Along the southern coast of Italy, many of the towns were Greek, and had not yet become subject to Rome.
But as Rome became more and more powerful in the south of Italy, many of these Greek towns, when attacked by an enemy, appealed to her for help.
Tarentum, the chief of these towns, was jealous of Rome, and chose to send to Greece or Sicily when help was needed.
During the second Samnite war, Rome had made a treaty with the Tarentines, promising that no ships of war should enter the Gulf of Tarentum.
But in the autumn of 282 b.c. ten Roman warships suddenly appeared before the harbour, to the indignation as well as to the dismay of the Tarentines.
Should the warships be allowed to enter the inner harbour, their town would be in the hands of Rome. So the Tarentines speedily manned their ships and boldly sailed to attack the enemy.
On this occasion the Tarentines showed themselves good fighters, and soon they had sunk four of the Roman warships and taken one, while the other five escaped.
The admiral of the fleet was killed, and many soldiers and sailors were made prisoners. Of these, the Tarentines sold the sailors as slaves, the soldiers they put to death.
Knowing that the defeat of the Roman fleet would be avenged, the Tarentines grew reckless.
Thurii, a town not far off, had received help from Rome and had had a Roman garrison imposed upon it. The Tarentines now marched to Thurii, expelled the garrison, and prepared to defend themselves from the consequences of their act.
But Rome was at war with the Samnites, and was not yet ready to punish Tarentum.
She merely sent an embassy to demand that the prisoners taken from her fleet should be given up, that the garrison should be restored to Thurii.
The Tarentines not only refused to do as Rome demanded; they treated the embassy with insults.
This was more than the Senate could brook. The Consul Æmilius was at once sent with his legions into the country of the Tarentines.
Æmilius offered the people peace on the same terms as the embassy, but again the citizens flouted the offer. Then knowing that the legions of Æmilius had come to support the demands of Rome, they sent in hot haste to Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, begging him to come to their aid.
The Consul seeing that his terms were rejected, did indeed begin to plunder and lay waste the country, while the Tarentines looked but the more eagerly for the answer of Pyrrhus.
Nor was it long in coming. In the early spring of 280 b.c. the king of Epirus reached Tarentum.
Epirus, the region over which Pyrrhus was king, lay in the north-west of Greece, among wild mountains and narrow valleys.
The Epirots were proud of their king, and because of his courage on the battlefield they called him the "Eagle."
Pyrrhus knew the name his soldiers had given to him, and he said to them, "It is by you that I am an eagle, for how should I not be such, while I have your arms as wings to sustain me."
The king had one peculiarity, which added to the terror he at times inspired. When he opened his mouth no row of upper teeth was to be seen. Instead of teeth, one single long bone was visible, with small lines to mark where the separate teeth should have been. Such was the king who had hastened to the aid of the Tarentines.
So eager had Pyrrhus been to set out, that he had refused to wait for a fair wind, and a terrible storm had overtaken his fleet and scattered it, while he, with only a small part of his army, had been driven ashore some distance from Tarentum.
With his army Pyrrhus had brought twenty elephants, for, the king had been in Africa and had learned there how useful these huge animals could be on the battlefield. But he had reached Tarentum with only two elephants and a few soldiers.
After many difficulties, however, his whole force had succeeded in rejoining him, bringing with it the other eighteen elephants. To the Tarentines, as to the Romans on the battlefield, these elephants were a new and awe-inspiring sight.
The king had been but a short time in Tarentum before he found that the people he had come to help were lazy, and more fond of pleasure than of war.
They would be well pleased to stay at home to feast, to talk of the great battles they would fight, while their new ally was in the field, enduring hardships and struggling with the Roman legions.
The king of the Epirots was used to having real soldiers around him, and he determined, if it was possible, to turn the foolish, indolent Tarentines into an army of trained, resolute men.
So he ordered the theatres, the baths, and the other places of amusement to be closed, and then he called upon all who were old enough, to enrol their names for service.
Then began a strange state of affairs in Tarentum. The city was turned into a military camp. Discipline was strict, and the recruits grumbled that they were under arms all day, guarding the walls, or watching in the market-place.
The most indolent actually made up their minds to escape, forgetting that Pyrrhus was training them that they might be able to defend their own homes. There seemed no trace in these indifferent citizens of the spirit that had made them sail against the Roman fleet and turn the Roman garrison out of Thurii.
"Not understanding what it was to be commanded, these called it mere slavery not to do as they pleased."