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War Elephants Led To An Embarrassing Death For Pyrrhus, King Of Epirus

There’s not an arsenal in the world that can prepare you for seeing your first elephant in battle.

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Rachael Funnell

author

Rachael Funnell

Writer & Senior Digital Producer

Rachael is a writer and digital content producer at IFLScience with a Zoology degree from the University of Southampton, UK, and a nose for novelty animal stories.

Writer & Senior Digital Producer

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Pyrrhus: the ruler who went to war with elephants, and was brought down with the weight of a roof tile.

Image credit: Story of the Romans - Helene Guerber, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Pyrrhic victory means winning at such a great cost, it almost amounts to a defeat. Highly relatable to anyone who’s ever tried to “win" at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and a lesson that Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, learned the hard way when he went to war with elephants.

The first time Romans saw an elephant was during battle back in 280 BCE when Pyrrhus transported 20 war elephants to Italy. Hard to imagine the futility you’d feel standing on the battle lines, spear in hand, as a giant, armored horse with a fifth limb for a nose charged toward you.

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The war-cum-crash-course-in-Zoology was an effort to reclaim the throne, and he was successful against the Romans in Heraclea and Asculum, but only just. The degree of casualties was so severe that historian Plutarch quoted Pyrrhus as having said, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”

A Pyrrhic Victory was born, but our war-elephant-wielding ruler wasn’t done yet. Following a retreat from Italy in 275 BCE, he toppled his Greco-Macedonian neighbors, took on Sparta (again, at great cost), and tried to settle a dispute in Argos. However, it was here that real disaster would strike in the form of an unexpected projectile.

Pyrrhus went charging in once more with his war elephants, but it was the getting out again that would be his downfall. The story goes that the body of one of his deceased war elephants was blocking the way out, sending the remaining elephantine cavalry into a frenzy.

In the fallout, Pyrrhus was injured by an enemy soldier, and in return stabbed him to death. Problem solved, or it would have been, had the soldier’s mother not been watching from a nearby rooftop.

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In her grief-struck rage, the mother hurled a tile at Pyrrhus’s head and struck her target. According to The Collective, Plutarch recalled, “She was filled with rage and fear… and picking up a tile with both her hands she hurled it at Pyrrhus.”

Whether the tile strike itself finished Pyrrhus off, or just dazed him long enough to succumb to further enemy attacks, is debated online. Either way, after his chaotic streak of by-the-skin-of-the-teeth victories, it seems fitting that a man who went to war with elephants should be brought down with the weight of a roof tile.

As embarrassing deaths go, it's still not quite as bad as the Greek philosopher who died laughing at his own joke about a donkey eating some figs. Oh, Chrysippus...


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