Ancient History & Civilisation


By the early decades of the third century BC the Romans had turned their attention to the wealthy cities of Magna Graecia, the area of southern Italy that had been colonized by Greek settlers. After clashing with Roman troops in several border incidents, Tarentum, the most powerful city in the region, started to cast around for allies both inside and outside Italy. Eventually a potential saviour was found in the form of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, a small Hellenistic kingdom roughly where Albania is now.21 Now thirty-eight, Pyrrhus had already led a very eventful life, which had included several depositions and restorations to the throne, a spell as a hostage at the Egyptian court, and a short-lived interlude as king of Macedonia.22 Once more confined to his small kingdom, he found the Tarentines’ invitation to save them from the clutches of Rome too good to refuse.

On the face of it Pyrrhus was an exceptional ally. He was widely considered by his peers (and by later admirers) as one of the finest generals of the ancient world. Moreover, many other Hellenistic monarchs–anxious to see the back of such an indefatigable creator of trouble as he strived to establish a powerful kingdom for himself –furnished him with troops, elephants, ships and money. The campaign started rather inauspiciously, with his armada being scattered by a severe storm in the Adriatic. However, after his forces had regrouped, and he had himself been appointed by the Tarentines as supreme commander with unlimited powers, Pyrrhus vigorously prepared his new charges for war with Rome.

The Romans had now faced the best military opposition that Italy had to offer, in the form of the tough Samnites, but Pyrrhus and his core of battle-hardened Molossian troops from Epirus were a different proposition altogether. Now, for the first time, Rome met Hellenistic troops on the battlefield, and it came off worst in two battles at Heraclea in 279. (Aside from his tactical nous, Pyrrhus was greatly aided by the panic and disarray of the Roman cavalry at the sight of the combat elephants that he had brought with him.) In the wake of his victory, Pyrrhus was even able to advance to within a relatively short distance of Rome itself.23

Carthage, which had watched the initial stages of the war from the sidelines, now decided to intervene. Any obligations that the Carthaginians may have felt towards their Roman allies were almost certainly increased by the fear of Pyrrhus’ ambitions towards Sicily. In 280 a Carthaginian commander named Mago had arrived at Ostia, the port of Rome, with a fleet of 120 warships and offered to lend assistance to the Romans. The Romans, clearly wary of leaving themselves open to future Carthaginian interference, politely rejected the offer.24 After almost agreeing to the peace terms that Pyrrhus had dictated, the Roman Senate, chastened by the defiance shown by one of its oldest and most distinguished members, Appius Claudius Caecus, at the last minute showed the resilience for which it would become famous, by rejecting them and voting to continue the war. Although Pyrrhus won another victory against the Roman legions, at Ausculum in 279, it came at such a cost to the king that he was said to have pithily exclaimed that if he won one more victory like that then he would be utterly ruined.25 With his army seriously weakened, he had little choice but to retreat back to Tarentum.

This devastating ‘Pyrrhic victory’, while positive for Rome, had serious ramifications for its Carthaginian allies, for Pyrrhus, his enthusiasm for the Roman campaign now at an ebb, was invited by the Syracusans to take a command against the Carthaginians. What made this proposition particularly appealing was that his wife, who was the daughter of no less a figure than Agathocles, had borne him a son, thus giving him a legitimate claim over Syracuse and its territory at a time when it was weak and politically divided.26

It was probably at this juncture that a third treaty between Carthage and Rome was signed. As well as renewing the terms of the 348 treaty, it also added several new clauses. Any peace negotiations with Pyrrhus would be entered into jointly, thus pre-empting an attempt on the part of the Epirote king to make an alliance with one against the other. Provisos were also included for limited military cooperation if either Carthage or Rome came under direct attack, and it was agreed that each side would supply and pay for its own troops (although Carthage would provide the naval support).27

Although Pyrrhus had initially landed in Sicily in the summer of 278 with a very modest force, he was quickly provided with troops, money and supplies by the anti-Carthaginian group of Sicilian cities. After a triumphal entry into Syracuse, where his mere approach had led to a substantial Carthaginian fleet abandoning their blockade of the harbour, Pyrrhus was able to acquire an army of 30,000 infantry and 2,500 cavalry for the campaign ahead. Indeed, he quickly discovered that the Carthaginian army on Sicily did not present the same kind of stiff challenge as the Roman legions.

Pyrrhus showed himself to be an extremely effective propagandist, for he quickly appropriated the mantle of a Hellenic liberator who would rid Sicily of the barbarous Carthaginians once and for all. Indeed, in familiar fashion, he made a vow to institute games and a sacrifice in honour of Heracles if he captured the Punic stronghold of Eryx–a promise that he carried out ‘in magnificent fashion’ after the attack was successful.28 Of course Eryx was a central Punic religious site, sacred to the goddess Astarte and therefore also linked to her celestial consort, Melqart. It seems very unlikely that Pyrrhus’ evocation of Heracles was a mere coincidence: more probably it was a specifically targeted reference that associated his assault of Eryx with Alexander’s celebrated siege of Tyre, the city of Melqart, after the fall of which Alexander had instituted games and a festival in honour of Heracles.

The cities and strongholds in the Carthaginians’ zone of the island quickly fell, until only Lilybaeum remained under Carthaginian control. Increasingly desperate to see Pyrrhus return to Italy, the Carthaginians suggested a peace deal in which they offered a large sum of money and a supply of ships (presumably to ensure his withdrawal). The move, which must have surely outraged the Romans, was rejected. Ominously for Carthage, Pyrrhus had now begun to make preparations to cross to Libya, reminded of the success of Agathocles when he had invaded North Africa directly. The continued resistance of Lilybaeum, however, gave reason for Carthaginian hope, and Pyrrhus moreover had alienated his Sicilian allies through increasingly high demands and arrogant behaviour. Invited once again by the desperate Greeks in Italy to protect them against Rome, he finally left Sicily in 276.29

In Italy, Pyrrhus met with little of his previous success. Although the Roman legions earned most of the credit for driving him out, the Carthaginians appear to have provided logistical support. On one occasion the Carthaginian fleet transported a force of 500 Romans to Rhegium, where they destroyed a stockpile of wood earmarked for building boats for Pyrrhus.30 Carthaginian warships also managed to defend the Romans from further attack by intercepting Pyrrhus’ fleet while it sailed back to Italy from Sicily.31 After a comprehensive defeat at the hands of the Roman army at Beneventum in 275, Pyrrhus left the shores of Italy never to return.32 He eventually met a humiliating end at a siege in Greece three years later, for an old woman knocked him unconscious with a tile thrown from a rooftop. Captured by the enemy, he was then beheaded.33

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