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Pyrrhus on Sicily


Bust of Plutarch. Museum of Delphi (Greece). Photo Jona Lendering.
Bust of Plutarch (Museum of Delphi)
The philosopher Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.122) is the author of a series of double biographies in which he compared Greeks and Romans, and tried to explore the nature of some type of man. They contain much historical information. The following text is taken from his Life of Pyrrhus, a king of Epirus (297-272) who tried to protect the Greek cities in southern Italy against Roman aggression (Go here for more information.) When he had defeated the Romans, the Carthaginians (allies of Rome), declared war on the Sicilian Greeks, and Pyrrhus came to their assistance. This story is told below. When the king returned to the Italian mainland, he was defeated by the Romans and went back to Epirus.

The translation was made by William Croune and appeared in the Dryden series.

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Sicily. Design Jona Lendering.
Some persons arrived from Sicily, offering into his hands the cities of Acragas, Syracuse, and Leontini, and begging his assistance to drive out the Carthaginians and rid the island of tyrants; and others brought him news out of Greece that Ptolemy Keraunos [1], was slain in a fight, and his army cut in pieces by the Gauls, and that now, above all others, was his time to offer himself to the Macedonians, in great need of a king. Complaining much of fortune for bringing him so many occasions of great things all together at a time, and thinking that to have both offered to him was to lose one of them, he was doubtful, balancing in his thoughts. 

Pyrrhus. Bust from the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum. National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
Pyrrhus. Bust from the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum (National Archaeological Museum)

But the affairs of Sicily seeming to hold out the greater prospects, Africa lying so near, he turned himself to them, and presently dispatched away Cineas, as he used to do, to make terms beforehand with the cities. Then he placed a garrison in Tarentum, much to the Tarentines' discontent, who required him either to perform what he came for, and continue with them in a war against the Romans, or leave the city as he found it. He returned no pleasing answer, but commanded them to be quiet and attend his time, and so sailed away.

Being arrived in Sicily, what he had designed in his hopes was confirmed effectually, and the cities frankly surrendered to him; and wherever his arms and force were necessary, nothing at first made any considerable resistance. For advancing with 30,000 foot, and 2,500 horse, and 200 ships, he totally routed the Carthaginians, and overran their whole province, and Eryx being the strongest town they held, and having a great garrison in it, he resolved to take it by storm. 

The army being in readiness to give the assault, he put on his arms, and coming to the head of his men made a vow of plays and sacrifices in honor to Heracles [2], if he signalized himself in that day's action before the Greeks that dwelt in Sicily, as became his great descent and his fortunes. The sign being given by sound of trumpet, he first scattered the barbarians with his shot, and then brought his ladders to the wall, and was the first that mounted upon it himself, and, the enemy appearing in great numbers, he beat them back; some he threw down from the walls on each side, others he laid dead in a heap round about him with his sword, nor did he receive the least wound, but by his very aspect inspired terror in the enemy; and gave a clear demonstration that Homer was in the right, and pronounced according to the truth of fact, that fortitude alone, of all the virtues, is wont to display itself in divine transports and frenzies. The being taken, he offered to Heracles most magnificently, and exhibited all varieties of shows and plays.


Coin of Pyrrhus, minted in Syracuse
Coin of Pyrrhus, minted in Syracuse: Heracles and Athena (!!)

A sort of barbarous people about Messina, called Mamertines, gave much trouble to the Greeks, and put several of them under contribution. These being numerous and valiant (from whence they had their name, equivalent in the Latin tongue to warlike) he first intercepted the collectors of the contribution money, and cut them off, then beat them in open fight, and destroyed many of their places of strength. 

The Carthaginians being now inclined to composition, and offering him a round sum of money, and to furnish him with shipping, if a peace were concluded, he told them plainly, aspiring still to greater things, there was but one way for a friendship and right understanding between them, if they, wholly abandoning Sicily, would consent to make the African sea the limit between them and the Greeks. And being elevated with his good fortune, and the strength of his forces, and pursuing those hopes in prospect of which he first sailed thither, his immediate aim was at Africa; and as he had abundance of shipping, but very ill equipped, he collected seamen, not by fair and gentle dealing with the cities, but by force in a haughty and insolent way, and menacing them with punishments.

And as at first he had not acted thus, but had been unusually indulgent and kind, ready to believe, and uneasy to none; now of a popular leader becoming a tyrant by these severe proceedings, he got the name of an ungrateful and a faithless man. However, they gave way to these things as necessary, although they took them very ill from him; and especially when he began to show suspicion of Thoenon and Sosistratus, men of the first position in Syracuse, who invited him over into Sicily, and when he was come, put the cities into his power, and were most instrumental in all he had done there since his arrival, whom he now would neither suffer to be about his person, nor leave at home; and when Sosistratus out of fear withdrew himself, and then he charged Thoenon, as in a conspiracy with the other, and put him to death, with this all his prospects changed, not by little and little, nor in a single place only, but a mortal hatred being raised in the cities against him, some fell off to the Carthaginians, others called in the Mamertines. 

And seeing revolts in all places, and desires of alteration, and a potent faction against him, at the same time he received letters from the Samnites and Tarentines, who were beaten quite out of the field, and scarce able to secure their towns against the war, earnestly begging his help. This served as a color to make his relinquishing Sicily no flight, nor a despair of good success; but in truth not being able to manage Sicily, which was as a ship laboring in a storm, and willing to be out of her, he suddenly threw himself over into Italy. It is reported that at his going off he looked back upon the island, and said to those about him, "How brave a field of war do we leave, my friends, for the Romans and Carthaginians to fight in," which, as he then conjectured, fell out indeed not long after.[3]

When he was sailing off, the barbarians having conspired together, he was forced to a fight with the Carthaginians in the very road, and lost many of his ships; with the rest he fled into Italy. There, about 1,000 Mamertines, who had crossed the sea a little before, though afraid to engage him in open field, setting upon him where the passages were difficult, put the whole army in confusion. Two elephants fell, and a great part of his rear was cut off.

He, therefore, coming up in person, repulsed the enemy, but ran into great danger among men long trained and bold in war. His being wounded in the head with a sword, and retiring a little out of the fight, much increased their confidence, and one of them advancing a good way before the rest, large of body and in bright armor, with an haughty voice challenged him to come forth if he were alive. Pyrrhus, in great anger, broke away violently from his guards, and, in his fury, besmeared with blood, terrible to look upon, made his way through his own men, and struck the barbarian on the head with his sword such a blow, as with the strength of his arm, and the excellent temper of the weapon, passed downward so far that his body being cut asunder fell in two pieces.

This stopped the course of the barbarians, amazed and confounded at Pyrrhus, as one more than man; so that continuing his march all the rest of the way undisturbed, he arrived at Tarentum with 20,000 foot and 3,000 horse, where, reinforcing himself with the choicest troops of the Tarentines, he advanced immediately against the Romans, who then lay encamped in the territories of the Samnites, whose affairs were extremely shattered, and their counsels broken, having been in many fights beaten by the Romans. There was also a discontent amongst them at Pyrrhus for his expedition into Sicily, so that not many came in to join him.






Notes

Note 1:
Ptolemy Keraunos was the eldest son of Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt, but was not allowed to succeed his father. He was present, however, when Seleucus I Nicator, the founder of the Seleucid Empire, invaded Europe to add Thrace and Macedonia to his realms (October 281). All of a sudden, Keraunos killed Seleucus and became king of Macedonia, but he was defeated and killed when Celtic tribes invaded Macedonia (winter 279).

Note 2:
The Carthaginians worshipped Melqart, who was often identified with Heracles.

Note 3:
The First Punic War (264-241).





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