“If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined" - Pyrrhus of Epirus

8 October 319 BCE, the Hellenistic general and King of Epirus, Pyrrhus of the royal house of the Aeacids, descendant of Peleus and Achilles and relative of Alexander the Great, initiator of the term “Pyrrhic Victory”, was born in Ambracia, present-day Arta, in northwestern Greece.

“If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined" (Pyrrhus of Epirus, according to Plutarch)

The famous bust of Pyrrhus wearing a Thracian helmet
from the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum,
a Roman copy after the Hellenistic (and probably quite lifelike) original

It took on the scale of a Panhellenic crusade. Antiochus I of the Seleucid Empire provided the money, Ptolemy II of Egypt provided 9,000 men and 50 elephants and guaranteed for the security of the backwoods kingdom of Epirus, Antigonus Gonatas, son of his old enemy Demetrius Poliorcetes, soon king of Macedonia, offered the ships to ferry the army over to Italy, Ptolemy Keraunos, still ruler of the great Alexander’s native land and another former enemy, sent Macedon warriors, dearly missed when the Celts invaded a couple of months later, and off went red-bearded, fiery-headed Pyrrhus with an army of 30,000 and the Ptolemaic pachyderms to save the city of Tarentum and the Magna Graecia from the land-grabbing Romans. By 280 BCE, Tarentum was indeed the last free Greek city in mainland Italy, a remnant of the many colonies established from the 8th century BCE onwards in the Mezzogiorno. Pyrrhus, Alexander the Great’s second cousin, saw the opportunity to carry out his illustrious relative’s vague plan to conquer Italy and later Carthage. Antigonus Gonatas had called the red-bearded king of the back-of-beyond a dicer once and Pyrrhus made an excellent throw immediately after he had landed in Italy. Confronted with a Hellenistic army for the first time, Alexander’s indomitable phalanx of pikemen, excellent cavalry and the jumbos on top of it, the Romans under Consul Publius Valerius Laevinus lost the Battle of Heraclea against the Epirotic adventurer who had just achieved his first Pyrrhic victory.

John Leech: “Pyrrhus arrives in Italy with his Troupe”, from “The Comic History of Rome”
by Gilbert Abbott and A. Beckett (1850)

At Heraclea, Pyrrhus and his local allies had lost every 7th man and a year later, against the next Roman consular army at Asculum, it was every 10th along with most of his officers and there, the king uttered his proverbial sentence that became synonymous with a hollow victory. Suddenly remembering that he was married, among others, to the daughter of the Greek King of Syracuse, Pyrrhus decided to fight for the freedom of the Magna Graecia in Sicily against the Carthaginians there. Campaigning for three years without achieving anything significant except alienating the Sicilian Greeks who certainly would not crown him king of their island, Pyrrhus returned to Tarentum where he suffered his first real defeat of his expedition at place known as Maleventum, “bad event” in Latin. The Romans renamed the town to Beneventum, “good event”, Pyrrhus quitted Italy for good and Tarentum fell a couple of months later. Rome finally had become a major power in the Mediterranean world and ruled Italy from the Straits of Messina to the Apennine. When the Red-Beard left, he allegedly mentioned to his staff: "What a wrestling ground we are leaving, my friends, for the Carthaginians and the Romans." He turned out to be right. Not ten years later, the First Punic War broke out.

A modern rendition of Pyrrhus and his Hellenistic army in battle against the Romans

Besides having obviously a head for quotable aphorisms, Pyrrhus was regarded as one of the finest commanders of his time by his contemporaries, second only to his cousin Alexander the Great himself. Even Hannibal regarded his tactical skills superior to his own, but the epithet that they could well win battles but not the war stuck to them both. Pyrrhus, the red-haired, red-bearded adventurer from Epirus who dreamed of being the man who would be a king like Alexander, died a somewhat ironic death, struck by a brick an old lady threw out of her second floor window when his men occupied the city of Argos in Greece in 272 BCE. The ruling dynasty of his kingdom died out a couple of years later and Epirus finally became part of the Roman province of Macedonia in 146 BCE after their last Hellenistic king, Pyrrhus’ descendant Perseus, suffered a devastating defeat at Pydna against the Romans who had, after all, learned how to successfully cope with armies of the Alexandrian school of war during the Pyrrhic War in Italy.

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