Pyrrhic Victory: Definition and Examples for Writers

by Liz Bureman | 26 comments

Pyrrhic victory is one of those terms that doesn't come up in everyday conversation. But it is an excellent allusion for any kind of win that is either too expensive or it's not satisfying because of what it cost to win. Read on to become a pro at identifying a Pyrrhic victory.

graphic of knight on one knee

Pyrrhic victory meaning

For those who might not be familiar with the term, a Pyrrhic victory is technically a win, but the excessive cost undermines the sense of triumph. That means you win, but it feels like you've lost.

Sometimes the cost includes the casualties incurred in the process of achieving the victory, but it can also be the personal cost that devastates the victor.

What is a synonym for Pyrrhic victory?

One synonym for Pyrrhic victory is a “hollow victory.” While the victor may technically have won, the losses suffered make the victory feel empty or even meaningless.

Another synonym for Pyrrhic victory is a “costly win.” This term captures the idea that the victory came at a great expense or sacrifice, making it feel burdensome or not worth celebrating.

Why is it called a Pyrrhic victory?

The term has its origins in Greek history, after the Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus defeated the Romans at the battles of Heraclea and Asculum during the Pyrrhic War, but at the cost of the vast majority of his troops. After being praised for his victory, the historian Plutarch reported that Pyrrhus responded that “one more such victory would utterly undo him.”

So a Pyrrhic victory is one that has a heavy cost and that outweighs any sense of achievement.

What is the most Pyrrhic victory in history?

Throughout history, there have been numerous examples of Pyrrhic victories, where the cost of the victory outweighed its benefits. Here are some notable examples:

  1. Battle of Asculum (279 BC): The aforementioned battle between Pyrrhus of Epirus and the Romans is often regarded as the origin of the term “Pyrrhic victory.” Despite winning the battle, Pyrrhus lost a significant portion of his forces, leaving him unable to continue his campaign effectively.
  1. Battle of Cannae (216 BC): In this battle during the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian general Hannibal defeated the Roman army under the command of Varro. While Hannibal achieved a decisive victory, the casualties suffered by both sides were immense, with estimates of Roman losses ranging from 50,000 to 70,000 soldiers. The defeat severely weakened Rome but did not break its spirit.
  1. Battle of Bunker Hill (1775): During the American Revolutionary War, the colonial forces fought the British troops at Bunker Hill in Massachusetts. Despite ultimately being forced to withdraw, the colonists inflicted heavy casualties on the British. However, the loss of soldiers, coupled with ammunition shortages, made it a costly battle for the colonial forces.
  2. Battle of Stalingrad (1942-1943): Considered one of the bloodiest battles in history, the Soviet Union successfully defended the city of Stalingrad from the Nazi German forces. While the victory marked a turning point in World War II, the Soviet Union suffered massive casualties, with estimates ranging from 1.1 to 1.5 million deaths. The city itself was left largely destroyed.

Note that other examples might include financial costs or familial costs as well. It serves as a reminder that not all victories are worth celebrating when the toll on human lives and resources is too high.

Pyrrhic victory examples in literature

Pyrrhic victories are popular in works that take place in a darker or more cynical setting. They pop up in almost all of Shakespeare's tragedies (Hamlet is a great example), and a good deal of post-apocalyptic literature will feature at least one Pyrrhic victory.

  1. From Greek Mythology: The Trojan War

One of the most famous examples of a Pyrrhic victory is the Trojan War. In this epic conflict, the Greeks besieged the city of Troy for ten years. Eventually, they managed to breach the city's defenses with the help of the famous Trojan Horse. However, their victory came at a great cost as many Greek warriors perished during the long years of war.

The loss of brave warriors like Achilles and Patroclus left an indelible mark on the Greek army. Thus, while the Greeks achieved their objective of capturing Troy, their victory came at an enormous cost.

  1. From Shakespeare's Macbeth: The Battle of Dunsinane

In William Shakespeare's play Macbeth, the titular character faces a battle with forces led by Malcolm and Macduff at Dunsinane. Despite being heavily outnumbered and facing certain defeat, Macbeth fights valiantly and manages to kill Young Siward, a member of the opposing army.

However, his triumph is short-lived as Macduff reveals that he was “untimely ripped” from his mother's womb and therefore not technically “born of woman.” Realizing Macduff poses a great threat, Macbeth realizes that his victory, even in killing Young Siward, will ultimately be futile and lead to his downfall.

Macbeth's triumph in battle doesn't deliver what he hoped it would and makes his situation worse. It's definitely a hollow victory.

3. Mockingjay by Susanne Collins

A more modern example of a Pyrrhic victory is found in The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. In the final book, Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen leads a rebellion against the oppressive Capitol. As the conflict escalates, Katniss makes strategic decisions that ultimately lead to the overthrow of President Snow and the establishment of a new government.

However, in the process, Katniss loses many friends and allies, including her sister Prim. The toll of the war on both sides is immense, with countless lives lost and entire districts destroyed. Despite achieving their goal of overthrowing the Capitol, the cost of victory is devastating for Katniss and those around her.

This example from The Hunger Games exemplifies a Pyrrhic victory, where the price paid for success is too high. Despite achieving their objective, the characters are left with heavy hearts from the enormous losses that overshadow any sense of triumph. A moral victory isn't always enough to justify heavy losses. 

Count the cost

Pyrrhic victories serve as cautionary tales about the consequences of pursuing victory at all costs. While achieving a goal may seem like a win on the surface, it is essential to consider whether the price paid in terms of lives, resources, or other assets justify the win. 

The lingering question for any Pyrrhic victory is this: Was it worth it?

What do you think of Pyrrhic victories in stories? Do you have a favorite example of a Pyrrhic victory? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Write a scene that deals with a Pyrrhic victory. It could be before events unfold as the protagonist is weighing the cost of their plan, or after the win as the survivors are left to put their lives back together. Post your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

26 Comments

  1. Dawn Atkin

    Magdala hung her head. Her feet trod soft and sombre across the blanket of damp twigs and old leaves. The warriors behind her were quiet. Their chatter had reduced to sobs and muted sighs. She swung the staff of twisted vine absently before her, prodding piles of winter detritus and wincing as each stroke in the decay gave way to hollows of nothing.

    The Warrior Women had scoured the hills for many days, seeking the Archers from the Valley clan. They had feasted on berries and the occasional pigeon, shared stories of prowess and victory around small camp fires by night. Flames had locked their stories up in to wisps of orange light and tendrils of grey smoke. They’d sung ancient dialect to their ancestors, had watched their words travel up through the understory high into the forest canopy. Chants were called, protection invoked, guidance requested. They had worn their breast plates high and tight reaching across their chests and resting at the edge of their tattooed throats. They had stretched their hearts to touch each other, reached for each others strengths and cleansed their hair and hands with the smoke of Peroonis and Balga bark. Their unity was mighty. They breathed the one breath. They called the one call.

    The Valley Archers were easy to stalk. Their daily routine was impressively timed with the short curve of the sun and the reaching of late shadows that touched tips with the fingers of twilight.

    The Warrior Women had camped on a ledge to the east and watched these movements for fpur whole days as was the way of the Word. Their silent descent into the valley camp by the light of the mustard half-moon was assisted by the ten ancient hand movements that spoke without words and drunk any sins of covet or gluttony.

    They were ready.

    And they pounced through the half dark, from behind great rocks they leapt and gathered the stores they had for many moons desired. Deer skins and skeins of winter-lamb wool were gathered in hessian sacks and rolled and held with plaited hide-sinew lace. And they ran silent through the night to the dark end of the valley and disappeared in to the soft black shadows. No lives were threatened, no blades were drawn, not one drop of blood was compromised for the bounty.

    Yet it was the mighty mouth of winter river that demanded barter. It’s wordless roar choked the passage to the eastern slope. It’s slurring froth tumbled along boulders and fizzed and hissed at its stoney edge. Magdala had signalled the group forward and upwards; a climb over slippery rounded basalt and among darkened crevices. The hollow of the river swallowed four of the younger Warrior Women stationed at the back of the troop. Their wails bounced into echoes and disappeared into darkness.

    Magdala trudged slowly on. The High Slopers would be glad of her return and the many skins and skeins that would ensure some winter warmth and trade for grain. Yet the loss of her young-skin warriors raped any glory she may have felt and sliced her veins to ice.

    Reply
    • Susan

      Dawn, as soon as I see your name in the responses, my heart jumps, knowing that my imagination will be given a treat and my budding skills will be buttressed by example. My eyes eagerly sift through your words, the sensations and images swirling around and soaking in. Each line is crafted to allow each word the freedom to add its own substantial contribution to the image projected, surprised and delighted to take on a role not often offered to them by other writers. Your combinations of words are enriching in the tale and in the practice. Thanks for sharing your talent.

    • Dawn Atkin

      Hi Susan
      Far out! Thanks for your beautifully articulated, generous and encouraging response.
      I’m speechless, smiling and stirred to action.

      Warm Regards
      Dawn

    • Susan W A

      My work here is done. (hee hee). Love that my words made an impact. I think I will carry with me awhile the image I conjured up about the words being thankful for being able to take on new roles. : ) Your work certainly exemplifies that.

    • Marco Batenburg

      Wow… I mean… wow… This blows my temperate and abstemious Dutch mind in a way it has never been blown before. The way you describe the winter river and casually mention the swallowing of four younger Warrior Women by aforementioned river is brilliant.
      I’m speechless, without words (which is practically the same), humbled. I salute you, oh great Warrior Woman.

    • Dawn Atkin

      Hi Marco
      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.
      I had to look up the word ‘abstemious’, so I’ve got the added bonus of a new word for the day from your reply. 🙂

      Regards Dawn

    • Susan W A

      I know I’m keeping company with amazing, talented individuals when the response to another’s work stirs an emotional reaction. When I read your exuberance, I was filled with gratitude to be witness to this type of support and sharing. Love your passion and phrasing: “Wow… I mean … wow…”;” … is brilliant.”; “I’m speechless [love the nuance]… humbled” ; “Warrior Woman” (great). Your message clearly reflects the impact Dawn’s creative expression had on you at that moment. Magnificent to be inspired.

    • Kevin Dowling

      Good god. So rich and the Pyrrhic victory beautifully understated. Awesome.

    • Dawn Atkin

      Gee, thanks Kevin.
      It’s very encouraging to get feedback.
      Much appreciated.
      Dawn

  2. Dawn Atkin

    That was a bit of fun. Not my usual writing style or narrative but a good opportunity to have a play/practice.
    Thanks Liz
    🙂

    Reply
  3. Jan Flynn-White

    This article is great. It is exactly how my current WIP ends. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t realize there was a name for the style. Thanks for the information, Liz.

    Reply
  4. PJ Reece

    Great topic, Liz. My mind went immediately to “Rocky,” and how that story might have ended with a pyrrhic victory. If Rocky had simply pushed ahead, trained a little harder, and beat Apollo Creed for the heavyweight championship, and in the process gotten his brains pulverized, he would have his victory but would not have settled his most profound personal issue — that of facing up to an attitude that has kept him down. The writer realized what was more important to Rocky than any superficial victory — it was to free him from himself. That’s what happens at the heart of the story. And Sylvester Stallone does it perfectly, and that’s why that film went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1976.

    Reply
  5. George McNeese

    This is a difficult topic, but a good one. I can’t think of any examples in literature, but one animated show comes to mind. In “Superman: The Animated Series,” Metropolis celebrates a moral victory before Darkseid kills Lieutenant Dan Turpin, the most vocal and defiant voices against Darkseid’s attempt to take over Earth. Superman, of course, is furious that Darkseid would be so nonchalant about killing someone. What stands out about this scene is Darkseid’s statement, which is prevalent in these Pyrrhic victories, is that “victory has its price.”

    Reply
  6. Melissa Worcester

    So if I understand this correctly, a good example from real life would be the atomic bombs the US dropped on Japan at the end of WWII? And something that would not be an example would probably be blowing up the Death Star in Star Wars?

    Reply
    • Susan W A

      Insightful example … Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Victory” at what cost?

    • Kevin Dowling

      Did the bombs provide hell to the “victors” after years of war and such hate?

  7. Kevin Dowling

    Today, real life example are at a personal level. A promotion at work over a friend. Arguments with a spouse. How I imagine my eight year daughter feels when she beats me at Sleeping Queens.

    Reply
  8. BluRose

    She sat in a ancient meeting room of a library somewhere in northern Wisconsin. Her cellphone bathed in tears and hot against her cheek. Across the table, her father sits motionless, his eyes trained on an old catalogue on the dusty wooden shelf.

    How did this all happen? Society sides with the mother, and yet her two daughters were now no longer hers. They belonged to their fathers now-legally she was no longer their guardian. Her young wish finally has come to fruition; so why has the heavy curtain fallen across her shoulders? Why did she feel a hole deeper than her soul widen just a little more? The iron wedge between her and her father even sharper now? The elephant in the meeting room had just sprung five feet taller and turned a strange bluish hue—her daughter’s favorite color.

    Regardless, or maybe in spite of being told that it was impossible for a human to travel to another destination through her mind, she quickly flew in spirit across Wisconsin, over small and large Minnesotan lakes to a small blip of a town on the edge of the Midwestern state whose double just lays a bridge and a state line away. Where were they?

    Reply
  9. Helaine Grenova

    “Oh so YOU think that you are always right?”

    I sigh, listening to my best friend, Ana, rant and rave
    about my test score, which as usual was higher than hers. She knows that I do
    not study often, but still am able to get high scores; in contrast she is never
    able to get a high score, unless she spend several hours of studying on the
    material. This week she was so busy, we both were, that she was unable to
    study. She had been ranting for a few days now, and I was getting sick of it.

    “Don’t sigh at me! It isn’t fair that you can do so well without studying. How
    do you do it? DO you cheat? You must cheat. It is the only way that you can get
    such high grades.”

    My temper rises. How DARE she accuse me of cheating! My best friend since first
    grade! She thinks that my grades are because I cheated instead of because of a
    good memory and retention skills.

    “HOW DARE YOU ACCUSE ME OF CHEATING!!! You know better than anyone else that I
    have a good memory and can retain information very well. I TOLD you that years
    ago, when I offered to help you study for all of your tests and quizzes.”

    “Yeah, well, maybe if you could PROVE your claims then I would believe you. But
    since I KNOW that you study for tests just as hard as I do, I don’t believe you
    anymore.”

    “I’ve proven it to you by reading random quote back to you from finance section
    of the newspaper.”

    “I think
    you just memorize specific sections just so that I don’t catch on to your dirty
    little secret!”

    “I DO NOT
    CHEAT!” I yell at the top of my voice. Ana looks stunned. I have never yelled
    at her like this before. “I AM SICK AND TIRED OF YOU ACTING LIKE A BABY WHEN I
    GET HIGHER SCORES.”

    Ana looks
    at me stricken. She whispers quietly “if that is how you feel then I will
    leave.”

    “Good! And don’t
    come back!”

    “Fine!”

    Reply
    • Dawn Atkin

      Good work Helaine.
      MC won the fight and lost a friend.
      I really identified with the schoolgirl environment.

  10. Paul

    Garrity looked at the sliver of white in his hand, then at the small pile of fur his wife called a dog. The Pomeranian would chew up the heels of his shoes as readily as a rawhide bone. It would eat its own poo. But damned if it would swallow a pill.

    “Muffin,” he called sweetly.  The Pomeranian’s ears perked up, then laid flat. She ran into the living room and hid under the ottoman.

    “Okay,” Garrity muttered, and got a bag of soft chew treats from the cabinet.  He rustled and crinkled the bag as he pulled out a treat and shoved the pill into its center, but Muffin did not take the bait.

    Garrity got down on his hands and knees in front of the ottoman and held the laced treat out in his open palm.  “Muffin, don’t you want your treat?”  The dog licked its lips, but did not move. 

    Garrity pushed the ottoman backwards until it bumped into the couch. Muffin scooted along with the ottoman, eyes never leaving the treat.  So Garrity dropped the treat just beyond the edge of the ottoman.  Muffin darted out, grabbed the treat, and scurried back to her shelter.  She chomped and smacked loudly as she ate, and Garrity grinned the grin of one who has outsmarted a wily opponent.
    Muffin emerged from beneath the ottoman, rolled her tongue around in her mouth, and dropped the pill by Garrity’s feet.

    “Why, you…”

    Muffin did not stay to listen.

    Garrity picked up the pill and returned to the kitchen. He pulled a slice of American cheese from the refrigerator. Wrapping the pill inside a portion of the slice, he folded and molded the substance until it was a slightly gooey little ball.

    “Muffin,” he called again. “Where’d ya go?”

    He found the dog upstairs, sitting on top of the bed.  Muffin jumped down when Garrity entered the bedroom, and wriggled her way into the maze of shoe boxes, greeting card file folders, and rolls of wrapping paper that his wife stored beneath the bed.  Garrity cursed and began pulling the stuff out from under the bed with his left hand, gooey ball of cheese in his right.  He found Muffin surrounded by a family of dust bunnies.  Garrity shoved his arm in as far as he could reach and tossed the cheese ball in Muffin’s direction. The dust bunnies ran up and down his arm, clinging to the sleeve of his sweatshirt as he drew his arm back out.

    Garrity watched as Muffin let the cheese roll around in her mouth, ensuring any dairy product would be cleaned off the hard pill-y center before spitting it out.

    Damn. Why couldn’t they have gotten a real dog? he wondered. A big dog would have swallowed a piece of cheese with only the thought of getting some more.  A big dog wouldn’t have given a damn about some pill.  But Laura wouldn’t hear of getting a Lab, or even a Golden Retriever. They had to have a small dog. Easier to take care of, she said.

    “Easier my ass.” Garrity went back downstairs. He picked out another white sliver of medicine for the dog.  He pulled out a jar of peanut butter, and shoved the pill into a wad of the stuff.

    Garrity found the dog back on top of the bed. This time Muffin did not move as Garrity approached and wiped the ball of peanut butter on top of her nose.  She seemed to give Garrity a discouraged look, then attempted to pull the peanut butter off her nose with her tongue. When that didn’t work, she shoved her nose onto the comforter to wipe the peanut butter off. 

    “No! Bad dog!” Garrity shouted, grasping for the Pomeranian. But Muffin danced out of his reach, wiping her head vigorously back and forth on the comforter until satisfied her nose was clean.

    “Bad dog!” Garrity repeated, and lunged for Muffin.  With a surprised yip, she darted off the bed and into the closet.

    “Oh, no you don’t!”  Garrity shouted, and dove after her. His hand clamped down on her back, shoving her body to the floor. Muffin yelped, and yelped again as Garrity’s other hand got a firmer grasp on her.  Garrity pulled her from the closet, howling and screaming, and letting loose a steady stream of pee. 

    “Aw, shit!” he shouted, and whipped the dog to face him, shoving her belly to his chest.  Paying little attention to the spreading warmth on his shirt, he reached around behind him until his finger found the pill sliver atop the bedspread.  He swiped it up and shoved his finger into the yapping dog’s mouth, and clamped a hand over her snout to squeeze the mouth shut. 

    They sat there for several long moments, dog struggling and whimpering, scratching at Garrity’s sodden shirt with well-Dremeled paws.

    “The vet makes this look so damned easy,” Garrity said to the room.  He surveyed the wreakage.  Muffin had managed to tag most of his work clothes, and was that…? He looked closer at the mess in his closet.

    Yup. She’d let a little dog poo get out, too.

    He felt Muffin’s throat go up, and down.  He looked at her, and slowly moved his hand away from her mouth.  She began panting from all the exertion, her mouth stretched back into a smile as if all were forgiven, her tongue lolling out…

    Empty.  She had swallowed the pill.

    Garrity scratched Muffin behind the ears. 

    “Twice a day,” he sighed. “We get to do this twice a day.”

    Reply
    • Dawn Atkin

      Now that is a great piece of descriptive, creative writing.
      Thanks for sharing

    • Susan W A

      “Twice a day” … LOL ! !
      I’m exhausted! Love how you made the mundane interesting.
      Some feedback… I felt like reading “Garrity” so many times in the story became a little distracting. Perhaps you could find a way to mix it up a bit. Not sure how. In addition to pronouns, I was thinking something like, “the exasperated husband” , but that doesn’t really work.
      I enjoyed the story, with the Vet comment accompanying the survey of the destruction, and the punch line is priceless.

  11. Young_Cougar

    “Congratulations, General!”
    I smiled, and bowed in recognition of my companion. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
    Queen Elenor grinned, “So, how does it feel?”
    I shrugged, “I think I’m still getting used to it. After all these years….”

    The queen laughed. “As is to be expected.”
    I smiled, and bowed again as the queen left. Bitch!
    I sighed. My feet and heart heavy I headed for my room.
    18 years. 10 generals. Half of the population dead. All of our terrine burn or destroyed. All for what?
    Pouring my self a glass of wine. I though about my father, brother, and sisters. All soldiers, all dead…..all fallen in the duty of the nation.
    “No, not for the nation,” I reminded myself. “All for the bitch. All so that bitch could have her jewels and pride.”
    I clutched the goblet in my hands, I sighed.
    I thought a glance at my father portrait. “Sorry Father. But that bitch has to die.”

    Reply
  12. hecate

    I cannot think of a war that has not been a pyrrhic victory. A war that has not left grief, anger, loss and resentment behind it. A war that has not been waged without innocent lives coldly lost. Or indeed a war that has not been caused by greed, power-lust and a disregard for humanity.
    Some woman (unfortunately I forget who) asked the succinct question ‘What if they gave a war and nobody came?’
    Love all the pieces on here – but especially Garrity!

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

Vestige Rise of the Pureblood
- Antonio Roberts
Surviving Death
- Sarah Gribble
88
Share to...