Ancient History & Civilisation

PYRRHUS

Introduction to Pyrrhus

[319–272 BC]

Pyrrhus was king of Epirus, in north-western Greece. Epirus had been disunited and played little part in wider affairs during the Classical period. Its inhabitants spoke a dialect of Greek, but the system of city-states which was characteristic of southern Greece had not developed here. Instead, the tribe was the basis for political organization. By the mid-fourth century, however, the Molossian tribes, together with several other tribal groups, had formed a federal state with a Molossian king at its head, though Epirus remained generally subordinate to Macedonia. By Pyrrhus’ time, a larger Epirot alliance was in existence, under the leadership of the Molossian king.

Pyrrhus came to the Molossian throne when he was twelve in 307 BC, but was driven out in 302 by a rival member of the royal family, Neoptolemus. He took refuge with Demetrius Poliorcetes and fought at his side at the battle of Ipsus in 301. Later, Pyrrhus was sent by Demetrius as a hostage to Ptolemy in Egypt. There he prospered, and in 297 Ptolemy restored Pyrrhus to his throne in Epirus, initially as joint-ruler with Neoptolemus. But Pyrrhus soon had Neoptolemus removed and ruled alone. He proceeded to annex various territories neighbouring Epirus, partly by force of arms and partly through his numerous dynastic marriages. In 288, he even managed to expel Demetrius and establish himself as king of Macedon, but was himself expelled a few years later.

Pyrrhus now turned his attention across the Adriatic Sea. Rome had been rapidly expanding its power in the Italian peninsula, and in 281 the people of the Greek city of Tarentum, in the heel of Italy, appealed to Pyrrhus for help. Pyrrhus crossed to Italy and defeated the Romans in two battles, but suffered very heavy casualties in the process and was unable to take Rome or to bring the Romans, whose huge resources of manpower showed no signs of abating, to the negotiating table. Soon afterwards, he crossed over to Sicily at the invitation of the Syracusans and campaigned against the Carthaginians. He fell out with the Sicilians, however, and returned to Italy, where he was defeated in 275 by the Romans at the battle of Beneventum in Campania. He limped back to Epirus with his forces seriously diminished and little to show for it. The final years of his life were dominated by war with Antigonus II Gonatas, the son of Demetrius Poliorcetes, who had by now established himself securely in Macedonia and who maintained garrisons in various strategic cities in Greece. In 272 Pyrrhus was killed in street-fighting in Argos in the Peloponnese.

Pyrrhus has sometimes been compared to the condottieri of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy, and the comparison is apt. In many of his campaigns, especially those in Italy and Sicily, Pyrrhus was acting in effect as a mercenary commander, hiring his services out both for pay and for the glory of conquest. Plutarch’s Life is the only extant narrative source for most of Pyrrhus’ career. Plutarch mentions several of his sources. One is Hieronymus of Cardia, who was a contemporary of Pyrrhus and whose work on the successors of Alexander was used by Plutarch for his Eumenes and Demetrius, though sadly it does not survive. For Pyrrhus’ wars with the Romans, Plutarch cites Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek who worked in Rome in the time of Augustus and whoseRoman antiquities traced the history of Rome down to the 260s BC. Although much of Dionysius’ work survives, all that remains of those portions which dealt with Pyrrhus (Books 19 20) are excerpts. Plutarch may also have used Timaeus for the Sicilian section. For the narrative of Pyrrhus’ last campaign in the Peloponnese, Plutarch cites the lost third-century BC historian Phylarchus.

The loss of most other sources for this period means that Plutarch’s Pyrrhus is of great historical importance. However, Pyrrhus is more than just a repository of factual information: it is a carefully composed and structured whole, with a clear moral message. For Plutarch, Pyrrhus is an example of discontent and greed – greed not for wealth but for conquest. Unable to bring himself to enjoy the blessings of his power, wealth and success, Pyrrhus is driven, in Plutarch’s telling, by an unreasoning and insatiable desire for more, which leads him into constant and pointless warfare. Thus, when Pyrrhus is driven out of Macedonia in 285, Plutarch comments that he could have chosen to live in peace, ‘But for Pyrrhus, life became tedious to the point of nausea, unless he could stir up trouble for others, or have it stirred up for him’ (ch. 13). This inability to refrain from war is dramatized in a dialogue with Pyrrhus’ adviser Cineas. Acting rather as Socrates does in the Platonic dialogues, Cineas questions Pyrrhus on the aims of his intervention in Italy. By the end of the conversation, Cineas has demonstrated that further campaigns, even further victories, would not add to the happiness of Pyrrhus or his men. Why not stay at home and enjoy the land they rule? ‘These arguments’, Plutarch concludes, ‘disturbed Pyrrhus but did not convert him. He could see clearly enough the happiness he was leaving behind, but he could not give up his hopes for what he desired’ (ch. 14).

Alongside this concern with the psychological motivation for Pyrrhus’ campaigning, which casts him in a distinctly negative light, are other factors which emphasize his courage and martial qualities. Two figures loom large as models. The first is Achilles, an important symbol in the self-legitimation of the Molossian royal house, which claimed to be descended from him (ch. 1). Plutarch twice compares Pyrrhus with Achilles or points out Pyrrhus’ own desire to imitate him (chs. 7 and 13). Another model for Pyrrhus is Alexander the Great, who had himself claimed descent from Achilles. Plutarch comments on how the Macedonians saw in Pyrrhus the likeness of Alexander (ch. 8); and Plutarch has Pyrrhus dream that Alexander appears to him (ch. 11). Various scenes, such as his scaling the walls of Eryx (ch. 22), are reminiscent of scenes in the Life of Alexander. These parallels with both Achilles and Alexander give Pyrrhus a heroic quality and suggest a more positive interpretation of his constant warfare.

Plutarch and his readers were living in a world in which Greece had long been subject to Roman rule. Pyrrhus’ campaigns in Italy would have had special meaning as the first point of contact, the first of a series of wars which would lead in the end to the Roman conquest of the Hellenistic kingdoms. It is therefore significant that Plutarch portrays the Roman commanders with whom Pyrrhus had to deal as upright and incorruptible. Indeed, compared with Pyrrhus, the Romans emerge as the more virtuous and the more noble. Furthermore, when Pyrrhus first catches sight of the Roman army, Plutarch has him declare memorably: ‘These may be barbarians, but there is nothing barbarous about their discipline’ (ch. 16) – a phrase which neatly deconstructs traditional Greek notions of a world divided into Greeks and barbarians. In Plutarch’s Pyrrhus there is no room for a simple belief in the superiority of Greek over Roman.

The Life of Pyrrhus is paired with the Life of Marius. The Roman general Marius (c. 157–86 BC) won a series of victories in Africa, Gaul and Italy before rivalry with his one-time lieutenant Sulla thrust Rome into almost a decade of civil strife. Plutarch presents Marius, like Pyrrhus, as a victim of a pathological discontent, which showed itself in endless warfare. Even on his deathbed, Marius imagines he is on campaign, crying out and shouting as though in battle (Marius 45). There is no closing Comparison of Pyrrhus and Marius, nor is there any prologue. But Plutarch concludes Marius with a diagnosis, couched in general terms, and which could apply to Pyrrhus just as much as to Marius: ‘Forgetful and foolish people let what happens flow away with time. Therefore since they contain and hold nothing, always empty of good things but full of hopes, they look away to the future and reject the present …’ (Marius 46).

Life of Pyrrhus1

1. Tradition has it that the first king of the Thesprotians and Molossians2 after the great flood was Phaethon: he was one of those who came to Epirus with Pelasgus. But there is also a tradition that Deucalion and Pyrrha3 founded the sanctuary at Dodona4 and lived there among the Molossians. In later times, Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, brought a whole people with him to Epirus, conquered the country and founded a dynasty. These were named ‘the sons of Pyrrhus’ after him because he bore the name of Pyrrhus in his boyhood, and he afterwards also gave it to one of his legitimate children by Lanassa, who was the daughter of Cleodaeus, son of Hyllus. This was how it came about that Achilles was granted divine honours in Epirus and was known as Aspetus in the nomenclature of that region. However, the later kings of this line sank into barbarism, and the dynasty lapsed into obscurity both in its power and in its way of life. It was Tharrhypas,5 so it is recorded, who was the first of their successors to make himself famous by introducing Greek customs and letters and who imposed order on the life of his cities by promulgating humane laws. Tharrhypas was the father of Alcetas, whose son, Arybas, married Troas, who bore him Aeacides. This king married Phthia, the daughter of Menon of Thessaly, who earned a high reputation in the Lamian War and gained the highest rank after Leosthenes among the allies.6 Phthia bore Aeacides two daughters, Deidameia and Troas, and a son, Pyrrhus.

2. After a time, civil strife broke out among the Molossians, Aeacides was driven out and the descendants of Neoptolemus were restored to power.7 The friends of Aeacides were captured and put to death; his enemies also made a search for Pyrrhus, who was still an infant, but Androcleides and Angelus contrived to escape and carried off the young prince with them. They were obliged to take a few servants and women to nurse the child, with the result that they could only travel slowly and laboriously and soon found themselves being overtaken. They, therefore, entrusted Pyrrhus to three strong and reliable young men, Androcleion, Hippias and Neander, whom they ordered to press ahead as quickly as they could and make for Megara, a town in Macedonia; meanwhile, they themselves, partly by entreaty and partly by force, contrived to hold up the pursuers until late in the evening. They succeeded at last in driving off their enemies and then hurried on to join the men who were carrying Pyrrhus. The sun had already set and the party had begun to hope that they were within reach of safety, when they suddenly found themselves cut off by the river which flowed between them and the town. The stream looked wild and dangerous, and when they attempted to cross they found this was impossible, for the rains had swollen the waters to a rushing torrent, and the gathering darkness increased the terror of the scene. They decided that they would never be able to cross by their own efforts, since they had to carry both the child and the women who were looking after it, but when they saw several of the people of the locality standing on the opposite shore they called out for help to cross and made gestures of entreaty, pointing at the infant Pyrrhus. Those on the far side could not hear what they were saying because of the dashing and the roar of the water, and much time was lost with one group shouting and the other unable to understand them, until one of the fugitives hit on a solution. He tore off a strip of bark from a tree and wrote on it, with the pin of a brooch, a few words explaining their predicament and who the child was. Then he wrapped the piece of bark round a stone to give weight to his throw and flung it over the torrent. According to another version of the story, he wrapped the bark around a javelin and hurled this across the stream. At any rate, when the people on the other side read the message and understood that there was no time to be lost, they cut down some trees, lashed them together and thus made the crossing. As chance would have it, the man who first came ashore and took Pyrrhus in his arms was named Achilles, and his companions ferried over the rest of the party in one way or another.

3. Having thus escaped the pursuit and reached safety, the fugitives proceeded to Glaucias, the king of the Illyrians. They found him sitting at home with his wife and they laid the baby on the ground between them. The king was obliged to weigh the matter carefully. He was afraid of Cassander, the ruler of Macedon, who was an enemy of Aeacides, and for a long while he said nothing as he turned the problem over in his mind. Meanwhile, Pyrrhus of his own accord crawled along the floor, took hold of the king’s robe and pulled himself up at Glaucias’ knees; the king at first burst out laughing, and then was moved to pity, as he saw the child standing there like a suppliant, clasping his knees and sobbing. According to one account, Pyrrhus did not throw himself before Glaucias but seized hold of an altar, and clasping his hands round it, raised himself to his feet, and this the king regarded as a sign from heaven. For this reason, he at once placed Pyrrhus in the arms of his wife and gave orders that he should be brought up with their own children. Then a little later, when Pyrrhus’ enemies demanded that he should be handed over to them and Cassander offered 200 talents for him, Glaucias refused to give him up. Indeed, after Pyrrhus had reached the age of twelve, Glaucias actually invaded Epirus with an army and set him on the throne there.8

Pyrrhus’ features were more likely to inspire fear in the beholder than to impress him with a sense of majesty. He did not have a regular set of teeth, but his upper jaw was formed of one continuous bone with small depressions in it, which resembled the intervals between a row of teeth. He was believed to have the power to cure diseases of the spleen. He would sacrifice a white cock and then, while the patient lay flat on his back, he would gently press upon the region of the spleen with his right foot. There was nobody so poor or obscure that Pyrrhus would refuse him this healing touch, if he were asked for it. He would accept the cock as a reward after he had sacrificed it, and was always very pleased with this gift. The great toe of his right foot was also said to possess a divine power, so that when the rest of his body was burned after his death, this was found unharmed and untouched by the fire. These details, however, belong to a later period.

4. When he had reached the age of seventeen9 and appeared to be firmly established on the throne, he left Epirus to attend the wedding of one of Glaucias’ sons, with whom he had been brought up. Thereupon, the Molossians again took the opportunity to rise in revolt: they drove out Pyrrhus’ supporters, plundered his property and made Neoptolemus their king.10 In this way, Pyrrhus lost his kingdom, and since he was now completely destitute, he attached himself to Demetrius, the son of Antigonus, who had married his sister Deidameia. While she was still a young girl, she had nominally been married to Alexander, the son of Alexander the Great and Roxane, but after the misfortunes that befell them, and since she was of a suitable age, Demetrius married her.11 Pyrrhus served under Demetrius at the great battle of Ipsus,12 in which all the kings took part. He was only eighteen at the time, but he routed the contingent that was opposed to him and distinguished himself brilliantly in the fighting. He did not desert Demetrius after his defeat but kept guard over the cities in Greece which were entrusted to his command,13 and when Demetrius made a treaty with Ptolemy, Pyrrhus sailed to Egypt as a hostage. In Egypt, he gave Ptolemy ample proof of his prowess and endurance both in hunting and in military exercises. He noticed that among Ptolemy’s wives it was Berenice who enjoyed the highest esteem for her virtue and her intelligence, and also who exercised the greatest influence, and so he went out of his way to court her favour. He was particularly skilful at winning over his superiors to his own interest, just as, on the other hand, he looked down on his inferiors, and since he was temperate and decorous in his private life he was singled out from among many other young princes as a suitable husband for Antigone, who was one of the daughters of Berenice by her first husband Philip,14 before she married Ptolemy.

5. After this marriage, Pyrrhus’ reputation rose still higher, and since Antigone proved an excellent wife to him, he contrived to procure money and troops and to get himself sent to Epirus to recover his kingdom.15 Most of the Epirots welcomed his arrival, for they had come to hate Neoptolemus, who had proved himself a harsh and repressive ruler. Nevertheless, Pyrrhus was afraid that Neoptolemus might turn for help to one of the other successors of Alexander, and so he made a pact with him whereby they agreed to share the royal power. But as time went on, some of their partisans secretly provoked friction between them and fomented their suspicions of one another. However, the event which did most to arouse Pyrrhus to action is said to have originated as follows.

It was the custom for the kings of Epirus to offer sacrifice to Zeus Areius at Passaron, a place in Molossian territory, and there to exchange solemn oaths with their subjects: the kings swore to govern according to the laws and the people to support the kingdom as it had been established by the laws. This ceremony was duly performed, both the kings were present and conversed with one another together with their adherents, and many gifts were exchanged. On this occasion Gelon, a faithful supporter of Neoptolemus, greeted Pyrrhus warmly and presented him with two yoke of oxen for ploughing. Myrtilus, Pyrrhus’ cup-bearer, asked him for these, and was deeply offended when the king refused him and gave them to somebody else. Gelon noticed this and invited Myrtilus to dine with him, and, according to some accounts, enjoyed his youthful beauty as he drank; then he began to talk seriously to him, and urged him to throw in his lot with Neoptolemus and dispatch Pyrrhus by poison. Myrtilus listened to the suggestion, pretended to approve and agree to it, but privately informed Pyrrhus. In addition, on the king’s instructions, he introduced Alexicrates, Pyrrhus’ chief cup-bearer, to Gelon, making out that he was willing to take part in the plot, for Pyrrhus was anxious to have several witnesses to testify to the intended crime. In this way, Gelon was completely deceived, and he in turn deceived Neoptolemus, who imagined that the plot was developing smoothly and could not restrain his delight but kept talking about it to his friends. On one particular occasion, after a drinking-party at the house of his sister Cadmeia, he let his tongue run away with him: he imagined that he could not be heard, since there seemed to be nobody near them, except for Phaenarete, the wife of a man named Samon, Neoptolemus’ chief herdsman, and she was lying on a couch, apparently asleep with her face to the wall. But in fact, while she took care not to arouse their suspicions, she had heard everything that was said, and next day she went to Antigone, Pyrrhus’ wife, and reported the whole conversation. When Pyrrhus heard this, he took no action for the moment, but on a day when a sacrifice was due to be offered he invited Neoptolemus to supper and killed him. For he knew that the leading men in Epirus were on his side and were eager to see him rid himself of Neoptolemus. He was also aware of their desire that he should not content himself with a petty share in the government, but should follow his natural bent and engage in far more ambitious designs; moreover, now that his suspicion of Neoptolemus’ treachery provided yet another motive for the deed, they were content for him to forestall Neoptolemus by putting him out of the way first.

6. Pyrrhus honoured Ptolemy and Berenice by giving the name of Ptolemy to the infant son whom Antigone bore him, and Berenicis to the city which he had built on the peninsula of Epirus.16 Next, he began to ponder a number of ambitious schemes, in particular designs directed against the territories of his neighbours, and he found an opportunity to intervene in the affairs of Macedon upon the following pretext.

Of Cassander’s two sons, Antipater, the elder, had his mother, Thessalonice, put to death and tried to drive his brother, Alexander, into exile.17 Alexander appealed for help to Demetrius and also addressed himself to Pyrrhus. Demetrius’ attention was taken up with other matters and he was slow to respond, but Pyrrhus came to Macedonia and demanded as the price of his alliance Stymphaea and Paravaea within Macedonia itself and, of the acquired peoples, Ambracia, Acarnania and Amphilochia.18 The young man agreed to the terms, and Pyrrhus occupied these areas and secured them for himself by posting garrisons there; he also proceeded to wrest the remaining parts of the kingdom from Antipater and handed them over to Alexander. King Lysimachus,19 who was anxious to send help to Antipater, found himself too much occupied with other matters to come to Macedonia in person. But as he knew that Pyrrhus would never disoblige Ptolemy or refuse him anything, he sent him a forged letter which purported to come from Ptolemy and which ordered him to abandon his expedition on receipt of 300 talents from Antipater. However, as soon as Pyrrhus opened the letter, he discovered Lysimachus’ trick, because it did not begin with Ptolemy’s usual greeting to him, which ran, ‘The father to the son, greetings’, but instead with the words ‘King Ptolemy to King Pyrrhus, greetings’. Pyrrhus reproached Lysimachus for the deception, but he nevertheless made peace, and the three rulers met to confirm the agreement and swear a solemn oath at a sacrifice. A bull, a boar and a ram were led up for the ceremony, and the ram of its own accord suddenly fell down dead. The rest of the spectators burst out laughing, but Theodotus the diviner prevented Pyrrhus from taking the oath: he declared that through this portent, the divine was foretelling the death of one of the three kings. For this reason, then, Pyrrhus withdrew from the pact.

7. Alexander’s affairs had in fact already been settled with Pyrrhus’ help, but this did not deter Demetrius from coming to Macedonia. As soon as he arrived, it became clear that not only was his presence unnecessary, but that it alarmed the young king, and the two had only been together for a few days before their mutual distrust led them to plot against one another. Demetrius seized the opportunity to strike first against his youthful opponent and had Alexander murdered and himself proclaimed king of Macedon.20

Even before this Demetrius had had grounds for complaint against Pyrrhus, and Pyrrhus had made incursions into Thessaly. Greed, the congenital disease of dynasties, made the two men distrustful and suspicious neighbours, and their fears of one another were intensified by the death of Deidameia.21 But now since they had also both annexed parts of Macedonia, their interests frequently collided and the occasions for quarrelling were multiplied still further. Demetrius made an expedition against the Aetolians and subdued them; then, leaving his general Pantauchus there with a strong force, he set out to attack Pyrrhus,22 while Pyrrhus, as soon as he learnt the news, marched against him. Somehow, they mistook their way and their armies passed one another without meeting. Demetrius went on to invade Epirus and plunder the country, while Pyrrhus came upon Pantauchus and promptly engaged him. A fierce battle ensued and the fighting was especially violent around the two commanders. For Pantauchus was by general consent the best fighting-man of all Demetrius’ generals. He combined courage, strength and skill in arms with a lofty and resolute spirit, and he challenged Pyrrhus to a hand-to-hand combat. Pyrrhus, for his part, yielded to none of the kings in valour and daring: he was determined to earn the fame of Achilles, not merely through his ancestry but through his prowess in the field, and he advanced beyond the front rank of his troops to face Pantauchus.23 First they hurled their javelins at one another, and then coming to close quarters they drew their swords and fought with all their strength and skill. Pyrrhus received one wound, but inflicted two on Pantauchus, one in the thigh and one along the neck. He drove his opponent back and forced him to the ground, but could not kill him outright, as his friends came to the rescue and dragged him away. This victory of their king’s uplifted the Epirots’ spirits and, inspired by his courage, they succeeded in overwhelming and breaking up the Macedonian phalanx; then, they pursued their enemies as they fled, killed great numbers of them and took 5,000 prisoners.

8. This battle, so far from filling the Macedonians with anger or hatred against Pyrrhus for having defeated them, caused all those who had fought in it and witnessed his exploits to talk about him, admire him and marvel at his courage. They compared his appearance, his speed and his movements to those of Alexander the Great,24 and felt that they saw in him an image and a reflection of the latter’s impetuosity and violence in the field. The other kings, they said, could only imitate Alexander in superficial details, with their scarlet cloaks, their bodyguards, the angle at which they held their heads, or the lofty tone of their speech: it was Pyrrhus alone who could remind them of him in arms and in action.

As for Pyrrhus’ knowledge and mastery of military tactics and the art of generalship, proof is to be found in the writings he left on those subjects. It is said also that when Antigonus was asked who the best general was, he replied, ‘Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old’ (an opinion which applied only to the generals of his own time). Hannibal’s verdict was that the greatest of all generals in experience and ability was Pyrrhus, that next to him came Scipio, and after that himself, as I have written in my Life of Scipio.25 In a word, Pyrrhus seems to have continually studied and reflected upon this one subject, which he considered the most kingly of all branches of learning; the others he regarded as mere accomplishments and set little store by them. We are told that on one occasion he was asked at a drinking-party whether he preferred Python to Cephisias as a flute-player: his reply was that Polyperchon was a good general – so much as to say that this was the only subject on which a king needed to inform himself and pass judgement.

Towards his close friends he was considerate and not easily moved to anger; he was also appreciative of any favours that were done him and eager to repay them. Certainly, when Aeropus died, he was deeply distressed: he remarked that Aeropus had only suffered what was the common lot of humanity, but he reproached himself, because he had been dilatory and had put off what he had intended doing and so had not repaid his friend’s kindness. Debts of money can be repaid to the creditor’s heirs, but a just and upright man will be tormented by his conscience if he does not repay debts of kindness to his friends at a time when they can feel his gratitude. In Ambracia, there was a man who constantly abused and spoke ill of Pyrrhus, and many people considered that he should be banished. ‘No,’ declared Pyrrhus, ‘he had better stay here, where he can only speak ill of me to a few people, rather than spread his slanders all round the world.’ Again, when some young men had insulted him in their cups and were later brought before him, Pyrrhus asked them whether they had uttered the abuse of which they were accused. ‘We did, sire,’ replied one of the youths, ‘but we should have said worse things still if we had had more wine.’ At this Pyrrhus burst out laughing and sent them away.

9. After Antigone’s death,26 he married several wives so as to increase his power and further his political interests. One of these was the daughter of Autoleon, king of the Paeonians,27 another was Bircenna, the daughter of Bardyllis, king of the Illyrians, and a third was Lanassa, daughter of Agathocles, the ruler of Syracuse, who brought to him as her dowry the city of Corcyra which Agathocles had captured. By Antigone he had had a son Ptolemy, by Lanassa Alexander and by Bircenna his youngest son, Helenus. He brought up all three to be fine soldiers, young men of fiery temperament who were well trained in arms, and he whetted their appetite for fighting from their earliest childhood. The story goes that one of them, while he was still a boy, asked him to whom he intended to leave his kingdom, to which Pyrrhus replied, ‘To whichever of you keeps his sword the sharpest.’ In fact, this saying differs very little from the tragic curse which Oedipus pronounced on his sons, to the effect that the brothers ‘would divide their inheritance by whetted steel, not by lot’,28 so savage and ferocious a thing is greed.

10. After this battle,29 Pyrrhus returned home exulting in the glory and prestige he had won. When the Epirots gave him the title ‘the Eagle’, he told them, ‘It is through you that I am an eagle: how should I not be, when I am borne up by your arms as if they were wings?’ A little later, when he heard that Demetrius had fallen dangerously ill, he suddenly led an army into Macedonia.30 He had not intended to do more than make a swift raid and plunder a few districts, but he came near to subduing the whole country and gaining possession of the kingdom without striking a blow, for he advanced as far as Edessa without meeting any resistance, and many of the Macedonians flocked to his army and joined his expedition. At last, the danger aroused Demetrius to leave his bed and disregard his sickness, while his friends quickly gathered a strong force and set out to offer a determined resistance to Pyrrhus. As Pyrrhus’ plan had been mainly to plunder the country, he did not stand his ground but hastily withdrew and suffered considerable losses as the Macedonians harried his retreat.

However, although Demetrius had so easily and quickly driven Pyrrhus out of the country, he did not leave him out of his calculations. He had determined to embark on a great enterprise, nothing less than to win back his father Antigonus’ dominions, for which he had collected a force of 100,000 soldiers and 500 ships; in consequence, he had no wish to embroil himself with Pyrrhus, nor to leave behind a restless and hostile neighbour on the frontier of Macedonia. But as he had no time to fight a campaign against Pyrrhus, he was anxious to come to terms with him and make peace, and thus free himself to turn his arms against the other kings. Once he had readied an agreement with Pyrrhus, the size of his preparations revealed the true nature of his plans, and at this the kings became alarmed and began sending messengers and letters to Pyrrhus.31 They were amazed, they said, that Pyrrhus should let slip the moment when it was most favourable for him to make war, but allow Demetrius to choose his own time. Just now, Pyrrhus was well placed to drive Demetrius out of Macedonia, while his opponent was fully occupied and extended elsewhere. Did he intend to do nothing and wait for the time when Demetrius had grown strong again, and could then at his leisure make Pyrrhus fight for the temples and the tombs of Molossia, and would he allow all this to be done by a man who had lately taken Corcyra from him, not to mention his wife? For Lanassa had quarrelled with him because he paid more attention to his barbarian wives than to her, and had gone off to Corcyra. There she had invited Demetrius, since she was ambitious to make a royal match and had learnt that he was the most ready of all the kings to entertain offers of marriage. So Demetrius sailed there, married Lanassa and left a garrison in the city.

11. At the same time that they were writing to Pyrrhus in this strain, the kings did their utmost to distract Demetrius while he was completing his preparations for the campaign. Ptolemy sailed to Greece with a great fleet and set to work to persuade the cities there to revolt, while Lysimachus invaded upper Macedonia from Thrace and pillaged the country.32 Pyrrhus chose the same moment to take the field and marched upon the city of Beroea; he calculated, rightly as it turned out, that Demetrius would march to meet Lysimachus and would thus leave southern Macedonia undefended. That night, Pyrrhus dreamt that Alexander the Great sent for him, and that when he answered the summons he found the king lying on a couch. Alexander welcomed him in a friendly fashion and promised his help, whereupon Pyrrhus ventured to ask him, ‘How, sire, can you help me, when you are sick yourself?’ ‘With my name!’ replied Alexander, and, mounting a horse from Nisaea, he seemed to show Pyrrhus the way.

This vision gave Pyrrhus great confidence. He led his army by forced marches over the intervening country and occupied the city of Beroea. There, he stationed the main body of his troops and sent out his commanders to subdue the remainder of the region. When Demetrius heard this news and became aware that a terrible commotion was taking place among the Macedonians in his camp, he halted his advance because he was afraid that if his troops came any closer to a Macedonian king of such renown as Lysimachus, they would immediately go over to him. He, therefore, turned back and marched against Pyrrhus, calculating that he would be hated by the Macedonians because he was a foreigner. But no sooner had he pitched his camp in Pyrrhus’ neighbourhood than many of the citizens of Beroea came out to visit him. They were loud in their praises of Pyrrhus, described him as an invincible soldier and a man of inspiring courage, and added that he treated his prisoners with kindness and consideration. Some of these visitors were Pyrrhus’ agents: they were disguised as Macedonians and spread the word that now was the time to get rid of Demetrius and his overbearing rule by going over to Pyrrhus, a man who possessed the common touch and was devoted to his soldiers. In this way, the majority of Demetrius’ troops were roused to a high pitch of excitement and began to look everywhere for Pyrrhus. For it so happened that he had taken off his helmet. Then he remembered that the soldiers did not know him, and so he put it on again and was instantly recognized by its imposing crest and its goat’s horns. Some of the Macedonians ran up and asked him for the password of his army, and others, when they saw that his guards wore crowns of oak-leaves, garlanded their heads in the same way. Meanwhile, some of Demetrius’ followers had already summoned up courage to tell him that his best course would be to give up his ambitious plans and slip quietly away. Demetrius saw that this advice reflected only too clearly the mutinous state of his troops, and he took fright, put on a flat cap and a simple cloak and stole off unnoticed. Pyrrhus came up, made himself master of the camp without a blow and was proclaimed king of Macedon.

12. When Lysimachus appeared upon the scene, he claimed that he had done as much as Pyrrhus to overthrow Demetrius and demanded that the kingdom should be partitioned between them. Pyrrhus was by no means certain of the loyalty of the Macedonians, and so he accepted Lysimachus’ terms and they divided the cities and the territory. This compromise served its purpose for the moment and prevented them from fighting one another, but it was not long before they recognized that the division of territories, so far from allaying their mutual hostility, was a source of endless quarrels and disputes. For if two rulers are so greedy that neither the sea nor the mountains nor the uninhabitable desert can limit their appetite, nor the boundaries which divide Europe and Asia serve as a barrier to their ambitions, it can hardly be expected when their frontiers actually run side by side that they will stay contented with what they have and do one another no wrong. On the contrary, they are continually at war, because to envy and to plot against one another becomes second nature, and they make use of the words ‘war’ and ‘peace’ just like current coin, to serve their purpose as the needs of the moment may demand, but quite regardless of justice. Indeed, they are really better men when they openly admit that they are at war with one another than when they disguise, under the names of justice and friendship, those periods of leisure or inactivity which punctuate their acts of wrongdoing.

Pyrrhus demonstrated this very clearly. In an effort to check the growing power of Demetrius, and prevent its recovering, as it were, from a serious illness, he began helping the Greeks and entered Athens.33 There he climbed the Acropolis and offered sacrifice to Athena, and on the same day came down again and addressed the people. He expressed his pleasure at the confidence and goodwill they had shown him, but warned them for the future that if they knew what was best for them, they would never open their gates to any of the kings nor admit them into the city. Later, he actually made peace with Demetrius, but a little later, after Demetrius had set out for Asia, he attempted, again at Lysimachus’ instigation, to stir up a revolt in Thessaly, and he attacked the garrisons which Demetrius had left in various Greek cities. This was partly because he had discovered that the Macedonians were easier to manage when they were at war than when they were idle, and partly because his own nature could not endure inaction.

Finally, however, after Demetrius had suffered a crushing defeat in Syria,34 Lysimachus, who by then felt himself secure and had no other distractions, lost no time in marching against Pyrrhus. He found his opponent encamped at Edessa; there he attacked him, captured his supply columns and caused his troops to suffer great hardship. Next, by writing letters to the leading Macedonians and spreading rumours, he set about weakening their loyalty to Pyrrhus. He reproached them for having chosen as their master a man who was a foreigner and whose ancestors had always been vassals of the Macedonians, and for having driven from their country the men who had been the friends and comrades of Alexander. When Pyrrhus discovered that many of the Macedonians were being won over, he took fright and withdrew, taking with him his Epirot troops and his allies, and in this way he lost Macedonia35 in exactly the same way that he had seized it. It follows that kings have no reason to blame the mass of humanity if it changes sides to suit its own interests, for the people are only imitating the kings themselves, who set them an example of bad faith and treachery, and who believe that the man who shows least regard for justice will always reap the greatest advantage.

13. At this time, then, when Pyrrhus had been forced to give up Macedonia and retire to Epirus, Fortune gave him the opportunity to enjoy what he had without interference, and to live at peace ruling over his own subjects. But for Pyrrhus, life became tedious to the point of nausea, unless he could stir up trouble for others, or have it stirred up for him. Like Achilles, he could not endure inaction, ‘but heartsick he brooded waiting there, pining for the war-cry and the battle’.36 So yearning as he did for new adventures, he found his opportunity in the following circumstances.

The Romans were at war with the people of Tarentum,37 who were neither strong enough to carry on the struggle, nor, because of the reckless and unprincipled nature of their demagogues, inclined to put an end to it. The Tarentines, therefore, conceived the idea of making Pyrrhus their leader and inviting him to take part in the war, since they believed that of all the kings he had the most free time and was the most formidable general. Among the older and more prudent citizens, some, who were directly opposed to the plan, were silenced by the clamour and vehemence of the warmongers, while others, seeing the way that matters were going, stayed away from the assembly. However, there was a moderate man named Meton. When the day arrived on which the decree inviting Pyrrhus was to be confirmed, and while the people were taking their seats in the assembly, he snatched up a withered garland and a torch, as drunken revellers do, and came prancing and reeling into the assembly, accompanied by a flute-girl who led the way for him. At this, as might be expected in a democratic mob which possessed little idea of decorum, some of the audience applauded and others laughed, but nobody made any move to stop him; instead, they shouted to the girl to go on playing the flute and to Meton to come forward and give them a song, whereupon he made as if to obey them. But when silence had been restored, he spoke as follows: ‘Men of Tarentum, you are right not to hinder those who wish to make merry and enjoy themselves while they can. And if you are wise, you will make the most of your present freedom, for you may be sure that you will have other things to think of, and your way of life will be very different once Pyrrhus arrives in the city.’ These words made an impression on the majority and a murmur of applause ran through the assembly. But those who were afraid that if peace were concluded they would be handed over to the Romans, rebuked the people for tamely allowing a drunken reveller to insult them by such a disgraceful exhibition; then they banded together and drove Meton out of the assembly.38

In this way, the decree was ratified and the Tarentines sent a delegation to Pyrrhus, which included representatives of other Greek cities in Italy. They took with them gifts for the king, and explained to him that they needed an experienced commander, who had already earned a reputation. They also told him that they could provide large forces drawn from Lucania, Messapia, Samnium and Tarentum, which would total 20,000 cavalry and 350,000 infantry. These promises not only stirred Pyrrhus’ enthusiasm, but made the Epirots eager to take part in the expedition.

14. There was a man named Cineas, a Thessalian in Pyrrhus’ entourage, whose judgement was greatly respected. He had been a pupil of the orator Demosthenes and was considered to be the only public-speaker of his time who could revive in his audience’s minds, as a statue might do, the memory of the latter’s power and eloquence. He was in Pyrrhus’ service and was often sent as his representative to various cities, where he proved the truth of Euripides’ saying, ‘Words can achieve all that an enemy’s sword can hope to win.’39 At any rate, Pyrrhus used to say that Cineas had conquered more cities by his oratory than he himself by force of arms, and he continued to pay him exceptional honours and to make use of his services. This man noticed that Pyrrhus was eagerly preparing for his expedition to Italy, and, finding him at leisure for the moment, he started the following conversation:40

‘Pyrrhus,’ he said, ‘everyone tells me that the Romans are good soldiers and that they rule over many warlike nations. Now, if the gods allow us to defeat them, how shall we use our victory?’ ‘The answer is obvious,’ Pyrrhus told him. ‘If we can conquer the Romans, there is no other Greek or barbarian city which is a match for us. We shall straightaway become the masters of the whole of Italy, and nobody knows the size and the strength and the resources of the country better than yourself.’ There was a moment’s pause before Cineas went on. ‘Then, sire, after we have conquered Italy, what shall we do next?’ Pyrrhus did not yet see where the argument was leading. ‘After Italy, Sicily, of course,’ he said. ‘The place positively beckons to us. It is rich, well-populated and easy to capture. Now that Agathocles is dead,41 the whole island is torn by factions, there is no stable government in the cities and the demagogues have it all their own way.’ ‘No doubt what you say is true,’ Cineas answered, ‘but is our campaign to end with the capture of Sicily?’ ‘If the gods grant us victory and success in this campaign,’ Pyrrhus told him, ‘we can make it the springboard for much greater enterprises. How could we resist making an attempt upon Libya and Carthage, once we came within reach of them? Even Agathocles very nearly succeeded in capturing them when he slipped out of Syracuse with only a handful of ships. And when we have conquered these countries, none of our enemies who are so insolent to us now will be able to stand up to us. I do not have to emphasize that.’ ‘Certainly not,’ replied Cineas. ‘There is no doubt that when we have achieved that position of strength, we shall be able to recover Macedonia and have the rest of Greece at our feet. But after all these countries are in our power, what shall we do then?’ Pyrrhus smiled benevolently and replied, ‘Why, then we shall relax. We shall drink, my dear fellow, every day, and talk and amuse one another to our hearts’ content.’ Now that he had brought Pyrrhus to this point, Cineas had only to ask him, ‘Then what prevents us from relaxing and drinking and entertaining each other now? We have the means to do that all around us. So the very prizes which we propose to win with all this bloodshed and toil and danger, and all the suffering inflicted on other people and ourselves, we could enjoy without taking another step!’

These arguments disturbed Pyrrhus but did not convert him. He could see clearly enough the happiness he was leaving behind, but he could not give up his hopes for what he desired.

15. First, then, he sent Cineas ahead to Tarentum with 3,000 soldiers.42 Next, he assembled from Tarentum a large fleet of cavalry transports, decked ships and ferry boats of every kind, and on them he embarked twenty elephants, 3,000 cavalry, 20,000 infantry, 2,000 archers and 500 slingers. When all these were ready he set sail, but when he was halfway across the Ionian sea, the fleet was struck by a north wind which sprang up without warning and out of season. Although his ship was hard pressed, Pyrrhus himself, thanks to the courage and resolution of his sailors and helmsmen, was able to recover his course and after great labour and peril to make landfall, but the rest were thrown into confusion and scattered. Some were driven away from the Italian coast altogether and on into Sicilian and Libyan waters; other vessels, which failed to round the Iapygian cape43 before dark, were hurled by heavy and boisterous seas onto the rocky and harbourless coast, with the result that all were destroyed except the royal galley. This ship was so large and solidly constructed that she could hold out against the pounding of the water from the seaward side, but when the wind veered round and began to blow from the shore, she was in danger of breaking up if she met the waves bows on, while to let her wallow in the rough open sea, battered by squalls which came from all directions, seemed the most dangerous course of all. At last, Pyrrhus leapt to his feet and dived into the sea, and his friends and bodyguard vied with one another to follow him. But the darkness and the roar of the waves and the undertow made it difficult to help him, and it was not until daybreak, by which time the wind had begun to die down, that he was able to struggle ashore. By then his strength was almost gone, but his courage and determination sustained him, even in this extremity. The Messapians, on whose coast he had been wrecked, quickly gathered and eagerly offered him all the help they could muster; meanwhile, some of his ships that had escaped the storm put in. These brought with them only a fewcavalrymen, fewer than two thousand infantry and two elephants.

16. With this force, Pyrrhus set out for Tarentum, and Cineas, as soon as he learnt of the king’s arrival, led out his contingent to meet him. When Pyrrhus entered the city, he did nothing without the consent of the Tarentines, nor did he try to coerce them into any action, but waited until his fleet had safely reassembled and the greater part of his army had regrouped. By then he had discovered that the people were quite incapable of helping him or themselves, unless circumstances compelled them. Their inclination was to allow him to do their fighting for them, while they stayed at home enjoying their baths and social entertainments. Accordingly, Pyrrhus closed the gymnasia and public walks, where the citizens were in the habit of strolling about and fighting battles against the Romans with words. He also banned drinking-parties, banquets and festivals as unseasonable, conscripted the male population and showed himself strict and inflexible in mobilizing all those required for military service. As a result, many of the Tarentines left the city; they were so unaccustomed to discipline that they regarded it as slavery not to be allowed to live as they pleased.

The news now reached Pyrrhus that Laevinus, the Roman consul, was advancing on the city with a large army, plundering Lucania as he came. Pyrrhus’ allies had not yet arrived, but he thought it disgraceful to remain inactive and allow the enemy to advance any nearer, and so he marched out with his troops. He had first dispatched a herald to the Romans to ask whether they would agree to receive satisfaction from the Italian Greeks before resorting to arms, and he offered his services as arbitrator and mediator. Laevinus’ reply was that the Romans neither accepted Pyrrhus as a mediator nor feared him as an enemy, whereupon Pyrrhus advanced and pitched his camp in the plain between the cities of Pandosia and Heracleia.

When he discovered that the Romans were close by and had encamped on the other side of the River Siris, he rode up to reconnoitre the position. Their discipline, the arrangement of their watches, their orderly movements and the planning of their camp all impressed and astonished him, and he remarked to the friend nearest him, ‘These may be barbarians, but there is nothing barbarous about their discipline; however, we shall see in action what it is worth.’ He had already begun to feel some uncertainty as to the outcome, and he now determined to wait for his allies to arrive. At the same time, he posted a guard on the bank of the river to oppose the Romans if they tried to cross it. The Romans, however, were anxious to forestall the arrival of the forces for which Pyrrhus had decided to wait, and immediately attempted the crossing. Their infantry made the passage at a ford, while the cavalry galloped through the water at many different points, and thereupon the Greeks who were on guard retreated from the bank, for fear that they might be encircled.

Pyrrhus was disturbed by this, so he ordered his infantry officers to take up their battle formation at once and wait under arms, while he himself advanced with his force of 3,000 cavalry: he hoped to catch the Romans while they were still engaged in crossing the river and before they could regain their formation. But when he saw the glittering line of shields of the Roman infantry stretching along the bank, while their cavalry advanced against him in good order, he closed up his own ranks and led them in a charge. He stood out at once among his men for the beauty and brilliance of his elaborately ornamented armour, and he proved by his exploits that his reputation for valour was well deserved. Above all, although he exposed himself in personal combat and drove back all who encountered him, he kept throughout a complete grasp of the progress of the battle and never lost his presence of mind. He directed the action as though he were watching it from a distance, yet he was everywhere himself, and always managed to be at hand to support his troops wherever the pressure was greatest.

During the fighting, Leonnatus the Macedonian44 noticed that one of the Italians had singled out Pyrrhus and was riding towards him, following his every movement. At length he said to the king, ‘Do you see, sire, that barbarian who is riding the black horse with white feet? He looks like a man who is planning some desperate action. He never takes his eyes off you, he pays no attention to anybody else and it looks as though he is reserving all his strength to attack you. You must be on your guard against him.’ Pyrrhus replied, ‘Leonnatus, no man can avoid his fate. But neither he nor any other Italian will find it an easy task once they get to close quarters with me.’ Even as they were speaking, the Italian wheeled his horse, levelled his spear and charged at Pyrrhus. Then, in the same instant that the Italian’s lance struck the king’s horse, his own was transfixed by Leonnatus. Both horses fell, but Pyrrhus was snatched up and saved by his friends, while the Italian, fighting desperately, was killed. His name was Oplax: he was captain of a troop of horse and a Frentanian by race.

17. This episode taught Pyrrhus to be more cautious in future. He saw that his cavalry were now giving ground and so summoned his phalanx and ordered them to take up formation. Then he gave his cloak and armour to Megacles, one of his companions, concealed himself after a fashion among Megacles’ men and with them he charged the Romans. The Romans resisted their onslaught bravely and for a long while the issue hung in the balance. It is said that the mastery of the field changed hands no less than seven times, as each side gave ground in turn or advanced. The king’s change of armour, although well-timed for his personal safety, came near to losing him the battle. Many of the enemy attacked Megacles, and the man who first struck him to the ground, called Dexius, seized his cloak and helmet and rode up with them to Laevinus; as he did so, he brandished them aloft and shouted out that he had killed Pyrrhus. The Romans, when they saw these trophies exultantly displayed and carried along their ranks, shouted aloud in triumph; the Greeks, on the other hand, were disheartened and dejected until Pyrrhus, discovering what had happened, rode along his line with bared head stretching out his hand to his allies and making himself known to them by his voice. At last, as the Romans began to be driven back by the elephants, and their horses, before they could get near the great beasts, started to panic and bolt, Pyrrhus seized his opportunity: as the Romans faltered, he launched a charge with his Thessalian cavalry and routed the enemy with great slaughter.

According to Dionysius,45 the Romans lost nearly 15,000 men and Pyrrhus 13,000, while Hieronymus46 reduces these figures to 7,000 on the Roman side and 4,000 on the Greek. But these were some of Pyrrhus’ best troops, and in addition he lost many of the friends and commanders whom he trusted and employed the most. However, he captured the Roman camp, which they had abandoned, and he persuaded some cities previously allied to Rome to come over to his side. He also ravaged a large area and advanced to a point less than 35 miles distant from Rome. After the battle, many of the Lucanians and Samnites flocked to join him. He reproached these peoples for coming so late, but it was clear that he was delighted and took especial pride in the fact that he had defeated such a great army of the Romans without any help but that of his own troops and the Tarentines.

18. The Romans did not remove Laevinus from his office as consul, and yet Gaius Fabricius is reported to have said that it was not the Epirots who had defeated the Romans, but Pyrrhus who had defeated Laevinus. Fabricius took the view that the Romans had been beaten through the fault of their general, not of the army. Meanwhile, the fact that the Romans immediately brought the depleted legions back to full strength, raised others and spoke of the war only in a spirit of undaunted confidence, filled Pyrrhus with consternation. He decided therefore to make an approach to them first and discover whether they would come to terms, for he thought that to storm the city and subdue the whole Roman people would be an immense task and quite beyond the strength of his present force, whereas a pact of friendship and a settlement negotiated after his victory would greatly enhance his prestige. So Cineas was dispatched to Rome, where he conferred with the leading officials and brought gifts for their wives and children in Pyrrhus’ name. Nobody was willing to accept his gifts, but they all declared, women and children alike, that if a peace were concluded by the will of the people, they for their part would show their regard and goodwill for the king. Again, when Cineas laid a number of tempting proposals before the senate, not one of them was taken up with the least pleasure or enthusiasm: this in spite of the fact that Pyrrhus offered to release without any ransom all the prisoners he had taken in the battle, and undertook to help the Romans to subdue the rest of Italy. All he asked in return was that he should be treated as a friend and the Tarentines left unmolested.

Nevertheless, it was clear that the majority of the senators were inclined towards peace, for they recognized that they had been defeated in a great battle and must expect to have to fight another against an even stronger army, now that the Italian Greeks had joined Pyrrhus. It was at this point that Appius Claudius, a man of great distinction but one who had been prevented by old age and blindness from playing an active part in politics, learnt that the king’s terms had been presented to the senate, and that they were about to vote on the proposed cessation of hostilities. He could no longer bear to remain at home, but ordered his attendants to take him up and had himself carried through the forum to the senate-house on a litter. When he arrived at the doors, his sons and sons-in-law supported him and guided him to his seat, while the senators honoured him by preserving a respectful silence.

19. Speaking from where he stood, Appius then addressed them as follows: ‘Previously, my countrymen, I had felt the loss of my sight as a heavy affliction. But now it grieves me that I have not lost my hearing as well when I learn of the shameful motions and decrees with which you propose to dishonour the great name of Rome. What has become of that boast which you have made famous throughout the world, that if the great Alexander had invaded Italy and encountered us when we were young men, or our fathers in their prime, he would not now be celebrated as invincible, but would either have fled or perhaps have fallen, and thus left Rome more glorious than ever before? Now, it seems to me, you are proving that this was mere bravado and empty boasting, since you shrink from these Chaonians and Molossians who have always been the prey and the spoil of the Macedonians, and you tremble before this Pyrrhus, who has spent most of his life dancing attendance on one or other of Alexander’s bodyguards.47 Now he comes wandering around Italy, not so much to help the Greeks here as to escape from his own enemies at home, and he has the insolence to offer to help us subdue the country with this army which was not good enough to hold even a fraction of Macedonia for him. Do not imagine that you will get rid of this fellow by making him your friend. You will only bring other invaders after him, and they will despise you as a people whom anybody can subdue. This is what you can expect if you allow Pyrrhus to leave Italy not merely unpunished for the outrages he has committed against you, but actually rewarded for having made Rome a laughing-stock to the Tarentines and the Samnites.’

By the time Appius had finished, his audience were filled with the desire to continue the war and Cineas was dismissed with the reply that Pyrrhus must first leave Italy, and only then, if he still wished it, would the Romans discuss the question of an alliance and a pact of friendship. So long as he remained on their soil in arms, they would fight him to the death, even if he routed 10,000 more men like Laevinus in battle. It is reported that in the course of his mission, Cineas took especial care to study the life and customs of the Romans and to acquaint himself with the peculiar virtues of their form of government, and he also conversed with their most prominent men. On his return, he had much to report to Pyrrhus. Among other things, he told him that the senate impressed him as an assembly of many kings, and as for the people, he feared that to fight against them would be like fighting the Lernaean Hydra.48 The consul had already raised an army twice the strength of the one which had faced Pyrrhus, and there were still many times this number of Romans who were able to bear arms.

20. After this, a Roman delegation visited Pyrrhus to discuss the subject of the prisoners of war. It was headed by Gaius Fabricius, who, as Cineas advised the king, enjoyed the highest reputation among the Romans both as a fine soldier and as a man of honour, but who was also extremely poor. Pyrrhus entertained him privately and tried to persuade him to accept a present of money. He did not offer this for any dishonourable reason, he explained, but simply as a token of friendship and hospitality. Fabricius refused the gift, and for the moment Pyrrhus said nothing more. The next day, as he wished to startle a man who had never before seen an elephant, he ordered the largest he had to be placed behind a curtain while they conversed on the other side. This was done and then, at a given signal, the curtain was drawn aside, the animal suddenly raised its trunk, held it over Fabricius’ head and trumpeted with a loud and terrifying noise. Fabricius turned, smiled serenely at Pyrrhus and said, ‘Your gold made no impression on me yesterday, and neither does your beast today.’

When they dined together, they discussed many different topics, and in particular the subject of Greece and Greek philosophers. Cineas happened to mention Epicurus, and expounded the theories of the Epicurean school concerning the gods, the conduct of politics and the question of what is the highest good. He explained that the Epicureans considered pleasure to be the greatest good, but refrained from taking any active part in politics on the ground that it was injurious to and confused the pursuit of happiness; also, that the Epicureans believed the deity to be completely remote from feelings of benevolence, anger or concern for humanity, and conceived of the gods as leading a life which was devoid of cares and filled with comfort and enjoyment. Before Cineas could finish, Fabricius interrupted him. ‘Heracles,’ he exclaimed, ‘pray grant that Pyrrhus and the Samnites continue to take these doctrines seriously so long as they are at war with us!’

After these encounters, Pyrrhus was filled with admiration for Fabricius’ spirit and character, and he desired more than ever to make the Romans his friends instead of his enemies. He even went so far as to invite Fabricius privately, if he could bring about a settlement between the two peoples, to throw in his lot and live with him as the chief of his companions and generals. But Fabricius, so the story goes, quietly said to him, ‘This arrangement, sire, would not be to your advantage. The same men who now admire and honour you, if they came to know me, would rather have me to rule them than yourself.’ Such a man was Fabricius. For his part, Pyrrhus did not take offence at this speech nor behave like a tyrant; he even told his friends of Fabricius’ magnanimity and entrusted the Roman prisoners of war to his charge alone. He did this on condition that if the senate voted against making peace, the prisoners should be returned to Pyrrhus, though they were allowed first to greet their friends and spend the festival of Saturn with them. This was how matters turned out. The prisoners were sent back after the festival, and the senate passed a decree that any who remained behind should be put to death.

21. Afterwards, when Fabricius had become consul, a man arrived in the Roman camp with a letter for him. The writer was Pyrrhus’ physician, who offered to poison the king, provided that the Romans would pay him a sufficient reward for putting an end to the war without any further danger to them. But Fabricius was disgusted at the man’s treachery and persuaded his fellow-consul to take the same view: he immediately sent a letter to Pyrrhus, warning him to be on his guard against this plot. The letter ran as follows:

‘Gaius Fabricius and Quintus Aemilius, consuls of Rome,49 greet King Pyrrhus. It seems that you are a poor judge both of your friends and of your enemies. You will see when you read the letter I have sent you that you choose to make war against just and virtuous men and put your faith in rogues and traitors. We do not send you this information to do you a service but because we do not wish your downfall to bring any reproach upon us, nor to have men say of us that we brought this war to an end by treachery because we could not do so by our own valour.’

When Pyrrhus had read the letter and made further inquiries into the plot, he punished the physician and, by way of return to the Romans, delivered up his prisoners to them without ransom; he also, once more, sent Cineas to try to negotiate a peace for him. However, the Romans refused to take back the prisoners without payment; they were unwilling to accept a favour from an enemy or to be rewarded for having refrained from using treachery against him. As for Cineas’ overtures concerning a treaty of peace and friendship, they declined to enter into any further discussion until Pyrrhus had removed his arms and his troops from Italy and returned to Epirus in the ships which had brought him.

Pyrrhus‘ affairs thus compelled him to fight another battle, and after he had rested his troops he marched to the city of Asculum and attacked the Romans. Here, he was obliged to manoeuvre on rough ground where his cavalry could not operate and along the wooded banks of a swiftly flowing river where his elephants could not charge the enemy’s phalanx. There was fierce fighting in which both sides suffered heavy losses before night put an end to the engagement. The next day, Pyrrhus regrouped his forces so as to fight on even terrain, where his elephants could be used against the enemy’s line. He detached troops to occupy the difficult ground, posted strong contingents of archers and slingers in the spaces between the elephants and then launched his main body into the attack in close order and with an irresistible impetus. The Romans could not employ their tactics of withdrawing and attacking from the side which they had used on the previous day and were compelled to engage Pyrrhus on level ground and head on. They were anxious to repulse Pyrrhus’ hoplites before the elephants came up, and so they fought desperately with their swords against the enemy pikes, exposing themselves recklessly, thinking only of killing and wounding the enemy and caring nothing for their own losses. After a long struggle, so it is said, the Roman line began to give way at the point where Pyrrhus himself was pressing his opponents hardest, but the factor which did most to enable his men to prevail was the weight and fury of the elephants’ charge. Against this, even the Romans’ courage was of little avail: they felt as they might have done before the rush of a tidal wave or the shock of an earthquake, that it was better to give way than to stand their ground to no purpose and suffer a terrible fate without gaining the least advantage.

The Romans had only a short distance to flee before they reached their camp. Hieronymus reports that they lost 6,000 men killed and that Pyrrhus’ casualties, according to the royal journals, were 3,505. In Dionysius’ account,50 on the other hand, there is no mention of two battles having been fought at Asculum, nor that the Romans acknowledged any defeat: he says that the two armies fought on one occasion only and that this battle lasted until sunset, when they at last broke off the action with difficulty; he tells us that Pyrrhus was wounded in the arm by a javelin, that his baggage was plundered by the Daunians51 and that the losses of Pyrrhus and the Romans combined amounted to 15,000 men.

The two armies disengaged, and the story goes that when one of Pyrrhus’ friends congratulated him on his victory, he replied, ‘One more victory like that over the Romans will destroy us completely!’ He had lost a great part of the force he had brought with him, with a few exceptions almost all his friends and commanders had been killed and there were no reinforcements which he could summon. At the same time, he could see that his allies in Italy were losing their enthusiasm, while the Roman army, by contrast, was fed, as though from a spring gushing forth at home, by a constant stream of recruits, from which they could quickly and easily replace their losses. Defeat never seemed to undermine their self-confidence; instead, their anger only gave them fresh strength and determination to pursue the war.

22. Even while he laboured under these difficulties, new prospects and fresh hopes presented themselves to divert him from his original purpose. News now reached him from two different quarters simultaneously. From Sicily there arrived a delegation which offered to put him in control of the cities of Acragas, Syracuse and Leontini, and begged him to help them expel the Carthaginians and free the island from its tyrants. And from Greece messengers reported that Ptolemy Ceraunus52 had been killed in a battle with the Gauls and his army annihilated, and that this was the moment for Pyrrhus to return to Macedonia, where the people needed a king. He railed against Fortune for presenting him with two opportunities of such importance at the same moment, and for a long while he hesitated in his choice, since he assumed that to take up the one would compel him to abandon the other. In the end, it seemed to him that Sicily offered the more promising prospects, especially since Libya was so close at hand, and he immediately dispatched Cineas, as was his habit, to open preliminary negotiations with the cities, while he placed a garrison in Tarentum. The Tarentines were angry at this and demanded that he should either devote his efforts to the task for which he had been invited, that is to help them fight the Romans, or else go away and leave their country as he had found it. He answered them roughly by telling them to keep quiet until he had time to attend to their affairs, and then sailed away.

When he landed in Sicily,53 his hopes started at once to be realized. The cities came over to him with enthusiasm, and wherever force and conflict were necessary nothing was able to hold out against him at first. He advanced with a combined expedition of 30,000 infantry, 2,500 cavalry and 200 ships, and with these forces he routed the Carthaginians and overran the part of Sicily which had been under their rule. Next, he decided to assault the walls of Eryx,54 which was the strongest of their fortresses and was held by a large garrison. When his army was ready for the attack, he donned his armour, appeared before his troops and made a vow to Heracles that he would hold public games and offer sacrifice in his honour if the god would allow him on that day to prove himself before the Sicilian Greeks as a champion who was worthy of his ancestors and fit to command an allied army of this size. Then he ordered the trumpet to sound the attack, drove the barbarians back from the battlements with a hail of missiles, had the scaling-ladders brought forward and was the first to climb the wall. There he engaged great numbers of the enemy. Some he forced off the wall and hurled to the ground on either side, but most of them he attacked with his sword so that he was soon standing amid a heap of dead bodies.55He himself was unscathed, but his appearance filled the enemy with terror, thus proving that Homer was right and was speaking from experience when he says that it is courage alone of all the virtues which often manifests itself in states of divine possession and frenzy.56 After the city had been captured, he offered up sacrifices to the god on a magnificent scale and organized spectacles of many different kinds of contests.

23. The barbarians who lived in the neighbourhood of Messana had been the cause of many troubles to the Greeks and had compelled some of them to pay tribute. They formed a large and warlike population and so had been given the name of Mamertines, which in the Latin language means ‘devoted to Ares’, the god of war. Pyrrhus first arrested their collectors of tribute and put them to death, and then he defeated the Mamertines in battle and destroyed many of their strongholds. The Carthaginians showed themselves ready to come to terms with him, and they offered to pay a sum of money and provide him with ships if a treaty were concluded between them. But Pyrrhus, who cherished much larger ambitions than these, replied that he could not consider the idea of a settlement or a pact of friendship between them except on one condition, namely that they should evacuate the whole of western Sicily and make the Libyan Sea the frontier between themselves and the Greeks. Pyrrhus by now felt so elated by his success and the strength of his resources that he determined to pursue the ambitions with which he had originally sailed from Epirus and make Libya his prime objective. Accordingly, since many of the ships of his fleet were undermanned, he began to conscript rowers. However, he set about this in a thoroughly autocratic fashion: he made no attempt to treat the Greek cities with tact or consideration, but angrily resorted to force and punishments. He had not acted in this fashion at first, indeed, he had gone out of his way to win friends by the courtesy of his manner, by his readiness to trust everybody and by his anxiety to do no harm. Now, however, he ceased to behave as a popular leader and became a tyrant, and besides the reputation for severity which he already possessed he acquired another for ingratitude and bad faith.

The Sicilians murmured against these impositions, but nevertheless put up with them as necessary evils; it was his treatment of Thoenon and Sosistratus which proved the turning-point in his dealings with the islanders. These two men were prominent citizens of Syracuse; they had been among the first to invite Pyrrhus to come to Sicily, and as soon as he had arrived they had placed the city in his hands and given him the greatest help in all he had achieved in Sicilian affairs. In spite of this, however, Pyrrhus would neither take them with him on his campaigns nor leave them behind, but treated them with suspicion. Sosistratus became alarmed at this behaviour and escaped, but Thoenon was accused by Pyrrhus of plotting with Sosistratus against him, and was put to death. From this moment, the attitude of the Sicilians towards him was transformed, and not only in Syracuse. All the cities now regarded him with feelings of mortal hatred, and some of them joined the Carthaginians, while others appealed to the Mamertines to help them. But at this moment, when Pyrrhus was faced on all sides with disaffection, insurrections against his authority and a strongly united opposition, he received letters from the Tarentines and the Samnites, who begged for his help since they had been driven from their outlying territories, were confined to the boundaries of their cities and could scarcely carry on the war even from within their own walls. This gave him a plausible excuse to sail away, so that his departure should not appear to be a flight or the result of his having despaired of his prospects on the island. But the truth was that he had failed to master Sicily, which was like a storm-tossed ship, and it was because he was anxious to escape that he once more threw himself into Italy. The story goes that as he was leaving, he looked back at the island and remarked to his companions, ‘My friends, what a wrestling ground we are leaving behind us for the Romans and the Carthaginians.’ And certainly it was not long before this prophecy of his was fulfilled.57

24. The barbarians combined to attack him while he was crossing to Italy. He fought a sea-battle with the Carthaginians in the straits and lost many of his ships, but escaped with the rest to Italy. Meanwhile, a Mamertine army at least ten thousand strong had already crossed ahead of him. The Mamertines were afraid to face him in a pitched battle, but they harassed his march and caused great confusion to his army by attacking him at difficult points on his route. Two of his elephants were killed in these actions and his rearguard suffered heavy losses. Pyrrhus had been at the head of his column, but he rode to the rear, helped to drive off the enemy and exposed himself fearlessly in fighting against men who were not only courageous but well trained in battle. The enemy became all the more elated when Pyrrhus was struck on the head with a sword and retired a little way from the fighting. One of the Mamertines, a man of giant stature clad in shining armour, ran out in front of their ranks and in an arrogant voice challenged Pyrrhus to come forward if he were still alive. This infuriated Pyrrhus, and in spite of the efforts of his guards to protect him, he wheeled round and forced his way through them. His face was smeared with blood and his features contorted into a terrible expression of rage. Then, before the barbarian could strike, he dealt him a tremendous blow on the head with his sword. So great was the strength of his arm and the keenness of the blade that it cleft the man from head to foot, and in an instant the two halves of his body fell apart. The barbarians immediately halted and came on no further, for they were amazed and bewildered at Pyrrhus and believed him to be superhuman. He was able to continue his march unopposed and arrived at Tarentum with a force of 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. He reinforced his army with the best of the Tarentine troops and immediately led them out against the Romans, who were encamped in the territory of the Samnites.

25. But the many defeats which the Romans had inflicted on the Samnites had broken their power and subdued their spirit. They also harboured a grudge against Pyrrhus for having left them and sailed away to Sicily, and in consequence few of them joined him. Pyrrhus divided his army into two parts. He sent one into Lucania to engage the other consul and prevent him from joining forces with his colleague; he himself led the main body of his forces against Manius Curius, who was encamped in a strong position near the city of Beneventum.58 Here, the consul placed himself on the defensive: this was partly because he was waiting for the troops in Lucania, and partly because the soothsayers had advised against action on account of unfavourable omens from the sacrifices. Pyrrhus was eager to attack this force before their comrades could arrive, and so he took his best troops and his most warlike elephants and set out on a night march to the camp. But as he had chosen a long roundabout route, which led through wooded country, his torches went out and the soldiers lost their way in the darkness and were thrown into confusion. Much time was lost in this way, the night passed and daylight revealed his position to the Romans as he bore down upon them from the heights.

The sight of the enemy created a great stir and commotion in the Roman camp, but the sacrifices now turned out to be favourable, and, since action was forced upon him, Manius led out his troops and attacked the enemy’s advance guard. He routed these and also succeeded in putting the main body to flight; many of them were killed and several of the elephants were left behind and captured. This success encouraged Manius to come down into the plain and engage the enemy there. In this action, on open ground, he drove back one wing of his opponent’s army, but in another sector his own men were overwhelmed by the elephants and forced back to their camp. Manius now threw into the battle the troops who had been left to guard the camp and who were standing in great numbers along the ramparts, all under arms and fresh for the battle. They came down at the run from their strong position, flung their javelins at the elephants and forced them to wheel about, thus causing great confusion and dismay as they trampled on their own troops in their flight. This manoeuvre gave the victory to the Romans and at the same time established their superiority in the struggle with Pyrrhus. These battles not only steeled their courage and their fighting qualities, but also earned them the reputation of being invincible: the result was that they at once brought the rest of Italy under their sway and soon after Sicily as well.59

26. In this way, Pyrrhus’ hopes of the conquest of Italy and Sicily were banished. He had squandered six years60 in his campaigns in these regions, but although he had been worsted in all his attempts, his spirit remained undaunted in the midst of defeat. The general opinion of him was that for warlike experience, daring and personal valour he had no equal among the kings of his time; but what he won through his feats of arms, he lost by indulging in vain hopes, and through his obsessive desire to seize what lay beyond his grasp he constantly failed to secure what lay within it. For this reason, Antigonus used to compare him to a player at dice who makes many good throws but does not understand how to exploit them when they are made.

Pyrrhus brought back to Epirus an army of 8,000 infantry and 500 cavalry, and, since he had no money, he looked about for a campaign to enable him to support this force. A number of Gauls joined him and he made a raid on Macedonia, originally intending only to strip and plunder the country, which was now ruled by Antigonus, the son of Demetrius.61 However, after he had captured a number of cities and a force of 2,000 Macedonians had come over to his side, his hopes began once more to rise. He marched against Antigonus, and, making a surprise attack on him at the entrance to a narrow defile, threw his whole army into confusion. A strong contingent of Gauls who formed the rearguard of Antigonus’ force stood their ground bravely, but after fierce fighting most of them were cut down, while the division of the army which contained the elephants was hemmed in and the drivers surrendered themselves and their animals. With this addition to his strength, Pyrrhus decided to trust to his luck rather than his judgement, and, disregarding the superior numbers against him, advanced to attack the Macedonian phalanx, which was already disorganized and demoralized because of the defeat of the rearguard. For this reason, they made no attempt to engage or resist their adversaries, and when Pyrrhus stretched out his right hand and called upon the commanders and captains by name, the whole of Antigonus’ infantry went over to him. Antigonus escaped and managed to secure some of the coastal cities, while Pyrrhus, who considered that of all his successes the victory over the Gauls was the one which added the most to his reputation, dedicated the finest and richest of the spoils to the temple of Athena Itonis. This was the inscription in elegiac verses which he had placed over them:

Pyrrhus the Molossian hung up as a gift to Athena Itonis

These shields which he took from valiant Gauls

When he destroyed the entire army of Antigonus. That was no great wonder:

Now too, as of old, the Aeacidae62 are brave spearmen.63

After the battle he immediately moved to occupy the cities of Macedonia.64 He captured Aegae,65 where he treated the inhabitants harshly and left a contingent of Gauls who were campaigning with him to garrison the city. As a race, the Gauls possess an insatiable appetite for money, and they now dug up the tombs of the rulers of Macedon who are buried there, plundering the treasure and insolently scattering the bones. This outrage Pyrrhus treated with indifference: he either postponed action because he had too many urgent matters on his hands, or decided not to take any because he was afraid of punishing the barbarians. In any event, the episode did much harm to his reputation with the Macedonians. Then, while his affairs were still unsettled and before his position in Macedonia had been established, Pyrrhus’ hopes suddenly veered in a new direction. He abused Antigonus and called him shameless because he continued to wear his royal robe of purple and had not yet exchanged it for a commoner’s dress, and when Cleonymus the Spartan arrived and appealed to him to come to Lacedaemon, he sprang at the offer with enthusiasm.

Cleonymus was of royal descent but was considered to possess a violent and autocratic disposition; he had therefore failed to win the confidence or the goodwill of his people and the country was ruled by Areus.66 This was the cause of a long-standing grudge which Cleonymus bore against his fellow-citizens. In addition, in his later years he had married Chilonis, the daughter of Leotychidas, a beautiful woman who also belonged to the Spartan royal family, but who had fallen passionately in love with Acrotatus, the son of Areus. Acrotatus was in the flower of his manhood, and so their relationship not only tormented Cleonymus, who loved his wife, but also dishonoured him, since every Spartan knew that she despised her husband. In this way, Cleonymus’ private troubles and his political grievances exacerbated one another, and it was these feelings of anger which had led him to bring Pyrrhus to Sparta.67 Pyrrhus had with him 25,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry and twenty-four elephants, and it was at once clear from the scale of his preparations that his aim was not to conquer Sparta for Cleonymus but the Peloponnese for himself. Of course, he expressly denied any such intention, above all when the Spartan ambassadors met him at Megalopolis. He declared to them that he had come to liberate the cities which Antigonus was holding in subjection,68 and added that he planned to send his own sons to Sparta, if nothing prevented this, to be brought up according to the Lacedaemonian traditions, which would make them superior to all the other rulers of their time. These inventions were fed to all those who came to meet him on his march, but no sooner had he reached Lacedaemonian territory than he began to ravage and plunder it. When the Spartan envoys complained that he was attacking their country without having declared war, he retorted, ‘But neither do you Spartans, as we know very well, give any warning to others of what you are going to do.’ At this, one of the envoys named Mandricleidas remarked in the Spartan dialect, ‘If you are a god, you will do us no harm, for we have done none to you. But if you are a man, you may meet one who is stronger than you are.’

27. After this, Pyrrhus marched southward against the city of Sparta. Cleonymus strongly urged him to attack the city on the very first evening that he arrived. But Pyrrhus was afraid, it is said, that his troops would sack the city if they attacked it by night, and so he held them back, telling Cleonymus that they could achieve the same result by day. The town was only thinly defended and the speed of Pyrrhus’ advance had taken the Spartans unawares, for Areus was in Crete on an expedition to help the people of Gortyn. As events turned out, it was precisely the fact that Pyrrhus despised the city’s apparent weakness and lack of defenders which proved to be its salvation. Pyrrhus assumed that there would be no resistance and pitched camp for the night, while Cleonymus’ friends and helots prepared his house and decorated it, expecting that Pyrrhus would dine there with him.

When it was dark, the Lacedaemonians at first debated the possibility of sending their womenfolk to Crete, but the women opposed this, and Archidamia walked into the Council of Elders with a sword in her hand and reproached the men on their behalf for proposing that their wives and daughters should survive while Sparta itself perished. Next, it was resolved to dig a trench parallel with the enemy’s camp and to place at each end wagons buried up to their axles, so that once embedded in this way they could resist the charge of the elephants.69 As soon as this work began, the women, both married and unmarried, arrived on the scene, some of them in their robes with their tunics knotted round the waist, others dressed only in their tunics, and all joined in to help the older men. The younger males who had been assigned to the defence were ordered to rest, and the women dug a third of the trench with their hands. According to Phylarchus, the trench was 800 feet long, 9 feet wide and 6 feet deep, although Hieronymus says that its dimensions were rather smaller. When day dawned and the enemy began to move, the women brought the young men their arms, handed over the trench to them and urged them to guard and keep it safe. They reminded them that it would be sweet to conquer in sight of the whole country and glorious to die in the arms of their wives and mothers, laying down their lives in a manner that was worthy of Sparta. As for Chilonis, she retired by herself and had a noose ready round her neck, so that she would not fall into Cleonymus’ hands if the city were captured.

28. Pyrrhus was engaged in a frontal attack with his hoplites. He strove to force a way through the wall of shields presented by the Spartans who were drawn up against him, and to cross the trench, but this proved difficult because the freshly turned earth gave his soldiers no firm footing. His son Ptolemy had led a picked force of Chaonians and 2,000 Gauls round the end of the trench and was trying to break through the barricade of wagons. These had been dug in so deeply and so close together that they not only obstructed his advance but made it difficult for the Lacedaemonians to reach the point he was attacking. The Gauls succeeded in pulling the wheels up, but as they began to haul the wagons down to the river the young Acrotatus saw the danger and, running through the city with three hundred men, managed to get behind Ptolemy, from whom he was concealed by some depressions in the ground; from here he attacked the rear of Ptolemy’s detachment and forced them to turn and defend themselves. In this way, the barbarians were crowded against one another so that they fell into the trench and among the wagons, and at last they were driven back with great slaughter. The older men and the crowd of women all witnessed Acrotatus’ gallant exploit, and as he returned through the city to his appointed post, covered with blood but triumphant and exulting in his victory, it seemed to the Spartan women that he had grown even taller and more handsome than before and they envied Chilonis her lover; some of the old men even followed him and shouted, ‘Go, Acrotatus, and mount Chilonis, but be sure that you beget brave sons for Sparta!’ Meanwhile, a fierce battle was also raging around Pyrrhus, and many fought magnificently, especially a man named Phyllius who surpassed all his comrades in the stubbornness of his resistance and the numbers of the attackers whom he laid low. When he found that his strength was ebbing away, on account of all the wounds he had received, he made way for one of his comrades to take his place and fell dead inside the line of shields, so as to be sure that his body should not fall into enemy hands.

29. As darkness fell, the fighting died down, and that night while Pyrrhus slept he saw the following vision. He dreamt that Sparta was stricken with thunderbolts hurled from his own hand, that the whole countryside was ablaze and that he was filled with rejoicing. This feeling of delight woke him and he gave orders to his commanders for the army to prepare for action; meanwhile, he described his dream to his friends, for he was convinced that they would capture the city by storm. Most of them agreed with this interpretation and were full of admiration, except only for Lysimachus,70 who found the dream disturbing: he explained he was afraid that as places which have been struck by thunderbolts are held to be sacred, and may not be trodden by the foot of man, so the gods might be warning Pyrrhus that the city was not for him to enter. But Pyrrhus declared that this was idle chatter invented for those who knew no better, and he called upon his listeners to take up their weapons and repeat to themselves ‘One omen is best, to fight for Pyrrhus!71Then he rose at daybreak and began bringing up his army for the attack.

The Spartans defended themselves with a resolution and courage out of all proportion to their numbers. The women, too, were in the thick of the action, handing the men arrows and javelins, bringing food and drink wherever they were needed and carrying away the wounded. The Macedonians tried to fill up the trench, bringing up great quantities of material and throwing it over the weapons and the corpses which lay at the bottom, and when the Lacedaemonians tried to prevent these tactics, Pyrrhus appeared on horseback, fighting his way past the trench and the wagons and into the city. Those who were defending this part of the Spartan line raised a shout and came running, and the women began to shriek, but just as Pyrrhus was breaking through and attacking the men in front of him, his horse was wounded in the belly by a Cretan javelin, and, rearing up in its death agony, threw the king on to the steep and slippery slope. This accident caused dismay and confusion among his companions, and the Spartans seized the moment to charge, and making good use of their missiles drove the enemy back. After this, Pyrrhus gave the order to halt the fighting elsewhere on the battlefield; he believed that the Spartans were on the point of surrendering, since many of them had been killed and almost all were wounded. But at that moment, the city’s good fortune came to her rescue. It may be that she was satisfied that the courage of her citizens had been proven, or perhaps wished to show her own power to save the day when all seemed lost. At any rate, Ameinias the Phocian, one of Antigonus’ generals, suddenly appeared from Corinth with a contingent of mercenaries, and no sooner had he been admitted into the city than Areus arrived from Crete with his army of 2,000 soldiers. Thereupon, the women returned to their homes since they no longer thought it necessary to take part in the defence, and the soldiers relieved those who, despite their age, had been obliged in the emergency to arm themselves, and drew themselves up for battle.

30. For his part, Pyrrhus was spurred on to make an even fiercer effort to capture the city now that it had been reinforced. But as his renewed attacks met with no success and his losses mounted, he abandoned the assault, took to plundering the countryside and planned to spend the winter there. But his fate was inescapable. For at Argos civil war had broken out between Aristeas and Aristippus, and, since Aristippus was believed to be supported by Antigonus, Aristeas promptly invited Pyrrhus to Argos. Pyrrhus was always entertaining one hope after another, and since he made every success serve as the starting-point for a new enterprise, and was determined that every failure could be retrieved by a fresh start, he allowed neither defeat nor victory to limit his capacity to make trouble for himself or for others. So no sooner had he received this offer than he broke camp and set off for Argos. Areus, however, posted a number of ambushes, and by occupying the most difficult points on Pyrrhus’ line of march he succeeded several times in cutting off the Gauls and the Molossians who formed Pyrrhus’ rearguard.

Pyrrhus had been warned by his seer that, since the liver of his sacrificial victims lacked a lobe, he would lose a relative.72 But unluckily, because of the commotion and disorder created by the ambush, he forgot this warning and ordered his son Ptolemy to go with his companions73 to relieve the rearguard, while he himself hastened the advance of the main body and led them out of the defile. When Ptolemy arrived, a fierce battle developed, and while a picked company of Spartans commanded by Evalcus engaged the troops who were fighting immediately in front of Ptolemy, a Cretan named Oryssus from Aptera, a man who combined exceptional strength of arm and speed of foot, sprinted round the flank, approached the young prince where he was fighting bravely, flung a javelin and struck him down. When Ptolemy fell, the rest of his troops turned in flight and the Spartans followed in headlong pursuit, until before they knew where they were they had broken out into the plain and were cut off by Pyrrhus’ hoplites. Pyrrhus himself had just learnt of his son’s death, and in an agony of grief ordered his Molossian cavalry to charge the Spartans. He rode at their head and sated himself with Spartan blood. He had always shown himself to be an irresistible and terrifying fighter, but this time his daring and his fury surpassed anything that had been seen before. When he rode at Evalcus, the Spartan side-stepped his charge and aimed a blow with his sword that just missed Pyrrhus’ bridle-hand and sheared through the reins. Pyrrhus ran him through with his lance, but in the same moment fell from his horse; he went on fighting on foot and cut to pieces the picked company of Spartans who were fighting round the body of Evalcus. This was a great loss to Sparta: the campaign against Pyrrhus was effectively over and the deaths of these men were really due to the desire of their commanders to distinguish themselves.

31. In this way, Pyrrhus had offered up a sacrifice, so to speak, to the ghost of his son, and had made his death the occasion for a glorious victory. He had also found relief from much of his grief in the fury with which he had attacked the enemy, and he proceeded to lead on his army towards Argos. He learnt that Antigonus had already occupied the heights which commanded the plain, and so he pitched his own camp close to Nauplia. The following day, he sent a herald to Antigonus, denouncing him as a robber and challenging him to come down into the plain and fight for the throne.74 Antigonus replied that his generalship was a matter not of force of arms but of timing, and that if Pyrrhus was weary of life he could find many ways to die. Meanwhile, the two kings were visited by deputations from Argos, who begged them to go away and allow the city to remain neutral but on friendly terms with them both. Antigonus agreed to this and handed over his son to the Argives as a hostage. Pyrrhus, likewise, agreed to go, but as he gave no pledge he was regarded with even greater suspicion than before.

Pyrrhus was himself the witness of a remarkable portent. The heads of the cattle which he had sacrificed were seen, as they lay apart from the bodies, to put out their tongues and lap up their own blood, and besides this the priestess of the temple of Lycian Apollo in the city of Argos ran out of the shrine in a frenzy, crying that she saw the city full of carnage and dead bodies, and that there was an eagle which was advancing for battle, and then was gone.75

32. At dead of night, Pyrrhus marched his troops up to the walls, found that the gate known as Diemperes had been opened for him by Aristeas, and so his Gauls were able to enter the city and seize the market-place before the alarm was raised. But the gate was too small to let his elephants through, and the towers which they carried on their backs had to be unfastened and then put on again when the animals were inside. All these manoeuvres had to be carried out in the darkness and so caused confusion and delay, and at length the alarm was given and the Argives roused. They hurried to the place known as ‘the Shield’ and to other strong-points in the city, and sent messengers to Antigonus calling on him to help. Antigonus marched up close to the walls, halted there and sent his generals and his son inside with a strong relieving force. Areus also came up with a detachment consisting of a thousand Cretans and the most agile of the Spartans. These troops joined forces, attacked the Gauls and threw them into great confusion. Meanwhile Pyrrhus, with loud shouts, was entering the city in the neighbourhood of Cylarabis. But he noticed that the answering shouts from the Gauls in the market-place sounded weak and undecided, and he guessed that they were hard pressed. He therefore tried to quicken his pace and urged on the horsemen ahead of him; they were picking their way with great difficulty among the water-conduits with which the whole city is intersected and which endangered their advance. All the while, in this night action, there was great confusion as to what orders were being given and how they were being carried out. Men wandered about and lost their direction in the narrow alleyways, and amid the darkness, the confused noise and the confined spaces, generalship was helpless. In consequence, both sides found they could achieve little under these conditions and waited for the dawn.

As it began to grow light, Pyrrhus was disturbed to see that the whole of the open square known as the Shield was filled with enemy troops, and then among the many votive offerings in the market-place he caught sight of the statue of a wolf and a bull carved in bronze and about to attack one another. He remembered with sudden dread an oracle which had predicted many years before that he was fated to die when he saw a wolf fighting with a bull. According to the Argives, these figures were set up to commemorate a very early event in their history. When Danaus had first landed in the country near Pyramia, in the district of Thyreatis, and was on his way to Argos, he saw a wolf fighting with a bull. He supposed that the wolf must represent himself, since he like the wolf was a foreigner and had come like it to attack the native inhabitants. He watched the contest, and when he saw that the wolf had gained the day he offered his prayers to Apollo Lyceius the wolf-god, attacked the city and was victorious, after Gelanor who was then the king had been driven into exile by a rival party. This, then, is the account the Argives give of how Danaus came to dedicate the statue.

33. The sight of these animals, combined with the evident failure of his plans, disheartened Pyrrhus and he decided to retreat. But remembering how narrow the gates were, and fearing that he might be trapped behind them, he sent a message to his son Helenus, who had been left outside the city with the main body of the army: the orders were that he should break down the wall and cover the retreat of Pyrrhus and his men as they passed through the breach, in case they were being hard pressed by the enemy. But in the haste and confusion, the messenger failed to convey these instructions clearly, and a mistake was made with the result that the young man, taking the remainder of the elephants and the best of the troops, marched through the gate into the city to rescue his father. By this time, Pyrrhus was already beginning to withdraw. As long as the action remained in the main square where there was plenty of room to fight and give ground, he could retreat in good order, turning every now and then to drive off his attackers. But after he had been forced out of the market-place into the narrow street which led to the gate, he met the reinforcements who were hurrying to the rescue from the opposite direction. Some of these troops could not hear Pyrrhus when he shouted to them to retire, while those who were only too anxious to obey him were prevented from doing so by the men who kept pouring in behind them through the gate. For the largest of the elephants had fallen across the gateway and lay there bellowing and blocking the way for those who were struggling to get out. Another elephant named Nicon, one of those which had advanced further into the city, was trying to find its rider who had been wounded and fallen off its back, and was battling against the tide of fugitives who were trying to escape. The beast crushed friend and foe together indiscriminately until, having found its master’s dead body, it lifted the corpse with its trunk, laid it across its tusks and, wheeling round in a frenzy of grief, turned back, trampling and killing all who stood in its path. The crowd of soldiers was so tightly pressed and jammed side by side that nobody could help himself: the whole mass, which appeared to be bolted together into a single body, kept surging and swaying this way and that. They could scarcely move to fight those of the enemy who, from time to time, were caught up in their ranks or attacked them from the rear, and, indeed, it was to themselves that they did most harm. Once a man had drawn his sword or aimed his spear, it was impossible for him to sheathe or put it up again, but it would pierce whoever stood in its way, and so many men died from these accidental thrusts that they gave one another.

34. Pyrrhus, seeing the stormy sea that surged about him, took off the diadem which distinguished his helmet and handed it to one of his companions. Then, trusting to his horse, he plunged in among the enemy who were following him and was wounded by a spear which pierced his breast-plate. This was not a mortal wound, nor even a serious one, and Pyrrhus at once turned to attack the man who had struck him. This was an Argive, not a man of noble birth but the son of a poor old woman, who like the rest was watching the battle from the roof of her house. When she saw that her son was engaged in combat with Pyrrhus, she was filled with fear and rage at the danger to him, and picking up a tile with both her hands she hurled it at Pyrrhus. It struck him below the helmet and bruised the vertebrae at the base of his neck, so that his sight grew dim, his hands dropped the reins and he sank down from his horse and collapsed on the ground near the tomb of Licymnius. Most of those who saw him had no idea who he was, but a man named Zopyrus who was serving with Antigonus ran up to him, recognized him and dragged him into a doorway just as he was beginning to recover his senses. When Zopyrus drew an Illyrian short-sword to cut off his head, Pyrrhus gazed at him with such a terrible look that Zopyrus lost his nerve. His hands trembled but he forced himself to make the attempt. However, as he was half paralysed with fear and excitement, his blow was badly aimed. The first stroke fell on Pyrrhus’ mouth and chin, and it was only slowly and with difficulty that he cut off the head.

The news spread quickly, and presently Alcyoneus76 ran up and demanded to see the head so as to identify it. He took hold of it, rode off to where his father was sitting among his friends and threw it at his feet. When he recognized it, Antigonus struck his son with his staff and drove him out of his presence, telling him that he was accursed and a barbarian. He covered his face with his cloak and burst into tears as he thought of his grandfather Antigonus and his father Demetrius, who in his own family had suffered just such vicissitudes of fortune.77 Then he had Pyrrhus’ body prepared for burial and burned with due ceremony.78 However, when Alcyoneus found Pyrrhus’ son Helenus disguised in mean and threadbare clothes, he treated him kindly and brought him to Antigonus. When he saw him, Antigonus said, ‘This is better, my son, than what you did before, but even now you have not done well to leave him in these clothes, which are a disgrace rather to us who seem to be the victors.’ After this, he looked after Helenus, dressed him decently and sent him back to Epirus. He also treated Pyrrhus’ friends with consideration, when the whole of his opponent’s army and their camp fell into his hands.

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