Roman History in a Nutshell: The Pyrrhic Wars – Carthage and the Battle of Asculum, 279 BCE

This map seems to follow the notion that Pyrrhus marched from Heraclea via the West coast and Neapolis towards Rome, before meeting at the battle of Asculum. Other reports suggest he went elsewhere, ending up back at Tarentum and then moving north from there to Asculum. It’s ancient history – who fucking knows!? (Credit: Piom By GDFL)

We left off at the end of the Battle of Heraclea and the attempts of envoys to make peace between Pyrrhus’ forces and Rome. A peace pretty much guaranteed not to happen once elder statesman and man of much auctoritas Appius Claudius Caecus told them, I’m paraphrasing, “I don’t trust you. Fuck off and appeal to us from Epirus you invasive bastards!”

Romans had made many enemies across its wars, that much was true. But it had also brought many communities under its umbrella and, in that peninsula at least, had a steady supply of fresh troops. Meanwhile Pyrrhus was unlikely to get support from mainland Greece and was reliant on the communities of Magna Graecia on the South of Italy and Sicily, as well as alliances with other, still Roman-hostile, Italic tribes.

After Heraclea both sides took some time to replenish themselves so it’s a good time to talk about the third party in all this.

I mentioned in the previous article the Greek cities on Sicily, but there was a steady Carthaginian presence there too. I also mentioned that one of the reasons Pyrrhus may have got involved was specifically so he could travel West and ‘take’ Sicily in its entirety which would, naturally, have pissed off some Carthaginians.

According to the historian Justin, the Carthaginians had worries about this too. Allegedly they sent an envoy, Mago, a commander of the Carthaginian fleet, to Rome to meet with the Senate and offer assistance in their wars against Pyrrhus. The Senate declined. Mago then went to Pyrrhus, allegedly to make motions of peace whilst actually trying to figure out the Epirot King’s true intentions towards Sicily.

The Greek Theatre at Taormina, Sicily. Greek culture was heavily entrenched by the 3rd century BCE with the tribes who has once lived there integrating with a Greek way of life. This theatre was enlarged by Romans in 2nd century CE. (Credit: Terry Feuerborn CC-BY-NC 2.0)

This was alleged to have taken place after the Battle of Heraclea and during the time Rome and Epirus were sending envoys to each other to discuss peace and/or future war terms. More to come from the Carthaginians later (I mean…Obviously! But also in terms of the Pyrrhic wars).

So Romans gathered en masse. This was now a major conflict and many legions were gathered. Pyrrhus, meanwhile, had gathered some support in the Southern Italian Peninsula and decided to make a march on Rome. On his way he plundered and pillaged, allegedly having to stop in Anagnia in Latium because, like a rap video, there was too much booty.

Winter was also approaching and neither army is likely to have wanted a major campaign in cold soggy drizzle.

That is at least according to Appian and Justin.

Dio gives a different account, suggesting Pyrrhus marched towards Neapolis in order to capture it. That he did not pillage along the way, instead indulging in what we might currently call a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign of winning the support of locals before being harassed back to Tarentum by the army of Laevinus, whilst an army from Etruria, under Tiberius Coruncanius was brought in to defend Rome.

A marble bust of Pyrrhus of Epirus from the Villa of Papyri in Herculaneum (modern Ercolano) now in the Naples National Archaelogical Museum. Why would a Roman villa have a statue of Pyrrhus? The Sons of Mars, God of War, the Romans, often celebrated ‘great enemies’. They made statues to worthy adversaries, usually ones they had defeated, to commemorate having had such a worthy foe. (Credit: Public Domain)

Whatever version of events actually happened two things are clear. Rome gathered troops from the North and started bringing them South, likely not merely to defend Rome but with an eye to the next bloody big fight with Pyrrhus. At some point Pyrrhus marched North, with eyes on either Neapolis or Rome, but regardless getting closer to Rome and thus increasingly becoming a threat.

Around winter, it all – pun intended – cooled down for a bit. But by the following spring both sides were itching to get back to business.

That spring Pyrrhus invaded Apulia, the heel-to-ankle bit of the boot of Italy, killing, pillaging and capturing whilst many communities merely capitulated and surrendered. Roman forces came to meet them near Asculum.

There is a story from Dio that one of the consuls, Publius Decius Mus, intended to perform the act of devotio where a commander effectively heads the army into battle, offering themselves as a sacrifice, in exchange for a guaranteed Roman victory. As well as putting the Roman soldiers in good spirits (after all who doesn’t want to see their commander running head-first in a suicide charge! Great fun!) it allegedly alarmed the Italic followers of Pyrrhus, followers who would know the significance of such a sacrifice.

Pyrrhus is said to have made moves to ensure any Decius family member would be captured but it was all a load of bollocks anyway, with Decius being told not to be such a numpty and there’d be no need for that because the Romans would win anyway.

And win they did! According to Dio.

According to Plutarch they lost.

According to Dionysius there was no decisive winner!

So what the hell happened?

Plutarch writes that after the battle Pyrrhus said, to someone congratulating him, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans we shall be utterly ruined.”

This is the true inspiration for the term ‘Pyrrhic Victory’ and I think it gives us a good insight into what happened.

Prior to Roman control the area of Asculum (modern Ascoli Satriano – not to be confused with the other Asculum (or Ausculum) of Ascoli Piceno) was inhabited by the Dauni tribe. As I have so often mentioned these pre-Roman tribes were not mud-hut dwelling savages, they had complex cultures, lives, social structures and art of their own and this exceptional marble sculpture is a 4th Century BCE Dauni work, now in the museum at Ascoli Satriano. Believed to have been a ‘trapezophoros’ it’s basically an ornate table leg or base for a small side table but…WOW! Featuring two magnificently sculpted griffons just munching on a deer. I love it, I want it and I think it’s an excellent example of just how cultured other pre-Roman Italic peoples were. Rome did not stand alone in developing culture and civilisation – rather it adopted elements from nearby tribes and cultures, most notably Etruscans and Greeks but – I mean this is outstanding. It is believed there are no known comparable pieces so this stands alone as a world masterpiece by whichever Dauni sculptor made this. (Credit: Maredentro, Public Domain)

What counts as a ‘win’ in a war? What is the purpose of a war? It depends, right? In this case the purpose of Pyrrhus’ conflicts with the Romans is related to the stability of the Italic-Greek city states and their stability. The Romans have threatened that stability and it is Pyrrhus’ job to pacify those Romans, either entirely through total conquest, or through combat so spirited and defeating they agree to a peace.

Except Romans – well for all that we might consider them military geniuses one of the most genius moves they made, militarily, was convincing an awful lot of human beings to throw themselves into near certain death ‘FOR ROME!’. Their greatest tactic always was overwhelming numbers, whether in the immediacy or as backup when the going got tough.

Who won the Battle of Asculum? It doesn’t matter, it’s pretty apparent it was a bloodbath and both sides took a hell of a beating. Did this defeat Rome’s aim? Absolutely not. It’s was a 5-4 to Pyrrhus! Both sides took a drubbing but there was spirit in the loss, the Romans can say. It keeps Pyrrhus as a powerful invader and a motivator for getting more troops involved. They would rally more soldiers, gather more troops, call this a victory against this powerful invader.

Did this defeat Pyrrhus’ aim? To an extent, yes. Unable to draw forces from mainland Greece his Southern Italic allies were almost certainly not going to want to expend more of their resources supporting his campaign. It is suggested he lost many of the troops he brought with him from Epirus, including some key commanders.

It was likely a TKO victory for Pyrrhus, but after an absolute hell of a fight and Rome didn’t stay down on the mat for long. There will be a rematch!

Yes, you are correct. I am running out of images of ancient historical things! With no camera phones in 279 BCE it is hard to find good shots of what actually took place at the Battle of Asculum. Instead have a coin minted during Pyrrhus’ reign as King of Epirus. Interesting to note is that neither of these figures is Pyrrhus. The head side, on the left, is Kore – the maiden – sometimes called Persephone, although they may have been two different people. She is the daughter of Demeter, goddess of grain. Heavily involved in the Mystery Cult of Eluesis, a cult centred on new life, regrowth and regeneration which people from all over the Greek world made a pilgrimage to in order to be initiated into the rights.
On the right hand side, the domineering female figure is Athena, whilst usually associated with Athens the figure of Athena was, religiously, important to many Greek cultures as a protector. (Credit: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. by GFDL)

Back to Carthage.

The Greek historian Polybius discovered a series of documents, treaties, between Rome and Carthage. Dated between 509 BCE and 279 BCE it is an excellent representation of the respect these two parties held for one another. It is also testament to two almost entirely different, burgeoning empires.

Rome was a land army based agrarian/industrial empire. They made food, traded a lot in people (slaves), mined precious metals etc.

Carthage was a naval, mercantile empire, in the imports and exports trade. They conquered by sea, built port-forts and sailed around selling shit. Having an ally in Rome would be wonderful for a place like Carthage who could rock up in their boats, sell some shit, buy some shit, trade some shit before moving on to somewhere else in the Mediterranean to do the same with the added exotica from Rome.

If you look at the emergence of territories, the Phoenician colonists that founded Carthage did not build an empire far-and-wide, they did not go deep in land early in their development. The founded coastal towns, their territory was a narrow band, often fragmented, of port towns and cities from which one could send boats to trade and to which trade boats could arrive.

We’ve used this image before but it gives a good demonstration of what was going on. The Persian Empire seen here, by 279 BCE, was mostly the Seleucid Empire and part of the Hellenistic world, excluding Egypty which was the Ptolemaic Kingdom. All of this was apportioned it in various dynastic conflicts after the death of Alexander the Great of Macedon who, for all his greatness, did not sort out his succession very well. Also by 279 BCE the island of Sicily had Carthaginian (the greeny-blue colour) colonies on it’s Western coast. This is what put Greece (and Pyrrhus particularly) in conflict with Carthage. It was believed one of Pyrrhus’ aims, since Sicily was allied to him as part of the Epirot League, was to conquer the whole island. Rome, meanwhile had conquered, pacified or adopted most of the land of the Italian peninsula excluding the far North and South.
So this gives you a good idea of how narrow but naval the Carthaginian influence was, whilst Rome and various Hellenic and Hellenistic states help more in-land spaces. Rome was vulnerable to naval attack, Carthage by land attack – so their treaties up to 279 BCE were aimed at nullifying each other’s strengths against each other. Meanwhile the treaty of 279 BCE proposed a potential alliance whereby each would use the other’s strength to gain advantage.
This is complex geopolitics in 279 BCE! Technology has moved fast but our behaviours have not! (Credit: Utah State University via intechopen)

Rome wasn’t built on a sea, although they had a solid port in nearby Ostia, it was a fertile swamp on the banks of the Tiber. For their senators, the wealthy, being able to trade with Carthaginians was a blessing.

This series of treaties enforces this relationship in a formal, political context and with conditions that would be naturally imposed at a time when bonking your near neighbour on the head and nicking their shit was not considered rude but just how things were done.

Slowly but surely a catalogue of conditions and stipulations was made to ensure there “Shall be friendship between the Romans and their allies, and the Carthaginians and their allies.”

The conditions are mostly sensible. Don’t sail past X-point, anyone washed ashore has Y-number of days to fix their boat and piss off. Trade is only permissible here and here. Don’t attack this place. No fortifications in that place. No staying here whilst armed.

The future treaties iterate on these points – It’s only really relevant as context.

A stele (basically a slab) supposedly depicting Polybius, the statesman and historian. He allegedly found the treaties with Carthage after moving to Rome to write a history. He’s clearly insane, because as I have said on Twitter, no sane person would write a history of Rome. (Credit: Jona Lendering, Livius Onderwijs by GFDL)

The treaty of 279 BCE was specifically related to Epirus, Pyrrhus and the on-going wars. The main stipulations were very interesting. For one thing it was prospective. Not a formal alliance, but an agreement that should either side decide it necessary there should be an alliance, and if so what the terms should be.

You see, the general gist of it was that if Pyrrhus was being a dick to Carthage, Rome would help. If Pyrrhus was being a dick to Rome, Carthage would help. But the stipulations make the strengths, weaknesses and tension between the two parties obvious.

Whilst Carthage would supply the ships, land armies would be taken care of (as in paid for) by each mutual state. This would allow extremely naval Carthage to effectively operate as a sea transport for a Roman land army whilst not endangering their troops.

In fact one of the stipulations – presumably specifically aimed at a situation where Rome needed to call on Carthage for help, states that whilst they would give aid by sea to the Romans, they could not be compelled to disembark against their will. I say it is aimed at a potential invasion of Roman territory because why would Carthaginian force not want to disembark is a Carthaginian territory was under attack?

Whatever happened next between Rome and Pyrrhus, Sicily was likely to be a huge factor in the potential future of the Mediterranean. Not only was the island renowned for being fertile agricultural land, a great place to export grain from to feed the population of a growing nation, but it was controlled by two superpowers in Greece and Carthage.

Pyrrhus wanted to take the island for the Greeks, Rome was at war with Pyrrhus and the Carthaginians were in a treaty with Rome that suggested they could, at any point, decide to ally, but it was testy, tentative and militarily playful.

Where was it is all leading?

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
The Pyrrhic Wars – The Battle of Heraclea, 280 BCE

We’ve got more on Rome, too!

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.

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.

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.

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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