The Strange Origin Of The Term ‘Pyrrhic Victory’

Many phrases exist today that we normalize as just being run of the mill, as it were. ‘Run of the mill’ is one of them. But it only came into usage in the early twentieth century to say something is ‘average,’ ‘typical,’ or ‘common.’ 

Before this, it was a term used in Britain in industrial factories packing flour. So it had a practical application. A certain amount of flour was milled every day because it was a ‘run of the mill’.

There are hundreds of other sayings like this, but undoubtedly one of the least understood is the idea of a ‘Pyrrhic victory’. So, where and when did it come from? 

Third Century BCE in the Roman Republic

The notion of a Pyrrhic victory is ancient. It dates back to the early third century BCE when the Roman Republic was beginning to assert its military might on the Italian peninsula. 

According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BCE by the brothers Romulus and Remus on the banks of the River Tiber. Romulus then became the city’s first king, and six other monarchs followed him before Rome became a republic in the late sixth century BCE. 

But the city remained a small power for nearly two centuries after that. It was only from the late fourth century BC, between 330 BCE and 300 BCE, that Rome began conquering large portions of Central Italy. Eventually, after it secured control of the middle of the peninsula, the aristocratic rulers of Rome turned their attention southwards towards cities like Capua and Heracles in southern Italy.

 Some of these cities allied with Rome, but others staunchly opposed it. The most powerful of these opponents was the city of Tarentum, which attacked a Roman fleet in 280 BCE, triggering a war between Tarentum and Rome. And it was then that Tarentum called on the help of Pyrrhus of Epirus. 

Pyrrhus, after whom the notion of a Pyrrhic War is named, was born around 318 BCE, very shortly after the death of Alexander the Great, who had extended Greek rule across the Eastern Mediterranean and much of Asia east as far as modern-day Pakistan. Following his death, his empire fragmented into many successor kingdoms. 

One of these was Epirus, a kingdom that sits in the region that approximates northwestern Greece today, just south of Albania. This kingdom lies closely to south-eastern Italy and Tarentum, being on the coast along the passageway between the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea. 

Thus, Pyrrhus was a natural ally for Tarentum to call upon when the city found itself at war with Rome in 280 BCE, not least because many of the cities of southern Italy at the time, such as Tarentum, were colonies of Greek settlers who had planted the region in the sixth, fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

Pyrrhus Goes to War

Pyrrhus quickly responded to Tarentum’s request, and in 280 BCE, he crossed the Straits of Otranto between Greece and southern Italy with an army of roughly 25,000 troops. However, he soon met the Romans in the field of battle. 

In July 280 BCE, he rode at the head of an army of 35,000 troops, comprised of his own soldiers and those of his Greek allies from Tarentum and other Greek colonies in southern Italy. These confronted a superior force led by Publius Valerius Laevinus, the commander of an army of 45,000 Roman legionaries and their Italian allies at Heraclea.

 Despite Rome’s later reputation for military prowess, Pyrrhus’s army defeated this numerically superior force, with approximately 10,000 Romans and their allies killed or captured. 

Pyrrhus and his Greek allies lost somewhere around 7,000 men. But there was a problem here. The Romans had a larger army, to begin with, and they could look for additional troops from Rome and its allies to the north. Conversely, Pyrrhus had crossed over to Italy with a finite army, and his allies could only provide him with so many troops.

 Therefore, even though he had technically won the Battle of Heraclea in July 280 BCE, it had been a costly victory for him, one which would ultimately lead to defeat in the overall war if it were to happen again. 

Unfortunately for Pyrrhus, that is what happened. He tried to capitalize on the victory at Heraclea and moved northwards towards Rome in late 280 BCE. As a result, in early 279 BCE, he met the Romans in battle again at Asculum about midway between Tarentum and Rome. 

The armies were about even this time, with approximately 40,000 troops on each side. However, Pyrrhus did bring a squadron of war elephants into the field, which had a psychological value against an Italian enemy which was unused to seeing elephants of any kind.

Again Pyrrhus won the battle, and the Romans retreated further north, but it was yet again a costly victory where his forces were near as depleted as those of the Romans and their allies.

A Pyrrhic Victory

The war continued like this for several more years. After that, Pyrrhus did not attempt a serious assault on Rome but instead tried to secure southern Italy, including parts of Sicily, and use those as a base against the Romans. 

This brought him into conflict against Carthage, a city-state based out of modern-day Tunisia, and this also led to many victories for Pyrrhus but a substantial loss of troops.

Finally, in 275 BCE, he turned his attention back to Italy and Rome, but again despite victories on the field of battle, he could not score a decisive victory. Finally, in 275 BCE, he left Italy for Epirus. In 272 BCE, Tarentum, the city-state which had initially sought his aid in 280 BCE, fell to the Romans, who established their hegemony over southern Italy. 

Thus Pyrrhus managed never actually to lose a major battle in Italy against the Romans, but his forces suffered losses during each of his battles which eventually made it impossible for him to defeat the Romans.

As such, these were ‘Pyrrhic victories’, in that on the surface they seemed like victories, but over time they led to defeat, and that is where the concept of a Pyrrhic victory comes from a victory which is so costly it may as well be a defeat.

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Sources 

Tony Hackens (ed.), The Age of Pyrrhus (Providence, Rhode Island, 1992). 

K. W. Meiklejohn, ‘Roman Strategies and Tactics from 509 to 202 BC’, in Greece & Rome, Vol. 7, No. 21 (May, 1938), pp. 170–178. 

Roman Roth, ‘Pyrrhic Paradigms: Ennius, Livy, and Ammianus Marcellinus’, in Hermes, Vol. 138 (2010), pp. 171–195. 

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