Pyrrhus (3)

Pyrrhus (319/318-272): king of Epirus (r.306-302 and 297-272) and Macedonia (r.288-284 and 273-272), well-known for his war against the Romans (280-275).


Pyrrhus of Epirus

During the winter, Pyrrhus opened negotiations with the Romans, who wanted to exchange POWs. He sent his courtier Cineas to talk to the Senate. This man, who had been educated by the Athenian orator Demosthenes, offered very generous terms: the Romans had to make peace with Tarentum and had to recognize the independence of the Italian tribes and several Greek towns. As was usual in the Greek world, Cineas offered presents to the senators, who thought that they were being bribed and refused to talk any longer, especially when the old senator Appius Claudius Caecus (the man who had built the Aqua Appia and the Via Appia) rebuked them for doing business with an enemy who was still on Italian soil. The war was to continue.

In the spring of 279, Pyrrhus attacked the Roman colonies at Luceria and Venusia, which were situated in eastern Italy. Together with other cities, they belonged to a ring of Roman military settlements that surrounded the Samnites, Pyrrhus' new allies. Pyrrhus wanted to break the ring to reach his allies, obviously realizing that he needed their soldiers.

Roman coinage from these years

Rome was also preparing for a long war. It started to mint silver coins, which it needed to deal with potential Greek allies in the south. At the same time, Rome sent two consular armies, led by Publius Sulpicius Saverrio and Publius Decius Mus, to the east. Not far from Asculum, between Luceria and Venusia, their united army - about 40,000 men - met Pyrrhus and fought an indecisive battle. On the next day, the Romans were forced back, but Pyrrhus was unable to capture their camp. The Romans had lost 6,000 men and consul Publius Decius Mus (who was later believed to have sacrificed himself); the Greeks 3,505. At sunset, Pyrrhus, wounded by a javelin and seeing his own camp destroyed, was heard saying that he could not afford another such triumph.

Relief of a Tarentine warrior

Even worse, his enemy did not come to terms. In the Greek world, two victories were usually sufficient to finish a war, but the Romans seemed incapable of realizing that they had lost. There were also complaints in Pyrrhus' own army, and his physician offered the Romans to kill the king. The consuls of 278, Gaius Fabricius Luscinus and Quintus Aemilius Papus, informed Pyrrhus about the man's intentions, adding the famous joke that the king "seemed to be incapable of judging both his friends and enemies". Pyrrhus could appreciate the Roman chivalry, agreed to an exchange of POWs, and when the Romans said they would leave Tarentum alone for some time, Pyrrhus announced something like an armistice, essentially sacrificing his allies, the Samnites and Lucanians, to Roman reprisals.

The Romans may have been surprised that their enemy postponed the war for a while, but they did not know that Pyrrhus had received a call for help from Syracuse on Sicily, which was threatened by the Carthaginians, and a call for help from Macedonia and Greece, which were attacked by Celtic tribes. The Macedonian king Ptolemy Keraunos, assassin of Seleucus and successor of Lysimachus, had been defeated by the Celts, who were now advancing to Delphi. Pyrrhus preferred the Sicilian battleground. This gave Rome an opportunity to force the Samnites into submission again, and subdue the Lucanians and Bruttians. It is recorded that consul Gaius Fabricius also captured the Greek city of Heraclea, but several historians have doubted this.

Map of Sicily

Meanwhile, Pyrrhus had placed a garrison in Tarentum. The inhabitants were angry and asked him either to do what he had been hired for and continue the Roman war, or leave the city as he had found it. The king, however, simply ignored their order and left for Sicily (text), where he recruited and trained a new army from Syracuse and Acragas. It may have consisted of 2,500 cavalry and 30,000 infantry, and was supported by a fleet of 200 galleys. He immediately advanced to the far west, where he captured the Carthaginian stronghold on Mount Eryx by storm. Pyrrhus himself was first over the wall.

The Carthaginians were now forced to negotiate, and because this took some time, Pyrrhus dealt with another enemy, the Mamertines. These were former mercenaries who had once supported king Agathocles of Syracuse, but had - when their king had died - occupied the city of Messina and had started to live as pirates. Pyrrhus defeated them, but was not interested in besieging their city.

By the end of 277, the Carthaginians had been reduced to one stronghold on the island: Lilybaeum, modern Marsala. Pyrrhus demanded that they would give up this city too, and when the Carthaginians refused this, he decided to cross the sea and attack his enemies at home. It might have worked.

However, at this moment the Syracusans decided not to continue the war. They had been liberated from direct Carthaginian threats, so they saw no point in fighting any longer, and refused the additional effort which the expedition to Carthage required. There was something to be said for this, because not much later, a peace treaty was concluded. On the other hand, one did not have to be a prophet to see that the Carthaginians would one day recover their positions, and that by then, only Rome could defend the Greeks on Sicily. "What a beautiful field we leave for the Romans and Carthaginians to fight in," Pyrrhus said when he left Syracuse.

On his way back, the Syracusan fleet, which ferried him to Italy, was defeated by the Carthaginians in what was to be the last battle of the war (275). The Syracusans now regretted what they had done, but now it was too late. The peace treaty, which was concluded not much later, was to last for only a decade. The inevitable conflict between Rome and Carthage, known as the First Punic War, started in 264.

The end

Pyrrhus arrived in southern Italy in 275. His visions of empire had already been shattered, and the renewed war against Rome, with only one third of his initial forces left, was a mere rearguard action. He needed reinforcements, but the Samnites refused to help him.

Yet, he did not give up. Knowing that two Roman consuls were trying to unite their armies against him, he took a position between them, trying to defeat them separately, near the land of the Samnites. If he won, they might rejoin his alliance. However, his night attack on consul Manius Curius Dentatus near Malventum failed, and during the day, he was for the first and last time defeated by the Romans. Because "malventum" sounded like the Latin word for "bad opportunity", they changed the name of the city in Beneventum, "good opportunity". Today, it is called Benevento.

Pyrrhus no longer had a choice: he had to go back to Tarentum, where he was regarded as an oppressor. Leaving a token force behind, he sailed back to Epirus in the winter of 275/274. He promised the Greeks that he would come back, but they must have understood that they were abandoned. One by one, the cities surrendered to Rome, which turned out to be a surprisingly mild ruler. The world now knew that Rome was a superpower in the making, and the Egyptian king Ptolemy II Philadelphus was willing to conclude a treaty of friendship.

To Pyrrhus, Epirus offered new opportunities. By now, the Celts had overrun Greece but had been defeated by Antigonus II Gonatas in 277. He had become king of Thrace and Macedonia, but had not yet consolidated his hold on western Macedonia, where Pyrrhus' son Ptolemy was trying to expand the Epirote kingdom. Pyrrhus joined this war and expelled Gonatas from Macedonia (273).

Antigonus Gonatas

In the winter, the king of Epirus and Macedonia went to the south, where Gonatas still controlled several Greek cities. The campaign was a mixed success: a new ruler was installed in Sparta and was able to capture Argos. However, during the street fight that followed after he had entered the city, he was killed by a woman who threw a tile from a house-top. "The eagle" was buried in his capital Ambracia.

This was the end of Pyrrhus, who was, when we take everything into account, an adventurer and a conqueror, only capable of fighting. He was a brilliant tactician, but the days of Alexander the Great were gone; the world was being reconstructed by new rulers, who were more patient and could wait. If Pyrrhus had had the same quality, he could have become king of Macedonia in 281 and would have defeated the Celts. He would have united Epirus, Macedonia and Greece in one, strong kingdom. Instead, "the eagle" wasted his talents in ambitious campaigns in the far west, which he never was able to bring to their logical conclusions, and in the end, he lost everything.


The Life of Pyrrhus by Plutarch of Chaeronea can be found here. His Italian campaigns were also described by the Roman historian Livy, but this part of his History of Rome is now lost. A summary (Periochae), however, survives and can be read here. The subject has also been treated by Appian of Alexandria in his History of the Samnite War.

Ross Cowan dealt with Pyrrhus' Italian in "Grinding Pyrrhus Down. How Romans Recovered From Defeat", in Ancient Warfare 2/2 (2008) 14ff