CHAPTER X. WARS WITH PYRRHUS (281-272).
In the early times of Rome, while she was but little known, it had been the custom of Greece to send colonies away to relieve the pressure of too rapid increase. We find them in Spain, France, Asia Minor, and especially in Sicily and Southern Italy, where the country became so thoroughly Grecianized that it was called MAGNA GRAECIA. Here were many flourishing cities, as Tarentum, Sybaris, Croton, and Thurii. These had, at the time of their contact with Rome, greatly fallen from their former grandeur, owing partly to the inroads of barbarians from the north, partly to civil dissensions, and still more to their jealousy of each other; so that they were unable to oppose any firm and united resistance to the progress of Rome. It had been their custom to rely largely upon strangers for the recruiting and management of their armies, - a fact which explains in part the ease with which they were overcome.
Of these cities TARENTUM was now the chief. With it a treaty had been made by which the Tarentines agreed to certain limits beyond which their fleet was not to pass, and the Romans bound themselves not to allow their vessels to appear in the Gulf of Tarentum beyond the Lacinian promontory. As usual, the Romans found no difficulty in evading their treaty whenever it should profit them.
Thurii was attacked by the Lucanians, and, despairing of aid from Tarentum, called on Rome for assistance. As soon as domestic affairs permitted, war was declared against the Lucanians, and the wedge was entered which was to separate Magna Graecia from Hellas, and deliver the former over to Rome.
Pretending that the war was instigated by Tarentum, Rome decided to ignore the treaty, and sent a fleet of ten vessels into the Bay of Tarentum. It was a gala day, and the people were assembled in the theatre that overlooked the bay when the ships appeared. It was determined to punish the intrusion. A fleet was manned, and four of the Roman squadron were destroyed.
An ambassador, Postumius, sent by Rome to demand satisfaction, was treated with insult and contempt. He replied to the mockery of the Tarentines, that their blood should wash out the stain. The next year one of the Consuls was ordered south.
Meanwhile Tarentum had sent envoys to ask aid of PYRRHUS, the young and ambitious KING OF EPÍRUS. He was cousin of Alexander the Great, and, since he had obtained no share in the division of the conquests of this great leader, his dream was to found an empire in the West that would surpass the exhausted monarchies of the East.
Pyrrhus landed in Italy in 281 with a force of 20,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, and 20 elephants. He at once set about compelling the effeminate Greeks to prepare for their own defence. Places of amusement were closed; the people were forced to perform military duty; disturbers of the public safety were put to death; and other reforms were made which the dangers of the situation seemed to demand. Meanwhile the Romans acted with promptness, and boldly challenged him to battle. The armies met in 280 on the plain of HERACLÉA, on the banks of the Liris, where the level nature of the country was in favor of the Greek method of fighting. The Macedonian phalanx was the most perfect instrument of warfare the world had yet seen, and the Roman legions had never yet been brought into collision with it.
The Romans, under LAEVÍNUS, were defeated, more by the surprise of a charge of elephants than by the tactics of the phalanx. However, they retired in good order. Pyrrhus is said to have been much impressed by the heroic conduct of the foe, and to have said, "Another such victory will send me back without a man to Epirus." He recognized the inferior qualities of his Greek allies, and determined to make a peace. A trusted messenger, CINEAS, was sent to Rome. He was noted for his eloquence, which was said to have gained more for his master than the sword. Through him Pyrrhus promised to retire to Epirus if safety was guaranteed to his allies in Italy.
The eloquence of Cineas was fortified with presents for the Senators; and though these were refused, many seemed disposed to treat with him, when the aged APPIUS CLAUDIUS CAECUS (Blind) was led into the Senate, and declared that Rome should never treat with an enemy in arms.
Cineas was deeply impressed by the dignity of the Romans, and declared that the Senators were an assembly of kings and Rome itself a temple.
Pyrrhus then tried force, and, hastily advancing northward, appeared within eighteen miles of the city. Here his danger became great. The defection he had hoped for among the Latins did not take place, and the armies which had been operating elsewhere were now ready to unite against him. He therefore retired into winter quarters at Tarentum, where he received the famous embassy of GAIUS FABRICIUS, sent to propose an interchange of prisoners. It was in vain that bribes and threats were employed to shake the courage of the men sent by the Senate; and, on his part, Pyrrhus refused to grant the desired exchange.
Many Italian nations now joined Pyrrhus, and hostilities were renewed. The armies again met in 279 on the plain of ASCULUM, in Apulia; but though the Romans were defeated, it was only another of those Pyrrhic victories which were almost as disastrous as defeat.