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Representational image of a Pyrrhic Victory and a bloody battlefield. Source: Mr. Bolota / Adobe Stock

King Pyrrhic’s Costly Conquest that Inspired the Term “Pyrrhic Victory”


The term “Pyrrhic Victory” stands as a testament to the intriguing and often paradoxical nature of warfare. Originating within the victories of the Greek king Pyrrhus of Epirus, this term has found its way into the modern lexicon, symbolizing a triumph achieved at an overwhelming cost.

When Winning is Actually Losing: The Origin of the Term “Pyrrhic Victory”

The term's origin can be traced back to the Pyrrhic War (280 to 275 BC), where Pyrrhus faced the mighty Roman legions. The conflicts were fierce and hard-fought, with both sides sustaining substantial losses.

Pyrrhus, while achieving victory, found himself in a precarious position. The cost of battle was so high that, as the story goes, he lamented, “Another such victory and I come back to Epirus alone.” This sentiment encapsulates the essence of a Pyrrhic Victory, where the winner's losses are so devastating that they overshadow the spoils of triumph.

In the ancient world, Pyrrhus was a Greek king, statesman and one of the strongest opponents of the early Roman Empire. Renowned for his military prowess, his victories against the Romans left an indelible mark on history, not for the glory they brought, but for the toll they exacted. The term “Pyrrhic Victory” encapsulates the idea that success on the battlefield can sometimes be so ruinous that it resembles defeat.

Bust of Pyrrhus of Epirus, who coined the term “Pyrrhic Victory.” (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Bust of Pyrrhus of Epirus, who coined the term “Pyrrhic Victory.” (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Pyrrhic Victory: Some Victories Are Defeats in Disguise

During the Pyrrhic War, Pyrrhus clashed with Rome, the Battles of Heraclea (280 BC) and Asculum (279 BC) being central to this conflict. The Battle of Heraclea saw Roman legions facing Pyrrhus's war elephants, resulting in heavy casualties. During the Battle of Asculum, Romans adapted, creating gaps in their ranks to counter elephants.

While technically winning, Pyrrhus lamented the high cost, coining the term “Pyrrhic Victory.” According to Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus;

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. 

The phrase has since transcended its historical origins and found a place in the broader discussions of strategy, emphasizing the importance of considering the long-term consequences of triumphs in the face of immediate gains.

Especially in the current political landscape, the term “Pyrrhic Victory” serves as a reminder that even in the throes of triumph, the price of success can be too high. Pyrrhus, with his military genius, inadvertently left an enduring legacy on the language of warfare, immortalizing the concept that some victories are, in essence, defeats in disguise.

Top image: Representational image of a Pyrrhic Victory and a bloody battlefield. Source: Mr. Bolota / Adobe Stock

By Cecilia Bogaard



Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. However, that doesn't mean that hardcore, evil sinners do not enjoy life. They usually do. They just pay for it eternally, afterwards.

This is the ultimate Pyrrhic victory.

Cecilia Bogaard's picture


Cecilia Bogaard is one of the editors, researchers and writers on Ancient Origins. With an MA in Social Anthropology, and degree in Visual Communication (Photography), Cecilia has a passion for research, content creation and editing, especially as related to the... Read More

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