Pyrrhus, the chivalrous king of Epirus, was quite ready to turn his back on the troubled waters of Hellenistic politics and to seek fresh adventures in the west at the call of Tarentum. Being the son-in-law of Agathocles and also a relative of Alexander the Great, this Hellenistic prince may well have dreamed of building up an empire in the west. Courageous and ambitious, a skilful soldier and an inspiring leader, he could count on the help of the Samnites, Lucanians, Bruttians, and Messapians together with the Greek cities of Tarentum, Metapontum and Heraclea, in a crusade against Rome. And perhaps he might even hope to shake the Italian confederacy, especially as Rome was distracted on her northern front, where the Gauls had only recently been defeated and some Etruscan cities were still resisting. Beguiled by his ambitions, he landed at Tarentum with a force of 25,000 professional soldiers and twenty elephants (280). Profiting by the experience of his predecessor Alexander the Molossian, he demanded that the Tarentines should hand over their citadel and give him complete control for the duration of the war; in return he promised to remain in Italy no longer than was necessary. He utilized his new powers to force the Tarentines to transfer their attention from the theatres and gymnasium to the parade ground.16
The Romans hastened to the attack, perhaps without full realization of the gravity of the situation. In the early summer of 280 one consul was busy beating out the smouldering resistance in Etruria, while his colleague, Valerius Laevinus, marched south to meet Pyrrhus in battle near Heraclea. The opposing forces were about numerically equal, but the citizen militia of Rome and her allies were face to face with a first-class professional Hellenistic army. The Roman legion met the Macedonian phalanx for the first time. The tactics employed by Pyrrhus were essentially similar to those of Alexander and Hannibal. He sought to hold or wear down the Roman infantry with the serried ranks of his phalanx, which presented to the short swords of the legionaries a hedge of projecting spearheads, almost as impenetrable as a barbed-wire entanglement; at the same time his elephants and cavalry not only prevented his line from being outflanked but also broke the enemy’s wings and turned their flanks instead. So it fell out at Heraclea. The Romans were terrified by their first encounter in battle with elephants, which untrained horses will not face. Their cavalry was driven back, and leaving 7,000 men on the field they fled to Venusia, where Aemilius, a consul of the previous year, was still stationed. But Pyrrhus, whose resources were far more limited than those of his foe, lost 4,000 men in this ‘Pyrrhic’ victory, though his cause was strengthened by the support of the Lucanians and Samnites and by the adhesion of Croton and Locri; Rhegium would have followed suit, but for the energy of the officer commanding the garrison troops.
Pyrrhus followed up his victory by a dash towards Rome, not hoping to storm the city, but perhaps anticipating like Hannibal later that the allies of Rome would rally to his cause; he may also have wished to join forces with the Etruscans. But he was disappointed. Capua and Naples shut their gates against him; Laevinus and Aemilius hung on his heels; the Latins gave no sign of disaffection; and the two legions in Etruria, having finished their task, were recalled to block his advance. When forty miles from Rome he turned back to Tarentum, while his army retired to winter quarters in Campania. In the autumn he received a Roman embassy under Fabricius, who had come to negotiate for the return of prisoners. Having received proof of the solidarity of Rome’s confederacy Pyrrhus was ready to treat and sent Cineas back to Rome with Fabricius, together with some of the prisoners on parole. He offered to restore all prisoners and to end the war, if the Romans would make peace with Tarentum, grant autonomy to the Greeks, and return all territory conquered from the Lucanians and Samnites. These terms would have severely limited the spread of Roman interests in the south and have created a Tarentine domination there. The offer was accompanied by lavish presents to the leading senators who, unaccustomed to the ways of Hellenistic diplomacy, rejected the gifts as bribes. A party in Rome favoured peace, but it was soon silenced by the oratory of the blind old censor, Appius Claudius, who rebuked the Senate for discussing terms while a victorious enemy was still on Italian soil. Pyrrhus must again try the hazard of war.17
Having failed in Campania, Pyrrhus threatened the Roman strongholds of Luceria and Venusia in Apulia and perhaps hoped to press up the Adriatic coast and detach the northern Samnites. His forces, now strengthened by contingents of Samnites and Lucanians, were about equal to the two consular armies, which were concentrated near Venusia in 279 to check his advance. He met the Romans in a second pitched battle not far from Asculum on rough ground which enabled the legionaries to resist his phalanx for a whole day. The next morning Pyrrhus drew up his troops on more level ground where the phalanx forced back the Roman line, which was rolled up by an elephant charge. The Romans avoided complete disaster by regaining their camp, and though they had lost one consul and 6,000 men Pyrrhus left 3,500 men on the field. He was, however, prevented from following up this victory by news from Greece and Sicily which made him eager to conclude peace in Italy.
A Celtic invasion of Macedonia offered Pyrrhus the opportunity of playing the role of champion of Greece with the chance of gaining the Macedonian throne, while the Syracusans sent envoys begging him to save them from the Carthaginians who were within an ace of winning the whole of Sicily. Unable to serve the cause of Hellenism in two countries at once, Pyrrhus chose the Sicilian venture and tried to rid himself of his Italian commitments by reaching terms with Fabricius who, as consul for 278, had led his troops into Campania; perhaps Pyrrhus claimed no more than immunity for Tarentum. Carthage, however, was alive to the desirability of keeping Pyrrhus engaged in Italy and sent Mago with 120 warships to remind Rome of their old alliance and to offer help against Pyrrhus. When the Romans abruptly declined this aid, Mago sailed off to visit Pyrrhus; he perhaps promised to arrange peace between Rome and the king, so that the latter would be free to return to Greece, while he threatened to wreck negotiations with Rome if Pyrrhus persisted in crossing to Sicily. His offer was rejected, and Mago returned to Rome, where he obtained an agreement which kept Rome from making peace. No defensive alliance was struck, but it was arranged that if they made an agreement against Pyrrhus, it should be with the stipulation that it should be lawful to render mutual aid in whichever country Pyrrhus attacked, i.e. a temporary suspension of the restrictions imposed by a treaty of 306 (p. 124). Whichever party might need help, Carthage was to provide ships for transport or war, and to aid Rome by sea, though she was not obliged to land troops against her will. Rome thus gained money to finance the war and a fleet to blockade Tarentum, while if Pyrrhus crossed to Sicily she was not obliged to help Carthage there. His object achieved, Mago sailed off to Syracuse, leaving en route five hundred Roman soldiers to strengthen the garrison at Rhegium. Pyrrhus meanwhile had retired to Tarentum where he left half his troops to defend his allies; with the rest he set sail for Sicily in the autumn of 278.18
During Pyrrhus’ absence the Romans gradually forced the Samnites, Lucanians and Bruttians into submission; whether they were equally successful against the Italiote Greeks is more doubtful. It is recorded that Fabricius won over Heraclea in 278, that Locri revolted and Croton was captured in 277, and that the Campanian garrison of Rhegium seized Croton for themselves. After a meteoric career in Sicily, Pyrrhus decided to return to Italy; if he failed to win a great victory, which alone could restore his fortunes, he would proceed to Greece. On crossing from Sicily late in 276 he was defeated by the Punic fleet in an engagement which must have confirmed his decision to leave the west.19 He then recaptured Locri and Croton (if it is admitted that he had ever lost them). After pillaging the temple treasure of Persephone at Locri, to the superstitious horror of the Greeks, he reached Tarentum. In 275 he marched northwards with his diminished forces on a brilliantly-conceived campaign, which ended in an inglorious rearguard action. One of the consuls, Manius Curius, was near Malventum (the future Beneventum), the other was posted in Lucania. Anticipating the junction of the two armies Pyrrhus hastily struck at Curius, but failed to reach his objective in a night surprise. The Romans repelled his attack in open battle and captured several of his elephants.20 Before he was caught between the two Roman armies Pyrrhus withdrew to Tarentum. There he left some troops to encourage the Italiote allies whom he had failed; with the rest of his army he set sail for Greece. In the following year he withdrew his force, except for a garrison, from Tarentum, and two years later he was killed in street-fighting at Argos by a tile thrown by a woman from a house-top. His Sicilian campaign had prevented the island from becoming a Carthaginian province, while his whirlwind career in Italy had even more far-reaching effects. It sealed the fate of the Italiote Greeks, it demonstrated the rock-like solidarity of the Roman confederacy, against which Pyrrhus had flung his professional soldiers in vain, and it showed the whole Hellenistic world that the unknown barbarians of central Italy were in fact a great military and imperial state, with which Ptolemy II of Egypt now established diplomatic relations and amicitia (273).