Battle of Heraclea (280 BC)
By Chris Jones
Pyrrhus, the Greek King of Epirus and one time Macedonian general had landed in Southern Italy at the request of the Tarentines who sought his aid in throwing off the shackles of an expanding Rome. Soon Tarentum was on a war footing and their forces were being prepared and equipped.
The Romans were not idle but realising that it was imperative to attack Pyrrhus before he was too well prepared, the consul Publius Valerius Laevinus marched against him with an army. They pillaged Lucania en route to their meeting with Pyrrhus. When Pyrrhus heard that the rich allied town of Heraclea lay in their path he resolved to march against them. He placed his army across the river Siris from the Romans and observed the military system which was new to him.
Pyrrhus was content to wait since his enemies would run out of supplies first and in any case he was awaiting reinforcements from the Lucanians and the Samnites. Having rushed to meet Pyrrhus, Laevinus, however, did not intend to allow his opponent to stand on the defensive. He sent his cavalry off on a circuitous march as if they were foraging. At the same time he advanced his forces towards Pyrrhus' river guards. Suddenly the Roman cavalry appeared advancing from the south along the river. In the confusion, Laevinus managed to get his infantry safely across the river.
Pyrrhus advanced on the Romans personally leading 3000 cavalry with the rest of his army following in his wake. The battle had begun.
The Battle - Historical
The battle was strongly contested with Pyrrhus himself fighting in the thick of the press in the best Greek heroic tradition. The sources are clear that he also managed to issue his orders calmly and effectively despite this. While he was engaged in combat, one of Pyrrhus' officers, Leonnatus, noticed that a particular cavalry leader of the enemy, Oplacus Ulsinius the Frentanian, was shadowing Pyrrhus, moving from sector to sector as he did. He stood out being mounted on a black horse with white legs. Suddenly Oplacus spurred his horse and leading his group of horsemen rode straight at Pyrrhus and his bodyguard. Leonnatus however saw him coming and struck his horse in the flank with his lance at the same moment that Oplacus hit Pyrrhus' horse full on in the chest. Both men went down together but Pyrrhus' bodyguard extricated their leader and slew his intended assassins.
Subsequent to this Pyrrhus changed his distinctive clothing for that of Megacles which was both a lucky and unfortunate decision. Megacles was targeted by the Romans and when he fell they believed that Pyrrhus was slain and took heart. Pyrrhus only averted a disaster by riding before his troops bareheaded to show that he still lived.
Pyrrhus now unleashed his secret weapon, his elephants. Unfamiliar to the Romans, these animals first drove back their cavalry in rout, then pushed their infantry back in disorder. The Pyrrhic forces now advanced and things might have gone disastorously for the Romans if a wounded elephant had not caused the others to panic and threaten the Pyrrhic ranks. Pyrrhus therefore called off the pursuit to save the risk of further losses to his own men.
The Romans had lost between 7,000 and 15,000 men and their army withdrew rapidly. Pyrrhus had suffered badly as well, losing between 4,000 and 13,000 men in gaining his victory. Pyrrhus subsequently marched to within a short distance of Rome itself but knew he could not take the city and retired to Tarentum for the winter.
Simulating Heraclea in DBA
Order of Battle
The terrain should be mainly open. The river Siris should be placed running down the centre of the Roman half of the table. The river is easy to cross but counts as a defensive plus to troops defending its banks.
Normal DBA except that Pyrrhus may place two elements in contact with his side of the river at initial deployment.
Last Update: May 15, 2000
My thanks to Chris Jones for this scenario. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome. Send them to Chris Brantley at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.