Pyrrhus of Epirus

By Count Mummolus

In 281 BC the city of Tarentum, faced with almost certain defeat by the Romans, sent a request for help. Such a request would be meaningless were it sent to an unproven commander, or even a proven general who was occupied elsewhere at the time. The Tarentines sent their request to Pyrrhus of Epirus, king of a small but strong state along the eastern shore of the Adriatic. Pyrrhus had proven himself a capable general in recapturing his kingdom, from which he had been ousted as a child, and in holding it against the much larger and more powerful Successor states established after Alexander's death. Not only had Pyrrhus held his kingdom in the face of much more powerful opposition, but he had even expanded his territory at the expense of his large neighbours. In a period where civil war was rampant, Pyrrhus not only succeeded but was crowned 'King of Macedonia' in 287 B.C., and it is important to understand exactly how Pyrrhus of Epirus, a Greek at best and certainly no Macedonian, came to be regarded as a legitimate candidate for the Macedonian throne. Pyrrhus had a number of things recommending him as a saviour - he was related to Alexander through the latter's mother, Olympias, herself an Epirote princess; through the same bloodline as Alexander he could claim descent from a number of Greek heroes including Achilles. Pyrrhus' reclamation of his kingdom and his victories against Demetrius, son of Antigonus I, earned him admiration in the eyes of most Greeks and Macedonians - he had won his kingdom 'by the spear', an important aspect of Hellenic royal ideology which effectively cemented his credibility. Pyrrhus defeated the Romans several times, but the traditionally independent Greek cities of Italy and Sicily could not reconcile themselves with the Hellenistic monarch, and Pyrrhus returned to his kingdom having gained very little and lost a number of his best troops. Back in Epirus, he found that Macedonia had a new ruler - one without the credentials to match his own. Pyrrhus resumed hostilities against his neighbors, inflicting several defeats on them before meeting his unfortunate end in the streets of Argos. The question remains of how Pyrrhus factored into the wars of the Successors - an Epirote rather than a Macedonian, he nonetheless inspired devotion and fear throughout the Hellenistic world, including as king of Macedon.

Winning land 'by the spear' was an important aspect of regal ideology in the Hellenistic period, and the roots thereof went back a number of years. Upon crossing into Asia Alexander threw his spear to indicate his ownership of the territory though it was not yet conquered, and it was Alexander which all of the Hellenistic monarchs sought to emulate above all others. The concept of 'spear won land' was applied liberally by each of the Successor states, particularly the Seleucids of Asia, and Pyrrhus, recapturing his kingdom by force, could and would appear to both Greeks and Macedonians as a sort of warrior hero. As a young child Pyrrhus was expelled from his kingdom by a rival branch of the royal family, escaping only with the assistance of a number of servants, and he took refuge with an Illyrian king. With the help of the Illyrians Pyrrhus reclaimed his throne, but five years later while attending a wedding in Illyria his kingdom was again taken away by rivals and given to Neoptolemus. It was due to this seemingly unfortunate turn of events that Pyrrhus established many of his connections with the successors of Alexander the Great who were to establish the most long-lasting kingdoms of the Hellenistic period; Pyrrhus took refuge with Demetrius and served in Greece until being sent to Ptolemy I in Egypt as a hostage, where he eventually married Ptolemy's step-daughter Antigone. Ptolemy provided troops and transportation, and Pyrrhus led the way into Epirus, where he was proclaimed joint King with Neoptolemus, who was killed not long after.

Connections to Alexander the Great were a huge boon to the Hellenistic monarchs, and Pyrrhus could claim a number of these. First and foremost, he was directly related to Alexander through Olympias. Many of Alexander's claims of ancestry could thus also be made by Pyrrhus, although in this period it is questionable whether any of them were more prestigious than the connection to Alexander himself. Of the other Hellenistic monarchs only Ptolomy I would make a claim rivaling that of Pyrrhus - Ptolomy encouraged the belief that he was the illegitimate son of Philip II, making him the half-brother of Alexander.

Reputation was important above all else when it came to the Macedonian kingship. Rather than a strictly inherited monarchy, the Macedonian monarchy functioned as a ruler chosen by the people - the Assembly of the 'Macedones'. Macedonian belief held that the king was an intermediary between the people and the gods, and that his divine connection would be passed from father to son - as a result in practice the Macedones generally elected their monarch from the same family and so the monarchy took on the characteristics of both a hereditary and elected position. In a situation where there was no hereditary king available, as in Macedonia when Pyrrhus and Lysimachus split the country, the Assembly would elect the figure who best represented their ideal of a monarch, lending great importance to perception and reputation. Pyrrhus' apparent heroism had been enough to earn him the Assembly's approval in 287, and Lysimachus the same when he forced Pyrrhus out of Macedonia in the following years. The concept of 'spear-won land' once again appears in connection, as it allowed a victorious attacker the ability to oust the former king based on his own achievements - the end result being that the kingdom was usually led by the most recently victorious general. The Assembly itself consisted of the King's soldiers, but not all soldiers in the land - each region had its own militias, which were not necessarily a part of the Assembly of Macedones. The Macedones were also responsible for giving approval to proposed campaigns by the King, and each had a vote in the Assembly. As a result of this system, when Macedonian troops switched sides on the battlefield they were effectively exercising their right as 'Macedones' to elect their own king.

Pyrrhus' main rivals, as both local powers and opponents of Ptolemy in Egypt who supported Pyrrhus, were Lysimachus and Demetrius. The first major act of expansion by Pyrrhus after reclaiming his kingdom was to respond to the request of Alexander, the son of Cassander who ruled Macedonia. In a dynastic struggle young Alexander asked for help from both Pyrrhus and Demetrius, a request which both took advantage of to the detriment of Alexander. Pyrrhus arrived first, settling the problem and claiming western portions of Macedon as his fee, while Demetrius claimed the rest after killing the young king Alexander. Demetrius went on to attack Lysimachus' territory in Thrace based on reports of Lysimachus' capture by Thracian tribes, as well as attacking both Thessaly and Boeotia. Pyrrhus too was attempting to expand, and an abortive attack on Thessaly made little progress. Much more significant was Demetrius' invasion of Epirus - leaving a garrison behind in Macedonia he led his army into Epirus, but Pyrrhus' army marched past it, wiped out the garrison, and pillaged parts of western Macedon while Demetrius did the same in Epirus. While initially it would appear that neither accomplished anything of significance, Pyrrhus managed to engage and defeat the commander of the Macedonian garrison in personal combat and so won a large boost in his reputation at a time when Demetrius' popularity was already waning.

Demetrius' quick expansion inspired worry in the rest of the successors. In 287 Ptolemy of Egypt sailed into the Aegean while both Lysimachus (who had been released) and Pyrrhus attacked Macedonia, and it is during this campaign that the personality of Pyrrhus came to his assistance for the first time in the wars for Macedonia. Plutarch records in his lives of both Demetrius and Pyrrhus that when given the choice between the two kings, the Macedonian troops chose Pyrrhus, forcing Demetrius to flee to Greece dressed as a common soldier. Ironically, faced with both Lysimachus and Pyrrhus, Demetrius had decided to face Pyrrhus' army because he feared his own troops may desert to Lysimachus - the much older man had been among the bodyguards of Alexander, after all, which was a claim that not Demetrius nor Pyrrhus for all his good fortune could make. In deciding to desert to Pyrrhus (or alternatively Lysimachus), the Macedonians were making a decision they regarded as their traditional right - to choose their own king.

The reasons for the mass defections among Demetrius' troops are numerous, but most significantly was the feeling among the Macedonians that " was Pyrrhus alone who could remind them of [Alexander] in arms and in action". Pyrrhus was well known for his daring exploits in combat going as far back as his participation at Ipsus in 301 BC on the (losing) side of Demetrius and Antigonus I. His reclamation of his own kingdom on two separate occasions as well as his single combat against the Macedonian commander in his earlier campaign combined to make his kingship an attractive prospect to the citizen-soldiers of Macedon, while the reputation of Demetrius worked in Pyrrhus' favor as well. Demetrius had acted in a number of ways contrary to regular Macedonian custom, and as a result he suffered almost constantly from defection on a grand scale. His fashion sense was inclined to the extravagant, and Plutarch describes his extensive wardrobe of hats, cloaks and boots, many of which were "...of purple embroidered with gold..." and one of which especially had taken months to make, and was so extravagant that none of the future kings of Macedon ever wore it. The Macedonians, rather than being impressed by such pomp, accurately gauged that Demetrius was attempting to emulate Alexander without being able to back it up with accomplishments the way they regarded Pyrrhus as doing. Attempted pomp alone was not enough, however, to alienate the Macedonian populace to the extent that Demetrius managed, and it was Demetrius' tyrannical behavior which truly lent aid to the cause of his enemies. Rather than the accessible, friendly king Pyrrhus presented himself as, Demetrius was inaccessible and in many cases outright rude. It was as a result of these personal characteristics and reputations that Pyrrhus was able to be declared king of Macedonia in 287. Pyrrhus could not count on the same sort of good will when Lysimachus decided to force him from Macedonia not long afterwards - despite his own accomplishments Pyrrhus' reputation was no match for that of one of the bodyguards of Alexander. Lysimachus swept through Macedonia and Thessaly, leaving Demetrius and his heir, Antigonus Gonatas, with only a few Greek possessions and their fleet. Pyrrhus was forced back into Epirus by 284, but he was not to remain there for long.

The years between 284 and 280 were active ones across the Mediterranean. 283 saw the deaths of both Demetrius and Ptolemy I, 281 the last stand of Lysimachus at Corupedion and the assassination of the victorious Seleucus I. After the death of Lysimachus, there remained none of Alexander's original generals in the region of Macedonia - and of the rivals left behind Pyrrhus was the only one who had won his position 'by the spear'. Perhaps more importantly, none of Alexander's generals were left alive once Seleucus I was killed, and those who attempted to fill the void were, by and large, untested or proven treacherous. Ptolemy Ceraunus had taken the throne of Macedon by treachery and deceit, having slain the septuagenarian Seleucus I shortly after Corupedion; Antigonus Gonatas had inherited his position from his father Demetrius, himself having inherited it from Antigonus I, and other claimants lacked the necessary support to make any real inroads. Pyrrhus over the course of only a few years found himself not only the most experienced, but the most successful commander among the Greek-speaking states - and other powers had noticed the same.

As stated at the beginning of this essay, it was not to any of the new Kings or theoretically more powerful states to which the Tarentines made their appeal in 281 - it was to Pyrrhus. No doubt this was in part due to his proximity - only Antigonus Gonatas might be able to lend assistance with similar speed, but despite time spent serving under his father he was an unproven general, while Demetrius had done little to endear himself to the populace and there was no reason to believe his son would be an improvement. Pyrrhus on the other hand was popular, nearby, and had recently become the most outright powerful person in the region, despite his limited territorial holdings. As if these were not enough reasons to request his aid, Pyrrhus came from a family with a long history of defending the 'liberty of the Greeks'. King Alexander of the Molossians (Epirotes) had in 334 crossed to Italy to defend Tarentum against local tribes, while Alexander the Great had in the same year crossed into Asia ostensibly on the same mission, to free the Greeks of the east. Using his significant influence to his advantage, Pyrrhus before crossing to Italy forced first a number of treaties and then concessions and loans out of the other Hellenic kings - his closest neighbor, Ptolemy Ceraunus, was to provide a portion of his army, while Antigonus Gonatas provided ships, Ptolemy II of Egypt sent troops for the protection of Epirus, and even Antiochus of the Seleucid Empire in Syria sent a gift of money. The fact that Pyrrhus was influential enough to force treaties ensuring the protection of his kingdom during his absence is significant as it speaks to the respect and even fear he had earned from the other kings. Ptolemy Ceraunus and Antigonus Gonatas had logical enough reasons to support Pyrrhus' expedition - the much more influential Demetrius had been unable to halt his ambitions and neither of them yet had the reputation to rival Pyrrhus in any sort of armed contest featuring Macedonian troops. Antiochus had little reason to support or oppose Pyrrhus, which is likely why his contribution was monetary rather than more substantial, while Ptolemy II of Egypt was connected to Pyrrhus through the longstanding alliance with Ptolemy I. In the case of each of these monarchs, the removal of Pyrrhus from the equation left them dealing with approximate equals - Gonatas and Ceraunus in Macedonia were both relatively weak and needed time to solidify their holdings, neither being strong enough or popular enough to effectively resist Pyrrhus. Antiochus and Ptolemy shared tension over the region of Coele-Syria (which soon erupted into war) and neither would have any interest in a revitalized Macedonian monarchy arising under someone as talented and popular as Pyrrhus. In short, the Italian expedition was a situation which everybody could support - it satisfied the needs of Pyrrhus' rivals while providing him with a new and noble project to focus on.

Pyrrhus returned to Epirus from Italy five years later to a land which had not been invaded by any of his rivals. Unlike most, the treaty between the kings not to attack his territory had held, although whether this was intentional or whether because they were distracted by other, larger issues is unknown. Certainly, Macedonia had seen better times. After the departure of Pyrrhus in 280, the whole region had been invaded by Gauls. Ptolemy Ceraunus had been killed in a pitched battle, and Macedonia, torn by decades of civil war and invasion, was left open to plundering. A series of minors were elected to the throne as a result of their connection with various dead kings, while a Macedonian commander Sosthenes organized resistance against the Gauls. Initially successful, he was killed in battle and once again Macedonia was left open to plundering. The Greek states in the south managed to resist the Gauls, but not without loss, and both Macedonia and Thrace were thoroughly pillaged. The Gallic invasions of Macedonia and Greece had a number of consequences where Pyrrhus was concerned, some of them detrimental. His own kingdom, Epirus, had been largely bypassed by the Gauls, leaving it among the strongest forces in the region. Antigonus Gonatas, sailing up the Aegean coast, had landed and repulsed a force of Gauls which, though his first major military victory, won him the admiration of some Macedonians. This admiration paved the way for his claim to the throne, and after capturing or killing several minor rivals (including one of the sons of Lysimachus) he was elected king. Rejecting a demand from Pyrrhus for more troops and supplies, Gonatas set about reestablishing a firm hold over Macedonia, using his much more prosperous Greek holdings as a base of operations. As a result, the Macedonian state was once again unified under a single king and became potentially more dangerous, a fact which was clearly not lost on either Pyrrhus or Antigonus - both the demand for more troops and supplies as well as Antigonus' refusal were significant as they related to the balance of power between the two monarchs. Had Antigonus agreed to send troops, he would have been placing himself in a subordinate position to Pyrrhus. By refusing he was effectively issuing a challenge, which Pyrrhus was to accept upon his return to Epirus. Finally, the Gallic invasions left the region filled with mercenaries and warriors of proven ability and ferocious nature, mostly leaderless and looking to hire themselves out to the highest bidder. While the Gauls lacked the training and discipline of the Macedonian phalanx, that hadn't stopped them from rampaging across the Balkans, and as such they would prove a valuable addition to any general's army. It was these Gallic mercenaries who made it possible for Antigonus Gonatas to finally establish control over Macedon, since the Macedonians were fighting for their chosen king and could easily choose another, while the Gauls were fighting for their paymaster. As a result, Pyrrhus could not expect the Gauls to desert to his cause as the Macedonians were prone to do, regardless of his reputation, which made Antigonus Gonatas somewhat more threatening.

Pyrrhus' western ambitions, despite their eventual failure, had only heightened his reputation. His honorable dealings and hard-fought victories over the Romans had made him more popular than ever among the Greeks, and by pushing the Carthaginians almost entirely out of Sicily he had accomplished more than decades of intermittent warfare had managed. Antigonus Gonatas, by contrast, had only his defeat of the Gauls to his name. The Gallic mercenaries, however, by their very presence, strengthened Antigonus' army - they were less likely than his Macedonian forces to desert, since they were being paid rather than following him based on his election by the Assembly. When Pyrrhus marched into Macedonia, Antigonus marched out to meet him, even though Pyrrhus received the loyalty of every Macedonian garrison along the way. Unfortunately for Antigonus, Pyrrhus was able to hire Gauls as well, and knowing the likelihood of the Macedonians deserting he made it a point to ambush Antigonus' rearguard and force its surrender before engaging the main force. In another instance Pyrrhus' son Ptolemy was able to defeat a force of mercenaries with which Antigonus had attempted an attack, and with this victory Pyrrhus was effectively in control of Macedon once more.

Antigonus had one remaining advantage which Pyrrhus had no way of countering. His father Demetrius had been well-known for constructing a vast fleet of ships, while Pyrrhus had no fleet of any significance in the region. Even his transportation across to Italy had been provided by Gonatas, and now that Pyrrhus controlled the lands of Macedonia Antigonus simply retreated to his fleet where Pyrrhus could not harm him. Rather than attempt to do so, Pyrrhus decided on an attack against potential allies of Antigonus, and his first target was Sparta. In choosing this technique, attacking land-based targets which supported Antigonus' fleet, Pyrrhus was once again imitating Alexander in act and policy - Alexander had acted similarly in dealing with the Persian fleet during his conquests. Antigonus used his fleet to deliver reinforcements to the city, and Pyrrhus was forced to withdraw, stopping along the way to besiege Argos. In the midst of a daring night attack, Pyrrhus was struck in the head by a thrown roof tile and then decapitated.

The ignominious death of Pyrrhus did little to diminish his reputation as years passed. Hannibal Barca would allegedly later rank him as one of the greatest generals of all time, and given the trouble he faced from childhood within his own kingdom it is truly remarkable that he climbed to such heights. He was clearly treated as a worthy opponent by even the most resolute foes, despite the view of Appius Claudius that Pyrrhus had 'spent most of his life dancing attendance on one or other of Alexander's bodyguards'. It was in part this 'attendance' which allowed Pyrrhus to take back his kingdom, as his connections with Ptolemy would prove invaluable. Pyrrhus career is demonstrative of just how important reputation was in the Hellenistic period, and of how significant connections to Alexander and his generals could be in the careers of those who came afterwards. After Pyrrhus' death his kingdom would rapidly slip into obscurity - his son Alexander took the throne and ruled with reasonable success, but Pyrrhus was the last king of Epirus to be renowned on the world stage. While in the eyes of the Macedonians Pyrrhus was unable to match the levels of fame achieved by those who rode with Alexander the Great, he was perhaps the greatest among those lesser than they.


Primary Sources

Plutarch, Life of Demetrius
Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus
Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire

Secondary Sources

Hammond, N.G.L., The Macedonian State, Oxford 1989
Hatzopoulos, M.B., Macedonian Institutions Under the Kings, Athens 1996
Errington, R. Malcolm, A History of the Hellenistic World, Malden 2008
Scheer, Tanja S., "The Past in a Hellenistic Present" in: A Companion to the Hellenistic World Ed. Andrew Erskine. Malden 2003, pp 216-231