Pyrrhic victory

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James G. Blaine finally gained the 1884 Republican nomination for US president on his third attempt: "Another victory like this and our money's gone!" The pyrrhic victory of the Mulligan guards in Maine LCCN2011661828.jpg
James G. Blaine finally gained the 1884 Republican nomination for US president on his third attempt: "Another victory like this and our money's gone!"

A Pyrrhic victory ( /ˈpɪrɪk/ ( Loudspeaker.svg listen ) PIRR-ik) is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Such a victory negates any true sense of achievement or damages long-term progress.


The phrase originates from a quote from Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose triumph against the Romans in the Battle of Asculum in 279 BCE destroyed much of his forces, forcing the end of his campaign.


Pyrrhic victory is named after King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose army suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BCE and the Battle of Asculum in 279 BCE, during the Pyrrhic War. After the latter battle, Plutarch relates in a report by Dionysius:

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.

Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus [1]

In both Epirote victories, the Romans suffered greater casualties but they had a much larger pool of replacements, so the casualties had less impact on the Roman war effort than the losses of King Pyrrhus.

The report is often quoted as

Ne ego si iterum eodem modo vicero, sine ullo milite Epirum revertar.
If I achieve such a victory again, I shall return to Epirus without any soldier.

Orosius [2]


If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.

Plutarch [3]

The term entered the English vernacular due to popular misconceptions of the magnitude of Pyrrhus's losses: beginning before the 1800s, Latin history teaching books said that Pyrrhus suffered losses in the tens of thousands. [4] [ original research? ]



This list comprises examples of battles that ended in a Pyrrhic victory. It is not intended to be complete but to illustrate the concept.

Last stand and final charge from the fortress of Szigetvar (painting by Johann Peter Krafft, 1825) Johann Peter Krafft 005.jpg
Last stand and final charge from the fortress of Szigetvár (painting by Johann Peter Krafft, 1825)
Japanese aircraft prepare to take off from Shokaku during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands Aircraft prepare to launch from Japanese carrier Shokaku during Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942 (80-G-176150).jpg
Japanese aircraft prepare to take off from Shōkaku during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands
The ruined streets of Vukovar ten days after its surrender Croatian War 1991 Vukovar street.jpg
The ruined streets of Vukovar ten days after its surrender

Politics, sports and law

The term is used as an analogy in business, politics and sport to describe struggles that end up ruining the victor. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr commented on the necessity of coercion in preserving the course of justice by warning,

Moral reason must learn how to make coercion its ally without running the risk of a Pyrrhic victory in which the ally exploits and negates the triumph.

Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr [29]

In Beauharnais v. Illinois , a 1952 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a charge proscribing group libel, Associate Justice Black alluded to Pyrrhus in his dissent,

If minority groups hail this holding as their victory, they might consider the possible relevancy of this ancient remark: "Another such victory and I am undone".

Hugo Black [30]

See also

Related Research Articles

This article concerns the period 279 BC – 270 BC.

279 BC Calendar year

Year 279 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Publius Sulpicius Saverrio and Publius Decius Mus. The denomination 279 BC for this year has been used since the early medieval period, when the Anno Domini calendar era became the prevalent method in Europe for many years.

Demetrius I of Macedon King of Macedonia

Demetrius I, also called Poliorcetes, was a Greek Macedonian nobleman, military leader, and king of Macedon. He belonged to the Antigonid dynasty and was its first member to rule Macedonia. He was the son of Antigonus I Monophthalmus and Stratonice.

Pyrrhus of Epirus King of Epirus

Pyrrhus was a Greek king and statesman of the Hellenistic period. He was king of the Greek tribe of Molossians, of the royal Aeacid house, and later he became king of Epirus. He was one of the strongest opponents of early Rome, and had been regarded as one of the greatest generals of antiquity. Several of his victorious battles caused him unacceptably heavy losses, from which the term "Pyrrhic victory" was coined.

Publius Valerius Laevinus was commander of the Roman forces at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC, in which he was defeated by Pyrrhus of Epirus. In his Life of Pyrrhus, Plutarch wrote that Gaius Fabricius Luscinus said of this battle that it was not the Epirots who had beaten the Romans, but only Pyrrhus who had beaten Laevinus.

Battle of Heraclea Battle in 280 BC between the Romans and Greeks commanded by Pyrrhus

The Battle of Heraclea took place in 280 BC between the Romans under the command of consul Publius Valerius Laevinus, and the combined forces of Greeks from Epirus, Tarentum, Thurii, Metapontum, and Heraclea under the command of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus. Although the battle was a victory for the Greeks and their casualties were lower than the Romans, they had lost many veteran soldiers that would be hard to replace on foreign soil.

Battle of Asculum

The Battle of Asculum took place in 279 BC between the Roman Republic under the command of the consuls Publius Decius Mus and Publius Sulpicius Saverrio, and the forces of King Pyrrhus of Epirus. The battle took place during the Pyrrhic War, after the Battle of Heraclea of 280 BC, which was the first battle of the war. There exist accounts of this battle by three ancient historians: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, and Cassius Dio. Asculum was in Lucanian territory, in southern Italy.

Pyrrhic War

The Pyrrhic War was largely fought between the Roman Republic and Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, who had been asked by the people of the Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy to help them in their war against the Romans.

Siege of Ostend Siege during Eighty Years War and the Anglo–Spanish Wars

The siege of Ostend was a three-year siege of the city of Ostend during the Eighty Years' War and the Anglo–Spanish War. A Spanish force under Archduke Albrecht besieged the fortress being held initially by a Dutch force which was reinforced by English troops under Francis Vere, who became the town's governor. It was said "the Spanish assailed the unassailable; the Dutch defended the indefensible." The commitment of both sides in the dispute over the only Dutch-ruled area in the province of Flanders, made the campaign continue for more than any other during the war. This resulted in one of the longest and bloodiest sieges in world history: more than 100,000 people were killed, wounded, or succumbed to disease during the siege.

The Battle of Beneventum was the last battle of the Pyrrhic War. It was fought near Beneventum, in southern Italy, between the forces of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus in Greece, and the Romans, led by consul Manius Curius Dentatus. The result was a Roman victory and Pyrrhus was forced to return to Tarentum, and later to Epirus.

Asculum, also known as Ausculum, was the ancient name of two Italian cities.

Arta, Greece Place in Greece

Arta is a city in northwestern Greece, capital of the regional unit of Arta, which is part of Epirus region. The city was known in ancient times as Ambracia. Arta is known for the medieval bridge over the Arachthos River. Arta is also known for its ancient sites from the era of Pyrrhus of Epirus and its well-preserved 13th-century castle. Arta's Byzantine history is reflected in its many Byzantine churches; perhaps the best known is the Panagia Paregoretissa, built about 1290 by Despot Nikephoros I Komnenos Doukas.

Battle of Avarayr Battle between Christian Armenians and the Sasanian Empire (451 CE)

The Battle of Avarayr was fought on 2 June 451 on the Avarayr Plain in Vaspurakan between a Christian Armenian army under Vardan Mamikonian and Sassanid Persia. It is considered one of the first battles in defense of the Christian faith. Although the Persians were victorious on the battlefield, it was a pyrrhic victory as Avarayr paved the way to the Nvarsak Treaty of 484, which affirmed Armenia's right to practise Christianity freely.

Publius Decius Mus was a Roman politician and general of the plebeian gens Decia. He was the son of Publius Decius Mus, who was consul in 312 BC. As consul in 279 BC, he and his fellow consul, Publius Sulpicius Saverrio, combined their armies against Pyrrhus of Epirus at the Battle of Asculum.

Chors is a village in Churs Rural District, in the Central District of Chaypareh County, West Azerbaijan Province, Iran. At the 2006 census, its population was 2,367, in 636 families.

Siege of Sparta Failed Epirote siege of Sparta

The siege of Sparta took place in 272 BC and was a battle fought between Epirus, led by King Pyrrhus, and an alliance consisting of Sparta, under the command of King Areus I and his heir Acrotatus, and Macedon. The battle was fought at Sparta and ended in a Spartan-Macedonian victory.

Epirus (ancient state) Former state in Ancient Greece

Epirus was an ancient Greek kingdom, and later republic, located in the geographical region of Epirus, in north-western Greece and southern Albania. Home to the ancient Epirotes, the state was bordered by the Aetolian League to the south, Ancient Thessaly and Ancient Macedonia to the east, and Illyrian tribes to the north. The Greek king Pyrrhus is known to have made Epirus a powerful state in the Greek realm that was comparable to the likes of Ancient Macedonia and Ancient Rome. Pyrrhus' armies also attempted an assault against the state of Ancient Rome during their unsuccessful campaign in what is now modern-day Italy.

Pyrrhus invasion of the Peloponnese Pyrrhus campaigns in the Pelopponese

Pyrrhus' invasion of the Peloponnese in 272 BC was an invasion of south Greece by Pyrrhus, King of Epirus. He was opposed by Macedon and a coalition of Greek city-states (poleis), most notably Sparta. The war ended in a joint victory by Macedonia and Sparta.

Due to the Roman focus on infantry and its discipline, war elephants were rarely used. While the Romans did eventually adopt them, and used them occasionally after the Punic wars, especially during the conquest of Greece, they fell out of use by the time of Claudius, after which they were generally used for the purpose of demoralizing enemies instead of being used for tactical purposes. The Romans occasionally used them for transport.

The Battle of Argos of 272 BCE was fought between the forces of Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, and a spontaneous alliance between the city state of Argos, the Spartan king Areus I and the Macedonian king Antigonus Gonatas. The battle ended with the death of Pyrrhus and the surrender of his army.


  1. Plutarch (trans. John Dryden) Pyrrhus , hosted on The Internet Classics Archive
  2. Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri , IV, 1.15.
  3. 1 2 Plutarch. "The Life of Pyrrhus". Parallel Lives. Vol. IX (1920 ed.). Loeb Classical Library. p. 21.8. Retrieved January 26, 2017.
  4. Fletcher, Ann; Dutton, S.; Dutton, H.F. (1798). The Study of History Rendered Easy, by a Plan Founded on Experience. University of St. Andrews.
  5. Hewsen, Robert H. (August 17, 2011). "AVARAYR". Encyclopædia Iranica . So spirited was the Armenian defense, however, that the Persians suffered enormous losses as well. Their victory was pyrrhic and the king, faced with troubles elsewhere, was forced, at least for the time being, to allow the Armenians to worship as they chose.
  6. Susan Paul Pattie (1997). Faith in History: Armenians Rebuilding Community. Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 40. ISBN   1560986298. The Armenian defeat in the Battle of Avarayr in 451 proved a pyrrhic victory for the Persians. Though the Armenians lost their commander, Vartan Mamikonian, and most of their soldiers, Persian losses throughout battles in the 4th to 6th century were proportionately heavy, close to 350,000, and Armenia was allowed to remain Christian.
  7. Kohn, George C., ed. (2006). Dictionary of Wars (Third ed.). Infobase Publishing. p. 47. ISBN   978-0-8160-6577-6.
  8. Lázár, István; Tezla, Albert (1999). An Illustrated History of Hungary (6th ed.). Budapest: Corvina Books. p. 70. ISBN   978-963-13-4887-3.
  9. Motley, John Lothrop (1908). Motley's Dutch Nation: Being the Rise of the Dutch Republic (1555-1584). University of Wisconsin: Harper & brothers. p.  754. For three years Ostend had occupied the entire Spanish army exhausting entirely the resources of Spain while leaving the Dutch free to increase their wealth and power by trade and commerce. It had paid to defend Ostend
  10. Cortés, Manuel Lomas (2008). La expulsión de los moriscos del Reino de Aragón: política y administración de una deportación (1609–1611). Centro de Estudios Mudéjares. p. 38. ISBN   9788496053311. la pirrica victoria en el sitio de Ostende
  11. Maland, David (1980). Europe at war 1600–1650. Rowman and Littlefield. ISBN   9780847662135. it was in many ways a Pyrrhic victory, because Maurice in 1604 led his troops against Sluys. What began as a diversionary raid to lure Spain from Ostend developed into a properly conducted siege and since neither side would take risk of interfering with the others siege works the fall of Ostend was balanced by the fall of Sluys - which it could be argued was more useful to the United Provinces.
  12. Lynn, John A. (1999). The Wars of Louis XIV: 1667–1714. London: Longman. p.  334. ISBN   0-582-05629-2. Marlborough's triumph proved to be a Pyrrhic victory
  13. Delbrück, Hans (1985). History of the Art of War, Volume IV: The Dawn of Modern Warfare. Translated by Renfroe, Walter J. Eastport, Conn.: Praeger. p. 370. ISBN   0-8032-6586-7. Malplaquet was what has been termed with the age-old expression a "Pyrrhic victory”...
  14. In a letter to Louis XIV, the French general Villars wrote: "Si Dieu nous fait la grâce de perdre encore une pareille bataille, Votre Majesté peut compter que tous ses ennemis seront détruits." ["If God gives us the grace of losing such a battle again, Your Majesty may expect that all his enemies will be destroyed."]; Anquetil, Louis-Pierre, Histoire de France depuis les Gaulois jusqu'à la mort de Louis XVI (1819), Paris: Chez Janet et Cotelle, p. 241.
  15. Fall Of The Mughal Empire - Vol. I (4th ed.), volume 1, pp. 175-176
  16. Rajasthan Through the Ages. Sarup & Sons. 2008-01-01. p.  154. ISBN   9788176258418. Battle of Gangwana 1741.
  17. Clinton, Henry (1954). Willcox, William B. (ed.). The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton's Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782. Yale University Press. OCLC   1305132. A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.
  18. "Battle of Bunker Hill". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. December 8, 2016. Retrieved January 25, 2016. Although the British eventually won the battle, it was a Pyrrhic victory that lent considerable encouragement to the revolutionary cause.
  19. British Whig Party leader and war critic Charles James Fox said, "Another such victory would ruin the British Army!". Baker, Thomas E. Another Such Victory, Eastern Acorn Press, 1981, ISBN   0-915992-06-X.
  20. McGrath, Nick. "Battle of Guilford Courthouse". George Washington’s Mount Vernon: Digital Encyclopedia. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Retrieved January 26, 2017. In three hours, Cornwallis's army took possession of the field, but it was a Pyrrhic victory... Cornwallis could not afford the casualties his army sustained, and withdrew to Wilmington. By doing so, Cornwallis ceded control of the countryside to the Continentals.
  21. Evan Andrews (1 September 2015). "5 Famous Pyrrhic Victories". History. A&E Television Networks, LLC. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  22. Levine, Alan J. (1995). The Pacific War: Japan Versus the Allies. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. p. 104. ISBN   0-275-95102-2 . Retrieved January 26, 2017. This battle of the Santa Cruz Islands was clearly a Japanese victory; the sole Japanese victory in a carrier battle during the war. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, which the Japanese were in no condition to exploit. The damage to their carriers was serious, and their plane losses very heavy. Moreover, the land-based air force at Rabaul was exhausted; many of its best pilots were dead. In late October, the Japanese air effort fell off steeply. Because of its heavy losses and inadequate pilot training program, the Japanese naval air force had already slipped into a qualitative decline from which it never recovered.
  23. Pike, Francis (2015). "Guadalcanal: Henderson Field and the Santa Cruz Islands (September 1942 - January 1943)". Hirohito's War: The Pacific War, 1941-1945. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. p. 509. ISBN   978-1-4725-9670-3 . Retrieved January 26, 2017. Vice-Admiral Nagumo, who was transferred to shore duty after the battle, reported to the Combined Fleet with greater than usual insight and honesty, "This battle was a tactical win, but a shattering strategic loss for Japan. Considering the great superiority of our enemy's industrial capacity, we must win every battle overwhelmingly to win this war. This last one, although a victory, unfortunately, was not an overwhelming victory." Naval victories are usually counted in ships lost but given the destruction of the cream of the Japanese Navy’s aircrews, it could even be argued that, in the case of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, the Japanese came off worst. Reporting several weeks after the battle, Nimitz too correctly calibrated the result of the battle: "This battle cost us the lives of many gallant men, many planes and two ships that could ill be spared... We nevertheless turned back the Japanese again in their offensive to regain Guadalcanal and shattered their carrier air strength on the eve on the critical days of mid-November. It was indeed a pyrrhic victory."
  24. Toll, Ian W. (2015). The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944. Pacific War Trilogy. Vol. II. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN   978-0393080643 . Retrieved January 26, 2017. As at Coral Sea, the contest would go into the books as a tactical victory for the Japanese but a strategic victory for the Americans... The Japanese press reported another triumph, and the rank and file cheered another fantastic victory. But the senior commanders of the navy privately acknowledged that the result had been, at best, a pyrrhic victory.
  25. Xu, Yan (徐焰) (1990), 第一次较量:抗美援朝战争的历史回顾与反思[First Confrontation: Reviews and Reflections on the History of War to Resist America and Aid Korea] (in Chinese), Beijing: Chinese Radio and Television Publishing House, p. 59, ISBN   978-7-5043-0542-8
  26. Roe, Patrick C. (2000), The Dragon Strikes: China and the Korean War, June-December 1950, Novato, California: Presidio, p. 412, ISBN   978-0-89141-703-3
  27. Woodward, Susan L. (1995). Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War . Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. p.  258. ISBN   978-0-8157-9513-1.
  28. Central Intelligence Agency Office of Russian and European Analysis (2000). Balkan Battlegrounds: A Military History of the Yugoslav Conflict, 1990–1995: Volume 1. Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency. p. 99. ISBN   978-0-16-066472-4.
  29. Niebuhr, Reinhold Moral Man and Immoral Society , published by Scribner, 1932 and 1960, reprinted by Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, ISBN   0-664-22474-1, ISBN   978-0-664-22474-5 p. 238.
  30. Beauharnais v. Illinois , 343250 (U.S.1952).