Pyrrhic Victory

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In a previous episode, I talked about how you can win by not losing. That is called the Fabian Strategy named after Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus.

However, the opposite is true as well. You can lose by winning. Here too, ancient history has examples for us, this time in the case of King Pyrrhus, who defeated the Romans but ultimately lost without losing a battle.

Learn more about pyrrhic victories, and how you can win the battle and lose the war, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The origins of the pyrrhic victory extend way back almost 2,300 years ago to the ancient Mediterranean. 

Rome was still a young republic at this point. They hadn’t yet conquered the Italian peninsula and they were still fighting with their neighbors.

In the southern part of Italy, near the toe and heel of the boot, were several Greek colonies. 

Across the Adriatic Sea, just south of the heel of the boot of Italy, was the Kingdom of Epirus. It was located where Greece and Albania meet today, in the area near the island of Corfu. 

Epirus was a Greek Kingdom, which usually isn’t mentioned in the same category as Sparta, Athens, or Corinth. They lived in a mountain area in smaller communities, not the larger cities as could be found in the rest of the Greek peninsula.

In 307 BC, a 13-year-old named Pyrrhus was named king who subsequently was dethroned, and then put back in power about a decade later.

Pyrrhus was a really good general as ancient generals go. Just to give you an idea, when the Carthaginian General Hanniball (remember him back from the Fabian Strategy episode) was asked later in life who was the greatest General in history, he put himself third behind Alexander the Great and Pyrrhus.

That’s pretty good company. 

Pyrrhus’ contribution to this story came from the Pyrrhic Wars which started around 280 BC. The Greek city of Tarentum, down in the heel of Italy, was having problems with the Romans, so they called on Pyrrhus for help. 

Pyrrhus came over to help with some war elephants, some of the first-ever to appear on the Italian peninsula. Not surprisingly, given his status a great general, he had a lot of success against the Romans.

Pyrrhus had a force of about 70,000 men,  which was equal in size to the Roman force. 

He successfully defeated the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea and then at the Battle of Asculum. At each battle, he inflicted heavy casualties on the Romans and won the field that day. 

The problem was, he also suffered heavy losses, almost as bad as the Romans. The Romans, fighting in Italy were able to send for reinforcements. Pyrrhus, fighting with mercenaries and across the sea from his home, could not. 

The famous quote came from the Life of Pyrrhus by Plutarch. He wrote:

The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.

Pyrrhus left Italy to go to Sicily to fight the Carthaginians and eventually fought to a draw in one final battle with the Romans at the Battle of Beneventum before returning home. 

After he left Italy, the Romans conquered Tarentum. After never having lost a battle, Pyrrhus had lost the war. This is where the notion of a pyrrhic victory comes from

Pyrrhic victories in a narrow sense are victories that come at a great cost. 

An example from American History would be the Battle of Bunker Hill from the American Revolution. Most Americans have heard of the Battle of Bunker Hill, but most don’t realize that the battle was actually won by the British. 

The British won the field, but at a terrible cost. They took over 1,000 casualties, including 81 officers killed or wounded, which left them weakened and unable to defend or hold on to Boston. The Americans had less than half the number of casualties.  

In 1812 at The Battle of Borodino, Napoleon forced the Russians into retreat. However, the total combined casualties that day were between 70 to 80 thousand. Even though Napoleon eventually marched into Moscow, he won nothing. 

Pyrrhic victories can be found outside of the battlefield as well.

Another example would be the folklore story of John Henery. He was a railroad worker who believed that he could beat a steam engine when it came to tunneling through rock. In a contest with the steam engine he won, but then he died. A pyrrhic victory 

McDonald’s once filed a lawsuit against some environmental activists in Britain who were distributing flyers which McDonald’s said were libelous. After 10 years of litigation where McDonald’s spent millions, they were awarded a whopping £40,000.

The defendants defended themselves, spent no money, and won the media war as McDonald’s appears as the Goliath to their David. 

McDonald’s won the lawsuit but spent millions to wind up with negative PR. If they had just done nothing, hardly anyone would have seen the original flyers which were distributed and they would have been better off.

In the 1960 World Series, the New York Yankees scored 55 runs in 7 games. The most ever by a team in the World Series, doubling the number of runs scored by their opponents….and lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates. It isn’t about the runs you score, it’s the games you win. 

These sorts of hollow victories can happen in everyday life, where we go out of our way to win arguments, only to destroy friendships. Or in a divorce where both sides try to destroy each other, leaving nothing to be split in the aftermath.

The lesson of Pyrrhus is that you have to keep your eye on the big picture.  Fighting is not the same as winning, and even if you win, you can still end up losing.