From the time of Ancient Sumeria, the heavy infantry phalanx dominated the battlefield. Armed with spears or pikes, standing shoulder to shoulder, and with overlapping shields, they presented an impenetrable wall of wood and metal to the enemy. It was the phalanx that allowed Greece to become the dominant power in the Western world. That is, until the Romans developed the legion and cracked the phalanx.
In Legion versus Phalanx—available October 18th from Osprey Publishing—Cole weighs the two fighting forces against each other. Covering the period in which the legion and phalanx clashed (280—168 BC), he looks at each formation in detail—delving into their tactics, arms, and equipment, organization and the deployment. It then examines six key battles in which legion battled phalanx: Heraclea (280 BC), Asculum (279 BC), Beneventum (275 BC), Cynoscephalae (197 BC), Magnesia (190 BC), and Pydna (168 BC)—battles that determined the fate of the ancient world. Drawing on original primary sources, Myke Cole presents a highly detailed but lively history of this defining clash of military formations.
HERACLEA, 280 BC:
Rome’s First Test
That night he dreamed he was called by Alexander the Great, and approaching saw him sick abed, but was received with very kind words, and much respect and promised zealous assistance. Pyrrhus making bold to reply, “How, sir, can you, being sick, assist me?”
“With my name,” Alexander replied, and mounting his horse, led the way before him.
–Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus
Pyrrhus of Epirus is, without a doubt, one of the greatest war leaders in history. Hannibal Barca, the famous Carthaginian general who nearly conquered Rome at the end of the 3rd century BC, ranked him just behind Alexander the Great when asked who he considered to be his top three generals of all time. Technically, Hannibal rated Pyrrhus third, because as Livy relates, Hannibal ranked his chief rival, the Roman Scipio Africanus, so great as to be outside any ranking. Pyrrhus, like Hannibal, was ultimately defeated and killed (Hannibal was forced to poison himself), but his fame nearly equaled that of his Carthaginian counterpart.
It seems almost manifest destiny. Pyrrhus was the second cousin of Alexander the Great himself, born to the royal house in the kingdom of Epirus, in what is now the border region between Greece and Albania. His life was a whirlwind almost from the day he was born. His father was driven out of Epirus when Pyrrhus was only two, and the boy was saved from his political rivals by a sympathetic neighboring king. Pyrrhus’ father was later restored to the throne of Epirus, and his sister Deidama married into the Antigonid dynasty, tying Pyrrhus in bonds of kinship to them. In 301 BC, at the age of 18, he fought with incredible distinction at the great Battle of Ipsus, his bravery and skill leading many to comment that he was like a second Alexander. This didn’t stop Pyrrhus from alternately allying with and against various Antigonid kings, and in the intervening years he lost his kingdom again, then regained it, along with Macedon and parts of Greece, before losing everything except for Epirus, where he had retreated by the time he was 38 or 39 years old to lick his wounds, unhappy with his lot in life, and dreaming of greater glory and an empire beyond the rugged mountains of his childhood home.
I want to take a quick moment to talk about Plutarch, as he’s our main source for Pyrrhus and his military career. Plutarch was writing nearly 400 years after the battle we’re about to discuss, and that rightly leads a lot of people to ask, “How can you consider Plutarch to be a primary source?” Well, the truth is that, in this case, he’s nearly the only textual source we have, and he’s also much closer to the date of the battle than we are. But more importantly, Plutarch was working from sources himself. He cites many of these, particularly letters written by the actual people he’s discussing, which are lost to modern historians. I suppose he could be lying about having access to these sources, but I have no reason to doubt him, and so I work with what I have. My favorite thing to say of Plutarch is—he has to be taken with a grain of salt, but he also has to be taken.
An Embassy from Italy
It was in Epirus that Pyrrhus received an embassy from the Greco-Italian city of Tarentum. At this time, around 280 BC, Rome ruled over only central Italy, with the north still held by Etruscans and Celts, and the south known as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece), in recognition of the Greek communities that had settled there and still maintained their independence. Tarentum (modern day Taranto, in Apulia) was originally a colony of Sparta, founded by exiled partheniae, literally—“sons of virgins,” the bastard sons of unmarried Spartan women. The settlers worked hard, and built the colony up into a major city-state and commercial hub with power over other Greek city-states on Italy’s southern coast.
This power was directly threatened when the Romans finally triumphed in the Third Samnite War in 290 BC, and went on to found several colonies in Apulia, as well as entering several Italo-Greek cities in the region. Aristocratic factions in some of the Greek cities in southern Italy were arguing in favor of submitting to Rome, which worried democratic and free Tarentum greatly. They were proud both of their Greek heritage and of their role in Magna Graecia, and didn’t want to lose their independence and enter into a socii relationship. Pyrrhus’ fame as a brilliant general and a brave warrior had reached them, and voices were raised calling for sending an invitation to him to come over and assume command in the fight against the Romans.
Plutarch relates a bizarre story of the debate over whether or not to invite Pyrrhus. On the day the public decree of the invitation was to be announced, one of the Tarentines by the name of Meton reeled into the assembly acting like he was drunk, or maybe he really was drunk. Meton was carrying a garland of flowers and a lamp, with a woman playing a flute going before him. The Tarentines were good-natured people, and they laughed and egged him on, and he turned and grinned at them. “You let people make merry, that’s good!” he said, “I encourage you to enjoy merry-making while you can. You’ll be singing a different tune once Pyrrhus gets here.”
You can imagine the stunned silence as the smiles faded, turned to angry frowns, then shouts of anger. The assembly threw him out, and the embassy was sent to Epirus.
This wasn’t the first time the Tarentines had asked a Hellenistic king to help them out. They had a history of conflict with other tribes in southern Italy and apparently didn’t have a lot of faith in their homegrown commanders. In 343 BC, they asked the Spartan king Archidamus III to lead a campaign against their neighbors, the Messapii. A decade later, they asked another Epirote king, Alexander I, to come over and fight against the Lucani, another Greco-Italian tribe. When Alexander I was killed in battle, the Tarentines invited another Spartan, Cleonymus, to lead them. All three appeals ended in disaster. Both Archidamus III and Alexander I died in battle, and Cleonymus, despite enjoying some initial success, was driven from the Italian shore. You’d think they’d have learned from this record, or that Pyrrhus would have cocked an eyebrow at his prospects for success, but like Afghanistan in modern times, Magna Graecia seemed to be one of those places great powers couldn’t resist invading.
Plutarch goes to great lengths to describe Pyrrhus’ restlessness, and his desire for glory and a place in history, and hints at Pyrrhus’ own belief that he was the second coming of Alexander the Great, in a dream sequence which is quoted in the epigraph at the beginning of this chapter. He also gives other supernatural aspects of Pyrrhus, telling us that his upper teeth were all fused together into a single tooth with only indentations to mark where a normal person’s teeth would be. Pyrrhus was supposed to have ritual healing powers, a kind of ancient version of laying on of hands.
But the best insight into Pyrrhus’ character is bundled with a clear foreshadowing by Plutarch, as he relates a conversation between Pyrrhus and his friend and advisor Cineas. Cineas was from Thessaly, a region in northeastern Greece that produced some of the best cavalry of the time, and was known for his skill as an orator.
Seeing Pyrrhus swayed by the Tarentine embassy, Cineas said to him. “I hear the Romans are pretty tough. If the gods grant that we beat them, what then?”
“Well, that’s obvious,” Pyrrhus answered. “If we beat the Romans, who will be able to stand against us? Before long, we’d rule all of Italy.”
“Okay,” said Cineas. “So we conquer all of Italy. What next?”
Pyrrhus thought about it. “Sicily. It’s divided and the people don’t like their leaders. We could conquer it easily.”
“You’re probably right,” Cineas said. “So, you get all of Italy and Sicily, then you’re done? No more war?”
“No,” Pyrrhus said. “If the gods give us victory in Sicily, we’ll have the perfect jumping-off point to invade Libya and Carthage. Once we’ve mastered them, no one will dare oppose us.”
“And I assume that, after this, with none daring to oppose us, we’ll also conquer Macedon and all of Greece.”
Pyrrhus nodded and Cineas went on. “Okay, so we’ve now got Italy, Sicily, North Africa and Macedon and Greece. Now, what?”
Pyrrhus smiled. “Well, then I guess we enjoy ourselves. We’ll drink all day, spend time with our friends, and talk.”
Now it was Cineas’ turn to smile. “Nothing stops us from doing that now. We are all here, we have plenty of wine and time enough to talk. We don’t need to kill anybody to make that happen.”
It’s a great argument, but sadly not one that convinced Pyrrhus. He responded to the Tarentine embassy and assembled an army to sail across the Adriatic to Tarentum.
A Mighty Host, a Storm, and a Brave Man, Swimming for Shore
Pyrrhus assembled an impressive army by any standard: 20,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, 2,500 skirmishers (2,000 archers and 500 slingers), and 20 war elephants, creatures that most Romans had never seen before.
We have few details as to the exact makeup of Pyrrhus’ army. If other Hellenistic armies are anything to go on, most, if not all, of those 20,000 foot troops were phalangites, equipped and trained in the style we examined in chapter II. Some might have been lighter thureophoroi, and it is likely Pyrrhus would have had his own agēma.
His cavalry were most likely drawn largely from the crack horsemen of Thessaly, made famous for their service in the army of Alexander the Great. These heavy cavalry were famed for their ability to move in a diamond-shaped formation, with a leader at each point, ready to take command the moment the squadron needed to change direction. Armed with the xyston, a two-handed spear around 12 feet long, and possibly javelins, they were highly maneuverable and able to charge or harass with equal ease.
His slingers were probably drawn from the island of Rhodes off the southwestern coast of Turkey. Raised to the sling from childhood, they were second only to the residents of the Balearic islands off the eastern coast of Spain for their incredible aim. These slingers used two slings of different lengths depending on the range of their target, with the unused one tied around the head until it was needed. They slung either stones or specially made lead “bullets,” which they sometimes inscribed with sayings. A 4th century BC example currently on display in the British Museum has a winged thunderbolt on one side. On the other is the Greek word dexai, which roughly translates to “catch!”
When we consider the elephants, it’s important that we don’t make the mistake of assuming they’re the kind we see in modern zoos—African or Asian elephants, both very large. Pyrrhus’ elephants may have been North African forest elephants, also known as Atlas or Carthaginian elephants, a species that is now extinct, but was the one most likely to have been used in the Second Punic War, from 218 to 201 BC. These elephants were much smaller than the elephants we know today, standing only around 8 feet at the shoulder. Some scholars argue that they were too small to carry a tower on their backs, and usually had just their handlers, who drove them forward in the hopes of frightening enemy infantry, spooking their horses, which would bolt at the smell of them, and trampling through formations. While these elephants were relatively small, they were still more than double the size of a horse, and weighed nearly 3 tons. The handlers, Indians, at least in Pyrrhus’ army, would have been armed, possibly with a long spear or javelins, and there may have been an additional armored warrior on the elephant’s back. The animal’s great size along with the armed complement of handler and rider, not to mention its tusks, would have made it a powerful weapon.
Pyrrhus sent Cineas with an advance guard of 3,000 troops, then loaded the remaining troops onto transport ships sent by the Tarentines. They set sail across the Adriatic, and were about to make landfall in Italy when a storm blew in unexpectedly from the north. The calm sea quickly turned to frothing hills of gray steel, and the ships likely furled their sails, rowing hard for shore. The weather would not cooperate, the wind picking up and blowing straight into them, threatening to rip the ships to pieces. The Pyrrhic fleet was left with an impossible choice, drive straight into the wind and be torn apart, or let itself be blown back out to sea where the turbulent water could do worse than the wind.
In the end, Pyrrhus did something typically him: brave and, in retrospect, incredibly stupid. He jumped overboard and swam for shore, probably believing that the while the wind could act on a large object like a ship, it would have a tougher time against something as small as a lone man. It turns out he was right, and dawn on the following day found Pyrrhus exhausted, but alive, on the Italian shore in the region of the Messapii, the same people the Tarentines had brought in Archidamus III to fight. Apparently, the Messapii hated the Romans more than the Tarentines, because they helped Pyrrhus to regroup on shore with the tattered remains of his army: less than 2,000 infantry, a few cavalry and just two of the original 20 elephants.
It didn’t look good. Nature had taken nearly all of Pyrrhus’ great army before he’d even come to grips with the Romans. Another man might have given up there and then, but this was Pyrrhus of Epirus, the second coming of Alexander the Great, a man who believed firmly in the greatness of his destiny, and who had fearlessly jumped into the sea in the middle of a storm great enough to scatter a fleet of warships. He shrugged his shoulders and marched for Tarentum, where Cineas’ advance guard of 3,000 infantry bolstered his ranks.
Remember Meton’s prediction? It came true. The Tarentines were not the most disciplined people, as evidenced by their reliance on foreign commanders to fight their wars for them. That wasn’t going to fly with Pyrrhus, who needed the Tarentines in fighting trim. While he waited for the ships scattered by the storm to come in, he focused on whipping the Tarentines into shape. He shut down the public gyms and promenades, and forbade drinking parties and festivals. He enacted conscription, calling up Tarentine citizens to serve in his army. The Tarentines had fully expected Pyrrhus to conduct their war entirely on his own, and many fled the city, calling his edicts slavery. Before long, most of his storm-blown army had limped into the harbor, and Pyrrhus was back to nearly his original strength.
The Tarentines hoped to raise all of Magna Graecia to oppose the Romans, and promised Pyrrhus that many of the tribes would flock to his banner. Pyrrhus was counting on this. Since the Latin War 60 years earlier, Rome had been in a state of nearly unending conflict with its neighbors, and Pyrrhus had every reason to hope that these numerous enemies would greet him as a liberator and offer assistance. But Pyrrhus waited and waited, and quickly realized that the promised reinforcements were not going to show. We don’t know for certain why he set out, but from what little we know of this hot.headed and impetuous man, it’s likely he simply lost patience, and he felt confident in his own troops and his prospects for success.
Either way, Pyrrhus marched to meet the enemy.
Pyrrhus was a Hellenistic king. Like most men of his stripe, he would have considered Greek culture to be the pinnacle of civilization. To him, the Romans would have been crude savages. The word “barbarian” comes from the Greek barbaros, an insult that pokes fun at the foreigners’ inability to speak civilized Greek. When they talked, it just sounded like “bar bar bar.”
Unfortunately for Pyrrhus, this couldn’t have been more wrong. Rome was already a highly developed civilization, with an equally developed military, the budding legion making the transition from its hoplite origins.
It’s nearly impossible to bring an army of more than 20,000 people across the sea and keep it quiet. Rome was likely already preparing a response before Pyrrhus washed up on the Messapian shore. They moved to secure their colonies in the south, to prevent their other many enemies, such as the Etruscans, from allying with Pyrrhus against them, and, more importantly, to keep their “allies” from defecting. But the most significant action they took was to send the consul Publius Valerius Laevinus south at the head of an army, plundering the southern Italian region of Lucania as he went.
We have very few details as to Laevinus’ character, and the army he commanded. We know that Laevinus was consul in 280 BC, and we know that his gens, a grouping of families with a common heritage, was ancient, distinguished and noble. Based on what we know of Roman consular armies at this time, Laevinus likely commanded two legions, each of approximately 5,000 men. That only adds up to about half of Pyrrhus’ force, but it doesn’t count the socii. So, when we say that Laevinus marched south with two legions, what we really mean is that he marched south with two legions and an equal number of Italian allied troops, for a rough total of 20,000 men. When you consider that Pyrrhus had lost men in the shipwreck, that he had replenished this somewhat with the Tarentine citizens he’d been training, and then had been disappointed when Rome’s enemies didn’t provide the hoped-for reinforcements, we can estimate the two armies were roughly equal, or that Pyrrhus was slightly outnumbered.
When Laevinus’ march threatened the Tarentine colony of Heraclea, Pyrrhus took up a blocking position on a flat plain near the Siris river (today it’s called the Sinni), hoping to protect the settlement.
“We shall see presently what they can do”
Pyrrhus Digs in and Plays for Time
Pyrrhus knew he was in a good defensive position. The plain between Pandosia and Heraclea where he deployed his army was flat and even, good ground for the Hellenistic phalanx, who needed this kind of terrain to best guarantee their cohesion, even when moving and fighting. Even better, the Romans would have to cross a river to reach him, and their own formations would be slowed and disrupted as the legionaries tried to find their footing in the river mud. We can’t know for sure how fast the Siris flowed over 2,000 years ago or how strongly the current pulled at armored men, but try to imagine having to stay in step with your fellow soldiers, unable to see the ground under your feet through the rushing water, coming under a hail of missiles—arrows, javelins or sling stones. Your sandals or boots would be soaked, and could get full of rocks and sand, which might tear at your feet once you were on dry land again. Fording a river in the face of a determined enemy was no easy task.
Pyrrhus knew this, and so he held his position, ordering his men to dig in and fortify it. At the same time, he sent word to Laevinus, offering himself up as a mediator between the Romans and the people of Magna Graecia. There was no need to fight. They could settle this with diplomacy. Laevinus sent back what historians now recognize as a typical Roman reply. “We don’t accept you as a mediator, and we’re not frightened to face you as an enemy.”
Pyrrhus’ offer of a peaceful solution is out of character from what I know of the man. Every source paints him as a hot-headed glory-hound with limitless ambition, so why would he back down before there was even an initial fight, when he was in a good position and confident of his army? I believe that Pyrrhus was playing for time, hoping that some of the promised reinforcements would arrive if he could delay Laevinus long enough. It feels far more like a tactical move than genuinely hoping to end things without a battle.
Some scholars believe that Pyrrhus’ defensive posture, fortifying his position and holding at the river, was due to his concerns about being badly outnumbered. The truth is that we don’t have reliable numbers for either side, and it makes more sense that he was holding good ground where his phalanx would work to the best advantage. The open, flat terrain would help them maintain cohesion, and it would force the Romans to cross the river under a storm of missiles, leaving them disrupted at the point of impact.
Plutarch gives us a little more foreshadowing as he describes Pyrrhus riding up to the river to get a look at the Roman camp. Polybius gives us a great description of the Roman camp of this period. Roman military camps were set out like small towns, with predesignated roads, tents pitched by unit, ditches dug, palisades built and towers placed according to a regular plan that could be enacted to make the same camp, perfectly organized, each and every time the Romans came off the march.
Pyrrhus saw this, and he also saw the discipline of the Roman soldiers, their care of their gear and their setting of watches. He turned to his friend Megacles. “These don’t look like barbarians to me,” he said. “I guess we’ll see what they can do.”
This was high praise indeed. To a Hellenistic king, anything outside the Greek tradition would be undisciplined and savage, a beast to be tamed. Seeing the Romans as locked on as his own troops unsettled the king, and he likely rejoined his army with the first twinges of doubt pulling at him.
Across the River—The Battle of Heraclea Begins
Pyrrhus knew his position was strong, and probably didn’t expect his enemy to attempt a crossing, so long as the riverbank was held. To that end, he dispatched a small force to accomplish this. We don’t know who they were, or how many, but they were likely light infantry skirmishers, or thureophoroi. The bank secured, he turned to other business, thinking he had plenty of time for his allies to arrive.
We don’t know exactly how long Laevinus waited, but we do know that Pyrrhus was alerted, likely by the shouts of his men, the whirring of sling stones or javelins flying through the air.
The Romans were fording the river. Not an advance party. Not a raid. The whole damn army.
The small force on the bank knew they couldn’t hold out against such overwhelming numbers, even if they did have the better ground. Fearing they’d be surrounded, they began to pull back. I picture this force as Rhodian slingers and Thracian javelineers, focused on the threat to their front, backpedaling slowly, deafened by the shouting and the men clanking and splashing through the water.
They didn’t hear the hoofbeats until it was too late.
Suddenly, the reason the Romans had sounded a general advance despite the fact that they’d be fording a river under missiles was clear. The main army was a distraction. Laevinus had sent his equites, Rome’s noble but inexpert cavalry, across the river by more distant fords. These squadrons had made it to the other side, wheeled their mounts, and charged into the flanks of the retreating infantry, who turned in confusion, suddenly facing a threat from all sides. They couldn’t hold their position for long.
This was a disaster. Not only had Pyrrhus’ river guard been caught napping, but now the main body of their army was right on top of the riverbank. If the Roman infantry gained the riverbank, they’d be on dry ground without having to fight at all. The Siris was a huge part of Pyrrhus’ advantage, and he was on the verge of losing it at the very start of the battle.
But Pyrrhus was nothing if not a quick thinker. He immediately ordered the phalanx to form up and move out, and raced out ahead of them, leading 3,000 of his cavalry in a countercharge.
Ancient heavy cavalry were good for delivering shock charges to the flank or rear of an infantry unit, for running down individual soldiers, or for fighting other cavalry, but they were weak fighting against formed infantry head on. Their horses made big targets, and, with rare exceptions, the animals were not well armored. An infantryman would have a hard time missing a horse’s belly, and in bringing the animal down, he had the rider at his mercy. With the Roman infantry almost across the river, Pyrrhus knew he was riding into a difficult situation.
But if he could buy enough time for his phalanx to reach the riverbank, it would be worth it.
It was one hell of a fight. The Romans didn’t fight like other men Pyrrhus had faced. They were fearless and pitiless, getting in close and staying there, keeping on the attack with near suicidal bravery. The Romans had been bred on the idea of virtus—a relentless martial courage—and Pyrrhus was but one of many enemies who would learn this was an enemy who would refuse to back down even when they were clearly beaten. Laevinus’ response to Pyrrhus’ embassy hadn’t been mere bluster. He was deadly serious.
The infantry soon joined the cavalry, and the fight turned ugly. Pyrrhus’ cavalry would have been his very best, if they were around the person of the king (Livy speaks of “sacred squadrons,” sacraa alae), but even they would have been at a serious disadvantage as the Roman skirmishers probably backed off to use their missiles or stabbed at the horses’ bellies with their swords. Soon enough, the hastati would have scrambled ashore, better armed and armored, able to surround a plunging horse and attack it from all sides, while the rider could only defend one.
It was at this moment that Pyrrhus’ friend Leonnatus—we know he was a Macedonian, but not much else about him—called out. “Watch out for that Roman on the black horse with the white socks! He’s looking right at you!”
Pyrrhus’ reply was typical for him. “If it’s my fate that he kills me, so be it, but it won’t be easy for him.”
No sooner had he spoken then the Roman kicked his horse and charged Pyrrhus.
Here, the account becomes a little confused. Plutarch tells us this Roman speared Pyrrhus’ horse, and then had his own speared out from under him by Leonnatus. However, Dionysius tells us that Leonnatus speared the Roman’s horse first, and as he went down, this daring Roman speared Pyrrhus’ horse. Either way, both horses were killed, and Pyrrhus’ bodyguard dragged him away from the fighting. This may seem cowardly, and from what I know of Pyrrhus, I doubt he could have been happy about it, but he also wasn’t a fool; he had to know that his death would shatter the morale of his army.
It turns out this daring enemy wasn’t a Roman after all, he was a Frentani, from an allied Italian tribe on Italy’s east coast, around the modern town of Lanciano, which Rome had subdued and forced to become an ally during the Second Samnite War in 319 BC. Plutarch gives his name as Oplax, and calls him a cavalry officer. Dionysius names him Oblacus Volsinius, and considered him an important figure among the Frentani. Either way, the man was likely captured or killed, despite his daring strike at the king of Epirus, and he disappears from the sources afterwards.
“The king is dead!”—The Battle Turns
The close brush with death clearly rattled Pyrrhus’ inner circle, and while we don’t know the exact reasons why, we do know that Pyrrhus’ friend Megacles swapped armor with the king, presumably to divert any further attempts on his life. Maybe Pyrrhus was truly rattled by his close encounter with the brave Frentani, but again, that doesn’t fit with what I know of him. The man was brave to a fault, and it’s more likely that Megacles, backed up by Pyrrhus’ other close advisors, forced the swap. Dionysius goes out of his way to describe how magnificent Pyrrhus’ armor was, his purple cloak shot through with gold. There would be no mistaking the man who wore it as the king.
But now it appeared that Pyrrhus had the battle well in hand. The phalanx had reached the Romans, and the battle lines were locked together, the Romans unable to make any headway against the solid wall of iron presented by the lowered pikes. With the river at their backs, there was nowhere for the Romans to go, but they fought with dogged determination, refusing to give an inch. Pyrrhus must have been both awed and frustrated by their incredible tenacity. Still, Pyrrhus had a formed phalanx on flat ground, and the Romans hadn’t found a way to hit the phalanx’s flanks or rear. All Pyrrhus had to do
was hold out long enough, and eventually, the legion would crack.
And then, everything turned on its head.
Megacles, dressed in Pyrrhus’ armor and cloak, was swarmed by Romans determined to win the honor of killing the king. One of them, whom Plutarch names Dexoüs, brought him down. Thinking he’d killed Pyrrhus, Dexoüs pulled off Pyrrhus’ helmet and cloak and brought them to Laevinus. “The king is dead!” Dexoüs would have shouted, waving the helmet over his head. “Pyrrhus is dead!”
Laevinus was no fool. He knew that to doubt the claim would damage the morale of his soldiers, whereas he lost nothing by agreeing. Besides, he had no reason to doubt. This was indeed the king’s helmet and cloak. He ordered them paraded through the ranks, and cheers went up from the Romans, who surged forward. With their king dead, what were the Epirotes fighting for? Their courage would surely fail them now.
They weren’t wrong. As the Roman spirits rose, so those of the Epirotes and their allies fell. Ancient warriors were superstitious, and Plutarch has already alluded to Pyrrhus’ supposed divine powers. If their king had been killed so easily in his first battle against the Romans, maybe it meant the gods favored the enemy? Pyrrhus’ troops were across the sea from their homes, in foreign territory, and now without the very man for whose glory they’d come. Pike heads dipped, shield arms drooped. All along the phalanx, the line began to waver, and the Romans, sensing their advantage, pressed forward.
Pyrrhus knew that the battle hung on a knife’s edge. Once his soldiers’ morale cracked, they would run. Remember that most casualties in a battle were inflicted during the rout, when one side broke and ran and the other pursued, mercilessly cutting the fleeing enemy down. Here, even the weaker Roman cavalry would excel, plunging among the fleeing Epirotes, stabbing as they went.
Pyrrhus was only one man in a crowd of thousands, and he would be shouting over the roaring tumult of an active battle, but he tried anyway. He raced out in front of his men, showing his face, crying out with his familiar voice, something like, “I am alive! Stand firm, I am alive!”
If you believe Plutarch, this worked, and the Epirote army rallied at the sight of their king, but this is extremely unlikely. In reenactment battles, which are on a much smaller scale and likely much quieter than Heraclea, I can barely see the man in front of me, much less a random figure galloping around a tiny portion of the battlefield. With a helmet on, the clanking of armor and the shouts of fellow reenactors, I certainly can’t hear commands from anything but the shortest distance. To accept that this worked for Pyrrhus is to suspend disbelief more than I am able.
Here’s what probably happened: what Plutarch says occurred next is actually what saved the day for the Epirotes—the elephants finally charged.
We can’t forget that when Pyrrhus finally washed up in Messapii territory after the storm, he only had two of his original 20 elephants. But Plutarch gives the impression that the fleet was only scattered by the storm, and not utterly destroyed, and so he had recovered these by the time of the battle. However many he had, and even if they were the smaller Atlas variety, the sight of charging elephants would scare the hell out of anyone, especially people who’d never seen one before. Remember, ancient people were not as worldly as we are. They quite literally believed in magic and monsters. What must the Romans have thought as these giant creatures slammed into the flanks of their formation? What sorcery did they believe Pyrrhus had at his disposal? Still, the Romans were no cowards, and these legionaries were hardened veterans of the Samnite Wars. They were no strangers to fear. Even after the elephants charged home, they held on.
But in the end, the Roman cavalry made the decision for the whole army. The Roman soldiers might have been able to hold out against the onslaught of Pyrrhus’ elephants, but their horses could not. They bolted, plunging madly through the ranks, bowling infantry over in their panicked rush to the rear. The contagious panic spread like wildfire. Within moments, the Roman line crumbled as the infantry followed, abandoning their formation, their swords and their shields, all thought consumed by the desire to run.
This was a touch of the familiar in an entirely unfamiliar battle for Pyrrhus. The enemy was routing. He knew exactly what to do.
He gave the signal, and his crack Thessalian horsemen surged forward, giving chase. We don’t know exactly how it played out, whether the cavalry ran the fleeing Romans down in the river, or on the shore, whether the legionaries turned to stand and fight, or were speared in the back; we can only go by Plutarch’s vague description, all the more horrifying for its generality, that Pyrrhus routed them with “great slaughter.”
Some scholars don’t credit the phalanx with Pyrrhus’ victory at Heraclea. After all, it was the elephants that finally broke the enemy, and the battle seesawed dangerously the entire time, one moment favoring Laevinus, the next Pyrrhus. It could have just as easily gone the other way.
But it didn’t. Pyrrhus’ phalanx had done what it was designed to do: make an impassable, lethal barrier that held the enemy in check. Alexander the Great had used his phalanx in precisely this way, pinning the enemy to allow his cavalry to get in position to deliver a knockout blow. At Heraclea, Pyrrhus had done something similar with his elephants. The legionaries, foundering in the water and on the soft ground of the riverbank, peppered by missiles, tired and frightened, were unable to come to grips with the long Epirote pikes, closing near enough to use their short swords. The phalanx had proven, on good ground and with its flanks and rear secured, unbeatable yet again.
Death tolls and army sizes in ancient sources are almost always grossly exaggerated, but Plutarch goes to some effort to list his own sources here, and I feel reasonably confident about the figure of 7,000 Roman dead and 2,000 captured, all at a cost of 4,000 of Pyrrhus’ warriors. These casualty figures come into sharper focus when you consider them against modern battles. In 2004, the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq fielded fewer troops, but also pro-rated far lower casualties, about 107 killed among the American and British forces, and 1,200 al-Qa’ida and allied fighters. Seven thousand people is a lot of people. It’s almost a small division—around three whole regiments.
The sheer loss of manpower was staggering on both sides, and while the thrill of victory must have cheered Pyrrhus, the losses had to have worried him. Unlike the Romans, he was in foreign territory, without a ready supply of solid recruits. His “allies” in Magna Graecia had already proven unreliable, and he was probably scrambling to fill up his thinned ranks. Even worse, most of those killed were his most senior, veteran officers, men like Megacles. Anyone who has served in the military knows that veterans are the core of any functioning unit. There is an enormous range of instincts and “soft skills” a warrior builds over years in service. Raw troops, no matter how able and gifted, just can’t measure up until they’ve had time to season in the cauldron of war.
Perhaps Pyrrhus was hoping he wouldn’t need to worry about it. He had, after all, won a decisive victory. Even now, word would be spreading of the crushing defeat he’d inflicted on Rome. Maybe the Romans would see it was hopeless to resist, and agree to peace terms. Surely, now their so-called “allies” would defect to his cause. Pyrrhus probably took comfort in this as he surveyed the dead and wounded.
But, like Hannibal after him, he didn’t reckon on Roman pride.
Excerpted from Legion versus Phalanx © 2018 by Myke Cole