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The Story of Rome by  Mary Macgregor

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THE ELEPHANTS AT THE BATTLE OF HERACLEA

[145] WHILE Pyrrhus was training the lazy Tarentines, the new Consul, Valerius, was advancing with his army toward the city, burning and plundering the country through which he passed. So Pyrrhus resolved to leave Tarentum and go to meet the enemy. Assembling his troops he marched away toward the town of Heraclea, which stood on the bank of the river Siris, where he determined to pitch his camp.

Across the river lay the Roman army, and the king rode along the bank on his side of the Siris, admiring the order and discipline of the enemy.

"We shall see presently what they can do," he said to a friend who rode by his side.

Wishing to keep the Romans from crossing the river until his reinforcements arrived, Pyrrhus ordered soldiers to guard the passage.

But Valerius did not mean to wait for the king to strengthen his force, and he at once sent his cavalry higher up the Siris to cross at a ford, while he, with his infantry, tried to cross the river in spite of the guard set by Pyrrhus.

The king immediately advanced with three thousand horse, hoping to scatter the Romans ere they succeeded in reaching the opposite bank.

But protecting themselves with their shields, the Roman soldiers were soon scrambling out of the river.

Pyrrhus, ordering his men to form in closer ranks, then [146] led them against the enemy. His armour, richer and more beautiful than that of his soldiers, at once attracted the attention of the Romans and drew on him the most determined attacks.


[Illustration]

The armour of Pyrrhus was richer and more beautiful than that of his soldiers.

His friends, seeing the danger to which the king was exposed, begged him to beware.

One of them, pointing to a barbarian who rode upon a black horse with white feet, said, "Sire, yonder fellow fixes his whole attention on you alone, taking no notice of others. Be on your guard against him."

The king answered, "It is impossible for any man to avoid his fate, but neither he nor any other Italian shall have much satisfaction in engaging with me."

At that moment the Roman, spurring on his horse and lowering his spear, dashed upon the king.

Pyrrhus fell to the ground, for his steed was pierced by the enemy's spear.

Quick as lightning, Leonnatus, who had warned Pyrrhus of this very soldier, killed the Roman's horse, and before he or any other of the enemy could reach the king, his friends had dragged him to a place of safety. He was then persuaded to change his armour with one of his officers named Megacles.

The Romans now fiercely attacked Megacles, and at length they succeeded in dragging him from his horse and in wounding him to death.

Then the victors seized his helmet and cloak and hastened with them to their general, to show that they had indeed killed the king.

The royal trophies were placed on the point of a spear and carried along the lines of the Roman army, that all might see that the king was slain.

While the Romans shouted for joy, the Greeks looked on in dismay, thinking that their Eagle king was no longer alive.

But Pyrrhus soon learned what had happened, and [147] dashing to the front, he rode bare-headed before his men, shouting to them to follow him.

The Consul now determined to bring forward the force he had kept in reserve, thinking that it would decide the day. But Pyrrhus too had a reserve force, and a more terrible one than his enemy. This was his twenty elephants, which, with towers on their backs filled with armed men, he now let loose upon the foe.

The huge beasts, trumpeting loudly, were more than the Roman horses could stand. Wild with fear at the sight of such strange monsters, they galloped madly away, either throwing their riders or carrying them off the battlefield.

Many of the fallen were trampled to death by the elephants, while the victorious Greeks hastened in pursuit of the flying legions.

The whole Roman army would have been destroyed save for an accident.

As he fled, one of the Roman soldiers flung his spear at an elephant and wounded it. The beast, wild with pain, turned back upon its own army, making the other elephants also restive.

Before order was restored and the animals pacified, the main body of the Romans had escaped across the Siris.

Pyrrhus had gained a victory indeed, but he had lost a large number of his men. As he looked sadly upon the hosts of the dead lying upon the battlefield, he cried, "Another such victory and I must return to Epirus alone."

The sight of the Roman soldiers slain in battle roused his admiration, for he noticed that their wounds were all in front. "Had I such soldiers," said the king, "I should soon be master of the world." Pyrrhus must have been thinking as he spoke of the lazy, undisciplined Tarentines, for his own brave Epirots were surely the last to turn their backs to an enemy.

[148] When tidings of the king's victory became known, many Greek towns sent tardy recruits to the conqueror.

And Pyrrhus, who had a generous heart, gave to these a share of the plunder, and rebuked them but lightly for joining him only after the battle was won.


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