Pyrrhus (also Pyrrhos or Phyrrhus, c. 319 - 272 BCE ) was the king of Epirus in northern Greece between 306 and 302 BCE and again between 297 and 272 BCE. Winning great victories against the armies of Macedon and Rome, he is considered one of the finest military commanders in history and was favourably compared to Alexander the Great by such noted generals as Hannibal. Due to the large losses suffered during his battles he has famously given his name to the expression a ‘Pyrrhic victory’ which refers to any military success which comes at a high cost to the victor.
Plutarch (c. 45 - c. 125 CE), the Greek historian, wrote one of his Lives biographies on Pyrrhus and much of the information we have on the great general comes from this entertaining if at times unreliable source. For example, we are told, "Pyrrhus’ features were more likely to inspire fear in the beholder than to impress him with a sense of majesty" (Pyrrhus, 386).
Pyrrhus’ position as heir to the Molossian throne of Epirus was put in serious jeopardy almost from his birth when, in c. 319 BCE, Cassander, king of Macedon, overthrew his father Aeacides. Pyrrhus was forced to seek refuge in Illyria where he was protected by Glaucias. In 306 BCE Pyrrhus was able to return to Epirus and claim his birth right. However, his reign as a minor was a short one as he was forced, once again, to flee his homeland in 302 BCE.
The Successor Wars
Pyrrhus fought in the protracted squabbles for control of Alexander’s empire known as the Successor Wars and, fighting alongside Demetrios I Poliocretes of Macedon, he was involved in the Battle of Ipsos in 301 BCE. Then, as part of a bargain between Demetrios and Ptolemy I, Pyrrhus was given to the latter as a hostage and taken to Alexandria. Endearing himself to the ruler of the Egyptian slice of the empire and even marrying his step-daughter Antigone, Pyrrhus was permitted to return to Epirus in 297 BCE. Then, after eliminating his co-ruler Neoptolemus, Pyrrhus began to take control of his own destiny.
Pyrrhus famously made Dodona his religious centre and constructed a huge theatre with 17,000 seats and a colonnaded precinct there with many fine temples. He also organised a four-yearly athletic games, the festival of Naïa, in honour of Zeus. Pyrrhus expanded his kingdom into southern Illyria and absorbed several provinces such as Amphilochia, Parauaea, and Tymphaea which bordered with Macedonia. On the death of his wife Antigone Pyrrhus made marriages of diplomatic significance to the daughter of Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse (thus acquiring Corcyra and Leucas) and Audoleon, the ruler of Paeonia. An alliance with Bardylis, the Dardanian king, strengthened his position further.
Then, campaigning against Demetrios, Pyrrhus was able to gain the loyalty of the Macedonian army and so establish himself as the ruler of Macedon with his ally Lysimachus (another successor king) in 288 BCE. This situation only lasted a few years, though, after which time, the ambitious Lysimachus drove Pyrrhus out of Macedon in 284 BCE.
Pyrrhus against Rome
Pyrrhus would establish his reputation as a great commander not via the complicated machinations of the Successor Wars but through his victories against the Mediterranean’s rising new power - Rome. The two were brought in conflict following Pyrrhus’ ambitious plans to build an empire which included Magna Graecia and the old Greek colonies which had spread throughout Sicily and southern Italy. Plutarch reports Pyrrhus as follows, in conversation with the philosopher Kineas,
Sicily is near, and stretches out her hands to us, an island abounding in wealth and men, and very easy to conquer, for there is nothing there, Kineas, but faction, anarchy in her cities and excitable demagogues…and we will use this as a preliminary to great enterprises. For who could keep us away from Libya or Carthage…? (Pyrrhus, 399)
To this end, and like his uncle before him, Pyrrhus responded to a call for help from Taras (modern-day Taranto) located in the heel of the Italian peninsula. The city was under imminent Roman attack and so Pyrrhus crossed the Adriatic with his army of 25,000 infantry in 280 BCE. Employing 20 war elephants and a superior cavalry force of 3,000 Pyrrhus won victories at Heraclea in 280 BCE and Ausculum in 279 BCE.
In these battles Pyrrhus employed several innovations. Knowing the weakness of the traditional Greek phalanx was its lack of mobility and difficulty in maintaining its formation, especially on rough ground, he effectively used local troops to fill gaps that occurred when the phalanx engaged the enemy. He also successfully guarded his flanks using the same local contingents. These light-armed troops (thureophoros), with their large oval shield for defence and javelin and sword for offence, would be later introduced by Pyrrhus into warfare in Greece. Another addition to the Greek way of fighting was to use cavalry armed with javelins (known as Tarentines thereafter) which greatly increased the mobility and attacking potential of his army. The victories, nevertheless, came at a high cost in lives to the victors and these battles were not decisive, hence the lasting expression ‘a Pyrrhic victory’. Plutarch has Pyrrhus retort to a friend’s congratulations on his victory, "One more victory like that over the Romans will destroy us completely!" (Pyrrhus, 409)
A positive result of Pyrrhus’ victories was that he gained many new allies amongst the southern Italian tribes, especially the Bruttians, Lokroi, Lucanians, Samnites, and such cities as Kroton. The Greek king remained in Italy even when the Macedonian throne once again came up for grabs following the death of Ptolemy Keraunos in 278 BCE. Pyrrhus, instead, turned his attention to a new threat - the Carthaginians.
Pyrrhus in Sicily
Pyrrhus’ decision to stay in Italy and help Syracuse quickly proved a wise one when he was made king of Sicily. However, in a long and ultimately futile siege campaign against Lilybaeum (modern-day Marsala) on the west coast of the island, the threat from Carthage became more pronounced – they were clearly not prepared to leave the field to Pyrrhus. The consequence of this was the Greek king became ever more tyrannical in the parts of the island under his control. This eventually provoked rebellion and Pyrrhus fled back to the Italian mainland. Here the commander met his old enemy, the Romans, once again, and this time he lost at the Battle of Maleventum (renamed by the Romans Beneventum) in 275 BCE. With his camp overrun, the loss of most of his elephants, and an enemy able to withstand enormous losses and still take the field again, it was time for Pyrrhus to leave Italy.
Return to Greece & Death
Pyrrhus sailed back to Greece having lost two-thirds of the army he had first taken to Italy. After a brief foray into Macedonia where he infamously looted the tombs at Aegae, in 273 BCE he made his base in the Peloponnese from where he hoped to wrest the throne of Macedon from Antigonas II Gonatas. However, Sparta, helped by defensive trenches, proved stubbornly resistant to his attacks even if he was aided by the exiled Spartan king Cleonymus. So, in 272 BCE, Pyrrhus instead turned north to Argos where he hoped to meet Antigonas in the field. Before this could happen though, Pyrrhus was killed in a bizarre incident in the city of Argos when, in the heat of battle, an old lady on a rooftop threw down a tile at his head. Dazed, the great commander was then ruthlessly slain by the enemy. It was an ignominious end to a general who had fought in so many battles and always done so by leading his men from the front in the most ferocious parts of the battlefield. As Plutarch stated, "the general opinion of him was that for warlike experience, daring and personal valour, he had no equal among the kings of his time" (Pyrrhus, 414).
About the Author
- Anglim, S., Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World 3000 BCE-500CE (Amber Books, 2013).
- Bagnall, R. et al, The Encyclopedia of Ancient History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
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- Hornblower, S., The Oxford Classical Dictionary (OUP, 2012)
- Konstam, A., Ancient World Commanders (Compedium, 2009).
- Plutarch, The Age of Alexander (Penguin Classics, 2012).
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306 BCE - 302 BCEFirst reign of King Pyrrhus of Epirus.
301 BCEPyrrhus of Epirus fights at the Battle of Ipsos.
297 BCE - 272 BCESecond reign of King Pyrrhus of Epirus.
288 BCEPyrrhus of Epirus becomes ruler of Macedon.
284 BCELysimachus drives Pyrrhus out of Macedon.
Jul 280 BCEPyrrhus defeats the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea.
279 BCEPyrrhus defeats the Romans at the Battle of Asculum.
275 BCEThe Romans defeat Pyrrhus of Epirus at the Battle of Maleventum.