TWar with King Pyrrhus and the Conquest of Southern Italy
After the end of the Samnite Wars, all of central Italy was under Roman control. This brought Roman territories much closer to the cities of Magna Graecia in southern Italy. This would soon lead to conflicting interests and subsequent war.

The most important city of Magna Graecia was Tarentum. This town was called Taras by the Greeks and is the modern Italian town of Taranto. Tarentum was an important trading city located about midway down the western coast of the peninsula that forms Italyís heel. If one remembers that the Italian peninsula is shaped like a boot, it will be seen that the heel and arch enclose the Gulf of Taranto at its extreme southeastern end. Rome is located about halfway down the southwestern side of Italy adjacent to the Tyrrhenian Sea. It would require a long sea voyage around the toe of Italy through the Straits of Messina which separates Italy from Sicily for a ship to reach Tarentum from Rome. Thus, it can be seen that, while the city - states of magna Graecia in southern Italy were adjacent to Roman territory, they were in a whole separate geographical region from a seafaring standpoint. Tarentum at that time possessed the most powerful navy of any Italian city and Tarentum had made a treaty with Rome stating that Rome would not send her ships into the Gulf of Taranto. This situation would inevitably lad to conflict between Tarentum and Rome when Rome began interfering in the affairs of the Greek colonies in southern Italy.

Soon, several city - states in Magna Graecia including Locri, Rhegim, and Croton asked for Romeís aid in struggles with their neighbors. In 282 BC Thurii, located on the Gulf of Taranto, asked for help from Rome after having been attacked by Lucania. Rome sent a fleet carrying troops to garrison the town of Thurii. Tarentum considered this a hostile act. Her response was to sink the fleet and expel the Roman troops from Thurii.

Often, the city - states of Magna Graecia had turned to help from mercenary kings in their struggles, and now Tarentum sought the aid of King Pyrrhus of Epirus, located on the Greek peninsula across the Adriatic sea from southern Italy. Pyrrhus landed in Italy in 280 BC with 25,000 men and twenty war elephants. His first action against the Romans was at the small coastal town of Heraclea (Not the same Heraclea that was an important city and on the Black Sea during the later Roman Empire).

Even though the Romans technically lost the the battle at Heraclea, Pyrrhus lost a great number of troops. This was to become a pattern during the war between the Romans and Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus would win all major engagements, but he would sustain such a terrible loss of troops that he could not long continue a war without reinforcements. Even today, we speak of "a Pyrrhic victory", meaning a victory won at a terrible cost in lives.

After Heraclea, Pyrrus marched north into Latium hoping that many city - states, unhappy with Roman domination, would rebel and join his cause. In this, he badly misjudged the situation. Unlike the situation fifty years earlier, when cities often broke their alliances with Rome and joined her enemies at the first sighns of trouble, the Roman alliances were much more stable. The cities under her control had grown accustomed to Roman protection from enemies and their leaders enjoyed the benefits to their own positions of Roman rule. Only some Samnites and Lucanians sided with Pyrrhus. The next engagement was fought near Ausculum and again, Pyrrhus won but suffered great losses.

Pyrrhus next offered to negotiate a truce with Rome, but Rome refused to talk as long as Pyrrhus remained on Italian soil. The same Appius Claudius who built the Appian Way, now an old man and blind, exhorted toe Romans to refuse negotiations with Pyrrhus, who was really only asking at this point for freedom for Tarentum and her allies.

Pyrrhus went to Sicily in 278 BC to aid several Greek city - states against Carthage, a powerful North African city with a large and growing commercial empire which had been founded by the Phoenecians. . Pyrrhus was often victorious, but was able to win no clear - cut strategic objectives. Rome formed an alliance with Carthage against Pyrrhus. A dozen years later, Romeís interests in the Mediterranean would come into conflict with those of Carthage, and they would be at war.

Three years later, in 275 BC, Pyrrhus was back in Italy. He faced the Romans at the town of Malventum in southern Italy and was defeated. After the battle, the Romans renamed the town to Beneventum in recognition of their victory over Pyrrhus. He then retreated into Tarentum for the duration of the war. Pyrrhus soon left italy forever and returned to the Greek mainland. He had lost two thirds of his army during the fighting, and had little to show for his efforts. Two years later, his life came to an end during a street bettle in Argos when a woman threw a roof tile down upon his head, killing him.

Tarentum, the last important Greek city - state in Italy, finally accepted the alliance Rome offered her in 272 BC. Rome was now mistress of all of sentral and southern Italy.

A Note on the Armies and Tactics Used During the Pyrrhic War

During the early Third Century BC, the Hellenistic kingdoms possessed the most powerful and advanced armies in the world. These kingdoms, formed from the breakup of Alexander the Greatís empire after his death in 323 BC, included Seleukid Syria and Palestine, Ptolemaic Egypt, the Island of Rhodes, and many other Greek city - states and kingdoms including Epirus. The modern, well - equipped army of King Pyrrhus of Epirus was much more advanced than its Roman opponents. Pyrrhus used twenty war elephants in his war against the Romans, and few Italians had ever seen one of these huge beasts. At first, these elephants could be used to easily stampede the Roman cavalry horses and bring about panic in the troops who had never before encountered them. Later, the Romans learned that they could wound the elephants in the side using their pila, the short throwing spears that had come into use during the Samnite Wars. This would in turn panic the elephants, which became out of control and trampled their own troops. This was more than sixty years before the famous campaign of Hannibal of Carthage in which he crossed the Alps with an army employing elephants.

Atlas of the Roman World pp. 39 - 41

Sinnigen and Boak pp. 57 - 59
Grant pp. 87 - 89


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