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The meaning of Pyrrhic Victory - King Pyrrhus and his unhealthy aspirations


Pyrrhic Victory - origin, meaning at work - Empowerment Coaching Krakow Blog

You probably know the term Pyrrhic victory. This is a phrasal verb that means a victory achieved at too high a cost. This is an apparent victory because the losses outweigh the gains. Historically, it concerns a victory achieved in difficult conditions of a war fought on foreign territory.


Pyrrhus was the king of Epirus, a land located in northwestern Greece on the Ionian Sea. He lived in the 3rd century BC and reigned from 307 to 302 BC and from 297 BC until his unusual death in 272. This opponent of Rome and a ruler with powerful ambitions was considered a military genius. He was one of the greatest military tacticians of his era, and the famous Hannibal, general of Carthage, considered him one of the three best commanders of all time. But as usual, he also had a wise advisor - Kineas.

Let's see how Kineas behaved before the critical clash with the Roman Empire, which became the source of the famous saying. And let's also consider what we can learn from Kineas - especially in the field of realizing our professional ambitions.


The king of Epirus and his advisor - how to know that excessive aspirations will end in failure

The wise advisor did everything he could to save the King of Epirus from disaster. He was very well aware of his ruler's temperament and the military strength of his potential opponent. Therefore, he was not in favor of another clash and wanted to gently dissuade his ruler from going to war with Rome. He predicted that unhealthy ambitions would only bring heavy losses and the potential triumph - if it occurred - would be achieved at too great a cost.


Kineas, seeing how much his leader cared about winning the war, had this conversation with him.


– They say the Romans are brave warriors. Even if we defeat them, what good will it do us?


– You're asking about a simple thing. Then all of Italy will be in our hands, and the benefits will be enormous, replied the monarch.


– And what will we do after we get it?


– There is an island nearby, Sicily. I think it will be easy to get it, replied the ruler.


- It's very likely. Will conquering Sicily be the end of our expedition? – Kineas continued to ask.


– May we win! It will be an invitation for us to take part in further great undertakings. Who could refrain from taking over Africa if it would be so easy?


– And when we do this, what will we do next? Kineas continued.


- Later? We will enjoy resting! Day after day we will have fun with wine, talk, and have fun!


Then Kineas remarked:


 So what is stopping us from having fun and resting now? We have had enough of everything. Do we want bloodshed to achieve something we already have, exposing ourselves to so many dangers?


This fragment of the conversation comes from the well-known book titled "Lives of Famous Men" by Plutarch.



What is the meaning of Pyrrhic Victory? What can we learn from the history of the Greek king's battles with the Romans?

Unfortunately, the Greek genius of war did not listen to his wise advisor. In 279 BC, in the great Battle of Ausculum, thousands of people faced each other. The Greek king Pyrrus defeated his opponent but suffered heavy losses and went down in history with a disgraceful name. This battle cost Pyrrhus approximately 3,500 heads, which constituted several dozen percent of his army and, what is very important, these were impossible losses for his legions. The opponents lost troops almost twice as large (6,000 soldiers), but operating in their area they could form new units much more easily.


After defeating the Romans, Pyrrhus of Epirus is to have said the following words to the officers who congratulated him:


"If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined."

And Stanisław Jerzy Lec put it beautifully in one of his Thoughts :


"A Pyrrhic victory is just a victory - getting rid of your enemies and your own in one fell swoop."

The clash at Asculum in 279 BCE did not bring a resolution to the entire war. Pyrrhus failed to destroy the enemy, and the shrinking army he commanded had less and less chance of final victory. So he abandoned the conquest of Roma and headed for Sicily, which seemed to be easy prey.


On this occasion, it is impossible not to mention the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC. It was the first major confrontation in the war between Italy and Hellas. The two best infantry formations of that time clashed there. Thousands of people fought each other until the end. But what determined the victory was not the infantry.


They were elephants. In his martial genius, one of the greatest commanders of all time used 20 war elephants in this battle.


At that time, these animals were not known to the Italians at all, they saw them for the first time in their lives. The elephants caused panic among their soldiers and terrified their horses. Thanks to this, Pyrrhus of Epirus won the first significant victory in the war with Italy. Approximately 7,000 Romans died, with the loss of the Greek army estimated at 4,000.


Although the Epirusian army won, Pyrrhus did not destroy the enemy. And although he reached a place from which the enemy's capitals were already visible, he did not decide to continue the conquest. He ordered a retreat home and returned to the Italian Peninsula after the end of winter. In this clash, he recorded many killed and a large number of wounded. And most importantly, he lost most of his best-trained troops. Had he learned from this, the even more costly victory at the subsequent Battle of Ausculum in 279 BC would not have been achieved.


In both confrontations, he lost over 7,500 of his most elite warriors, including many officers.


The entire expedition to the Apennine Peninsula began in the year 281 as a result of the response to the call of the Greek city of Taras (also known as Taranto), which was one of the Greek colonies on the peninsula, and asked for defense against Roma. Epirus then came to the aid of 25,000 soldiers.


Finally, it is worth mentioning that despite so many efforts, Pyrrus did not leave this world in glory. First, at the Battle of Benevento in 275 BC, Italy defeated him and forced him to withdraw to Greece for good.


Secondly, after returning home, he couldn't stay still for long, and three years later he attacked the city of Argos. There he died at the hands of a woman, hit on the head with a heavy ceramic roof tile. The woman threw her from the roof where she was watching her son's hand-to-hand fight with the Greek Monarch. It took place during street fighting in Argos in 272 BC. On the day of his death, he was 46 years old.


The meaning of Pyrrhic Victory - importance in the field of professional aspirations

We often confuse satisfying ambitions with fulfilling well-understood dreams. This can be best seen in the example of a situation at work when the so-called leader has ambitions greater than capabilities.


This is a very dangerous case, because such a person quickly reaches the level of his INCOMPETENCE and, with hidden horror, begins to focus on defending what he has already achieved externally (i.e. status, prestige, power, sense of influence).


So he will fight and at all costs fight against people and situations that, IN HIS OPINION, threaten his position and what he has already achieved. The paradox is that such a person does not have a healthy internal sense of self-worth and that is why all external signs of "success" are so important to him.


This situation could be summed up nicely with the following Turkish proverb:


When a clown moves into the palace, he does not become king. The palace becomes a circus.

How many wars are you fighting? And for what reason? This question about awareness and clarity of your "why" is very important.


Where do you focus your attention? We have already written many times that your energy follows your attention...


Can you appreciate what you have or are you building your empire like Pyrrhus?

Or are you in constant pursuit of "more"? If you are part of this quest for "more" then maybe you can at least tell when "more" for you will be "enough".


Or are you in constant pursuit of "more"? If you take part in this pursuit for "more", maybe at least you can say when "more" will be "enough" for you.


Do you realize how much you are stimulated: at work, by TV ads, by social media? Are you aware that you very often give in to voices that whisper: you have to, you have to, you have to... or you will lose, you will lose, you will lose...


Do you realize that such winding leads to the spring breaking, and then you will lose? You will lose what is truly valuable: your health, your loved ones, and worst of all, you may lose yourself...




Lessons not learned from the meaning of Pyrrhic Victory. Not only Rome - but also the Battle of Malplaquet or the Battle of Borodino

Unfortunately, many great commanders were unable to learn from the painful lessons of Epirus and fought at great cost which ultimately resulted in great troubles.

These include the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709, which went down in history as one of the bloodiest clashes of the 18th century. It was a confrontation between the Kingdom of France and British forces supported by Austrian, Prussian, and Dutch soldiers. At stake was the succession to the throne of Spain after the ruler of Spain, Charles II Habsburg, who died without an heir. The British won but buried twice as many soldiers as the French (24,000 people - almost a quarter of their army. The losing French general, Claude de Villars, said the following to his monarch, Louis XIV:


“If it pleases God to give your enemies another victory like this, they are ruined.”

And he was right. The anti-French alliance began to fall apart quickly, and the king of France's grandson, Philip V of Bourbon, eventually became the ruler of Spain.


The great leader Napoleon Bonaparte also did not escape such a bloody victory. The French emperor was on the march to the East, and his disastrous experience was the clash at Borodino. It took place on September 7, 1812, and was part of the French invasion of Russia. In the early stages of the campaign, the Russian army was content to conduct tactical retreats and evasions. But when Napoleon's great army approached the small village of Borodino, the Russian commander Mikhail Kutuzov not only turned his troops around, but this time stopped, built fortifications and prepared well for defense. Napoleon wasted no time and ordered an attack. Russia's defenders were theoretically doomed to destruction.


Although the French army was victorious, the battlefield of Borodino was strewn with French bodies. Napoleon lost about 30,000 soldiers out of 130,000 soldiers thrown into battle. However, unlike the Russian army (which lost 45,000 soldiers in combat), it had no opportunity to rebuild its resources. Over time, Bonaparte's Grand Army was forced to flee from Russia, and the entire campaign cost the lives of 400,000 Frenchmen who died not only in combat but also from disease and frost.


We may list other examples of unfortunate victories. Among them, the most frequently mentioned are the Battle of Bunker Hill (1775, by British General William Howe), the Battle of Chancellorsville (1863, Generals Robert E. Lee vs. Joseph Hooker), and the Vietnam War.


(1) Phraseology - a combination of two or more words with a fixed meaning other than the meaning of the words constituting the compound, established in use.



See also other coaching parables and stories:


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