Between 280 and 275 B.C., Rome fought the Pyrrhic War against Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, a land northwest of Greece. The victory over Pyrrhus was a turning point in Rome’s history. In addition to gaining control of the Greek cities of southern Italy, Rome transformed itself into an international power that dominated the Mediterranean region on both land and sea.
In 282 B.C. Rome defended Thurii, a Greek city in southern Italy, against a marauding Italian tribe called the Lucanians. Rome’s intervention angered Tarentum, another Greek city in Italy. Tarentum sank Roman ships in the Gulf of Tarentum and ousted the Roman troops from Thurii. The leaders of Tarentum then turned to Pyrrhus for support.
Pyrrhus, a talented Greek general and second cousin of Alexander the Great, led a force of 25,000 men and 20 Indian war elephants across the sea into Italy, where he defeated the Romans at the Battles of Heraclea (280 B.C.) and Asculum (279 B.C.). The Battle of Asculum cost so many lives that Pyrrhus was reported to have said, “Another such victory and I am lost.” The stubborn Roman resistance forced Pyrrhus to move his forces to the island of Sicily. He fought for the Greek colonies in Sicily against the North African city of Carthage, which was attempting to extend its control over the western Mediterranean. Pyrrhus returned to mainland Italy in 275 B.C., and the Romans finally defeated him at the Battle of Beneven- tum. Returning to Epirus, Pyrrhus conquered Macedonia before he died in a street fight in 272 B.C. Pyrrhus is remembered in the expression “Pyrrhic victory,” which describes a victory that is gained at too great a cost. (See also Colonies, Greek; Punic Wars; Wars and Warfare, Roman.)