While Pyrrhus was eagerly awaiting his next opportunity for glory, it arrived in the form of a Tarantine delegation. The city of Tarentum, like the rest of the cities of Lower Italy, whether Greek or not, was feeling the pressure of the rising power of Rome.
With the help of its powerful legions and its consistently expansionist policy, Rome had managed to extend its hegemony throughout central Italy and tried to further enhance its sphere of influence to the North and South. The rich cities of southern Italy and Sicily were its next target. This new expansion would soon bring it into conflict with the Greek and, eventually, Carthaginian interests in the region.
The Tarantines believed that, without a determined leadership, the Greek cities did not have the hope of resisting the Roman hegemony and would be forced to yield.They began efforts to create an alliance with the rest of the free cities in the region – Greek and Italian – and sought the right leader from the powerful Greek states of the East.
In this search, they came into contact with Pyrrhus, who was tempted by the suggestions of the Tarantines. They promised that they would have huge forces (more than 300,000 men!), possessed the money they needed for the campaign and would provide him with a fleet to transport his army to Italy. Pyrrhus considered the assurances to some extent credible and began to make his own preparations. Given that the other successors wanted to move him out of Greece and turn his ambition to the West, where they did not risk their own interests, he (they) gave him substantial aid in troops, money, ships and even war elephants, according to some historians .
By recruiting those Epirots who were willing to fight and imposing an intensive training program, Pyrrhus managed to disembark in 280 BC in Taranto with about 23,000 infantry, 3-4,000 horsemen and 20 elephants. The city had already a contingent from Epirus who had been sent the previous autumn. Determined to do what he thought was best, Pyrrhus began a thorough program of mobilising the Tarantines and training their infantry in the battle tactics of the Macedonian phalanx, which was utilised by all the Hellenistic successor states at that time.
Pyrrhus had been able to assemble a credible army, reinforcing his own soldiers with 7-8,000 trained Tarentines when the wrath of Rome broke out.
Acting pre-emptively, the Romans dispatched forces into several recently-conquered areas in order to prevent any uprisings, while their main field army sought to outmanoeuvre Pyrrhus. By invading Lucania, an allied region to the west of Tarentum, the Romans intended to cut the king off from his allies in the toe of Italy. With this shrewd move the Roman commander Publius Valerius Laevinus with four legions (about 38-40,000 men a number that Rome only mobilized during times of extreme crisis) also threatened to overrun the prosperous Tarentine colony of Heraclea. When this startling news reached Pyrrhos at Tarentum he immediately set out to intercept the enemy force before it reached the helpless Greek settlement. Though he was eager to engage the Roman field army, Pyrrhus would have preferred to wait on the arrival of a large force of veteran soldiers promised to him by his allies.
Moving southwest into Lucania, Pyrrhus drew his men up on the plains near Heraclea just north of the Siris River. Having taken up a position blocking his foes advance on the city, Pyrrhus now oversaw the encampment of his force a short distance to the rear. While this work went on, the king toured the front, observing the terrain and analysing his options for deployment. As his party crested a low hill and the river came into view, Pyrrhus caught his first glimpse of the superb organization of the Roman army. There, in a surprisingly well-ordered field camp across the river, the Romans made ready for battle. Centurions in gleaming armour bellowed orders as legionaries marched on perfectly gridded streets with rigid precision. And all the while the stoic outlines of dozens of sentries lined the walls, vigilantly watching for the first sign of the enemy.
Seeing this, an impressed Pyrrhus commented to his friend: “Megacles, this order of the barbarians is not at all barbarian in character” and then pausing he added: “We shall see presently what they can do”.
Though Pyrrhus of Epirus was a Hellenistic general and soldier-king of the first order, he faced an enemy in Italy unlike any he had yet encountered on the battlefields of the eastern Mediterranean.
This enemy was the aggressively militaristic Italian tribe known as the Romans. From their beginnings as a hardy hill people in central Italy, the Romans expanded their power through a combination of political opportunism and military prowess. By copying and improving upon the varied systems of warfare they encountered, the Romans were able to sample and utilise the best elements of the martial traditions of many different cultures. During an earlier age the Roman foot soldier was virtually indistinguishable from the hoplite of Greece. By the time Pyrrhos arrived in Italy, however, the more distinctive legionary system had been introduced and the evolution of the infantryman that would one day rule the ancient world was already underway. To Pyrrhos dismay, the barbarians he faced in Italy fought neither in the disorganized frenzy of the barbarous Gallic war bands with which he was familiar, nor in the great unbroken phalanx of the Graeco-Macedonian system. The legions had undergone drastic organisational changes throughout the course of the 4th century BC, and by the time Pyrrhus came to the aid of the southern Italian cities the Romans had developed a unique military structure.
Roman armies of the early Republic used an early manipular legion as their primary battle formation. This formation served them well throughout much of the 5th century; they then adopted a new and stronger legionary organisation as they completed their conquest of northern Italy as far as the Po River with few significant setbacks. By the middle of the 4th century, the expanding Romans stumbled into conflict with the Samnites, another emerging Italian people. Their homeland, Samnium, was situated just south of Latium, the Roman homeland. The Apennine Mountains ran directly through Samnium, and its warriors had developed an unorthodox fighting style that suited the environment. When hostilities erupted, the Roman legions performed indifferently against the fierce and adaptable Samnites. The greatest disaster came in 321 BC, when a Roman army of 40,000 was ambushed and forced to surrender to a Samnite force at the Caudine Forks. Following this humiliation, the Roman Senate embarked on a number of reforms, including the extension of the Via Appia, a road running south into Campania that allowed for improved troop movement and communication. The most enduring military improvement came with the development of the ‘Polybian’ legion following the victory of the consul Poetilius in 314 BC in which he committed his reserve right at the beginning of the battle. As a result, the legion changed from an essentially defensive formation to an essentially offensive one.
The basic unit of the legion was the maniple. One maniple was composed of two centuries of varying size. In Roman armies of the late Republic, the century became the smallest tactical element of the legion and was in turn a component of the larger cohort. In the structure of the manipular legion, however, centuries were combined to form the fundamental unit: the maniple. A Roman legion deployed in three lines, with each line being composed of a strict categorisation of maniples. The categories of legionaries were based on wealth and experience in battle. The first line was formed by the hastati, the flower of young men’, with helmet and lesser body armour, carrying the scutum, pila heavy throwing javelin and sword. These replaced the old Tullian Second class.
The principes,older warriors in their late 20s or early 30s also in helmet and body armour, carrying the scutum, pila heavy throwing javelin and sword. The pila (of Spanish origin) were used to deliver a devastating volley immediately prior to impact with the opposing battle line. These also replaced, in part, the old Tullian First Class hoplites.with considerable battle experience, formed the second line. The third line was composed of the triarii, veterans wearing helmets and body armour, carrying the scutum shield (see below), hasta thrusting spear and sword. These replaced, in part, the old Tullian First Class hoplites.
The principes supported the hastati when necessary by a relief manoeuvre during battle, while the triarii often did not engage the enemy unless the battle was particularly difficult. The legionaries in this period were citizen soldiers, men who served willingly in the ranks of the army but still owned property around Rome that they had to cultivate. This limited the campaigning season of Roman armies but still provided the military might necessary to subdue their Italian neighbors. Only in times of crisis, such as Pyrrhuss invasion, did the Senate call for additional recruits. The alacrity with which Roman citizens volunteered for military service during the conflict with Pyrrhus revealed a unique characteristic of the Roman psyche. They viewed war as an activity of all the Roman people and refused to submit even in the face of defeat. This was a concept that dumbfounded Pyrrhus. The core of the army had its legions, but many troops from Romes Italian dependents supplemented the heavy infantry as skirmishing or cavalry troops. The typical size of a manipular legion was 4,200 men, but this could be increased to 5,000. The cavalry did play a role in the armies of the Republic, although Roman horsemen were often unreliable in battle as well as on scouting missions and considerable reliance was placed on allied cavalry. Despite its success in Italy, the Roman army was yet to encounter a sophisticated force such as the one Pyrrhus commanded.
Alexander proved that with inspired leadership and willing soldiers, the Macedonian phalanx could defeat any force that opposed it. The problem with the Macedonian system stemmed from its inherent fragility and its reliance on superb generalship. It derived most of its terrifying striking power from a marriage of the rigidly solid phalanx formation with a lethally effective combination of cavalry and light infantry. When commanded by a genius like Alexander, all these elements could be properly employed to their full effect at exactly the right moment and victory was almost always the result. The Macedonian system tended to break down, however, when generals of a lesser calibre attempted to manhandle rather than finesse it on the battlefield. If a commander had not learned his craft to perfection, the complicated Macedonian phalanx would frustrate his hopes of victory rather than bolster them. The legion, a simple bludgeon by contrast, could be, and often was, effectively led by elected officials with little military experience or skill. On the banks of the Siris River, these two great military forces of the ancient world would meet for the first time in a bloody showdown for the control of Italy.
Across the river the consul Laevinus had already been alerted to Pyrrhus presence and was laying out his plan of attack when scouts arrived at his tent bringing news of the Epirot kings light infantry advancing toward the river. Hearing this, Laevinus decided to launch an immediate assault across the river before Pyrrhus could marshal his forces. The consul ordered his cavalry to move upstream and cross the river undetected. These would then fall on the Greek guards from the rear, allowing Laevinus to move his infantry across unmolested.
When Pyrrhus saw a vast number of shields appearing above the water, and the horse following them in good order, gathering his men in a closer body, himself at the head of them, he began the charge, conspicuous by his rich and beautiful armour, and letting it be seen that his reputation had not outreached what he was able effectually to perform. Thus he ordered his army to assemble for battle and personally rode to the river at the head of 3,000 cavalry; his Agema cavalry and with his Thessalians in reserve. They were turned back by the Italian horse and soon this action turned into a stalemate in which Pyrrhus outnumbered horsemen just could barely hold their own. Soon, almost all of Pyrrhus horsemen were thrown into this cavalry battle.
While Pyrrhus phalangites still marched toward the sounds of battle, the king found himself not just fighting cavalry but also having to avoid infantry, as the Roman army began to pour across the river and consolidate their grip on the shore. Seven times the fortunes of battle swayed, now favouring one side, now the other. The Epirot horsemen were increasingly at risk as they made their charges against and retirements from the Roman cavalry. In the chaos of this shoreline battle, Pyrrhus himself was engaged by an enemy horseman intent on striking him down. Like Alexander at the Granicus, Pyrrhus was saved from certain death only by the timely intervention of his friend Leonnatos, but not before the kings horse was killed beneath him. With his men falling all around him and the enemy pressing ever closer, Pyrrhus was intensely relieved to hear the trumpets of his infantry blare out their approach. Ordering his cavalry to break off the struggle, Pyrrhus withdrew his battered horsemen to reform. In their place the dreaded Macedonian phalanx lumbered down the slope toward the Romans, who hurriedly formed their battle line and prepared to meet the bristling hedge of pikes that descended on them. As the two forces came together with a crash and the madness of battle enveloped the combatants, the Romans learned the horrors of facing Pyrrhus war machine. Men screamed and horses reared out of control as the bristling Epirot phalanx ploughed into the mass of Roman legionaries struggling to cross the river. With their great pikes, Pyrrhus phalangites stabbed and thrust into the Roman front line, dropping (should be stopping?) legionaries in their tracks long before the meagre reach of their short swords could be brought to bear.
A severe struggle ensued as the pikemen suffered the hail of pila and then pressed forward against the hastati. The Romans for their part were stymied by the serried ranks of pikemen and could make little impression upon them. Individual legionaries attempted to roll under the pikes and break up the phalanxs but these forlorn hopes were cut down. Hacking at the spear points was also a desperate measure attempted with little success. The maniples were unable to stop the phalanx. The hastati line was decimated and fell back and the principes took up the struggle. A series of clashes occurred with charges and counter charges delivered by both sides. The Romans were frustrated because they could not break through the wall of pikes, the Epirots and Macedonians were frustrated because every time they defeated a maniple they could not pursue, another maniple would threaten to flank them if they opened a gap in their line. These were seasoned phalangites and they were knowlegeable enough to know that they could not offer these compact maniple formations a chance to penetrate their line.
Luckily for Pyrrhus the river crossing apparently had funneled the Roman advance and somehow the Allied Legions were unable to deploy on a wide enough front to flank the Epirot battleline. The Tarentines are not mentioned, but may have provided enough extra frontage to save the Epirot infantry from being outflanked.
As stalemate seemed to be spread across the battleline, a Roman officer killed Megacles and carried Pyrrhus goat horned helmet and cloak to Laevinius shouting to all that Pyrrhus was dead! The Romans, at their lowest ebb, were rejuvenated, and the Epirotes wavered and fell back. Pyrrhus took off his helmet and rode in front of the lines to show his troops the ruse. This dramatic display saved his army and they stood their ground once again.
During this confusion, Laevinius threw in his reserve of Roman cavalry against the phalanxs exposed flank. Pyrrhus saw this as the decisive moment and gathered his elephants. As the Romans attempted to charge the phalanx they were in turn charged by the elephants. The Roman horses could not stand up to the Lucanian Oxen as they called them, and they fled through the Legions. The elephants spread panic and terror before them and the Legions broke. Pyrrhus launched a vigorous attack with his Thessalian cavalry. The Roman army could have been annihilated with its back to the stream, but the First Hastati of the Fourth Legion, Gaius Minucius, wounded Pyrrhus leading elephant which bolted back through the Epirot phalanx. The phalanx halted and the Romans melted away in confusion and rout. Pyrrhus did not pursue.
The battle was a Near Run thing for Pyrrhus. It is stated that the Romans lost 7,000 killed and carried away 6,000 wounded; 2,000 prisoners were taken. But unlike Alexanders victories, Pyrrhus army suffered up to 4,000 dead, including his General Megacles and many of his closest Companions.
Pyrrhus By Plutarch
Jeff Jonas, The Initial Clash:
Republican Rome vs. Pyrrhus of Epirus
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