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Metus Pyrrhi: The Effects of the Pyrrhic Invasion on Roman International Relations

Gregory J. Callaghan

University of Pennsylvania

In 200 BCE, only recently victorious in the Second Punic Wars, the Roman people had rejected a call for war—the only time in the history of the Republic when the people had resisted the recommendation of the Senate regarding foreign policy. This remarkable rejection highlights the weight and importance of international relations in this period. To change the decision, the consul P. Sulpicius Galba invoked the memory of King Pyrrhus of Epirus and his invasion of Italy (Liv. 31.7.8-10). Scholarship typically dismisses this invocation either as a post-facto invention of the historians to justify Roman aggression (Harris 1979) or a shameless use of fear of the enemy by the Senatorial elite to manipulate domestic politics (Quillin 2004).

This paper takes a different approach. Utilizing the full range of literary sources available for Pyrrhus, I expand on earlier studies of the overall impression and use of the monarch in the Latin literary tradition (Roth 2010; Kubler 2015). By extending my survey beyond the strictly historiographical sources of Kubler, my survey reveals that there is not only a well-established and early-attested cultural memory of Pyrrhus as a considerable threat to the Roman state (reinforced by Roth’s observations that Pyrrhus served as a moral paradigm as early as Ennius), but also that the Pyrrhic War is regularly considered as one of the defining moments in the evolution of Roman interstate relations (e.g. Cic. Off. 1.38; Columella, Rust. Pr. 14.; Sen. Controv. 7.7.). The cultural and intellectual standing of Pyrrhus that emerges from this study justifies a more serious consideration of the effects of his invasion on the history of Roman foreign policy, and consequently on his place within Galba’s speech, which is the focus of the second half of the paper.

Drawing on IR theories regarding global and regional state hierarchies (e.g. Lake 2009; Thompson 2014), I show that Pyrrhus’ invasion marked a new stage in Roman interstate relations, one defined by global rather than regional concerns. When the Tarentines invited Pyrrhus’ intervention, they were concerned with their regional conflict. But in so doing, they not only initiated Rome’s first conflict with a Hellenistic king, but in fact Rome’s first conflict with a power not based in Italy, thus generating Rome’s first global conflict. This regional-to-global shift may not have been understood exactly as such to the Romans, but the increased threat it represented certainly was conceived by the Romans, and the literature reveals both that understanding and its effect on their policy decision.  Pyrrhus’ efforts in Italy created a long-standing preoccupation with the threat of an invasion of Italy—one that can only have been compounded by the Punic Wars. The effects of this on Roman decision making are noted particularly during the Mamertine War, the Illyrian Wars, and the First Macedonian War.

In light of this record of Pyrrhic fears prompting foreign policy responses, the paper ends with a reconsideration of Galba’s speech. Philip’s alliance with Hannibal may be what first earned him the enmity of Rome, but it is his parallel to Pyrrhus, and the memory of trans-Adriatic invasion evoked by such a parallel, that truly forced Rome’s hand against him. This metus Pyrrhi should not be cynically dismissed as mere rhetorical manipulation by a self-serving elite. No, Galba’s speech is rhetorically effective precisely because it references a real, legitimate, and longstanding fear of Pyrrhus that was ingrained in the cultural memory of the Romans, one which had shaped their foreign policy decisions for decades preceding the Second Macedonian War. This memory was not simply fabricated by the Roman elite to manipulate the masses, but in fact influenced their own proposed policies. Such a recognition forces us to reconsider not only the place of Pyrrhus in the Roman Republic, but also to think more carefully about how we frame the decision making processes of the Republic, particularly in regards to foreign policy and the elite’s presumed control thereof. 

Session/Panel Title

Political Enculturation

Session/Paper Number

34.3

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