What's the Origin of the Term Pyrrhic Victory?

Black and white drawing depicting King Pyrrhus during one of his battles.

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A Pyrrhic victory is a type of win that actually inflicts so much destruction on the victorious side that it is basically tantamount to defeat. A side that wins a Pyrrhic victory is considered ultimately victorious but the tolls suffered, and the future impact those tolls, work to negate the feeling of actual achievement. This is sometimes also referred to as a "hollow victory."

For instance, in the world of sports, if team A defeats team B in a regular-season game, but team A loses its best player to a season-ending injury during the game, that would be considered a Pyrrhic victory. Team A won the current contest. However, losing their best player for the remainder of the season would take away from any actual feeling of accomplishment or achievement that the team would typically feel after a victory.

Another example could be drawn from the battlefield. If side A defeats side B in a particular battle but loses a high number of its forces in the battle, that would be considered a Pyrrhic victory. Yes, side A won the particular battle, but the casualties suffered will have severe negative effects from Side A going forward, detracting from the overall feeling of victory. This situation is commonly referred to as “winning the battle but losing the war.”


The phrase Pyrrhic victory originates from King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who in B.C. 281 suffered the original Pyrrhic victory. King Pyrrhus landed on the southern Italian shore (in Tarentum of Magna Graecia) with 20 elephants and 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers ready to defend their fellow Greek speakers against advancing Roman domination. Pyrrhus won the first two battles at Heraclea in B.C. 280 and at Asculum in B.C. 279.

However, throughout the course of those two battles, he lost a very high number of soldiers. With numbers cut drastically, King Pyrrhus’s army became too thin to last and they eventually ended up losing the war. In both of his victories over the Romans, the Roman side suffered more casualties than Pyrrhus’ side did. But the Romans also had a much larger army to work with — thus, their casualties meant less to them than Pyrrhus’s did to his side. The term "Pyrrhic victory" comes from these devastating battles.

Greek historian Plutarch described King Pyrrhus’s victory over the Romans in his "Life of Pyrrhus:"

“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. "Pyrrhus." John Dryden (translator), The Internet Classics Archive, 75.

"Pyrrhic victory." Dictionary.com, LLC, 2019.

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Gill, N.S. "What's the Origin of the Term Pyrrhic Victory?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/pyrrhic-victory-120452. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 28). What's the Origin of the Term Pyrrhic Victory? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pyrrhic-victory-120452 Gill, N.S. "What's the Origin of the Term Pyrrhic Victory?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pyrrhic-victory-120452 (accessed June 5, 2023).