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Who was Pyrrhus, and what made his victory so Pyrrhic?

September 24, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

Who was King Pyrrhus and what happened during his Pyrrhic victory?

Pyrrhus, king of Epirus in Greece, started the whole "win at any cost" battle strategy. Born around 310 BC, he is generally recognized as one of the greatest generals of antiquity, "great" being defined in those days as "capable of making sure nobody on the other side was left standing." Trouble was, after Pyrrhus got done, a lot of people on his side weren't feeling so hot either.

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Alexander's empire was divided into three smaller empires. Forty years later, those were beginning to crumble. At the same time, fledgling Rome was trying to consolidate power in central and southern Italy. In 282 BC, Thurii (Greek: Thourioi), a Greek city in southern Italy, was being threatened by local hillsmen and invited Rome to send troops to help. The Roman forces were successful, and most of the area became allied with Rome in gratitude. However, nearby Tarentum (Taras) was annoyed by Roman intervention in the affairs of Greek cities, and decided to do something about it: mainly, they sank a Roman naval squadron in the Gulf of Tarentum and drove the Roman garrison out of Thurii.

Tarentum then invited Pyrrhus of Epirus to come help them fight this upstart Rome. Epirus at the time was a large and powerful  state, and Pyrrhus was known for his military skills. In 280 BC, Pyrrhus crossed over the sea to Italy with an army of 25,000, including 3,000 horses and 20 Indian war elephants, a disciplined and well-trained force.

In Pyrrhus the Romans faced a formidable opponent. He defeated them at Heraclea in Lucania that year, and the next year at Asculum. But the victories came at a high price, since his best officers and fighters were lost. (Well, not "lost," since he knew where they were--dead, mostly.) The outcome was so costly that he is reported to have said, "One more such victory and we are lost." And the expression has come down to us today. A Pyrrhic victory is one where the cost is greater than the benefit. You win, but you really lose.

Although there was some wavering at first, Rome refused to come to terms with Pyrrhus. Central Italy remained loyal to Rome, so there was not much more Pyrrhus could do, although he did try (unsuccessfully) to march against the city itself. Discouraged, he moved into Sicily to fight for the Greeks against the Carthaginians (who would later be destroyed entirely by Rome). He gave up that campaign as hopeless in 286 BC and returned to Italy, where he was defeated by the Roman army at Malventum (which the Romans renamed Beneventum).

He returned home to Epirus with about a third of his original forces (he lost eight of the twenty elephants, if you were concerned). He then was supported by Ptolemy I of Egypt in his efforts to increase his state and become independent of Macedonia (the remnant of Alexander's Empire in the area). He died in 272 BC, struck on the head by a tile thrown off a roof during a street fight in southern Greece. Ignominious, and a lesson to us all. But his name lives on.

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