Pyrrhus - Jacob Abbott

Grecian Empire

War in Italy

The grand undertaking in which Pyrrhus now engaged, as indicated in the last chapter, the one in which he acquired such great renown, was an expedition into Italy against the Romans. The immediate occasion of his embarking in this enterprise was an invitation which he received from the inhabitants of Tarentum to come to their aid. His predecessor, Alexander, had been drawn into Italy precisely in the same way; and we might have supposed that Pyrrhus would have been warned by the terrible fate which Alexander met with not to follow in his steps. But military men are never deterred from dangerous undertakings by the disasters which others have encountered in attempting them before. In fact, perhaps Pyrrhus was the more eager to try his fortune in this field on account of the calamitous result of his uncle's campaign. He was unwilling that his kingdom of Epirus should rest under the discredit of a defeat, and he was fired with a special ambition to show that he could overcome and triumph where others had been overborne and destroyed.

The dominion of the Romans had extended itself before this time over a considerable portion of Italy, though Tarentum, and the region of country dependent upon it, had not yet been subdued. The Romans were, however, now gradually making their way toward the eastern and southern part of Italy, and they had at length advanced to the frontiers of the Tarentine territory; and having been met and resisted there by the Tarentine troops, a collision ensued, which was followed by an open and general war. In the struggle, the Tarentines found that they could not maintain their ground against the Roman soldiery. They were gradually driven back; and now the city itself was in very imminent danger.

The difficulties in which the Tarentines were placed were greatly increased by the fact that there was no well-organized and stable government ruling in the city. The government was a sort of democracy in its form, and in its action it seems to have been a democracy of a very turbulent character—the questions of public policy being debated and decided in assemblies of the people, where it would seem that there was very little of parliamentary law to regulate the proceedings; and now the dangers which threatened them on the approach of the Romans distracted their councils more than ever, and produced, in fact, universal disorder and confusion throughout the city.

Various parties were formed, each of which had its own set of measures to urge and insist upon. Some were for submitting to the Romans, and thus allowing themselves to be incorporated in the Roman commonwealth; others were for persevering in their resistance to the last extremity. In the midst of these disputes, it was suggested by some of the counselors that the reason why they had not been able to maintain their ground against their enemies was, that they had no commander of sufficient predominance in rank and authority to concentrate their forces, and employ them in an efficient and advantageous manner; and they proposed that, in order to supply this very essential deficiency, Pyrrhus should be invited to come and take the command of their forces. This plan was strongly opposed by the more considerate and far-sighted of the people; for they well knew that when a foreign power was called in, in such a manner, as a temporary friend and ally, it almost always became, in the end, a permanent master. The mass of the people of the city, however, were so excited by the imminence of the immediate peril, that it was impossible to impress them with any concern for so remote and uncertain a danger, and it was determined that Pyrrhus should be called.

It was said that the meetings which were held by the Tarentines while these proceedings were in progress, were so boisterous and disorderly that, as often happens in democratic assemblies, the voices of those who were in the minority could not be heard; and that at last one of the public men, who was opposed to the plan of sending the invitation to Pyrrhus, resorted to a singular device in order to express his opinion. The name of this personage was Meton. The artifice which he adopted was this: he disguised himself as a strolling mountebank and musician, and then, pretending to be half intoxicated, he came into the assembly with a garland upon his head, a torch in his hand, and with a woman playing on a sort of flute to accompany him. On seeing him enter the assembly, the people all turned their attention toward him. Some laughed, some clapped their hands, and others called out to him to give them a song. Meton prepared to do so; and when, after much difficulty, silence was at length obtained, Meton came forward into the space that had been made for him, and, throwing off his disguise, he called out aloud,

"Men of Tarentum! You do well in calling for a song, and in enjoying the pleasures of mirth and merriment while you may; for I warn you that you will see very little like mirth or merriment in Tarentum after Pyrrhus comes."

The astonishment which this sudden turn in the affair occasioned, was succeeded for a moment by a murmur of assent, which seemed to pass though the assembly; the good sense of many of the spectators being surprised, as it were, into an admission that the sentiment which Meton had so surreptitiously found means to express to them was true. This pause was, however, but momentary. A scene of violent excitement and confusion ensued, and Meton and the woman were expelled from the meeting without any ceremony.

The resolution of sending for Pyrrhus was confirmed, and embassadors were soon afterward dispatched to Epirus. The message which they communicated to Pyrrhus on their arrival was, that the Tarentines, being engaged in a war with the Romans, invited Pyrrhus to come and take command of their armies. They had troops  enough, they said, and all necessary provisions and munitions of war. All that they now required was an able and efficient general; and if Pyrrhus would come over to them and assume the command, they would at once put him at the head of an army of twenty thousand horse and three hundred and fifty thousand foot soldiers.

It seems incredible that a state should have attained to such a degree of prosperity and power as to be able to bring such a force as this into the field, while under the government of men who, when convened for the consideration of questions of public policy in a most momentous crisis, were capable of having their attention drawn off entirely from the business before them by the coming in of a party of strolling mountebanks and players. Yet such is the account recorded by one of the greatest historians of ancient times.

Pyrrhus was, of course, very much elated at receiving this communication. The tidings, too, produced great excitement among all the people of Epirus. Great numbers immediately began to offer themselves as volunteers to accompany the expedition. Pyrrhus determined at once to embark in the enterprise, and he commenced making preparations for it on a very magnificent scale; for, notwithstanding the assurance which the Tarentines had given him that they had a very large body of men already assembled, Pyrrhus seems to have thought it best to take with him a force of his own.

As soon as a part of his army was ready, he sent them forward under the command of a distinguished general and minister of state, named Cineas. Cineas occupied a very high position in Pyrrhus’s court. He was a Thessalian by birth. He had been educated in Greece, under Demosthenes, and he was a very accomplished scholar and orator as well as statesman. Pyrrhus had employed him in embassies and negotiations of various kinds from time to time, and Cineas had always discharged these trusts in a very able and satisfactory manner. In fact, Pyrrhus, with his customary courtesy in acknowledging his obligations to those whom he employed, used to say that Cineas had gained him more cities by his address than he had ever conquered for himself by his arms.

Cineas, it was said, was, in the outset, not much in favor of this expedition into Italy. The point of view in which he regarded such an enterprise was shown in a remarkable conversation which he held with Pyrrhus while the preparations were going on. He took occasion to introduce the subject one day, when Pyrrhus was for a short period at leisure in the midst of his work, by saying,

"The Romans are famed as excellent soldiers, and they have many warlike nations in alliance with them. But suppose we succeed in our enterprise and conquer them, what use shall we make of our victory?"

"Your question answers itself," replied the king. "The Romans are the predominant power in Italy. If they are once subdued, there will be nothing in Italy that can withstand us; we can go on immediately and make ourselves masters of the whole country."

After a short pause, during which he seemed to be reflecting on the career of victory which Pyrrhus was thus opening to view, Cineas added,

"And after we have conquered Italy, what shall we do next?"

"Why, there is Sicily very near," replied Pyrrhus, "a very fruitful and populous island, and one which we shall then very easily be able to subdue. It is now in a very unsettled state, and could do nothing effectual to resist us."

"I think that is very true," said Cineas; "and after we make ourselves masters of Sicily, what shall we do then?"

"Then," replied Pyrrhus, "we can cross the Mediterranean to Lybia and Carthage. The distance is not very great, and we shall be able to land on the African coast at the head of such a force that we shall easily make ourselves masters of the whole country. We shall then have so extended and established our power, that no enemy can be found in any quarter who will think of opposing us."

"That is very true," said Cineas; "and so you will then be able to put down effectually all your old enemies in Thessaly, Macedon, and Greece, and make yourself master of all those countries. And when all this is accomplished, what shall we do then?"

"Why, then," said Pyrrhus, "we can sit down and take our ease, and eat, drink, and be merry."

"And why," rejoined Cineas, "can not we sit down and take our ease, and enjoy ourselves now, instead of taking all this trouble beforehand? You have already at your command every possible means of enjoyment; why not make yourself happy with them now, instead of entering on a course which will lead to such dreadful toils and dangers, such innumerable calamities, and through such seas of blood, and yet bring you after all, at the end, nothing more than you have at the beginning?"

It may, perhaps, be a matter of doubt whether Cineas intended this as a serious remonstrance against the execution of Pyrrhus's designs, or only as an ingenious and good-humored satire on the folly of ambition, to amuse the mind of his sovereign in some momentary interval of leisure that came in the midst of his cares. However it may have been intended, it made no serious impression on the mind of Pyrrhus, and produced no change in his plans. The work of preparation went vigorously on; and as soon as a portion of the troops were ready to embark, Cineas was put in command of them, and they crossed the Adriatic Sea. After this, Pyrrhus completed the organization of the remaining force. It consisted of twenty elephants, three thousand horse, and twenty thousand foot, with two thousand archers, and twenty thousand slingers. When all was ready, Pyrrhus put these troops on board a large fleet of galleys, transports, and flat-bottomed boats, which had been sent over to him from Tarentum by Cineas for the purpose, and at length set sail. He left Ptolemy, his eldest son, then about fifteen years old, regent of the kingdom, and took two younger sons, Alexander and Helenas, with him. The expedition was destined, it seems, to begin in disaster; for no sooner had Pyrrhus set sail than a terrible storm arose, which, for a time, threatened the total destruction of the fleet, and of all who were on board of it. The ship which conveyed Pyrrhus himself, was, of course, larger and better manned than the others, and it succeeded at length, a little after midnight, in reaching the Italian shore, while the rest of the fleet were driven at the mercy of the winds, and dispersed in every direction over the sea, far and wide. But, though Pyrrhus's ship approached the shore, the violence of the winds and waves was so great, that for a long time it was impossible for those on board to land. At length the wind suddenly changed its direction, and began to blow very violently off the shore, so that there seemed to be great probability that the ship would be driven to sea again. In fact, so imminent was the danger, that Pyrrhus determined to throw himself into the sea and attempt to swim to the shore. He accordingly did so, and was immediately followed by his attendants and guards, who leaped into the water after him, and did every thing in their power to assist him in gaining the land. The danger, however, was extreme; for the darkness of the night, the roaring of the winds and waves, and the violence with which the surf regurgitated from the shore, rendered the scene terrific beyond description. At last, however, about daybreak, the shipwrecked company succeeded in gaining the land.

Pyrrhus was almost completely exhausted in body by the fatigues and exposures which he had endured, but he appeared to be by no means depressed in mind. The people of the country flocked down to the coast to render aid. Several other vessels afterward succeeded in reaching the shore; and as the wind now rapidly subsided, the men on board of them found comparatively little difficulty in effecting a landing. Pyrrhus collected the remnant thus saved, and marshaled them on the shore. He found that he had about two thousand foot, a small body of horse, and two elephants. With this force he immediately set out on his march to Tarenturn. As he approached the city, Cineas came out to meet him at the head of the forces which had been placed at his command, and which had made the passage in safety.

As soon as Pyrrhus found himself established in Tarentum, he immediately assumed the command of every thing there, as if he were already the acknowledged sovereign of the city. In fact, he found the city in so disorganized and defenseless a condition, that this assumption of power on his part seemed to be justified by the necessity of the case. The inhabitants, as is often the fact with men when their affairs are in an extreme and desperate condition, had become reckless. Every where throughout the city disorder and idleness reigned supreme. The men spent their time in strolling about from place to place, or sitting idly at home, or gathering in crowds at places of public diversion. They had abandoned all care or concern about public affairs, trusting to Pyrrhus to save them from the impending danger. Pyrrhus perceived, accordingly, that an entire revolution in the internal condition of the city was indispensably required, and he immediately took most efficient measures for effecting it. He shut up all the places of public amusement, and even the public walks and promenades, and put an end to all feastings, revels, and entertainments. Every man capable of bearing arms was enrolled in the army, and the troops thus formed were brought out daily for severe and long-protracted drillings and reviews. The people complained loudly of these exactions; but Pyrrhus had the power in his hands, and they were compelled to submit. Many of the inhabitants, however, were so dissatisfied with these proceedings, that they went away and left the city altogether. Of course it was those who were the most hopelessly idle, dissolute, and reckless that thus withdrew, while the more hardy and resolute remained. While these changes were going on, Pyrrhus set up and repaired the defenses of the city. He secured the walls, and strengthened the gates, and organized a complete system of guards and sentries. In a word, the condition of Tarentum was soon entirely changed. From being an exposed and defenseless town, filled with devotees of idleness and pleasure, it became a fortress, well secured at all points with material defenses, and occupied by a well-disciplined and resolute garrison.

The inhabitants of the southeastern part of Italy, where Tarentum was situated, were of Greek origin, the country having been settled, as it would seem, by emigrants from the opposite shores of the Adriatic Sea. Their language, therefore, as well as their customs and usages of life, were different from those of the Roman communities that occupied the western parts of the peninsula. Now the Greeks at this period regarded themselves as the only truly civilized people in the world; all other nations they called barbarians. The people of Tarentum, therefore, in sending for Pyrrhus to come to their aid against the Romans, did not consider him as a foreigner brought in to help them in a civil war against their own countrymen, but rather as a fellow-countryman coming to aid them in a war against foreigners. They regarded him as belonging to the same race and lineage with themselves, while the enemies who were coming from beyond the Apennines to assail them they looked upon as a foreign and barbarous horde, against whom it was for the common interest of all nations of Greek descent to combine. It was this identity of interest between Pyrrhus and the people whom he came to aid, in respect both to their national origin and the cause in which they were engaged, which made it possible for him to assume so supreme an authority over all their affairs when he arrived at Tarentum.

The people of the neighboring cities were slow in sending in to Pyrrhus the quotas of troops which the Tarentines had promised him; and before his force was collected, the tidings arrived that the Romans were coming on at the head of a great army, under the command of the consul Lævinus. Pyrrhus immediately prepared to go forth to meet them. He marshaled the troops that were already assembled, and leaving the city, he advanced to meet the consul. After proceeding some way, he sent forward an embassador to the camp of Lævinus to propose to that general that, before coming to extremities, an effort should be made to settle the dispute between the Romans and Tarentines in some amicable manner, and offering his services as an umpire and mediator for this purpose. To this embassage Lævinus coolly replied "that he did not choose to accept Pyrrhus as a mediator, and that he did not fear him as an enemy." Of course, after receiving such a message as this, there was nothing left to Pyrrhus but to prepare for war.

He advanced, accordingly, at the head of his troops, until, at length, he reached a plain, where he encamped with all his forces. There was a river before him, a small stream called the River of Siris. The Romans came up and encamped on the opposite side of the bank of this stream. Pyrrhus mounted his horse and rode to an eminence near the river to take a view of them.

He was much surprised at what he saw. The order of the troops, the systematic and regular arrangement of guards and sentinels, and the regularity of the whole encampment, excited his admiration.

"Barbarians!" said he. "There is certainly nothing of the barbarian in their manner of arranging their encampment, and we shall soon see how it is with them in other respects."

So saying, he turned away, and rode to his own camp. He, however, now began to be very seriously concerned in respect to the result of the approaching contest. The enemy with whom he was about to engage was obviously a far more formidable one than he had anticipated. He resolved to remain where he was until the allies whom he was expecting from the other Grecian cities should arrive. He accordingly took measures for fortifying himself as strongly as possible in his position, and he sent down a strong detachment from his main body to the river, to guard the bank and prevent the Romans from crossing to attack him. Lævinus, on the other hand, knowing that Pyrrhus was expecting strong re-enforcements, determined not to wait till they should come, but resolved to cross the river at once, notwithstanding the guard which Pyrrhus had placed on the bank to dispute the passage.

The Romans did not attempt to cross the stream in one body. The troops were divided, and the several columns advanced to the river and entered the water at different points up and down the stream, the foot-soldiers at the fords, where the water was most shallow, and the horsemen at other places—the most favorable that they could find. In this manner the whole river was soon filled with soldiers. The guard which Pyrrhus had posted on the bank found that they were wholly unable to withstand such multitudes; in fact, they began to fear that they might be surrounded. They accordingly abandoned the bank of the river, and retreated to the main body of the army.

Pyrrhus was greatly concerned at this event, and began to consider himself in imminent danger. He drew up his foot-soldiers in battle array, and ordered them to stand by their arms, while he himself advanced, at the head of the horsemen, toward the river. As soon as he came to the bank, an extraordinary spectacle presented itself to view. The surface of the stream seemed covered in every part with shields, rising a little above the water, as they were held up by the arms of the horsemen and footmen who were coming over. As fast as the Romans landed, they formed an array on the shore, and Pyrrhus, advancing to them, gave them battle.

The contest was maintained, with the utmost determination and fury on both sides, for a long time. Pyrrhus himself was very conspicuous in the fight, for he wore a very costly and magnificent armor, and so resplendent in lustre withal as to be an object of universal attention. Notwithstanding this, he exposed himself in the hottest parts of the engagement, charging upon the enemy with the most dauntless intrepidity whenever there was occasion, and moving up and down the lines, wherever his aid or the encouragement of his presence was most required. At length one of his generals, named Leonatus, rode up to him and said,

"Do you see, sire that barbarian trooper, on the black horse with the white feet? I counsel you to beware of him. He seems to be meditating some deep design against you; he singles you out, and keeps his eye constantly upon you, and follows you wherever you go. He is watching an opportunity to execute some terrible design, and you will do well to be on your guard against him."

"Leonatus," said Pyrrhus, in reply, "we can not contend against our destiny, I know very well; but it is my opinion that neither that man, nor any other man in the Roman army that seeks an encounter with me, will have any reason to congratulate himself on the result of it."

He had scarcely spoken these words when he saw the horseman whom Leonatus had pointed out coming down upon him at full speed, with his spear grasped firmly in his hands, and the iron point of it aimed directly at Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus sprang immediately to meet his antagonist, bringing his own spear into aim at the same time. The horses met, and were both thrown down by the shock of the encounter. The friends of Pyrrhus rushed to the spot. They found both horses had been thrust through by the spears, and they both lay now upon the ground, dying. Some of the men drew Pyrrhus out from under his horse and bore him off the field, while others stabbed and killed the Roman where he lay.

Pyrrhus, having escaped this terrible danger, determined now to be more upon his guard. He supposed, in fact, that the Roman officers would be made furious by the death of their comrade, and would make the most desperate efforts to avenge him. He accordingly contrived to find an opportunity, in the midst of the confusion of the battle, to put off the armor which made him so conspicuous, by exchanging with one of his officers, named Megacles. Having thus disguised himself, he returned to the battle. He brought up the foot-soldiers and the elephants; and, instead of employing himself, as heretofore, in performing single feats of personal valor, he devoted all his powers to directing the arrangements of the battle, encouraging the men, and rallying them when they were for a time driven away from their ground.



By the exchange of armor which Pyrrhus thus made he probably saved his life; for Megacles, wherever he appeared after he had assumed the dress of Pyrrhus, found himself always surrounded by enemies, who pressed upon him incessantly and every where in great numbers, and he was finally killed. When he fell, the men who slew him seized the glittering helmet and the resplendent cloak that he wore, and bore them off in triumph into the Roman lines, as proof that Pyrrhus was slain. The tidings, as it passed along from rank to rank of the army, awakened a long and loud shout of acclamation and triumph, which greatly excited and animated the Romans, while it awakened in the army of Pyrrhus a correspondent emotion of discouragement and fear. In fact, for a short time it was universally believed in both armies that Pyrrhus was dead. In order to correct this false impression among his own troops, which threatened for a season to produce the most fatal effects, Pyrrhus rode along the ranks with his head uncovered, showing himself to his men, and shouting to them that he was yet alive.

At length, after a long and very obstinate conflict, the Greeks gained the victory. This result was due in the end, in a great measure, to the elephants which Pyrrhus brought into the battle. The Roman horses, being wholly unused to the sight of such huge beasts, were terrified beyond measure at the spectacle, and fled in dismay whenever they saw the monsters coming. In fact, in some cases, the riders lost all command of their horses, and the troop turned and fled, bearing down and overwhelming the ranks of their friends behind them. In the end the Romans were wholly driven from the field. They did not even return to their camp, but, after recrossing the river in confusion, they fled in all directions, abandoning the whole country to their conqueror. Pyrrhus then advanced across the river and took possession of the Roman camp.