The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 2/First Battle Between Greeks and Romans

186634The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol. 2 — First Battle Between Greeks and RomansPlutarch


B.C. 280-279


(The Romans, in B.C. 290, had conquered the Samnites and this extended the Roman power to the very gates of the Grecian cities on the Gulf of Tarentine. Tarentum, the chief city among them, was almost totally controlled by a party which advised a peaceful submission to the Roman conquerors. The opposing party of patriots, against such cowardly measures, looked abroad for aid and found a ready ally in Pyrrhus, the Molossian king of Epirus. He was warlike and adventurous, and a member of the royal family of Macedonia, through Olympias, who was the mother of Alexander the Great.

Pyrrhus had established a reputation for fighting. Not alone had he fought at the memorable battle of Ipsus, in Phrygia, but he had proven a formidable opponent to Demetinus, king of Macedonia, having forced the latter powerful monarch to conclude a truce with him, though afterward he had been conquered and driven back to his little kingdom of Epirus. At the time the Tarentines sent to him to help them against Rome he was eager for a field in which he might do something to prove his mettle. This was the greatest opportunity of his life, and he seized upon it. The campaign is memorable for having brought the Romans and Greeks into conflict on the battle-field for the first time.)

Pyrrhus, now that he had lost Macedonia, might have spent his days peacefully ruling his own subjects in Epirus; but he could not endure repose, thinking that not to trouble others and be troubled by them was a life of unbearable ennui, and, like Achilles in the Iliad,

    "he could not rest in indolence at home,
  He longed for battle, and the joys of war."

As he desired some new adventures he embraced the following opportunity. The Romans were at war with the Tarentines; and as that people were not sufficiently powerful to carry on the war, and yet were not allowed by the audacious folly of their mob orators to make peace, they proposed to make Pyrrhus their leader and to invite him to be their ally in the war, because he was more at leisure than any of the other kings, and also was the best general of them all. Of the older and more sensible citizens some endeavored to oppose this fatal decision, but were overwhelmed by the clamor of the war party, while the rest, observing this, ceased to attend the public assembly.

There was one citizen of good repute, named Meton, who, on the day when the final decision was to be made, when the people were all assembled, took a withered garland and a torch, and like a drunkard, reeled into the assembly with a girl playing the flute before him. At this, as one may expect in a disorderly popular meeting, some applauded and some laughed, but no one stopped him. They next bade the girl play, and Meton come forward and dance to the music; and he made as though he would do so. When he had obtained silence he said: "Men of Tarentum, you do well in encouraging those who wish to be merry and amuse themselves while they may. If you are wise you will all enjoy your freedom now, for when Pyrrhus is come to our city you will have very different things to think of and will live very differently." By these words he made an impression on the mass of the Tarentine people, and a murmur ran through the crowd that he had spoken well. But those politicians who feared that if peace were made they should be delivered up to the Romans, reproached the people for allowing anyone to insult them by such a disgraceful exhibition, and prevailed on them to turn Meton out of the assembly.

Thus the vote for war was passed, and ambassadors were sent to Epirus, not from Tarentum alone, but from the other Greek cities in Italy, carrying with them presents for Pyrrhus, with instructions to tell him that they required a leader of skill and renown, and that they possessed a force of Lucanians, Messapians, Samnites, and Tarentines, which amounted to twenty thousand cavalry and three hundred and fifty thousand infantry. This not only excited Pyrrhus, but also made all the Epirotes eager to take part in the campaign.

There was one Cineas, a Thessalian, who was thought to be a man of good sense, and who, having heard Demosthenes the orator speak, was better able than any of the speakers of his age to delight his hearers with an imitation of the eloquence of that great master of rhetoric. He was now in the service of Pyrrhus, and being sent about to various cities, proved the truth of the Euripidean saw, that

    "All can be done by words
  Which foemen wish to do with conquering swords."

Pyrrhus at any rate used to say that more cities were won for him by Cineas with words than he himself won by force of arms. This man, observing that Pyrrhus was eagerly preparing for his Italian expedition, once when he was at leisure conversed with him in the following manner. "Pyrrhus," said he, "the Romans are said to be good soldiers, and to rule over many warlike nations. Now, if heaven grants us the victory over them, what use shall we make of it?"

"You ask what is self-evident," answered Pyrrhus. "If we can conquer the Romans, there is no city, Greek or barbarian, that can resist us, and we shall gain possession of the whole of Italy, a country whose size, richness, and power no one knows better than yourself." Cineas then, after waiting for a short time, said: "O King, when we have taken Italy, what shall we do then?"

Pyrrhus, not yet seeing his drift, answered: "Close to it Sicily invites us, a noble and populous island, and one which is very easy to conquer; for, my Cineas, now that Agathocles is dead, there is nothing there but revolution and faction and the violence of party spirit."

"What you say," answered Cineas, "is very probably true. But is this conquest of Sicily to be the extreme limit of our campaign?"

"Heaven," answered Pyrrhus, "alone can give us victory and success; but these conquests would merely prove to us the stepping-stones to greater things. Who could refrain from making an attempt upon Carthage and Libya when he was so close to them, countries which were all but conquered by Agathocles when he ran away from Syracuse with only a few ships? and if we were masters of these countries, none of the enemies who now give themselves such airs at our expense will dare to resist us."

"Certainly not," answered Cineas; "with such a force at our disposal we clearly could recover Macedonia, and have the whole of Greece at our feet. And after we have made all these conquests, what shall we do then?"

Pyrrhus laughing answered: "We will take our ease and carouse every day, and enjoy pleasant conversation with one another."

Having brought Pyrrhus to say this, Cineas asked in reply: "But what prevents our carousing and taking our ease now, since we have already at hand all those things which we propose to obtain with much bloodshed, and great toils and perils, and after suffering much ourselves and causing much suffering to others?"

By talking in this manner Cineas vexed Pyrrhus, because he made him reflect on the pleasant home which he was leaving, but his reasoning had no effect in turning him from his purpose.

He first despatched Cineas to Tarentum with three thousand men; next he collected from Tarentum many horse-transports, decked vessels, and boats of all sorts, and embarked upon them twenty elephants, twenty-three thousand cavalry, twenty-two thousand infantry, and five hundred slingers. When all was ready he put to sea; and when half way across a storm burst upon him from the north, which was unusual at that season of the year. He himself, though his ship was carried away by the tempest, yet, by the great pains and skill of the sailors and pilots, resisted it and reached the land, with great toil to the rowers, and beyond everyone's expectation; for the rest of the fleet was overpowered by the gale and scattered. Some ships were driven off the Italian coast altogether, and forced into the Libyan and Sicilian seas, and some which could not weather the Iapygian Cape were overtaken by night, and being dashed by a violent and boisterous sea against that harborless coast were utterly lost, except only the King's ship. She was so large and strongly built as to resist the waves as long as they broke upon her from the seaward; but when the wind changed and blew directly off the shore, the ship, which now met the waves directly with her head, was in great danger of going to pieces, while to let her drive out to sea again now that it was so rough, and the wind changed so frequently, seemed more terrible than to remain where they were.

Pyrrhus rose and leaped into the water, and at once was eagerly followed by his friends and his bodyguard. The darkness of night and the violent recoil of the roaring waves made it hard for them to help him, and it was not until daybreak, when the wind abated, that he reached the land, faint and helpless in body, but with his spirit invincible in misfortune. The Messapians, upon whose coast he had been thrown, now assembled from the neighboring villages and offered their help, while some of the ships which had outlived the storm appeared, bringing a few horsemen, about two thousand foot, and two elephants.

With these Pyrrhus marched to Tarentum; Cineas, as soon as he heard of his arrival, bringing out the Tarentine army to meet him. When he reached the city he did nothing to displease the Tarentines until his fleet returned to the coast and he had assembled the greater part of his army. But then, as he saw that the populace, unless ruled by a strong hand, could neither help him nor help themselves, but intended to stay idling about their baths and entertainments at home, while he fought their battles in the field, he closed the gymnasia and public walks, in which the people were wont to waste their time in empty talk about the war. He forbade all drinking, feasting, and unseasonable revels, and forced the people to take up arms, proving himself inexorable to everyone who was on the muster-roll of able-bodied citizens. This conduct made him much disliked, and many of the Tarentines left the city in disgust; for they were so unused to discipline that they considered that not to be able to pass their lives as they chose was no better than slavery.

When news came that Laevinus, the Roman consul, was marching to attack him with a large force, and was plundering the country of Lucania as he advanced, while Pyrrhus' allies had not yet arrived, he thought it a shameful thing to allow the enemy to proceed any farther, and marched out with his army. He sent before him a herald to the Roman general, informing him that he was willing to act as arbitrator in the dispute between the Romans and the Greek cities of Italy, if they chose to terminate it peacefully. On receiving for an answer that the Romans neither wished for Pyrrhus as an arbitrator, nor feared him as an enemy, he marched forward, and encamped in the plain between the city of Pandosia and Heraclea.

Learning that the Romans were close by, and were encamping on the farther side of the river Siris (the river Aciris, now called Agri), he rode up to the river to view them; and when he observed their even ranks, their orderly movements, and their well-arranged camp, he was surprised, and said to the nearest of his friends: "These barbarians, Megacles, have nothing barbarous in their military discipline; but we shall soon learn what they can do." He began indeed already to feel some uncertainty as to the issue of the campaign, and determined to wait until his allies came up, and till then to observe the movements of the Romans, and prevent their crossing the river. They, however, perceiving his object, at once crossed the river, the infantry at a ford, the cavalry at many points at once, so that the Greeks feared they might be surrounded, and drew back. Pyrrhus, perceiving this, ordered his officers instantly to form the troops in order of battle and wait under arms while he himself charged with the cavalry, three thousand strong, hoping to catch the Romans in the act of crossing the river and consequently in disorder.

When he saw many shields of the Roman infantry appearing over the river bank, and their horsemen all ranged in order, he closed up his own ranks and charged them first himself, a conspicuous figure in his beautiful glittering armor, and proving by his exploits that he deserved his high reputation; especially as although he fought personally, and engaged in combat with the enemy, yet he continually watched the whole battle, and handled his troops with as much facility as though he were not in the thick of the fight, appearing always wherever his presence was required, and reenforcing those who seemed likely to give way. In this battle Leonnatus the Macedonian, observing one of the Italians watching Pyrrhus and constantly following him about the field, said to him: "My King, do you see that barbarian on the black horse with white feet? He seems to be meditating some desperate deed. He is a man of spirit and courage, and he never takes his eyes off you, and takes no notice of anyone else. Beware of that man."

Pyrrhus answered: "Leonnatus, no man can avoid his fate; but neither that Italian nor anyone else who attacks me will do so with impunity." While they were yet talking the Italian levelled his lance and urged his horse in full career against Pyrrhus. He struck the King's horse with his spear, and at the same instant his own horse was struck a sidelong blow by Leonnatus. Both horses fell; Pyrrhus was saved by his friends, and the Italian perished fighting. He was of the nation of the Frentani, Hoplacus by name, and was the captain of a troop of horse.

This incident taught Pyrrhus to be more cautious. He observed that his cavalry were inclined to give way, and therefore sent for his phalanx, and arrayed it against the enemy. Then he gave his cloak and armor to one of his companions, Megacles, and after partially disguising himself in those of his friend, led his main body to attack the Roman army. The Romans stoutly resisted him, and an obstinate battle took place, for it is said that the combatants alternately yielded and again pressed forward no less than seven distinct times. The King's exchange of armor, too, though it saved his life, yet very nearly lost him the victory: for many attacked Megacles, and the man who first struck him down, who was named Decius, snatched up his cloak and helmet, and rode with them to Lævinus, displaying them and shouting aloud that he had slain Pyrrhus.

The Romans, when they saw these spoils carried in triumph along their ranks, raised a joyful cry, while the Greeks were correspondingly disheartened, until Pyrrhus, learning what had taken place, rode along the line with his head bare, stretching out his hands to his soldiers and telling them that he was safe. At length he was victorious, chiefly by means of a sudden charge of his Thessalian horse on the Romans after they had been thrown into disorder by the advance of the elephants. The Roman horses were terrified at these animals, and, long before they came near, ran away with their riders in panic. The slaughter was very great: Dionysius says that of the Romans there fell but little short of fifteen thousand, but Hieronymus reduces this to seven thousand, while on Pyrrhus' side there fell, according to Dionysius, thirteen thousand, but according to Hieronymus less than four thousand.

These, however, were the very flower of Pyrrhus' army; for he lost all his most trusty officers and his most intimate personal friends. Still, he captured the Roman camp, which was abandoned by the enemy, induced several of their allied cities to join him, plundered a vast extent of country, and advanced within three hundred stades—less than forty English miles—of Rome itself. After the battle many of the Lucanians and Samnites came up; these allies he reproached for their dilatory movements, but was evidently well pleased at having conquered the great Roman army with no other forces but his own Epirotes and the Tarentines.

The Romans did not remove Laevinus from his office of consul, although Caius Fabricius is reported to have said that it was not the Epirotes who had conquered the Romans, but Pyrrhus who had conquered Laevinus; meaning that he thought that the defeat was owing not to the greater force but the superior generalship of the enemy. They astonished Pyrrhus by quickly filling up their ranks with fresh levies, and talking about the war in a spirit of fearless confidence. He decided to try whether they were disposed to make terms with him, as he perceived that to capture Rome and utterly subdue the Roman people would be a work of no small difficulty, and that it would be vain to attempt it with the force at his disposal, while after his victory he could make peace on terms which would reflect great lustre on himself. Cineas was sent as ambassador to conduct this negotiation.

He conversed with the leading men of Rome, and offered their wives and children presents from the King. No one, however, would accept them, but they all, men and women alike, replied that if peace were publicly concluded with the King, they would then have no objection to regard him as a friend. And when Cineas spoke before the senate in a winning and persuasive manner he could not make any impression upon his audience, although he announced to them that Pyrrhus would restore the prisoners he had taken without any ransom, and would assist them in subduing all Italy, while all that he asked in return was that he should be regarded as a friend, and that the people of Tarentum should not be molested. The common people, however, were evidently eager for peace, in consequence of their having been defeated in one great battle, and expecting that they would have to fight another against a larger force, because the Italian states would join Pyrrhus.

At this crisis Appius Claudius, an illustrious man, but who had long since been prevented by old age and blindness from taking any active part in politics, when he heard of the proposals of Pyrrhus, and that the question of peace or war was about to be voted upon by the senate, could no longer endure to remain at home, but caused his slaves to carry him through the Forum to the senate house in a litter. When he reached the doors of the senate house his sons and sons-in-law supported him and guided him into the house, while all the assembly observed a respectful silence.

Speaking from where he stood, he addressed them as follows: "My countrymen, I used to grieve at the loss of my sight, but now I am sorry not to be deaf also, when I hear the disgraceful propositions with which you are tarnishing the glory of Rome. What has become of that boast which we were so fond of making before all mankind, that if Alexander the Great had invaded Italy, and had met us when we were young, and our fathers when they were in the prime of life, he would not have been reputed invincible, but would either have fled or perhaps even have fallen, and added to the glory of Rome?

"You now prove that this was mere empty vaporing, by your terror of these Chaonians and Molossians, nations who have always been a prey and a spoil to the Macedonians, and by your fear of this Pyrrhus, who used formerly to dance attendance on one of Alexander's bodyguards,[1] and who has now wandered hither not so much in order to assist the Greeks in Italy as to escape from his enemies at home, and promises to be our friend and protector, forsooth, when the army he commands did not suffice to keep for him the least portion of that Macedonia which he once acquired. Do not imagine that you will get rid of this man by making a treaty with him. Rather you will encourage other Greek princes to invade you, for they will despise you and think you an easy prey to all men if you let Pyrrhus go home again without paying the penalty of his outrages upon you, nay, with the power to boast that he has made Rome a laughing-stock for Tarentines and Samnites."

By these words Appius roused a warlike spirit in the Romans, and they dismissed Cineas with the answer that if Pyrrhus would leave Italy they would, if he wished, discuss the question of an alliance with him, but that while he remained in arms in their country the Romans would fight him to the death, however many Laevinuses he might defeat. It is related that Cineas, during his mission to Rome, took great interest in observing the national life of the Romans, and fully appreciated the excellence of their political constitution, which he learned by conversing with many of the leading men of the State. On his return he told Pyrrhus that the senate seemed to him like an assembly of kings, and that as to the populace he feared that the Greeks might find in them a new Lernæan hydra; for twice as many troops had been enrolled in the consul's army as he had before, and yet there remained many more Romans capable of bearing arms.

After this Caius Fabricius came to arrange terms for the exchange of prisoners; a man whom Cineas said the Romans especially valued for his virtue and bravery, but who was excessively poor. Pyrrhus, in consequence of this, entertained Fabricius privately, and made him an offer of money, not as a bribe for any act of baseness, but speaking of it as a pledge of friendship and sincerity. As Fabricius refused this, Pyrrhus waited till the next day, when, desirous of making an impression on him, as he had never seen an elephant, he had his largest elephant placed behind Fabricius during their conference, concealed by a curtain. At a given signal, the curtain was withdrawn, and the creature reached out his trunk over the head of Fabricius with a harsh and terrible cry. Fabricius, however, quietly turned round, and then said to Pyrrhus with a smile, "You could not move me by your gold yesterday, nor can you with your beast to-day."

At table that day they conversed upon all subjects, but chiefly about Greece and Greek philosophy. Cineas repeated the opinion of Epicurus and his school, about the gods, and the practice of political life, and the objects at which we should aim, how they considered pleasure to be the highest good, and held aloof from taking any active part in politics, because it spoiled and destroyed perfect happiness; and about how they thought that the gods lived far removed from hopes and fears, and interest in human affairs, in a placid state of eternal fruition.[2] While he was speaking in this strain Fabricius burst out: "Hercules!" cried he, "may Pyrrhus and the Samnites continue to waste their time on these speculations as long as they remain at war with us!" Pyrrhus, at this, was struck by the spirit and noble disposition of Fabricius, and longed more than ever to make Rome his friend instead of his enemy. He begged him to arrange terms of peace, and after they were concluded to come and live with him as the first of his friends and officers.

Fabricius is said to have quietly answered: "That, O King, will not be to your advantage; for those who now obey you, and look up to you, if they had any experience of me, would prefer me to you for their king." Pyrrhus was not angry at this speech, but spoke to all his friends about the magnanimous conduct of Fabricius, and intrusted the prisoners to him alone, on the condition that, if the senate refused to make peace, they should be allowed to embrace their friends, and spend the festival of the Saturnalia with them, and then be sent back to him. And they were sent back after the Saturnalia, for the senate decreed that any of them who remained behind should be put to death.

After this, when C. Fabricius was consul, a man came into his camp bringing a letter from King Pyrrhus' physician, in which he offered to poison the King if he could be assured of a suitable reward for his services in thus bringing the war to an end without a blow. Fabricius, disgusted at the man's treachery, brought his colleague to share his views, and in haste sent off a letter to Pyrrhus, bidding him be on his guard. The letter ran as follows: "Caius Fabricius and Quintus Æmilius, the Roman consuls, greet King Pyrrhus. You appear to be a bad judge both of your friends and of your enemies. You will perceive, by reading the enclosed letter which has been sent to us, that you are fighting against good and virtuous men, and trusting to wicked and treacherous ones. We do not give you this information out of any love we bear you, but for fear that we might be charged with having assassinated you and be thought to have brought the war to a close by treachery because we could not do so by manhood."

Pyrrhus on receiving this letter, and discovering the plot against his life, punished his physician, and, in return for the kindness of Fabricius and the Romans, delivered up their prisoners without ransom, and sent Cineas a second time to arrange terms of peace. However, the Romans refused to receive their prisoners back without ransom, being unwilling either to receive a favor from their enemy or to be rewarded for having abstained from treachery toward him, but set free an equal number of Tarentines and Samnites, and sent them to him. As to terms of peace, they refused to entertain the question unless Pyrrhus first placed his entire armament on board the ships in which it came, and sailed back to Epirus with it.

As it was now necessary that Pyrrhus should fight another battle, he advanced with his army to the city of Asculum, and attacked the Romans. Here he was forced to fight on rough ground, near the swampy banks of a river, where his elephants and cavalry were of no service, and he was forced to attack with his phalanx. After a drawn battle, in which many fell, night parted the combatants. Next day Pyrrhus manoeuvred so as to bring the Romans fairly into the plain, where his elephants could act upon the enemy's line. He occupied the rough ground on either side, placed many archers and slingers among his elephants, and advanced with his phalanx in close order and irresistible strength.

The Romans, who were unable on the level ground to practise the bush-fighting and skirmishing of the previous day, were compelled to attack the phalanx in front. They endeavored to force their way through that hedge of spears before the elephants could come up, and showed marvellous courage in hacking at the spears with their swords, exposing themselves recklessly, careless of wounds or death. After a long struggle, it is said that they first gave way at the point where Pyrrhus was urging on his soldiers in person, though the defeat was chiefly due to the weight and crushing charge of the elephants. The Romans could not find any opportunity in this sort of battle for the display of their courage, but thought it their duty to stand aside and save themselves from a useless death, just as they would have done in the case of a wave of the sea or an earthquake coming upon them. In the flight to their camp, which was not far off, Hieronymus says that six thousand Romans perished, and that in Pyrrhus' commentaries his loss is stated at three thousand five hundred and five.

Dionysius, on the other hand, does not admit that there were two battles at Asculum, or that the Romans suffered a defeat, but tells us that they fought the whole of one day until sunset, and then separated, Pyrrhus being wounded in the arm by a javelin, and the Samnites having plundered his baggage. He also states the total loss on both sides to be above fifteen thousand.

The armies separated after the battle, and it is said that Pyrrhus, when congratulated on his victory by his friends, said in reply: "If we win one more such victory over the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined." For a large part of the force which he had brought with him had perished, and very nearly all his friends and officers, and there were no more to send for at home.


  1. Demetrius.
  2. I have translated the above passages almost literally from the Greek. Yet I am inclined to think that Arnold has penetrated the true meaning, and shows us the reason for Fabricius' exclamation when he states the Epicurean philosophy, as expounded by Cineas, to be "that war and state affairs were but toil and trouble, and that the wise man should imitate the blissful rest of the gods, who, dwelling in their own divinity, regarded not the vain turmoil of this lower world."