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After two years of negotiations, meetings, dramatic snap elections, and votes of no confidence, Britain has failed to get all its members of Parliament onboard with the best the Brexit deal the EU would offer. In the aftermath, Bloomberg declared that the EU was hurtling towards a “Pyrrhic Brexit victory.”

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But what is a “Pyrrhic Victory,” and is the term really relevant to Brexit? It’s usually used to describe a victory that came at too high a cost to ultimately be worth it, whether that victory is political, military, professional, personal, or otherwise.

The popular notion is that the term emerged from Pyrrhus’s victory over the Romans at the battle of Heraclea in 279 B.C.E. Pyrrhus was a general, later King of Epirus (an ancient state in Greece). According to many, he lost so many of his friends, generals, and troops in the battles that he declared, “One more such victory and Pyrrhus is undone.”

Some scholars, however, debate this claim. Critic Stewart Irvin Oost writes in the journal Classic Philology that the story was invented to save Roman reputation. It makes sense—it would be soothing to national pride to think that even in defeat, Romans decimated their enemies. Much of the history of Pyrrhus comes from Roman writers. Oost cites a biography of Pyrrhus which hypothesizes an entirely different conclusion to the battle. However, the biographer ultimately decides that the myth is too deeply embedded in social consciousness to attempt to make meaningful attempts at rectification.

The Military Engineer, however, explains that regardless of what happened with the landmark battle, King Pyrrhus was a brilliant historical example of hard-won, hard-fought, but ultimately meaningless victories. The journal describes Pyrrhus as “a skillful tactician and a brilliant leader—on the battlefield.” It continues:

But he ruled in a despotic way and the conquered cities rose against him whenever there was hope of successful resistance. His victories on the battlefields were simply military successes; he established nothing of permanence; he did nothing to better the condition of his own people or the people of the lands he occupied; he was merely a despot governing to suit his own whims and fancies.

Pyrrhus’ might, therefore, was ultimately secondary to his inefficacy. Whereas his strategies on the battlefield granted him victories, their lasting effects, and his legacy, remain unimpressive. It acts as a warning to short-lived wins at heavy costs—a theme we often see in politics.

The term has endured in culture, and perhaps it’s one that those involved in the Brexit proceedings should note. After the political battle is over, after all, there are still a continent of people to govern.


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Classical Philology, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Oct., 1958), pp. 256-257
The University of Chicago Press
The Military Engineer, Vol. 34, No. 197 (MARCH, 1942), p. 141
Society of American Military Engineers