During the Pyrrhic War, King Pyrrhus of Epirus defeated the Romans at Heraclea (280 BC) and Asculum (279 BC). Although the Romans suffered greater casualties than Pyrrhus did in both battles, the Romans had a much larger supply of soldiers, so their casualties did less damage to their army than Pyrrhus’s casualties did to his. A Pyrrhic victory, therefore, is a victory with devastating cost to the victor.
Plutarch (a first century AD historian) describes the battle of Asculum: “The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more 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.”
A Pyrrhic victory can be used today to describe costly victories in business, politics, or law.
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