Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

Pyrrhus And The Romans

Seven years after the death of Alexander, the Macedonian conqueror, there was born in Epirus, a country of Greece, a warrior who might have rivaled Alexander's fortune and fame had he, like him, fought against Persians. But he had the misfortune to fight against Romans, and his story became different. He was the greatest general of his time. Hannibal has said that he was the greatest of any age. But Rome was not Persia, and a Roman army was not to be dealt with like a Persian horde. Had Alexander marched west instead of east, he would probably not have won the title of "Great."

Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, claimed descent from Pyrrhus, son of Achilles. While still an infant a rebellion broke out in Epirus. His father was absent, and the rebel chiefs sought to kill him, but he was hurried away in his nurse's arms, and his life saved. When he was ten years old, Glaucius, king of Illyria, who had brought him up among his own children, conquered Epirus and placed him on the throne. Seven years afterwards rebellion broke out again, and Pyrrhus had once more to fly for his life. He now fought in some great battle, married the daughter of the king of Egypt, returned with an army, and again became king of Epirus. He afterwards conquered all Macedonia, and, like Alexander the Great, whose fame he envied, looked about him for other worlds to conquer.

During the years over which our tales have passed a series of foreign powers had threatened Greece. First, in the days of legend, it had found a foreign enemy in Troy. Next came the great empire of Persia, with which it had for centuries to deal. Then rose Macedonia, the first conqueror of Greece. Meanwhile, in the west, a new enemy had been slowly growing in power and thirst for conquest, that of Rome, before whose mighty arm Greece was destined to fall and vanish from view as one of the powers of the earth. And the first of the Greeks to come in warlike contact with the Romans was Pyrrhus. How this came about, and what arose from it, we have now to tell.

Step by step the ambitious Romans had been extending their power over Italy. They were now at war with Tarentum, a city of Greek origin on the south Italian coast. The Tarentines, being hard pressed by their vigorous foes, sent an embassy to Greece, and asked Pyrrhus, then the most famous warrior of the Grecian race, to come to their aid against their enemy. This was in the year 281 b.c.

Pyrrhus had been for some years at peace, building himself a new capital city, which he profusely adorned with pictures and statues. But peace was not to his taste. Consumed by ambition, restless in temperament, and anxious to make himself a rival to fame of Alexander the Great, he was ready enough to accept this request, and measure his strength in battle against the most warlike nation of the West.

His wise counsellor, Cineas, asked him what he would do next, if he should overcome the Romans, who were said to be great warriors and conquerors of many peoples.

"The Romans once overcome," he said, proudly, "no city, Greek or barbarian, would dare to oppose me, and I should be master of all Italy."

"Well," said Cineas, "if you conquer Italy, what next?"

"Greater victories would follow. There are Libya and Carthage to be won."

"And then?" asked Cineas.

"Then I should be able to master all Greece."

"And then?" continued the counsellor.

"Then," said Pyrrhus, "I would live at ease, eat and drink all day, and enjoy pleasant conversation."

"And what hinders you from taking your ease now, without all this peril and bloodshed?"

Pyrrhus had no answer to this. But thirst for fame drove him on, and the days of ease never came.

In the following year Pyrrhus crossed to Italy with an army of about twenty-five thousand men, and with a number of elephants, animals which the Romans had never seen, and with which he hoped to frighten them from the battle-field. He had been promised the aid of all southern Italy, and an army of three hundred and fifty thousand infantry and twenty thousand cavalry. In this he was destined to disappointment. He found the people of Tarentum given up to frivolous pleasure, enjoying their theatres and festivals, and expecting that he would do their fighting while they spent their time in amusement.

They found, however, that they had gained a master instead of a servant. Frivolity was not the idea of war held by Pyrrhus. He at once shut up the theatre, the gymnasia, and the public walks, stopped all feasting and revelry throughout the city, closed the clubs or brotherhoods, and kept the citizens under arms all day. Some of them, in disgust at this stern discipline, left the city. Pyrrhus there-upon closed the gates, and would let none out without permission. He even went so far as to put to death some of the demagogues, and to send others into exile. By these means he succeeded in making something like soldiers of the pleasure-loving Tarentines.

Thus passed the winter. Meanwhile, the Romans had been as active as their enemies. They made the most energetic preparations for war, and with the opening of the spring were in the field. Pyrrhus, who had failed to receive the great army promised him, did not feel strong enough to meet the Roman force. He offered peace and arbitration, but his offers were scornfully rejected. He then sent spies to the Roman camp. One of these was caught and permitted to observe the whole army on parade. He was then sent back to Pyrrhus, with the message that if he wanted to see the Roman army he had better come himself in open day, instead of sending spies by night.

The two armies met at length on the banks of the river Siris, where Rome fought its first great battle with a foreign foe. The Romans were the stronger, but the Greeks had the advantage in arms and discipline. The conflict that followed was very different from the one fought by Alexander at Issus. So courageous and unyielding were the contestants that each army seven times drove back its foes.

"Beware," said an officer to Pyrrhus, as he charged at the head of his cavalry, "of that barbarian on the black horse with white feet. He has marked you for his prey."

"What is fated no man can avoid," said the king, heroically. "But neither this man nor the stoutest soldier in Italy shall encounter me for nothing."

At that instant the Italian rode at him with levelled lance and killed his horse. But his own was killed at the same instant, and while Pyrrhus was remounting his daring foe was surrounded and slain.

On this field, for the first time, the Greek spear encountered the Roman sword. The Macedonian phalanx with its long pikes was met by the Roman legion with its heavy blades. The pike of the phalanx had hitherto conquered the world. The sword of the legion was hereafter to take its place. But now neither seemed able to overcome the other. In vain the Romans sought to hew a way with their swords through the forest of pikes, and as a last resort the Roman general brought up a chosen body of cavalry, which he had held in reserve. These came on in fierce charge, but Pyrrhus met them with a more formidable reserve,—his elephants.

On beholding these strange monsters, terrible alike to horse and rider, the Roman cavalry fell back in confusion. The horses could not be brought to face their huge opponents. Their disorder broke the ranks of the infantry. Pyrrhus charged them with his Thessalian cavalry, and the Roman army was soon in total rout, leaving its camp to the mercy of its foes.

During the battle Pyrrhus, knowing that the safety of his army depended on his own life, exchanged his arms, helmet, and scarlet cloak for the armor of Megacles, one of his officers. The borrowed splendor proved fatal to Megacles. The Romans made him their mark. Every one struck at him. He was at last struck down and slain, and his helmet and cloak were carried to Lavinus, the Roman commander, who had them borne in triumph along his ranks. Pyrrhus, fearing that this mistake might prove fatal, at once threw off his helmet and rode bareheaded along his own line, to let his soldiers see that he was still alive, and that a scarlet cloak was not a king.

The battle over, Pyrrhus surveyed the field, strewn thickly with the dead of both armies, his valiant soul moved to a new respect for his foes.

"If I had such soldiers," he cried, "I could conquer the world." Then, noting the numbers of his own dead, he added, "Another such victory, and I must return to Epirus alone."

He sent Cineas, his wise counsellor, to Rome to offer terms of peace. Nearly four thousand of his army had fallen, and these largely Greeks; the weather was unfavorable for an advance; alliance with these brave foes might be wiser than war. Many of the Romans, too, thought the same; but while they were debating in the Forum there was borne into this building the famous censor Appius Claudius, once a leader in Rome, now totally blind and in extreme old age. His advent was like that of blind Timoleon to the Syracusan senate. The senators listened in deepest silence when the old man rose to speak. What he said we do not know, but his voice was for war, and the senate, moved by his impassioned appeal, voted that there should be no peace with Pyrrhus while he remained in Italy, and ordered Cineas to leave Rome, with this ultimatum, that very day.

Peace refused, Pyrrhus advanced against Rome. He marched through a territory which for years had been free from the ravages of war, and was in a state of flourishing prosperity. It was plundered by his soldiers without mercy. On he came until Rome itself lay visible to his eyes from an elevation but eighteen miles away. Another day's march would have brought him to its walls. But a strong Roman army was in his front; another army hung upon his rear; his own army was weakened by dissensions between the Greeks and Italians; he deemed it prudent to retreat with the plunder he had gained.

Another winter passed. Pyrrhus had many prisoners, whom he would not exchange or ransom unless the Romans would accept peace. But he treated them well, and even allowed them to return to Rome to enjoy the winter holiday of the Saturnalia, on their solemn promise that they would return if peace was still refused. The senate was still firm for war, and the prisoners returned after the holidays, the sturdy Romans having passed an edict that any prisoner who should linger in Rome after the day fixed for the return should suffer death.

In the following spring another battle was fought near Asculum, on the plains of Apulia. Once more the Roman sword was pitted against the Macedonian pike. The nature of the ground was such that the Romans were forced to attack their enemy in front, and they hewed in vain with their swords upon the wall of pikes, which they even grasped with their hands and tried to break. The Greeks kept their line intact, and the Romans were slaughtered without giving a wound in return. At length they gave way. Then the elephants charged, and the repulse became a rout. But this time the Romans fled only to their camp, which was close at hand. They had lost six thousand men. Pyrrhus had lost three thousand five hundred of his light-armed troops. The heavy-armed infantry was almost unharmed.

Here was another battle that proved almost as bad as a defeat. Pyrrhus had lost many of the men he had brought from Epirus. He was not in condition to take the field again, and no more soldiers could just then be had from Greece. The Romans were now willing to make a truce, and Pyrrhus crossed soon after to Sicily, to aid the Greeks of that island against their Carthaginian foes. He remained there two years, fighting with varied success and defeat. Then he returned to Tarentum, which again needed his aid against its persistent Roman enemies.

On his way there Pyrrhus passed through Locri. Here was a famous temple of Proserpine, in whose vaults was a large treasure, which had been buried for an unknown period, and on which no mortal eye was permitted to gaze. Pyrrhus took bad advice and plundered the temple of the sacred treasure, placing it on board his ships. A storm arose and wrecked the ships, and the stolen treasure was cast back on the Locrian coast. Pyrrhus now ordered it to be restored, and offered sacrifices to appease the offended goddess. She gave no signs of accepting them. He then put to death the three men who had advised the sacrilege, but his mind continued haunted with dread of divine vengeance. Proserpine, who was seemingly deeply offended, might bring upon him ruin and defeat, and the hearts of his soldiers were weakened by dread of impending evils.

Once more Pyrrhus met the Romans in the field, but no longer with success. One of his elephants was wounded, and ran wildly into his ranks, throwing them into disorder. Eight of these animals were driven into ground from which there was no escape. They were captured by the Romans. As the battle continued one wing of the Roman army was repulsed; but they assailed the elephants with such a shower of light weapons that these huge brutes turned and fled through the ranks of the phalanx, throwing it into disorder. On their heels came the Romans. The Greek line once broken, the swords of the Romans gave them a great advantage over the long spears of the enemy. Cut down in numbers, the Greeks were thrown into confusion, and were soon flying in panic, hotly pursued by their foes. How many were slain is not known, but the defeat was decisive. Retreating to Tarentum, Pyrrhus resolved to leave Italy, disgusted with his failure and with the supineness of his allies, and disappointed in his ambitious hopes. He reached Epirus again with little more than eight thousand troops, and without money enough to maintain even these. Thus ended the first meeting of Greeks and Romans in war.

The remainder of the story of Pyrrhus may be soon told. He had counted on living in ease after his wars, but ease was not for him. His remaining life was spent in war. He invaded and conquered Macedonia. He engaged in war against the Spartans, and was repulsed from their capital city. At last, in his attack on Argos, while forcing his way through its streets, he fell by a woman's hand. A tile was cast from a house on his head, which hurled him stunned from his horse, and he was killed in the street. Thus ignobly perished the greatest general of his age.

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