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Chapter 16

THE WAR WITH PYRRHUS.

B.C. 280-271.


In the Grecian History you remember that Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, the townsman of Alexander the Great, made an expedition to Italy. This was the way it came about. The city of Tarentum was a Spartan colony at the head of the gulf that bears its name. It was as proud as its parent, but had lost all the grave sternness of manners, and was as idle and fickle as the other places in that languid climate. The Tarentines first maltreated some Roman ships which put into their gulf, and then insulted the ambassador who was sent to complain. Then when the terrible Romans were found to be really coming to revenge their honor, the Tarentines took fright, and sent to beg Pyrrhus to come to their aid.

He readily accepted the invitation, and coming to Italy with 28,000 men and twenty elephants, hoped to conquer the whole country; but he found the Tarentines not to be trusted, and soon weary of entertaining him, while they could not keep their promises of aid from the other Greeks of Italy.

The Romans marched against him, and there was a great battle on the banks of the river Siris, where the fighting was very hard, but when the elephants charged the Romans broke and fled, and were only saved by nightfall from being entirely destroyed. So great, however, had been Pyrrhus' loss that he said, "Such another victory, and I shall have to go back alone to Epirus."

He thought he had better treat with the Romans, and sent his favorite counsellor Kineas to offer to make peace, provided the Romans would promise safety to his Italian allies, and presents were sent to the senators and their wives to induce them to listen favorably. People in ancient Greece expected such gifts to back a suit; but Kineas found that nobody in Rome would hear of being bribed, though many were not unwilling to make peace. Blind old Appius Claudius, who had often been consul, caused himself to be led into the Senate to oppose it, for it was hard to his pride to make peace as defeated men. Kineas was much struck with Rome, where he found a state of things like the best days of Greece, and, going back to his master, told him that the senate-house was like a temple, and those who sat there like an assembly of kings, and that he feared they were fighting with the Hydra of Lerna, for as soon as they had destroyed one Roman army another had sprung up in its place.

However, the Romans wanted to treat about the prisoners Pyrrhus had taken, and they sent Caius Fabricius to the Greek camp for the purpose. Kineas reported him to be a man of no wealth, but esteemed as a good soldier and an honest man. Pyrrhus tried to make him take large presents, but nothing would Fabricius touch; and then, in the hope of alarming him, in the middle of a conversation the hangings of one side of the tent suddenly fell, and disclosed the biggest of all the elephants, who waved his trunk over Fabricius and trumpeted frightfully. The Roman quietly turned round and smiled as he said to the king, "I am no more moved by your gold than by your great beast."

At supper there was a conversation on Greek philosophy, of which the Romans as yet knew nothing. When the doctrine of Epicurus was mentioned, that man's life was given to be spent in the pursuit of joy, Fabricius greatly amused the company by crying out, "O Hercules! grant that the Greeks may be heartily of this mind so long as we have to fight with them."

Pyrrhus even tried to persuade Fabricius to enter his service, but the answer was, "Sir. I advise you not; for if your people once tasted of my rule, they would all desire me to govern them instead of you." Pyrrhus consented to let the prisoners go home, but, if no peace were made, they were to return again as soon as the Saturnalia were over; and this was faithfully done. Fabricius was consul the next year, and thus received a letter from Pyrrhus' physician, offering for a reward to rid the Romans of his master by poison. The two consuls sent it to the king with the following letter:--"Caius Fabricius and Quintus Ĉmilius, consuls, to Pyrrhus, king, greeting. You choose your friends and foes badly. This letter will show that you make war with honest men and trust rogues and knaves. We tell you, not to win your favor, but lest your ruin might bring on the reproach of ending the war by treachery instead of force."

Pyrrhus made enquiry, put the physician to death, and by way of acknowledgment released the captives, trying again to make peace; but the Romans would accept no terms save that he should give up the Tarentines and go back in the same ships. A battle was fought in the wood of Asculum. Decius Mus declared he would devote himself like his father and grandfather; but Pyrrhus heard of this, and sent word that he had given orders that Decius should not be killed, but taken alive and scourged; and this prevented him. The Romans were again forced back by the might of the elephants, but not till night fell on them. Pyrrhus had been wounded, and hosts of Greeks had fallen, among them many of Pyrrhus' chief friends.

He then went to Sicily, on an invitation from the Greeks settled there, to defend them from the Carthaginians; but finding them as little satisfactory as the Italian Greeks, he suddenly came back to Tarentum. This time one of the consuls was Marcus Curius--called Dentatus, because he had been born with teeth in his mouth--a stout, plain old Roman, very stern, for when he levied troops against Pyrrhus, the first man who refused to serve was punished by having his property seized and sold. He then marched southward, and at Beneventum at length entirely defeated Pyrrhus, and took four of his elephants. Pyrrhus was obliged to return to Epirus, and the Roman steadiness had won the day after nine years.

Dentatus had the grandest triumph that had ever been known at Rome, with the elephants walking in the procession, the first that the Romans had ever seen. All the spoil was given up to the commonwealth; and when, some time after, it was asserted that he had taken some for himself, it turned out that he had only kept one old wooden vessel, which he used in sacrificing to the gods.

The Greeks of Southern Italy had behaved very ill to Pyrrhus and turned against him. The Romans found them so fickle and troublesome that they were all reduced in one little war after another. The Tarentines had to surrender and lose their walls and their fleet, and so had the people of Sybaris, who have become a proverb for idleness, for they were so lazy that they were said to have killed all their crowing-birds for waking them too early in the morning. All the peninsula of Italy now belonged to Rome, and great roads were made of paved stones connecting them with it, many of which remain to this day, even the first of all, called the Appian Way, from Rome to Capua, which was made under the direction of the censor Appius Claudius, during the Samnite war.


Charlotte M. Yonge