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Asculum is a small town on the Adriatic coast of present-day Italy, and the site of the climactic Battle of Asculum between the Roman Republic and a combined army under the banner of the Kingdom of Epirus. The battle was both a turning point in the First Pyrrhic War and the event immediately preceding the divergence of the timeline In The Shadow of Olympus from the standard timeline.
The Epirote and colonial forces succeeded in defeating and driving the Romans from the field, but suffered heavy losses. The battle is particularly historic for two reasons. For the first time ever, on the hills near Asculum, the legendary Greek phalanxes clashed with the legions of Rome. Today, victory at a crippling cost is still remembered as a Pyrrhic Victory.
Following the death of Alexander the Great and embattled in the seemingly unending Diadochi Wars, Greece was a political mess of bickering states and kingdoms. Having been deposed from the throne of Macedon, the largest of the Greek states, Pyrrhus I of Epirus turned his ambitions instead to neighboring Italy and the conflicted Greek colonies at Magna Graeca (literally, new greece) in southern Italy.
In 280 B.C, King Pyrrhus of Epirus and his army crossed the Ionian sea, landing at the port of the besieged Greek colony of Tarentum in time to prevent its capture. Tarentum, and all the other colonies in Magna Graeca, had come into conflict with the increasingly belligerent city of Rome. Pursuing the Romans west, the city of Heraclea, Pyrrhus swiftly captured the town before pushing past the fleeing defenders north to the Samnite city of Asculum.
Pyrrhus' campaign had been swift and blunt. Rome had never expected one of the mainland Greek factions to be drawn into their war with the colonies, but by the time the Greeks reached the Samnite territories, Pyrrhus was confronted by the III, IV, VII and VIII Legions, scrambled as a response force to the invasion, on the rolling landscape just outside of the city.
Arrangement of Forces
Publius Decius commanded forty divisions of one or two centuries each between four legions, which he divided into two large fighting forces of two legions each, advancing on the Greek Position. The legions were comprised entirely of legionaries from Rome itself and the surrounding Latin countryside.
Pyrrhus, on the other hand, had assembled his army from the best forces he could recruit from the Mediterranean, including Illyrian tribute troops, archers from Crete, cavalry from Thessaly, Epirote and Macedonian Pikemen and even a detachment of Elephants as a gift from Ptolemy Keraunos. Pyrrhus deployed his infantry in a macedonain phalanx eight men deep and a half-mile wide shoulder-to-shoulder, with archers shooting over their heads and peltast skirmishers arranged on the flanks.
Lacking specialized ranged troops, the Romans advanced uphill under a hail of arrows meant more as an intimidation than impediment. Plutarch's account in his work Lives describes the legions as having launched seven attacks on the Greeks, only to be thrown off by the phalanxes, and the Greeks to have launched seven attacks on the Romans, thrown off by the maniples. The fundamental incompatibility of Latin and Hellenic tactics led to an exhausting stalemate on the front line, but legionary flexibility allowed the Romans to gain an advantage on both of Pyrrhus' flanks.
Facing a collapse of the flanks that would have inevitably resulted in the route of his main battle line, Pyrrhus intervened with a force of reserve cavalry and elephants, succeeding in buckling the Roman line and driving Publius Decius from the field.
The costly victory forced Pyrrhus to reconsider his ambitions in Italy. Never before had one of the Greek factions fought such a strong foe. In the account of Poliadas, Pyrrhus decided to secure his gains in Italy and turn his ambitions back towards Greece, rather than risk everything with an assault on Rome itself.