Roman History in a Nutshell: The Pyrrhic Wars – Sicily and The Battle of Beneventum, 275 BCE

Beneventum, to the Southeast of Rome, was to to be the final fight of King Pyrrhus and his Epirot allied forces. After his ill-fated trip to Sicily his final battle would be here.
(Credit: Piom By GDFL)

We left off after the (potential) defeat of the Romans after the Battle of Asculum and the role of Roman/Carthaginian relations in proceedings.

Well those relations were about to be tested for the flimsy trans-Mediterranean partnership that it actually was.

We have spoken how it seems Pyrrhus may have had eyes on Sicily. The Greek city states there were already a part of his Epirot League, effectively a collaboration of a bunch of areas of ‘Greek’ control. As mentioned there is a notion of ‘Greece’ as a unified ancient civilisation when that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Much like the Gods they almost uniformly worshiped these were effectively a bunch of constantly squabbling kin, with similar cultures but constantly at each other’s throats.

Well, Pyrrhus did go to Sicily. Trouble stirred between the Carthaginians in the West and other Greek cities was enough to spark his journey there and, let’s be honest, whilst he was ‘winning’ against the Romans the phrase ‘Pyrrhic victory’ has not persisted for nothing. Pyrrhus’ fights against the Romans were sapping the shit out of troops, morale, patience and energy and a short stint of successful campaigns in Sicily could help win back a bit of public support, earn a few more troops and get him back on track with regards to bringing Rome to heel.

There are suggestions this was to be a stepping stone in itself, that Pyrrhus had eyes on Africa and Carthage. How much of that is true and how much bullshit will never be known.

The city of Erice, Sicily. Once upon a timed called Eryx, after the Greek hero, although this was not a Greek-founded city. It was founded by Phoenicians and was Carthaginian controlled when Pyrrhus came to the island. As you can see by its elevated position, it was an important fort and one which Pyrrhus was keen to capture. (Credit: Effems CC-BY-SA 4.0)

There are differing accounts of Pyrrhus’ time in Sicily.

I’m not going to go into too much detail but Pyrrhus was less-than successful in Sicily. After a blitzkrieg-like start to the campaign, taking multiple Carthaginian territories he successfully besieged Eryx and garrisoned it, using it as a base to take Panormus. Laetia surrendered with no fighting whatsoever.

Then came Lilybaeum. During the siege of this city the Carthaginians brought over reinforcements, not only man power but food and resources. This allowed them to strengthen the fortifications, bolster anti-siege troops and weaponry. This basically halted Pyrrhus’ progress.

Negotiations ensued but they did not go well, with the Greek city states on the island being unsatisfied with any concessions to the Carthaginians. Allegedly Pyrrhus had begun to behave in an increasingly tyrannical way and upset a lot of people and everything sort of took a turn for the worse for Pyrrhus.

Mercifully he received word from the Italic Greek states that they were up the creek without a paddle again. The Samnites (I told you in their article we weren’t done with them) were being forced out of their territories and struggling to defend their cities and needed assistance, through which they had reached Pyrrhus by going via the Tarentines.

It gave Pyrrhus the excuse he must have dearly wanted to leave the complicated conflicts in Sicily but far from having won hearts and minds, bolstered his resources and returned to Italy reinvigorated he was now even more depleted in troop and spirit.

What’s more, he left without saying goodbye to the Carthaginians and according to Plutarch they took great offence at this and fought him in the Strait of Messina as he made his crossing back. Against the well-drilled Carthaginian navy Pyrrhus lost many ships and personnel. Although Dionysius doesn’t mention this battle, he mentions a strong wind causing ships to stray off course and be lost. Either way, Pyrrhus lost a lot on his way back from Sicily.

One of the trademarks of Carthaginian naval warfare. What the Romans would call a Rostrum, or a ship’s ram. These would have been mounted at the front of ships for driving into enemy vessels, damaging the hull. Carthage’s infantry was often composed of mercenary forces, albeit from states who usually had some link to Carthage and thus a contract to supply troops if asked. Their navy, though, was almost exclusively Carthaginian and often lower-class. This provided political stability – giving those poorer people a chance of good work and success and preventing them from joining political movements to overthrow heads of state. (Credit: Sb2s3 CC-BY-SA 4.0)

The Romans, in the meantime, in case you hadn’t gathered by the begging letter from the Samnites, had been busy raiding Samnium with mixed results. Whilst they clearly took enough territory to cause the Samnites to ask for help, they lost many troops attempting to fight in the wild hills where Samnites were used to dwelling and Romans not so much.

When Pyrrhus finally got back to fighting the Romans their main armies were divided on two fronts. Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Caudinus was in Lucania and Manius Curius Dentatus was in Samnium. It was the force of Dentatus that would be Pyrrhus’ undoing.

According to Dionysius he rushed his forces to meet Dentatus’ in battle through trails in the woods that were “goat paths.” Thirsty, hungry and tired he ended up encamped in full view of the Roman army, who advanced on Pyrrhus’ position.

The multiple sources disagree about what exactly happened but they all agree on one thing. It was Pyrrhus’ own war elephants that were his undoing. An injury to either a calf, or a couple of larger, elephants caused panic and confusion among the rest of them. They turned from their intended target, the Romans, and trampled right through the Pyrrhic lines, causing them confusion and a mad scramble too. For the disciplined Romans this was a solid opening and whilst we do not have any solid figures of casualties it was a substantial enough defeat to send Pyrrhus back to Epirus.

A comic illustration by John Leech depicting Pyrrhus’ arrival in Rome. It was to be a far from comic venture for the Epirot king who would find an army fighting without fear, a situation in Sicily that was messy at best, victories that were more like defeats and would ultimately leave the whole mess behind and go and conquer Macdeon instead! (Credit: Andrew McCabe CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Pyrrhus would go on to fight the Kingdom of Macedon, defeating Antigonus II, attempting a war with Sparta and would allegedly die in a battle in the streets of Argos.

Rome, within a couple of years, had taken Tarentum and with it pretty much any hope of Greek independence in the Southern Italian peninsula. They would go on to take Brundisium, defeat Umbrians, bring various other tribes under their umbrella and effectively control the whole Italian peninsula.

Rome’s victory established them as a true, legitimate force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean region. Other Hellenistic Kingdoms, such as the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, established relations with them on these grounds.

It had been a troubled few years that saw Rome tested in the direst of circumstances.  But Rome held strong, defiant in the face of defeat and insistent on protecting Roman interests at all costs, this was an attitude they would carry forward into the future.

But they had also, now, opened up allegiance with Sicily, pulling the diplomatic strings with Carthage tighter and tighter. That tension was soon to break.

As simple as it gets but I like that. Ten years after the end of the Pyrrhic War and we see Roman territories (most of the Italian peninsula) in green and Carthaginian territories (most of the southern Mediterranean coast and Southern Spain) in orange. Can you guess what the spark for the first war between these two cultures would be? If you guessed Sicily, give yourselves a gold star! (Credit: Agata Brilli, DensityDesign Research Lab CC-BY-SA 4.0)

A small contingent of Greek might, who fought mostly on land, was one thing. How would Rome fare against the naval focussed Carthaginians? It wouldn’t be long before we get to find out.

Read the other parts in our ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ Series:
Introduction
The Founding – 753 BCE and Before

The Kingdom – 753 BCE – 509 BCE
The Patrician Era and the Conflict of the Orders – 494 BCE – 287 BCE
Wars with Etruscans Pre-753 BCE – ~264 BCE
Wars with Sabines, Veii & Fidenae ~753 BCE – ~287 BCE
The Latin Wars 7th Century BCE – ~338 BCE
The Gallic Wars ~390 BCE – ~284 BCE
The Rest of the Med ~2,000 BCE – ~3rd Century BCE
The Samnite Wars ~343 BCE – ~290 BCE
The Pyrrhic Wars – The Battle of Heraclea, 280 BCE
The Pyrrhic Wars – Carthage and the Battle of Asculum, 279 BCE

We’ve got more on Rome, too!

The Mother of Rome: Livia Drusilla – Before the hit Sky TV series ‘Domina’ there was me espousing the life and works of Livia (Some might argue I did it better…), the canny politician, the Patrician, the Patron and the wife and mother of an Empire.
The Pleb who Built Rome: Marcus Agrippa – It is my belief that the right-hand-man of Augustus had a much bigger part to play in the building and management of the Empire than did his friend with the titles. Find out why.

Bad History: Boudica and Bullshit Nationalism – Looking at the use of historical figures for current political or social agendas.
Bad History: Did Rome ever Actually Fall? Questioning the ‘Decline and Fall’ narrative and looking at structures inherited from the Romans we have to this day.

A New Lease of Life? – A Discussion about the new floor in the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum, and what Vespasian, who initially commissioned the building, might think.

The Fan-TAS-tic Virtues of Rome – A look at the moral virtues of Roman life.

What are the ‘Ides of March’ – Because I envitably get asked by my dad every Ides, I wrote about it!

Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Introduction
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Easily available abortion (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Drawing dicks on things.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Energy Drinks
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Gender and Sexuality Liberation (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Travel and Tourist Tat.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – AirBnB
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Bipartisan Politics
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Fast Food
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Pro-Wrestling
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Social Media (Especially Insta and Twitter)

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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