Rome now, having quelled the Etruscans, turned her attention to the Hellenic poleis in the south, meddling openly in their affairs. Thurii, though a member of the Hellenic Italiot League, which was under the domination rather than hegemony of Tarentum by this time, was attacked by a Lucanian warband who had come down from their highland homes to occupy the rich pasturelands of the Hellenic controlled coastal areas. Rather than turning to the League, however, Thurii requested aid from Rome, which was granted in the form of an army sent by the tribune C. Aelius and led by the Praetor Dentatus. In gratitude, Pliny tells us that the Thurians put a gold crowned statue of Aelius in their city, presumably in the agora (Pliny, Natural Histories, 34.32). Dentatus was honoured with a minor triumph, an ovatio. For the Italiot League, this was a major turning point as the outright dominance of Tarentum was now balanced, if not challenged, by the Thurians bringing Roman military force into play. The following year, however, Rome was required to send a second army under the consul C. Fabricius Luscinius to break a siege of Thurii by a confedaration of Lucanians, Samnites and Brutti (Dionysius, 19.13.1, Pliny, Hist. Nat.34.32). This time, the consul chose to leave a garrison, which was a practical safety measure, though also viewed by the Tarentines as a provocation if not a direct threat to their hegemony in the southern area of the peninsula. The threat was evident – would the next call for Roman assistance be to deal with Tarentum rather than the Lucanians? The call to Rome by Apulia in the Second Samnite War had already meant that Rome now controlled an area which Tarentum viewed as under her traditional purvue, and Tarentum began taking measures to defend her control of Magna Graecia. Ten Roman warships anchored at Tarentum paying a visit apparently, were attacked, four being sunk, one captured and the remaining five forced into flight (Appian, Sam. 7; Livy, Per. 12). This attack was justified under an ancient treaty which prohibited Roman warships sailing into the Ionian Gulf, though the diplomatic prerequisite of pointing out the violation of the treaty to the Romans was ignored – Tarentum was issuing a direct warning to Rome that she was neither welcome nor allowed in the Tarentine sphere of influence. Presumably the Romans accepted this, as later, with still no state of war between Rome and Tarentum, a Tarentine army marched on Thurii, expelled the garrison left there by Fabricius along with any Thurian aristocrat who had been involved in turning to Rome for aid. The sources tell us that the Romans sent a high ranking ambassador to get the return of the Roman captives and restore the Thurian aristocrats and the Roman garrison; the Tarentines insulted the Roman envoy in an extreme manner, stating the alternative was war (Dionysius, 19.4.1-5; Livy, Per. 12, Appian, Sam. 7). The Romans, as a result of their relieving Thurii, were yet again embroiled in conflict with the Samnites, who had been allied with the Lucanians, but were so insulted by the treatment of their ambassador that they called the consul L. Aemilius Barbula away from the campaign in Samnium to deliver the same terms to the Tarentines, though this time with a consular army to back the demands. The Tarentines still refused so Barbula led his army against Tarentine territory, occupying a number of minor poleis, which in turn led to the outbreak of full war with Tarentum in 282. It was a common practice for the Hellenic poleis to turn to mainland Greek states for support in times of crisis, and in 281, this is precisely what happened, Tarentum calling upon Pyrrhus of Epirus to come to their aid. The Roman historians style Pyrrhus as King of Epirus – in actuality he was King of the Molossians and hegemon of the Epirote League, though perhaps the complex minutiae of Hellenic military alliances were not something as yet understood by the Romans, though perhaps much more likely, they wished to show him as a more powerful figure than he actually was as the Romans did not fare too well against his forces, at least in the early conflict. In winter 281 / 280, Pyrrhus crossed from Greece with an army consisting of approximately 35,000 men and twenty war elephants. Pyrrhus was renowned throughout Hellas as a great strategos whose bravery and ability as a tactician were lauded by the contemporary historians (Hieronymos of Kardia, Timaeos of Tauromenion), as well as his own accounts chronicled by the court historian Proxenos. The early Roman poet Q. Ennius used a style based on Homer to record the epic struggle for survival in his Annales Bk. VI, such was the way the Romans viewed the war. These works unfortunately only survive in fragments referred to in later historians, but they were available to those later chroniclers. Plutarch also wrote a Life for Pyrrhus, such was his reputation, which is the main extant source for the conflict. However, unusually for such wars, it is through Hellenic sources that our records come rather than a Roman point of view (cf Hannibal and the Second Punic War). Though he received payment for his aid given to Tarentum, the political scope was much wider; it was in the third century that the final glory days of the Diadokhi – the heirs of Alexander of Macedon, the Great – occurred. Pyrrhus was too late to be able to carve out a great kingdom for himself in the East, despite his incontestable military skills. His only hope for equal greatness with the Hellenic monarchs was to turn west to Magna Graecia, claim the throne of Syracuse through a claim by his son through Pyrrhus’ wife’s family and perhaps even look further west to defeat Carthage and build up a hugely powerful Hellenic Empire in the west. First, though, this required him to crush the ‘barbaroi’ upstarts from Rome.
The Romans met Pyrrhus’ army at Heraklea in spring 280. Pyrrhus used the Macedonian phalanx, supported by light infantry, archers, slingers and highly effective heavy and light cavalry as well as the twenty war elephants. Rome had never faced anything of the like; tight formations of eighteen foot long sarissa wielded by lightly armoured experts, trained to swing the phalanx in any required direction rather more quickly than a heavily armoured, slow moving traditional phalanx, and they were soundly beaten, though Pyrrhus lost over 4,000 troops, mainly from his elite phalangites. This victory did, however, bring many of the other Greek cities, the Lucanians and again the Samnites over to Pyrrhus’ side. Pyrrhus seems to have been convinced by these defections and marched on Rome herself, expecting further cities and peoples to join him. This was a badly misjudged expectation. The hard-core of Latin supporters of the Romans remained loyal and Pyrrhus was unable to pursue his attempt to destroy Rome, eventually heading south again.
Pyrrhus, following the standard Hellenic custom of the time, had sent his chief advisor, Kineas, to Rome, laden with rich and expensive gifts and with the expectation that the Romans, as the losers of the battle, would agree to the Epirote terms; as a further gesture of goodwill, he released the 1,800 Roman prisoners from Heraklea without ransom. What was the norm for Hellenes, however, was not that for Rome. The later Roman sources tell the tale of Ap. Claudius Caecus in the senate as an example (Plutarch, Pyrrh. 18.4-19.3; Appian, Sam. 10.2; Cicero, Brut. 61; Sen. 16). According to this, the senators were on the verge of accepting the Epirote terms, intimidated by the size of the Hellenic force, their own huge losses and the potential threats from other allies, both south and north, flocking to Pyrrhus’ ‘crusade’ to liberate the Hellenes from Rome, and thereby the Etruscan and the other enemy tribes. Caecus – Latin for blind – was a man of extreme age and had had to be carried to the curia to attend the debate. When he rose to speak, all listened. His opening sentence, recorded by Cicero, must have come as a shock to the assembled nobility of Rome if it be true:
‘Up until now, senators, I have seen my blindness as an affliction, but now would that I were deaf as well, such that I might not hear the decree you are about to pass.’
The rest of his speech was a rallying cry against accepting the peace. This may well be a fabrication; the senate could hardly have agreed to surrendering all the lands they had fought so hard to win in the previous five decades. They must have known that their agreement to keep out of Magna Graecia would simply open it up to Pyrrhus’ domination of the south of the peninsula and Sicily. Furthermore, such a treaty, even if that could seem acceptable, would apply to Pyrrhus’ allies, and too many of them were to the south, meaning Rome was left at a complete loss other than Latium, Western Campania and Etruria. There could be little doubt that the cities of the Etruscans would not accept peaceful dominion from Rome if she were seen to be vulnerable from the south. Lose Etruria, Campania and even Latium would no doubt be next. This treaty with Pyrrhus, perhaps seemingly sensible in the short term, was a treaty of obliteration for Rome in the long term. Kineas’ free distribution of gifts might have been the standard expectation in the agreement of treaties in Hellas, but to the Romans of this time, they amounted to simple, overt bribery and therefore directly in the face of Roman tradition and custom under the mos maiorum.
The senate rejected the offer and hostilities resumed, both sides raising more forces; Pyrrhus demanded silver from his allies, recorded in the records of the Temple of Zeus at Lokri to hire more mercenary troops from the Greek mainland. The Romans raised further legions and levied troops from the socii. In 279, the senate ordered both consuls, P. Sulpicius Saverrio and P. Decius Mus, to march south where they met Pyrrhus on the field of battle at Ausculum in Apuleia on the banks of the Aufidus. The battle lasted two days, the Romans keeping to the forest on the first day, neutralising the Hellenic cavalry, and coming out the better. On the second day, Pyrrhus forced the Romans out on the plain where, according to the Romans, the battle resulted in a draw, though the more reliable Hellenic sources state the Hellenes won a decisive victory, though again at great cost, particularly amongst the remainder of his elite phalangites. Pyrrhus is purported to have replied to one of his generals’ congratulations on the victory ‘Another victory like this and we shall be ruined.’ Pyrrhus knew that a war of attrition was going to mean his ultimate defeat.
Rome would accept no terms at this time, knowing, presumably, that Pyrrhus now needed to look over the Straits of Messina to help the Greek communities on Sicily who were under severe threat from Carthage or possibly return home to defeat a Celtic invasion of Macedonia and claim the now vacant throne. As his long term hopes were for a western kingdom, though, Pyrrhus turned south to Sicily. If he could defeat Carthage, unite the Sicilian Hellenic poleis and claim the throne of Syracuse for his son through Larissa, both his wife and daughter of Agathokles, the former ruler, then his first stage was won, as well as giving him new troops in his struggle with Rome over the rest of Magna Graecia on the Italian mainland. Justinian (18.2.1-3) recounts the arrival of a Punic fleet at Ostia in 279, just after the Battle of Ausculum, offering Carthaginian help against Pyrrhus under terms of treaty. Such help would mean Pyrrhus having to leave Sicily alone and concentrate on defeating a combined force of Romans and Carthaginians. This was evidently not lost on Rome, and the senate politely but firmly refused Mago’s offer, though Polybius does emphasise that the treaty between the two was renewed (3.25.1-5). The sources also suggest that Mago actually called in at Tarentum to inform the Hellene of the renewed treaty and its terms, evidently hoping to intimidate him with the possibility of facing a combined Punic – Roman force if he invaded Sicily (Justinian, 18.2.4). Pyrrhus ignored the threat and answered Syracuse’s call for aid (Dionysius, 20.8.1-9.3; Plutarch, Pyrrhus, 22.4-23.6). After he forced the Carthaginians to withdraw to the west of the island, he was unable to drive them out, as Lilybaeum was too powerfully fortified and heavily defended. Furthermore, his increasingly despotic attitude towards the Hellenic allies in the name of his son actually drove some of them to defect to the Carthaginian cause. This encouraged Carthage who now sent further forces to Sicily, whilst the numbers of Hellenic city states defecting was apparently rising with the increasingly brutal reprisals Pyrrhus took against defectors. He once more returned to the Italian mainland in late Summer / early Autumn 276 at the request of his Italic allies as the Romans had used this time to campaign against the highland tribes which had defected to Pyrrhus’ cause (Dionyius, 10.1-12.3; Livy, Per. 14; Plutarch, Pyrr. 24.1-25.5). This left Pyrrhus with even fewer men to call on for his military campaign, the Romans having made good their campaigns against the Lucanians, Brutti and Samnites between 278 and 276. The Hellenic polis of Kroton had fallen in 277 and the Hellenic fleet had suffered losses through a Carthaginian attack whilst sailing back to Italy. By the campaigning season of 275, two Roman armies were assembled to guard against another northwards march by Pyrrhus. Rome also had a depleted pool of men to call on due to a virulent plague, and the consul of 275 used extreme measures to force men into the army to meet Pyrrhus for a final face off. The Epirote’s attempt at a surprise attack on one of the armies proved a failure and Pyrrhus returned to Tarentum from where he headed back to Greece while he still had some of his army.