City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

The War with Pyrrhus

If you will look again at the map of Italy, you will see that the Apennine mountains run from the northwestern part in a great curve through the peninsula. Within a hundred years after the Gauls destroyed Rome, the Romans ruled all the lands around the city between these mountains and the sea. But they had not yet crossed the mountains to the north; and they had no thought of going beyond them in the south either, until something happened there which forced them to do so.

The southern coast of Italy was not occupied by Italians, but by Greeks, who had come across the sea from Greece long, long before, and built cities on the southern shores of the peninsula. They were a gay, changeable people, who had now grown to be very much less worthy in character than the old Greeks who had fought the Persians so well in former days. They preferred to hire soldiers to fight for them, instead of fighting for themselves; for they loved the bustle and chatter of their city life, and the amusement of their open-air theatres, more than anything else in the world.

The most important of these Greek cities in Italy was Tarentum, which lay on the western side of the heel of the peninsula. There the people had built their theatre in a place which overlooked the sea; and as they were gathered here one day, they saw ten Roman war vessels approaching the city harbor.

Now, there was an agreement between the Romans and the people of Tarentum that the Roman war ships should not sail beyond a certain point on the southern shore; so, when the Tarentines saw these vessels coming in close to their town, they were very angry. They did not stop to think that the Romans might be coming peacefully, and with no thought of harm. They rushed headlong from the theatre to the shore, and got aboard their ships and rowed out to attack the Roman vessels; and, as the Romans were entirely unprepared for battle, five of their ships were sunk, and the men were taken prisoners.

The other five ships managed to escape, and when they returned to Rome with the news of how they had been treated at Tarentum, the Romans were very indignant. But they did not want to go to war with the people of Tarentum; so, instead of sending an army to attack that city, they sent ambassadors to demand an explanation of the wrong that had been done them.

When these ambassadors reached Tarentum, they were led before a large body of the citizens, in order that they might state their business in the hearing of all. Their grave manner and broken speech, as they tried to make their meaning clear in the Greek tongue, amused the Tarentines immensely. They laughed at them and mocked their blunders, and, at last, one wretched fellow threw dirt on the clean white toga of one of the ambassadors.

At this, the Greeks laughed louder than ever; but the insulted Roman raised the stained folds of his toga and held them before the eyes of the people.

"Laugh on, now," he cried; "but the stain on this gown can only be washed out with blood."

Then the ambassadors departed, and the two cities began to prepare for war,—but in what different ways! The Romans gathered their men together as usual, and sent them under the command of a consul across the mountains into southern Italy. But the Tarentines did not think of getting ready to fight themselves; that was not their fashion. The only thing they did was to send over into Greece to hire some general there to bring an army to fight for them against the Romans.

There were many men in the Grecian peninsula at this time who were willing enough to fight, and who knew how to fight well; but the man to whom the Taren tines sent was especially ready to give the help that they asked.

This was Pyrrhus, the king of one of the little countries of western Greece, who was a brave and generous man, and one of the best generals of that time. He was related to Alexander the Great, who a few years before this had become the conqueror of Greece and of much of the world besides. From his very boyhood Pyrrhus had lived with the Greek armies at home, in Asia, and in Egypt; and he had determined that if he should ever have the chance he would try to become like Alexander—a conqueror of great nations. So now, when the Tarentines sent to him and begged his help against the Romans, he readily gave his consent, and began to plan victories for himself in the west as great as those which Alexander had won in the east. For he meant not only to help the Tarentines against Rome, but to bring all the Greek cities of Italy and of the island of Sicily under his rule at the same time.

When Pyrrhus had gathered his army together and sailed to Tarentum, the foolish people of that city suddenly discovered that they had given themselves a stern ruler where they had only asked help against their enemy. The king had no patience with their lightness and gayety in such a time of danger. He closed their theatre and public meeting-places, and set the people to work helping his soldiers in their task of preparing for the Romans. The Tarentines obeyed unwillingly; perhaps they were already beginning to wish that they had not been so rash in making trouble, or so ready to ask aid when the trouble had come.

Soon after Pyrrhus reached Italy, the two armies the Greek and the Roman met in battle near Tarenturn. On both sides, the men fought so bravely that for a time it could not be told which would gain the victory. The Greeks formed their men in one solid mass, drawn close together with their shields touching and their great spears, eighteen feet long, extending far out in front of them. The Romans formed their men in many small companies, which were arranged loosely into three ranks, one behind the other; in this way, each company and each rank could act separately, while all supported one another. The Greeks were the strongest in defending themselves on a level surface, for the Romans could scarcely break through the dense hedge of their spear-points, and get near enough to reach them with their short swords. But the Romans could attack their enemies more freely than the Greeks could, and they could move more easily over rough ground.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


In this battle, the Romans rushed time and again at the solid ranks of the Greeks, and seemed determined never to give up the effort to break through and throw them into disorder. But Pyrrhus had with him in his army something of which the Romans had never seen the like before. This was a herd of elephants; and when these huge beasts charged upon the Romans, with towers upon their backs filled with armed men, the Romans were filled with dismay and drew back, and their horses went mad with fright, and turned and trampled down the Roman lines. Then the Romans retreated in confusion, and the battle was lost.

Pyrrhus had gained the first victory, but he saw that he had met enemies who could not be despised, even though they had been defeated. When the fight was over, he stood upon the battlefield and saw the Roman dead all lying with their faces turned toward the enemy.

"If these were my soldiers," he said, "and I were their general, I could surely conquer the world." After this battle, Pyrrhus sent his trusted friend Cineas to Rome to propose terms of peace to the Senate, for he thought that the Romans would now be ready to give up the war.

This Cineas was as great as a statesman as Pyrrhus was as a general, and it was said of him that his tongue had taken more cities for his master than Pyrrhus had taken with his armies. During his visit to Rome, Cineas made himself most agreeable to the citizens. He had such a good memory that, after one day in Rome, he could call every great man by his name; and he was such a good judge of men that he never failed to treat each person in the way that would be most pleasing to him. So all the Romans liked him, though he was their enemy; and the Senate was almost persuaded by him to do as Pyrrhus wished, and settle upon a peace.

But there was one person in Rome whom Cineas could not win over. This was Appius Claudius, who had constructed the first aqueduct and had built the Appian Way. He was now an old man, gray-haired and blind, and it had been a long time since he had gone from his home to take his place in the Senate. But when he heard that the Senate was about to make peace with Pyrrhus, he commanded his servants to take him up and carry him in his chair through the Forum to the Senate house. There his sons and sons-in-law met him at the door, and when he was led in and rose to speak, he was received with a respectful silence.

"Until this time, O Senators," he said, "I have borne the misfortune of my blindness with some impatience. But now, when I hear this dishonorable purpose of yours, it is my great sorrow that, being blind, I am not deaf also. To make peace with Pyrrhus will be to destroy the glory of Rome. Do not persuade yourselves that making a friend of Pyrrhus is the way to send him back to his country. It is the way, rather, to show the world that you can be conquered in one battle; and soon other invaders will be upon us. The true way to rid us of our dangers is for Rome never to treat with a foreign enemy while his army remains in Italy."

The Senators were shamed by the noble courage of the aged Claudius. Instead of making peace with Pyrrhus, they sent Cineas back to his master with the message that they would not treat with him about terms of peace and friendship until his army was removed from Italian soil; and they added that so long as he stayed in Italy under arms, they would continue to fight with him, even though he should defeat them many times.

This noble answer of the Romans impressed Cineas very much. When he returned to Pyrrhus, and the king asked him what he thought of the Romans and their government, he answered:

"The Roman Senate, Sire, is an assembly of kings."

Pyrrhus himself soon had a chance to see the spirit of one of the Romans of that day. The Senate sent Caius Fabricius to the king, shortly after this, to treat for the return of the Roman prisoners who had been taken by the Greeks. Cineas told Pyrrhus that Fabricius was one who stood very high among the Romans, as an honest man and a good soldier, but that he was very poor. So Pyrrhus received him with kindness, and tried to bribe him with gold. But Fabricius refused to accept the king's gifts.

"If I am dishonest," said he, "how can I be worth a bribe? And if I am honest, how can you expect me to take one?"

Then Pyrrhus tried him in another way. The next day he commanded that one of the largest of the elephants should be placed behind the curtains while he and Fabricius sat talking together. At a signal from the king, the curtains were drawn aside, and the elephant, raising his trunk just over the head of Fabricius, trumpeted loudly. But the Roman only turned quietly and said to Pyrrhus:

"Neither your money yesterday, O King, nor this beast to-day, can move me."

You can understand that after this Pyrrhus admired Fabricius greatly. To show his favor to him, he allowed him to take the Roman prisoners with him when he returned to Rome; for a great festival in honor of the god Saturn was about to be celebrated, and ail Romans wished to take part in it. And Fabricius, in return, gave his promise to the king that if the Senate did not agree to make peace, the men should all come back to him when the holiday was past.

This festival to. Saturn was held each year in the latter part of December, and was a sort of Thanksgiving festival. It was a time when the Romans gave presents, as we do now at Christmas time, and the poor people received gifts of corn and oil and wine, and watched the servants of the wealthy carry baskets of nuts and figs and apples to their masters' friends. It was a happy, joyous time, when the boys all had new tunics and new shoes, and the slaves were allowed to be equal to their masters for once in the long year.

The festival must have passed all too quickly for the prisoners of Pyrrhus; for the Roman Senate again refused to agree to a peace, and they were sent back to the Greeks as soon as the festival was over. The Senators were so anxious to keep the promise of Fabricius unbroken, that they commanded that any prisoner who should remain behind should be put to death; but this order was not needed, for they all returned faithfully to their captivity.

It was not long after this till the Romans and the Greeks met again in battle. Once more the Romans were defeated; but they fought as stubbornly as they had in the first battle, and again it was only the elephants that won the victory for Pyrrhus. After the battle, one of the friends of the king came to him and wished him joy over his victory. But Pyrrhus replied, seeing the large number of his own men who had fallen:

"One more such victory as this, and I am lost."

The king was thinking how far he was from his own country, from which he had brought all his best soldiers, and how difficult it would be to fill up the vacant places in his army with men who were as good as those he had lost; for the Greeks of Italy did not make good soldiers. It was different with the Romans. Among them every man was a soldier, and as soon as one army was destroyed, another one as large and well-trained could be raised to take its place.

After this second battle, Pyrrhus did not care to fight again with the Romans. He left Italy and went over to the island of Sicily, and tried to make himself master of the cities there. He remained in the island for three years. When he returned to Italy, he found that the Romans had made good use of his absence. They had gained all the southern part of the peninsula except the city of Tarentum; and they were now in better condition to give battle to him than ever.

The Romans had seen that the close ranks of the Greeks fought best upon a level surface; so, when a third battle with Pyrrhus took place, they placed themselves on rough, uneven ground. The Romans had also lost much of their fear of the elephants by this time; and, when the great beasts charged at them in this battle, they hurled darts and spears at them, and so wounded and vexed the animals that at last they turned and rushed back upon the Greeks themselves. In this way the solid mass of Pyrrhus's soldiers was broken up, and after that it was not long until his whole army was terribly defeated.

After this third battle, Pyrrhus was obliged to leave Italy and go back to his own country, a disappointed man. He had failed to conquer an empire in the west, as he had planned; and it was the Romans who had caused his plans to fail.

Not long after he had gone, the city of Tarentum itself fell into the hands of the Romans; and after the fall of that city, Roman rule reached throughout the whole of Italy, from the toe of the boot up to the valley of the River Po in the north,