Πέμπτη, 7 Απριλίου 2016

Today in Military History: April 1-2? 279 BCBattle of Asculum: Pyrrhus of Epirus Defeats Romans for "Pyrrhic Victory"

Battle of Asculum: Pyrrhus of Epirus Defeats Romans for "Pyrrhic Victory"
Pyrrhus of Epirus (319/318-272 BC), artist unknown
Bust in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

For today's history lesson, I present for your enjoyment a battle between Roman legion and the phalanx of the Successors of Alexander the Great set in the southern Italian peninsula.
Background to the Battle
In the fifty years after the death of the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, his far-flung empire broke up and was divided amongst his generals. One of the Successor states to his empire was the Kingdom of Epirus, which had once been allied to the Macedonians (in fact, Alexander's mother Olympias was an Epirote princess prior to marrying Phillip of Macedon). The kingdom was located in what is today northwestern Greece and southern Albania. The royal family claimed it could trace its bloodline back to the hero Achilles. In 297 BC Prince Pyrrhus came to the throne of Epirus. He had spent the previous decade learning his military craft. For the next 25 years, he would be a pain in the neck to Rome, Carthage, Macedonia and Sparta.

In the year 281, the 38-year-old King Pyrrhus was contacted by the southern Italian city-state of Tarentum (now known as Taranto), a port originally founded by Spartan settlers. The city was being threatened by the armed forces of the Roman Republic, flexing its muscles as it sought to incorporate all the lands of the Italian peninsula into its holdings. Pyrrhus, seeing a chance to expand his own empire into Italy, began preparations for an overseas campaign. He made an alliance with the kingdom of Macedonia – essentially guarding his rear – and also sent a deputation to the oracle at Delphi, seeking guidance. The oracle gave its blessings to his adventure, and Pyrrhus set out for Italy.
Movement of Pyrrhus's army, 280-275 BC
Movement of Pyrrhus's army, 280-275 BC
After surviving a storm which scattered his transports, the Epirote king landed his army at Tarentum in 280. His initial forces consisted of 23,000 infantry – the vast majority of which were heavy infantry phalanx troops, often called phalangists – 3000 Thessalian cavalry, 3000 archers, 500 Rhodian slingers and 20 war elephants. These last were a loan from King Ptolemy II of Egypt, who had promised him 9000 infantry and a further 50 elephants to guard his kingdom during his Italian campaign (whether these reinforcements ever arrived is unknown). He did receive reinforcements from the Tarentines, as well as other nearby native Italian tribes that were resisting Roman aggression. [One sources claims that the reinforcements totaled 350,000 foot soldiers and 20,000 cavalry…I *think* those figures are just a bit inflated.]
In July of 280, Pyrrhus fought a major battle with the Romans at the town of Heraclea. The climax came when his elephants terrified the Roman cavalry, which routed the entire Roman army. This was the first time that the Romans had faced these creatures. After the battle, King Pyrrhus told his officers that he greatly admired the valor shown by the Roman soldiers, and said he could conquer the world if he had such men in his army.
Despite his victory, Pyrrhus had sustained major losses that might have crippled another general. Shortly after the battle of Heraclea, Pyrrhus began marching his army towards Rome, looting and devastating the Italian countryside as it went along. He also hoped that the native peoples of southern Italy would flock to his banner, but he only received reinforcements from two or three of the many non-Roman peoples. In addition, as he approached Rome, Pyrrhus received word that the Romans had made peace with the Etruscans, a north Italian people with whom the Romans were also waging war. Knowing this would free up more Romans to fight him, Pyrrhus ordered his army to fall back to Tarentum, then went into winter quarters. Pyrrhus then contacted his south Italian allies and requested more men. It is also likely he hired some Greek mercenaries from mainland Greece to further strengthen his army.
Early in the spring of 279, the Romans raised a new army under the joint command of the consuls Publius Decius Mus and Publius Sulpicius Saverio. The Roman army then began its march on Tarentum. [King Pyrrhus, upon hearing that another Roman army was marching to confront him, remarked that the Romans were like "the Lernean hydra that grows two heads for each one cut off." If this reference doesn't ring a bell, check your Greek/Roman mythology under the "Twelve Labors of Hercules."] Pyrrhus promptly broke camp and marched from Tarentum along the Appian Way towards Rome. The two armies met near the town of Asculum (today Ascoli Satriano), in Apulia in southeastern Italy.
Early Republican Roman Army
The early Republican Roman army was still evolving from the time that they overthrew the last Etruscan king in 509 BC. Until about 315 BC, the Roman army would have been nearly indistinguishable from a Greek army of the Persian Wars or Alexander the Great periods – pike-armed heavy infantrymen with javelin- or sling-armed skirmishers, and associated cavalry contingents. As a result of contacts with the other peoples of Italy, the Roman military system evolved to meet the challenges of newer enemies.
Diagram of the Republican Roman Legion (also called the "manipular legion"); Illustration from https://sites.psu.edu/successoftheromans/organization-of-the-roman-army
Diagram of the Republican Roman Legion (also called the "manipular legion")
Illustration from https://sites.psu.edu/successoftheromans/organization-of-the-roman-army/
By the time of this battle, the Republican Roman legion comprised approximately 3000 heavy infantrymen, 1200 light infantrymen and 300 horsemen. The basic unit was the maniple of 120 men, that is, two centuries of 60 men each. They were divided – formerly along socio-economic lines, later by age and experience – into five groups, as follows:
  1. The first line of the Roman legion consisted of 10 maniples of men called hastati. They wore leather armor and a brass cuirass (breastplate), a brass helmet and an iron-clad wooden shield. They were armed with a short sword (the gladius) and two pila – javelins copied from their enemies the Samnites. These men threw their pila at the enemy to disrupt his attack. They were usually the youngest, most athletic men of the legion.
A maniple of standing principes, awaiting orders; Image courtesy of http://theminiaturespage.com/news/586106
A maniple of standing principes, awaiting orders
Image courtesy of http://theminiaturespage.com/news/586106
  1. The second line of the legion was 10 maniples of principes. They were armed and armored similar to the first line, except they generally replaced the brass cuirass with chainmail. These men were more experienced and older than men of the first line.
  2. The third line of the legion was five maniples (600 men) of the triarii. Their armament and armor was similar to the second line, but instead of pila they carried pikes – as the last holdover from the old Roman military structure. The triarii were the eldest, most experienced men of the legion, generally in their mid- to late-forties.
  3. Another part of the legion was the equites, or equestrians, which totaled 300 horsemen. These men originally came from the highest socio-economic class of Rome. They could afford to own and train horses, as well as purchase the needed equipment. Their functions included scouting, skirmishing with the enemy, occasionally as a final reserve to turn the tide of a close battle, and pursuit of a defeated enemy.
  4. Finally, were the 10 maniples of the velites. These men were the skirmishers of the legion, lightly armored with probably only leather armor and a buckler, but armed with two or more pila. Usually these men would be placed in the front of the legion's battle line. Occasionally they were held in reserve to fill gaps in the line or, like the horsemen, provide the final knockout blow at a crucial point in a battle.
Roman velites skirmisher, 275-105 BC; Image courtesy of http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_46b_figure_1.htm
Roman velites skirmisher, 275-105 BC
Image courtesy of http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_46b_figure_1.htm
Each of the three main lines of the manipular legion were arranged in a checkerboard fashion, with the second-line maniples covering the spaces in the first line, while the maniples of the third line covered the gaps in the second line. Usually, as the enemy approached the Roman front, the velites skirmishers and the first line would cast their pila at the enemy. The skirmishers would then withdraw to the rear of the battle formation, allowing the hastati to draw their swords and charge their opponent. If this first contact did not produce the desired result, the hastati would slowly pull back to regroup to the rear of the battle formation, allowing the principes to move forward and engage the enemy.
During this hand-to-hand fighting, the pike-armed veteran triarii would begin to form to advance if the principes did not prevail. If the triarii were needed, the principes would pull back to the rear of the battle line to regroup, allowing the triarii to advance and engage the enemy. The Romans had an expression, "Rem ad Triarios redisse" (it has come to the triarii) which to them signaled an act of great desperation. If the triarii did not finally beat the enemy, the Roman commander had the option of repeating the above process or retreating.
The Romans also endeavored to find terrain that favored their tactics. Invariably, a Roman commander looked for a clear plain with a stream running across it, with some hilly or gently sloping terrain to one end. Organizing their army on the sloping terrain, they would try to entice the enemy to charge them across the stream, hoping to disrupt the enemy's charge. In the meantime, the discharge of pila from the velites and hastati of the legion would further break up the enemy formations, allowing the Roman ground-pounders to come to grips, winning the battle.
The Hellenistic Armies of Alexander's Successors
The armies of Alexander's successors were little different from the one the boy-king used to conquer an empire from Greece to Egypt to the Indus River. Each of the Successor armies were based around the phalanx, a formation of heavy infantrymen that was only moderately deep (8-16 ranks) and generally very wide. Their main weapon was the sarissa, an 18-22 foot long pike, that outranged their spear-armed enemies by several feet. [None of the sources for this period mention a secondary weapon, but it is likely that a short sword or dagger was carried.] A Macedonian phalanx on the battlefield approaching its opponent could be likened to a slowly-advancing hedgehog, with the forest of bristling pikes presenting a fearsome aspect.
Macedonian phalanx preparing to contact enemy; image by F. Mitchell, Dept. of History, U.S. Military Academy, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/gabrmetz/gabr0066.htm
Macedonian phalanx preparing to contact enemy; image by F. Mitchell, Dept. of History,
U.S. Military Academy, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/gabrmetz/gabr0066.htm
The front four or five ranks of phalangists wore metal helmets, breastplates and probably greaves to protect their legs. The men in succeeding ranks were usually not so well armored, usually wearing linen armor and a leather cap or even a straw hat. All the phalangists carried a two foot wide metal shield that was small enough to be carried on the left arm or slung on the back, because the sarissa was wielded two handed. Though the Macedonian phalanx was an improvement on the classic Greek hoplites, the same tactics were still used. As they approached the enemy's front line, the phalangists in the back ranks would lower their sarrisae, then begin to bodily push against the men in front of them, imparting great force into the forward motion of the entire unit.
Accompanying most Successor armies were skirmishers, usually slingers, javelinmen or archers who would advance before the phalanx and try to disrupt the enemy's set-up. In addition, units of light or heavy cavalry would be placed on the flanks of the phalanx to guard against flank attacks. Usually the army commander was stationed to the rear of the phalanx, guarded by a unit of heavy cavalry that was often used as the final decider of the battle. Another unit of these armies – usually placed on the right flank of the phalanx next to the cavalry screen – was the hypaspists. These were men as heavily armored as the phalangists, but did not carry the sarissa. Instead they were armed similarly to the classic Greek hoplites. It appears that this unit was used as an elite guard of sorts, perhaps providing some flank security to the main phalanx, as the hypaspists were also trained in the use of short spears and javelins.
Finally, the elephant was used by all the Successor armies. Most used the larger Indian elephant. But, the Ptolemies of Egypt used the smaller African forest elephant from the Horn of Africa. After facing them on the battlefield in India under Alexander, the elephants' powerful attacks impressed the generals. Elephants were either held in reserve or were lined up in line abreast in front of the phalanx, often with light troops or skirmishers accompanying them. A mahout (driver) controlled the beast's moves; a tower constructed of a wooden framework covered by leather was carried on the elephant's back and held in place by chains wrapped around the elephant's body. The tower held two crewmen, a pikeman and an archer. The elephants were used to either disrupt the enemy line indirectly or directly attack their opponents and trample them. These beasts could also badly frighten cavalry, as horses were generally repelled by the sight and smell of them. The main drawback to their use was the possibility of the driver being killed, at which time the beasts would be out of control and try to leave the battlefield, often trampling friendly troops. Because of this tendency, opponents of Hellenistic armies tried to come up with ingenious ways to frighten the elephants or negate their usefulness.
By the time of Pyrrhus, the phalanx had become the main decider of the battle – contact the enemy, and grind him down. While this sounds bloody simple, such was not always the case. The phalanx had two very big drawbacks: (a) it could not maneuver well in broken terrain, which would disrupt the apple-pie order of the phalangists; and, (b) the flanks and rear of the phalanx were vulnerable to attacks by skirmishers and cavalry, which necessitated cavalry and light infantry units to guard its flanks. Also, many of the Successors – Pyrrhus was an exception – could not recruit actual Macedonians trained in the phalanx tactics, so had to resort to local Egyptians, Syrians, Persians and others to fill their ranks. This was not always successful.
The Battle Dispositions
The Roman army at Asculum consisted of 4 legions – a force of about 17,000 trained Roman infantry, about 20,000 infantry from their various allies and recently conquered peoples, and about 1200 Roman horsemen and 1800 Dauni allied cavalry. They also had something to surprise Pyrrhus' pachyderms – 300 anti-elephant wagons. According to the historian Dionysus of Halicarnassus, writing 200 years after the battle, these ox-drawn wagons:
…had upright beams on which were mounted movable traverse poles that could be swung round as quick as thought in any direction one might wish, and on the ends of the poles there were either tridents or sword-like spikes or scythes all of iron; or again they had cranes that hurled down heavy grappling-irons. Many of the poles had attached to them and projecting in front of the wagons fire-bearing grapnels wrapped in tow [flax or rope fibers] that had been liberally daubed with pitch, which men standing on the wagons were to set afire as soon as they came near the elephants and then rain blows with them upon the trunks and faces of the beasts. Furthermore, standing on the wagons, which were four-wheeled, were many also of the light-armed troops – bowmen, hurlers of stones and slingers who threw iron caltrops; and on the ground beside the wagons there were still more men.
Dionysus stated the Romans placed their First Legion on their left wing, with the Third Legion next to them. In the center was placed the Fourth Legion, and the Second Legion was on the right wing. (H) The allied infantry – the Latins, Campanians, and their other subjects – were divided into four divisions and intermingled with the Roman legions, "in order that no part of their lines might be weak." (J) The Roman cavalry was divided into two parts and placed on the wings of the army. (K) A body of skirmishers was placed in front of the army, while the anti-elephant wagons were held in reserve, divided into two groups and placed to the rear, one on each flank. (L) In addition, on the first day of the battle, the Romans managed to find and utilize some terrain to their liking: on the edge of the town of Asculum, a slightly rolling plain backed by wooded hilly terrain and some marshy land. This terrain was definitely not conducive to the phalanxes, cavalry or elephants of Pyrrhus.
Initial dispositions of the two armies, battle of Asculum, Day #2; [illustration is authors work, based on map in book, "Great Battles of the Hellenistic World" by Joseph Pietrykowski, Pen & Sword Books (2012)]
Initial dispositions of the two armies, battle of Asculum, Day #2
[illustration is author's work, based on map in book, "Great Battles of the Hellenistic World"
by Joseph Pietrykowski, Pen & Sword Books (2012)]
King Pyrrhus made his own dispositions, giving his Macedonian phalanx the place of honor on the right wing (A); next to them he placed lighter-armed and –armored Italian mercenaries from Tarentum and Ambracia. He completed his right wing arrangements by placing a phalanx of Tarentine hoplites equipped with long pikes and white shields, with an allied force of southern Italians to their left (B). In his center Pyrrhus stationed Thesprotians and Chaonians, two tribes which were a part of the kingdom of Epirus. [It is not specifically stated but these men were likely lightly-armed and -armored medium infantry.] Next to these men were more heavily armored Greek mercenaries, probably in phalanx and wielding pikes. (C)
Finally, the entire left wing was apparently comprised of Samnites, who had recently been defeated by the Romans. (D) [The Romans had adopted the use of the pilum from the Samnites.] The Samnites were probably equipped similarly to the Romans. He held his 19 elephants in reserve, just behind the army's flanks (E); Pyrrhus divided his Thessalian, native Italian, and mercenary Greek cavalry into two parts, stationing them on his two wings. (F). Finally, his 2000-man Royal Guard horsemen were held in reserve just to the rear of his phalanxes. (G) Exact numbers are elusive, but Pyrrhus' total army was probably of equal strength to his opponents, each force totaling about 40,000 soldiers.
The Battle of Asculum: Day #1
The first day's fighting turned into a bloody stalemate. At dawn, King Pyrrhus ordered his entire infantry line forward. The Romans held their positions on the wooded hills that they had acquired the day before. During a nearly all-day fight, the Epirote right easily beat the Roman left, causing it to retreat to the protection of the woods. In contrast, the Romans smashed Pyrrhus' center, throwing it back in disorder. At the same time, the Roman's Dauni allied cavalry outflanked the Epirote line, rather than attack the Epirote rear, the Dauni proceeded to Pyrrhus' camp and began plundering it.
In response to these two crises, Pyrrhus led his Royal Guard cavalry and some of his elephants to beat back the Dauni, then sent more reserve cavalry to hold his center. Both tactics worked, causing the Romans to pull back to the protection of a largely inaccessible steep wooded hill. Late in the afternoon, Pyrrhus sent some of his allied infantry and the elephants to flush the Romans out of the woods, but failed. Dusk finally brought an end to the fighting, with both sides withdrawing to their camps.
The Battle of Asculum: Day #2
Opening phases, battle of Asculum, Day #2; [illustration is author
Opening phases, battle of Asculum, Day #2
[illustration is author's work, based on map in book, "Great Battles of the Hellenistic World" by Joseph Pietrykowski, Pen & Sword Books (2012)]
Dawn of the second day saw an unfortunate turn of events for the Romans. Early in the morning before dawn, Pyrrhus sent some skirmishers and light infantry to occupy the wooded hills and riverbank that had given the Romans such a tactical advantage the previous day. This forced the Romans to face the Epirote army on the nearby plains. The two armies repeated their dispositions of the previous day. The entire Epirote army began slowly marching forward, hoping to pin the Romans and their allies a place, and bring their pikes into action. [1] At the same time, the two cavalry wings charged their Roman/Italian counterparts, hoping to sweep away these flank guards and allow the elephants to be deployed. [2] This action developed into a long charge-countercharge fight that lasted most of the battle. This day, however, the Roman and Italian foot aggressively attacked the whole Epirote line, putting tremendous pressure all along the front, [3] but especially on the Epirote left. [4] The Romans hoped that the Epirotes would break before they could deploy their elephants.
Second phase, battle of Asculum, Day #2; [illustration is author
Second phase, battle of Asculum, Day #2
[illustration is author's work, based on map in book, "Great Battles of the Hellenistic World" by Joseph Pietrykowski, Pen & Sword Books (2012)]
However, Pyrrhus's phalangists, hoplites and allied infantry performed well, holding their ground until the elephants could be brought forward. As the elephants approached the enemy line, the Romans' secret weapons were unveiled. The ox-carts charged from the flanks of the Roman army and engaged Pyrrhus's pachyderms. Though initially successful, the skirmishers and bowmen on the elephants, with an assist from Epirote skirmishers and mercenary bowmen accompanying the elephants, managed to either drive off the wagons or kill the oxen pulling them, leaving the wagons useless. [5] At about the same time, the Roman/ally right-wing cavalry fled it hours-long battle with the Epirote cavalry. [6] Now without any bothersome Roman "toys," the elephants plunged into the Roman line, [7] apparently the last straw needed to break the will of the Roman army.
At that moment, the Romans line began to tire from a nearly full day of bloody fighting and the tireless pressure of the Epirote troops and the Macedonian pikemen. Consequently, the Roman army broke and routed back to their fortified camp. [8] The Epirote army began following the retreating Romans. [9] To support his tired and bloodied infantry, Pyrrhus sent most of his right wing horsemen to pursue the retreating Romans. [10] However, he received reports of Roman allied cavalry attacking his own virtually unguarded camp. Cursing his ill-luck, Pyrrhus sent the remainder of his right-flank cavalry and the right wing elephant group and most of the left flank elephants to reinforce the camp. [11] Pyrrhus then led his Royal Guard cavalry to join the attack on the Roman camp. [12] It was during this phase of the battle that Pyrrhus was wounded by a Roman javelin. Shortly afterward, with sunset approaching, he gave the order for his polyglot army to retire back to his camp.
Final phase, battle of Asculum, Day #2; [illustration is author
Final phase, battle of Asculum, Day #2
[illustration is author's work, based on map in book, "Great Battles of the Hellenistic World" by Joseph Pietrykowski, Pen & Sword Books (2012)]
Casualty figures are not particularly reliable, but the sources say the Romans lost between 6000 and 8000 men, while the Epirote-allied force lost 3000-3500 soldiers. However, the majority of Pyrrhus' losses were to his Macedonian and mercenary phalangists, men that he could not quickly replace. He also sustained heavy losses to his officer corps. At the end of the second day, as he was assessing his casualties and having his wound tended to, a messenger congratulated him on his victory. Probably with a sardonic expression on his face, King Pyrrhus of Epirus told the man, "Another such victory like this and I will be ruined."
And that is how the term "pyrrhic victory" originated…a victory gained at a terrible price.
Footnote #1: The date indicated for this battle at the top of this page is actually just an educated guess on my part; most of the sources I read only said the battle took place in "the spring" of 279 BC. This was confirmed when I contacted a Roman History professor at the University of Maryland. I figured April Fool's Day was as good a time as any to discuss Pyrrhus of Epirus.
Footnote #2: After this battle, Pyrrhus was contacted by the Greek city-states of Sicily, asking for his assistance against the Carthaginians, who were busily conquering the island. Pyrrhus ferried his army to Sicily, took over most of the island in a year-long campaign, then began acting like…well, a tyrant. The Sicilians did not take kindly to this treatment, and began to make common cause with Carthage against him. Pyrrhus eventually returned to the Italian mainland, and fought a final battle against the Romans in 275 BC at Beneventum. After this inconclusive battle, Pyrrhus returned to Epirus.
Footnote #3: In 272 BC, Pyrrhus was contacted by a faction in the city of Argos, asking him to intervene on its side in ongoing civic unrest. Hoping to expand his holdings, he led his army into the city in the dead of night. However, they were caught in a deadly street fight with the Argive army. During the fight, an old Argive woman noticed him and threw a roofing tile at him, striking him in the head, stunning him and knocking him to the ground. Lying on the ground he was inexpertly decapitated by an Argive soldier. He was 46 years old. One historian states that when word of Pyrrhus's death reached his former allies in Tarentum, they immediately surrendered to the Romans.
Footnote #4: The Roman writer Livy tells the story that in 193 BC, the Roman military commander Scipio Africanus was on a diplomatic mission in Ephesus in Asia Minor, where he met the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who Scipio had defeated at the battle of Zama nine years earlier to end the Second Punic War. The Roman asked Hannibal who he thought was the greatest military commander the world had seen. [Typically Roman, Scipio was fishing for a compliment.] Hannibal replied almost without thinking, "Alexander the Great." When Scipio asked him who was second, he replied "Pyrrhus of Epirus." Finally, probably a bit testily, Scipio asked Hannibal where the Carthaginian would place himself among the great generals of history, and Hannibal slyly replied, "If I had triumphed over you, I would be first."

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