Pyrrhus and Hannibal: What Great Enemies Taught Rome

I’ve had a lot of fun reworking two of my old university essays so far on this blog, one on the South African War and one on the foreign policy of John Diefenbaker. I’m pleased to say they are among my most popular posts so far, and so I’d like to continue posting content like this from time to time.

As I’ve mentioned before, I know anything I put up on the internet is free for someone to use for their own devices, so I’ve taken out the footnotes and bibliography, rendering my essay much less useful to anyone looking for a quick copy and paste. My old homework really isn’t meant to be an academic shortcut for today’s students, but if anyone wants to use it as a good introduction to the subject material available at your library, I’m happy to help.

Today’s essay is about the greatest non-barbarian enemies of the Roman Republic, and what they contributed to the eventual success of the state they sought and failed to subdue through force of arms. If memory serves, it received a very high grade indeed. I also had a lot of fun writing it. Enjoy!

Pyrrhus and Hannibal

What Great Enemies Taught Rome

Pyrrhus and Hannibal were the two single greatest threats to the Free Republic of Rome. They invaded Italy, smashed consular armies, turned vassal city-states against their Roman overlords, and killed thousands of legionnaires in the service of the Senate and People of Rome. Despite victory after devastating victory, they accomplished nothing. They could not defeat Rome, nor even leave her humbled. These two men whose aim was to destroy Rome became some of her greatest builders; they taught the Romans that even a total tactical defeat meant nothing strategically as long as Rome was prepared to endure.

Pyrrhus of Epirus

King Pyrrhus of Epirus was, in many ways, one of history’s great rulers; he was virtuous, valorous, strong, tactically competent, and the author of works on military strategy which, while lost to time, were proof enough for the ancient scholars to consider him a formidable military intellect.

He always fought in the front ranks with his men, killing the enemies’ champions personally. There is one famous instance in which he was fighting Mamertines in southern Italy; Pyrrhus was struck in the head and fell to the rear of the battle. One Mamertine stepped forward, asking Pyrrhus to show himself if he was still alive. The king threw off his guards, raced across the field, and brought his fine sword down upon the crown of the man’s head with such force and rage that the warriors was cut in two, and the Mamertines ran away, knowing Pyrrhus was more than a mortal man. Such feats brought his fellow Greeks to consider him a worthy successor to Achilles and Alexander.

Like Alexander, Pyrrhus dreamt of an empire, but unlike the great Macedonian he saw his opportunities in the West. There is a conversation recorded by Plutarch in his Lives which sheds some insight into the ambitions of Pyrrhus: Cineas, a great diplomat, asked the king, “The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors and conquerors of many warlike nations; if God permits us to overcome them, how should we use our victory?”

Pyrrhus replied, “You ask a thing evident of itself. Once the Romans are conquered there is neither Greek nor barbarian city that will resist us, but we shall presently be masters of all Italy…”

Cineas then asked, “And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?”

Pyrrhus replied, “Sicily next holds out her arms to receive us, a wealthy and populous island, and easily gained.”

Cineas then asked if that would be the extent of Pyrrhus’ ambitions, but the Epirote Eagle, as he was called, had other ideas. “Who could forbear from Libya and Carthage then within reach […]?”

Pyrrhus apparently had not heard of the axiom about counting ones eggs before they hatch. Defeating the Romans, upon which all his other designs hinged, would be more difficult than he imagined.

When Pyrrhus crossed from Epirus to Italy in 281 B.C.E. he brought twenty elephants, three thousand horse, twenty thousand superbly trained and equipped foot soldiers, two thousand archers, and five hundred slingers with him. Tarentum, Taras in Greek and Taranto in modern Italian, was a Greek city-state in Southern Italy which enjoyed great prosperity, possessing as it did a fine natural harbour, the mightiest navy in Italy, and a large population. With the victory of Rome in the Samnite Wars, however, the Greek cities of Southern Italy were coming under increasing unwelcome Roman domination.

Unwilling to give up their freedom but too weak to win a struggle with Rome, the Greeks invited Pyrrhus, who was already famous for his military exploits in Greece, to command thirty-seven thousand Tarentines, plus tens of thousands of other men from the Italian Greek city-states, against Rome. While some Tarentines argued that they were trading a Roman oppressor for an Epirote one, Pyrrhus came all the same, conscripting the local Greek population into his already formidable force.

A Roman consular army under Publius Valerius Laevinus was moving south, plundering the Italian Greek city states in its path. Pyrrhus had not yet received the tens of thousands of men he had been promised, but he decided he could not allow the Romans to penetrate so deeply into his hosts’ territory without fighting them. It is interesting to note that he thought the Romans primitive barbarians, untrained in the art of war, until he saw the organization of the Roman camp on the plain of Heraclea. At that point he wished he had his reinforcements after all, but Laevinus would not allow him to withdraw.

The battle was hard fought. Pyrrhus’ phalangites, as soldiers in Macedonian phalanxes are called, had to stay rigidly disciplined to prevent the more flexible Roman maniples from slipping between the Epirote units, attacking the Greeks on their vulnerable flanks. Seven times one side or the other would fall back to reorganize, barely managing to repulse the spontaneous charge brought against them. At last Pyrrhus released his war elephants, which the Italians had never seen before, and then he threw his cavalry into the panicking maniples. The Romans retreated in confusion, leaving their camp for Pyrrhus to plunder.

There are two sets of casualty figures provided by Plutarch. He tells us Dionysus says fifteen thousand Romans fell to thirteen thousand Greeks while Hieronymus claims a ratio of only seven thousand to four thousand. Both agree that Pyrrhus’ loses, while the smaller of the two, were made up of the best of his men. Indeed, the Tarentines are not even mentioned, suggesting Pyrrhus’ casualties came entirely from the army he had brought from Epirus.

This was the beginning of a disturbing trend which eventually rendered the Hoplite revolution, spectacularly successful for five centuries, obsolete. If we look at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.E. we see ten thousand Greek hoplites in phalanxes lose a mere two percent of their force to kill twenty-one percent of the Persians’ thirty thousand unphalanxed foot soldiers; that’s a thirty-three to one kill ratio. At Gaugamela in 331 B.C.E. fifty thousand phalangites under Alexander lost only one percent of their number to defeat the two hundred and fifty thousand strong Persian force, killing at least twenty percent in the process; that’s a hundred to one kill ratio. While these are spectacular examples, they illustrate the rule that hoplites in phalanxes could defeat any unphalanxed force, regardless of numerical inferiority.

Pyrrhus’ almost equal loses against the Romans had only been precedented in conflicts between two hoplite armies. The Romans and their allies were using legions divided into maniples, which sacrificed the bristling frontal assault of the phalanx for easy maneuverability and flexibility on the battlefield. As time went on, Rome would become better and better at defeating hoplite armies; at the battle of Pydna in 168 B.C.E. thirty thousand Roman legionnaires fought forty-four thousand Macedonians, killing twenty thousand of them with ridiculously few casualties in return. A phalangite army, the furthest development of the Hoplite Revolution, had disintegrated under the attack of a numerically inferior opponent.

After Heraclea Pyrrhus collected his reinforcements and marched to within thirty-seven miles of Rome, failing, incidentally, to sway any of her important allies over to his side. Deciding his army would not be suited to the siege of Rome, Pyrrhus sent Cineas to negotiate an honourable peace. No Roman would accept the gifts Cineas wished to bestow upon them, and the Roman Senate listened with little kindness to Cineas’ proposals, even the offer to return two thousand prisoners to them.

When the Roman Senate finally wavered, Appius Claudius, a blind old general for whom the Via Appia was named, roused their patriotism. He reminded them how a generation ago Rome had bragged Alexander the Great would never have survived an attack against Italy, and now the Senate whimpered before a mere servant of one of Alexander’s bodyguards who came to Italy only to escape his own troubles at home. The Romans refused Cineas, and he returned to tell Pyrrhus that Republic had already raised an army twice the size of the one he had fought at Heraclea. He told Pyrrhus that it was his opinion that the Epirote Eagle was fighting a hydra.

Pyrrhus resolved to force a peace, and fought another battle with Rome at Asculum in 279 B.C.E. The two-day battle was fierce, with fighting both in the plains and in the surrounding wooded hills. The Romans attempted to use three hundred heavily armed wagons to counter Pyrrhus’ elephants, but the supporting Greek light infantry cut down the crew of these vehicles, and the pachyderms again carried the battle. After the fighting Pyrrhus is said to have spent a considerable amount of time trying to find a Roman body which had been wounded in the back, but he was unable to do so. The Romans lost six thousand men in the two-day engagement; Pyrrhus lost 3550 more of his crack phalangites.

Here Pyrrhus was faced with the realization that he could win every battle and lose the war. He had already lost almost half the men he had brought with him from Epirus. He could not recruit more, and his Italian Greek allies were unreliable and poorly trained. Rome, on the other hand, replaced her loses as if fifteen thousand dead were a trifle; each battle saw experimentation in new tactics and new equipment on the part of his enemy. The Romans were learning, and they were prepared to pay heavily for each lesson. They would stand and fight until he was all used up. He stood at Asculum with his crippled army, and was congratulated by one of his officers. He replied, “One more victory like this will be the end of me.” It is from this incident that the English language forever immortalized him with the term Pyrrhic Victory.

At this point Pyrrhus threw away what little advantage his two victories had given him; a message came from Sicily, offering him command of a coalition of Sicilian cities against Carthage. Hoping for greener pastures, Pyrrhus quit Italy, leaving only a token garrison in Tarentum to offer the possibility of a return. Within three years Pyrrhus conquered Sicily from the Carthaginians, but he was too inept in peace to keep what he had taken brilliantly in war. Returning to Italy, he said of Sicily, “How brave a field of war do we leave, my friends, for the Romans and Carthaginians to fight in.”

This time Pyrrhus led an army of twenty-three thousand, a large contingent of whom were Tarentines angry at his Sicilian adventures. He faced two consular armies, fighting them at Malventum, later named Beneventum, in 275 B.C.E. Pyrrhus’ disciplined Epirotes were cut to pieces, and when he sent in his elephants the Romans injured the animals in the flanks, driving them in a fury back into the Greek lines, wreaking havoc among Pyrrhus’ collapsing phalanxes. Pyrrhus had only eighty-five hundred men when he returned to Greece, and he did not even have the money to pay them. His six years in Italy and Sicily were wasted. Rome had prevailed.

Hannibal was a very different threat to Rome than had been Pyrrhus. For one, history bears out that Hannibal had a real genius for tactical innovation, as opposed to Pyrrhus’ one trick pony, the decisive elephant charge. More importantly, while Pyrrhus saw Rome merely as an impediment to his designs for Empire, Hannibal’s sole purpose was to destroy her, or at the very least beat Rome into a peace outrageously advantageous to Carthage. From Livy we even hear the great general say, “I hate Rome and Rome hates me.” Hannibal’s only mistake was that his attempts to destroy Rome showed Scipio exactly how to destroy Carthage.

Polybius tells us Rome and her Italian allies could muster seven hundred thousand infantry and seventy thousand cavalry; Hannibal’s entire army at the time he crossed the Alps was less than twenty thousand. While he did recruit the Celts of the Po Valley to his standard, and received reinforcements from Spain and Africa, we must always remember that Rome could lose battle after battle and still win the war, simply by whittling away at their enemy. They had learned that from Pyrrhus, and it would render Hannibal’s campaign superfluous in the long run.

Hannibal crossed the Pyrenees and the Alps at great exertion, defeating Roman armies in two separate battles before Cannae. For a time the dictator Quintius Fabius Maximus avoided giving Hannibal a decisive battle, but his actions were viewed as cowardice by the Roman people. He was given the honorific Cunctator, meaning the Delayer. A new consul, Varro, decided he would not stand still while Hannibal ravaged Italy; despite the good advice of his fellow consul who advised they continue the Fabian tactics of avoiding a major action, Varro used his days in command to bring the double-consular army against Hannibal at Cannae.

The battle has been marked down in military textbooks for two thousand years as the classic example of entrapment. Varro deployed his legionnaires in deep ranks across a narrow frontage and marched straight into the Carthaginian center, hoping to push Hannibal’s Spanish mercenaries and Celtic allies up against the Aufidus River and annihilate them. Despite outnumbering Hannibal two to one, he never even considered using those numbers as anything but a blunt hammer to smash away at Hannibal. Varro’s cavalry was inferior to the Carthaginian’s, so he was not surprised or worried when the mounted forces covering both of his flanks broke and ran. He was pressing hard in the center of Hannibal’s line, and the Celts and Spaniards were falling back. Varro never wondered why Hannibal’s infantry frontage had been much wider than the Romans’.

While the Carthaginian’s center fell back, the crack African troops to the left and right of the center remained in place, forming a horseshoe shape with the Romans filling the hollow in the center. When Hannibal’s Numidian Calvary had finished dispersing the Roman flanks they returned to block the narrow choke point between the two stationary African infantry corps. Now the Romans were completely surrounded and were so compressed they could not properly wheel to face the surrounding foe. The slaughter was spectacular, and when it was over Rome had lost one of her two consuls, fifty thousand legionnaires killed with another twelve thousand captured, two camps plundered, along with grain supplies and money enough to see Hannibal through another season. Hannibal lost only six thousand men, and most of those were replaceable Celts.

The impact of Hannibal’s three victories, of which Cannae was the final and most devastating, cannot be overemphasized. Hannibal killed so many senators that Rome’s Curia was almost empty; the senator Spurius Gruilius gave a speech bemoaning this fact, and also complaining that all the suitable replacements had also been killed. He suggested two new senators should be elected from every community in the Latin Confederacy to help govern Rome, but the motion was rejected. Rome would suffer, but she would not permit as an expediency in war what she had forbidden as an anathema in peace.

Rome grieved, but never wavered. While Hannibal was presented with a bushel basket of rings cut from the corpses of Roman noblemen no senator mentioned surrender; the Republic even refused to pay the ransom on the twelve thousand Romans captured at Cannae. No legionnaire must ever consider surrender an alternative to victory or death.

Hannibal has often been criticized for not marching on Rome directly after Cannae. His cavalry commander Maharbal begged for that order, and when he was refused permission he told his general, “Hannibal, you know how to win a fight, but not how to use your victory.” The truth is, Hannibal could never have taken Rome and he knew it. He did not have the equipment, nor a large enough army, and most importantly he did not have a gift for sieges.

One need only take his attempts to take the small town of Casilinum as an example of his incompetency in the art of siege warfare.  His saps were counter-sapped, defense blocks halted his mantlets, and his frontal assaults were easily repulsed. The Roman garrison was fed by supplies which were floated downstream in jars by supporters, and the defenders even went so far as to sow turnip seeds at the base of the city walls. This so infuriated Hannibal he remarked, “What? Am I to sit here until that comes up?” The man who had never listened to terms negotiated Casilinum’s surrender. Five hundred and seventy men had kept Hannibal in check for months, and more than half returned to their homes without injury. Hannibal’s only effective siege weapon was starvation, which required a tremendous investment of time and men on his part. While this did allow him to take Petelia, it is hard to imagine his small army successfully choking off all the grain routes of Rome for years on end.

Instead of besieging Rome, Hannibal sent his brother Mago back to Carthage to ask for reinforcements and further funding. The Carthaginian senate rejoiced at the great victories of Hannibal, but Hanno, the leader of the anti-war party, saw the folly in their joy; he beseeched the senate to make peace with Rome while Hannibal’s victories in the field might still grant Carthage an honourable peace. In a vain attempt to convince them he said, “Here are two questions which I should wish either Himilco [a member of the Carthaginian Senate’s pro-war faction] or Mago to answer: first, in spite of the fact that the Roman power was utterly destroyed at Cannae, and the knowledge that the whole of Italy is in revolt, has any single man belonging to the five and thirty tribes of Rome deserted to Hannibal?” When Mago answered in the negative  Hanno asked, “Tell me, have the Romans sent Hannibal any envoys to treat for peace? Indeed, so far as your information goes, has the word ‘peace’ ever been breathed in Rome at all?” Again Mago could only reply in the negatory.

Hanno understand what none of his peers could grasp; Great victories were only important if they brought the enemy to her knees, and every crippling blow against the Republic only left Rome more obstinate in her determination to hold out for victory. Hannibal had ravaged Italy, captured a number of consular camps, defeated every opponent, yet even without these successes he would still have asked for more men and more money from his senate. He had accomplished nothing for the long term unless Carthage chose to negotiate with the force of his victories behind them. As they understandably wanted to humble Rome, they let the opportunity slip by them. Rome would have to grow decadent and lazy before she would fall. Until that time, dozens of generations removed from the Punic Wars, she was invincible.

While Hanno’s words were being ignored, Rome was finally adapting Fabian tactics, denying Hannibal another opportunity to defeat them in the field. Instead, Rome hunted Hannibal’s allies, teaching the Latin Confederacy the dangers of betraying Rome. There was one incident in which two thousand Campanians, including their leader and Hannibal’s ally Marius Alfius, were killed in a surprise night raid; Rome took home thirty-four captured Campanian standards, losing less than a hundred men for her trouble. Hannibal arrived later to find the Roman camp abandoned and his dead allies scattered across the countryside.

Eventually Rome found a general capable of standing toe to toe with Hannibal, Publius Cornelius Scipio. This man, whom History remembers as Scipio Africanus, took command at a young age and smashed four Carthaginian armies to take Spain while Hannibal frittered his time away uselessly in Italy. With Spain secured, Scipio went to Africa, destroying two more armies and looting their camps within a single hour of combat. Just as Hannibal had tried to turn Rome’s vassals against her, so Scipio set off revolts of all the petty kingdoms around Carthage. He disrupted trade and taxes, burned towns, and started insurrections. Carthage trembled, and Hannibal was forced to leave Italy for the first time in sixteen years to face Scipio at Zama.

Hannibal had crushed eight consular armies in two years, a feat which would not be repeated in the next seven centuries. Never again would so many Roman citizens die in the defense of their homeland. Hannibal killed roughly one seventh of the available manpower in Italy, but the remaining six sevenths still outnumbered him thirty to one. He was never given the chance to reduce that ratio, did not have the ability to take Rome by siege, and thus made no strategic impact on Rome, save for a sixteen-year annoyance. As long as Rome refused peace on Hannibal’s terms, there would be no peace. Rome had waited, growing stronger every day behind their Fabian tactics as Hannibal grew weaker, running out of men, money, food, and friends. All the while they had used their excess manpower to punish any Italians who sided with Hannibal, and continue fighting in Spain and Africa, away from Hannibal’s tactical genius. Now their patience and investment of time and resources had paid dividends. Hannibal was gone, and the war was irreversibly turned against Carthage.

The battle of Zama was one of the most significant events in the history of the Free Republic of Rome. Each side had roughly forty thousand men. Scipio’s legionnaires were battle hardened from the Spanish campaigns, and his Numidian cavalry was the equal of what had fought against Rome at Cannae. Hannibal had gained a large elephant corps, but many of his troops were inexperienced and would probably flee. To prevent this he sandwiched his Carthaginian draftees between his mercenaries and his veterans, so they could not run away without being cut down by their own side.

Hannibal launched his elephant corps at the Roman center, but was disappointed at the result. Scipio had lined up his maniples so they could part, forming alleys to funnel the elephants back away from the front lines to be disposed of by the reserves. Rome had learned not to fear the elephant corps of her enemies, and Hannibal’s best heavy unit was rendered superfluous. Scipio’s cavalry engaged Hannibal’s, chasing them from the field, leaving the experienced legionnaires alone with Hannibal’s green troops. The battle was fierce, but the training told. Hannibal’s veterans stood firm, but they were behind the actual fighting, and served primarily to keep the unwilling troops in front of them in position, killing anyone who tried to flee. Scipio’s infantry never fought through to Hannibal’s veterans. Instead Scipio’s cavalry returned, taking Hannibal’s best troops from behind. The Carthaginian forces dissolved into chaos, and the Roman gladius showed no mercy. Rome lost fifteen hundred men for her victory in Africa. Carthage lost twenty thousand.

Pyrrhus taught Rome that they could survive a war of attrition if that was the only means of victory, and that was the lesson which gave them victory in the Second Punic War. Pyrrhus also taught them that elephants were not invincible, indeed, that elephants could be as much a liability as a strength to an enemy. Rome learned that disciplined troops could survive an elephant charge, or even turn it back on the enemy. Again, this lesson was not forgotten in the war with Hannibal, particularly at the battle of Zama.

Hannibal’s lessons were harsher, but they kept Rome in good standing for the next five hundred years: Only fight when you can win; numerical superiority is nothing compared to leadership and discipline; set brutal examples of traitors, turncoats, and cowards so that your allies know their place and your soldiers know their duty, and most importantly, never accept a peace unless you are dictating the terms.

When we look at Rome’s military accomplishments in the next five hundred years, the conquests of Gaul, Britain, the Middle East, and the repeated wars and peaces with Germany and Parthia, we see these lessons constantly work to expand first the Republic, and then the Empire. Rome shrugs off her loses, fights opponents regardless of numerical inferiority, waging total war until she can dictate an advantageous peace. Rome’s greatest enemies were her greatest teachers, and she was fortunate to learn so early that endurance, fortitude, tenacity, and stubbornness will always carry the day, even if the cost is greater than any nation would ever sacrifice given the choice.

5 Responses to Pyrrhus and Hannibal: What Great Enemies Taught Rome

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  3. Good stuff on Pyrrhus and Hannibal: What Great Enemies Taught Rome Face in the Blue. I possibly agree with most of it!

  4. Christian says:

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