A “Pyrrhic victory” is one of those phrases that gets thrown around a lot, without much thought given as to where it comes from or, in many cases, what it really means.
It refers to a military success that is gained at such a high price that the victory proved too costly to be worthwhile. Various battles throughout the ages have come to be defined as Pyrrhic victories – perhaps most famously the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American War of Independence.
But where did the term originate? For that answer we need to go back more than 2,000 years – to the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death and a time when powerful warlords ruled much of the Central Mediterranean.
King Pyrrhus was the king of the most powerful tribe in Epirus (a region now split between north-west Greece and Southern Albania) and reigned intermittently between 306 and 272 BC.
Although he had a turbulent accession to the throne, he soon forged a powerful empire stretching from Epidamnus (the modern-day city of Durrës in Albania) in the north, to Ambracia (the modern-day city of Arta in Greece) in the south. At times, he was also King of Macedonia.
Many sources describe Pyrrhus as the greatest of Alexander the Great’s successors. Of all the powerful individuals who emerged following Alexander’s death, Pyrrhus was certainly the man who most closely resembled Alexander both in his military ability and charisma. Although it does not survive today, Pyrrhus also wrote a manual on warfare that became widely used by generals throughout antiquity.
He was widely respected in the military world, with Hannibal Barca even rating the Epirote as one of the greatest generals the world had known – second only to Alexander the Great.
The campaign against Rome
In 282 BC, a conflict erupted between Rome and the Greek city of Tarentum (modern-day Taranto) in southern Italy – a city the Romans depict as a centre of decadence and vice. Realising their cause was doomed without aid, the Tarentines sent a plea for help from the Greek mainland.
It was this plea that reached the ears of Pyrrhus in Epirus. Ever hungry for further conquest and glory, Pyrrhus quickly accepted the offer.
Pyrrhus landed in southern Italy in 281 BC with a large Hellenistic army. It consisted mainly of phalangites (pikemen trained to form a Macedonian phalanx), powerful heavy cavalry and war elephants. For the Romans, their ensuing fight with Pyrrhus would be the first time they had ever faced these unpredictable tanks of ancient warfare on the battlefield.
By 279 BC, Pyrrhus had achieved two victories against the Romans: one at Heraclea in 280 and another at Ausculum in 279. Both successes were widely lauded for Pyrrhus’ military ability. At Heraclea, Pyrrhus had been significantly outnumbered.
At both battles, the Epirote also inspired his men with his charismatic leadership. Not only did he encourage his men throughout the battlefield, but he also fought with them in the thickest of the action. It is not surprising that the Romans later depicted their war with Pyrrhus as the closest they ever came to fighting Alexander the Great himself.
The Pyrrhic victory
However, these victories were also costly for Pyrrhus. The king’s battle-hardened Epirotes – not only his best soldiers but also the men who most believed in his cause – suffered heavily on both occasions. Furthermore, reinforcements from home were in short supply. For Pyrrhus, every Epirote was thus irreplaceable.
Following his victory at Ausculum, Pyrrhus found himself without many of the key officers and soldiers who had ventured with him from Epirus barely two years earlier – men whose quality could not be matched by his allies in southern Italy. When Pyrrhus’s comrades congratulated him on his victory, the Epirote king sombrely replied:
“Another such victory and we shall be utterly ruined.”
Thus originated the term “Pyrrhic victory” – a victory won, but at a crippling price.
Unable to replenish his Epirote losses, Pyrrhus soon left southern Italy without any permanent gains against Rome. For the next two years he campaigned in Sicily, aiding the Sicilian-Greeks against the Carthaginians.
The campaign started with tremendous success. Yet Pyrrhus ultimately failed to completely expel the Carthaginian presence from the island and soon after lost the faith of his Sicilian-Greek allies.
In 276 BC, Pyrrhus returned to southern Italy once again and fought one final battle against Rome at Beneventum the following year. But the Epirote king was once again unable to make a significant breakthrough, and the result proved inconclusive (although later Roman writers claim it was a Roman victory).
Pyrrhus retreated to Tarentum, boarded most of his forces onto ships and headed home to Epirus.
For three more years, Pyrrhus waged war on the Greek mainland – fighting various foes such as Macedonia, Sparta and Argos. Yet in 272 BC, he was unceremoniously killed in a street fight in Argos when he was hit on the head by a roof tile thrown by the mother of a soldier he was about to strike down.
Although Pyrrhus’s contemporaries widely considered him one of the most formidable military commanders ever seen, his legacy has become attached to his costly campaign against Rome and the Pyrrhic victory he gained that fateful day at Ausculum.