Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
PYRRHUS AND THE ROMANS
 SEVEN years after the death of Alexander, the Macedonian conqueror, there was born in Epirus, a country of Greece, a
warrior who might have rivaled Alexander's fortune and fame had he, like him, fought against Persians. But he
had the misfortune to fight against Romans, and his story became different. He was the greatest general of his
time. Hannibal has said that he was the greatest of any age. But Rome was not Persia, and a Roman army was not
to be dealt with like a Persian horde. Had Alexander marched west instead of east, he would probably not have
won the title of "Great."
Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, claimed descent from Pyrrhus, son of Achilles. While still an infant a rebellion broke
out in Epirus. His father was absent, and the rebel chiefs sought to kill him, but he was hurried away in his
nurse's arms, and his life saved. When he was ten years old, Glaucius, king of Illyria, who had brought him up
among his own children, conquered Epirus and placed him on the throne. Seven years afterwards rebellion broke
out again, and Pyrrhus had once more to fly for his life. He now fought in some great battle, married the
daughter of the king of Egypt, returned with an
 army, and again became king of Epirus. He afterwards conquered all Macedonia, and, like Alexander the Great,
whose fame he envied, looked about him for other worlds to conquer.
During the years over which our tales have passed a series of foreign powers had threatened Greece. First, in
the days of legend, it had found a foreign enemy in Troy. Next came the great empire of Persia, with which it
had for centuries to deal. Then rose Macedonia, the first conqueror of Greece. Meanwhile, in the west, a new
enemy had been slowly growing in power and thirst for conquest, that of Rome, before whose mighty arm Greece
was destined to fall and vanish from view as one of the powers of the earth. And the first of the Greeks to
come in warlike contact with the Romans was Pyrrhus. How this came about, and what arose from it, we have now
Step by step the ambitious Romans had been extending their power over Italy. They were now at war with
Tarentum, a city of Greek origin on the south Italian coast. The Tarentines, being hard pressed by their
vigorous foes, sent an embassy to Greece, and asked Pyrrhus, then the most famous warrior of the Grecian race,
to come to their aid against their enemy. This was in the year 281 B.C.
Pyrrhus had been for some years at peace, building himself a new capital city, which he profusely adorned with
pictures and statues. But peace was not to his taste. Consumed by ambition, restless in temperament, and
anxious to make himself a rival to fame of Alexander the Great, he was ready enough
 to accept this request, and measure his strength in battle against the most warlike nation of the West.
His wise counsellor, Cineas, asked him what he would do next, if he should overcome the Romans, who were said
to be great warriors and conquerors of many peoples.
"The Romans once overcome," he said, proudly, "no city, Greek or barbarian, would dare to oppose me, and I
should be master of all Italy."
"Well," said Cineas, "if you conquer Italy, what next?"
"Greater victories would follow. There are Libya and Carthage to be won."
"And then?" asked Cineas.
"Then I should be able to master all Greece."
"And then?" continued the counsellor.
"Then," said Pyrrhus, "I would live at ease, eat and drink all day, and enjoy pleasant conversation."
"And what hinders you from taking your ease now, without all this peril and bloodshed?"
Pyrrhus had no answer to this. But thirst for fame drove him on, and the days of ease never came.
In the following year Pyrrhus crossed to Italy with an army of about twenty-five thousand men, and with a
number of elephants, animals which the Romans had never seen, and with which he hoped to frighten them from the
battle-field. He had been promised the aid of all southern Italy, and an army of three hundred and fifty
thousand infantry and twenty thousand cavalry. In this he was destined to disappointment. He found the people
of Tarentum given up to frivolous pleasure, enjoying their
 theatres and festivals, and expecting that he would do their fighting while they spent their time in amusement.
They found, however, that they had gained a master instead of a servant. Frivolity was not the idea of war held
by Pyrrhus. He at once shut up the theatre, the gymnasia, and the public walks, stopped all feasting and
revelry throughout the city, closed the clubs or brotherhoods, and kept the citizens under arms all day. Some
of them, in disgust at this stern discipline, left the city. Pyrrhus there-upon closed the gates, and would let
none out without permission. He even went so far as to put to death some of the demagogues, and to send others
into exile. By these means he succeeded in making something like soldiers of the pleasure-loving Tarentines.
Thus passed the winter. Meanwhile, the Romans had been as active as their enemies. They made the most energetic
preparations for war, and with the opening of the spring were in the field. Pyrrhus, who had failed to receive
the great army promised him, did not feel strong enough to meet the Roman force. He offered peace and
arbitration, but his offers were scornfully rejected. He then sent spies to the Roman camp. One of these was
caught and permitted to observe the whole army on parade. He was then sent back to Pyrrhus, with the message
that if he wanted to see the Roman army he had better come himself in open day, instead of sending spies by
The two armies met at length on the banks of the
 river Siris, where Rome fought its first great battle with a foreign foe. The Romans were the stronger, but the
Greeks had the advantage in arms and discipline. The conflict that followed was very different from the one
fought by Alexander at Issus. So courageous and unyielding were the contestants that each army seven times
drove back its foes.
"Beware," said an officer to Pyrrhus, as he charged at the head of his cavalry, "of that barbarian on the black
horse with white feet. He has marked you for his prey."
"What is fated no man can avoid," said the king, heroically. "But neither this man nor the stoutest soldier in
Italy shall encounter me for nothing."
At that instant the Italian rode at him with levelled lance and killed his horse. But his own was killed at the
same instant, and while Pyrrhus was remounting his daring foe was surrounded and slain.
On this field, for the first time, the Greek spear encountered the Roman sword. The Macedonian phalanx with its
long pikes was met by the Roman legion with its heavy blades. The pike of the phalanx had hitherto conquered
the world. The sword of the legion was hereafter to take its place. But now neither seemed able to overcome the
other. In vain the Romans sought to hew a way with their swords through the forest of pikes, and as a last
resort the Roman general brought up a chosen body of cavalry, which he had held in reserve. These came on in
fierce charge, but Pyrrhus met them with a more formidable reserve,—his elephants.
 On beholding these strange monsters, terrible alike to horse and rider, the Roman cavalry fell back in
confusion. The horses could not be brought to face their huge opponents. Their disorder broke the ranks of the
infantry. Pyrrhus charged them with his Thessalian cavalry, and the Roman army was soon in total rout, leaving
its camp to the mercy of its foes.
During the battle Pyrrhus, knowing that the safety of his army depended on his own life, exchanged his arms,
helmet, and scarlet cloak for the armor of Megacles, one of his officers. The borrowed splendor proved fatal to
Megacles. The Romans made him their mark. Every one struck at him. He was at last struck down and slain, and
his helmet and cloak were carried to Lavinus, the Roman commander, who had them borne in triumph along his
ranks. Pyrrhus, fearing that this mistake might prove fatal, at once threw off his helmet and rode bareheaded
along his own line, to let his soldiers see that he was still alive, and that a scarlet cloak was not a king.
The battle over, Pyrrhus surveyed the field, strewn thickly with the dead of both armies, his valiant soul
moved to a new respect for his foes.
"If I had such soldiers," he cried, "I could conquer the world." Then, noting the numbers of his own dead, he
added, "Another such victory, and I must return to Epirus alone."
He sent Cineas, his wise counsellor, to Rome to offer terms of peace. Nearly four thousand of his army had
fallen, and these largely Greeks; the
 weather was unfavorable for an advance; alliance with these brave foes might be wiser than war. Many of the
Romans, too, thought the same; but while they were debating in the Forum there was borne into this building the
famous censor Appius Claudius, once a leader in Rome, now totally blind and in extreme old age. His advent was
like that of blind Timoleon to the Syracusan senate. The senators listened in deepest silence when the old man
rose to speak. What he said we do not know, but his voice was for war, and the senate, moved by his impassioned
appeal, voted that there should be no peace with Pyrrhus while he remained in Italy, and ordered Cineas to
leave Rome, with this ultimatum, that very day.
Peace refused, Pyrrhus advanced against Rome. He marched through a territory which for years had been free from
the ravages of war, and was in a state of flourishing prosperity. It was plundered by his soldiers without
mercy. On he came until Rome itself lay visible to his eyes from an elevation but eighteen miles away. Another
day's march would have brought him to its walls. But a strong Roman army was in his front; another army hung
upon his rear; his own army was weakened by dissensions between the Greeks and Italians; he deemed it prudent
to retreat with the plunder he had gained.
Another winter passed. Pyrrhus had many prisoners, whom he would not exchange or ransom unless the Romans would
accept peace. But he treated them well, and even allowed them to return to Rome to enjoy the winter holiday of
the Saturnalia, on
 their solemn promise that they would return if peace was still refused. The senate was still firm for war, and
the prisoners returned after the holidays, the sturdy Romans having passed an edict that any prisoner who
should linger in Rome after the day fixed for the return should suffer death.
In the following spring another battle was fought near Asculum, on the plains of Apulia. Once more the Roman
sword was pitted against the Macedonian pike. The nature of the ground was such that the Romans were forced to
attack their enemy in front, and they hewed in vain with their swords upon the wall of pikes, which they even
grasped with their hands and tried to break. The Greeks kept their line intact, and the Romans were slaughtered
without giving a wound in return. At length they gave way. Then the elephants charged, and the repulse became a
rout. But this time the Romans fled only to their camp, which was close at hand. They had lost six thousand
men. Pyrrhus had lost three thousand five hundred of his light-armed troops. The heavy-armed infantry was
Here was another battle that proved almost as bad as a defeat. Pyrrhus had lost many of the men he had brought
from Epirus. He was not in condition to take the field again, and no more soldiers could just then be had from
Greece. The Romans were now willing to make a truce, and Pyrrhus crossed soon after to Sicily, to aid the
Greeks of that island against their Carthaginian foes. He remained there two years, fighting with varied
success and defeat. Then he returned to Tarentum, which
 again needed his aid against its persistent Roman enemies.
On his way there Pyrrhus passed through Locri. Here was a famous temple of Proserpine, in whose vaults was a
large treasure, which had been buried for an unknown period, and on which no mortal eye was permitted to gaze.
Pyrrhus took bad advice and plundered the temple of the sacred treasure, placing it on board his ships. A storm
arose and wrecked the ships, and the stolen treasure was cast back on the Locrian coast. Pyrrhus now ordered it
to be restored, and offered sacrifices to appease the offended goddess. She gave no signs of accepting them. He
then put to death the three men who had advised the sacrilege, but his mind continued haunted with dread of
divine vengeance. Proserpine, who was seemingly deeply offended, might bring upon him ruin and defeat, and the
hearts of his soldiers were weakened by dread of impending evils.
Once more Pyrrhus met the Romans in the field, but no longer with success. One of his elephants was wounded,
and ran wildly into his ranks, throwing them into disorder. Eight of these animals were driven into ground from
which there was no escape. They were captured by the Romans. As the battle continued one wing of the Roman army
was repulsed; but they assailed the elephants with such a shower of light weapons that these huge brutes turned
and fled through the ranks of the phalanx, throwing it into disorder. On their heels came the Romans. The Greek
line once broken, the
 swords of the Romans gave them a great advantage over the long spears of the enemy. Cut down in numbers, the
Greeks were thrown into confusion, and were soon flying in panic, hotly pursued by their foes. How many were
slain is not known, but the defeat was decisive. Retreating to Tarentum, Pyrrhus resolved to leave Italy,
disgusted with his failure and with the supineness of his allies, and disappointed in his ambitious hopes. He
reached Epirus again with little more than eight thousand troops, and without money enough to maintain even
these. Thus ended the first meeting of Greeks and Romans in war.
The remainder of the story of Pyrrhus may be soon told. He had counted on living in ease after his wars, but
ease was not for him. His remaining life was spent in war. He invaded and conquered Macedonia. He engaged in
war against the Spartans, and was repulsed from their capital city. At last, in his attack on Argos, while
forcing his way through its streets, he fell by a woman's hand. A tile was cast from a house on his head, which
hurled him stunned from his horse, and he was killed in the street. Thus ignobly perished the greatest general
of his age.