The short-lived days of the Roman Empire came to an end as Greek conqueror Pyrrhus of Epirus determined to finish off the growing city. What had once been a pack of exiles and bandits who could only gain wives by stealing them during a false olympics became Rome, a masterful city-state that had taken in numerous forced allies after years of expansionistic war in Italy.
Originally of the Molossians, Pyrrhus's father had been dethroned, and he grew up in exile, learning the importance of military strength and political prowess. His father-in-law, Ptolemy of Egypt, restored him as king of Epirus in 297 BC, and Pyrrhus determined to expand his power. He attempted to conquer Macedon, but was defeated. In 281 BC, a new chance arose to build a league of allies when Tarentum on the southern end of Italy determined to revolt against the growing influence of Rome. The Oracle at Delphi told him “Aio te, AEacide, Romanos vincere posse”, meaning, "I say, Pyrrhus, that you the Romans can conquer." Armed with 3,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers, 20,000 infantry and 20 war elephants (much of his forces on lone from Egypt), Pyrrhus set off for his Italian campaign.
In 280 BC, he met the Romans in the Battle of Heraclea, defeating their larger army but taking tremendous losses not easily replaced as he was away from Epirus and his allies were wary of utterly declaring war on Rome. The Romans considered a treaty, but eventually declined and rebuilt a fresh army. The next year, he Pyrrhus again defeated the Romans at Asculum, and again his losses were so large that he commented, "One more such victory, and we shall be undone."
In 278 BC, Pyrrhus came upon two new opportunities. The Greek cities in Sicily approached him to drive out Carthage as he was driving the Romans out of southern Italy, and the Macedonians invited him to take the throne there as their king Ceraunus had been killed by barbarians. Both were glorious, but Pyrrhus determined his most important goal should be utter defeat of his present enemy, lest they counterattack and he lose his position as his father had. Taking up what was left in his coffers and forces, Pyrrhus stormed Rome with a grand army and left the city with no stone on top of another.
With Rome destroyed, Pyrrhus's influence in Italy was secure. He next took up the position as King of Sicily, driving out the Carthaginians and pacifying the Greeks in Sicily to be loyal under his command. Pyrrhus then returned to Macedon, and he was able to build up a system of diplomacy that make the Pyrrhic Empire the great power of the middle Mediterranean. He was invited by Cleonymus of Sparta to overthrow the city there, and Pyrrhus began his last campaign in 272 BC. He would be caught in the street fighting after successfully sneaking his army into the city and killed by a roofing tile thrown by an old woman. It seemed an unfitting end who Hannibal, the great statesman of the Carthaginians and conqueror of Gaul, called the greatest military commander in the world. His strategy of utterly destroying and absorbing his enemies gave birth to the phrase "Pyrrhic victory" in which a conquest is total.
In reality, Pyrrhus left the Romans to rebuild, and they would harass Italy to the point he abandoned Sicily to fight back, but was ultimately defeated after a string of "Pyrrhic victories" in which he won battles only at terrible cost. The unclear message of the Oracle stated that the Romans would conquer him, and they would in later campaigns into Illycrium. Appian noted that Hannibal called Pyrrhus the second greatest commander after Alexander.
* Idea offered by Steve Payne