The Pyrrhic War (280–275 BC) started after a minor naval battle in the Bay of Tarentum which violated the treaty obligations between the city of Tarentum and Epirus in Greece. When Roman ships sailed into Tarentine waters, Tarentum saw this as a breach of treaty. To help them against Rome they sought help from Pyrrhus as payback for the aid they had given him in his conflict with Korkyra. Pyrrhus saw this as an empire-building opportunity.
Tarentum was founded in 706 BC by Dorian Greek immigrants and was Sparta’s only colony. Its founders were Partheniae, biological anomalies believed to be the sons of virgins. In reality, they were the sons of unmarried Spartan women and Perioeci, free men who were not officially citizens of Sparta and whose sole function in life was to increase the Spartan birthrate and thereby recruitment to the Spartan army during the Messenian wars. These spurious marriages were later annulled and the sons were exiled. Phalanthus, the Parthenian leader, consulted the oracle at Delphi as to how best to handle this and was told that Tarentum was to be the new home of the exiles. Tarentum grew, and by the time Roman power was spreading south, it had become a leading commercial and military force amongst the cities of Magna Graecia in southern Italy.
From the eighth and seventh centuries BC, famine, overcrowding and a need for new commercial opportunities, trade and ports, led the Greeks into a programme of extensive colonization which included such widespread places as the eastern coast of the Black Sea, Libya and Massalia, Sicily and the southern tip of the Italian peninsula – territories collectively known as Magna Graecia. With the Greeks came Greek culture: dialects of the Greek language, arts, religious rites, the polis – all subsumed into native Italic culture. The Chalcidean–Cumaean version of the Greek alphabet was adopted by the Etruscans and the resulting Old Italic alphabet subsequently evolved into the Latin alphabet. Major cities included Neapolis, Syracuse, Acragas and Sybaris, Tarentum, Rhegium, Nola, Ancona and Bari.
Sheep farming was a major factor in Tarentum’s economic and commercial success; fleeces, dyed purple with the mussels from the harbour, were much in demand throughout Italy. Ceramics too were important to the economy, and trade generally soon spread into the lands bordering on the Aegean, beyond the Po and across the Alps. Commercial prowess was matched by political stability and the ability to raise an army of some 15,000 men, to complement the strongest navy in the Mediterranean. The Tarentine armed forces were strengthened further by bands of Greek mercenaries, giving them the power not only to snuff out incursions by the Oscans but also indulge in territorial expansion. During the First Samnite War, the Tarentines allied with King Archidamus of Sparta and then, in 334 BC, with his brother-in-law, King Alexander of Epirus. Alexander successfully quelled incursions by the Brutii, Samnites and Lucanians and concluded a non-aggression pact with the Romans on behalf of Tarentum. Tarentum, however, was increasingly suspicious of Alexander’s motives and left him to hang out to dry, and to be murdered by the Lucanians. Rome’s expansionism, too, was viewed with some anxiety in Tarentum; they rejected Rome’s attempts at diplomacy. The Battle of Tarentum followed soon after.
Pyrrhus was King of Epirus (r. 306–302, 297–272 BC) and Macedon (r. 288–284, 273–272 BC). He was the son of Aeacides and Phthia, a Thessalian woman who was second cousin of Alexander the Great, through Alexander’s mother, Olympias. In 298 BC, at the age of 21, King Pyrrhus was taken hostage to Alexandria, as one of the terms of a peace treaty between Demetrius, his brother-in-law, and Ptolemy I Soter. There, he married Ptolemy I’s stepdaughter Antigone and was restored to his kingdom in Epirus in 297 BC with aid from Ptolemy I. Neoptolemus II of Epirus was his co-ruler; Pyrrhus had him murdered. One of Greece’s more flamboyant brigands, whose dubious services were freely available throughout the Mediterranean, Pyrrhus answered Tarentum’s plea for support against Rome with undisguised alacrity.
The Roman victory over Tarentum, their defeat at Heraclea and the subjugation of Magna Graecia are not the only significant features in the wars with Pyrrhus. They give us the term every victorious general fears, the ‘Pyhrric victory’ – and the first deployments of that giant of all war machines, the elephant, against the Roman army.
We first meet the elephant as an instrument of war with the Indians, described in the Sanskrit epics, and in stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in the fourth century BC. To some rulers, an army without elephants was nothing short of absurd: as objectionable as a forest without a lion, a kingdom without a king or courage unaided by weapons. Training an elephant for combat duty was no simple matter: first they had to be captured in the wild, because selective breeding took so long; and then there was the wait until the elephant was mature – only mature elephants were fit to fight. War elephants were males, not because males exhibited the right aggressive temperament, but rather because a female elephant will flee from a male in a battle situation. Female elephants were nevertheless still used for logistic duties.
Battle elephants spread westwards to the Persians in their wars with Alexander the Great. The first confrontation came at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, when the Persians deployed fifteen elephants. They made such a terrific and terrifying impact that Alexander sacrificed to the God of Fear on the eve of the battle. Next day, Alexander won and was so taken by this novel and fantastic war machine that he enlisted the fifteen he had captured into his own army, adding to the herd as he overran the rest of Persia. Alexander confronted up to 100 war elephants at the battle of the Hydaspes River against Porus, in the modern day Punjabi region of Pakistan. But this was insignificant compared to what the kings of the Nanda Empire (Maghada) and Gangaridai (present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal) could throw against him: no fewer than between 3,000 and 6,000 war elephants, which put an end to Alexander’s invasion of India. Returning home, he formed a unit of elephants to guard his palace at Babylon, and established the office of elephantarch to take command of the beasts.
The successful military use of elephants spread further. Alexander’s successors, the Diadochi, continued the practice, using many hundreds of Indian war elephants in their wars; the Seleucids likewise. In the Seleucid–Mauryan war of 305–303 BC, the Seleucids gave up extensive lands in the east in exchange for 500 Mauryan war elephants, a mere handful from the 9,000 elephants Pliny the Elder tells us they could draw on. The Seleucids made good use of their 500 at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC against the Diadochi. Later the Seleucids deployed elephants in the Maccabean Revolt in Judea, 167–160 BC. Eleazar Maccabeus bravely slew an elephant in the Battle of Beth Zechariah by sticking a spear into its belly, wrongly thinking it to be carrying Antiochus V. Unfortunately, the dying elephant crushed Eleazar to death as it crashed to the ground. Some elephants were fitted with leather or metal rings around their legs to protect against the enemy cutting their heel muscles.
War elephants made their European debut in 318 BC when Polyperchon, one of Alexander’s generals, besieged Megalopolis with the help of sixty elephants brought from Asia along with their mahouts. The elephants saw a lot of action: another of Alexander’s generals, Damis, defeated Polyperchon – the elephants were posted by Cassander to other battle theatres in Greece; part of the journey was by sea so we can take it that Cassander was responsible for building some of the first elephant sea transports. Some of his elephants starved to death in Pydna in 316 BC while under siege.
Elephants became popular for deployment in battle with the Ptolemies, Carthaginians, Numidians and Kushites, making use of the North African forest elephant (later to become extinct from over-exploitation). The North African species was smaller than the Asian elephants used in the east; the most famous was Hannibal’s beast called Surus, ‘the Syrian’. Debate has raged for some sixty years over whether the African elephants used by Numidian, Ptolemaic and Punic armies carried howdahs or turrets in battle, given the relative physical weakness of the species. Some depictions and descriptions of turrets are without doubt anachronistic or fictitious, but there is strong evidence, for example, that Juba I of Numidia used turreted elephants in 46 BC. In addition, there is the image of a turreted African elephant on the coinage of Juba II. Polybius records that in 217 BC the elephants of Ptolemy IV sported turrets at the Battle of Raphia. In his Book 6, Pliny the Elder says that Sri Lankan elephants were bigger and fiercer, thus making Sri Lanka’s elephants much in demand for military use.
Pyrrhus introduced the combat elephant to Italy at the Battle of Heraclea, in Lucania on the Gulf of Otranto. Here the elephants were of the Indian variety and were given the sobriquet ‘Lucanian oxen’ by the awe-struck Roman soldiers. We shall, of course, meet these formidable, temperamental and wholly unpredictable instruments of war again in the wars against Hannibal.
In 280 BC, Pyrrhus landed in Italy with 25,000 troops and twenty or so war-trained elephants. His army was made up of 3,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers and 20,000 infantry. The elephants were on loan from Ptolemy II, who also promised 9,000 troops and fifty more elephants to defend Epirus while Pyrrhus was absent fighting in Italy. On his arrival at Tarentum, Pyrrhus found a city enjoying life and quite happy to allow him to fight their wars for them. He immediately put an end to this sybaritic lifestyle, banning banquets, drinking parties and festivals and organizing a mobilization of Tarentines. Displeased at having to give up their indulgent lives, many Tarentines left the city.
The Romans had never faced elephants in battle before. It is easy to imagine their consternation and terror when they saw what they were up against at Heraclea. Valerius Laevinus, with an inferior force of 20,000 men, crossed the River Siris, but his army crumbled in the face of a 3,000-strong cavalry charge followed by infantry. The Romans were finally defeated when Pyrrhus’ elephants caused the Roman horses to panic and stampede. The Thessalian cavalry then routed the Roman troops. Pyrrhus lost 13,000 men to the Romans’ 15,000, although the figures may be nearer 7,000 and 4,000. The Lucanians and the Samnites went over to Pyrrhus after this victory.