The Pyrrhic War: The Origin of the Phrase Pyrrhic Victory

The Pyrrhic War was a series of battles fought between King Pyrrhus of Epirus and the Romans from 280 BCE – 275 BCE. This war is the origin of the phrase “pyrrhic victory.”

A pyrrhic victory is a victory that is so devastating that in some ways it can be seen as a defeat. This type of victory takes its toll on the winner and impedes long term progress.

Another common way of saying this is that the victor “won the battle, but lost the war.” This can apply militarily, politically, or even in everyday life.

Someone may experience a pyrrhic victory when they win a legal suit that awards them less money than they paid in legal fees. In sports winning a regular season game that comes at the price of losing your best player to injury can also be a hollow victory.

History has many common examples of pyrrhic victories as well. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia resulted in the successful capture of Moscow, but he could not maintain his supply line that far and was forced to eventually retreat.

The Battle of Bunker Hill is notorious in the Revolutionary War for the Americans losing the battle, yet inflicting massive casualties on the British that hampered their future operations in the region.

While the phrase has been around for quite some time, just what is the origin of a pyrrhic victory?

Where Does Pyrrhic Victory Come From?

A pyrrhic victory is named after the legendary King Pyrrhus of Epirus and his campaigns in Italy against the emergent Roman Republic. This conflict is known as the Pyrrhic War and lasted from 280 BCE – 275 BCE.

By 280 BCE the Romans had become the dominant political and militant force on the Italian peninsula. Their reign extended from the Rubicon River in the north through central Italy. Only the southern portion of the peninsula was not under their control.

This region was still under the control of independent Greek cities that had the backing of the Hellenistic states. Tarentum was the biggest and most powerful of these states.

Bust of King Pyrrhus via Wikimedia

Everything we know about the Pyrrhic War was written by Roman sources. Many of these sources had the tendency to make greatly exaggerated claims, omit information that made Rome look bad, and had a flair for the dramatics.

Thus, it is debatable how many of these events occurred exactly the way they are recorded, though historians generally agree upon the outline, timeline, and outcome of the Pyrrhic War.

The spark for war occurred when Rome breached a prior treaty with Tarentum and sailed into their port. Tarentum defended themselves, sinking Roman ships and capturing prisoners.

In the resulting diplomatic event, Rome sought to make peace, though Tarentum rejected their offer and humiliated their envoys. The Romans immediately declared war.

Suddenly worried, Tarentum desperately pleaded for King Pyrrhus of Epirus to come to their aid. Epirus was a powerful kingdom in northwestern Greece and was a remnant of Alexander the Great’s once-massive empire.

Luckily for Tarentum, Pyrrhus was more than willing to oblige. He quickly mustered an army and sailed to Taremtum to battle the Romans head on.

Summary of the Pyrrhic War

Arriving in Tarentum with a force of nearly 25,000 men and 20 war elephants, Pyrrhus moved to pitch battle with the Romans. A Roman force was pillaging nearby Lucania and met Pyrrhus and the Epirotes on the plains near the city of Heraclea.

In the resulting Battle of Heraclea, Pyrrhus won a great victory. Most Romans had never battled war elephants before, and when Pyrrhus deployed them, the Romans scattered in fear.

As his Greek allies showed up to the battle late, Pyrrhus was forced to fight with only his own well-trained troops. Despite the victory, Pyrrhus lost many of his best-trained men and commanders.

Map of King Pyrrhus movements in the Pyrrhic War via Wikimedia

Following the victory, the Epirotes marched on Rome, plundering along the way. Pyrrhus offered peace terms to Rome, though the defiant Romans refused them..

Most armies in this era were inactive for winter, and likewise Pyrrhus returned to Tarentum to make camp for the season. The following year he once again engaged the Romans in battle.

In the subsequent Battle of Asculum in 279 BCE, King Pyrrhus once again won a great victory inflicting large casualties on the Romans. However, this victory too came at a great cost for Epirus.

Plutarch reports that upon being congratulated on his victory Pyrrhus responded “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” This phrase and battle is considered to be the origin of a pyrrhic victory.

Pyrrhus himself had been wounded in the battle and he yet again lost many experienced men and key leaders.

After the Epirotes recovered, they found they had outstayed their welcome in Tarentum. The Greek states did not favor Pyrrhus’ dictatorial leadership style and their ingratitude caused him to answer the call of Sicilian Greek cities in their conflicts against Carthage.

After two years of campaigning in Sicily, Pyrrhus scored major victories, though he yet again outstayed his welcome. With Tarentum in dire straits from Roman assaults, the Epirotes returned to southern Italy.

Who Won the Pyrrhic War?

It was here that King Pyrrhus met the Romans in battle for the final time. In 275 BCE the Romans and Pyrrhus fought at the Battle of Beneventum.

After nearly five years of warfare, the original elite Epirote army had dwindled and was now supplemented by the soldiers of the Greek city states in Italy. These soldiers were much more inexperienced and poor fighters.

Here the famed King Pyrrhus was finally defeated in battle. It is written that one of the young war elephants was wounded in battle and caused chaos for the Epirotes as it tore across the battlefield in search of its mother.

The Pyrrhic War Battle Losses and Pyrrhic Victory chart

With this defeat the Pyrrhic War ended with the Romans victorious. Pyrrhus would shortly depart the Italian peninsula for the last time and return to Epirus.

Just why were the Romans able to succeed despite defeat in the first two major battles?

Ultimately it came down to the fact that Rome could more easily replenish their losses than Epirus could.

Plutarch reports:

“For he (Pyrrhus) had lost a great part of the forces with which he came, and all his friends and generals except a few; moreover, he had no others whom he could summon from home, and he saw that his allies in Italy were becoming indifferent, while the army of the Romans, as if from a fountain gushing forth indoors, was easily and speedily filled up again, and they did not lose courage in defeat, nay, their wrath gave them all the more vigour and determination for the war.”

Despite great victories on the battlefield, he could not replace the men he lost which in turn hampered his ability to fight in the future. This is why a victory that comes with great loss is now referred to as a Pyrrhic victory.

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