Information on King Pyrrhus of Epirus

King Pyrrhus of Epirus (318-272)

Image ID: 1624788 Pyrrhus Rex.
"318? - 272 B.C." Pyrrhus was a Greek military general and King of Epirus. He was killed at the battle of Argos in 272 B.C. NYPL Digital Library

The Epirot royal family claimed descent from Achilles.The father of Pyrrhus, Aeacides, was deposed by the Epirots and his adherents executed. Pyrrhus was only two years old at the time, and, despite hot pursuit, was taken to safety at the court of King Glaucias of Illyria. Despite his doubts, Glaucias agreed to take Pyrrhus in and raised him with his own children. When Pyrrhus was 12, Glaucias invaded Epirus and restored him to his throne.

Five years later Pyrrhus was deposed in a coup while he was attending the wedding of a son of Glaucias (302). Pyrrhus took refuge with his sister's husband, Demetrius son of Antigonus, the king of Asia. After the defeat of Antigonus and Demetrius at the battle of Ipsus (301), in which Pyrrhus fought, Pyrrhus was sent to Ptolemy I of Egypt as a hostage for Demetrius' good behavior. He worked his charm on Berenice, Ptolemy's wife, and married her daughter by a previous marriage, Antigone. Ptolemy supplied Pyrrhus with a fleet and army, which Pyrrhus took with him back to Epirus.

Pyrrhus' second cousin, Neoptolemus, had been reigning in Epirus since Pyrrhus was deposed. On Pyrrhus' return, they ruled jointly, but Neoptolemus and one of his followers tried in vain to suborn Myrtilus, one of Pyrrhus' cupbearers, to poison him. Myrtilus informed Pyrrhus, and Pyrrhus killed Neoptolemus (295).

The two sons of Cassander of Macedon were at odds with each other, and the elder, Antipater, sent the younger, Alexander, into exile. Alexander fled to Pyrrhus. In return for helping Alexander back to his throne, Pyrrhus was given more territory in the north-western parts of Greece. Demetrius, Pyrrhus' erstwhile friend, and ally killed Alexander and took over Macedon. Pyrrhus and Demetrius were not good neighbors and were soon at war (291). Pyrrhus defeated Pantauchus, one of Demetrius' generals in Aetolia, and then invaded Macedonia in search of plunder. As it happened Demetrius was dangerously ill, and Pyrrhus came very close to taking over the whole of Macedon. However, once Demetrius had recovered enough to take to the field, Pyrrhus beat a hasty retreat back to Epirus.

Demetrius had designs on recovering his father's territories in Asia, and those opposing him tried to interest Pyrrhus in an alliance against him. Lysimachus of Thrace and Pyrrhus invaded Macedonia (287). Many Macedonians left Demetrius for Pyrrhus, and he and Lysimachus divided Macedonia between them. The alliance between Pyrrhus and Lysimachus lasted while Demetrius still posed a threat from his other territories in Asia, but once he had been finally defeated, Lysimachus won over the Macedonians and forced Pyrrhus to retire back to Epirus (286).

The citizens of Tarentum were under attack from Rome and asked Pyrrhus for help (281). Pyrrhus first sent over 3,000 soldiers to his advisor Cineas, and then followed himself with a fleet and 20 elephants, 3,000 cavalry, 20,000 infantry, 2,000 archers, and 500 slingers. After a stormy crossing, Pyrrhus made his way to Tarentum, and once he had brought all his forces together, imposed a more disciplined way of life on the inhabitants.

King Pyrrhus and the Pyrrhic Victory

Pyrrhus defeated the Roman army of the consul Laevinus in a battle on the banks of the river Siris, near Heracleia (280). He marched towards Rome, but when he learned that the Romans had raised more troops to replace those lost he sent Cineas to make peace with the Romans. The senate was inclined to agree, but a fiery speech from the blind Appius Claudius convinced the senate to reject Pyrrhus' proposals, and so an answer was sent back that Pyrrhus must first leave Italy before any treaty or alliance could be discussed.

The senate did, however, send an embassy under Caius Fabricius to discuss the treatment of prisoners of war. Pyrrhus agreed to send the prisoners of war back to Rome on parole with the condition that they would return to him after the Saturnalia if no peace could be arranged. The prisoners duly did so when the senate voted that any who remained in Rome would be executed.

Another battle was fought at Asculum (279), and although Pyrrhus won, it was on this occasion that he said "One more victory against the Romans and we will be ruined" - the origin of the expression Pyrrhic victory.

At the beginning of the next year, when Fabricius was consul, one of Pyrrhus' doctors proposed poisoning him to Fabricius but Fabricius rejected the proposal and informed Pyrrhus of the doctor's disloyalty, whereupon Pyrrhus released the prisoners of war in gratitude. Not to be outdone, the Romans then released their prisoners.

The Sicilians now sought Pyrrhus' help against the Carthaginians, and this gave him an excuse to leave Italy. Pyrrhus campaigned for two years but then the Sicilians grew restive under Pyrrhus' strict discipline, and after the execution of Thoenon, one of the leading citizens of Syracuse, on suspicion of being involved in a plot against Pyrrhus, came to hate him worse than the Carthaginians. A request from Tarentum for his help again gave Pyrrhus an excuse to leave Sicily and go back to Italy (276).

In Italy, Pyrrhus found he had lost much of his support among the Samnites and Tarentines who resented his having abandoned them to fight in Sicily, and he was defeated by the consul Manius Carius (275).

He sailed back to Epirus with only 8,000 infantry and 500 cavalries, having been away for six years with nothing to show for it except a depleted treasury (274).

The only way he knew to raise money to pay his army was by more wars, and so together with some Gauls, he invaded Macedonia, now ruled by Demetrius' son Antigonus (273). Pyrrhus soon defeated Antigonus, leaving him with just a few coastal cities. Pyrrhus was now invited by Cleonymus of Sparta to intervene in his struggle with the other Spartan king, Areus (272). Pyrrhus led an army of 25,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry plus 24 elephants into the Peloponnese but was unable to take the city of Sparta.

Aristippus of Argos was reputed to be friendly with Antigonus, so his rival Aristeas invited Pyrrhus to come to Argos. His army was attacked en route by the Spartans and Pyrrhus' son Ptolemy was killed in the battle. Aristeas let Pyrrhus' forces into Argos, but in the street fighting Pyrrhus was stunned by a tile hurled from a roof by an Argive woman.

While he was only partly conscious, one of Antigonus' men recognized him and killed him. Antigonus gave orders for him to be given a decent burial.

Pyrrhus wrote books on military tactics and strategy, but they do not survive. Antigonus described him as a gambler who made many good throws but did not know how to use them to best effect. When Hannibal was asked by Scipio Africanus who he thought the greatest general ever was, Hannibal put Pyrrhus in the top three, although his position varies in different versions of the story.

Ancient Sources: Plutarch's Life of Pyrrhus and Plutarch's Life of Demetrius.