If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined. — Pyrrhus of Epirus
There are many versions of this quote — first noted in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Most are specific in addressing the Battle of Asculum — in stating that another such victory with similar losses will be his undoing. But I prefer this one as it smacks more of Pyrrhus — second cousin of Alexander the Great and one of antiquity’s last great generals. An ignoble and mercurial ruler yet immense and brilliant military tactician; Pyrrhus was imbued with the ancient and lost skill to speak poetically about pragmatism and destiny — rendering thought that echoes on as equal parts prophecy and eternal truth. Outside of Alexander’s Macedonia — the Greeks weren’t much of an empire — more a conglomeration of cultures that fused language and custom through the syncretism of trade and occasional war. Not till Alexander pushed into Thrace, Persia, and India can one truly speak of a Seleucid and Macedonian empires rather than scattered populations that traced their lineage to the city-states of Athens and Sparta.
Answering the pleas of the Tarentines, people of Spartan descent who lived south of Rome, Pyrrhus was more soldier of fortune than Hellenistic General. Amassing resources from the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms, along with an infantry from nearby allies like the Samnites and Umbrians, to as far away as the middle-eastern Aetolians. These, the Pyrrhic Wars, marked the first confrontation between Greeks and Romans. Mostly, it was just semi-organized pandemonium, Romans aligned with other populations of the Italian peninsula, either opposed to Pyrrhus or already conquered by Rome — at this point before the Punic Wars, allied with Carthage. Pyrrhus was arrogant but not ignorant — he cultivated and paid attention to his advisers, a team of rivals, and did not ignore the writing on the wall. When one of the opposing generals began the first battle with Devotio, the Ancient Roman ritual suicidal sacrifice for victory, Pyrrhus began to take somber note of his enemies: ones both tactically organized and maniacally insane in battle.
Pyrrhus was adept at out-conniving flanks — and although he guided his armies through intense ambushes — he began to lament the rejuvenation of the Roman forces. Remarking once that it was akin to battling a Hydra in decapitating all of the heads. In the 2nd battle, the one where this idea of a Pyrrhic Victory originates — as most quotes have it — the logic dictates Pyrrhus can not suffer losses he incurred at Asculum. But I believe him at this wording above and understand it to mean that the Romans were an unconquerable force that did not capitulate to the traditional idea of defeat. Pyrrhus already had his eyes on an exit strategy as soon as the end of the 1st battle of Heraclea, making it to fend off Carthage before the Romans closed in during the Sicilian campaigns and final Pyrrhic battle of Beneventum. Saving his life by using his reputation to create need for his departure as the Roman forces descended on the Tarentines.
Culture And War
Perhaps the singular point of note with Pyrrhus was although he was ambitious, egotistical, and a somewhat tyrannical leader — he was still able to render decisions without being blinded by Hubris. Here, he breaks with the logic of antiquity when he is confronted with a new warring faction undefinable by the classic narrative of win and loss. Mediterranean city-states would grow weary and recalcitrant under rule and taxation, but any independence momentum would be quickly squelched by Pyrrhus showing up with a war-hardened infantry.
Prosperity is the reward of war, its how a culture is able to define itself and the world around it. Those definitions influence the culture into believing it is deserving of its blessings, manufacturing a mythology of success and providence while growing blind to its shortcomings. As quality of life increases, demands for resources call for expansion — and it further expands its powers of military and knowledge — taking control of antiquities’ lands and ports in traditional, and sometimes extraordinary methods. Ultimately, although the empire grows bountiful by expanding upon the wisdom of the past, it will inevitably ignore the caveats of past-conquerors and draws itself out into an intractable conflict.
Middle-East; Hatfield vs McCoys; Perpetual Conflict
May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger, and the revenge of the Afghans. — Alexander The Great
You break it, you buy it — Colin Powell on the Middle-East.
It takes a special General to view and guide their armies through the historic pitfalls that a passel of empires have succumbed to in the past. In Alexander’s and subsequent times, Afghanistan carries the same strategic allure then as it does now, a passage way for trade and blockade against the Eastern empires’ path to water. Yet that terrain and its war-scarred history makes for tribal people that will do more damage with a 100-year-old rifle than the “civilized” would be able to do with any arsenal. This is the course of exceptionalism — stewardship of the unconquerable. Making for a Military and Citizenry with disparate identities and lopsided solidarity.
An empire, a nation, a people, a culture will always encounter conflict. Some due to resources, some because of old resentments and rivalries brought on by the former. In other instances, the conflict is what defines the culture. As other threads burn, showing the intensity of unresolved Reconstruction-era’s failure — Hatfield and McCoys is a prime example of the resulting culture of embitterment in the South created by the Civil War. Based on a mesh of various Appalachian and Southern family rivalries born of Confederate grudges of maligned character and families displaced by Sherman’s March, many feuds sprang-up over bitter land rivalries which had little to do with prosperity and more with devotion to animosity.
No better way to end this piece about Pyrrhic Victories and War than Decoration Day by Jason Isbell — a song based on a Sutton-Taylor type feud that broke out in Alabama during the 60s.