Gateway to the Classics: Stories from the History of Rome by Emily Beesly
Stories from the History of Rome by  Emily Beesly

How Pyrrhus Fought against Rome

A S years went on the power of the Romans grew greater. They conquered many of the towns round Rome, and made the people their subjects and allies. So year after year their armies went further away from Rome, and sometimes had to go quite to the southern part of Italy.

On the seacoasts of southern Italy were many towns which had been built by Greeks, who had sailed over the sea from Greece, and made new homes for themselves in Italy.

There was a quarrel between the people of one of these towns, which was called Tarentum, and the Romans. The Tarentines attacked some Roman ships; and the Roman senate, hearing of this, sent Lucius Postumius as ambassador to complain of the wrong that had been done. When he arrived at Tarentum, he was received with the greatest rudeness by the people. He tried to make a speech to them, but they laughed at his way of speaking Greek, and at his dress, which was a long white cloak or toga, edged with scarlet, in the Roman fashion. They mocked at Postumius and would not listen to him, and at last a rude fellow threw dirt at him. Postumius held up his white cloak stained with dirt to show the people, who only laughed the more.

"Laugh on, Tarentines, while you can," cried the Roman; "soon enough ye shall weep instead; for I tell you that this gown shall be washed white in your blood."

Having said this he left Tarentum and went back to Rome.

The senate and people were very angry that their ambassador should have been so insulted, and at once declared war against Tarentum.

The Tarentines soon found that they were not strong enough to fight against the Romans alone, and they resolved to ask help from Greece.

Now there lived at this time in a country called Epirus, which was part of Greece, a great and warlike king, whose name was Pyrrhus. He was a good general, and he wished to win for himself a great name in war. He had a splendid army, and the Greek soldiers were then thought to be the best in the world. They fought in heavy armour, armed with long spears, and standing close together shoulder to shoulder; while the Romans, as you know, used short swords, and fought in looser order, that is, not quite so close to one another. The Greeks also used elephants in war, and these animals had at this time never been seen in Italy.

The Tarentines resolved that they would send and invite King Pyrrhus to come over and help them.

"These barbarian Romans," they said, "will never be able to resist so brave and skilful a king, with his splendid troops and his terrible elephants."

Pyrrhus was pleased with the plan, and agreed to cross over to Italy to help the Tarentines. He made great preparations for war, and got together a large number of ships, some of which were vessels of war and some were transports, ships, that is, for carrying his soldiers and their horses across the sea.

News was brought to Rome that the King of Epirus was going to invade Italy with a great army. The Romans knew that they must do their best against such an enemy. They got together several large armies, and even the poorest people were obliged to go for soldiers, which they had never had to do before. Troops and money were collected from their allies, and everything was made ready for a great war. Meantime Pyrrhus and his army arrived in Italy, after a very stormy voyage, in which some of his ships were wrecked. He went to Tarentum, and he had not been there long before the Tarentines began to be very sorry that they had ever invited him to come. For they found that they had got a master instead of an ally. Pyrrhus governed the city as if it had belonged to him. He shut up their theatres and places of amusement: he made all the young men soldiers, and punished them very severely if they did not attend properly to their drill. Many of them tried to leave the town, but Pyrrhus shut the gates and guarded them with his Greek soldiers, and so kept the Tarentines at home whether they liked it or not.

When the Roman armies were ready, the Consul Valerius Lævinus led them against Pyrrhus. The king heard that they were coming, and he wrote this letter to the consul,—

"I hear that you are coming against the Tarentines with an army. Leave your army, and come to me with only a few men. Let me know what your quarrel with the Tarentines is about, and I will force one side to do to the other what is just."

To this letter the consul sent the following answer,—

"We will not make you our judge, nor do we fear you as an enemy. We think you are impertinent to meddle with the doings of other men, and to dare to come to Italy without our leave. And we have come with our armies to fight you as well as the Tarentines."

Then Lævinus led his army on, and pitched his camp on the bank of the river Siris. Soon afterwards he crossed the river, and the two armies met in the plain, on the farther side from the Roman camp, near a town called Heraclea.

King Pyrrhus was a brave soldier as well as a skilful general, and he charged the Romans at the head of his troops. The Romans could easily see which was the king by his splendid armour, and by the bravery with which he led on his soldiers and cheered them to the fight. They tried hard to reach Pyrrhus, and he was in great danger, so that at last he gave his glittering arms and scarlet mantle to Megacles, one of his officers. He knew that if he were killed the Romans would win the victory, for the Greeks would not dare to fight without their brave king.

The battle was long and fierce; the Romans were eager to win the glory of killing King Pyrrhus, and at last Megacles was slain. When the Greeks saw the horseman in the well-known armour of the king struck down, they thought Pyrrhus was killed, and were so terrified that they began to retreat. But Pyrrhus threw off his helmet, and rode bare-headed through the ranks that all men might see him; calling to the soldiers at the same time in a loud voice, bidding them look at him and see that he was alive and with them.

In this way he so much cheered his soldiers that they attacked the Romans with redoubled fury. The Consul Lævinus, seeing that his men were disheartened, ordered his horse soldiers, whom he had kept out of the battle till now, to charge, hoping that these fresh troops would drive the Epirotes before them. But Pyrrhus had not yet brought his elephants into the fight, and now when the Roman horse charged, he commanded that the elephants should advance.

The Romans had never seen these monstrous creatures before, and they and their horses were so much terrified that they turned and fled. By running among the rest of the Roman army, they put it into confusion, and in spite of all that Lævinus could do, they were forced to retreat across the river, and lost their camp and many men.

A great number of the Greeks too were killed, and when Pyrrhus found how many of his soldiers had died he said,

"If I gain another victory such as this, I shall have to go home without a man left me."

He went the next day to look at the field of battle, and when he saw the Romans lying dead, with their faces turned to the enemy (which showed that they had died fighting, and had not been killed in running away), he cried out,

"Oh, how easy would it be for me to conquer the world, if I had the Romans for my soldiers!"

He admired the courage of the Romans so much, that he tried to persuade those who were taken prisoners to join his army; and though none of them would fight against Rome, he treated them with great kindness.

After this victory Pyrrhus marched up to the north, and at last got to a town only twenty miles from Rome. Here he heard that Lævinus had got another army together, and was following him from the south of Italy, while the other consul who had been fighting the Etruscans had now made peace with them, and was marching to attack Pyrrhus from the north.

So the king gave up the hope of getting to Rome, and went back again to the south of Italy. The Roman Senate now sent ambassadors to Pyrrhus, to persuade him to take ransom for the Romans who had been taken prisoners. Among these ambassadors was Caius Fabricius, a very noble Roman, who was well known as a brave soldier and a good man.

When the ambassadors came to the king, Pyrrhus said to them,—

"I like not what you propose to me. You would have me give you up my prisoners, and if I do so, you will use them to fight against me again; and you offer me money in exchange. Now, I am not so poor as to want money from the Romans. I would rather be friends with them and give them money. Make peace with me, and you shall have my prisoners back without ransom, and I will give you rich presents besides."

Then the king said he wished to talk alone with Fabricius, and when they were by themselves he spoke to him thus:

"I wish to have all the Romans for my friends, but you, Fabricius, more than any of the others; for I have heard how noble and brave you are. I hear, however, that you are very poor. This must not be, and I will give you so much gold that you shall be richer than any other Roman. For I think it is fitting for a prince to enrich great men who are poor, and who love honour more than money. I only ask in return that you should persuade the Roman senate to make peace with me. And, when this is done, if you will go home with me to Epirus I will make you my dearest friend and the greatest man next to myself in Greece."

Then Fabricius answered the king:

"If I am said to be skilful in war or in other things, I need say no more about it, or about my being poor, as you have heard these things from other men. It is true that I have only a small cottage and a piece of land, where I live by working with my own hands. Yet, if you think that, because I am poor, I am worse off than any other Roman, you are greatly mistaken. I am a leader of my people in war. I am chosen by them to rule them, or to go as their ambassador. What does it matter to me that I am poor, while I do my duty to my country in such ways as these?

"When I compare myself with rich men, I think myself happy. My piece of land gives me all that I want. My hard work makes me sleep well, and care little what sort of food I eat; if my clothes are warm, I do not want them to be fine. So, poor as I am, I think myself richer than you. For though you were master of Epirus, you could not be satisfied without taking Italy too.

"I have been consul, and have led the Roman armies against the Lucanians and other peoples. I took their rich towns and won great spoils from them; and after paying the soldiers and all the cost of the war, I put the rest of the money into the public treasury. Since I would not make myself rich when I might have done so rightly and honourably, do you think I will now take bribes and presents from a foreign enemy?"

Pyrrhus went on to make Fabricius still larger offers, but the Roman only answered:

"If you think me an honest man, why do you try to bribe me? If you think me dishonest, why do you want to gain me?"

So Fabricius went away. But two days afterwards Pyrrhus sent for him again. While they were talking, Pyrrhus gave a signal; a curtain was drawn back, and Fabricius saw a great elephant which had been put behind it by the king's order. The elephant lifted its trunk up over the Roman's head, and roared fiercely; but Fabricius only turned to Pyrrhus, and said with a smile:

"Your gold could not buy me yesterday, and your elephant cannot frighten me to-day."

Pyrrhus was much pleased with the courage of Fabricius, and he allowed the Romans, whom he had taken prisoners, to go back to Rome to pay visits to their families. For the king trusted to the word of Fabricius, who promised that all these prisoners would come back to him when they had seen their friends in Rome. And so honest and truthful were the Romans in those times, that every man of them came back on the day that had been fixed.

Still the Senate would make no peace with Pyrrhus while he stayed in Italy; and the next year another great battle was fought at a place called Asculum, in which the Romans were again beaten. But they fought so fiercely that Pyrrhus said when the battle was over:—

"If I have to conquer the Romans again in such a battle as this, I shall be quite undone."

There was no more fighting that year; but next year Fabricius was chosen consul, and he and his fellow consul, Quintus Æmilius, took the command of the Roman army. Pyrrhus, hearing this, led out his army against them, and encamped not far from the place where the consuls had pitched their camp.

One day a Greek slave belonging to Pyrrhus came to Fabricius, and asked to see him alone.

"I come to make you an offer," he said. "If the Roman senate will pay me well, I will give poison to King Pyrrhus in his wine cup, and so he shall die and trouble Rome no more."

Fabricius was shocked at the wickedness of the slave, and he wrote a letter to Pyrrhus telling him of the plot.

"You seem," wrote Fabricius, "to judge very ill both of your friends and enemies, for you make war on good and true men, and trust traitors and villains. We send you word of this plot, lest your death should bring disgrace on us—lest it should be thought that we wanted to end the war by letting you be killed, if we could not end it by our valour."

When Pyrrhus read this letter, he cried out—

"Noble Fabricius! It would be easier to turn the sun out of his course than to make Fabricius do a wrong thing."

After these things Pyrrhus left Italy and made war in Sicily, where he stayed for three years. He then came back to Italy, meaning to try once more to conquer Rome.

Manlius Curius Dentatus was chosen consul when the news reached Rome that Pyrrhus was marching again to attack them. He at once began to collect an army; but the people were afraid to go as soldiers when they heard that the terrible king of Epirus was coming against them once more. Curius saw their fear, and when the first man refused to answer to his name, the consul ordered that he should be sold for a slave; "for," said he, "Rome does not want a son who is not obedient."

His commands were obeyed, and the people were now eager to join the army, fearing lest he should treat them in the same way. So the legions were soon filled up, and the consul marched to meet the enemy.

Curius placed his army on some hills near the town of Beneventum, and Pyrrhus marched into the plain at the foot of the hills in the night. When morning came, the Romans were surprised to see the Greeks so near. Curius at once led his soldiers out of their camp and charged the foremost of the Greeks, put them to flight, and took several of their elephants. Delighted with this success, he led the Romans down into the plain, and attacked the main body of the king's army.

The army of Pyrrhus was very different now from what it had been when he first came to Italy. Most of his brave Epirot soldiers who had fought with him in many battles both in Greece and Italy had been killed, and instead of them he had filled his ranks with new men.

The Romans fought bravely, and after a while the Greeks began to give way. Pyrrhus saw this and brought up his elephants, but the Romans no longer feared them. They had found out that these animals are afraid of fire, and they had got ready bundles of sticks dipped in pitch, which they lighted and threw on to the backs of the elephants or into the little towers in which the people sat who rode on the creatures.

The elephants, being frightened by the burning sticks, and hurt by the wounds the Romans gave them with their swords and spears, turned round and ran among the Greeks, trampling down and killing a great many of them, and putting the rest into great confusion.

So ended the battle. Great numbers of the Greeks were killed, many were taken prisoners, and the rest, with Pyrrhus himself, fled to Tarentum. The king at once left Italy and sailed away to Greece, where he was killed not long afterwards.

The Senate ordered that Curius should enter the city in triumph, and never had there been so glorious a sight in Rome as was seen that day. The houses were gaily decked with wreaths of flowers and green boughs; every window was filled with eager faces, and the streets were thronged with joyful crowds, all watching to see the great procession pass by. We may fancy how glad were the hearts of the Roman people when they thought that the terrible Greeks were conquered, and how grateful they felt to the brave soldiers who had borne hardship and danger, and risked death for the sake of Rome.

First in the procession walked the senators who had gone to the gates of the city to meet the victors. Then, guarded by Roman soldiers, came the spoils taken from the enemy, piled on high waggons or carried by men. Beautiful pictures and statues, splendid robes and stuffs of bright colours, armour adorned with gold and jewels, all sorts of beautiful things which were used and made by the skilful Greeks, but such as had never been seen before by the rougher, simpler people of Rome, were there. There too were seen for the first time in Rome those strange and terrible elephants, of which they had heard so much in the war. What surprise must the people have felt at the great creatures, their vast size, their strange snake-like trunks, the castles on their backs, in which several soldiers could sit, and the gentleness which made it possible to lead them through the crowded streets.

Then came the long line of prisoners, some of them soldiers from the towns of southern Italy, such as had often, no doubt, been seen in Rome before. But besides these there were the Greeks of Pyrrhus, his foot soldiers, the finest in the world, and his gallant horse soldiers, whose looks and dress and arms were all strange to the eyes of the people of Rome. When these had passed, the general's lictors marched by one after another, their fasces, or bundles of rods and axes, wreathed with laurel boughs. Then came the triumphal car, drawn by four beautiful horses, in which was Curius himself. He wore a splendid mantle or toga embroidered with gold, and was crowned with a laurel wreath, and in his right hand he carried a laurel bough. Behind him rode his chief officers, and the rest of the army followed, with laurel garlands twisted round their spears, singing and shouting the praises of their leader.

The procession moved slowly through the crowded streets and up to the Capitol, where Curius laid his laurel wreath at the feet of the statue of Jove, and thanked the god for the victory that he had given to Rome.

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