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Tarentum (Greek: Τάρας): Greek town in the "heel" of Italy.

Early History

Classical Age

Tarentum, Seated PersephoneR


Apulian horseman

In the Hellenistic Age, Tarentum's foreign policy continued to be dominated by its relationship with the Italian nations. Understanding that, without successful help from the Greek world, they would be unable to dictate terms to their enemies, the Tarentines accepted that they would have to cooperate with the Italian enemies of their own enemies. In 320, they allied themselves to the Samnites, which lived north of the Lucanians. It seemed like a good bet, because in the next year (319 BCE = 321 Varronian), the Samnites defeated Rome at the Caudine Forks. Tarentum appeared to have allied itself to a great power. Alliances with Agathocles of Syracuse and Cleonymus of Sparta helped to keep the Lucanians away.

However, Rome continued to fight against the Samnites, slowly gained ground, and managed to overcome the Samnites in the battle of Sentinum (295). Four years later, they founded a colonia at Venusia, which was in the Tarentine backyard. So far, Rome stayed away, but it looked dangerous. Meanwhile, the Lucanians were as restless as ever and threatened the Greek cities in the south: Thurii, Rhegium, and Locrii.

Relief of the Danaids

In 285, these cities appealed to Rome. The Romans, probably not realizing what they were up to, were willing to send help but in 282, their troops found themselves under attack by the Tarentines. When the Senate sent envoys to complain about this incident, they were maltreated, and war was declared.


Tarentum started to look for help in the Greek world again: in Epirus, one of the kingdoms that had become powerful after the death of Alexander. In 280, Pyrrhus of Epirus arrived, bringing twenty war elephants, 3,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers, 20,000 soldiers, and an advance force of another 3,000 men. He could count on Tarentum, but also on Metapontum and Heraclea.

Pyrrhus of Epirus

The first battle against Rome took place at Heraclea. The legionaries attacked the hoplite lines in the Epirote phalanx, but found them impenetrable and were defeated when the cavalry attacked on the wings. The Romans lost 7,000 men but were able to return to the north with discipline still intact. Pyrrhus lost 4,000 soldiers, which he could not replace. It had been an expensive victory, but the results were sensational: several inland tribes (the Lucanians, Bruttians, and Messapians) joined him, and the Greek cities of Croton and Locri did the same. The Romans had lost control of the south and Pyrrhus advanced to the north, where he secured an alliance with the Samnites, the old allies of Tarentum.

He established his winter quarters in Campania, but when he offerd Rome favorable terms, the Senate declined. In the spring of 279, Pyrrhus attacked the Roman colonies at Luceria and Venusia, which were situated in eastern Italy and belonged to a ring of military settlements that surrounded the Samnites, Pyrrhus' new allies. Pyrrhus wanted to break the ring to reach his allies, obviously realizing that he needed their soldiers.

In these years, Rome started to mint coins, because it would have to pay South-Italian allies.

At the same time, Rome sent two armies, led by Publius Sulpicius Saverrio and Publius Decius Mus, to the east. Not far from Asculum, between Luceria and Venusia, their united army - about 40,000 men - ;met Pyrrhus and fought an indecisive battle. On the next day, the Romans were forced back, but Pyrrhus was unable to capture their camp. The Romans had lost 6,000 men and consul Publius Decius Mus (who was later believed to have sacrificed himself); the Greeks 3,505. At sunset, Pyrrhus, wounded by a javelin and seeing his own camp destroyed, was heard saying that he could not afford another such triumph.

Relief of a Tarentine warrior

Even worse, the Romans seemed incapable of understanding that they had lost, but at least, they were willing to negotiate. Pyrrhus agreed to an exchange of POWs, and when the Romans said they would leave Tarentum alone, Pyrrhus announced something like an armistice, essentially sacrificing the Samnites and Lucanians to Roman reprisals.

The Romans may have been surprised that their enemy postponed the war, but they did not know that Pyrrhus had received a call for help from Syracuse on Sicily, which was threatened by the Carthaginians. Pyrrhus' absence offered Rome an opportunity to force the Samnites into submission again, and subdue the Lucanians and Bruttians.

Two women playing ephredismos

Meanwhile, Pyrrhus had placed a garrison in Tarentum. The inhabitants were angry and asked him either to do what he had been hired for and continue the Roman war, or leave the city as he had found it. The king, however, simply ignored their order and left for Sicily (text), where he reduced the Carthaginians to one stronghold: Lilybaeum, modern Marsala.

In 275, he returned to southern Italy, to pick up the war against Rome again, with an increasingly frustrated Tarentine ally, which had seen how Pyrrhus had betrayed the Samnites and Lucanians. To gain control of the situation, he needed a victory, but instead, he was defeated by the Romans at Malventum. He returned to Tarentum, wher he was now regarded as an oppressor. Leaving a token force behind, he sailed back to Epirus.

After an invitation to Carthage had failed to restore Tarentum's power, the city accepted Roman rule (272). The new masters ordered the destruction of the city walls, seized many works of art, and demanded a lot of money, but accepted Tarentum as ally. A new road was built between Rome and Tarentum, the Via Appia.

Roman Age

This page was created in 2018; last modified on 22 September 2020.

This page is a stub. It will be expanded to a full-fledged article.