In this article, I will attempt to present a brief biography of Pyrrhus as a prelude to a discussion of the critical importance of his life and career, which had profound effects on both Ancient Rome and Greece.
Pyrrhus was a central and important figure in the Hellenistic world following Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC). It was also he who initiated the struggle between the Greeks and Romans for control of the eastern Mediterranean, and foresaw the titanic contest between the Romans and the Carthaginians in the west.
An indication of the importance of his career is that Hannibal described him as the greatest commander of an army the world had ever seen, after Alexander himself. An admiration similar to that of Napoleon towards Frederick the Great of Prussia.
The early part of his life was troubled, with dynastic coups displacing both his father, Aeacides, the king of Epirus, and himself. Pyrrhus was a child when his father lost the throne. A group of loyal friends fled Epirus, taking Pyrrhus with them, and the group sought refuge at the court of Glaucias, the king of Illyria. It is said that Glaucias was not sure what to do, as he was afraid of Cassander, the king of Macedon, who had been an enemy of Aeacides. However, his heart softened towards Pyrrhus. Glaucias took him into his house, cared for him like a son, and restored him to his throne when he was twelve years old, leaving a council of wise men to act as his advisers until he was old enough to do so. rule in its own right. .
Pirro’s own displacement occurred when he was 17 years old. He had traveled from Epirus to Illyria to attend the wedding of one of Glaucias’ sons. During his absence, the throne was occupied by a relative, Neoptolemus. This man bore the same name as the son of Achilles, who was the legendary founder of the Epirote royal family line.
It was after Pyrrhus’s own coup that his journey on the world stage began.
After his exile, Pyrrhus joined the court of Antigonus and Demetrius, the father-and-son rulers of Anatolia, the eastern Mediterranean coast, and parts of Greece. This was a natural step for Pyrrhus, since Demetrius had married his sister, Deidameia.
Antigonus had been one of Alexander’s leading generals, and after the Battle of Granicus in 334 BC. C., he was appointed governor of Phrygia.
Granicus was the first of four major battles that Alexander fought, and Antigonus was the first governor appointed to rule conquered territory on Alexander’s behalf.
The territory under his rule expanded over the years, and in the settlement made in Babylon by the Council of Generals after Alexander’s death.
Antigonus spent the rest of his life trying to keep the empire left behind by Alexander intact.
Pyrrhus joined Antigonus and Demetrius at a critical moment, shortly before the fateful Battle of Ipsos in 301 BC.
In the 22 years since Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. C., his generals, the Successors or Diadachoi, had clashed with each other for Alexander’s empire. This fight was inevitable and foreseen by Alexander in his last moments, since there was no clear succession that would follow his death. The only blood relatives who could succeed him were his youngest son with Roxana, Alexander IV, who could not have universal support because she was a Bactian princess instead of a Macedonian, and his half-brother Philip Arridhaeus, who was a moron.
Many of the generals died in these fights, but in 301 a. C., Alexander’s empire was divided into four great Hellenistic kingdoms, in addition to Macedonia itself.
MACEDONIA – Ruled by Cassander, son of Antipater, regent for Alexander.
ANATOLIA, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and part of Greece, ruled by Antigonus and Demetrius.
ASIA was ruled by Seleucus. (Syria, Mesopotamia, and the eastern territories of Alexander’s empire).
EGYPT – Ruled by Ptolemy.
THRACE – Ruled by Lysimachus.
The Battle of Ipsos, where Pyrrhus commanded a brigade of infantry, was fought by Antigonus and Demetrius against the invading forces of Lysimachus and Seleucus. It was a battle of heroic proportions, with both sides bringing over 70,000 men. The critical element was the squadron of 400 war elephants brought by Seleucus.
The left wing of the army, part of which was under the command of Pyrrhus, defeated their opponents, but Demetrius chased the enemy cavalry too far, leaving the army without cavalry support. The squadron of elephants brought by Seleucus then trapped Antigonus’s infantry. Antigonus was killed and the battle was lost.
Pyrrhus and Demetrius fled Anatolia with part of the army, assembled their fleet at Ephesus, and withdrew to Greece. Contrary to their expectations, Athens refused to admit Demetrius and they headed to Megara to consider their options. Demetrius soon undertook a campaign in Thrace, to devastate Lysimachus’s territory while Lysimachus was still in Anatolia, arguing over loot with Seleucus.
Pyrrhus remained in Greece, to oversee Demetrius’ territory. In Athens Pyrrhus met Cineas, a Thessalian who had studied oratory with Demosthenes. Cineas became a friend and adviser to Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus would later say that Cineas had taken more cities with his oratory than he had taken with his army.
Demetrius’ fortunes improved considerably, and Ptolemy offered him a peace treaty. Pirro traveled to Egypt as a political hostage, to guarantee the pact. In Egypt, Pyrrhus was treated as part of the Ptolemy family, just as Philip had been at Thebes by Epaminondas. He was educated in the role of a king and married Ptolemy’s stepdaughter, Antigone. Ptolemy then restored Pyrrhus as king of Epirus, in 298 BC.
However, the nature of Pyrrhus’ kingship was precarious, as in order to avoid civil war, his return was negotiated as a dual kingship with Neoptolemus. The two kings quarreled and Pyrrhus pre-emptively assassinated Neoptolemus. Now established as the sole king of Epirus, Pyrrhus became involved in the complicated politics of the Aegean. He joined the other kings’ fight against Demetrius and became a key figure in neighboring Macedonia. For a short time he even became king of Macedonia. By 281 BC C., Pyrrhus’s adventures in Greece had been going on for some time and he had spent several years in peace in Epirus, improving the welfare of his country. This despite the fact that he lost his beloved wife, Antigone. It was then that he was invited to help the city of Taranto and curb the ambitions of the Romans in southern Italy. Like Achilles, he was restless in idle moments, and as Plutarch quotes from the Iliad, “…but with a sick heart he brooded, sighing at home for the war cry, the noise of battle.”
His invasion of Italy and then Sicily were the defining moments of his life, both in terms of the greatness of the undertaking and the costly second victory over the Romans at Asculum that gave rise to the expression “A Pyrrhic victory”. A victory that comes at such a cost that it threatens to destroy the victor.
After his two victories, at Heracleia and Asculum, Pyrrhus sent Cineas to negotiate a peace treaty with Rome, since it was clear to him that it was beyond his resources to conquer the Romans.
The response to Pyrrhus’ proposals was a critical moment in Roman history.
Pyrrhus offered an alliance with Rome, in which he would help the Romans complete their conquest of Italy. In return, all he asked was that Rome consider him a friend and recognize the independence of the Greek cities in southern Italy. His proposals were considered favorably by most of the Senate, but the Roman response was guided by a speech by the aged and blind Appius Claudius. He asked what Rome was doing by accepting the help of a man whose army could not control a faction of Macedonia and declaring to the world its inability to fight its own battles.
From this point on, the Romans refused to discuss any peace proposals until Pyrrhus evacuated Italy.
Pyrrhus then left a garrison at Tarentum and invaded Sicily, having been invited by the cities of Syracuse and Agrigento to help them repel the Carthaginians. Pyrrhus’s campaigns were initially successful, but he fell out with the Greek cities and returned to Italy, where he was finally defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Beneventum. He then withdrew from Italy and returned to Greece with the remnants of his army.
We can see from his campaigns in Italy and Sicily that Pyrrhus has a unique place in history.
1) It was he who started the struggle for supremacy between the Greeks and Romans. He was a critical figure in the time of transition between the world of Alexander and the world of Rome.
2) The refusal of the Romans to accept any foreign help or interference in Italy indicates a moment of self-awareness in which they perhaps began to see the great road ahead of them.
3) The idea that Roman security depended on total control of central and southern Italy drove them, so this was achieved when the First Punic War began in 264 BC. C. This conflict was essentially a fight to the death between Rome and Carthage. and at the end in 241 a. C., Rome had the total control of Sicily.
Another intriguing philosophical point is made evident by Pyrrhus’s view of his campaigns. In Plutarch’s Life of Flaminius, it is noted that aside from victories against the Persians, “…Greece fought all her battles against and to enslave herself. Each of her trophies stands as a monument to her own shame and disgrace.”
Pressed by Cineas to make a statement of purpose before embarking on the invasion of Italy, Pyrrhus was forced to declare that the only thing that really mattered was a position of leadership in Greece, and all other campaigns were a means to that end. . This may serve to soften Plutarch’s harsh criticism of the endless internal conflicts between Greek states over the centuries.
Here you can see how the greatness of the vision of Alexander and his father Philip was unique in the Greek world.
After his return to Greece, Pyrrhus was again involved in dynastic conflicts, this time in the Peloponnese, and was killed in a battle in the streets of Argos. As foretold, Pyrrhus left behind him the name of a great warrior, but that ultimately failed because his visions were greater than his resources.