In 280 BC, Rome stood at a critical moment in its ambition to conquer southern Italy and establish itself as a major geopolitical power. But standing in its way was one of the greatest generals of the period, a man whose celebrity would have been up there with Alexander, Caesar and Marius. His name was Pyrrhus, and his story is too often sidestepped for the climactic Punic Wars that later engulfed the Mediterranean.
He was viewed by Hannibal as one of the greatest commanders the world has ever seen, second only to Alexander the Great. It was his campaign against Rome that almost changed the shape of history and the Classical Period as we know it.
A post-Alexander world
The classical world of 280 BC was one of autocratic warlords. Alexander the Great had died almost half a century earlier, and his former generals had carved up his empire into their own personal kingdoms.
A second cousin of the infamous Macedonian, Alexander, and descending from the famed Molossian dynasty, Pyrrhus had the name and the nobility to put himself on the world stage. By 280 BC, he had acquired the traits of an outstanding fighter and he had also shown himself a sound tactician and politician. These were all markings of a remarkable Hellenistic king.
Despite being sometimes brutal, such as having his co-ruler murdered, he had an overall good reputation. He had proven that he could fight, negotiate and rule and had put the Kingdom of Epirus, nowadays the area bordering Albania and north-western Greece, on the map. Having burnished his reputation with campaigns in Macedonia, Pyrrhus sought further opportunities in the Greek world.
At the time Rome was a small republic in central Italy. Its rise over the next 200 years would be unprecedented, but even in 280 BC the ambition of this growing city was apparent. Rome looked south to the rich, cultured and civilised Greek cities, especially Tarentum. Things came to a head in 282 BC.
Following an apparent break of a treaty, the Tarentines destroyed Roman ships stationed in their harbour. They then forced their fellow Greek cities in the region to remove remaining pro-Roman allegiance. In response, the Romans invaded southern Italy and Tarentum sent a plea to the Greek world for aid.
Explaining the Pyrrhic War
Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus is often referenced for an overview of the Pyrrhic War. But although we do have a few ancient sources surviving which tell us about the war, most are from a Roman perspective; either from a Roman themselves or a Greek (like Plutarch) writing much later during the Roman period. Despite various sources telling us about the Pyrrhic War, disagreements over how the war enfolded means it is rather difficult campaign to write about with complete accuracy. In her 1959 essay, Mary R. Lefkowitz writes that “No sure reconstruction is possible […] we will never know exactly what happened.”
Pyrrhus in Italy
Pyrrhus fought three battles against the Romans. Although the first he won decisively at Heraclea in 280 BC, the second, at Ausculum the following year, was by far his most famous victory. Unfortunately, it was for all the wrong reasons. The term ‘Pyrrhic victory’ refers to a victory in battle but at too great a cost to make it worthwhile. This is what happened at Ausculum. The final battle occurred four years later in 275 BC at Beneventum, where the Romans soundly defeated Pyrrhus and his allies. Rome had won the war.
What is forgotten is the period between the first two battles at Heraclea and Asculum, the time when (although Roman sources refute this) Pyrrhus may have been in a position of great strength. This was when the speech of one elderly Roman senator spoiled Pyrrhus from achieving fame and victory. it was also a speech that kept Rome on track to becoming the next great superpower.
Following Heraclea, all sources tend to agree that Pyrrhus’ best negotiator and friend Cineas was sent to Rome with terms of peace for the Romans. We do not know exactly what the peace terms were that Pyrrhus proposed; there is simply too much disagreement among our surviving sources. All sources agree, however, that the Romans were very close to accepting them.
The terms were most likely quite harsh. Appian records them as stating that the Romans had to recognise the independence of Pyrrhus’ allied Greek cities in southern Italy. Furthermore, the terms would forbid Rome from ever declaring war on these cities again. The terms may also have included demanding tribute from Rome, that tribute being either in troops or money. We know from Plutarch that Pyrrhus’ ambitions stretched further than just mainland Italy. A demand for tribute to aid his future campaigns therefore does not seem a huge unlikelihood to me.
Pyrrhus had decisively won the previous encounter at Heraclea and soon afterwards came very close to Rome itself; 300 stades (54km) according to Plutarch, bringing with him a replenished army from various cities in southern Italy. Following Heraclea, it’s plausible that Pyrrhus had all the cards. Whatever the peace terms, all sources agree that the Romans nearly accepted them.
The senator’s speech
But in the end the Romans did not accept the terms. Why? Referred to in all sources and a powerful Roman anecdote for centuries to come, it was the speech of an elderly, blind, but respected senator, Appius Claudius , which swayed the result. Appius Claudius Caecus had a reputation: earlier in his career he had led military campaigns. He had also commissioned Rome’s first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, and the Appian Way, the first major Roman road.
In Plutarch’s description, by the time of Pyrrhus’ invasion, Appius did not usually go to the senate house for debates but stayed at home due to his old age. He made this exception, however, because of the seriousness of the situation and his complete opposition to accepting the terms. The gist of the speech is that he was ashamed that the Romans could even consider submitting to Pyrrhus, a man he viewed only as an Alexander wannabe.
The speech is also the reputed source of the saying “every man is the architect of his own fortune” (quisque faber suae fortunae in Latin). It was this speech that apparently caused the Romans to change their mind, reject the terms and keep fighting. Indeed what would follow after Appius’ speech was a complete change in fortune for the Romans. Too big a cost at Ausculum the following year and then a clear defeat at Beneventum in 275 BC left Pyrrhus’ campaign in tatters. The Romans meanwhile, were now clear to occupy southern Italy.
An Epirote empire?
Ancient sources, especially the ones from a Roman perspective, big up the virtues of this elderly senator; his heroic reputation, rhetoric and patriotism for Rome. If the Roman decision really came down to Appius Claudius – and it does have the ring of wishful thinking on behalf of proud Romans – what might have happened if he had not made that passionate speech in 280 BC? Perhaps if he had not visited the senate house that day, Rome would have accepted the peace terms, Pyrrhus might have conquered Italy, and followed his ambitions beyond it to Carthage, Macedon and Greece.