What is a Pyrrhic Victory?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Whenever the cost of a battle far outweighs the benefits of winning, the result is often called a "Pyrrhic victory." A Pyrrhic victory is essentially no victory at all, since the "victor" usually suffers irreparable damage and significant losses of its own. The term Pyrrhic victory comes from the actions of a king named Pyrrhus, who led his Epirian army to a bloody and costly victory over the Roman army around 280 BC. Pyrrhus' losses were so devastating that he is said to have exclaimed his kingdom could not survive another "victory" against the Romans.

The initial phases of the invasion of Normandy could be seen as a Pyrrhic victory for the Allies, who lost many soldiers in the first hours of the battle they eventually won.
The initial phases of the invasion of Normandy could be seen as a Pyrrhic victory for the Allies, who lost many soldiers in the first hours of the battle they eventually won.

A Pyrrhic victory is often ascribed to military campaigns with dubious outcomes for the victors, such as the initial invasion of Normandy during the waning days of World War II. Although the invading Allied troops benefited greatly from some diversionary tactics, the beaches at Normandy were still heavily defended by anti-landing devices, barbed wire and fortified pillboxes with trained machine gunners. The first wave of Allied troops suffered tremendous losses in a futile attempt to breach those defenses. The Allied forces eventually won the battle, but the first few hours were arguably a Pyrrhic victory.

The term Pyrrhic victory has since moved from the military world into the business, legal and social worlds. In business, a company could leverage so much of its assets to acquire another company that the resulting merger sinks it financially. While the company can still claim ownership of a high-profile new division, the resultant costs in terms of employee attrition or available capital could make it a Pyrrhic victory. History is filled with examples of companies which have been crippled or damaged by investing too much money to acquire too little benefit, or those who have pursued expensive legal battles with little hope of a financial recovery through a favorable judgment.

The legal system is also fraught with examples of Pyrrhic victories. Individuals and small companies who take on major corporations in court often find themselves with massive legal bills and no relief in sight. Even if the court finds in their favor and orders the defendants to pay actual or punitive damages, the case could still remain in the appeals process for years. Collection of judgments may also be problematic, and the plaintiff's attorneys are entitled to a significant percentage of those judgments. A victory in court may be emotionally satisfying for the plaintiff, but financially it could be considered a Pyhrric victory.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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My father-in-law and his wife wanted to buy an old haunted house and turn it into a restaurant. They thought that the legend surrounding it would draw in customers for more than just the food.

They had a hard time convincing the owner, who had abandoned the house years ago, to sell it. They finally made him a very generous offer he couldn’t turn down, and they got their building. They never suspected it would turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

They put so much money into remodeling that they were broke by the time it opened. They felt confident that they could do enough business in the first month to build their finances back up.

The food was excellent, but the local legend was too ingrained in the community’s mind. Most of the residents were too scared to eat there. The only customers they had were people from out of town who were just passing through and hungry.


My brother won a Pyrrhic victory when he fought for a storage locker at an auction. No one knew what was inside, and bidding on it was definitely a gamble. Everyone had heard stories of lockers containing valuable antiques or jewelry, and they longed to play the game in hopes of striking gold.

The locker he was bidding on was particularly big. He just knew something valuable had to be inside, like maybe a car or something large. He went back and forth with this other guy who had the same idea.

He won with the final bid of $700. His hand trembled as he turned the key. Inside, he found nothing but clothes and canned food. What a Pyrrhic victory it turned out to be!


I had a Pyrrhic victory in elementary school. I wanted to hang with the cool kids, and I gave up a lot for that privilege, only to find it wasn’t worth what I sacrificed.

I originally hung out with the outcasts. I had other options, but these were the nicest kids.

One of the cool kids asked me why I was hanging out with them when I could be with the “in” crowd. She told me that if I would ditch my friends, I could join their clique.

I really can’t remember what it was about them that appealed to me, but at the time, I wanted to be part of their group so bad. I stopped sitting with my friends at lunch and talking to them at recess. I know I hurt their feelings, and it hurt me to do it.

Once I finally got into the cool crowd, I found it to be empty and devoid of substance. This was my first Pyrrhic victory.


My local newspaper recently bought out one in a neighboring county. I don’t think they realized how much the paper they acquired had been struggling financially, or they might have ran the other way.

Even though the little paper that sold itself had been struggling, they really did not want to sell. They wanted to believe that they could fix the situation themselves and maintain control of the business. However, the bigger paper’s monetary offer exceeded their expectations, and they felt it was best to agree to it.

Within a year, the big paper decided to discontinue the little paper. It had cost them too much, both to buy initially and to print, because there was little interest in subscriptions or advertising. This buyout was a Pyrrhic victory for them.


Although it is too early to be sure yet, the civil war in Libya will probably go down in history as a Pyrrhic victory for NATO. The campaign took over five months, thousands of flight missions and millions of dollars for a coalition of First World countries to bring about the defeat of a modest force. A force that was estimated at no more than 40,000 soldiers that couldn't even beat Chad back in the 1980s.

This should be taken as a cautionary tale that even with centuries of warfare to look back in hindsight upon, the Pyrrhic victory remains a very real possibility to this day.


When I think of a Pyrrhic victory the first thing that comes to mind is the First World War, which would seem to be a sterling example of the term writ on a massive scale.

Millions of lives were lost over four years and the devastation was so unimaginable that it was considered "the war to end all wars". And after all of that carnage, the victors could not even secure a lasting peace and another world war had to be fought a generation later.

It goes to show that sometimes in modern warfare the negative consequences of a Pyrrhic victory extend far beyond a high number of casualties on a battlefield somewhere.


@SkyWhisperer - One thing I’ve learned is that if you’re in a situation where, in the end, you’ve lost more than what you have gained, the best thing to do is to cut your losses short.

Learn a lesson from the stock market. Once a stock tanks the smart investors sell even though they are incurring losses in the process. Amateur investors naively hold on expecting the stock to rebound, enabling them to recoup their lost money.

You should act like the smart investor. If it’s a job for example, you may choose to make it a short term assignment and then moving on to something better, rather than sticking it out and enduring the pain in your pocketbook.

When looking at a new job possibility, I always consider the complete package; not just the salary, but benefits, time commuting, opportunities for promotion, etc. This is one way that I avoid ending up with a Pyric victory.


@allenJo - I can relate to what you’re saying.

Actually the company I was with at the time completely covered my health benefits 100% for me and my family. Nothing came out of my check for healthcare coverage.

The company was also near where I lived – I could practically bike to work if I wanted, so I spent almost nothing on gas. I also got profit sharing in addition to matching 401k contributions.

However, in my ignorance I took a higher paying job that was 30 minutes from where I worked. I had to pay for my health benefit premium, they offered no profit sharing, and I spent a lot of money on gas. I kicked myself in the end because I lost money, in terms of actual net income.

This is just one of the Pyrrhic victory examples from my life; it's the most painful one.


There is an old saying about counting the cost before you go to war, and I think that this saying aptly describes the conditions you need to meet if you want to avoid a Phyrric victory.

Otherwise, you’ll come at the end of your so called accomplishment and say that it just wasn’t worth it.

I can think of many examples in life, some on a more personal level. Let’s say you get a job offer for a company that pays you a few thousand dollars more per year than what you’re currently making. That seems like a raise.

However, if the company is way across town, and you incur an additional $200 per month in gas, and then have to pay extra taxes, and their health benefit plan is much more expensive than what your current employer pays, you may wind up with a net loss. It's not worth it in my opinion.

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