Pyrrhus of Epirus

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  • Author:
    Jeff Champion
    This readable and enjoyable biography thoroughly deserves the favourable reviews that it has received in, among other publications, The Journal of the British Commission for Military History and Ancient Warfare.

    No king was to be compared to Pyrrhus... he had such knowledge of the military art, that though he fought against such great princes as Lysimachus, Demetrius and Antigonus, he was never conquered. In his wars too with the Illyrians, Sicilians, Romans and Carthaginians, he never came off inferior, but [was] generally victorious. (Justin 25.5)

    Almost nobody now reads Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome, but those who were brought up on them may recall the following lines:

    The Greek shall come against thee

    The conqueror of the east;

    Beside him stalks to battle

    The huge earth-shaking beast,

    The beast on whom the castle

    With all its guards doth stand,

    The beast that has between his eyes

    The serpent for a hand.

    They refer to King Pyrrhus of Epirus (319-272 BC), who was the first ancient General to use elephants against the Romans and the only Greek leader to inflict serious defeats on them. Yet, if he is recalled today, it is for the expression “a Pyrrhic victory”, meaning a victory gained at crippling cost. It refers to his hard-won early victories over the Romans at Heraclea and Asculum.

    Pyrrhus ought to be remembered as one of the great commanders of classical antiquity. As the quotation by the Roman historian Justin cited above demonstrates, that is how he was regarded by his contemporaries and later generations: Hannibal (the second commander to deploy elephants against Rome) reportedly said, when asked who were the pre-eminent military commanders of the age: “Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus and myself, in that order”. Hannibal added that, although they had never met, he regarded Pyrrhus as his teacher, because he had learned so much about the art of war from his writings. (Sadly, apart from a few fragments, Pyrrhus' books are lost to us.) Military genius was in Pyrrhus's DNA: he was a second cousin of Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon and claimed descent from the hero Achilles through his son, another Pyrrhus, who took part in the sack of Troy.

    Although his writings were highly respected, Pyrrhus was not simply the Basil Liddell Hart of the ancient world, he was a man of action who lived in interesting times; his life and career would make an exciting TV mini-series, except that some of the episodes would probably be regarded as far-fetched. To protect his life, he was smuggled into exile as a small boy. He spent his early years as the protege of foreign kings. Yet he staged a remarkable comeback, becoming king of Epirus in western Greece and raising Epirus to be a major power. He had outstanding leadership qualities and preferred to lead from the front. Always an adventurer, he was deeply involved in the cut-and-thrust campaigns, coups and plots of the Successor Kingdoms (also known as the Diadochi Kingdoms) set up by Alexander the Great's Generals when they divided his empire between themselves. During his campaigns were fought the first contests between the hitherto-dominant Greek way of war with its phalanxes and elephants and the ultimately victorious Roman legions, which operated in a different and more flexible way.

    Pyrrhus was King of Epirus (twice) King of Macedon (twice) and Sicily, as well as overlord of much of southern Italy., almost to the gates of Rome. His involvement in Italy was arguably a mistake; he accepted an invitation by the rulers of the Greek States of southern Italy to defend them against the aggressive expansion of the Roman Republic, whose rulers had arrogantly decided that the whole of Italy was “their patch” and predestined to fall under Roman rule, much as the USA has at times tried to assert its own hegemony over the Americas, citing the Monroe Doctrine. Pyrrhus ultimately failed in Italy; Rome eventually subjugated the the Greek Italian States, but he went on to further military adventures in Greece. Pyrrhus was killed in action while storming the city of Argos. After his death Epirus soon reverted to the position of a minor kingdom.

    The author of this biography is Jeff Champion, an officer of the Australian Customs and Excise Service. He is also a graduate in Classics of the University of Western Australia, where he achieved a First Class degree. During his career with Customs and Excise he has never lost his interest in the ancient world and has travelled extensively to visit classical sites in the Mediterranean area. Pyrrhus of Epirus, first published in 2009 and republished in 2016, was his first book. His other books include The Tyrants of Syracuse: War in Ancient Sicily and Antigonus the One-Eyed.

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