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e beginning of the 3rd century, Rome had established itself as the major power in Italy, but had not yet come into conflict with the dominant military powers of the Mediterranean: Carthage and the Greek kingdoms. In 282, several Roman warships entered the harbour of Tarentum, thus breaking a treaty between the Republic and the Greek city, which forbade the Gulf to Roman navy. It triggered a violent reaction from the Tarentine democrats, who sank some of the ships; they were in fact worried that Rome could favour the oligarchs in the city, as it had done with the other Greek cities under its control. The Roman embassy sent to investigate the affair was insulted and war was promptly declared. Facing a hopeless situation, the Tarentines (together with the Lucanians and Samnites) appealed for military aid to Pyrrhus, the very ambitious king of Epirus. A cousin of Alexander the Great, he was eager to build an empire for himself in the western Mediterranean, and saw Tarentum's plea as a perfect opportunity towards this goal.
Pyrrhus and his army of 25,500 men (and 20 war elephants) landed in Italy in 280; he was immediately named Strategos Autokrator by the Tarentines. Publius Valerius Laevinus, the consul sent to face him, rejected the king's negotiation offer, as he had more troops and hoped to cut the invasion short. The Romans were nevertheless defeated at Heraclea, as their cavalry were afraid of the elephants of Pyrrhus, who lost a large portion of his army. Pyrrhus then marched on Rome, but could not take any Roman city on his way; facing the prospect of being flanked by the two consular armies, he moved back to Tarentum. His adviser, the orator Cineas, made a peace offer before the Roman Senate, asking Rome to return the land it took from the Samnites and Lucanians, and liberate the Greek cities under its control. The offer was rejected after Appius Caecus (the old censor of 312) spoke against it in a celebrated speech, which was the earliest recorded by the time of Cicero. In 279, Pyrrhus met the consuls Publius Decius Mus and Publius Sulpicius Saverrio at the Battle of Asculum, which remained undecided for two days, as the Romans had prepared some special chariots to counter his elephants. Finally, Pyrrhus personally charged into the melee and won the battle, but at the cost of an important part of his troops; he allegedly said "If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined."[v]
He escaped the Italian deadlock by answering a call for help from Syracuse, which tyrant Thoenon was desperately fighting an invasion from Carthage. Pyrrhus could not let them take the whole island as it would have compromised his ambitions in the western Mediterranean and so declared war on them. At first, his Sicilian campaign was an easy triumph; he was welcomed as a liberator in every Greek city on his way, even receiving the title of king (basileus) of Sicily. The Carthaginians lifted the siege of Syracuse before his arrival, but he could not entirely oust them from the island as he failed to take their fortress of Lilybaeum. His harsh rule, especially the murder of Thoenon, whom he did not trust, soon led to a widespread antipathy among the Sicilians; some cities even defected to Carthage. In 275, Pyrrhus left the island before he had to face a full-scale rebellion. He returned to Italy, where his Samnite allies were on the verge of losing the war, desp