It was, of course, Rome’s war against that infamous Hellenistic condottiere king Pyrrhus of Epirus in 280 to 275 that finally brought Rome fully into the purview of Hellenistic international relations.
Once the conquest of Italy had been completed, Rome began to expand overseas to create its great empire. However, there was one war, fought in Italy, that provided a foreshadowing of things to come. In 280, King Pyrrhus of Epirus landed in Italy. For the first time, Rome would face a Hellenistic monarch and a Hellenistic army; for the first time, the Roman legion would fight the phalanx.
Pyrrhus was born in 319 and became king of the Molossians by 312. Once old enough, he used Molossia as a base to create the much larger Kingdom of Epirus on the west coast of Greece. He became a minor player in the wars of Alexander’s successors, fighting both Demetrios Poliocertes and Lysimachus and marrying a daughter of Ptolemy I. Meanwhile, Rome’s expansion into southern Italy brought it into conflict with the Greeks of the region, most notably Tarentum. Tarentum and the other Greek city-states feared Rome’s encroaching power and appealed to Pyrrhus for military support. Pyrrhus may have hoped to conquer a large empire in the west as his relative Alexander had done in the east. He may have believed that fighting “barbarians” in the west would be far easier than dealing with his fellow Hellenistic kings in the east, and he also may have liked the notion of leading and defending a great Greek coalition against the “barbarian” Roman aggressor. In 280, he landed in Italy with 25,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, and 20 elephants. P. Valerius Laevinus (cos. 280)1 led a consular army of two legions plus allied contingents numbering just under 25,000 men. At Heraclea, for the first time, the Roman legion fought a professional, Hellenistic army modeled on that of Alexander and his successors. Supposedly, Pyrrhus was impressed by what he saw of the Romans: “They may be barbarians, but there is nothing barbarous about their discipline.”
Pyrrhus, leading his heavy infantry phalanx in person, used it to hold the Roman infantry in the center, while on the wings his cavalry, supported by elephants, drove away the Roman cavalry. This was the first time the Romans had ever faced elephants in battle, and they were unable to resist. The Romans lost 7,000 men, but the consul and the survivors were able to escape. Pyrrhus also suffered significant losses totaling more than 4,000 men. Pyrrhus decided to offer peace terms; Tarentum and southern Italy were to be left alone, he would release all prisoners without ransom, and he would become a friend and military ally of Rome. Many senators wished to accept these terms rather than face another battle that, if lost, might cause further defections in the Roman confederacy. However, before the peace terms were accepted, a famous old Roman made his last appearance in the Senate. His name was Ap. Claudius Caecus (cos. 307, 296), and he had accomplished many things during his career; he had won military victories against the Etruscans and Sabelli, and he had built both Rome’s first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, and Rome’s first great highway, the Via Appia, stretching from the capital to Capua. Now old and blind, he no longer attended the Senate, but when he heard it was ready to make peace, he had his slaves carry him to the Senate house. He then lambasted his colleagues for discussing peace with Pyrrhus:
Until now, fellow senators, I had been upset over my loss of sight, but now I wish I had lost my hearing as well when I learned of the shameful motions and decrees with which you propose to dishonor the great name of Rome. What has become of the boast that if the great Alexander had invaded Italy . . . he would not now be celebrated as invincible, but would either have fled or fallen leaving Rome more glorious than ever? This was empty boasting since you . . . tremble before this Pyrrhus who has spent most of his life dancing attendance on one or another of Alexander’s bodyguards.
Caecus convinced the Senate that no peace could ever be made with a foreign enemy still on Roman soil. Thus, the war continued, and another battle was fought in 279 against Pyrrhus at Asculum by the combined armies of the two consuls, P. Sulpicius Saverrio and P. Decius Mus. It was a hard-fought battle, again won by Pyrrhus, but again he suffered heavy losses (3,500 to the Romans’ 6,000). Supposedly, after losing so many men in the two battles, Pyrrhus exclaimed, “One more victory like this and I will be finished!”
Pyrrhus, despite his two victories, had been unable to win decisively and to force the Romans to surrender. Apparently tiring of the difficult campaign, he responded to an appeal of Syracuse to aid that city against the Carthaginians in Sicily. So, in 278, Pyrrhus and his army, now much reduced in numbers, packed up and left Italy. He remained on the island for two years but achieved little, and in 276 he returned to Italy at the request of his southern Italian allies. In 275, he fought a third battle against the Romans, at Malventum. On this occasion, the Romans, led by M’. Curius Dentatus (cos. 275), emerged victorious. Pyrrhus had now lost so many men in Italy and Sicily that he was forced to return to Greece. He would die in 272 during an attack on Argos when an old lady on a rooftop dropped a tile on his head.
The Romans had defeated a Hellenistic king, and the Roman legion proved more than capable of holding its own against a professional Hellenistic army, consisting of the heavy Macedonian phalanx, the cavalry, and an elephant corps and led by an exceptional commander. This would bode ill for the Greeks in future conflicts with the Romans. The Roman reserves of manpower proved decisive; they lost two battles yet continued to fight, and Pyrrhus lost one battle and was forced to leave Italy. This scenario would be replayed again and again during future wars with other Mediterranean powers. The determination to never surrender, embodied by old Caecus, had brought Rome all of Italy and would serve it well as it expanded beyond the peninsula. Rome was no longer simply a “barbarian” state; with its victory over Pyrrhus, the other great powers of the east suddenly took notice of the growing power in the west. In 273, Ptolemy II (r. 282-246) became the first eastern monarch to become a “friend” of the Roman people. The Romans had finally arrived on the Mediterranean stage.