Ten years elapsed from the conclusion of the third Samnite war to the arrival of Pyrrhus in Italy. During this time the Etruscans and Gauls renewed the war in the north, but were defeated with great slaughter near the Lake Vadimo. This decisive battle appears to have completely crushed the Etruscan power; and it inflicted so severe a blow upon the Gauls that we hear no more of their ravages for the next sixty years.
In the south the Lucanians also rose against Rome. The extension of the Roman dominion in the south of the peninsula had brought the state into connection with the Greek cities, which at one period were so numerous and powerful as to give to this part of Italy the name of Magna Græcia. Many of these cities had now fallen into decay through internal dissensions and the conquests of the Lucanians and other Sabellian tribes; but Tarentum, originally a Lacedæmonian colony, still maintained her former power and splendor. The Tarentines naturally regarded with extreme jealousy the progress of the Roman arms in the south of Italy, and had secretly instigated the Etruscans and Lucanians to form a new coalition against Rome. But the immediate cause of the war between the Lucanians and Romans was the assistance which the latter had rendered to the Greek city of Thurii. Being attacked by the Lucanians, the Thurians applied to Rome for aid, and the Consul C. Fabricius not only relieved Thurii, but defeated the Lucanians and their allies in several engagements (B.C. 252). Upon the departure of Fabricius a Roman garrison was left in Thurii. The only mode now of maintaining communication between Rome and Thurii was by sea; but this was virtually forbidden by a treaty which the Romans had made with Tarentum nearly twenty years before, in which treaty it was stipulated that no Roman ships of war should pass the Lacinian promontory. But circumstances were now changed, and the Senate determined that their vessels should no longer be debarred from the Gulf of Tarentum. There was a small squadron of ten ships in those seas under the command of L. Valerius; and one day, when the Tarentines were assembled in the theatre, which looked over the sea, they saw the Roman squadron sailing toward their harbor. This open violation of the treaty seemed a premeditated insult, and a demagogue urged the people to take summary vengeance. They rushed down to the harbor, quickly manned some ships, and gained an easy victory over the small Roman squadron. Only half made their escape, four were sunk, one taken, and Valerius himself killed. After this the Tarentines marched against Thurii, compelled the inhabitants to dismiss the Roman garrison, and then plundered the town.
The Senate sent an embassy to Tarentum to complain of these outrages and to demand satisfaction. L. Postumius, who was at the head of the embassy, was introduced with his colleagues into the theatre, to state to the assembled people the demands of the Roman Senate. He began to address them in Greek, but his mistakes in the language were received with peals of laughter from the thoughtless mob. Unable to obtain a hearing, much less an answer, Postumius was leaving the theatre, when a drunken buffoon rushed up to him and sullied his white robe in the most disgusting manner. The whole theatre rang with shouts of laughter and clapping of hands, which became louder and louder when Postumius held up his sullied robe and showed it to the people. "Laugh on now," he cried, "but this robe shall be washed in torrents of your blood"
War was now inevitable. The luxurious Tarentines sent an embassy to Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, begging him, in the name of all the Italian Greeks, to cross over into Italy in order to conduct the war against the Romans. They told him that they only wanted a general, and that all the nations of Southern Italy would flock to his standard. Pyrrhus needed no persuasion to engage in an enterprise which realized the earliest dreams of his ambition. The conquest of Italy would naturally lead to the sovereignty of Sicily and Africa, and he would then be able to return to Greece with the united forces of the West to overcome his rivals and reign as master of the world. But as he would not trust the success of his enterprise to the valor and fidelity of Italian troops, he began to make preparations to carry over a powerful army. Meantime he sent Milo, one of his generals, with a detachment of 3000 men, to garrison the citadel of Tarentum. Pyrrhus himself crossed over from Epirus toward the end of B.C. 281, taking with him 20,000 foot, 3000 horse, and 20 elephants.
Upon reaching Tarentum he began to make preparations to carry on the war with activity. The Tarentines soon found they had obtained a master rather than an ally. He shut up the theatre and all other public places, and compelled their young men to serve in his ranks. Notwithstanding all his activity, the Romans were first in the field. The Consul M. Valerius Lævinus marched into Lucania; but as the army of Pyrrhus was inferior to that of the Romans, he attempted to gain time by negotiation in order that he might be joined by his Italian allies. He accordingly wrote to the Consul, offering to arbitrate between Rome and the Italian states; but Lævinus bluntly told him to mind his own business and retire to Epirus. Fearing to remain inactive any longer, although he was not yet joined by his allies, Pyrrhus marched out against the Romans with his own troops and the Tarentines. He took up his position between the towns of Pandosia and Heraclea, on the River Siris. The Romans, who were encamped on the other side of the river, were the first to begin the battle. They crossed the river, and were immediately attacked by the cavalry of Pyrrhus, who led them to the charge in person, and distinguished himself as usual by the most daring acts of valor. The Romans, however, bravely sustained the attack; and Pyrrhus, finding that his cavalry could not decide the day, ordered his infantry to advance. The battle was still contested most furiously: seven times did both armies advance and retreat; and it was not till Pyrrhus brought forward his elephants, which bore down every thing before them, that the Romans took to flight, leaving their camp to the conqueror (B.C. 280).
This battle taught Pyrrhus the difficulty of the enterprise he had undertaken. Before the engagement, when he saw the Romans forming their line as they crossed the river, he said to his officers, "In war, at any rate, these barbarians are not barbarous;" and afterward, as he saw the Roman dead lying upon the field with all their wounds in front, he exclaimed, "If these were my soldiers, or if I were their general, we should conquer the world" And, though his loss had been inferior to that of the Romans, still so large a number of his officers and best troops had fallen, that he said, "Another such victory, and I must return to Epirus alone" He therefore resolved to avail himself of this victory to conclude, if possible, an advantageous peace. He sent his minister Cineas to Rome with the proposal that the Romans should recognize the independence of the Greeks in Italy, restore to the Samnites, Lucanians, Apulians, and Bruttians all the possessions which they had lost in war, and make peace with himself and the Tarentines. As soon as peace was concluded on these terms he promised to return all the Roman prisoners without ransom. Cineas, whose persuasive eloquence was said to have won more towns for Pyrrhus than his arms, neglected no means to induce the Romans to accept these terms. The prospects of the Republic seemed so dark and threatening that many members of the Senate thought it would be more prudent to comply with the demands of the king; and this party would probably have carried the day had it not been for the patriotic speech of the aged Ap. Claudius Caucus, who denounced the idea of a peace with a victorious foe with such effect that the Senate declined the proposals of the king, and commanded Cineas to quit Rome the same day.
Cineas returned to Pyrrhus, and told him he must hope for nothing from negotiation; that the city was like a temple of the gods, and the Senate an assembly of kings. Pyrrhus now advanced by rapid marches toward Rome, ravaging the country as he went along, and without encountering any serious opposition. He at length arrived at Præneste, which fell into his hands. He was now only 24 miles from Rome, and his outposts advanced six miles farther. Another march would have brought him under the walls of the city; but at this moment he learned that peace was concluded with the Etruscans, and that the other Consul had returned with his army to Rome. All hope of compelling the Romans to accept the peace was now gone, and he therefore resolved to retreat. He retired slowly into Campania, and from thence withdrew into winter quarters to Tarentum.
As soon as the armies were quartered for the winter, the Romans sent an embassy to Pyrrhus to negotiate the ransom or exchange of prisoners. The embassadors were received by Pyrrhus in the most distinguished manner; and his interviews with C. Fabricius, who was at the head of the embassy, form one of the most famous stories in Roman history. Fabricius was a fine specimen of the sturdy Roman character. He cultivated his farm with his own hands, and, like his contemporary Curius, was celebrated for his incorruptible integrity. The king attempted in vain to work upon his cupidity and his fears. He steadily refused the large sums of money offered by Pyrrhus; and when an elephant, concealed behind him by a curtain, waved his trunk over his head, Fabricius remained unmoved. Such respect did his conduct inspire, that Pyrrhus attempted to persuade him to enter into his service and accompany him to Greece. The object of the embassy failed. The king refused to exchange the prisoners; but, to show them his trust in their honor, he allowed them to go to Rome in order to celebrate the Saturnalia, stipulating that they were to return to Tarentum if the Senate would not accept the terms which he had previously offered through Cineas. The Senate remained firm in their resolve, and all the prisoners returned to Pyrrhus, the punishment of death having been denounced against those who should remain in the city.
In the following year (B.C. 279) the war was renewed, and a battle was fought near Asculum. The Romans fled to their camp, which was so near to the field of battle that not more than 6000 fell, while Pyrrhus lost more than half this number. The victory yielded Pyrrhus little or no advantage, and he was obliged to retire to Tarentum for the winter without effecting any thing more during the campaign. In the last battle, as well as in the former, the brunt of the action had fallen almost exclusively upon his Greek troops; and the state of Greece, which this year was overrun by the Gauls, made it hopeless for him to expect any re-enforcements from Epirus. He was therefore unwilling to hazard his surviving Greeks by another campaign with the Romans, and accordingly lent a ready ear to the invitations of the Greeks in Sicily, who begged him to come to their assistance against the Carthaginians. It was necessary, however, first to suspend hostilities with the Romans, who were likewise anxious to get rid of so formidable an opponent, that they might complete the subjugation of Southern Italy without farther interruption. When both parties had the same wishes it was not difficult to find a fair pretext for bringing the war to a conclusion. This was afforded at the beginning of the following year (B.C. 278) by one of the servants of Pyrrhus deserting to the Romans, and proposing to the Consuls to poison his master. They sent back the deserter to the king, saying that they abhorred a victory gained by treason. Thereupon Pyrrhus, to show his gratitude, sent Cineas to Rome with all the Roman prisoners, without ransom and without conditions; and the Romans granted him a truce.
Leaving Milo with part of his troops in possession of Tarentum, Pyrrhus now crossed over into Sicily. He remained there upward of two years. At first he met with brilliant success, and deprived the Carthaginians of a great part of the island. Subsequently, however, he received a severe repulse in an attempt which he made upon the impregnable town of Lilybæum. The fickle Greeks now began to form cabals and plots against him. This led to retaliation on his part, and he soon became as anxious to abandon the island as he had been before to leave Italy. Accordingly, when his Italian allies again begged him to come to their assistance, he readily complied with their request, and arrived in Italy in the autumn of B.C. 276. His troops were now almost the same in number as when he first landed in Italy, but very different in quality. The faithful Epirots had for the most part fallen, and his present soldiers consisted chiefly of mercenaries, whom he had levied in Italy. One of his first operations was the recovery of Locri, which had revolted to the Romans; and as he here found himself in great difficulties for want of money to pay his troops, he was induced to take possession of the treasures of the Temple of Proserpine in that town; but the ships conveying the money were wrecked. This circumstance deeply affected the mind of Pyrrhus; he ordered the treasures which were saved to be restored to the temple, and from this time became haunted by the idea that the wrath of Proserpine was pursuing him, and dragging him down to ruin.
The following year (B.C. 274) closed the career of Pyrrhus in Italy. The Consul M'. Curius marched into Samnium, and his colleague into Lucania. Pyrrhus advanced against Curius, who was encamped in the neighborhood of Beneventum, and resolved to fight with him before he was joined by his colleague. As Curius did not wish to risk a battle with his own army alone, Pyrrhus planned a night-attack upon his camp. But he miscalculated the time and the distance; the torches burnt out, the men missed their way, and it was already broad daylight when he reached the heights above the Roman camp. Still their arrival was quite unexpected; but, as a battle was now inevitable, Curius led out his men. The troops of Pyrrhus, exhausted by fatigue, were easily put to the rout; two elephants were killed and eight more taken. Encouraged by this success, Curius no longer hesitated to meet the king in the open plain, and gained a decisive victory. Pyrrhus arrived at Tarentum with only a few horsemen. Shortly afterward he crossed over to Greece, leaving Milo with a garrison at Tarentum. Two years afterward he perished in an attack upon Argos, ingloriously slain by a tile hurled by a woman from the roof of a house.
The departure of Pyrrhus left the Lucanians and other Italian tribes exposed to the full power of Rome. They nevertheless continued the hopeless struggle a little longer; but in B.C. 272 Tarentum fell into the hands of Rome, and in a few years afterward every nation in Italy, to the south of the Macra and the Rubicon, owned the supremacy of Rome. She had now become one of the first powers in the ancient world. The defeat of Pyrrhus attracted the attention of the nations of the East; and in B.C. 273, Ptolemy Philadelphus, king of Egypt, sent an embassy to Rome, and concluded a treaty with the Republic.
The dominion which Rome had acquired by her arms was confirmed by her policy. She pursued the same system which she had adopted upon the subjugation of Latium, keeping the cities isolated from one another, but at the same time allowing them to manage their own affairs. The population of Italy was divided into three classes. Cives Romani, Nomen Latinum, and Socii.
I. CIVES ROMANI, or ROMAN CITIZENS. - These consisted: (1.) Of the citizens of the thirty-three Tribes into which the Roman territory was now divided, and which extended north of the Tiber a little beyond Veii, and southward as far as the Liris; though even in this district there were some towns, such as Tibur and Prænesté, which did not possess the Roman franchise. (2.) Of the citizens of Roman colonies planted in different parts of Italy. (3.) Of the citizens of municipal towns upon whom the Roman franchise was conferred. In some cases the Roman franchise was granted without the right of voting in the Comitia (civitas sine suffragio), but in course of time this right also was generally conceded.
II. NOMEN LATINUM, or the LATIN NAME. - This term was applied to the colonies founded by Rome which did not enjoy the rights of Roman citizenship, and which stood in the same position with regard to the Roman state as had been formerly occupied by the cities of the Latin League. The name originated at a period when colonies were actually sent out in common by the Romans and Latins, but similar colonies continued to be founded by the Romans alone long after the extinction of the Latin League. In fact, the majority of the colonies planted by Rome were of this kind, the Roman citizens who took part in them voluntarily resigning their citizenship, in consideration of the grants of land which they obtained. But the citizen of any Latin colony might emigrate to Rome, and be enrolled in one of the Roman tribes, provided he had held a magistracy in his native town. These Latin colonies - the Nomen Latinum - were some of the most flourishing towns in Italy.
III. SOCII, or ALLIES, included the rest of Italy. Each of the towns which had been conquered by Rome had formed a treaty (fœdus) with the latter, which determined their rights and duties. These treaties were of various kinds, some securing nominal independence to the towns, and others reducing them to absolute subjection.
The political changes in Rome itself, from the time of the Latin wars, have been already in great part anticipated. Appius Claudius, afterward named Cæcus, or the Blind, introduced a dangerous innovation in the constitution during the Second Samnite War. Slavery existed at Rome, as among the other nations of antiquity; and as many slaves, from various causes, acquired their liberty, there gradually sprung up at Rome a large and indigent population of servile origin. These Freedmen were Roman citizens, but they could only be enrolled in the four city-tribes, so that, however numerous they might become, they could influence only the votes of four tribes. Appius Claudius, in his Censorship (B.C. 312), when making out the lists of citizens, allowed the Freedmen to enroll themselves in any tribe they pleased; but this dangerous innovation was abolished by the Censors Q. Fabius Maximus and P. Decius Mus (B.C. 304), who restored all the Freedmen to the four city-tribes. The Censorship of Appius is, however, memorable for the great public works which he executed. He made the great military road called the Appian Way (Via Appia), leading from Rome to Capua, a distance of 120 miles, which long afterward was continued across the Apennines to Brundusium. He also executed the first of the great aqueducts (Aqua Appia) which supplied Rome with such an abundance of water.
Cn. Flavius, the son of a Freedman, and Secretary to Appius Claudius, divulged the forms and times to be observed in legal proceedings. These the Patricians had hitherto kept secret; they alone knew the days when the courts would be held, and the technical pleadings according to which all actions must proceed. But Flavius, having become acquainted with these secrets, by means of his patron, published in a book a list of the formularies to be observed in the several kinds of actions, and also set up in the forum a whited tablet containing a list of all the days on which the courts could be held. In spite of his ignominious birth, he was made a Senator by Appius Claudius, and was elected Curule Ædile by the people.