Pyrrhic victory

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A Pyrrhic victory - Pyrrhic is pronounced with the ‘h’ silent and the vowel in the first syllable a short ‘i’, PI-rik IPA: /'pɪ rɪk/ - is a victory which, for the victors, is no better than a defeat – either because their losses are as heavy as, or heavier than, those of their opponents or because some other feature of the victory deprives them of the advantages they had expected to gain from it. The expression may be applied to the outcomes both of battles between armies and of ‘battles’ outside the military sphere, e.g., in politics or in private life. (The word Pyrrhic in this use is usually spelt with an initial capital letter.)

The adjective Pyrrhic in the expression ‘a Pyrrhic victory' refers to Pyrrhus (319-272 BCE), king of Epirus, a region in the northwest of Greece. Ambitious to enlarge his kingdom, Pyrrhus invaded Italy and defeated the Romans at the battle of Asculum in 279 BCE, but his casualties were so great that the victory was tantamount to a defeat, and three years later, after another battle, he abandoned his attempt to establish a presence on Roman territory.

A pyrrhic – without an initial capital – may be either

a metrical foot consisting of two short syllables (see further Less common metrical feet); or

an ancient Greek war-dance, performed while wearing armour.

The noun pyrrhic, whether referring to a type of metrical foot or to a Greek war-dance, comes from the Greek πυρρίχη (purrhiche), a war-dance. The Greek word in turn may derive either from the proper name Πυρρίχος (Purrichos), the name of the person who is said to have devised the dance, or (according to Aristotle, Fragment 519) from the fact that the dance was first performed at the funeral of the Homeric hero Patroclus: the Greek for a funeral pyre is πυρά (pura) (from πῦρ (pur), fire).

The expressions ‘a Cadmean victory' and ‘a Pyrrhic victory' have the same meaning, though the former is relatively little used. Whereas ‘a Pyrrhic victory' has its origins in Roman History, the expression ‘a Cadmean victory’ (or rather its Greek equivalent, Καδμεῖα νίκη (kadmeia nikē)) is found in Greek literature (see, e.g., Plato, Laws 641c) and has its origins in Greek mythology. The adjective Cadmean refers either to Cadmus, the mythical founder of the city of Thebes, or to the city of Thebes itself, but the particular episode in Theban mythology which was the original Cadmean victory is uncertain. Possibly the reference is to the violent conflict between the twin sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices, over the terms on which they were to exercise the joint kingship of Thebes: while their respective forces fought each other outside the walls of the city, the two brothers engaged in single combat, each mortally wounding the other; and so, although Eteocles’ forces were victorious, Eteocles himself did not enjoy the fruits of their victory.