Pyrrhus of Epirus

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Pyrrhus (312-272 BC) (Greek: Πύρρος; Latin Pyrrhus) (Latin pronunciation: «PIHR uhs»), king of the Molossians (from ca. 297 BC), Epirus (306-301, 297-272 BC) and Macedon (288-284, 273-272 BC), was one of the strongest opponents of Rome.

Early life

Pyrrhus was the son of Aeacides of Epirus and Phthia. Prince of one of the Alexandrian successor states, Pyrrhus' childhood and youth went past in unquiet conditions. He was only two years old when his father was dethroned and the family took refuge with Glaukias, king of the Taulanti, one of the biggest of the Illyrian tribes.

Later the Epirotes called him back, but he was dethroned again at the age of 17 when he left his kingdom to attend the wedding of Glaukias' son in Illyria. In wars of the diadochi Pyrrhus fought beside his brother-in-law Demetrius I of Macedon in the Battle of Ipsus (301 BC). Later, he become hostage of Ptolemy I Soter in treaty between Ptolemy I and Demetrius. Pyrrhus married Ptolemy's I stepdaughter Antigone and in 297 BC restored his kingdom of Epirus. Next, he went to war against his former ally, Demetrius. By 286 BC he had deposed his former brother-in-law and took control over the kingdom of Macedon. Pyrrhus was driven out of Macedon by Lysimachus, his former ally, in 284 BC.

Struggle with Rome

In 281 the Greek city of Tarentum, in southern Italy, fell out with Rome, and was faced with a Roman attack and certain defeat. Rome had already made itself into a major power, and poised to subdue all the Greek cities in Magna Graecia. The Tarentines asked from Pyrrhus to lead their war against the Romans.

Pyrrhus was encouraged to aid the Tarentines by an oracle from Delphi. His goals were not, however, selfless. He recognized the possibility of carving out an empire for himself in Italy. He made an alliance with Ptolemy Ceraunus, King of Macedon and his most powerful neighbor, and arrived in Italy in 280 BC.

He entered in Italy with forces of 3,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers, 20,000 infantry and 19 war elephants in a bid to subdue the Romans.

Due to his superior cavalry and his elephants he defeated in Battle of Heraclea the Romans under their consul Publius Valerius Laevinus in 280 BC. Romans lost about 7,000 and Pyrrhus 4,000 soldiers. Though his casualties were high, this battle is not usually considered a Pyrrhic victory. Several tribes (the Lucani, Bruttii and Messapians) and the Greek cities of Croton and Locri joined Pyrrhus. He then offered Romans a peace treaty, which was eventually rejected. Pyrrhus spent winter in Campania.

When Pyrrhus invaded Apulia (279 BC), the two armies met in the Battle of Asculum where Pyrrhus won a very costly victory. The consul Publius Decius Mus was the Roman commander, and his able force, though defeated, broke the back of Pyrrhus' Hellenistic army, and guaranteed the security of the city itself. The battle foreshadowed later Roman victories over more numerous and well armed successor state military forces, and inspired the term "Pyrrhic victory", meaning a win which comes at a crippling cost. In the end, the Romans had lost 6,000 men and Pyrrhus 3,500, but while battered, his army was still a force to be reckoned with.

In 278, Pyrrhus received two offers simultaneously. The Greek cities in Sicily asked him to come and drive out Carthage (one of the two greater powers in the Western Mediterranean). At the same time, the Macedonians, whose King Ceraunus had been killed by invading Gauls, asked Pyrrhus to ascend the throne of Macedon. Pyrrhus decided that Sicily offered him a greater opportunity, and transferred his army there.

Pyrrhus was proclaimed king of Sicily. He was already making plans for his son Helenus to inherit the kingdom of Sicily, and his other son Alexander to be given that of Italy. In 277 Pyrrhus captured Eryx, the strongest Carthaginian fortress in Sicily. This prompted the rest of the Carthaginian-controlled cities to defect to Pyrrhus.

In 276, Pyrrhus negotiated with the Carthaginians. Although they were inclined to come to terms with Pyrrhus, supply him money and send him ships once friendly relations were established, he demanded that Carthage abandon all Sicily and make the Libyan Sea a boundary between themselves and the Greeks. Meanwhile, he had begun to display despotic behavior towards the Sicilian Greeks, and soon Sicilian opinion became inflamed against him. Though he defeated the Carthaginians in another battle, he was forced to abandon Sicily and return to Italy.

While Pyrrhus had been campaigning against the Carthaginians, the Romans rebuilt their army by calling up thousands of fresh recruits. When Pyrrhus returned from Sicily, he found himself vastly outnumbered against a superior Roman army. His defeat in the battle of Beneventum (275 BC) resulted in the loss of all his Italian holdings and his subsequent return to Greece.

Last wars and death

Though his western campaign had taken a heavy toll on his army as well as his treasury, Pyrrhus yet again went to war. Attacking King Antigonus II Gonatas he won an easy victory and seized the Macedonian throne.

In 272, Cleonymus, a Spartan of royal blood but hated in Sparta, asked Pyrrhus to attack Sparta and place him in power. Pyrrhus agreed to the plan, intending to win control of the Peloponnese for himself, but unexpectedly strong resistance thwarted his assault on Sparta. He was immediately offered an opportunity to intervene in a civic dispute in Argos. Entering the city with his army by stealth, he found himself caught in a confused battle in the narrow city streets. During the confusion, an old woman watching from a rooftop threw a roofing tile which stunned him, allowing an Argive soldier to kill him (some reports claim he was poisoned by a servant).

While he was a mercurial and often restless leader, and not always a wise king, he was considered one of the greatest military commanders of his time, ranked by Hannibal himself to be the second greatest commander the world had seen after Alexander the Great. Pyrrhus was also known to be very benevolent. As a general, Pyrrhus' greatest political weaknesses were the failure to maintain focus and the failure to maintain a strong treasury at home (many of his soldiers were costly mercenaries).

His name is famous for the phrase "Pyrrhic victory" which refers to an exchange after the Battle of Asculum. In response to congratulations for winning a costly victory over the Romans, he is reported to have said: "One more such victory and I shall be lost!" (In Greek: Αν έτι μίαν μάχην νικήσωμεν, απολώλαμεν.)

Pyrrhus wrote Memoirs and several books on art of war. These have since been lost although Hannibal was influenced by them and they received praise from Cicero.

External links


  • Pyrrhus, King of Epirus by Petros E. Garoufalias ISBN 090574313X
  • The Pyrrhus Portrait by Rolf Winkes, in: The Age of Pyrrhus, Proceedings of an International Conference held at Brown University April 8-10, 1988 (Archaeologia Transatlantica XI), Providence 1992, pages 175-188.

Preceded by:
Alcetas II
King of Epirus
307–302 BC
Succeeded by:
Neoptolemus III
Preceded by:
Neoptolemus III
King of Epirus
297–272 BC
Succeeded by:
Alexander II
Preceded by:
Demetrius I Poliorcetes
King of Macedon
with Lysimachus
288–285 BC
Succeeded by:
Preceded by:
Antigonus II Gonatas
King of Macedon
274–272 BC
Succeeded by:
Antigonus II Gonatas

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