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  • James Houser

279 BC - Pyrrhus of Epirus and the Pyrrhic Victory

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 13 - 279 BC. The sun sets at Asculum. As he watches the retreating Romans, the Greek King surveys the wreckage of his army. When he is congratulated on his triumph, he says the immortal words that define his legacy: “One more such victory and we are undone.” Meet today’s unlucky protagonist: Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, namesake of the “pyrrhic victory.”

In 323 BC, Alexander the Great’s death turned what had at one point been his mighty empire into a playground for all his generals, family members and hangers-on to happily beat up and plunder each other for a nice strip of territory. From Greece to India, the wars of Alexander’s “successors” – known to history as the Diadochi – caused such an amazingly confusing fit of alliances, backstabbings, assassinations, and what-have-yous that it would be a straight series of posts which I frankly don’t have time for. The Age of the Diadochi, from 323 BC to about the 270s BC, would be a very credible Game of Thrones-style show. The main problems are that the characters are stupid or ridiculous plot twists wouldn’t make any sense and the showrunners would be criticized for introducing dozens of characters just to kill them all.

So thank God we’re not talking about THAT. This is just to set the stage.

Pyrrhus was born in 319 BC, four years into this plotless cavalcade of mayhem, to the prince of the small Greek kingdom of Epirus. Epirus was on Greece’s western seacoast facing Italy, nowadays split between modern Greece and Albania. It was a rugged and mountainous little land, but its ruling family had close ties to the Macedonian dynasty of Alexander – Pyrrhus himself was Alexander’s second cousin once removed.

When Pyrrhus was still a child, his father made the bad decision to pitch in with one of the Diadochi factions. This faction, led by Alexander’s mother Olympias, ended up badly and the young Pyrrhus had to flee his homeland after his father was killed in battle.

As Pyrrhus grew from boy to man, he bounced around various Greek and Macedonian armies and factions from Greece to Europe to Syria to Egypt, fighting with distinction and earning himself quite a reputation as a great warrior. In 298 BC, Pyrrhus found himself in Egypt, where he managed to ingratiate himself with Alexander’s old general Ptolemy, who had set himself up as Pharaoh. Ptolemy set Pyrrhus up with his stepdaughter and, looking to light a fire in someone else’s backyard to keep them out of his face, decided to give his now stepson-in-law troops and money to go take back his kingdom. Who knew – if Pyrrhus succeeded, maybe Ptolemy would have a new ally across the sea.

Pyrrhus took control of Epirus quickly and the nobles, going through their approximately 70th change of rulers in the last few years, probably shrugged and went about their business. Pyrrhus, though, was restless. He had reconquered his father’s kingdom, but he had a good army at his back, including a number of war elephants, elite phalanx infantry, and heavy cavalry. Pyrrhus was a young man, and young men are restless; he had made a lot of rivals in his time on the lam, and he wanted to show them that he wasn’t a nobody anymore. Young kings with a chip on their shoulder were a dime a dozen in the ancient world – the most famous being Alexander himself.

But Alexander was dead. And Pyrrhus, however much he wanted to be, was not Alexander.

For almost the next two decades, Pyrrhus and his Kingdom of Epirus were constantly at war across Greece and southern Europe. His main foe was the Kingdom of Macedon led by his archrival and brother-in-law Demetrius, who he had fought beside during his time in exile. Pyrrhus and Demetrius constantly attacked each other year after year, each giving as good as he got. Demetrius was always much stronger than Pyrrhus, but he had many enemies among the Diadochi in Asia and Egypt.

Pyrrhus won some brilliant victories, but the loyalty of his Macedonian professional soldiers was always in doubt and his small army couldn’t sustain too many casualties. Pyrrhus’s army was a glass sword: sharp but brittle. When it was gone, there was no replacement. After almost two decades of back-and-forth war, neither side had won a complete victory, and Pyrrhus began looking elsewhere for the glory he sought. No longer a young man, he still had a young man’s vision of fame and glorious conquest to rival his great relative Alexander. In 280 BC, he got the opportunity he had been looking for.

Only 45 miles from rocky Epirus, the heel of the Italian boot rises to the west. Southern Italy was a land of mountains and hill tribes, but the coastal cities were all ruled by the Greeks. For the last few years, they had been at war with another city to the far north, a strange little town called Rome. Rome was not an empire yet and not even a great power; most of the great kingdoms had never heard of this random Italian city that was kicking up a ruckus. The Greek city of Tarentum, under immediate threat from Rome, sent a message to their fellow Greeks asking for aid. In particular, they asked Pyrrhus to lead their war against the Romans.

Pyrrhus was attracted by the possibility of glory – as well as the idea of carving out an empire in the west, a region Alexander had never conquered. He was also encouraged by the Oracle at Delphi, which seems to have had a cottage industry in encouraging Greeks to make terrible decisions. (It was Delphi that told Xenophon to go on the Persian expedition.)

Either way, Pyrrhus set sail for Italy, and landed in 280 BC with an army of 25,000 men and 20 war elephants. He had made alliances and trades to keep Epirus safe while he was away.

The Romans, for their part, were confounded when Pyrrhus showed up with a big old army in their neck of the woods. Pyrrhus probably figured that he had been tangling with great kings and lords, all with armies full of Macedonian pike infantry, Greek hoplites, heavy cavalry and war elephants for decades; he could handle a few backwoods Italian hill people. Pyrrhus was the first general from the Greek world to run into the Romans, and it would be an encounter neither of them forgot.

The Roman army of the 200s BC was not the unstoppable juggernaut of Caesar’s time, of gladiator movies and Total War games. It was a citizen militia, self-equipped and using heavy infantry tactics that were not too different from the Greek world’s. The Romans, however, had an enormous population, and one singular quality that would lead them to imperial heights: they didn’t know when to quit. When they lost a bunch of men, they doubled down. Killing their generals and defeating their armies just made them madder. The Romans played to win.

Pyrrhus and his Greeks first met the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC. He had his elite army along with local Greek soldiers – altogether 35,000 men – facing 45,000 Romans. His cavalry and archers disrupted the Roman legion, and then his Pyrrhus’s infantry phalanx attacked the hedgehog formation. Seven times each side attempted to break the other, but both Romans and Greeks failed to penetrate the line. Pyrrhus himself fought, riding in front of the ranks of his men to cheer them on, but the tide did not turn until Pyrrhus unleashed his war elephants. The Romans had never seen these creatures before, and their smell panicked their horses; the Romans fell back across the river and Pyrrhus held the field.

Heraclea cost the Romans 7,000 soldiers, and Pyrrhus 3,000; but Pyrrhus had lost some of his best infantry. Nevertheless, he marched north to try and take Rome. Like a many-headed hydra, though, the Romans sprang up three totally new armies to confront him, and Pyrrhus had to fall back. He would try again the next year.

The next year, 279 BC, Pyrrhus once again confronted the Romans in battle. This time the place was Asculum. This time the Romans were ready for Pyrrhus’s elephants. They had designed special war wagons that launched flaming projectiles and were studded with spikes. Nevertheless, Pyrrhus’s clever tactics – including a daring night march – pushed the Romans out of a strong position and into open ground, where he could deploy his archers and elephants together. The fire of the archers forced the tight Roman legions to split up, making them easier targets for the spear infantry and the elephants.

Nevertheless, it was a terrible battle. Spears and swords clashed, the war wagons shot their flaming barrages, and elephants and horses swept around the narrow Italian mountain valley. Eventually the Romans were once again driven from the field, but they had burned the Greek camp and supplies, forcing Pyrrhus to retreat despite his victory. It was this that caused the famous statement.

“One more victory such as this, and we are undone,” Pyrrhus said as the Romans withdrew. He had won the battle. He had defeated the Romans twice in the open field, and back in the Greek and Diadochi world, this meant victory. Many of his best troops had died, though, including some of his top generals. Pyrrhus lost 3500 men, along with his supplies and his camp. Unlike the Romans, who could throw together a brand-new army every year, Pyrrhus could not replace his veteran Macedonian infantry, elite cavalry, or his Indian elephant riders.

By winning the battle, he had suffered more damage than he caused. This is the origin of the term “pyrrhic victory” – where a victory causes more harm to the victor than the vanquished.

Pyrrhus, frustrated fighting the Romans, went off on another side quest. (To be honest, the whole war against Rome was already a side quest, so this was a…side quest to the side quest?) The Greek cities of Sicily were under attack from a North African power called Carthage, and asked for Pyrrhus’s help. To the grief of his southern Italian allies, Pyrrhus picked up and headed off to Sicily to spend three years marching around the island. He made himself so unwelcome to his Sicilian allies by his arrogant and ill-tempered behavior that they forced him to vacate the premises. So by 275 BC, Pyrrhus returned to southern Italy to face the Romans once again – with a battered and reduced army.

What was the point of all this? Why did Pyrrhus fight all these wars? Yeah, good question. My personal opinion is that he was fundamentally unable to keep his eye on the ball, and always looked for some new and shiny adventure when the going got tough. Eventually, though, you always have to return to your problems – you can’t sleep on them forever. And the Roman Republic refused to be slept on.

Pyrrhus’s last battle with Rome took place at Beneventum in 275 BC. This time he faced not just a very well-prepared Roman army but a very good Roman general – Consul Manius Curius Dentatus. Famously incorruptible, frugal, and stern, the name “Dentatus” comes from the fact that he was, um, born with a full set of teeth. Imagine that being your nickname – “Toothy.”

Anyway, Dentatus beat Pyrrhus like a drum. For the price of 9,000 men – almost half their army – the Romans tore the Greeks apart. Pyrrhus suffered 11,000 dead and, most tragically, 10 of his 20 elephants. With the war utterly lost, Pyrrhus was forced to withdraw back to Epirus and leave the Italians to their fate. He was the first Greek king to learn that these Italian hill folk knew how to win wars, and he would not be the last.

Pyrrhus bopped around Greece for about three more years fighting (what else?) useless wars until he decided to get involved in a civil dispute in Argos. Here, he was killed when an old woman threw a tile from her rooftop and knocked him off his horse, where the fall broke his back and killed him. Not exactly the hero’s death, but that’s fate for you.

What to make of the story of Pyrrhus? It’s a strange one. He’s a textbook case that being brilliant doesn't make you wise and that being brave doesn't make you a good general. He constantly pitched into shit that wasn’t any of his business, and it eventually killed him. If he’d had the guts to just sit on what he had and never go messing with anyone else, he probably could’ve kept it. But that wasn’t the Greek way in the ancient age. Everyone had to try for more, to be larger than life, to make a great name for themselves.

Pyrrhus's name, though, is remembered in the term “pyrrhic victory” – that is, a victory that means nothing. Ozymandias comes to mind.

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