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Pyrrhic Victories and Battle Elephants

Elephants must have looked like mythical monsters to the Romans when they first encountered them in battles against King Pyrrhus of Epiros. Pyrrhus is whom we recall today with the words "Pyrrhic victory", a victory that takes such a devastating toll on the victor that victory is short lived.

Battle of Zama between Carthage and Rome 1567 Cornelis Cort

Battle of Zama, between Carthage and Rome, Cornelis Cort, 1567

Pyrrhus took on the Romans in defense of the city of Taras and came away the victor in Heraclea, 280 BC, and Ausculum, 279 BC. Dionysus reports that the Arpani provided support to Rome in the form of 4000 men and 400 horses. [Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, 20.3.2] This coin from roughly that time period.

Apulia, Arpi, circa 325-275 BC, AE Obv: Laureate head of Zeus left, thunderbolt to right Rev: Bristle-backed boar running right, spear above; APΠANΩN in exergue Note: Arpi was located about 5 miles north of the city of Foggia, Italy.

The two armies separated; and we are told that Pyrrhus said to one who was congratulating him on his victory, "If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined."

-Plutarch, Lives, Pyrrhus 21.10

Pyrrhus became king of Sicily, where Greek cities hoped that he would fend off another growing power, Carthage. However, this didn't go well and soon he left Sicily when a good excuse presented itself: a request for support from the Samnites and Tarentines, In a battle with Roman consul Manius Curius, Pyrrhus suffers more defeat. Plutarch describes his elephants as contributors to the loss. Pyrrhus' elephants, under attack from javelins, turned around and ran trough the ranks of their own men, causing disorder and confusion.

"Thus Pyrrhus was excluded from his hopes of Italy and Sicily, after squandering six years' time in his wars there, and after being worsted in his undertakings, but he kept his brave spirit unconquered in the midst of his defeats; and men believed that in military experience, personal prowess, and daring, he was by far the first of the kings of his time, but that what he won by his exploits he lost by indulging in vain hopes, since through passionate desire for what he had not he always failed to establish securely what he had."

-Plutarch, Lives, Pyrrhus 26.1

Elephants as unreliable war machines, seems to be a theme in battles lost against the Romans. The battle of Panormous, in 250 BC, another battle of the First Punic War between Carthage and Rome is where the Caecilii Metelli would gain elephants as a symbol of their family's achievements. Caecilius Metellus (cos. 25I B.C.) defeated Carthaginian general Hasdrubal, son of Hanno, at Panormus in 250 BC. This Hasdrubal is not to be confused with the three sons of Hamilcar Barca: Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago from the Second Punic War. Polybius describes the elephants turning on their own men and causing chaos that left an opening for the Romans.

"Caecilius, on seeing this, made a vigorous sally and falling on the flank of the enemy, who were now in disorder, with his own fresh and well-ordered troops caused a severe rout among them, killing many and compelling the rest to quit the field in headlong flight. He took ten elephants with their mahouts, and after the battle, having penned up the others who had thrown their mahouts, he captured them all. By this exploit he was universally acknowledged to have caused the Roman land forces to pluck up courage again and gain the command of the open country."

-Polybius, Histories, 1.40

This anonymous denarius, issued by L. Caecilius Metellus Diadematus, a descendant of Caecilius Metellus in 128 BC.

L. Caecilius Metellus Diadematus, 128 BC, AR Denarius, Rome mint

Obv: Helmeted head of Roma right; mark of value to left

Rev: Pax driving galloping biga right, holding olive branch, scepter, and reins; below, elephant's head right, wearing bell

Ref: Crawford 262/1 (Anonymous)

While I'm not sure we can call it a"Pyrrhic victories", Carthage's victory over the Romans in the First Punic War battle of Drepana, was short lived. In 249 BC, this was a devastating blow to the Romans who had 20,000 men killed or captured, 93 ships captured, and more were sunk. A great but not lasting victory for Carthage - see this concise timeline on After a another 7 or 8 years of stalemate and conflict, the Romans eventually won the 23-year-long First Punic War war in a naval battle fought among the Aegates islands on the western tip of Sicily.


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