Battle of Asculum (279 BC)
- This article refers to the Pyrrhic War battle fought in 279 BC. For the Second Punic War battle fought in 209 BC, see Battle of Asculum (209 BC).
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|Battle of Asculum|
|Part of the Pyrrhic War|
Key locations of the Pyrrhic War
|Commanders and leaders|
|Publius Decius Mus||Pyrrhus of Epirus|
|40,000 cavalry and infantry,
300 anti-elephant devices
|40,000 cavalry and infantry,
20 war elephants
|Casualties and losses|
|8,000 killed||3,000 killed|
The Battle of Asculum (or Ausculum) took place in 279 BC between the Romans under the command of Consul Publius Decius Mus and the combined Tarantine, Oscan, Samnite, and Epirote forces, under the command of the Greek king Pyrrhus of Epirus. The battle occurred during the Pyrrhic War for control of Magna Graecia.
The battle at Asculum was the second encounter between Pyrrhus' primarily Macedonian army and several Roman legions. According to written accounts of the engagement from the era, the two armies were likely close to same size at 40,000 men each.
The Roman force was largely made up of infantry, an estimated four legions totaling 25,000 Romans, in addition to Dauni allies. After the Battle of Heraclea, in which the presence of Seleucid war elephants had proved decisive, the legions had apparently equipped a portion of their total force with anti-elephant devices: chariots fitted with long spikes meant to wound the elephants' vulnerable legs, pots filled with flammable materials meant to frighten the elephants into retreat, and support troops who were trained to hurl pila.
Pyrrhus's force consisted of Macedonian infantry and cavalry (his own troops), Greek mercenary infantry, allied Italian Greeks (including a Tarentine militia), twenty war elephants, and Samnite infantry and cavalry. The Greek army had notable advantages in both cavalry numbers and in the unique presence of its elephants. However, in order to counter the flexibility of the legions, Pyrrhus mixed some light Italic troops with his phalanx.
The battle was fought over two days. As was customary of the warfare of the period, both armies deployed their cavalry on the wings and infantry in the center. Pyrrhus held his personal cavalry in reserve behind the centre under his own command. The elephants were also initially held in reserve.
On the first day, the Greek cavalry and elephants went largely unused as they were blocked from the Roman advances by woodland and hills in the vicinity of the battleground, although the Italic soldiers in the phalanxes reportedly engaged the Romans very effectively. The Macedonians broke the Roman first legion and Rome's Latin allies on their left wing but the Roman third and fourth legions overcame the Tarentines, Oscans and Epirotes in Pyrrhus' centre. Meanwhile, a force of Dauni attacked the Greek camp. Pyrrhus dispatched reserve cavalry to deal with the breakthrough along with part of the regular horse and several elephants. When the attackers withdrew to an almost inaccessible position atop a steep hill, Pyrrhus deployed the elephants against the third and fourth legions, who likewise proceeded to take refuge in heavily wooded areas on high ground while remaining under constant fire from the archers and slingers escorting the elephants. Pyrrhus sent Athamanian, Acharnian and Samnite infantry to drive the Romans out of the woods, but those forces were intercepted by Roman cavalry. Both sides withdrew at dusk, neither having gained a significant advantage.
At dawn, Pyrrhus sent light infantry to occupy the treacherous high ground which had proven to be the cause of stalemate the previous day, thereby forcing the Romans to fight in the open or flee. As at Heraclea, a massive line to line collision occurred, until the elephants, supported by light infantry, broke through the Roman shieldwall. As a result, the specialized anti-elephant Roman chariots were quickly deployed by legion commanders; though briefly proving effective, the small force was eventually overwhelmed by Greek psiloi. The elephants then charged the Roman infantry, which broke ranks. Pyrrhus simultaneously ordered his personal cavalry to charge, beginning and quickly completing a significant rout. The defeated Roman force retreated.
Traditionally, it is believed that Roman casualties totaled nearly 8,000, while Pyrrhus lost some 3,000, including many of his officers. Pyrrhus later famously commented on his victory, stating, "One more such victory, and we shall be undone." It is from reports of this semi-legendary event that the term Pyrrhic victory originates.
- Information about this war can be found in Plutarch's Lives (Pyrrhus XXI 5-10), Polybius, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (XX 1--3), and Livy.