The conquest of Southern Italy: the Pyrrhic War, 280–275 BC

Prior to the 3rd century BC, Roman contact with the Greeks of southern Italy and Sicily – ‘Western Greece’ – had been restricted mainly to the Oscanized cities of Campania. Further south, in the foot of Italy and across the straits, most cities were still under Greek rule. Admittedly, few of these were truly independent, but their suzerains were other Greeks – most likely the Tarentines in southern Italy, or the Syracusans in Sicily – and these settlements, known collectively to the ancients as Magna Graecia (Great Greece), formed part of a wider Hellenistic civilization. (The term ‘Hellenistic’ is used to describe the Greek-speaking world after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.) That civilization extended from a scatter of older cities in the far west, like Massilia (Marseilles), to a multitude of new foundations spread across the recently conquered East, some of which, like Alexandria in Egypt, were poised for greatness. Over much of this expanse, especially in the Orient, the Greek cities floated on a sea of indigenous people, mere blobs of Hellenic culture amid alien deities, unfamiliar customs, and ‘barbarous’ languages. But where the Greek settlements were older – in the Aegean and Western Asia Minor (‘Eastern Greece’: colonized c. 1050–800 BC), and in Western Greece (colonized c. 750–600 BC) – Hellenism had sunk deeper roots. In many parts of southern Italy and Sicily, the native people had been driven off the coastal plain or assimilated into Greek society. Here, Greek had become the language of country as well as town, and Hera, Athena, Artemis and Aphrodite, the Earth Mothers of Old Greece, were worshipped in remote sacred groves. Yet, however well-rooted in places, this Hellenistic civilization was in crisis – a fact of fundamental importance to the balance of forces in a succession of clashes between the Roman Republic and the Hellenistic states in the two and a half centuries after 280 BC. Because of this, we must digress briefly to explore the crisis before returning to pick up the story of the first of these clashes: Rome’s war against Tarentum and King Pyrrhus.

Land shortage had driven the earlier waves of Greek colonization that had created Eastern and Western Greece. Only about 15 per cent of Old Greece can be cultivated, and the ancient population had repeatedly outgrown its meagre resources. Colonial expeditions had been funded and organized by the city-states, and groups of pioneers had set off in search of new settlement sites, seeking a place with plentiful good land, a ready supply of fresh water, and, ideally, a natural harbour and a defensible highpoint for an acropolis (or citadel). Once new cities had been established, they sometimes planted further colonies of their own. Paestum, for example – famous for its three still-standing temples – was founded in c. 600 BC by settlers from Sybaris in the Gulf of Taranto, while Sybaris itself (a rich trading city whose ‘sybaritic’ luxury became proverbial) had been founded by Achaean Greeks in c. 720 BC. The new settlements were modelled on their mother-cities; Greek colonization meant the spread of a specific form of social and political organization: the city-state (polis).

Membership of the city-state depended on citizenship. This was determined by birth and was linked to land ownership: the first citizens had probably all been allocated a plot of land in the territory of the city, and property-ownership remained closely associated with the idea of citizenship thereafter. The city-state was, in essence, a collective of patriarchal households (oikoi) that lived off the produce of their own land and labour. The basic function of the state was to organize the collective defence of territory, and the citizen’s most important duty to the state was military service. Greek city-states were protected by citizen militias, crucially the hoplite phalanx, a dense block of heavy infantry spearmen formed by the better-off citizens who could afford the necessary equipment. The phalanx empowered the demos (the citizen-body). The institutions of the Greek city-state reflected its dependence on a militia of its own citizens. Popular assemblies, jury courts, and frequent elections gave ordinary citizens real power. The annual round of religious festivals expressed the solidarity and common identity of the citizen community. In contrast to monarchies and empires, where subjects were expected to be passive and obedient, participation in public affairs was actively encouraged. ‘Here,’ announced the Athenian politician Pericles, ‘each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well. Even those who are mostly occupied in their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics. This is a peculiarity of ours. We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.’(3) For Greeks like Pericles, political engagement was a moral obligation and the measure of a fellow citizen’s worth. Appropriately enough, the words were spoken at a public funeral for Athenian war dead – political activity and military service were twin faces of Greek citizenship.

By the early 3rd century BC, however, the substance of Greek citizenship had become diluted. The city-state form – at its zenith in the 5th century BC – had always contained the seeds of its own decay. Divided into a multiplicity of independent polities – one estimate is of 1,500 city-states in c. 500 BC – warfare was endemic to the Greek world. Ancient Athens, for example, was at war three years in every four during most of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Military competition became a dynamic force propelling change. Armed leagues were formed, at first for mutual security, often later mutating into miniature empires ruled by the dominant member. Warfare became more specialized and protracted, beyond the capabilities of a part-time amateur militia, so funds were accumulated to hire professionals. Both developments compromised citizen democracy. Politicians dominated the governing councils of the leagues. Full-time generals commanded the new professional armies. Reduced dependence on citizen militia-service undermined the authority of the popular assemblies and shifted power in the Greek world away from the demos to autocrats and oligarchs.

The tensions had always been present. Wealth had never been equally distributed within the city-state, and the balance of power between the minority of landed aristocrats who favoured oligarchy (the rule of the few) and the majority of working farmers who supported democracy (the rule of the citizen-body as a whole) had often been a fine one. During the 4th century, however, the balance altered sharply, and many Greek cities succumbed to the rule of oligarchs, tyrants or kings. Indeed, even where democracies survived, they became the playthings of the great powers. Rome consistently supported oligarchs, so her enemies often backed the democrats; but ‘freedom’ bestowed from on high is hollow, ‘democracy’ by permission a contradiction. A decisive moment had been reached in Old Greece in 338 BC – the same year as Rome’s suppression of the Latin League – when Philip II’s army had smashed the city-state militias of Athens and Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea, thereby establishing a lasting Macedonian hegemony. The old Greek cities were first dragooned into supporting the eastern campaigns of Philip’s son Alexander, then subsumed in the years of anarchy after his death as the Successors battled for control of the Empire. It was a generation before a moderately stable system of Hellenistic states emerged in the eastern Mediterranean.

Decay of the city-state system had afflicted Western Greece no less than Eastern, and most cities here too had succumbed to superior power. The Samnites had overrun the Campanian coastal cities, and the mixed Greek-Oscan-Etruscan communities that resulted had then sought Roman protection against renewed onslaughts from the highlands. Further south, the city of Tarentum had become the principal bulwark of Hellenism. Most Western Greek cities were well past their peak by the time of the Samnite Wars. The great civic monuments – such as the temples which still stand at Paestum, Agrigento and Selinunte – had almost all been erected in the 6th or 5th century BC. Afterwards the military struggle consumed most of the surplus. Tarentum was exceptional in continuing to prosper. Its pastures were reputed to produce the best fleeces in Italy, and wool was made into fine cloth and dyed with purple from mussel-beds along the coast. Tarentum was located, of course, on the gulf which bears its name, and, with a fine harbour, its goods were traded the length of the Adriatic during the 4th century; fine Tarentine painted pottery is found liberally distributed as far as the Po Valley and even beyond the Alps. Successful farms, rich trade, and an inclusive democratic constitution made Tarentum stable and powerful. The city had an army of 15,000, the strongest navy in Italy, and the resources to employ a series of mercenary armies from Sparta and Epirus – a military capacity used both to extend Tarentine territory in the coastal plain, uniting many local cities under its hegemony, and to keep the Lucanians bottled up in their highlands.

Tarentum therefore feared the growing power of Rome. Tension mounted quickly after the Third Samnite War. The Romans had founded a strong Latin colony at Venusia in Apulia in 291 BC. Close to the Lucanian border, it was one of the ring of settlements designed to contain the Samnites and their allies; but, further south than any other Roman colony at the time, it was also in Tarentum’s backyard. Ten years later, in 282 BC, when Thurii, another Greek city on the Gulf of Taranto, appealed to them for help against Lucanian attacks, the Romans sent a small relief army and fleet. The Tarentines responded immediately to this new encroachment. They attacked the Roman fleet and sank several vessels, while their army marched on Thurii, drove away the outnumbered Roman force, and overthrew the pro-Roman oligarchy in the town, replacing it with a democracy. Then, having rejected a Roman request for compensation and anticipating a wider war, the Tarentines recruited a powerful ally.

Viewed in retrospect, King Pyrrhus of Epirus can seem a paper tiger. He was not so regarded at the time. One of the last of the generation of warlords spawned by the wars of the Successors, he was accounted the finest general of his age. At a time when there were still men alive who had fought under Alexander, Pyrrhus’s army of 25,000 experienced professionals was modelled on that which had destroyed the Persian Empire. Rome’s legions, by contrast, for all their success against the minor city-states and hill tribes of Italy, were still essentially a citizen militia. The Tarentines had every reason for confidence in their ally. And Pyrrhus – the space for great military exploits having been squeezed in the East by the emergence there, finally, of relatively stable Hellenistic kingdoms – expected to find an open arena for his talents in Western Greece. The Greek chattering classes anticipated easy victories.

The military doctrine of both Romans and Hellenistic Greeks was similar: to seek out the enemy’s main forces and achieve an immediate decision in pitched battle. When a Roman army approached Tarentum, laying waste the countryside as it came, Pyrrhus, even though not all his Greek allies had yet arrived, marched out to confront it. Pyrrhus’s army comprised three key elements. First, deployed in the centre of the battle-line, a heavy phalanx of pikemen, each equipped with a pike (sarissa) at least 4.8 m long, such that several rows of blades projected forward of the front rank. Second, stationed on the wings, large contingents of first-rate armoured shock cavalry equipped with spears, swords and shields. Traditionally, the king placed himself at the head of the main cavalry force and aimed to lead a decisive charge to break the enemy line at the climax of the battle. Third, a force of 20 elephants, each with a mahout (a driver who sat on the animal’s neck) and a howdah (a small tower on the animal’s back accommodating two or three men armed with bows, javelins or long spears). The elephants themselves were also trained to fight, using feet, trunks and tusks in close-quarters fighting. The sight, sound and smell of them disabled enemy cavalry by panicking the horses; while defending infantry could be traumatized by the approach and impact of an elephant charge.

Even so, the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC was no simple affair. The Romans were amateurs, but drilled and disciplined amateurs. ‘Pyrrhus rode up to take a view of them,’ reports Plutarch, ‘and seeing their order, the appointment of their watches, and the method and general form of their encampment, he was amazed, and addressing one of his friends next to him declared, “This order, Magacles, of the barbarians is not at all barbarian in character; we shall presently see what they can do.”’(4) Pyrrhus’s first impression did not deceive: what the ‘barbarians’ could do in battle was indeed formidable. The king’s all-important cavalry charge miscarried; his horsemen were pushed back and his centre exposed. He took a grave risk in then ordering his phalanx and elephants to charge. Resisted at first by the legionaries in front, Pyrrhus’s army would have been destroyed had the victorious Roman cavalry been able to plunge into the flanks of the phalanx. But they were hopelessly disordered by the close proximity of elephants, allowing Pyrrhus’s cavalry, whose horses were used to the beasts, to regroup and counterattack. The enemy horse was quickly driven off, exposing the Roman centre to attack. Terrorized by the elephants, exhausted by the struggle to hold back the hedge of pikes in front of them, and now finally charged by heavy cavalry in the flank, the legionaries broke and ran. The ancient sources disagree about the casualty figures, but the lower estimate is a loss of 7,000 Romans to 4,000 Greeks; at best, an expensive victory for Pyrrhus, whose professional veterans were harder to replace than Rome’s citizen militiamen.

The battle, therefore, was far from decisive. In an effort to prevent her recently won Empire in southern Italy from unravelling, Rome attempted to restore her prestige in a fresh clash of arms. Despite the defection of Greeks, Lucanians and Samnites, and an intimidating advance north to within 80 km of Rome by Pyrrhus’s army, the Romans rejected the king’s peace overtures – amounting to a demand for their withdrawal from the south. The Senate was rallied to continuing resistance by the ageing hawk Appius Claudius Pulcher: ‘Do not persuade yourselves that making him [Pyrrhus] your friend is the way to send him back; rather it is the way to bring over other invaders from thence, condemning you as easily reduced, if Pyrrhus goes off without punishment for his outrages on you, but, on the contrary, with the reward of having enabled the Tarentines and Samnites to laugh at the Romans.’(5)

Unable to win over allies in central Italy, Pyrrhus withdrew south again for the winter, and it was here that the Romans confronted him once more in 279 BC. Both armies were larger, perhaps twice the size of the previous year, Pyrrhus’s having been augmented by his new allies, the Romans’ by the deployment of both main consular armies in the south. The first day of the Battle of Ausculum was fought in rough and wooded terrain that limited the effectiveness of elephants and cavalry, and left little opportunity for turning movements. Largely an infantry battle, then, the ground also favoured legionaries over hoplites: both were types of heavy infantry, but while the legionaries fought in a more open formation using javelins and swords, the hoplites needed a tight formation to maintain the integrity of their hedge of pikes. Neither side gave ground, however, and at the end of the first day’s fighting both withdrew to their camps for the night. The following morning Pyrrhus offered battle again, this time on more open ground. The Romans, aggressive and confident as ever, accepted. Now, though the javelins and short swords of the legionaries again proved a match for the unwieldy pikes of the phalanx, the Roman army was thrown back by an elephant charge late in the day and retreated to its camp. Ausculum had been another gruelling encounter, with 6,000 Roman casualties and 3,500 Greek. The king had lost many of his best officers; the veterans who had fallen could not be replaced; Ausculum won him no new allies; and the Romans gave no indication they were any closer to surrender. His army was wasting away in a war of attrition he could not win. So he turned from Italy and crossed the straits to try his fortune in the interminable struggles of the Sicilian Greeks against the Carthaginians.

Pyrrhus’s Italian allies could not sustain themselves without his direct support, however, and in the three years of his absence in Sicily were pressed hard by the Romans. Finally, in desperation, they appealed to him to come back. Pyrrhus, having achieved no more in Sicily than in Italy, heeded their call. In his final Italian campaign, Pyrrhus displayed the same energetic spirit, detaching a force to divert one of the two Roman consular armies, then launching a daring march through the night with his main force to take the other by surprise. But night marches are hazardous and the Greeks lost their way. When the sun came up on the Battle of Beneventum (275 BC), they were badly deployed, and their vanguard was attacked and thrown back. Pyrrhus restored the chaotic battle with an elephant charge, which in turn drove the Romans back to their camp. But the elephants, their energy spent, found themselves too far out in front and without proper support. The Roman infantry, reforming in the safety of their camp, harried the elephants with missiles and then charged out at them, causing a stampede to the rear which sent the panic-stricken beasts crashing through their own lines and throwing them into chaos. Pyrrhus withdrew in haste from the battlefield – and soon, with the bulk of his remaining army, about a third of the original 25,000, returned to Epirus. (He was killed a few years later, rather ingloriously, by a falling roof-tile hurled by an old woman during a street battle in Argos.)

The south Italian war was not yet over, but Pyrrhus’s allies were left fighting against the odds. Tarentum fell in 272 BC when Pyrrhus decided to withdraw the garrison he had left there, agreeing to hand the city over to the Romans in return for his men’s safe passage out. None of the other Greek cities was strong enough to contemplate continued resistance. There was war for some years more, however, against the Samnite, Lucanian and Bruttian highlanders; the colonies planted at Paestum (273 BC), Beneventum (268 BC) and Aesernia (263 BC) symbolized their progressive subjugation and the annexation of their territory. Unable to win when allied with Pyrrhus, the peoples of southern Italy were bound to succumb when left to face Rome alone. What is more, the Pyrrhic War had demonstrated again the extraordinary resilience of the Roman state when thrown back on to the defensive by an opponent of comparable battlefield power. Pyrrhus’s victories had given him localized and temporary strategic dominance. But when he advanced, he had found himself hamstrung by the solidity of the Roman commonwealth in central Italy. Epirus was a small, impoverished and distant state; the Greeks of southern Italy were militarily weak; the Samnites were a broken people: whereas Rome had vast reserves of military manpower and a network of fortified strong-points and supply-bases across the peninsula. Pyrrhus had been able to achieve momentary success; but victory in the war had eluded him because the core of Rome’s Italian Empire had remained intact.

These realities of power would be tested again, 60 years later, on a far grander scale. For Rome, now unchallenged mistress of Italy, was poised for her first overseas adventure, one that would bring her into immediate conflict with the ancient mercantile empire of Carthage – a conflict that would eventually spawn an Italian war far more terrible than that against Pyrrhus.

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