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Pyrrhus of Epirus

The Initial Clash:
Republican Rome vs. Pyrrhus of Epirus  

by Jeff Jonas

When Pyrrhus’s scattered forces arrived in Tarentum early in the spring of 280 BCE he found his allies to be totally unprepared for war and unwilling to raise the troops that they had promised him. Undaunted he attempted to fill the ranks of his local forces by conscription and drilling the Tarentines, who deserted in droves until locked under guard by Pyrrhus’s veterans.  Pyrrhus in effect established himself as dictator of the unruly Tarentines.  If he could train this rabble he would have forces enough to go on the offensive, but his plans were cut short as the Romans hastily assembled three armies and began to systematically crush the allies of Tarentum.

The largest of these Consular armies consisting of 50,000 troops, was led by Publius Laverius Laevinius and struck into Lucanian territories to keep them from joining forces with Pyrrhus. Even though the Tarentines were not fully trained, and his forces were outnumbered, Pyrrhus gathered his Hellenistic veterans and challenged the might of the Legions at Heraclea in May 280 BCE.

Pyrrhus’s forces can be reconstructed as follows:

3000 Advanced Guards with Milo (Hypaspists or Chaeonians)
20,000 Phalangites, Hoplites, and Peltasts
(Includes 5000 Macedonian mercenaries supplied by Ptolemy)
3000 horse (Including a contingent of Thessalian Horsemen)
2000 archers
500 Rhodian slingers
and the all important, 20 war elephants with towers holding troops, an invention that is credited to Pyrrhus.

Add to this the Tarentine standing troops:
6000 Levy Hoplites
1000 Cavalry

Maybe 35,500

Laevinius’ Consular army:

The Roman army was large by Consular army standards and apparently consisted of “oversized” Legions which could be raised in emergencies. A number of auxiliaries accompanied this force from central and Southern. Italy.  It is assumed that some of this force was garrisoning cities in conquered territories. I is assumed that such a force would have to be a “double” consular army including four Roman and four Allied legions:

4 Roman Legions 20000
(Note that these Legions were not as efficient as those which we usually equate with the “Polybian” era. The Legionnaires themselves had not yet adopted the Gladius Hispanicus which was a superior hand weapon. The Principes at this time still used thrusting spears as did the Triarii. Only the Hastati of each Legion used the Pila and sword combination that later became standard Legionairy equipment. The light infantry contingent of each Legion is also an area where the early Legions suffered. The well drilled Velites were developed later, after many hard lessons. At this period the Legion light troops were called “Leves” and were no more than unarmored “Skirmishers” armed with a dagger, throwing spears and javelins, and they did not carry shields. A breakdown of the Legion follows:

1200 Leves: Skirmishers armed with throwing spears and javelins.
1600 Hastati: Legionnaires armed with Scutum , heavy throwing spear and swords.
1600 Principes: Legionnaires armed with Scutum, thrusting spears and swords. Half may have light armor.
800 Triarii: Legionnaires armed with Scutum, light armor, thrusting spears and swords.

4 Allied Legions 16800, It is assumed that the Allied Legions were similarly equipped to the Romans, and were not at “Emergency “strength.

Bruttians, Campanian allies 2400 Light infantry

Roman Cavalry 1200
Allied Legion Cavalry 3600
Southern Italian Cavalry 1200 Light Cavalry

Roughly 45,200 (assumes some troops were on LOC and in garrisons)

The Battle of Heraclea

Pyrrhus marched to Heraclea and made his fortified camp*, there he witnessed for the first time the Drill and order of the Romans. It was quite a shock to him to realize that not only was his opposition more numerous, but it was also a cut above the “barbarian” forces he expected to face!
At least he felt confident that the Roman swordsmen would be at a disadvantage versus the phalanx, his superior cavalry, and his “Trump” card, the elephants. He reckoned that these factors would be enough to outweigh the Romans numerical advantage. Nevertheless, Pyrrhus deployed his forces behind the river Siris, smartly working the terrain to his advantage. Pickets and light troops covered the stream and the elephants were wisely kept behind the phalanx in reserve.
(*Apparently the Romans were so impressed with Pyrrhus’s walled camp that they copied it! Pyrrhus no doubt was well inclined to go to this unusual measure because of the tricks he learned from his first benefactor, Antigonus 1st.)

The Romans for their part were unusually aggressive and spirited as they believed that they would deal with Pyrrhus’s army with the same ease that they had previously handled the Tarentine levies. Laevinius ordered out the Legions and they advanced on the Epirote pickets. The Roman and Allied cavalry were sent up and down stream and forded the river. The Epirote pickets along the stream fell back as their flanks were turned. 

The Roman cavalry attempted to pursue and Pyrrhus saw his first opportunity to counterstrike. He charged the Roman and Allied horsemen with his Agema cavalry with his Thessalians in reserve. They were turned back by the Italian horse and soon this action turned into a stalemate in which Pyrrhus’ outnumbered horsemen just could barely hold their own. Soon, almost all of Pyrrhus’ horsemen were thrown into this cavalry battle. Pyrrhus joined the melee, inspiring his troops and overawing his opponents. At this time a Italian cavalry officer charged Pyrrhus and unhorsed him. Pyrrhus was luckily saved by his retainers and he decided to take off his conspicuous armor and gave it to his Commander Megacles. Megacles rejoined the fight and the Epirote cavalry held.

Pyrrhus, unhorsed and bruised, made his way back to the main battle line.

The Romans were busily crossing the Siris river and Pyrrhus launched the phalanx at their leading maniples. A severe struggle ensued as the Pikemen suffered the hail of Pila and then pressed forward against the Hastati. The Romans for their part were stymied by the serried ranks of pikemen and could make little impression upon them.  Individual Legionnaires attempted to roll under the pikes and break up the phalanx’s but these “forlorn hopes” were cut down. Hacking at the spear points was also a desperate measure attempted with little success. The Maniples were unable to stop the Phalanx. The Hastati line was decimated and fell back and the Principes took on the struggle. A series of clashes occurred with charges and counter charges delivered by both sides. The Romans were frustrated because they couldn’t break through the wall of pikes, the Epirotes and Macedonians were frustrated because every time they defeated a maniple they couldn’t pursue, another maniple would threaten to flank them if they opened a gap in their line. These were seasoned phalangites and they were savvy enough to know that they could not offer these compact maniple formations a chance to penetrate their line. Seven times the phalangites clashed with the maniples as they charged, pulled back and were replaced by reserve maniples.

Luckily for Pyrrhus the river crossing apparently had funneled the Roman advance and somehow the Allied Legions were unable to deploy on a wide enough front to flank the Epirote battleline. Neither the Tarentines or the Allied Legions are mentioned and may have cancelled each other out.

As stalemate seemed to be spread across the battleline, a Roman officer killed Megacles and carried Pyrrhus’ goat horned helmet and cloak to Laevinius shouting to all that Pyrrhus was dead! The Romans, at their lowest ebb, were rejuvenated, and the Epirotes wavered and fell back. Pyrrhus took off his helmet and rode in front of the lines to show his troops the ruse. This dramatic display saved his army and they stood their ground once again.

During this confusion, Laevinius threw in his reserve of Roman cavalry against the phalanx’s exposed flank. Pyrrhus saw this as the decisive moment and gathered his elephants. As the Romans attempted to charge the phalanx they were in turn charged by the elephants. The Roman horses could not stand up to the “Lucanian Oxen” as they called them, and they fled through the Legions. The elephants spread panic and terror before them and the Legions broke. Pyrrhus launched a vigorous pursuit with his Thessalian cavalry. The Roman army could have been annihilated with it’s back to the stream, but the first Hastate of the Fourth Legion, Gaius Minucius, wounded Pyrrhus’ leading elephant which bolted back through the Epirote phalanx. The phalanx halted and the Romans melted away in confusion and rout.

The battle was a “Near Run thing” for Pyrrhus. It is stated that the Romans lost 7000 killed and carried away 6000 wounded, 2000 prisoners were taken. But unlike Alexander’s victories, Pyrrhus’ army suffered up to 4000 dead themselves, including his General Megacles and many of his closest Companions.

The results were dramatic as all of southern Italy now unified with Tarentum. The demoralized Roman army retired hastily to Apulia and entrenched behind the river Aufidus. Later, after Pyrrhus had paused to train his Tarentine forces better, he advanced into Latium. The Latin cities gave him no support, and three new consular armies attempted to cut him off from the South. Pyrrhus turned back from Rome and began a build up of forces for the next campaign season. The next year would bring him another “Pyrrhic” victory but no closer to the end of the war because the Carthaginians intervened on the Roman side. Then Pyrrhus abandoned his reluctant Italian allies in an unsuccessful attempt to conquer all of Sicily. A few years later Pyrrhus’ elephants were turned against him at Beneventum and the Romans finally expelled him from Italy.

Warhammer Ancient Battles Scenario for Heraclea

First of all, this is a large battle to simulate in WAB. If one accepts the 45,000 figure for the Romans then it would take about 457 miniatures and possibly 5000 points, even if you reckon each model as 100 men. The OOB below each legion is represented by one cohort (an administrative grouping of Leves, Hastati, Principes, and Triarii). When eight of these “scaled down” legions are placed side by side it will really give an awesome display of the quincunx (checkerboard) manipular formations.

Macedonian formations are more abstract as each phalanx is more or less “scaled down” to a sub unit called a Speira. This OOB is best reserved for a “club” game where many people can pool the miniatures together from numerous 1500 to 2000 point forces and have a good long day of Gaming. However, it is easy enough to cut the number of units in half and play a much smaller game..this could be managed by two players easily enough, but much of the spectacle will be lost!

The Army of Pyrrhus of Epirus (Taken from the list provided on my website)

General Pyrrhus of Epirus, the “Eagle King”
Commander Milo
Commander Megacles
Commander Leonnatus
Army Battle Standard
24x Chaeonian Guards Phalanx (shield, light armor, pike) (L/S/M)
24x Macedonian Phalanx (shield, light armor, pike) (L/S/M)
32x Macedonian Phalanx (shield, light armor, pike) (L/S/M)
32x Molossian Phalanx (shield, light armor, pike) (L/S/M)
32x Ambrakiot Phalanx (shield, light armor, pike) (L/S/M)
32x Thesprotoi Phalanx (shield, light armor, pike) (L/S/M)

20x Aetolian Peltasts (shield, javelins, thrusting spears) (L/S/M)
12x Acarnanian Skirmishers (L/-/-)
12x Illyrian Skirmishers
12x Cretan Archers (L/-/-)
12x Mercenary archers
5x Rhodian slingers

10x Thessalian Shock Cavalry (shield, light armor, throwing spear, javelins) (L/S/M)
10x Thessalian Shock Cavalry (shield, light armor, throwing spear, javelins) (L/S/M)
10x Agema Cavalry (shield, heavy armor, thrusting spear) (L/S/M)
8x Ambrakiot Light Cavalry (shield, javelins)

Tarentine Allies:

24x Tarentine Levy Hoplites (Large shield, light armor, thrusting spear) (Levies) (L/-/M)
24x Tarentine Levy Hoplites (Large shield, light armor, thrusting spear) (Levies) (L/-/M)
8x Tarentine Light cavalry (Shield, javelins, throwing spear) (L/S/M)

2x Indian Elephants, each with mahout and two crew with javelins, wearing light armor, in howdahs.

               Total figures: 350 models including two elephants.

The Roman Consular Army  (taken from AoA Republican Romans)

Consul Publius Laverius Laevinius
Proconsul Decius (Legate from the EIR List)
First Hastate of the 4th Legion Gaius Minucius (Tribune from the EIR List)
Allied Commander Ophlax, Commander of the Italian allied Cavalry (Tribune from the EIR List)
Army Battle Standard (represents the Standards of the Urban Legions)

1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th  Roman Legions, each consists of:
12x Leves (skirmishers armed with  javelins)
16x Hastati (Large shield, pilum and sword) (L/S/M)
16x Principes (Large shield, Light armor, thrusting spear and sword) (L/S/M)
8x Triarii* (Large shield, Light armor, thrusting spear and sword) (L/S/M)
(*Note” the Triarii may be combined into two units of 16 models each)
Totals 48 Leves, 64 Hastati, 64 Principes, 32 Triarii

1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th  Allied Legions, each consists of:
12x Skirmishers (skirmishers armed with javelins and bucklers)
12x Hastati (Large shield, pilum and sword) (L/S/M)
12x Principes (Large shield, thrusting spear and sword) (L/S/M)
6x Triarii* (Large shield, Light armor, thrusting spear and sword) (L/S/M)
(*Note” the Triarii may be combined into two units of 12 models each)
Totals 48 Leves, 48 Hastati, 48 Principes, 24 Triarii

12x Bruttian spearmen Italian Light Infantry (Throwing spear shields) (L/S/M)
12x Apulian spearmen Italian Light Infantry (Throwing shields) (L/S/M)

12x Roman Cavalry 1200 (Throwing spear shield, sword and javelins.) (L/S/M)
12x Allied Legion Cavalry Bruttians (Throwing spear shield, sword and javelins.) (L/-/M)
12x Allied Legion Cavalry Apulians (Throwing spear shield, Light armor, sword and javelin.) (L/-/M)
12x Allied Legion Cavalry Campanians (Throwing spear shield, Light armor, sword and javelins.) (L/S/M)
12x Southern Italian Cavalry (shield, sword and javelins.) (L/-/M)

               Total figures 464 models

Deployment and Special rules:

The game is played as a pitched battle with the following deployments conditions:

An 8x4 foot table is needed for the full scenario forces listed above, if the forces are cut in half then the game can be played on a 6x4 foot table or less.

Order of Deployment:

Players alternate deployment with the Roman placing first.
The Roman player must deploy all his cavalry first before any infantry are set-up, the cavalry must be split into the deployment boxes on the map. A minimum of one cavalry unit must be deployed in each box.
The Roman player may only deploy the Roman Legions I-IV on the table, the Latin Legions I-IV enter the table on Roman turn 1. The Italian units may be deployed anywhere on the Roman side of the river.

The Epirote player may set up as normal in their deployment zone, however all skirmishers and light infantry are screening the river bank and must be set up within the Light infantry and skirmishers box.

Characters of both sides are deployed last.

Skirmishers may not make an extra 4” move forward.

The Romans will take the first turn. The game lasts 8 turns or until one side is broken.

Special rules:

Roman Maniples: The early "Camillian" reform legion is armed with one line of hastati with heavy throwing spears and two lines of thrusting spear armed troops.... this makes them dead in the water using the current swapping rules. The dynamic at Hercalea showed that the
Romans could bend but not be broken, and that is why I have experimented with "FBIGO swappin" extensively for this era legion.
Maniples which break from a lost combat may FBIGO against any phalanx, win lose or draw. They may not reform, but
their FBIGO will always go behind a supporting unit (of manipular status, facing the same direction) if within 6". This allows any maniples to FBIGO behind any other manipular troops. Phalanxes that pursue will contact the supporting unit.. On the Roman turn he still may opt to 'swap' maniples with spears, but may decide not to since the maniple then counts as one rank 'as charging'.  The Epirotes are challenged to force back the inferior Roman infantry, then unleash a devastating elephant and cavalry supported attack on their compressed masses, thus negating the "FBIGO swappin"...

Roman Impetuosity: All Roman Legion infantry deployed on the map at the beginning of turn 1 must charge an enemy unit or march move forward straight ahead. (Even if this means rushing through their Leves!)

The Elephants cause TERROR to all enemy units, enemy cavalry are always subject to TERROR from enemy Elephants, even if they pass an initial TERROR check. Epirote cavalry only FEAR Elephants. Other Epirote army regiments count as “used to the beasts”.

River Siris:
The river is an obstacle to movement, however it is only 1” wide and units may March move . across suffering normal (2” movement delays).

There are two fords marked on the River Siris, these fords allow any troops to cross with no penalty.

The woods are all treated as light woods.

Course of the game:

Roman: The Roman player must get his troops on the other side of the River quickly, otherwise the Phalanx’s will make it impossible to ever cross once it reaches the banks. The Roman player needs elbow room and if he sits back then his forces will be penned in, and a sitting duck for Elephant TERROR checks. The Roman cavalry is numerous and needs to keep the Epirote horse from flanking the Legions, but stay away from the Elephants! Find a way to beat up the Tarentines and collapse a flank, if the Epirote commits his elephants…. so be it…try to hold there and overwhelm the other flank…try to bloody up the phalanx. If you can spread out his line and breakthrough his phalanx you will win. You must be patient, and very cool headed about relieving your troops.

Epirote: Your army outclasses the Romans in light troops, cavalry, and missile troops make this count!  Your cavalry will be pressed hard by the Roman numbers, make sure you don’t lose the cavalry battle! Keep the battleline tight and the Romans will not want to confront it all, and obviously don’t get it flanked. The Elephants need to be on a tight leash, too early use and they will be gobbled up with little effect. The Romans will eventually eat away at your flanks- the Beasts can plug holes and will stop the Roman cavalry cold. Remember Elephants are your "Ace in the Hole", play them when you need them! The Tarentines must be carefully treated as they can flee easily! Pyrrhus is a great asset in hand to hand combat, but his leadership may be more needed bolstering the Tarentines.

Richard Evers has played the scenario and is constructing an illustrated battle report at:

I really want to hear your comments and criticisms. If you use this list for a game please give me any details you can! or


Created by Jeff Jonas 3/00