A Letter From Roman Consuls To King Pyrrhus Of Epirus

After the battle of Heraclea (which coined the term Pyrrhic victory) and the battle of Asculum in 279 BCE, a certain Nicias – and friend of king Pyrrhus of Epirus – approached the Roman consul Gaius Fabricius Luscinius, offering to poison the Epirote king. Fabricius and his co-consul Quintus Aemilius Papus would have none of it. Instead, they sent an embassy to Epirus warning about the treachery and a desire to keep the king safe so the legions could beat him on the battlefield.

We, being greatly disturbed in spirit because of your continued acts of injustice, desire to war with you as an enemy. But as a matter of general precedent and honour, it has seemed to us that we should desire your personal safety, in order that we may have the opportunity of vanquishing you in the field. Your friend Nicias came to us, to ask for a reward if he should secretly slay you. We replied that we had no such wish, and that he could look for no advantage from such an action; at the same time it seemed proper to inform you, for fear that if anything of the kind should happen, the nations might think that it was done with our connivance, and also because we have no desire to make war by means of bribes or rewards or trickery. As for you, if you do not take heed, you will have a fall.”

King Pyrrhus thanked the Roman embassy and complimented the Roman people in writing. He also reciprocated by releasing his Roman prisoners, giving them new clothes and money for the journey back to Rome. He also sent his trusted advisor Cineas with the prisoners to negotiate a peace with Romans. Many senators were at first inclined to accept the peace terms, but were swayed after a speech by the old and blind Appius Claudius Caecus, and the offer was turned down. The Romans did however release an equal number of Tarentine and Samnite captives.

The Epirote king then decided it was not worth his time and resources to fight the Romans. He accepted a request from the Greek city-states in Sicily to help them against the Carthaginians and left Italy for Sicily.

Fabricius went on to defeat a Tarentine army and was elected censor in 275 BCE. He was glorified in Roman history as an embodiment of Roman virtues. Dante in his Purgatory portrayed Fabricius as an example of a virtue opposing avarice. Nicias, however, was not as fortunate. Pyrrhus had a throne (or the driving-board of a chariot: the same word in Greek) fitted with straps made from Nicia’s flayed skin.

Sources:

  1. Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, Book 3,8
  2. The Army of Pyrrhus of Epirus: 3rd Century BC