All the experience that had been gained, all the fortitude that had been acquired by the Romans in their long struggles with the Etrurian and Latin Leagues, and with Samnium, were needed to carry them safely through the war in which they were next engaged.
The southern part of the Italian peninsula was occupied by a number of Greek cities. The most flourishing age of these cities seems to have been at the time of the Roman kings. The next century saw them beginning to decay. Some of the States were hard pressed by the Italian tribes. When Rome began to extend her influence in this direction some of the cities had fallen into Italian hands and all were more or less weakened.
There is no need, however, to dwell on the early relations between Rome and these communities. I may pass on at once to the story of how she came into collision with Tarentum, which had by this time become the most powerful among them. In 303 b.c. a treaty was concluded between the two cities, one of the conditions being that no Roman ship should pass the promontory of Iapyx (Cape Leuca). This provision was violated in 282 b.c. by the appearance of a Roman squadron in the Gulf of Tarentum and even in the harbour of the city. The Tarentines attacked it and sank five out of the ten ships and captured another. The Roman admiral fell in the battle. An embassy sent to lodge a complaint was greatly insulted in the Public Assembly, and Rome had nothing left but to declare war. She had her hands full for the moment and tried to settle the question peaceably. For a time it seemed likely that a peaceful policy would prevail.
There was a strong pro-Roman party in Tarentum. Some of her citizens had intelligence enough to see that the true policy of the State was to make friends with the city which had already become the leading power in Italy. They carried the people with them, and one of their leaders was made Dictator.
Before anything was settled there came news that changed the whole aspect of affairs. The most famous soldier of the day, Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, offered to help Tarentum. The peace proposals were promptly abandoned; the Roman army, which was not strong enough to take any decisive action, retired northward. Winter was spent on both sides in active preparation for a campaign.
The Roman general Lævinus was the first in the field. It was of the greatest importance to prevent the disaffected tribesmen of Southern Italy from joining the Greek king. Lævinus proceeded south by forced marches, and reached the Siris, a river which flows into the sea about twenty miles west of Tarentum before Pyrrhus had time to complete his plans.
The king's position was one of great difficulty. He had not been joined by the Italian allies on whose help he had counted. The troops that he had brought with him were all that he could wish, but the levies which he had raised in Tarentum were of inferior quality. He offered himself to the Romans as an arbitrator. They replied by asking him what business he had in Italy. He saw that he must fight; to delay would be to lose all his prestige and with it all hope of Italian help. He marched to the Siris and encamped on the left or eastern bank. The Roman entrenchments were in full sight and impressed him by their appearance. "The order of these Barbarians"—the Greeks then and for a long time afterwards spoke of the Romans as Barbarians—"is far from barbarous." Lævinus, whose interest it was to fight at once, forced a passage of the river, and engaged the enemy at close quarters.
The struggle was long and fierce. At one time it was reported that Pyrrhus had fallen—a near kinsman of the king had been slain—and the king had to ride along the line bareheaded to assure his troops. At last a force which the Romans had never before seen in the field was launched against them. Pyrrhus had brought with him twenty elephants, and these huge animals, each with a miniature castle on its back, struck terror into the hostile lines, and made the horses absolutely unmanageable.
The Romans were driven across the Siris, but managed to maintain their order, nor was Pyrrhus strong enough to interfere with their retreat. Both sides lost heavily. To one who congratulated him on his success, Pyrrhus replied, "One more such victory will ruin me." A "Pyrrhic victory" has passed into a proverb to denote a gain which can scarcely be distinguished from a loss.
But the actual number of the slain and wounded did not represent the whole result of the victory. It set fire, so to speak, to a smouldering mass of discontent. The Samnites, whose memories of independence were still fresh, joined Pyrrhus in great numbers; yet there was no general rising against Rome. He marched northward and came within twenty miles of the city.
He had already attempted persuasion, sending his confidential minister, Cineas by name, to Rome, with the terms on which he would be willing to make peace. Briefly, these were that Rome must give up all claims to Southern Italy, restoring her conquests on the Italian Tiber and promising to leave the Greek cities alone. There were some, it was said, who were willing to make peace on such conditions.
The general feeling was strongly adverse, and was vigorously expressed by the most venerable of Roman statesmen. Appius Claudius, surnamed "the blind," rose in the Senate and said: "Never before have I rejoiced in my blindness, and I would willingly be deaf that I might not hear proposals which are fatal to the dignity of Rome. We have flattered ourselves that if the great Alexander had come hither, he would have come hither in vain. Who is this Pyrrhus? He comes to Italy because there is no place for him in Greece."
The old man carried the Senate with him; Cineas was sent back to Pyrrhus with this answer: "If you would have Rome for your friend, you must leave Italy." The king then advanced, but he did not find the support on which he counted. The Latins, the Etrurians, and other neighbours of Rome, were not willing to exchange her sway for that of Greece. So King Pyrrhus retired to Tarentum.
The next move was made by Rome. The Senate sent envoys to the king. They came, they said, to bargain for an exchange of prisoners. Pyrrhus believed that they had other objects. He tried to win them by bribery, a method in which Macedonian statesmen had great faith, and not without reason. The gold was refused with contempt. Then he tried terror.
In the midst of an interview with Fabricius, the principal envoy, a curtain was withdrawn and an elephant stretched out his trunk over the Roman's head and loudly trumpeted. "Neither your gold nor your beasts move me," was the answer of Fabricius. In the matter of the prisoners Pyrrhus behaved with much generosity. One account is that he released them without making any conditions; another and more likely account states that he let them return for a while on parole.
"an elephant stretched out his trunk over the roman's head and loudly trumpeted."
But the war went on. A battle was fought at Asculum in 297 b.c. and ended much as that already described, in a nominal victory. This time, however, Pyrrhus was wounded, and as everything depended on this one great man it was a serious loss.
The next year nothing was done, but Fabricius had an opportunity of making a return for the generosity of the king which has been already mentioned. One of the royal servants offered to murder his master. Fabricius at once informed Pyrrhus of the matter. Negotiations were again attempted, but Rome had no other terms to offer than that Pyrrhus must leave Italy. Leave it he did, sailing to Sicily, where he hoped to establish himself, so as to be able to renew the struggle with Rome. In Sicily he gained no permanent success, and in 276 b.c. he returned to Italy. But he effected nothing.
The veterans whom he had brought with him five years before had nearly disappeared, and with all his generalship, and this with common consent was unequalled in his day, he could not make untrained Italians into an effective force. At Maleventum he suffered a crushing defeat, retreating with a few horsemen to Tarentum. Not long afterwards he crossed into Greece and there perished two years later, again fighting in a quarrel which was not his own. It was at Argos, and in a faction fight, that he perished, by much the same fate that overtook Abimelech, the son of Gideon. A woman felled him to the ground with a tile which she hurled from a house-top, and a soldier despatched him as he lay insensible.
Pyrrhus was a soldier of a type for which the Romans had no kind of admiration. Destined themselves to conquer the civilised world by force of arms, they had nothing of the temper of the military adventurer. His purposeless ambition was a stock subject for their moralists. Plutarch has preserved one of these themes in which the king's prime minister, Cineas, is the champion of reason.
"Sire," said this philosophic statesman, when the preparations for the invasion of Italy were occupying the king's attention, "these Romans have the reputation of being excellent soldiers, and have the command of many warlike tribes; if by favour of the gods we conquer them, what use shall we make of our victory?"
"Your question," said the king, "answers itself. Rome once subdued, there is no town, Greek or barbarian, in the whole peninsula that will venture to oppose us. We shall, in fact, be masters of Italy, and what that means no one knows better than you."
"And what, Sire, shall we do next when Italy has been conquered?"
"Sicily is at hand, and stretches out her hands to receive us—a fertile and populous island, but torn by internal dissensions, and easily to be conquered," answered Pyrrhus.
"Nothing seems more reasonable, my prince," Cineas continued: "and is the conquest of Sicily to conclude our undertakings?"
"Heaven forbid!" cried Pyrrhus. "Africa and Carthage are within reach. We have seen how narrowly they escaped subjugation by a man who was actually a fugitive from his own city of Syracuse, and had nothing but a small squadron of ships. When we have accomplished this, who will venture to resist?"
"No one, certainly," replied Cineas. "You will recover Macedonia, and make yourself master of all Greece. And then?"
"Then we will take our ease, and eat and drink and be merry," cried the king.
"But, Sire, why should we not do so now?" said the philosopher. "We have all that we want ready to our hand. In fact, we are already in possession of what you propose to reach through seas of blood, and after infinite troubles brought upon others and suffered by ourselves."
The Romans after a long and desperate struggle had vanquished the most formidable foe that had ever come against them. Their courage, their tenacity of purpose, the true soldierly qualities which made the most defective institutions somehow serve their purpose, had their reward. The final defeat of Pyrrhus left no formidable rival in the field. Tarentum was taken in 272 b.c. , and in the course of the next seven or eight years Rome had established an undisputed sway in the whole Italian Peninsula, Cisalpine Gaul alone excepted.