Policoro, Italy (280 BC)
The Battle of Heraclea was arguably the first truly large scale military engagement between the Romans and a comparable opponent, the Greek colony of Tarentum in Southern Italy. Fought at a time when various Greek powers still ruled most of the Mediterranean region, it was an effort to contain the growing menace of the Romans, who were in a position to threaten the entire Italian Peninsula. A Greek victory, the battle nevertheless resulted in terrible casualties on both sides. Because of this, Heraclea became famous as the first “pyrrhic” victory, named in honor of the Greek leader, Pyrrhus of Epirus, who lost nearly as many men as the Romans.
By the beginning of the 3rd century BC, the Roman Republic had grown to become the strongest power on the Italian Peninsula. For over a hundred years it had slowly expanded its territory, until finally the various Greek kingdoms began to take notice. Greece, which had long since established ancient colonies throughout southern Italy and Sicily, and which had long been distracted by wars in the east, suddenly realized the growing threat much closer to home.
In 282 BC, Roman legions were winning victories against enemies in every direction, and had already begun to absorb some of the smaller Greek city states. The Greeks decided to began to prepare and began establishing better military ties with each other. When a fleet of Roman ships arrived in the waters near the Greek city-state of Tarentum, the citizens called upon their allies across Adriatic Sea.
In response, Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, arrived with an army composed of troops from numerous Greek states and their allies. Both sides made token gestures at diplomacy before resorting to full-scale battle, but by the Summer the Romans had taken up the challenge. The two sides marched out in open formations and met on the plain of Siris.
The armies clashed, Roman legion formation versus Greek phalanx formation. The roughly equal sides fought for hours with little advantage gained by either side. According to tradition, each army launched seven unsuccessful attacks against the other. Eventually, when the Romans seemed to gain the upper hand, Pyrrhus presented himself at the forefront of the battle and rallied the Greeks to victory. However, by that point, both sides had suffered terrible casualties. In the end, the victory only put off the eventual Roman conquest to a future day.
Although virtually nothing remains of the battle, most of the battlefield is still preserved as a public park which stretches out from the north bank of the Sinni (formally Siris) River to the area south of the modern-day incarnation of Heraclea.
The Heraclea battlefield is located just outside the modern-day city of Policoro, approximately forty miles west of Taranto along the coast and 230 miles southeast of Rome. The battlefield is an open site. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.italia.it (official tourism website of Italy).