Battle of Heraclea
The Battle of Heraclea refers to an armed conflict that ensued in 280 BC between the Rome forces and Pyrrhus forces in Southern Italy. During this battle, the Romans were led by Publius Valerius Laevinus and they had approximately 35,000 men. Pyrrhus had about 30,000 men. After struggling terribly, Pyrrhus routed Roman cavalry using his elephants judiciously. The Romans had not encountered the elephants before. He drove Romans infantry across Siris in a great disorder. Pyrrhus emerged victorious that day.
Background of the Battle of Heraclea
The Great Epirus King and one time the general of Macedonia, Pyrrhus, arrived in Southern Italy on Terentines’ invitation. Terentines had sought his help in throwing off the expanding Rome’s shackles. The scattered forces of Pyrrhus landed in Terentum at the beginning of the 280 BCE’s spring. They found their allies completely unprepared for a war and not ready to raise troops that Pyrrhus had been promised. Undaunted, Pyrrhus tried to fill ranks of the local forces by drilling and conscription of the Terentines. The Terentines deserted in their droves until Pyrrhus veterans locked them under guard. In effect, Pyrrhus made himself a dictator on unruly Terentines. This is because he knew that if only he could train the rabble, he would get adequate forces to launch an offensive.
However, the Romans cut short his plans hastily by assembling three armies after which they began crushing the Tarentum allies systematically. The largest of the Consular armies had 50,000 troops under the leadership of Publius Laverius Laevinius. It struck into the Lucanian territories preventing them from forming joint army with Pyrrhus. Despite the fact that the Terentines had not been trained fully and that they were outnumbered by the Romans, Pyrrhus managed to gather his Hellenistic veterans who challenged the Legions might at Heraclea in 280 BCE.
How the battle was fought
Pyrrhus’ forces did not march towards or against the Romans. Instead, he fought the Romans near River Siris which is between Heraclea and Pandosia. Pyrrhus and his forces took up their position there then waited for the Romans. Before starting the battle, he sent his diplomats to Roman consul with a proposal that he would arbitrate the existing conflict between South Italy and Rome. He promised that he was recognized as judge by his allies and they demanded that the Romans recognize him as a judge too. However, his request was denied by the Romans and they used the right side of River Siris to enter the plains where they camped.
The Romans began crossing River Siris at dawn where they attacked light infantry and scouts who fled. This led to the battle. The attacks by the Romans were very severe. At some point, Pyrrhus realized that if he fell, his soldiers would be disheartened and run away. Therefore, he switched armor with a bodyguard. That bodyguard was killed and his forces started wavering when the word of his death started spreading with Romans cheering. However, Pyrrhus came forward bear-headed and this strengthened his forces to continue fighting.
How the battle of Heraclea was ended
During the confusion that ensued, Laevinius threw his Roman cavalry reserve in against the exposed flank of phalanx. On seeing this, Pyrrhus considered it as a decisive moment and he gathered elephants which charged the Romans as they try to charge phalanx. The horses of the Romans were unable to stand up to “Lucanian Oxen” and they run away via the Legions. Terror and panic spread leading to the breaking of Legions. With Thessalian cavalry, Pyrrhus launched a pursuit vigorously. The Romans could have had annihilation with their back to the stream. However, the first Fourth Legion Hastate, Gaius Minucius wounded the leading elephant forcing it to bolt back via Epirote phalax. Halting of the phalanx forced the Romans to melt away in rout and confusion.
Casualties of the battle
7000 Romans were killed, 6000 wounded and 2000 taken prisoners. Pyrrhus lost 4000 men that were killed including some of his closest friends and General Megacles.
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