The Epeirot camp was located on the side of a small village. In this encampment more than 35’000 soldiers, 4’000 horses, including the reserve, hundreds of mules and slaves for officers and front-rank troops alike. And, of course, beyond the forest of tents was different forest where families, traders, whores, laundry-women and even simple people whose only way of survival was to follow the army and loot the dead. This was the backbone of Pyrrhus. Without it, he was nothing but a mere man.
He fielded troops from all over the western world. Macedonian phalangites, Greek Hoplites, allied Illyrians, Thracians and Samnites, archers from Crete and Epirus, slingers from Rhodes, elephants from the Indus valley, cavalry from Thessaly, from Aetolia, from Paeonia, from Epirus and Makedonia. His foe, the barbarian Roman tribe, fielded troops of more numbers, who were on the other side of a fast running river with forested banks. Great Pyrrhus was confused on how to approach such a situation.
The terrain was too rough for his phalanx, so he improvised – intermixed his Italian allies between his blocks of sarissa wielding warriors. Though this ingenious tactic helped in providing greater flexibility, it decreased the striking power of the phalanx. At the day of battle, both sides fought hard all day. Fortune shifted from one side to the other, at points where Pyrrhus and the Agema Ile, which was used typically in emergency situations, had to charge in to save the battle. At the end of the day, neither side had gained anything and both exhausted armies marched back to their encampments.
And now, Pyrrhus had a plan how to save the situation. He quickly assembled his officers; amongst them were Megakles, Lysander, Antipater, Koinos, Charax, Kalas, Python, Ifestionas, Marsias and even the barbarian leaders (of the Thracians, Illyrians, Italians) like Oxyartes. Every officer, including the mercenaries. All of them were now in his tent, wondering why the men were ordered to armour themselves and get ready to march out, and why call them in this late hour.
His plan was to send the light infantry and cavalry to the other side of the river, to protect it while the rest of the army made its way across. And it all had to happen before sunrise, while the Romans and their consuls, Publius Decius Mus and Publius Sulpicius Saverius, are still resting after the battle. He also showed the battle plan for the next day, knowing the Romans must accept his challenge, for Pyrrhus must not go deeper into Italy.
On the right would be the Tarentine, Paeonian, Illyrian and Aetolian cavalry under the supreme command of Ifestionas, Pyrrhus’ life long friend. They were to be deployed in wedges and turned so that they could intercept any flank attack. In front of them – the Hypaspists and Agrianians under Marsias. They were to reinforce the right wing where necessary. Not far in front of the Hypaspists were Hoplites from Greece and Italian allies. The right was also protected by Rhodian slingers. The Main battle line was to be six taxeis of phalanx infantry of the Argyraspidai and Pezhetairoi, under the command from right to left, Megakles, Antipater, Charax, Python, Lysander and Kalas. Behind them were the light infantry, ready to unleash their wrath upon the barbarians before the main battle lines collided. On the left wing were most of the Italians under Oxyartes, the elephants under Echekrates, Cretan archers and the hetairoi and Thessalian cavalry under Pyrrhus himself, in wedge formations.
The plan was for the phalanx to push the enemy away or hold him in place if the attacks are too strong. Most of the right and left wing are put in formations to protect the phalanx’s flanks and to stop the army from getting completely enveloped. If the attack on the wings is weak, Ifestionas and Pyrrhus will come from the flanks and rear.
Everyone must know their part carefully, for Pyrrhus will not be able to provide instructions for units once battle begins. It would be impossible, that’s why it takes time for the commanders to learn their roles precisely without thinking in mid-battle. Once that was done, the army moved north. Though the river was freezing, the army crossed and was greeted by the coming sun. And the Roman army, waiting atop a hill.
Without much of a choice, Pyrrhus agrees to give battle. However, he approaches at an angle and orders his archers to fire, so that the Roman advantage of being atop a hill has been practically nullified. The barbarians march down the hill, and they have more man than Pyrrhus had expected. Unknown to him, the men guarding the camp while the armies were fighting by the river were not only Romans – Celts from the north had also participated in this dull job, and now they participated in this battle, guarding the flanks and ready to charge down and butcher any unlucky lad out of formation.
The local townsfolk of Asculum and nearby villages had climbed the trees to observe the fight between these two great armies. Pyrrhus’ skirmishers soon started peppering the enemy’s levies, which, opposed by peltasts, Agrianians, Thracians and other professionals, had to fall back without giving much of a fight. Now these ruthless men started pouring their missiles among the Roman hastati, while the Cretans and Rhodians aimed at the Celts and Roman Equites. The skirmish wasn’t long, and soon the infantry were atop each other. The pezhetairoi and argyraspidai held the line and stabbed any enemy they could, while at the same time being peppered by pila. The hastati line wasn’t long enough to fight off the wings, which, by Mus’ plan, were to be pushed back for the Celts and Equites to make their way on the phalanx’s flanks and rear. So the principes joined in the fray, pushing back the Italians and hoplites at both flanks of Pyrrhus’ army. The Hypaspists soon charged forward, fighting against the Celts, while elephants, Thessalians and hetairoi cavalry engaged the Equites and Celts on the left, while the Greeks opposed the Equites on the right.
Pyrrhus was successful. Soon the elephants, the skirmishers (who always followed the beasts to protect their feet and bellies) and Thessalians trampled through the triarii, while Pyrrhus in a wedge, drove through the hastati and principes on both wings, not stopping to keep the momentum of the charge. While the battle was being won at the middle and left, the phalangites had to move quickly to help the elephants fight off the triarii. Pyrrhus, however, charged straight into the Celts, Equites and principes on the right, most damaged, wing. Without much of a hope, these brave men surrendered.
The battle was very costly for the Romans. They had lost another army – more than 28’000 killed and 25’000 captured. Pyrrhus’ army had suffered most causalities on the right wing, particularly amongst the Italians and cavalry – in total 2’053 Italians, 541 hoplites, 139 hypaspists and 347 Greeks were lost this day. But at least Pyrrhus had three trophies. One, he sent a Legionary Eagle and the riches of the Roman camp back to Tarentum. Two, he sent both the consuls’ heads to Rome. Last, but not least, Pyrrhus had an open gateway to Italy…