A Pyrrhic victory (/ˈpɪrɪk/ PIRR-ik) is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat.[1] Such a victory negates any true sense of achievement or damages long-term progress.

James G. Blaine finally gained the 1884 Republican nomination for US president on his third attempt: "Another victory like this and our money's gone!"

The phrase originates from a quote from Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose triumph against the Romans in the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC destroyed much of his forces, forcing the end of his campaign.

Etymology edit

A "Pyrrhic victory" is named after King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose army suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC and the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC, during the Pyrrhic War. After the latter battle, Plutarch relates in a report by Dionysius:

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. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.

— Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus[2]

In both Epirote victories, the Romans suffered greater casualties, but they had a much larger pool of replacements, so the casualties had less impact on the Roman war effort than the losses had on the campaign of King Pyrrhus.

The report is often quoted as:

Ne ego si iterum eodem modo vicero, sine ullo milite Epirum revertar.
If I achieve such a victory again, I shall return to Epirus without any soldier.


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

— Plutarch[4]

Examples edit

War edit

This list comprises examples of battles that ended in a Pyrrhic victory. It is not intended to be complete but to illustrate the concept.

Last stand and final charge from the fortress of Szigetvár (painting by Johann Peter Krafft, 1825)
Japanese aircraft prepare to take off from Shōkaku during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands
The ruined streets of Vukovar ten days after its surrender
  • Battle of Asculum (279 BC),[4] Pyrrhus of Epirus and Italian allies against the Roman Republic: the Romans, though suffering twice as many casualties, could easily replenish their ranks. Pyrrhus lost most of his commanders and a great part of the forces he had brought to Italy, and he withdrew to Sicily.
  • Battle of Avarayr (451),[5][6] Vardan Mamikonian and Christian Armenian rebels against the Sassanid Empire: the Persians were victorious and forced the outnumbered Armenians to retreat, but lost so many soldiers that the battle proved to be a strategic victory for Armenians, as Avarayr paved the way to the Nvarsak Treaty (484 AD), which assured Armenian autonomy and religious freedom.
  • Siege of Szigetvár (1566),[7][8] Ottoman–Habsburg wars: although the Ottomans won the siege after 33 days, it can be seen as a Pyrrhic victory because of the heavy Ottoman casualties, the death of Sultan Suleiman, and the resulting delay to the Ottoman push for Vienna that year which suspended Ottoman expansion in Europe.
  • Siege of Ostend (1601–1604),[9][10][11] Eighty Years' War: for three years the Spanish attempted to capture this port from Dutch and English defenders, even as the Dutch expanded their territory further east – including capturing the port of Sluis to replace Ostend before surrendering. The Spaniards ultimately captured the city, but the vast cost and casualties of the siege were compounded by Spain's subsequent campaign to recapture the Dutch gains, which achieved little, and by 1607 Spain was bankrupt. The resultant Twelve Years' Truce effectively made the Dutch Republic an independent state.
  • Battle of Malplaquet (1709),[12][13][14] War of the Spanish Succession: the battle was an Allied victory because Marlborough's army kept possession of the battlefield and forced the French to retreat, but it had suffered double the French casualties and could not pursue. The French army withdrew in good order and relatively intact, and it remained a potent threat to further Allied operations.
  • Battle of Gangwana (1741) fought between 1,000 strong Rathore cavalry of Jodhpur and combined armies of Mughal Empire, and Jaipur numbering 100,000 with hundreds of cannons and artillery at Gangwana. Jaipur emerged victorious but with heavy losses of 12,000 killed and thousands other wounded[15][16]
  • Battle of Bunker Hill (1775),[17][18] American Revolutionary War: after mounting three assaults on the colonial forces, the British won control of the Boston peninsula in the early stages of the war, but the engagement cost them many more casualties than the Americans had incurred (including a large number of officers) and led them to adopt more cautious methods, which helped American rebel forces; the political repercussions increased colonial support for independence.
  • Battle of Guilford Court House (1781),[19][20] American Revolutionary War: in this short battle, the outnumbered British force defeated an American army; the British lost a considerable number of men, and their drive to conquer the southern colonies changed course.
  • Battle of Chancellorsville (1863),[21] American Civil War: General Robert E. Lee split his army in the face of Joseph Hooker's larger Union force; the audacious strategy allowed the Confederate army to win the day against a numerically superior foe. However, 20% of Lee's army was injured or killed, including General Stonewall Jackson, and his losses were difficult to replace. Lee's weakened army went on the offensive, but less than two months later was defeated and forced to retreat after the Battle of Gettysburg.
  • Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (1942),[22][23][24] World War II, Solomon Islands Campaign: Japanese and Allied naval forces met during the struggle for Guadalcanal and nearby islands. After an exchange of carrier air attacks, U.S. surface ships retreated with one aircraft carrier sunk along with a destroyer and another carrier and a battleship severely damaged. The Japanese carrier forces achieved a tactical victory, as none of their ships were sunk, but the heavy loss of 100 airplanes and irreplaceable veteran aircrews was to the strategic advantage of the Allies. Japanese ground forces on Guadalcanal had also just lost the Battle for Henderson Field and were in no position to take advantage of the new situation.
  • Battle of Chosin Reservoir (1950),[25][26] Korean War: the Chinese army attempted to encircle and destroy the much smaller United Nations forces, but in a 17-day battle in freezing weather, the U.N. forces inflicted crippling losses on the Chinese while making a fighting withdrawal. The Chinese occupied northeast Korea but they did not recover until the spring, and the U.N. maintained a foothold in Korea.
  • Second Battle of Quảng Trị (1972), Vietnam War: The army of the Republic of Vietnam, with the support of ground artillery, ship gunboats, and bombers, attacked the ancient citadel of Quảng Trị. Although the citadel was recaptured after 81 days and nights, the ARVN army was weakened and after only 2 years, the Republic of Vietnam collapsed and the communists unified the North and South.
  • Battle of Vukovar (1991),[27][28] Croatian War of Independence: the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) laid siege to the city of Vukovar, held by the Croatian National Guard and civilian volunteers. After 87 days, the ruined city fell to the JNA. Although the city was besieged from all sides, it exhausted the Yugoslav army and Serbian paramilitaries that had about twenty times more soldiers and complete armoured and artillery superiority, and they had twice as many losses. It was a turning point in the Croatian War of Independence.

Politics, sports and law edit

The term is used as an analogy in business, politics and sport to describe struggles that end up ruining the victor. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr commented on the necessity of coercion in preserving the course of justice by warning,

Moral reason must learn how to make coercion its ally without running the risk of a Pyrrhic victory in which the ally exploits and negates the triumph.

— Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr[29]

In Beauharnais v. Illinois, a 1952 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a charge proscribing group libel, Associate Justice Black alluded to Pyrrhus in his dissent,

If minority groups hail this holding as their victory, they might consider the possible relevancy of this ancient remark: "Another such victory and I am undone".

— Hugo Black[30]

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ Gill, N.S. (November 16, 2019). "What Is a Pyrrhic Victory, and How Did the Term Begin?". ThoughtCo. Archived from the original on April 23, 2023. Retrieved November 25, 2023.
  2. ^ Plutarch (trans. John Dryden) Pyrrhus, hosted on The Internet Classics Archive
  3. ^ Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri, IV, 1.15.
  4. ^ a b Plutarch. "The Life of Pyrrhus". Parallel Lives. Vol. IX (1920 ed.). Loeb Classical Library. p. 21.8. Retrieved January 26, 2017.
  5. ^ Hewsen, Robert H. (August 17, 2011). "AVARAYR". Encyclopædia Iranica. So spirited was the Armenian defense, however, that the Persians suffered enormous losses as well. Their victory was pyrrhic and the king, faced with troubles elsewhere, was forced, at least for the time being, to allow the Armenians to worship as they chose.
  6. ^ Susan Paul Pattie (1997). Faith in History: Armenians Rebuilding Community. Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 40. ISBN 1560986298. The Armenian defeat in the Battle of Avarayr in 451 proved a pyrrhic victory for the Persians. Though the Armenians lost their commander, Vartan Mamikonian, and most of their soldiers, Persian losses throughout battles in the 4th to 6th century were proportionately heavy, close to 350,000, and Armenia was allowed to remain Christian.
  7. ^ Kohn, George C., ed. (2006). Dictionary of Wars (Third ed.). Infobase Publishing. p. 47. ISBN 978-0-8160-6577-6.
  8. ^ Lázár, István; Tezla, Albert (1999). An Illustrated History of Hungary (6th ed.). Budapest: Corvina Books. p. 70. ISBN 978-963-13-4887-3.
  9. ^ Motley, John Lothrop (1908). Motley's Dutch Nation: Being the Rise of the Dutch Republic (1555-1584). University of Wisconsin: Harper & brothers. p. 754. For three years Ostend had occupied the entire Spanish army exhausting entirely the resources of Spain while leaving the Dutch free to increase their wealth and power by trade and commerce. It had paid to defend Ostend
  10. ^ Cortés, Manuel Lomas (2008). La expulsión de los moriscos del Reino de Aragón: política y administración de una deportación (1609–1611). Centro de Estudios Mudéjares. p. 38. ISBN 9788496053311. la pirrica victoria en el sitio de Ostende
  11. ^ Maland, David (1980). Europe at war 1600–1650. Rowman and Littlefield. ISBN 9780847662135. it was in many ways a Pyrrhic victory, because Maurice in 1604 led his troops against Sluys. What began as a diversionary raid to lure Spain from Ostend developed into a properly conducted siege and since neither side would take risk of interfering with the others siege works the fall of Ostend was balanced by the fall of Sluys - which it could be argued was more useful to the United Provinces.[permanent dead link]
  12. ^ Lynn, John A. (1999). The Wars of Louis XIV: 1667–1714. London: Longman. p. 334. ISBN 0-582-05629-2. Marlborough's triumph proved to be a Pyrrhic victory
  13. ^ Delbrück, Hans (1985). History of the Art of War, Volume IV: The Dawn of Modern Warfare. Translated by Renfroe, Walter J. Eastport, Conn.: Praeger. p. 370. ISBN 0-8032-6586-7. Malplaquet was what has been termed with the age-old expression a "Pyrrhic victory"...
  14. ^ In a letter to Louis XIV, the French general Villars wrote: "Si Dieu nous fait la grâce de perdre encore une pareille bataille, Votre Majesté peut compter que tous ses ennemis seront détruits." ["If God gives us the grace of losing such a battle again, Your Majesty may expect that all his enemies will be destroyed."]; Anquetil, Louis-Pierre, Histoire de France depuis les Gaulois jusqu'à la mort de Louis XVI (1819), Paris: Chez Janet et Cotelle, p. 241.
  15. ^ Fall Of The Mughal Empire - Vol. I (4th ed.), volume 1, pp. 175-176
  16. ^ Rajasthan Through the Ages. Sarup & Sons. 2008-01-01. p. 154. ISBN 9788176258418. Battle of Gangwana 1741.
  17. ^ Clinton, Henry (1954). Willcox, William B. (ed.). The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton's Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782. Yale University Press. OCLC 1305132. A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.
  18. ^ "Battle of Bunker Hill". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. December 8, 2016. Retrieved January 25, 2016. Although the British eventually won the battle, it was a Pyrrhic victory that lent considerable encouragement to the revolutionary cause.
  19. ^ British Whig Party leader and war critic Charles James Fox said, "Another such victory would ruin the British Army!". Baker, Thomas E. Another Such Victory, Eastern Acorn Press, 1981, ISBN 0-915992-06-X.
  20. ^ McGrath, Nick. "Battle of Guilford Courthouse". George Washington’s Mount Vernon: Digital Encyclopedia. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Retrieved January 26, 2017. In three hours, Cornwallis's army took possession of the field, but it was a Pyrrhic victory... Cornwallis could not afford the casualties his army sustained, and withdrew to Wilmington. By doing so, Cornwallis ceded control of the countryside to the Continentals.
  21. ^ Evan Andrews (1 September 2015). "5 Famous Pyrrhic Victories". History. A&E Television Networks, LLC. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  22. ^ Levine, Alan J. (1995). The Pacific War: Japan Versus the Allies. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. p. 104. ISBN 0-275-95102-2. Retrieved January 26, 2017. This battle of the Santa Cruz Islands was clearly a Japanese victory; the sole Japanese victory in a carrier battle during the war. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, which the Japanese were in no condition to exploit. The damage to their carriers was serious, and their plane losses were very heavy. Moreover, the land-based air force at Rabaul was exhausted; many of its best pilots were dead. In late October, the Japanese air effort fell off steeply. Because of its heavy losses and inadequate pilot training program, the Japanese naval air force had already slipped into a qualitative decline from which it never recovered.
  23. ^ Pike, Francis (2015). "Guadalcanal: Henderson Field and the Santa Cruz Islands (September 1942 - January 1943)". Hirohito's War: The Pacific War, 1941-1945. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. p. 509. ISBN 978-1-4725-9670-3. Retrieved January 26, 2017. Vice-Admiral Nagumo, who was transferred to shore duty after the battle, reported to the Combined Fleet with greater than usual insight and honesty, "This battle was a tactical win, but a shattering strategic loss for Japan. Considering the great superiority of our enemy's industrial capacity, we must win every battle overwhelmingly to win this war. This last one, although a victory, unfortunately, was not an overwhelming victory." Naval victories are usually counted in ships lost but given the destruction of the cream of the Japanese Navy's aircrews, it could even be argued that, in the case of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, the Japanese came off worst. Reporting several weeks after the battle, Nimitz too correctly calibrated the result of the battle: "This battle cost us the lives of many gallant men, many planes and two ships that could ill be spared... We nevertheless turned back the Japanese again in their offensive to regain Guadalcanal and shattered their carrier air strength on the eve on the critical days of mid-November. It was indeed a pyrrhic victory."
  24. ^ Toll, Ian W. (2015). The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944. Pacific War Trilogy. Vol. II. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393080643. Retrieved January 26, 2017. As at Coral Sea, the contest would go into the books as a tactical victory for the Japanese but a strategic victory for the Americans... The Japanese press reported another triumph, and the rank and file cheered another fantastic victory. But the senior commanders of the navy privately acknowledged that the result had been, at best, a pyrrhic victory.
  25. ^ Xu, Yan (徐焰) (1990), 第一次较量:抗美援朝战争的历史回顾与反思 [First Confrontation: Reviews and Reflections on the History of War to Resist America and Aid Korea] (in Chinese), Beijing: Chinese Radio and Television Publishing House, p. 59, ISBN 978-7-5043-0542-8
  26. ^ Roe, Patrick C. (2000), The Dragon Strikes: China and the Korean War, June-December 1950, Novato, California: Presidio, p. 412, ISBN 978-0-89141-703-3
  27. ^ Woodward, Susan L. (1995). Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. p. 258. ISBN 978-0-8157-9513-1.
  28. ^ Central Intelligence Agency Office of Russian and European Analysis (2000). Balkan Battlegrounds: A Military History of the Yugoslav Conflict, 1990–1995: Volume 1. Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency. p. 99. ISBN 978-0-16-066472-4.
  29. ^ Niebuhr, Reinhold Moral Man and Immoral Society, published by Scribner, 1932 and 1960, reprinted by Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, ISBN 0-664-22474-1, ISBN 978-0-664-22474-5 p. 238.
  30. ^ Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 250 (U.S. 1952).