Comments and Commentary on War - "One more such victory and we are undone."
Thus observed Pyrrhus of Epirus (r. 307-272 B.C.), as he pondered his losses after his second victory over the Romans, at Asculum in 279 B.C. Pyrrhus had sought to emulate in the West, the achievements of his cousin, Alexander the Great in the East. Posing as the champion of the Italiote Greeks, he brought to Italy an army of 30,000 men organized and trained in the Macedonian fashion, along with a sizable contingent of elephants with which to terrorize the Romans, whom he considered a barbarian tribe.
He began to have second thoughts after his first battle with the Romans. At Heraclea in 280 B.C., watching the Romans deploy their legions in to battle line, he is said to have remarked that "These Romans do not fight like barbarians." A terrific battle ensued, with great slaughter on both sides, in which the Romans, about 35,000 strong under Publius Valerius Laevinus, were ultimately defeated, largely because of their unfamiliarity with elephants. By Asculum, the Romans had begun to work out techniques for coping with Pyrrhus' "advanced technology weapon system." As a result, the Romans, who numbered perhaps 40,000, came close to beating him in the fierce fight that lasted an unprecedented two days, victory only being achieved when Pyrrhus' elephants routed the Roman cavalry, a common occurrence if horses who have not been acclimated to elephants meet them in battle for the first time. The casualties at Asculum were enormous, perhaps 10,000-12,000 on each side. The casualties were particularly great among the veterans whom Pyrrhus, himself among the wounded, had brought from Epirus, which prompted to make the above remark., and gave history the phrase "Pyrrhic victory."
After Asculum, Pyrrhus abandoned his efforts in Italy for a time, and attempted to aid his Sicilian Greek allies against the Carthaginians, who were allied with Rome. But he later returned to Italy for one more try. It was a near-run thing, but Pyrrhus failed to win his third battle with those clever Romans. At Beneventum in 275 B.C. about 21,000 Roman and Allied troops under Marcus Curius Denatus tangled with Pyrrhus' 23,000 men and 18 elephants. Realizing that it was the elephants that were the mainstay of Pyrrhus' forces, the Romans had devised tactics specifically targeted the great beasts. As a result, the elephants panicked, and wrecked havoc not in the Roman ranks, but Pyrrhus'. Deciding the Romans were too tough - or too clever -- for him, Pyrrhus went back to Greece, where the pickings seemed easier.
Pyrrhus' failure to subdue the Romans resulted from his assumption that his technologically superior military system would continue to bring him victories. But technology - or technique - is not patentable. An intelligent enemy can learn it, or learn to cope with it. Believing that the Romans would not change in the face of defeat, Pyrrhus himself ultimately went down to defeat. This has been a common failing in history. Pyrrhus' excessive confidence in the superiority of his military system was no different than Napoleon's in his or Hitler's in his. Nor were the consequences of that over confidence.