Pyrrhus of Epirus (319/318–272 BC) was an ancient Greek general and statesman, widely regarded by his contemporaries and modern historians alike as one of the greatest military minds of antiquity.
Pyrrhus is best known for waging war against the Romans. The Hellenistic king became embroiled with the Roman Republic over the struggle for Magna Graecia, a region in southern Italy largely settled by Greek colonists. He would become one of the Roman Republic’s most formidable enemies.
As Rome expanded across the Italian Peninsula, the Greek city-states in Magna Graecia grew nervous about its growing power. Pyrrus, who was a second cousin of Alexander the Great and also a voracious warrior, was drawn to the conflict, which would largely determine the fate of southern Italy.
Who was Pyrrhus of Epirus?
Pyrrhus (Greek: Πύρρος Pýrrhos) was born in either 318 or 319 BC, only five or six years after the death of his second cousin Alexander the Great in 323 BC. He was born into the Molossian tribe, one of the three Greek tribes together with the Thesprotians and the Chaones who unified the kingdom of Epirus.
Pyrrhus’ father Aeacides was the king of Epirus before him and cousin of Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great. His mother was an aristocratic woman from Thessaly called Phthia. Ironically, Pyrrhus’ maternal grandfather Menon had fought against the successors of Alexander in the Lamian War.
Pyrrhus inherited a tumultuous political situation in Epirus. After the death of Alexander, his generals – the Diadochi – fought amongst one another to secure control of his vast empire. The Epirote kingdom, largely confined to the western coast of Greece, was not spared from the political machinations that emanated from this struggle, and Aeacides lost his throne.
Young Pyrrhus proved to be both daring a capable. Through a combination of martial prowess and diplomatic subtlety, he managed to regain the Epirote throne for his family definitively and without credible opposition in 295 BC.
The Greco-Roman struggle for Magna Graecia
By the time Pyrrhus was born, the ancient Greeks had settled and lived in parts of southern Italy and Sicily for hundreds of years, since at least the late eighth century BC. The region had become so thoroughly Hellenized that the Romans referred to it as Magna Graecia, meaning “Greater Greece”.
However, as the young Roman Republic increased in power, the Greek colonies in Magna Graecia were increasingly casting an anxious eye northwards. Eventually, this led to conflict, and the Greek city of Taras (Latin: Tarentum; modern Italian: Taranto) requested assistance from Pyrrhus around 282 BC.
The war between the Romans and the Tarentines was caused by a broken treaty. Rome sent troops to garrison the Greek colonies of Thurii, Locri, and Rhegium. They also sent a fleet to Thurii, thereby violating a treaty that stipulated that Roman warships were not to enter the Tarentine Gulf.
The Tarentines were alarmed and attacked the Roman garrison at Thurri, forcing the fleet to withdraw. Diplomacy failed and war was declared. Facing overwhelming odds, the Tarentines turned to Pyrrhus to help.
Pyrrhus was eager to oblige. The war against Rome gave him a pretext to establish a new empire in Italy and present himself as a champion of Hellenism. By defeating the “barbarian” enemies of Hellenes, Pyrrhus hoped to establish a similar legacy to Alexander’s.
The Battle of Heraclea, 280 BC
The first major confrontation between Pyrrhus and the Romans took place at Heraclea in 280 BC. The Roman force was led by the consul Publius Valerius Laevinus. Pyrrhus commanded a combined army of Greeks from Epirus, Tarentum, Thurii, Metapontum, and Heraclea.
The bulk of Pyrrhus’ army were phalangites, mostly from Epirus and Macedon. These troops fought in the manner pioneered by Philip II of Macedon, with the long sarissa pike in the phalanx formation. About 20,000 men made up the phalanx. A force of roughly 6,000 Tarentine hoplites also contributed to the infantry battleline.
The Epirote king also had a strong cavalry contingent of about 3,000 or 4,000 horsemen. The cavalry included the famed Thessalians, who had played a pivotal role in Alexander’s campaigns, as well as the Tarrentines, who were adept at skirmishing from horseback.
The skirmishing force was made up of approximately 2,000 archers and 500 elite slingers from Rhodes. The army also included 20 war elephants, a frightening sight for the Romans who had not seen them before.
The Romans marched with an army of about 45,000 men. This comprised about eight legions, half of which were Roman, and the other half being supplied by Italian allies like the Bruttians and Campanians. Up to about 6,000 cavalry may have fought on the Roman side.
Pyrrhus waited for the Romans at the river Siris. When negotiations failed, the Romans crossed the river to attack the Greeks. Pyrrhus had his skirmishers pelt the Romans as they crossed the river but they were able to make it across.
The Roman legion and the Greek phalanx met on the other side of the river. The Roman infantry was unable to overcome the dense wall of pikes that made the phalanx virtually unbeatable from the front. Crucially, they were also unable to find a gap on the flanks from which to exploit its vulnerable side.
The battle was going well for the Greek side until Megacles, a companion of Pyrrhus, was killed by one of the Romans. Megacles was wearing the armor of Pyrrhus and the Greek army was disheartened by the belief that their commander had fallen.
As the phalanx began to waver, Pyrrhus seized the initiative and rode up and down the line to reassure his army that he was still alive. His elephants were then able to attack the Roman flanks where the Roman cavalry panicked and fled.
The Roman cavalry routed through their own lines, forcing the Roman infantry formation apart. This caused the entire army to flee. Pyrrhus’ cavalry force pursued them across the river and the battle was won.
According to estimates, about 7,000 Romans were killed, and 4,000 Greeks. Although Pyrrhus had suffered fewer losses, many of his officer corps and veterans had been killed and he knew it would be difficult to receive fresh reinforcements. This slowed the progress of future campaigning considerably.
After the battle, a number of Italian tribes including the Lucanians, Bruttii, and Messapians, as well as the Greek cities of Croton and Locri, joined Pyrrhus.
Ultimately, however, Pyrrhus was unable to win a decisive strategic victory over Rome. Rome itself was too well fortified for a successful siege and although Pyrrhus won every major battle, the Romans proved tenacious even in defeat.
In 279 BC, Pyrrhus beat another Roman army at the Battle of Asculum. The Romans lost roughly 6,000 men and Pyrrhus about 3,500. However, Pyrrhus had again lost many of his irreplaceable officers and the Romans were well positioned to bounce back, even from a costly defeat.
Pyrrhus was now in danger of being surrounded in Roman territory with insufficient troops, so he chose to withdraw and pursue other campaigns in Sicily and mainland Greece.
After the Battle of Asculum, Pyrrhus is said to have famously remarked “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined”.