Pyrrhus, the Underrated Military Mind of Antiquity
King Pyrrhus of Epirus is best known to us for his “Pyrrhic” victory over the Romans at the Battle of Asculum, but that single event does not begin to characterize the life and the skill of this great military mind of antiquity. Scipio Africanus described a conversation he had with Hannibal where he asked the Carthaginian general who he thought was the greatest commander of all time. Hannibal immediately named Alexander as the greatest. Then, when Scipio pressed him for his opinion on the second best, expecting Hannibal to name himself or Scipio, Hannibal replied, “Pyrrhus of Epirus”. Antigonus, when asked who he believed to be the greatest general said, “Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old.” Pyrrhus was good enough to rate a spot in Plutarch’s lives, paired with no less a figure than Gaius Marius. Sadly, the comparison document, which would have paralleled their lives, was lost.
Pyrrhus was born in 319 B.C, the son of Aeacides, King of Epirus, and Phthia, second cousin to Alexander the Great. Aeacides was deposed in 317 B.C. and his family took refuge with Glaukias, King of the Taurantians. Aeacides died in 313 B.C. so Pyrrhus, as heir, was placed his father’s throne by Glaukias in 306 at the age of 13. Deposed again in 302 B.C, Pyrrhus went on to serve under his brother-in-law Demetrius Poliorcetes, son of Antigonus, satrap of Alexander. In 298 B.C. he was sent to Egypt as a hostage after a treaty was concluded between Ptolemy and Demetrius. While there, Pyrrhus married Ptolemy’s step daughter Antigone and used the Egyptian King’s financing and military aid to regain his throne in 297 B.C. Pyrrhus then moved the Epirian capital to Ambrakia and began to wage war on Demetrius. At one point during the war, Pyrrhus was challenged to one on one combat against Pantaucus, one of Demetrius’ senior officers, and defeated him. He took Macedonia and was declared king, but the conquest could not be held and Pyrrhus was pushed out by Lysimachus in 285 B.C.
Plutarch tells us what happened next. “At this time, then, when Pyrrhus had been driven back into Epirus and had given up Macedonia, Fortune put it into his power to enjoy what he had without molestation, to live in peace, and to reign over his own people. But he thought it tedious to the point of nausea if he were not inflicting mischief on others or suffering it at others' hands, and like Achilles could not endure idleness.”
He looked westward.
In 282 the Thurii tribe, located in the heel of Italy, asked Rome for help against the city of Tarentum, so Rome sent a small fleet to the Gulf of Tarentum to assess the situation. More than likely the Romans were exercising a show of support for the aristocrats of Tarentum who were trying to regain power from the democratic faction running the city. Whatever the reason, the convoy was attacked by the Tarentines, and four of the Roman ships were sunk. Rome dispatched an envoy carrying a protest and he was purposely insulted. The Tarentines clearly wanted a war and they appealed to Pyrrhus for support. Their link to him derived from the fact that Tarentum was an old Greek colony of Magna Graecia, originally settled by the Spartans. The following year, the consul L. Aemilianus Barbula was sent with an army and an ultimatum for Tarantum to compensate for the attack on the convoy or face the consequences. The Tarentines were at the point of capitulation when the envoy from Pyrrhus arrived with a message saying the king would lend them a hand.
Pyrrhus, always the adventurer, was ready to move away from the frustrations of Greek politics and pursue something more interesting. As the son-in-law of Agathocles King of Syracuse and a relative of Alexander the Great, he had a legacy to apply to empire building in the west. Courageous, ambitious, and skillful, Pyrrhus would present a challenge to the Roman citizen army.
He arrived in Tarentum in 280 B.C. with 25,000 professional soldiers and 20 elephants.
“When he learned that the Romans were near and lay encamped on the further side of the river Siris, he rode up to the river to get a view of them; and when he had observed their discipline, the appointment of their watches, their order, and the general arrangement of their camp, he was amazed and said to the friend that was nearest him: ‘The discipline of these Barbarians is not barbarous; but the result will show us what it amounts to.’”
That summer he met the consul Valerius Laevinus in the Battle of Heraclea. The Romans had never fought the Greek Phalanx before and the horses of their cavalry were frightened by the elephants. Pyrrhus won the battle, leaving 4,000 men on the field versus Rome’s 7,000, but his victory was dubious because in a foreign land he could not afford significant losses with no way to obtain new recruits. After the battle, Pyrrhus, anticipating Hannibal, raced for Rome hoping to turn the Roman allies to his side, but his efforts to treat with Rome were unsuccessful, so he headed back to Tarentum. In the spring of 279, he fought the Romans again at Asculum, winning a second dubious victory. After that battle he quipped, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined."
But now Pyrrhus had become bored with Italy and looked to move on once again. As Plutarch tells it, “there came to him from Sicily men who offered to put into his hands the cities of Agrigentum, Syracuse, and Leontini, and begged him to help them to drive out the Carthaginians and rid the island of its tyrants; and from Greece, men with tidings that Ptolemy Ceraunus with his army had perished at the hands of the Gauls, and that now was the time of all times for him to be in Macedonia, where they wanted a king.”
Pyrrhus decided Sicily would be more interesting because it could serve as a gateway to Africa, so he proceeded there.
Named king, he sought to rid the island of Carthaginians, but his popularity quickly declined after he began to act like a tyrant. The Sicilians sought aid to expel him, but before they took action, Pyrrhus sailed back to Tarentum. The Romans used two consular armies to push Pyrrhus out of Italy in 275 B.C. and he was finished in Rome for good. Returning to Epirus, Pyrrhus sought war with Antigonus over Macedonia. After a few victories, he became restless once again.
Cleonymus, pretender to the Spartan throne asked Pyrrhus to back his claim with an army so he headed south toward Sparta in 272 B.C. Pyrrhus was hesitant to destroy the city with no walls and his delays caused by indecision allowed the Spartans to prepare a defense. The attack was unsuccessful.
Plutarch tells us what happened next. “He could accomplish nothing, and met with fresh losses, he went away, and fell to ravaging the country, purposing to spend the winter there. But Fate was not to be escaped. For at Argos there was a feud between Aristeas and Aristippus; and since Aristippus was thought to enjoy the friendship of Antigonus, Aristeas hastened to invite Pyrrhus into Argos. Pyrrhus was away entertaining one hope after another, and since he made one success but the starting point for a new one, while he was determined to make good each disaster by a fresh undertaking, he suffered neither defeat nor victory to put a limit to his troubling himself and troubling others.”
Pyrrhus took his army to Argos and fought a difficult battle within the city walls. His army took the market place but the fighting was treacherous because the streets were too narrow for elephants and he did not know the city. During a street battle, Pyrrhus was injured by a roof tile thrown down on him by an old woman and, before he could regain his senses, was beheaded by an adversary. The head was sent to Antigonus who wept at the death of such a renowned family member.
So the world lost an enigma – a man of many talents as a strategist and military leader, an aristocrat who was comfortable as king, but also a man who bored easily and gave up what he had won more often than not. When politics made his conquests stale, Pyrrhus invariably moved on to the next battle hoping for a better outcome.
Plutarch states “…Pyrrhus would seem to have been always and continually studying and meditating upon this one subject (warfare), regarding it as the most kingly branch of learning; the rest he regarded as mere accomplishments and held them in no esteem. For instance, we are told that when he was asked at a drinking-party whether he thought Python or Caphisias the better flute-player, he replied that Polysperchon was a good general, implying that he became a king to investigate and understand such matters only.
Men believed that in military experience, personal prowess, and daring, he was by far the first of the kings of his time, but that what he won by his exploits he lost by indulging in vain hopes, since through passionate desire for what he had not, he always failed to establish securely what he had. For this reason Antigonus used to liken him to a player with dice who makes many fine throws but does not understand how to use them when they are made.”
Pyrrhic victory was coined from a single battle, but Pyrrhic behavior (half winning) was a self-inflicted disease that would haunt the man his entire life.