Pyrrhus I of Epirus: king and victorious general

Pyrrhus I of Epirus (or Pyrrhos in Greek) is one of the greatest generals of antiquity. His posterity is great: from his victories was born the expression "to have a Pyrrhu victorys ”. According to Appian, Hannibal, during a discussion with Scipio, would have said that Pyrrhus was for him the second greatest commander because of his audacity, and that one could not find two kings who were more daring than him. Hannibal even considered Pyrrhus to be better than him. It is the eventful epic of this Hellenistic sovereign so singular and who so fascinated men that we are going to discover.

A kingdom for a king

Born around 319, he is the son of Eacidus, king of the Molossians, and of Phthia and nephew of Alexander the Great. The alleged descendant of Achilles lived a turbulent childhood. From the age of two, he was forced into exile. Taken in by Glaucias, king of Illyria, he was reestablished by him on his throne at the age of twelve (c. 307 av. J.-C.-306 av. J.-C.). He was banished again four years later by Cassandra, then king of Macedonia, who placed Neoptolemus II at the head of the kingdom. This banishment leads Pyrrhus to take part in the conflicts between the Diadochi. He already had links with the latter as shown by the marriage of Demetrios, king of Asia between -306 and -301, with Deidameia, his sister, in 303. He participated in the battle of Ipsos with his allies in 301 and is then sent by Démétrios to the court of Lagides as a hostage in 299 for a reconciliation. The latter does not take place but Pyrrhus remains in Alexandria where he befriends Ptolemy who gives him his daughter Antigone, from his fourth marriage with Berenice I.

This alliance allows him, at the death of Cassandra, to partly recover his kingdom with the help (financial among others) and the blessing of Ptolemy. Antigone, his first wife, was poisoned shortly after. In 295, Pyrrhus remarried with Lanassa, daughter of the king of Syracuse Agathocles, and received Corcyra as a dowry. This marriage allows him to strengthen his position against Macedonia. He is called with Demetrios to settle the conflict between the two brothers Alexander V and Antipater, each at the head of a part of Macedonia. He took the opportunity to expand his kingdom by recovering the Macedonian border provinces.

He transfers the capital of his kingdom to Ambracie. The problems are not resolved so far in Macedonia and when Demetrios ousts the two brothers and recovers Macedonia, Pyrrhus must forge alliances with the kings of Illyria and the Peonians and marry a daughter of each king. Lanassa divorces and takes Corcyre with her. Around 290, Démétrios marries Lanassa and declares war on Pyrrhus shortly after. Helped by King Lysimachus of Thrace, Eacid conquered Macedonia and became its king between 288 and 285 before losing it and ceding it to his former ally. Only at the head of the Molossian monarchy that Edward Will described as "constitutional", Pyrrhus seems to be turning away from the Macedonian question for a time.

Shipping to Italy

Pyrrhus receives a Tarentine embassy which asks him for help against the Romans during the fall of 282. Since 290, the Romans have made themselves masters of all the territory of the Samnites and are in direct contact with the Tarentines. Rome helps the city of Thourioi who asked for help against the Lucanians. However, the Romans violated a treaty that prohibited the Roman fleet from crossing Cape Lacinien. The Tarentines capture half of the Roman fleet and the sailors are reduced to slavery. Relations between Rome and Taranto deteriorate.

The city of Magna Graecia therefore appealed to the king of Epirus as it appealed to Cleonym of Sparta against the Lucanians a few years earlier. It is therefore a mercenary that she appeals against Rome. A second embassy with the presence, this time, of other Greeks, Samnites and Lucanians decides Alexander's nephew to intervene. He then requested troops from many Hellenistic rulers (with varying degrees of success) and landed in Italy in May 280 with 20,000 infantry, 3000 cavalry, 2000 archers, 500 slingers and 20 war elephants. The landing is unexpected for the Romans and the Republic quickly mobilizes eight legions. Very quickly, the consul Laevinus wanted to stop the epirote quickly taking advantage of his numerical superiority without waiting for reinforcements from the Greek cities.

The battle of Heraclea in 280 pits an army of 35,000 Roman soldiers against the forces of Pyrrhus alone (the troops from southern Italy have not yet joined) made up of less than 30,000 men. Surprised, Eacid failed in these first maneuvers intended to slow down the Romans. The first shock, although repelled by Pyrrhus, is to its disadvantage. The charge of the war elephants turns the situation around and frightens the Romans who had never seen them before. The infantry is disorganized and the smell of elephants prevents the cavalry from acting. The two belligerents will draw the necessary conclusions from this costly battle (the figures given by ancient historians are very variable) and strengthen the armies according to the weaknesses revealed on the battlefield. The victory allows Pyrrhus to rally the cities of Magna Graecia (Samnites, Lucanians, Bruttians, etc.) to his cause and to receive the promised reinforcements. He goes up to Naples to try to raise the city. It's a fail.

He goes up to Capua which he does not capture because Roman troops are stationed in the city. He also captured small Etruscan towns. Some had risen up at the news of his arrival in Italy. A few days from Rome, Agnani or Préneste according to the authors, feeling that he is in a weak position, Pyrrhus returns to the south of the peninsula. Negotiations with Rome then take place. His advisor Cinéas distinguished himself during these and thus passed to posterity. The goal for him is to establish his kingdom with the agreement of Rome in the south of the peninsula.

For this, he released Roman prisoners because on the one hand, he could not enlist them on his own and on the other hand, because he wanted to facilitate negotiations with Rome. In the end, these negotiations are a failure. The battle of Ausculum in 279 wanted by Pyrrhus to force Rome to bend under his will must make it possible to resolve this impasse. The forces on both sides are equivalent but Pyrrhus wins this battle losing fewer men than the Romans but many officers. He wants to use the skills of the prisoners but the latter refuse because of their loyalty to Rome.

The price of this victory is according to legend too high: it is from this battle that the expression of a "Pyrrhic victory" was born. The king of Epirus is ultimately victorious but weakened by Heraclea and Asculum. This new Roman defeat led the Republic to renew the alliance with Carthage against the epirot.

The Sicilian countryside

In 278, Pyrrhus received many requests from Sicilian cities to intervene against Carthage. At the same time, he receives the proposal of the Macedonians to become their king following the death of their former king Ptolemy Keraunos against the Celts of Brennos in 279. He prefers Sicily. With a new army, he lands on the island. The Carthaginians then lift the siege in Catania seeing the army of the Greek general. He then destroyed many strongholds and seized the city of Erice, a large pro-Punic city. Cities like Segesta then surrender by themselves. It was then that he was appointed King of Sicily. He even prepares the division of the conquests between his two sons: Alexander II would have Epirus and Helenus Sicily. From that moment on, the Punics decided to no longer defend the cities of Sicily except Lilybée in the far west of the island.

In the end, the whole island is conquered except the fiercely defended Punic bastion. Negotiations with the Carthaginians take place. The latter propose to cede the whole island except Lilybée because it was necessary to access Sardinia also under Punic domination. Pyrrhus refuses this proposal and wishes the whole island. Its refusal causes its loss: it besieges Lilybée in 277 but its geographical and strategic position as well as the supplies which it can receive, prevents the fall of the city. He even plans at this time to take the fight to Africa. However, the weary Sicilians make him understand that they would rather be under Punic domination than die in Africa. Pyrrhus then abandons his plans. Sicily will never be Greek again: it is the last attempt to unite the island under Greek domination.

Return to Italy

Little is known about what happened in Italy during the Sicilian stay of Pyrrhus. Half of his army was left behind. He landed again in Italy in 276 and returned to Taranto to reinforce his forces. He then seeks to have a clear victory to end this war. It goes back to Maleventum and fights the battle in 275. After having initially gained the upper hand on the Romans and crushed the left wing, the Romans take shelter and reinforce their armies. They then use units intended to counter the elephants.

The surprise effect is no longer and the Pyrrhic elephants turn against him, frightened by the techniques used. It is a defeat and Pyrrhus retreats. The place of the battle is renamed Beneventum (the beneficial place, today Benevento). Pyrrhus then returned to Epirus with his 9000 men without giving up his Western dream. His son Hélénos remains there. Many gray areas remain: did Pyrrhus really want to conquer part of the Greek West from the start? We leave it to the reader to judge. Rome and Carthage, with his departure, strengthened their respective positions: the fall of Taranto in 272 sounded the death knell for Greek Magna Graecia.

Return to Greece and death of King Pyrrhus

If Pyrrhus returned to Greece, it was because he had never stopped thinking about reclaiming Macedonia. Badly prepared and with serious money problems, he crossed the borders of his kingdom and looted Macedonia in 274. Regions and soldiers then rallied to him. Antigone II Gonatas' army quickly arrives and is defeated by Pyrrhus. Thessaly and Macedonia soon after fell into the hands of Pyrrhus. In 273, after taking refuge in Thessaloniki, the Antigonid returned to the charge with Gallic mercenaries and was again defeated, but by the son of Pyrrhus Ptolemy. Pyrrhus is already preparing his attack on Sparta following a call from Cleomena (the same one mentioned earlier) who wished to reclaim her throne. For strategic reasons, he accepts because it allows him to have an ally against the King of Macedonia.

Pyrrhus landed in Achaia in 272. The capture of Sparta was not so easy as expected and the Spartans preferred the unpopular Areus to Cléomène. At the same time, Antigone II has recovered his kingdom and decides to rescue Sparta to secure his kingdom. Pyrrhus gives up Sparta and falls back on Argos where the anti-Macedonian party promises to open the gates of the city. Gonatas arrives in the meantime and guarantees the neutrality of the city. The conflict is therefore engaged. Upon entering the city, Pyrrhus faces a confused battle where he sadly loses his life at the age of 46-47 after a very eventful life.

Pyrrhus leaves behind a paradoxical legacy: his epic is made up of a succession of victories without effect. Despite this, it has passed into posterity. "If we have to win another victory over the Romans, we are lost," said the epirot. The dynasty of the Eacids survived him only a short time: around 233, Deidamia, the last member of the dynasty, died assassinated. The Epirot League succeeds the Eacid monarchy. Pyrrhus wrote his memoirs and books on the art of war which have been read and commented on until Cicero. All these works are now lost. His career was never really forgotten: many artists like Poussin painted pictures on his epic. More contemporary, in 2004, The Creative Assembly for its game Rome Total War selected ten famous battles from antiquity including the siege of Sparta led by Pyrrhus. The epic of Pyrrhus in southern Italy still fascinates because if he had succeeded, the history of the world would have been profoundly changed.


- Pausanias, Description of Greece, books 1 and 6. The second book only mentions the existence of a statue bearing his likeness.

- Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus. CIP, 2016.


- LÉVÊQUE Pierre, Pyrrhus, De Boccard, Paris, 1956.

-TREGUIER Eric, "Bénévent, defeat with Pyrrhus", In: Guerres et Histoire, T. 8, 2012 ..

- WILL Édouard, Political History of the Hellenistic World, 323-30 BC. J.-C, Le Seuil, Paris, 2003.

Video: Battle of Asculum 279 BC Rome Vs Greece Legions Vs Phalanx. Total War: Rome 2 epic cinematic (January 2022).