How Did the Term “Pyrrhic Victory” Originate?

Bust of King Pyrrhus of Epirus

The term “Pyrrhic Victory” is commonly said but its origins are rarely understood by those who use it. The term can be traced to the reign of King Pyrrhus of Epirus (ruled 297-272 BC), who was known for being a truly Hellenistic king – always bellicose and looking to expand his kingdom and reputation through war and intrigue. The term is generally applied to any military victory that is extremely costly, often costing the victor more than it was worth. A couple of notable modern examples include the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 and the Soviet-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. In both of these examples, victory only came at the great loss of life and for the most part, they proved to be long-term strategic failures.

The term is generally traced to Pyrrhus’ prosecution of the Pyrrhic War (280-275 BC) against the Roman Republic and the Carthaginian colonies in Sicily. In that war, Pyrrhus won battle after battle, but in the end, lost the war. In fact, throughout Pyrrhus’ long career as a military leader, he won nearly every battle he fought, yet they all came at great cost of lives and without any long-term success. An examination of the ancient sources that recorded Pyrrhus’ life – primarily Plutarch (AD 46-199), but also Polybius (208-125 BC) and Diodorus (90-30 BC) – reveals that although Pyrrhus was a brave warrior-king who was respected by his men, he failed to properly employ diplomacy and statesmanship along with his battlefield victories. Because of that, Pyrrhus was doomed to be remembered as the man who won battles but little else.

Pyrrhus and Epirus

Statue from Pompeii, Italy of a War Elephant

In many ways, Pyrrhus was truly a man of his era, although perhaps early in his life and career, he was a little out of place. He was the son of Aeacid, the King of Epirus, which is located in what is modern northwest Greece. Pyrrhus and his family were descended from the Greek-speaking Molossian tribe, and despite having long-term cultural contacts with the Greek city-states to the south and Macedon to the east, the Epirots were often considered barbarians by the other Greeks.

The Epirots considered themselves Greek and even developed a descent myth, claiming the legendary Greek warrior Achilles as the progenitor of their people. Still, Epirus was overshadowed even by Macedon well into the Hellenistic Period (332-31 BC) due to the kingdom’s relative poverty, which was the result of its lack of natural resources. But what the Epirots did not have in material wealth they made up for with their martial abilities, so by the time of the later Wars of Diadochi (322-281 BC), they would play a role in the political formation of the Hellenistic world. [1]

Pyrrhus was raised by Glaucias, the king of Illyria, who installed him as king of Epirus in 307 BC at the age of twelve, but as was often the case in the Hellenistic Period things did not go as planned. Cassander of Macedon usurped the young Pyrrhus in 303 and tried to buy him from Glaucias for 200 talents. Still, the Illyrian king refused, thereby saving the Pyrrhus for a future life of fame and glory. [2]

The young Pyrrhus thrust himself into the violent and cunning world of the Hellenistic kings, aligning with Demetrius at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC. [3] Although Pyrrhus was on the losing side in that fight, he gained respect among the Diadochi as well as his people for his bravery and ability on the battlefield. The loss at Ipsus was the beginning of the end for Demetrius, but it created new opportunities for Pyrrhus. He had ascended to the throne of Epirus once more in 297 BC and was asked to join an alliance with Lysimachus, Seleucus, and Ptolemy against Demetrius. [4]

Proving that friends were a rare commodity among the Hellenistic kings and that land was much more valuable, he agreed to the alliance, which allowed him to partition Macedon with Lysimachus. [5] Pyrrhus was not able to consolidate his hold over Macedon for long, but he soon looked to the west for new conquest opportunities.

Although the Hellenistic kings were much more warlike and totalitarian than their classical Greek forebearers, most attempted to give at least superficial attention to culture and the arts. The first two Ptolemies built the Library, the Museum, and the Lighthouse in Alexandria, Pergamon became a major cultural center under the Attalids. Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle. But apparently, Pyrrhus’ only pursuit was warfare. Plutarch noted:

“We are told that one occasion he was asked at a drinking-party whether he preferred Python to Cephisias as a flute-player: he replied that Polyperchon was a good general – so much as to say that this was the only subject on which a king needed to inform himself and pass judgment.” [6]

Despite being interested in only war, there is evidence that Pyrrhus had some intellectual and academic abilities in that regard. He wrote a now-lost book on military tactics that were still read by Roman generals 200 years later. [7] Yet it was against the Romans in Italy where Pyrrhus earned his reputation.

Winning the Battles but Not the Wars

Map Showing Pyrrhus’ Movements in Italy and Sicily during the Pyrrhic War

With his opportunities in Greece temporarily exhausted, Pyrrhus began looking abroad for new chances to enlarge his possessions and fame. It did not take long for a situation to present itself in Italy. The people of the Greek city of Tarentum feared the encroaching Romans, so they invited the Greek-speaking Pyrrhus to Italy to protect them in 280 BC, which marked the beginning of the Pyrrhic War (280-275 BC). [8] When Pyrrhus arrived in Tarentum, he found the Greeks of the city living a similar lifestyle to the Greeks of the city-states: they enjoyed poetry, philosophy, and the finer things in life. The Epirots and Macedonians were not used to that type of lifestyle, so Pyrrhus essentially put the city under martial law and conscripted many of the men into his army. He then marched out and met the Romans near Heraclea. Plutarch wrote that it was a costly battle that Pyrrhus only won due to his elephant corps.

“At last, as the Romans began to be driven back by the elephants, and their horses, before they could get near the great beasts, started to panic and bolt, Pyrrhus seized the his opportunity: as the Romans faltered, he launched a charge with his Thessalian cavalry and routed the enemy with great slaughter. According to Dionysius, the Romans lost nearly 15,000 men and Pyrrhus 13,000, while Hieronymus reduces these figures to 7,000 on the Roman side and 4,000 on the Greek. But these were some of Pyrrhus’ best troops, and in addition he lost many of the friends and commanders whom he trusted and employed the most.” [9]

Pyrrhus perhaps believed that the Romans would entertain a treaty after his victory at Heraclea, but he was woefully mistaken. The Romans quickly replenished their army and marched south to meet the Greek army near Asculum in 279 BC. The Battle of Asculum ended in an even more costly victory for Pyrrhus.

“Pyrrhus’ affairs thus compelled him to fight another battle, and after he had rested his troops he marched to the city of Asculum and attacked the Romans. . . There was fierce fighting in which both sides suffered heavy losses before night put an end to the engagement. The next day, Pyrrhus regrouped his forces so as to fight on even terrain, where his elephants could be used against the enemy’s line. . . After a long struggle, so it is said, the Roman line began to give way at the pion where Pyrrhus himself was pressing his opponents hardest, but the factor which did most to enable his men to prevail was the weight and fury of the elephants’ charge. . . The Romans had only a short distance to fell before they reached their camp. Hieronymus reports that they lost 6,000 men killed and that Pyrrhus’ casualties, according to the royal journals, were 3,505.” [10]

The political situation repeated itself after Asculum, with the Romans rejecting any talk of a treaty until Pyrrhus left Italy. The Romans then promptly replenished their ranks. Although Pyrrhus was a charismatic leader and his men believed in him, there were doubts circulating in the Greek camp by 279. Even Pyrrhus was said to have admitted that his victories were too costly. According to Diodorus, Pyrrhus told his advisors: “If I win a victory in one more battle with the Romans, I shall not have left a single soldier of those who crossed over with me.” [11] In order to avoid more costly victories in Italy, Pyrrhus decided to bring his army to Sicily.

The political situation in Sicily was similar to Italy, with ethnic Greeks inviting Pyrrhus to protect them from the encroaching Carthaginians. Plutarch noted that at first the Greek cities came over to his side after he conquered the Carthaginian city of Eryx, but then the campaign stalled after he refused a treaty with the Carthaginians, even after they offered him an indemnity. [12] Unable to impose his will on Sicily, Pyrrhus then returned with his army to Italy.

With his Greek army and Samnite allies, Pyrrhus marched north on the Appian Way in 275 BC for Rome. The army was massive, consisting of 20,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, and perhaps dozens of elephants. The Romans, though, were ready and met the Greek army on the Appian Way just outside of Beneventum, handing the Epirot king his only battlefield loss in Italy. [13] At that point Pyrrhus knew that he had little chance of gaining new recruits in Italy and that even if he won another battle, there was no way he could win the war, so he returned to Epirus.

Pyrrhus continued with his bellicose ways after he returned to Greece, but he also apparently did not learn from his costly victories in Italy. He successfully invaded Macedon in 274 with his Epirot army and a contingent of Gaul mercenaries. The victory in Macedon could have been a crowning achievement to his military and political career, giving him the glory of victory and the physical expansion of his kingdom; but once more his victory proved to be too costly. For reasons unknown, he allowed the Gauls to plunder the royal tombs of the Macedonian kings in the city of Aegae, which turned the Macedonian population against him, ensuring that his rule over them would be impossible. [14]

The Reasons Behind the Pyrrhic Victory

Depiction of a Roman Coin Showing One of Pyrrhus’ Elephants

A close examination reveals that the true problem with Pyrrhus’ victories was not necessarily how costly they were, but his lack of an effective political and diplomatic strategy to consolidate his victories. Pyrrhus’ poor diplomatic skills turned the Greeks of Italy and Sicily against him and even made the Romans and Sicilians – natural enemies and competitors for control of the western Mediterranean – temporary allies. Polybius wrote that the two powers formalized the anti-Pyrrhus alliance in writing.

“If either the Romans or the Carthaginians enter into an alliance against Pyrrhus, they shall both have it stipulated in writing that it shall be permissible for either of them to help the other in the other’s territory at a time of war.” [15]

Perhaps most important, though, was Pyrrhus’ inability to understand Roman motives to fight. Every time the Epirot king attempted to bribe the Romans with riches, they stoically rebuffed his advances, choosing the good of their country over greed. The Romans’ sense of duty and patriotism was something that Pyrrhus had not seen before among the Greeks and he never attempted to view it as the cornerstone of the Roman worldview. Roman patriotism was what drove the Romans to replenish their ranks, even when they lost on the battlefield to Pyrrhus’ better armed, veteran army.

Conclusion

The term “Pyrrhic Victory” originated with King Pyrrhus of Epirus in the third century BC after he recorded costly victories that were due to his obstinacy and myopic worldview. There is no doubt that Pyrrhus was brave and charismatic and at least an average tactician, but his diplomatic and political skills were woefully lacking for such a powerful man. If Pyrrhus had followed up his battlefield victories with successful negotiations, another general’s name may now be used to describe a military victory that costs more than it is worth.

References

  1. Wylie, Graham. “Pyrrhus Πολεμιστής.” Latomus 58 (2005) pgs. 300-2
  2. King, Carol J. Ancient Macedonia. (London: Routledge, 2018), p. 218
  3. King, p. 224
  4. King, pgs. 225-7
  5. King, p. 227
  6. Plutarch. The Age of Alexander: Ten Greek Lives by Plutarch. Translated by Ian Scott Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff. (London: Penguin Books, 2012), Pyrrhus, VIII
  7. Wylie, p. 298
  8. Plutarch, Pyrrhus, XIII
  9. Plutarch, Pyrrhus, XVII
  10. Plutarch, Pyrrhus, XXI
  11. Diodorus Siculus. The Library of History. Translated by C.H. Oldfather. (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), XXII, 6
  12. Plutarch, Pyrrhus, XXII
  13. Plutarch, Pyrrhus, XXV
  14. King, p. 236
  15. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), III, 25