Pyrrhus at Asculum. A ‘Lost Battles’ game.

“One is the best of all omens, to fight in defence of King Pyrrhus,”
– Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus

Pyrrhus of Epirus was one of the most remarkable figures of the ancient world. A restless adventurer, his military career saw him become (rather briefly in each case) King of Epirus (twice), King of Macedon (twice) and also King of Syracuse. He would fight in Asia Minor, Greece, Italy and Sicily, where his excellent generalship would contrast with his less able administrative capabilities. He also wrote a memoir and some manuals on the art of war that are now sadly lost to us, but which, according to Plutarch, were an influence on Hannibal.

In 280 Pyrrhus landed in Italy. The city of Tarentum was in dispute with Rome and had invited Pyrrhus to help them. Pyrrhus saw the opportunity to carve out a new kingdom for himself in Italy and accepted, bringing an army of around 28,000 and around 20 war elephants. Pyrrhus managed a narrow victory against the Romans at the first battle, Heraclea. Even from the outset, it became clear that the Romans were more durable than first appeared. Their seemingly inexhaustible reserves of manpower and the stabiltiy of their alliances in Italy made Pyrrhus’ task more difficult than first appeared.

The following year, Pyrrhus met the Romans at Asculum. His army was supplemented by poorer quality Tarentine infantry, but he still held an advantage in cavalry. On to the game.

^ Pyrrhus’ line from the left.

^ And from the right.

Pyrrhus’ army deploys with the centre composed of a mix of phalanx and various other heavy infantry. Pyrrhus himself is behind the centre with a cavalry reserve. The elephants are split between the centre-left and right. The rest of the cavalry is split between the two wings.

Roman army from the left

^ Roman army from the right.

The Romans deploy with the usual legions in the centre, and cavalry on both wings. The 2 consuls, Decius and Sulpicius, are positioned on the centre-left and right.

^ Pyrrhus advances. In the background the elephants can be seen moving out to the wing. And the infantry that was deployed in advance of the centre has been withdrawn.

Pyrrhus turn 1: The Greek plan is for Pyrrhus to move out to the right with his cavalry to overwhelm the Roman cavalry on that flank, the centre-right infantry moves up to pin the Roman infantry. On the left, the unit of elephants is sent out to the wing to bolster the cavalry and tip the odds against the Roman cavalry, the centre-left will similarly move up to pin the Romans. The weak centre is withdrawn. The overall plan is to achieve a decisive victory on the right with the cavalry and to attack the flank of the infantry in classic Macedonian fashion. On the left, the aim is to achieve a less quick but more certain victory by reinforcing the cavalry with elephants.

^ The Roman advance.

Roman turn 1: The Romans advance along their line. Their cavalry advance on their right to try and engage the Greek cavalry before they are reinforced by elephants. On the left, fearful of Pyrrhus’ strong cavalry, they deploy half the cavalry forward as a sacrificial ploy to buy more time for the infantry to win.

^ The Roman left wing cavalry awaits its fate.

Pyrrhus turn 2: On the right, the Greek cavalry defeats the first line of Roman cavalry and pursues towards the remainder, Pyrrhus catches up with his own cavalry from the reserve. On the left the cavalry fights and is then reinforced by the elephants. Both centre flanks come to grips.

^ Pyrrhus joins his victorious cavalry.

Roman turn 2: The struggle continues with the infantry, and the Roman cavalry are able to inflict some damage on their right before the elephant screen comes into play. Some damage is caused to Pyrrhus’ cavalry but not enough to prevent the inevitable. The Roman centre doesn’t advance toward the Greek centre.

Pyrrhus turn 3:
Both the Roman cavalry wings are destroyed, and the Roman centre left is under severe strain from the strong Macedonian centre-right. The Romans are in danger of a double envelopment.

^ The Roman wings are destroyed, and the black markers (representing spent units) illustrate the peril of the Roman centre-left.

^ Pyrrhus, cultivating a rather Alexandrian look, leads his cavalry onward.

Roman turn 3:
Infantry is withdrawn from the centre to form a guard to protect the Roman rear. Some headway is made against the Greek infantry, but it looks to be too little too late.

Pyrrhus turn 4:
Both Roman flanks are now enveloped, giving the Greeks an advantage in the attritional infantry battle.

^ Even the poor quality of geese-borne camerawork in the ancient world can’t disguise the Roman predicament.

Roman turn 4:
The Romans struggle against the inevitable.

Pyrrhus turn 5:
The Greek centre is sent forward. The Roman centre left is shattered, leading to the collapse of the centre right, and the rest of the army. A Pyrrhic victory that was not, in fact, particularly Pyrrhic.

^The victorious phalanx poses for the post-match team photo.

This game, and a second similar replay, illustrated the power of a strong Macedonian cavalry arm. In our previous Roman-Macedonian battles of Pydna and Cynoscephalae, the later Macedonian armies lacked the quality in cavalry to fight in a similar way. Paradoxically, the Romans, while being aware of the power of Pyrrhus’ cavalry, nevertheless advanced toward inevitable defeat in both games, and used valuable time to do so. I think the Romans have to refuse their cavalry on both flanks and put all their effort into getting the infantry fighting in the centre. It’s still a tall order, but essentially it’s going to be a race between winning in the centre before losing on the wings. Certainly more to explore in subsequent replays.

Once again, I’ll wholeheartedly recommend ‘Lost Battles’ as a rules set. It gives the best feel of an ancient battle of any rules that I’ve come across, and is a very enjoyable game as well.

All figures from the excellent Xyston Miniatures.

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7 Responses to Pyrrhus at Asculum. A ‘Lost Battles’ game.

  1. Prufrock says:

    Most impressive! It’s a tough ask for the Romans to win this if you lose on the flanks early. Refused flanks can buy a turn or two, as you suggest, and that can make all the difference. Great to see such lovely figures on the table.

  2. Well done! One of my favorites from Lost Battles

  3. Gavin says:

    Lovely figures and a great game

  4. Thank you: this helps to explain the many pyrrhic victories throughout my life. I see now that I didn’t deploy enough elephants.

  5. Steve C. says:

    Nice photos and even nicer figures. I’m a big fan of Xyston.

    However, I see too high a proportion of pikes for the pyrrhic army for this to be an accurate reflection of the battle. If one accepts the figures of Frontinus for the army strengths and the deployments as given by Dionysius to be accurate, which I believe one should, then I don’t think the pikes should exceed 50 per cent of the Greek infantry strength, the other 50 per cent being made up of Oscans, Italiot and Greek mercenaries. These proportions would have enabled Pyrrhus to intermix his pike armed phalanx units with lighter, more mobile infantry types as he is described to have done by the ancient authorities.

    Looks like a fun refight all the same.

    • petzhetairos says:

      It actually is slightly less than 50% ‘Macedonian’ pike. But the pike units of 32 represent the same number of men as the 16 figure heavy infantry units. Also, as my Macedonians are actually an early successor army, I was short on non-phalanx heavy infantry, so one or two of the pike phalanxes are standing in for Italians. The Tarentine phalanx is represented by pantodapoi.
      The numbers in unit terms were 7 ‘Greek’ phalanx, 7 assorted other heavy infantry units (Samnites, Bruttians, mercenaries etc) and the 1 Tarantine phalanx.

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