cost them when faced with an empire, in the Romans, for whom all loyalty was to Rome. That unification of a political identity, and the ability to muster military might behind it certainly played its part in the Pyrrhic Wars and was, for hundreds of years, despite military innovation, social change and economic growth, possibly Rome’s biggest success.

So Pyrrhus got drawn in and, have you heard the expression ‘Pyrrhic victory’? Meaning a win, a victory, where you have to give up so much to get it that it’s basically a loss.

That comes from these wars and Pyrrhus himself.

Pyrrhus and his war elephants cause panic among the Roman Legions. I believe this may have been the first time Romans would have faced war elephants in combat. They would be more famously associated with their use by Hannibal, during the Punic Wars. (Credit:
Helene Guerber, Public Domain)

The Battle of Heraclea of 280 BCE pitted Roman Consul Publius Valerius Laevinus against Pyrrhus.

Laevinus marched on Pyrrhus, wanting a fight as far away from Roman territory as possible. A bold plan, but he had a large force (estimated at around 42,000 soldiers) and could feed it with a little pillage and plunder along the way.

Pyrrhus is said to have had around 35,000 soldiers at Heraclea, but he also had such exotic weapons as war elephants. Something the Roman legion would have had little experience of!

This was the first time in history that two Mediterranean-dominating infantry plans would go head to head. The Roman Legion versus the Macedonian Phalanx.

A regular Phalanx was the round-shield, spear wielding standard of Greek combat for hundreds of years but it was innovated upon, particularly by Phillip II of Macedon (a nice gift for his overpampered son) to deepen the formation. They then also used sarissa, a much longer spear. This allowed a tight formation, a curled-up hedgehog ball with the ability to march forward and thrust the spears whilst protecting itself with the small, round shields. The formation, along with the gruelling and regular drills expected of a Macedonian Phalanx made it a formidable force that under Phillip II and Alexander conquered much of the East.

Innovated, allegedly, by Phillip II of Macedon, the Macedonian phalanx was a usually 256-man formation of, seemingly, simultaneous attack and defence! Utilising the lengthy Sarissa, to keep enemies at bay, their small round shields useful for blocking arrows, charges or, by some stories, turtling up and allowing boulders, chariots or other rolling-traps to go over their heads! (Credit: F. Mitchell, Public Domain)

However we’ve also discussed how the Roman Legion’s tactics evolved. No longer utilising that tight-knit phalanx strategy legions were now able to organise into maniples or smaller units. Allowing them freedom to break and move, or still come together if need be. They, too, were now well drilled.

The result of these two meeting? Quite underwhelming, obviously! The phalanx couldn’t break the legion, the legion couldn’t break the phalanx but when you’ve got the largest land mammals at your disposal that seems the perfect time to use them.

Pyrrhus unleashed the war elephants, causing disarray in the Roman ranks, and then he sent his Thessalian cavalry in to mop up the panic.

Numbers differ between sources, but the important thing to note is that whilst Rome likely lost twice to three times as many soldiers as Pyrrhus, the losses to Pyrrhus were also staggering for a ‘victory’.

Even in defeat, Romans can hurt you.

Both sides would retreat, lick their wounds, adapt their strategies and fight again.

What is important is that Dio notes that the Romans sent envoys to negotiate an exchange of war captives (a temporary truce after battle, allowing nations to collect their dead or an exchange of your war prisoners was not uncommon). Pyrrhus, Dio notes, believed they must also, after such a defeat, want to broker a peace and was surprised when they refused the peace he offered.

He sent his own envoy, Cineas, to Rome to petition the Senate for peace. Apparently the old, blind senator, Appius Claudius Caecus (an incredibly important figure in the Roman Republic, having commissioned the Via Appia – named after him – and the first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia – named after him!) who was carried to the senate house in a litter (being old and blind) warned the Senate not to trust Pyrrhus. His belief was a truce was not advantageous to the state of Rome, Pyrrhus was not to be trusted and his envoy, Cineas should be dismissed immediately, and Rome should demand that Pyrrhus return to Epirus and make his proposals from there.

The old, blind and frail Appius Claudius Caecus being led into the Curia by his sons – followed by the rest of the senate. He likely served as a military tribune during the second Samnite war, but is most famous for his work as censor. He commissioned the building of Rome’s first major road, the Via Appia, and the first major aqueduct, the Aqua Appia. He also instituted several constitutional reforms. It is safe to say his auctoritas, his authority, was great in the Senate house. (Credit: 19th Century Fresco by Cesare Maccari, Public Domain)

This carried such weight that the senate, once seemingly inclined towards peace, agreed with the ol’ fella.

He had a point, too. Many Italic peoples in the South had already been won over by Pyrrhus’ victory over the Romans, other cities of Magna Graecia, the Greater Greek colonies, once hesitant to make an enemy of Rome were also now choosing to ally with Pyrrhus.

There is evidence to suggest Pyrrhus’ motives for joining the war, too, were suspect. He had, apparently, long admired Sicily. Potentially any establishment of a stronghold in the Southern Italian peninsula would lead to a spread Westward and an attempt to control the island. At this point it was not a Roman territory but surely Rome had eyes on it, too?

Whatever was to be, things were in an odd balance. Rome had been defeated but Pyrrhus had felt the force of what it meant to challenge Rome in combat. What’s more, by this point Rome had a wealth of people and military talent to draw from, controlling the territories they did. Meanwhile Pyrrhus had trouble getting reinforcements from the mainland and was reliant on his standing with the people in the Southern Italian peninsula.

Things were about to get interesting.

Read the other parts in our ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ Series:
The Founding – 753 BCE and Before

The Kingdom – 753 BCE – 509 BCE
The Patrician Era and the Conflict of the Orders – 494 BCE – 287 BCE
Wars with Etruscans Pre-753 BCE – ~264 BCE
Wars with Sabines, Veii & Fidenae ~753 BCE – ~287 BCE
The Latin Wars 7th Century BCE – ~338 BCE
The Gallic Wars ~390 BCE – ~284 BCE
The Rest of the Med ~2,000 BCE – ~3rd Century BCE
The Samnite Wars ~343 BCE – ~290 BCE

Want to read more about Romans? We’ve got a little for you.

The Mother of Rome: Livia Drusilla – Before the hit Sky TV series ‘Domina’ there was me espousing the life and works of Livia (Some might argue I did it better…), the canny politician, the Patrician, the Patron and the wife and mother of an Empire.
The Pleb who Built Rome: Marcus Agrippa – It is my belief that the right-hand-man of Augustus had a much bigger part to play in the building and management of the Empire than did his friend with the titles. Find out why.

A New Lease of Life? – A Discussion about the new floor in the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum, and what Vespasian, who initially commissioned the building, might think.

Bad History: Boudica and Bullshit Nationalism – Looking at the use of historical figures for current political or social agendas.
Bad History: Did Rome ever Actually Fall? Questioning the ‘Decline and Fall’ narrative and looking at structures inherited from the Romans we have to this day.

The Fan-TAS-tic Virtues of Rome – A look at the moral virtues of Roman life.

What are the ‘Ides of March’ – Because I envitably get asked by my dad every Ides, I wrote about it!

Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Introduction
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Easily available abortion (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Drawing dicks on things.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Energy Drinks
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Gender and Sexuality Liberation (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Travel and Tourist Tat.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – AirBnB
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Bipartisan Politics
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Fast Food
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Pro-Wrestling
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Social Media (Especially Insta and Twitter)


Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Karl Anthony Mercer is a writer, poet, author, musician and part-time dandy. He can often be found squatting in fields looking at insects (he is an unapologetic wasp fanatic), wandering around museums over-dressed, or hiding in a dank corner singing sad songs on a small guitar. His writing on WordPress consists of MercersPoems - an outlet for his poetry often using natural imagery, gothicism and decadence to explore the struggles of living as an autistic person; and We Lack Discipline - Where he writes about factual, often academic topics he has learned and is interested in (e.g. biology, psychology, Roman history etc.) with an inimitable, often light-hearted and irreverant style. You can support Karl by; Subscribing to the We Lack Discipline Patreon - Or buying him a coffee (he loves coffee!) -

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