Pyrrhus Victories II


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. Pyrrhus at the battle of Ausculum.


He went to Sicily, therefore, and justified his calculation by driving the Carthaginians out of the island, except for the single city of Lilybaeum, in a campaign that lasted a trifle over two years, and whose details need form no part of this narrative. That Sicily did not fully develop into the broad base he expected was due mainly to his lack of the one thing Alexander so abundantly possessed—statesmanship. Or perhaps it was the loss in the Roman battles of his lieutenants and trained administrators—Megacles, Leonnatus, and the rest. There was a gap in the command structure near the top. Sicily remained in his possession, but it was nearing the edge of mutiny when he returned to Italy in the fall of 276. However, he had filled up his ranks, victory in Italy would bring Sicily into line again, and by the spring of 275 he was ready to end the Roman matter.

In the interim Rome had been systematically beating down such tribes as the southern Samnites and Lucanians and conducting a drive against the minor Greek cities. Pyrrhus would not have as many barbarian allies as before, and of the towns only Tarentum and Rhegium were strongly against Rome.

The Red King’s opponents were Manius Curius Dentatus and Cornelius Lentulus, consuls for the year. The latter has left no particular mark on history, but Manius Curius was something else. To begin with, he was one of the ugliest men Rome ever saw, his special adornment being a set of buck teeth. He had commanded armies before and had twice been awarded official triumphs, which were considerably more difficult to attain in those days than they became later. When Manius Curius heard that Pyrrhus was again in Italy, he decided that this war was no ordinary contest with Gauls or Samnites, but the real big show. He conducted the yearly enrollment with unexampled strictness, selling at public auction the property of those who failed to report for duty, which shocked contemporaries.

Each consul had an army. That under Lentulus pushed into Lucania to hold the road up central Italy between Tarentum and Rome. Manius Curius, who began by operating against some of the southern Samnite tribes, crossed to the more westerly route at the news of Pyrrhus’ approach and went into camp at Beneventum. This was the chief town and market place of the Samnites, and only while Pyrrhus was in Sicily had it fallen into Roman hands. It gave the consul the strategic advantage of holding a nexus, from which he could prevent the Red King from stirring things up in Samnium while the Road to Rome was still held. The lessons of Heraclea and Asculum were not lost on Manius Curius; he chose an area of rough, wooded country, where it would be difficult for cavalry and elephants to operate, with a small stream at the rear of his camp, and out in front a comparatively open, rolling plain, bordered on the right by forest and on the left by timbered ravines.

Pyrrhus’ plan seems to have been to crush Manius Curius, then swing around and take Lentulus from along his line of communications. He detached a corps to amuse and contain the latter, something in which it abundantly succeeded, then made a fast march toward Beneventum with 20,000 infantry, 3,000 horse, and always the elephants. The Roman scouting and outpost services were excellent; Manius Curius was fully informed of the king’s approach, but the sacrifices (doubtless not without some suggestion from the commander) proved unfavorable, so instead of drawing out for battle as a Roman leader normally would, he stayed in camp, shooting out messengers to summon Lentulus.

Pyrrhus was nearly as well informed about Manius’ position as the Roman was about him, and took the Alexandrian view that the boldest course is usually the safest. An attack on one of those square Roman camps, heavily stockaded and ditched, was not normally an operation that would commend itself to a general, but the matter would be considerably handier if he could do it by night and surprise. He set off by a circuit through the woods in the dark, intending to catch the Romans just before dawn.

At this point Pyrrhus’ inspiration probably let him down. It is difficult to imagine anything unhandier for progress through a forest in the dark than a twenty-foot sarissa; the men must have split up into files and groups, and the movement was unexpectedly slow. The consequence was that the torches went out, the guides lost their way, and it was already breaking daylight when Pyrrhus’ head of column issued into a small open space at the flank of the camp.

Within, the sacrifices instantly became favorable. The Romans poured out like a swarm of hornets and attacked the Epirote vanguard at the edge of the trees. This was close-in sword work against opponents who had sacrificed the weight and cohesion that were the specific advantages of Greek armament, and the leading Epirote formations (it is not clear whether they were hypaspists or phalangites) were badly broken, losing a number of prisoners and a couple of the elephants. Pyrrhus was now too deeply involved to disengage and he had no back road; by compulsion rather than choice he had to draw his army through the forest on his right and accept battle in the plain. He performed this difficult maneuver with considerable skill, placing his elephants on the right, with most of the cavalry echeloned behind, and hardly got his formation ready before the lines locked.

At Heraclea, the Romans were dealing with a formation of a type they had never met before; on the second day at Asculum they were cramped into an area which forced them into a more or less solid-block style of fighting, in which the phalanx was at its best. But here they had plenty of elbowroom and the plain was not very plane; that is, it tended to break up the Epirote close order and offered every advantage to the attack-and-withdraw tactics of the maniples. On the Roman right and in the center they carried everything right away before them; Pyrrhus’ formations suffered heavily and began to go to pieces.

But on the Roman left, Pyrrhus’ right, the elephants produced their usual effect; neither Roman horse nor Roman foot could stand against them. Manius Curius’ men were driven right to the walls of their camp. At this point there was revealed something that would have been as much a surprise to any commander of the age as it was to Pyrrhus. Manius Curius had held out a large reserve of legionaries within the camp; as the battle moved down on the stockade, this reserve issued from the side gate and, all in beautiful order, counterattacked the flank of the Epirote movement. The cavalry were cut to pieces by the swarm of Roman javelin spears and driven off; the infantry supports collapsed; the elephants, attacked from flank and rear, were driven into a wooded ravine, where two of them were killed and the remaining eight captured. Rome was victorious all along the line.

Pyrrhus managed to hold some of his taxes together, but after he reached Tarentum and left a small garrison under his general, Milon, there were only 8,000 infantry and 500 cavalry left to take back to Greece. When the Red King was killed three years later by a pisspot thrown by an old woman from a rooftop in Argos, the Tarentum garrison surrendered and Rome owned Italy.

Beneventum decided that the future of the Mediterranean world belonged to Rome and that the transmitting medium for whatever of Greek culture was to survive would be the Roman political system. Or rather Heraclea, Asculum, and Beneventum together achieved this decision. It was gained by the qualities of the Roman soldier and the political organization that produced him. But it could have gone the other way if Rome had not happened to find the buck-toothed Manius Curius at just the right moment.

It would be many years before the decision was written into the records and the long, desperate struggle with Carthage, which was to produce a military genius of its own, lay ahead. But by the time Hannibal arrived, Rome knew all about dealing with geniuses; Pyrrhus had taught them. You tightened your belt, raised another army, and ultimately found a commander who, if not a genius himself, could hold genius in check until the supports were cut from under it by the ceaseless pressure of the Roman system. The essential elements of future were present at Beneventum and the decision was taken there.

That decision was that the Hellenistic states, even when managed by the ablest officers, could not produce a military establishment to overmatch the Roman, even when the latter was headed by quite ordinary men; and when the Romans got generals who were anywhere near as good as the troops they commanded, their superiority was crushing. It was necessary to find that good general—there could have been against Pyrrhus an exhausting series of Asculums if Manius Curius had not appeared—but the point was that the Romans always found their man.

It has been the custom to call Pyrrhus a mere adventurer and to disparage his generalship, but on careful examination it stands up very well indeed. At Heraclea he was certainly surprised by the formidable character of the opposition; but all his information about Romans came from other Greeks, and no one had ever heard of barbarians who could face a civilized army in a pitched battle. At least Pyrrhus realized at once what he was up against and took the right measures. The Asculum campaign was planned to give him the maximum security of communications and the maximum fruits of victory. He very nearly cleared the Carthaginians out of Sicily; and if he had won at Beneventum, he could have had Rome in trouble.

The only thing lacking in the first two battles was pursuit; it was by pursuits that Alexander always turned a victory into a decision. The only thing lacking in the aftermath of Pyrrhus’ Roman victories was the surrender of the defeated side and its acceptance into subject alliance; this was the process by which Alexander achieved his empire. But the Romans fought so well that though Pyrrhus could beat them he could never break them; pursuit was impossible against an enemy still having some thousands of men in a heavily fortified camp. And Appius Claudius supplied the answer to the diplomatic question.

That is, the Romans had achieved a military-political system that was incomparably stronger and more resilient than anything Greece or the East could produce. This was obvious at the base, in the method of recruitment, which so surprised Cineas. Philip of Macedon’s universal training principle worked very well until it became necessary to keep armies afoot for several years; then it became a question of whom the recruiting agents could persuade or catch. The Roman process of drafts by lot for a campaign kept the ranks full as needed and left a continual reserve of trained manpower. Whether the total system was “better” in a cultural sense or a moral is beside the point. The question of survival, of which system is the more valid, is not decided on moral or cultural grounds; the place of decision is the battlefield and the decision is taken by violence.

It is also worth noting that one of the major factors in the Beneventum decision was political. Nothing so much surprised Cineas, Pyrrhus, and all the Greeks as the fact that after a Roman army had been beaten in battle and the King had marched to the heart of the Roman territory, not a one of Rome’s subject allies stirred to join the victor; not even the northern Samnites, who had been subjugated so recently that Pyrrhus was still on the scene when they gave in. In Greek experience there was nothing like this willingness of a conquered people to stay conquered, and through the long range of later Greek literature there has rung down to our own day the idea that somehow Rome enslaved the intellect as well as the body, deprived the nations of their mental as well as their physical freedom.

This is to confound the later Rome with the Rome of Pyrrhus’ day and of the Punic Wars. The fact is that in that earlier period the nations were not enslaved, they were not conquered, they were not subjugated; they were taken into the firm. Alexander the Great showed a generosity almost incredible to ancient times in leaving the civil administration of conquered territories in the hands of natives, but there was a Macedonian garrison in every citadel. Ardea,Neapolis,Fregellae, after Rome took them, were not garrisoned by Romans; they were garrisoned by Ardeans, Neapolitans, Fregellans, who had a share, even if a limited one, in directing the affairs of the Roman state of which they became a part, and who believed they could get a better deal within it than under the banner of any foreigner.

That this system was altered and perverted during the process of world expansion should not be allowed to conceal the fact that it was the system which enabled the Apostle Paul to say, “Civis Romanus sum,” and thereby force the local magistrate to pronounce that he had no jurisdiction.

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