AYOUNG KING LAY DYING ON HIS BED IN BABYLON. On 29 May, he had given a splendid banquet in honor of one of his commanders and taken a bath, as he was accustomed to do. Then, uncharacteristically, for he enjoyed late-night drinking sessions, he wanted to go to bed. Perhaps he was feeling out of sorts. However, a friend of his invited him to a party and he changed his mind. He went on drinking all through the next day, at the end of which he felt feverish.
That night he slept in the palace bathhouse, for its coolness. The following morning, he returned to his bedroom and spent the day playing dice. By the night of 1 June, he was back in the bathhouse, and the following morning he discussed a projected military expedition with his senior officers. The fever intensified, and two days later it became clear that he was seriously ill. What, exactly, was the matter is unknown, but he had recently returned from a boating trip on the river Euphrates and may have contracted malaria; also, he had not fully recovered from a serious battle wound to his chest.
The king continued to fulfill his royal duties, leading the daily sacrifice, but by 5 June he was forced to recognize the gravity of his condition and issued orders for high officials to stay within reach of his bedside. Not many hours passed before he began to lose the power of speech and, in a bleak symbolic gesture, he handed his signet ring to his senior marshal. Authority was transferred.
The city was seething with rumors, and anxious soldiers gathered outside the palace, threatening to break down the doors. Eventually, they were allowed in and passed in an endless file one by one through the king’s bedroom. The king could not say a word and, as the men took their leave, he sometimes painfully raised his head a little and gestured to them with his right hand. Otherwise, only his eyes expressed awareness.
At some point during his illness, while he was still able to converse, the king was asked to whom he left his kingdom. He gasped, “To the strongest.” His last words reveal a cynical prediction that his generals would soon be at one another’s throats as they fought for their share of his empire. He added, “There will be funeral ‘games’ in good earnest when I have gone.”
So died Alexander the Great on 10 or 11 June 334, at the early age of thirty-two. While Rome was engaged in its long, slow struggle with the Samnites for control of central Italy, this boyking of Macedon had spent ten years in a whirlwind of triumphant campaigning against the vast Persian Empire; although he claimed to be leading a Hellenic crusade, he expropriated it for himself. One of the world’s great field commanders, he seems to have seen war as an end in itself. Homer’s Iliad was his bible, and he agreed with the indomitable warrior Achilles that the only reasonable purpose of life was the pursuit of personal glory. The cost in lives was of little concern to Alexander and hecatombs of men, women, and children were sacrificed to his vaulting ambition.
In his final months, he was planning new campaigns. According to his biographer Arrian, there were reports that he meant to make for Sicily and southern Italy in order to check the Romans, whose growing reputation was already causing him concern.
He would never have remained idle in the enjoyment of any of his conquests, even had he extended his empire from Asia to Europe and from Europe to the British Isles. On the contrary, he would have continued to seek beyond them for unknown lands, as it was ever his nature, if he had no rival, to strive to better his own best.
Alexander personified a human type, the legendary seeker for the world’s end, whose purpose, in Tennyson’s unforgettable phrase, is always “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
The Macedonian king’s cynical view of a future without him was more than justified by the event. His empire was divided up among his generals and members of his family. Nicknamed the Diadochoi, or Successors, they immediately started squabbling among themselves and war succeeded war. Like players in a murderous game of musical chairs, almost every one of them came to a violent end. Alexander’s half-witted half brother and nominal successor as king; his formidable mother, Olympias; his wife, Roxana, and their posthumous son—all were eventually executed as the wheel of fortune whirled round.
THE GLAMOUR OF Alexander’s personality and the blinding afterglow of his achievements caught the imagination of many ambitious young men of the time and, indeed, later throughout the classical period. His example energized famous Greeks and Romans in their own pursuit of glory. (Not everyone was an admirer, it is worth noting. Cicero saw Alexander as a global menace and told of his encounter with a captured pirate. The king asked the man what wickedness drove him to terrorize the seas. He replied, “The same wickedness that drives you to terrorize the entire world.”)
One of the earliest emulators was Pyrrhus, king of the disputed throne of the Molossians. The Molossians were one of the tribes that made up the federation of Epirus (a territory in what is today northern Greece and southern Albania, which looks across a narrow stretch of the Ionian Sea to the island of Corfu); their monarch was the federation’s hereditary hegemon, or leader.
A rugged and mountainous region, Epirus is dominated by the high Pindus range and lay on the edge of the Hellenic world. The Greeks looked down on its inhabitants, as they did on the Macedonians, as being semi-barbarous. Epirotes spoke a sort of Greek but lived in scattered villages rather than cities, or poleis, like Athens, Thebes, and Sparta. Of course, after Alexander, northern outlanders were no longer beyond the pale.
Pyrrhus boasted a remarkable pedigree, for he was believed to be a descendant of Achilles, and bore the name of the hero’s son. As so often in this story, the elaborate tapestry of the Trojan War forms the backdrop of contemporary events and personalities. To us it may be legend, but to the Greeks and Romans it was reality. Achilles had been the invincible fighter on the Greek side (and, as a point of interest, had defeated Rome’s originator, Aeneas, in single combat), but in the last year of the war he fell victim to an arrow shot by Paris, whose love for Helen had set in motion the whole long, tragic saga. The original Pyrrhus (he was also known as Neoptolemus) was one of the stowaways in the wooden horse. He led the charge during the fall of the city and killed its aged king, Priam. On his return to Greece, he settled in Epirus and founded the Molossian dynasty.
The infancy of his descendant and namesake was disturbed. Born in 319, Pyrrhus was a baby when his father was forcibly removed from the throne and replaced by a relative, and he had a hair-raising escape from pursuers. He was in the care of three sturdy young men and a nurse. They had nearly reached a place of safety, but just as the sun was setting they came to a river swollen by rains. They could not cross it in the dark without help. They saw some local people standing on the far bank and shouted for help, but the noise of the torrent made them inaudible.
One of the youths had the bright idea to strip some bark from a tree and scratch a message on it with a buckle pin. He wrapped the bark around a stone and flung it across the river. Those on the other side read the message and quickly cut down some trees, lashed them together, and improvized a rough-and-ready rail that Pyrrhus’s party could grasp as they crossed the turbulent water.
The child’s final destination was a tribe in Illyria, to the north. This was a lawless land, and the Illyrians had a deserved reputation for sea piracy. The tribe’s ruler, a certain Glaucias, gave him asylum and resisted large bribes to hand him over to his enemies. This was where Pyrrhus grew up—in a wild world of heroic bandits who set a premium on physical bravery and personal honor.
He was only thirteen when he was restored to the Molossian throne under a regency, but a few years later he was ousted once again, this time by the ruthless and ambitious king of Macedonia, Cassander, who was one of the Diadochoi and had cast a covetous eye on northwestern Greece.
Now adult, Pyrrhus dreamed of winning or creating an empire somewhere in the world, but he had no choice but to lead the life of an adventurer. He served in the army of one of the Successors and received his first taste of large-scale warfare at the Battle of Ipsus, where his patron lost his life at the hands of a grand coalition. One more athlete in Alexander’s funeral games was removed from competition.
The only Successor to die comfortably in his bed after many years in power and to found a long-lived dynasty was Ptolemy, who had known Alexander as a boy and had been one of his most trusted companions. He seized Egypt and made himself pharaoh. Less ambitious than his rivals, he contented himself with this corner of the empire and aimed for no more than dominance of the Aegean. Pyrrhus spent some time in Egypt and so impressed Ptolemy that he married the young man to his stepdaughter (a political polygamist, he collected five wives during his career). The pharaoh also gave him substantial military and financial support, which enabled Pyrrhus once more to regain the Molossian throne.
The charms of his small kingdom soon palled. Pyrrhus devoted time and energy to expanding the territory he controlled, but he was a marginal player in the great game of international politics. He nursed his hopes. A second cousin of Alexander the Great through Olympias, who had been a Molossian princess, he went so far as to claim a special relationship with the dead conqueror. He once reported that Alexander called to him in a dream. He answered the summons and found the king lying on a couch. Alexander promised him his help. “But your majesty,” said Pyrrhus, never backward in coming forward, “how will you be able to help me, seeing that you are unwell?” The king replied, “My name will be enough,” and, mounting a pedigree horse, led the way into the future.
And so it was. Pyrrhus did not hesitate to use Alexander’s name, and he made the most of the family connection when, in 287, he persuaded the Macedonian army to proclaim him king of Macedon. However, a rival pretender soon drove him out, and back into his Molossian backwater.
Pyrrhus was a chivalrous and charismatic figure, although Plutarch writes that his appearance “conveyed terror rather than majesty.” As with the King’s Evil, practiced by medieval and early modern European monarchs, sufferers from depression believed the king could cure their condition by pressing his right foot against their spleen. No beauty, Pyrrhus had few teeth and, oddly, it is said that his upper jaw was a continuous line of bone on which the usual intervals between the teeth were indicated by slight depressions. (There is no plausible condition known to modern dentists that matches this description; the most likely explanation is that the king wore a bone or ivory denture.) He was discreet and polite in his personal life, but tended to be aloof with social inferiors. He was widely acknowledged to be naturally brilliant, well-educated, and experienced in public affairs—an opinion of himself that he shared.
As the years passed, though, Pyrrhus remained a man of promise rather than of accomplishment. Like his ancestor Achilles, he could not stand idleness, and, as Homer writes,
ate his heart away
remaining there, and pined for war-cry and battle.
He was in his late thirties when, not a moment too soon, the opportunity of his lifetime finally presented itself. An embassy from the city of Tarentum (today’s Taranto), a Greek foundation on the heel of Italy, traveled to Epirus and laid before the king an extremely interesting proposition.
TARENTUM WAS ONE of the wealthiest cities of the Greek world. Founded in 706 in Apulia, on the instep of the Italian boot, it stood on an island between a large inland lagoon and a bay, which was itself protected from the open sea by another island and a spit of land. The city was “leafy” and the climate delightful, with “mild winters and long lingering springs.” To the poet Horace, the surrounding countryside was:
To me the bonniest square miles
In all the world, a coast of smiles,
Where bees make honeycombs so sweet
Hymettus has to own defeat,
And even the olives vie with those
That silvery-green Venafrum grows.
Tarentum enjoyed a thriving cultural life; it was a center for the philosophy of Pythagoras and manufactured high-quality decorated pottery and a beautiful silver coinage. The city was especially famous for the purple dye it made from the murex, a marine mollusk. It also had a thriving wool industry and sold figs and salt. Politically, it was a democracy and was dominated for thirty years in the middle of the fourth century by a certain Archytas, whom we would call today a Renaissance man. He is believed to have been the founder of mathematical mechanics, and designed a bird-shaped flying machine, probably propelled by steam power. Archytas had known Plato personally and attempted to rescue him from his difficulties with the tyrant of Syracuse Dionysius II. The Athenian philosopher may have seen in him a model of the philosopher king he recommended in his Republic as the ideal ruler of a state.
Archytas was also a successful field commander against continual incursions by the Sabellian tribes that ringed the city from their mountain fastnesses. The Tarentines could field an army of more than thirty thousand men and deployed a powerful fleet. However, in more recent times they seemed to have lost their edge. According to the geographer Strabo:
Later, because of their prosperity, luxury prevailed to such an extent that the public festivals celebrated every year were more in number than the days of the year; and in consequence of this they were poorly governed. One evidence of their bad policies is the fact that they employed foreign generals … to lead them in their war[s].
The Sabellians were not the only threat. For a long time, the Tarentines watched the growth of Roman power with concern, and then alarm. They had no locus in the Second Samnite War and at one point offered their services as neutral mediators between the warring parties, but in truth they were pro-Samnite non-belligerents. They could see that sooner rather than later the expanding Republic would interest itself in the affairs of southern Italy. This was particularly worrying for the democratic government of Tarentum, for Roman practice with its defeated “allies” was to support the local aristocrats, who tended to welcome external support in order to maintain their rule.
It was not that the Romans were actively looking for trouble. As already noted, they believed in the principle of a just war, at least in theory, and wished to avoid the displeasure of the gods brought on by acting aggressively without due cause. However, a due cause duly presented itself in 285, when Thurii, another port in the Gulf of Tarentum, appealed to Rome for protection against Sabellian attacks, and some help was apparently provided. One might have thought Thurii would apply to its bigger neighbor Tarentum, but Thurii was an oligarchy and there was little love lost between the two of them. A curse of the political culture on the Greek mainland was the inability of small city-states, such as Athens, Sparta, and Thebes, to get on with one another. Those colonists who migrated to Italy brought the bad habit with them.
Three years later, another request came from Thurii. From the Republic’s point of view, the timing was extremely inconvenient. The Romans had recently been defeated by a Celtic force from the north, and the Samnites had risen once more against their overlords. However, it was decided to respond favorably and a consular army was sent south to beat back the Sabellians and to garrison Thurii. Some other Greco-Italian, or Italiote, cities came into alliance with Rome. The Senate was coming to understand that, as Italy’s dominant power, it would be unwise not to develop a rational policy for Magna Graecia.
The Tarentines were furious, and a chance opportunity of displaying their displeasure soon arose. In breach of an old treaty agreement not to sail in the Gulf of Tarentum, a squadron of ten Roman warships unexpectedly appeared in the harbor, hoping to anchor there. One tradition suggests that it was merely on a sightseeing expedition, but not surprisingly, the Tarentines guessed at a more sinister intention. They feared a plot to overthrow their democracy or, at least, some kind of hostile naval reconnaissance.
As luck would have it, a festival in honor of the god Dionysus was being held that day and a large, inebriated audience sat in the city’s open-air theater watching a show. Soon there was news of the squadron’s arrival, tempers rose, and an enraged mob rushed out to the quayside. An attack was launched on the intruders. Four Roman vessels were sunk, the commander was killed, and a fifth was captured with its crew; the others were hard put to make their escape.
As far as Thurii was concerned, Tarentum acted quickly and decisively. Its army marched on the city and expelled not only the ruling élite but also the Roman garrison. In its view, Thurii was doubly to be damned: it had preferred Rome to fellow Greeks, and an oligarchic form of government to a democracy.
These were serious provocations, but the Senate responded with a cool head and merely dispatched an embassy led by a former consul, Lucius Postumius Megellus, to seek an explanation. It probably calculated that Rome did not need another declared enemy at this point and could turn a blind eye if Tarentum agreed to maintain its ostensible neutrality. However, if the delegation expected anything approaching an apology it was to be disappointed.
Tarentum being a Greek-style direct democracy, all important decisions were taken by its citizens in full assembly. Postumius was invited to attend a meeting in the theater. The Tarentines happened to be celebrating another festival and, doubtless fueled by alcohol again, were in high good humor. They looked on the envoys as figures of fun, ridiculing their heavy and elaborate togas and slips Postumius made when speaking Greek. The Romans were unamused, which only made the Tarentines laugh the louder.
Postumius demanded the release of their sailors and ship, and required the Tarentines to surrender Thurii, pay compensation, and hand over for punishment those who had ordered the attack on the Roman fleet. When their presentation was over, the former consul and his colleagues made their way out of the theater, pursued by catcalls. At the exit, a well-known local drunk planted himself in Postumius’s way, turned his back on him, bent over, lifted his tunic, and evacuated his bowels over the Roman’s toga. This feat was greeted with laughter and applause.
“Laugh while you can,” shouted Postumius. “You will soon be weeping for a very long while.” Noticing that his threat infuriated some in the crowd, he went on, “Just to make you even angrier, let me say this. This toga will be washed clean with much blood.”
Romans regarded ambassadors as sacrosanct and did not expect this kind of treatment. Taken by surprise, Postumius had handled the incident maladroitly, but he understood how to exploit the humiliation and inflame opinion in Rome. He kept the soiled toga just as it was and, once he was back home, put it on display as evidence of the insults he had endured. Although Rome’s armies were fully stretched elsewhere, the Senate voted for war at once, and the Assembly ratified the decision.
This incident may have been somewhat enhanced in the telling, but it exposed an important truth. At this stage in its history, Rome was regarded by civilized opinion in the Greek world as a provincial semi-barbarous backwater; its representatives were good for a laugh and hardly to be taken seriously.
THE SMILES WERE wiped from their faces when the Tarentines witnessed the rapid arrival of a Roman army outside their walls, which proceeded methodically to ravage their delightful countryside, before withdrawing for the winter of 281/80 to a colonia at Venusia, where it could keep an eye on the Samnites and on the southern Sabellian tribes. They cautiously appointed a pro-Roman general who might be able to negotiate an early peace.
The commanding consul offered the Tarentines the same terms as Postumius had, or all-out war if they were rejected. As the historian Appian puts it, “This time they did not laugh.” At a rowdy public meeting, the debate on what to do next was evenly balanced, but eventually it was agreed to send for the Molossian king to come over from Epirus with an expeditionary force and make war on the Romans. The idea of recruiting a foreign general was not a new one. In the past, feeling themselves too weak to fight on their own, the Tarentines had invited a succession of condottieri to provide military support against Sabellian incursions, albeit without great success: one of them had been Pyrrhus’s uncle Alexander the Molossian, Olympias’s brother and a previous occupant of the Molossian throne. He had died campaigning for the city. The present crisis provoked a surprising entente with Tarentum’s aggressive neighbors, who found that they disliked Rome even more than they did Italiotes.
When the embassy arrived at Pyrrhus’s court, it presented the king with gifts and assured him of a military coalition of the Sabellians, the Tarentines, and—a great prize, this—the Samnites. The envoys gave him a ludicrously inflated estimate of the number of troops that would be awaiting his arrival, but they were good judges of their man. A potential opportunity was opening up for Pyrrhus to regain the Macedonian throne, but he took the bait without hesitation, although his senior adviser, a Thessalian intellectual named Cineas, tried to dissuade him.
According to a famous anecdote of Plutarch’s, Cineas asked the king, “What will you do when you have beaten the Romans?” We would take Italy was the reply. “What then?” Sicily would be a rich prize, the king opined, not seeing the trap. “And then?” Carthage and Libya would be too tempting to resist. Cineas concluded his interrogation: “After that, it’s obvious that we will have no trouble taking back Macedonia and Greece.”
Pyrrhus said, smiling, “Why then, we will be able to live a life of leisure and spend our days drinking and in private conversation.” “What is stopping us from doing that now?” Cineas inquired.
The king was somewhat cast down, for he could see that he was inviting a world of trouble, but he was unable to renounce his high hopes. The Elysian shades of Alexander and Achilles expected nothing less of him.
THE VALLEY WAS remote, cold, and barren, with a craggy backdrop of snow-capped mountains. At the foot of a hill stood an oak tree inside a walled enclosure. There was a small, very basic stone temple. This was Dodona, the most ancient of Hellenic oracles and sacred to the king of the gods, Zeus, and his consort, Dione, usually called Hera (Rome’s Jupiter and Juno). Three priestesses, known as “doves,” interpreted the rustlings of the oak tree’s leaves in the breeze for those with questions about their future.
Despite its great age, Dodona was not as well known as the sanctuary at Delphi and was used mainly by ordinary people to help them solve the difficulties of daily life, rather as today we seek the advice of a lawyer or a doctor. Anyone who consulted the oracle was required to submit his or her questions to the two gods in writing, scratched onto lead tablets. These were then put into a pot and studied by one of the priestesses. Archaeologists have discovered some of the tablets (ranging from throughout the oracle’s long history): suppliants included not only local peasants but travelers from across the Mediterranean world.
Among them are Eubandros and his wife, who ask to what god, hero, or spirit (daimon) they must pray and sacrifice if they and their household are to be prosperous “for all time.” A man named Socrates wants to know how he can trade most profitably for himself and his family. Agis inquires about his mattresses and pillows, which have been lost: Has some foreigner stolen them?
From time to time, celebrities consulted the divinities of Dodona. Homer has Achilles pray to “Lord Zeus, Dodonean, Pelasgian Zeus, you that live far away and rule over wintry Dodona” that his lover, Patroclus, come back victorious and alive from battle with the Greeks on the plain of Troy. Typically, the god gives with one hand and takes with the other. Homer adds, “Zeus the Counselor heard Achilles’ prayer and granted him half of it but not the rest.” Patroclus drives back the Trojans but is killed.
The oracle was perfectly capable of unscrupulous subterfuge. During the great war between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century, the Athenians were advised to colonize Sicily. Without considering what the oracle really meant, they felt encouraged to mount their disastrous Sicilian invasion. In fact, what the doves were referring to was a hillock of that name near Athens.
As the Molossian king, Pyrrhus was ex officio the patron of the oracle at Dodona. He was an enthusiastic supporter and made it the religious center of his kingdom. At considerable expense, he upgraded its facilities. The Temple of Zeus was rebuilt on a grand scale, and an arts and athletics festival launched, with plays performed in a new open-air theater.
When the king was planning his Italian expedition, he consulted the oracle about his prospects of success. With his close connection to the oracle, he would be forgiven for expecting the king of the gods and his queen to allow him an auspicious outcome. However, the doves listened to the rustling leaves and offered an ambiguous interpretation. In the Greek, their words could be read two ways—either “If you cross into Italy, you will be victorious over the Romans” or “The Romans will be victorious over you.”
Pyrrhus was no fool and must have recognized the double meaning, but, as Cassius Dio put it, he chose to “construe the advice according to his wishes, for desire is very apt to deceive.” He refused to countenance the slightest delay and would not even wait for the arrival of spring before setting off on his grand enterprise.
BEING ONLY A constitutional monarch in Epirus, Pyrrhus could not simply do as he pleased. His first step was to win the federation’s backing and, more particularly, an agreement to supply troops. He made full use of his descent from Achilles: if the Romans claimed to be inheritors of the Trojan name, an invasion led by the Molossian king should be seen as a return match. Troy redivivus had to be cast down for a second time. Inheritor of the mantle of Alexander, Pyrrhus presented himself as the leader of a Hellenic crusade against barbarians. He was also the avenger of his uncle Alexander the Molossian.
Coins had a wide distribution throughout the Mediterranean, and for rulers with an instinct for public relations they were an invaluable means of communicating their message. Those issued under Pyrrhus’s aegis at Tarentum could hardly have been more explicit. On some of them, the image of Zeus and Dione of Dodona appear, guaranteeing Pyrrhus’s optimistic expectation of their divine blessing. Others imitated the gold staters of Alexander the Great, and showed Athena Promachos, champion against the barbarians, and a personified Nike, or Victory, bearing a trophy. On one coin we see Achilles, possibly with Pyrrhus’s features. On another, Achilles’ mother, Thetis, is depicted, as Homer described in the Iliad, bringing a shield and new weapons to rearm her son after the death of Patroclus.
Pyrrhus got his way, winning the support not only of his Epirote tribes but also of other Hellenistic monarchs, Diadochoi, or their heirs, who were delighted to see this military and militant nuisance sail away and annoy other people elsewhere. The king recruited an army of up to 22,500 infantry, including 2,000 archers and 500 men with slings (both of them little used by the Romans but lethal at a distance). He also disposed of 2,000 cavalry and 20 elephants.
Elephants were something of a novelty. The Greeks first came across them when Darius III, the Persian King of Kings, fielded them, unsuccessfully, against Alexander the Great at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331. Alexander never used elephants himself, but they became a favorite weapon of his successors. They were imported from India and, unlike African bush elephants, were large enough to carry a howdah, with a mahout and a few soldiers armed with missiles.
Their main advantage was that they terrified the enemy; horses would not face them, especially if they had not encountered them before. On the debit side, they could do serious damage to their own forces if they were wounded or for some other reason panicked and ran amok.
Arrian gives a vivid account of what can happen in those circumstances, when describing another of Alexander’s battles, on this occasion against an Indian king:
By this time the elephants were boxed up, with no room to maneuver, by troops all around them, and as they blundered about, wheeling and shoving this way and that, they trampled to death as many of their friends as of their enemies. The result was that the Indian cavalry, jammed in around the elephants and with no more space to maneuver than they had, suffered severely; most of the elephant-drivers had been shot; many of the animals had themselves been wounded, while others, riderless and bewildered, ceased altogether to play their expected part, and, maddened by pain and fear, set indiscriminately upon friend and foe, thrusting, trampling, and spreading death before them.
In early 280, Pyrrhus wisely sent Cineas ahead with an advance guard of three thousand troops. Only when they had arrived safely at Tarentum and received their expected welcome did he follow with the main body of his army. They traveled in a fleet of transport ships that the Tarentines had sent across the Adriatic to Epirus. The king soon had cause to rue his insistence on sailing before the winter was over. His fleet was scattered far and wide by a storm. Some ships, including the flagship, which carried Pyrrhus, were unable to round the Iapygian promontory (the heel of the Italian boot) into the Bay of Tarentum. Night fell and a heavy sea drove them onto a bare and harborless coast, where many ships broke up on the rocks. An exception was the royal galley, which was saved because of its great size and sturdy build.
Saved only for the moment, though. The wind unexpectedly veered round and began to blow from the shore. The ship was likely to founder if it met the wind head-on, but to sail out to sea and allow it to bounce about in the boiling swell was equally dangerous. The king took a bold decision, as Plutarch reports:
Pyrrhus jumped up and threw himself into the sea, and his friends and bodyguards, eager to help him, immediately followed suit. But night and the waves with their heavy crashing and violent recoil made assistance difficult. It was not until day had already come and the wind was dying away that he managed to reach the shore. He had lost all his physical strength, but with boldness and a refusal to give in he mastered his distress.
The king made his way to Tarentum, where he lay low for a time. Although immediately appointed commander-in-chief with unlimited powers, he did nothing that might alarm his hosts, until his damaged fleet limped into port and disgorged the Epirote army. Surprisingly, all his elephants survived the passage, although how a nervous animal weighing five tons was kept calm on board a twenty-meter-long galley in stormy seas must remain a mystery. Then Pyrrhus ran up his true colors. He believed, so Plutarch puts it, that “the mass of people were incapable, unless under strict discipline, of either saving themselves or saving anyone else, but were inclined to let him do their fighting for them while they remained at home in the enjoyment of their baths and social festivities.”
This was not his idea of how to run a war. He occupied the acropolis, or citadel, with his own troops and billeted his officers in citizens’ houses. Military conscription was introduced for the Tarentine youth. All theatrical performances were banned, the gymnasiums were closed (people met there not only for exercise but also for conversation during which “they fought out their country’s battles”), and the men’s communal messes (an institution peculiar to the communal lifestyle of Sparta, Tarentum’s founder) were prohibited. The city’s loungers and layabouts were shocked, and some of them managed to evade Pyrrhus’s guards and left town. The king’s popularity fell, and opponents of the ruling democracy tried to stir up trouble. They were quickly rounded up and sent to Epirus or simply put to death. Tarentum was no longer its own master.
THE NEWS OF Pyrrhus’s arrival on Italian soil caused consternation in Rome. A joint Celtic and Etruscan army had only recently been defeated in the north, and what the Republic needed was a period of recuperation. The heavy casualties in the third and last Samnite War were still a painful memory. However, there was nothing for it; another immense effort was required if the threat posed by Pyrrhus was to be met. Fresh troops were levied, even (apparently) from those citizens, the proletarii, who owned no property and so were usually exempt from military service. Such a step was taken only when there was a tumultus maximus, an extreme military emergency. Rome was garrisoned and an army in the north was tasked to prevent the Molossian king from making common cause with the Etruscans.
One of the consuls for 280, Publius Valerius Laevinus, marched a force of about thirty thousand men southward toward Tarentum. At this point, Pyrrhus intervened with a peace proposal. Although his highest value was prowess on the battlefield, he was not a warmonger. Throughout his career, he would always deploy diplomacy to win an argument before resorting to arms, and he recommended this policy in his well-known (but now lost) book on military tactics. If we can trust Cassius Dio, he wrote to the consul in the following terms:
King Pyrrhus to Laevinus, Greeting. I understand that you are leading an army against Tarentum. Send it away and come to me yourself with a few attendants. For I will judge between you, if you have any charge to bring against each other, and I will compel the party at fault, however unwilling, to deal justly.
This was the first direct dealing the king had had with representatives of the Republic, so it is hard to assess whether he expected a favorable reply. He certainly did not receive one. The consul asked, “What use have I got for trash and rubbish, when I can stand trial in the court of Mars, our forefather?”
Pyrrhus was slightly outnumbered by the Romans, for he had to leave a garrison behind in Tarentum. He was encamped on one side of a river near Heraclea, a town a little inland from the Gulf of Tarentum. The consul approached and made his camp on the other. He captured one of the king’s scouts and, rather than execute him, Laevinus drew up his army in battle formation and showed the man around. He asked him to report faithfully to his master what he had seen. Pyrrhus himself rode up to the river to get a view of them. When he had observed their good order, impressive drill, and the efficient arrangement of their camp, he remarked, “The discipline of these barbarians is not barbarous.”
He was now less confident of victory and tried to avoid being forced into battle until reinforcements arrived. He prevented the Romans from crossing the river. Laevinus, in the light of his numerical superiority, was eager for a fight. The consul took a leaf out of Alexander’s book at Granicus and sent his cavalry off to ride along the river and cross where they were unopposed. When the legions appeared unexpectedly in their rear, the Greeks guarding the riverbank pulled back and Laevinus’s infantry was able to begin crossing the river.
It is difficult to make sense of the surviving accounts of the battle, which opened messily. What exactly happened was probably confusing to those taking part. But it appears that Pyrrhus, much alarmed, rode with three thousand Epirote horsemen to meet the Roman cavalry and hold them up, giving time for his phalanx and the rest of his army to form themselves into order of battle. Unfortunately, he was unhorsed and severely shaken.
In an echo of the Achilles and Patroclus story, and presumably to give him a breathing space in which to recover, the king handed over his richly ornamented armor and purple cloak shot through with gold to one of his companions, a certain Megacles, to wear in his place, for his disappearance would be fatal for his soldiers’ morale. For the time being, he stayed in the rear. Unfortunately, Megacles was killed. Pyrrhus mounted another horse and rode along the line with his head bare to show that he was alive, both by his appearance and his voice.
The king’s tactics were similar to those of Alexander, who combined an unbreakable phalanx with a flanking cavalry charge. The Epirote phalanx, with its bristling pikes, was to hold or push back the Roman infantry. Elephants were usually deployed about fifteen to thirty meters apart along the front of an army, but Pyrrhus had too few of them to do this. So he placed his band of twenty as a reserve to be brought forward at an appropriate moment in the battle. His cavalry were on the wings, with instructions to rout the enemy’s horse and attack its infantry from the flanks. Although the legions, armed with short swords and throwing javelins, had some difficulty engaging with the phalanx, they stood their ground. The battle became a stalemate.
Pyrrhus decided to bring on his elephants, which thoroughly unnerved the Roman cavalry. Horses bolted and threw their riders. Men in the howdahs shot down many foot soldiers, and others were trampled. Disheartened, the legions pulled back and left the field. They managed to cross the river and retreated to Venusia (joining the Roman force that had originally appeared before Tarentum and ravaged the city’s territory). More than seven thousand men had fallen and eighteen hundred been captured.
But success was sour, for Pyrrhus had lost about four thousand men, including friends and officers whom he knew well and trusted. As we have seen, Rome commanded a very substantial reservoir of men of fighting age, and had no difficulty in quickly reinforcing the consul. However, the king would struggle to raise more troops. When congratulations were offered him, he replied gloomily, “Another victory like this, and I am done for!” (Hence the modern phrase a “Pyrrhic victory.”)
Nevertheless, he made the most of a good public-relations opportunity. Captured enemy weapons were sent to Dodona as a votive trophy. A small bronze tablet marking the gift has survived: “King Pyrrhus and the Epirotes and the Tarentines to Zeus Naios from the Romans and their allies.” The Tarentines sent offerings to Athens to celebrate this triumph over barbarians, and the armor the king wore during the battle, or at least part of it, was sent to a Temple of Athena on the island of Rhodes. The underlying message was simple and clear: the Hellenic world would soon be hearing no more of the upstart Italian Republic.
The Samnites and the Sabellian tribes now declared openly for Pyrrhus, as did a number of Italiote cities that had been waiting on events before deciding whom to back. However, the king seems to have been unsure of his next military move. One of his rivals for the throne of Macedonia once said of him, “He is like a player with dice, who makes many fine throws, but does not know how to exploit them when they are made.”
What appears to have been a weakness may in part have been a certain reasonableness of disposition. His war aim was not Rome’s unconditional surrender, something he must have known he could not achieve with the army at his disposal. Instead, he wanted to force the Republic to withdraw from Greater Greece and revert to its status as a middling power in central Italy. This could be done, he hoped, by demonstrating his military superiority so convincingly that the Republic would be persuaded to accept a negotiated peace.
ONE FURTHER THROW of the dice was worth risking. Pyrrhus tested the loyalty of Rome’s Latin allies by marching his army north through Campania and along the Via Latina toward Rome. He may also have hoped to entice Etruria into revolt. But central Italy was unimpressed, and if the king expected defections he was disappointed. The cities of Naples and Capua refused to capitulate. He advanced to within a few miles of Rome, but the threat to the city, with its high walls and garrison, was not serious.
Laevinus, having gathered together his scattered forces and added to them the reinforcements sent by the Senate, chased after Pyrrhus, harassing his army. The king was astonished and compared the Roman army to the Hydra, a poisonous water serpent with many heads; if one was chopped off, others grew in its place. “After being cut to pieces the legions grow whole again!” he remarked admiringly. The consular army that had been keeping watch over the Etruscans began to move south, and the king, fearful of being trapped in a pincer, turned around and went back to Tarentum, where he spent the winter of 280.
The time had come for diplomacy, and the Romans delivered another shock. A delegation of three senior politicians, headed by Gaius Fabricius Luscinus, arrived to treat with Pyrrhus. Much to his surprise, the only topic they wished to raise was the ransoming of Roman prisoners of war. He had assumed that, as was customary in the Hellenistic world, they would accept the fact that they had been defeated and seek terms. Uncertain what to do, he consulted his advisers. He followed Cineas’s recommendation that he free the captives without price and send envoys and money to Rome.
Before the embassy left Tarentum, he took Fabricius on one side, offered him generous gifts, and asked for his cooperation in securing peace. The Roman declined the gifts on the grounds that he already had enough possessions, and said coolly, “I commend you, Pyrrhus, for wanting peace and I will secure it for you, always providing that it proves to be to our advantage.”
Fabricius was not offended by these advances, for sometime later he very decently passed intelligence to Pyrrhus that his personal physician was planning to assassinate him. The king was not put off by the Roman’s rebuff, either, and commissioned Cineas to go to Rome and induce the Senate to come to an agreement. Reputed to be the most eloquent public speaker of his day, Cineas reminded his hearers of the famous fourth-century orator Demosthenes. Pyrrhus rated his persuasive powers so highly that he used to say, “His words have won me more cities than my own military campaigns.”
Just in case words were not enough, Cineas brought with him a large amount of gold and, we are informed, every kind of fashionable women’s dress. If the men could not be won over, he thought, then their wives, corrupted by the allure of classical haute couture, would charm them into changing their minds. Hellenistic monarchs were expected to be magnificently openhanded, but to Romans this was bribery, even if many pocketed what was on offer.
Although he did not quite understand this cultural difference, Pyrrhus’s adviser was no fool. Once he had arrived in Rome, he delayed seeking an audience with the Senate. Alleging one reason or another, he hung around the city, getting the feel of the place and making the acquaintance of all the best people. A charming conversationalist and a generous giver, Cineas was soon a popular figure on the social scene. By the time he met the Senate, many of its members knew him well and had been persuaded to back his peace plan.
The terms he proposed were tough. Tarentum and the other Greek cities in southern Italy were to be fully independent. All lands taken from the Samnites and other Sabellian tribes were to be returned to their original owners. Finally, an alliance would be offered with Pyrrhus (not, interestingly enough, with Tarentum or Epirus). The total effect of this pact would have been to reduce Rome’s sphere of influence to Latium only. It is evidence either of Cineas’s golden tongue (and gold specie) or of the Republic’s exhaustion and demoralization, or something of both, that it appeared that the Senate would accept the proposals.
This was to reckon without Appius Claudius Caecus. Old, ill, and completely blind, he had retired from public life. When he learned that a vote for a cessation of hostilities was about to be passed, he could not hold himself back. He ordered his servants to lift him up and had himself carried in a litter to the Senate House. At the door, his sons and sons-in-law took him in their arms and helped him inside.
He addressed the Senate in the strongest terms. According to Plutarch, he said, “Up to this time, I have regarded the misfortune to my eyes as an affliction. But when I hear your shameful resolutions and decrees, I am only sorry I am not deaf as well as blind.”
He insisted that Pyrrhus must first leave Italy before there was any talk of friendship and alliance. The Senate performed a rapid volte-face and voted unanimously to accept his opinion. Cineas was sent back to his master empty-handed, except for a greater understanding of the Roman character. He told Pyrrhus ruefully that the Senate was a “council of many kings.”
Claudius’s speech must have been a powerful and persuasive composition. It was still read in the first century and, although now lost, was believed to be the oldest text of its kind to have been preserved. Cicero judged the aged radical to have been a “ready speaker.”
IN PYRRHUS’S OPINION, the Romans had been defeated and the war should have been over, but only now did the monarch from Epirus understand the depth of Rome’s resources and its stamina. To keep his army fed and paid in a foreign land was prohibitively expensive, even more so now that he had recruited new mercenaries, mainly from southern Italy. Large sums of money had to be raised if he was to stay in the game. The Italiote cities on whose behalf the campaign was being fought were requested (in a tone of voice that signified “required”) to finance operations.
The wealth of these cities and the extent of the demands made of them was startingly revealed in the late 1950s, when archaeologists unearthed a stone box containing thirty-eight bronze tablets with writing incised on them from the Temple of Olympian Zeus at Locri, a port on the toe of Italy. Seven can be dated to between 281 and 275, the years of Pyrrhus’s Italian adventure. During that time, no less than 11,240 silver talents (about six hundred and forty thousand modern pounds of silver) were paid to the king from the temple income as a “contribution to the common cause.” With this huge sum, a force of between twenty thousand and twenty-four thousand mercenaries could be paid their customary salary of one drachma a day each for six years. The revenue of temples derived from taxes, collections, and gifts, from the sale of wheat, barley, and olive oil grown on temple lands, the sale of homemade tiles and bricks and, last but not least, from temple prostitution, a custom at Locri in times of crisis. One of the city’s largest payments was made after the Battle of Heraclea. We can safely assume that its neighbors in the region made similar contributions.
Seeing that the Senate refused to make peace, Pyrrhus had no option but to resume hostilities. In the spring of 279, he marched his army, forty thousand strong, slowly north through Apulia and encamped near the town of Asculum beside a bridge over the river Aufidus, then in full flood. The Romans faced them across the river. In the days before the battle, Pyrrhus’s troops became obsessed with the fact that one of the Roman consuls was Publius Decius Mus, whose father and grandfather had both “devoted” their lives to the gods of the underworld and fought suicidally to the death in the field. This had won Rome divine favor and victory.
The rumor (inaccurate, as it turned out) spread that this latest Decius Mus was planning the same religious act. The king was obliged to encourage his superstitious soldiers by saying that incantations and magic could not defeat arms and men. He added that if anyone saw a man wearing a toga pulled over his head, the prescribed costume for a devotio, they should make sure not to kill him but to take him alive. A message was sent to the consul forbidding him to try to devote himself.
Yet again, the surviving accounts of an ancient battle are confused and contradictory. It appears that the fighting took place over two days. To enable an engagement, the Romans were allowed to cross the river, but Pyrrhus found himself on rough ground unsuitable for both his cavalry and his phalanx. Inconclusive and scrappy fighting lasted until nightfall. At first light, the king sent skirmishers to occupy the battlefield and so deny it to the Romans. He then drew up his main forces for battle on a level plain where they would be able to operate with greater ease. His cavalry was placed on the wings, with the elephants once again held in reserve. The Greek army faced four Roman legions with roughly the same number of auxiliary troops.
Since Heraclea, the Romans had thought hard about how to deal with the elephant problem. This time they fielded wagons equipped with movable poles tipped with scythes, three-pronged spikes, grappling irons, or flaming devices wrapped in tow and pitch. These were swung into the elephants’ faces and had some success in disturbing the animals, at least to start with.
The Greek cavalry on the left wing retreated, and Pyrrhus extended his center to fill the gap they left behind them. Meanwhile, some Roman allies arriving late for the battle saw that the enemy camp was poorly defended and seized the opportunity to capture and loot it. Eventually, Pyrrhus, with his cavalry and elephants, succeeded in breaking up the front lines of two Roman legions. The fighting was fierce, and the king was seriously wounded in the arm by a javelin, but the day was his.
However, the consuls managed to extricate their forces and withdrew to their camp across the river. They had lost six thousand men, but, as had happened at Heraclea, the winners also suffered losses. According to the king’s war commentaries (no longer extant), three and a half thousand of his soldiers were killed. Because his camp had been fired and destroyed, he had lost all his tents, pack animals, and slaves. His army was compelled to sleep under the open sky. Many of the wounded died from lack of food and medical supplies.
The Battle of Asculum was as disastrous a victory as could be imagined. Plutarch summed up the king’s predicament:
He had lost a great part of the forces with which he came, and most of his friends and generals. He had run out of reinforcements he could summon from home, and he could see that his allies in Italy were losing their keenness. Meanwhile the Roman army was like a gushing fountain, easily and speedily refilled when emptied.
LUCK STRUCK again for the restless monarch. Just when his Italian campaign was losing steam, two new and enticing opportunities presented themselves. The inexperienced young king of Macedonia had gone down to defeat and death in a great battle with an invading Celtic horde. Pyrrhus had always yearned for the Macedonian throne and Alexander’s realm. If he could only find a way out of his obligations to Tarentum, he could cross back into Greece and drive the barbarians away. Epirus would certainly support the move, for it worried that the Celts might turn their gaze in its direction. Pyrrhus could hardly imagine a more glorious goal than to be the acknowledged savior of the Hellenes.
Then messengers arrived at Tarentum from the rich Sicilian city-state of Syracuse. Once more than capable of looking after itself, Syracuse was now riven by internal disputes. The numerous other Greek communities on the island were also politically unstable, veering wildly between rule by a despot and a rowdy democracy. For many years, the Carthaginians had controlled western Sicily. Always fearful that the Greeks would, if left to themselves, threaten their trade routes in the Western Mediterranean, they saw in their present confusion a chance to take control of the entire island. Hence the desperate Syracusan appeal to Pyrrhus to cross over from Tarentum, become the city’s supreme commander, and combat Carthaginian aggression.
There is no evidence, but we can safely guess that the king had long meditated as a career option not to stop at Italy but to press on westward to the invasion of Carthage, a sail of only 130 miles from Sicily. Indeed, his late father-in-law, Agathocles, who had been the ruler of Syracuse until his death in 289 (surprisingly, in his bed, despite the most colorful of careers), had anticipated him by leading an expedition against the North African merchant-state. Admittedly it had failed, but it was not in Pyrrhus’s nature to be disheartened by the difficulty of an enterprise, rather the opposite. The future was always bright.
The king’s weakness was not uncertainty or excessive caution but, rather, a short attention span for the matter at hand. Rome, a tougher prey to engorge than he had expected, was already beginning to recede from the front of his mind. He decided to accept the invitation from Syracuse, rather than the Celtic challenge. He never explained his choice, but we may suppose that the West offered new, untrodden lands and an Alexandrine vista of unending conquest, whereas the East was tediously familiar and crowded with powerful competitors and fellow claimants.
Not unnaturally, the Tarentines were extremely upset by Pyrrhus’s demarche, but he promised to return in due course and resume his campaign. He also took the precaution of installing garrisons in all the Italiote cities, although this augmented his already rising unpopularity in Greater Greece.
Carthage was also angered. Just when its dream of taking all Sicily under its control was about to be realized, the last thing it wanted was for a general of Pyrrhus’s ability to champion the Sicilian Greeks. It immediately sought an alliance with Rome against the king. This would keep the Republic in the war and so make it unsafe for Pyrrhus to leave Italy.
After a brief demurral, the Senate agreed to a third treaty with Carthage, the terms of which survive in the Greek translation of Polybius. The previous accords had in large part been designed to protect Carthage’s trading interests and had set down the parties’respective zones of influence and exclusion, with Rome mostly as the junior partner. These restrictions were now overridden in the current emergency. The key clauses read:
Whichever party may need help, the Carthaginians shall provide the ships both for transport and for operations, but each shall provide the pay for its own men.
The Carthaginians shall also give help to the Romans by sea if the need arises, but no one shall compel the crew to disembark against their will.
The Republic knew little of the sea and had few warships. The treaty was weighted in its favor, for it brought into play the resources of the Mediterranean’s naval superpower; so it would now be easy to blockade Tarentum by sea and reduce the likelihood of any new reinforcements coming in from Epirus. By contrast, Rome was under no obligation to go to Carthage’s aid in Sicily.
PYRRHUS’S ADVENTURES IN Sicily followed a familiar pattern. Before his own arrival there, he sent Cineas ahead to prepare the ground diplomatically. Then, in the summer of 278, he set sail, this time with a comparatively small army of eight thousand infantry and some cavalry and elephants. He lifted the Punic siege of Syracuse and entered the city to a hero’s welcome. He marched triumphally across the island, liberating city after city, and besieged the port of Lilybaeum (today’s Marsala) at Sicily’s far western end, the only stronghold not under new Greek management.
The Carthaginians changed their tune and proposed peace terms, which included a large indemnity and the provision of ships. Clearly, they were tempting Pyrrhus to return to Italy (despite the treaty with Rome), and he was tempted. In his absence, consular armies were regaining their dominance in Greater Greece and the situation needed to be retrieved before it was too late. Unfortunately, the royal council, which included Sicilian representatives, rejected the offer. No deals were to be struck until the last Carthaginian had been chased from the island.
The shine was rubbing off the Molossian king. Lilybaeum proved to be impregnable by land and would fall only to a sea blockade, but unfortunately the Greeks did not have enough ships for the purpose. So Pyrrhus, who had been behaving despotically, decided to play double or quits. He would invade Carthage on its home territory. To transport the war to Africa meant commissioning a new fleet, and that, in turn, meant taxing his Sicilian allies and demanding oarsmen and sailors. The plan aroused furious opposition.
Carthage spied a chance to turn its fortunes around and dispatched a powerful new army to the island. Meanwhile, the Samnites and Sabellian tribes in Lucania and Bruttium sent an embassy to Syracuse begging the king to return as quickly as possible, for Rome was forcing them into submission. In other words, his overland link to Tarentum was under threat and unless he acted now his entire position in Sicily and southern Italy might collapse.
So in the late summer of 276, Pyrrhus set sail from Syracuse with 110 warships and many transports. On his way north up the Sicilian coast, he was surprised by a Punic fleet that sank 70 ships and severely damaged others. Luckily, the transports escaped and his army landed safely at Locri. It was an ignominious end to a high undertaking.
Before marching to Tarentum, the king tried to capture the strategically important city of Rhegium, which was garrisoned by the Romans and some Italian mercenaries. The attempt failed and the mercenaries mauled his army as it made off. Pyrrhus himself was badly wounded on the head. A huge enemy soldier in splendid armor challenged him to a duel “if he is still alive.” With typical chutzpah, the new Achilles accepted. Plutarch writes, if we are to believe him:
Wheeling round he pushed through his guards—enraged, smeared with blood and with a terrifying expression on his face. Before the man could make a move he struck him such a blow on the head that, what with the strength of his arm and the fine temper of the blade, his sword cut down through the body and the two halves fell apart.
The king managed to extricate his forces from the fight and made his way back to Locri. He had under his command twenty thousand infantry and three thousand cavalry, and was in urgent need of funds with which to pay them. He again required a substantial sum from the Temple of Zeus. He also foolishly plundered another temple for its treasures, which, he had to acknowledge, was an act of sacrilege. The ships transporting the stolen goods ran into a storm, and Pyrrhus superstitiously gave back most of what he had taken.
All sides in the war were tiring. Plague at Rome depressed public opinion and Livy reports that the number of citizens fell from 287,222 in 280 to 271,224 in 275. The Samnites and other Italian allies of Pyrrhus had been weakened by heavy losses during five long years of war. Nevertheless, in the spring of 275 two consular armies marched south and took up positions designed to prevent an advance on Rome. Meanwhile, Pyrrhus, in order to help the hard-pressed Samnites, moved northward with a force of about twenty thousand men. He meant to meet the consuls singly and found one of them at the Samnite town of Malventum (later Beneventum).
He detached part of his army to intercept the other consul in case he came up to help his colleague. With the remainder, he was now outnumbered by the Roman legions, and decided on a bold night operation. His idea was, under cover of darkness, to find high ground from which he could make a surprise attack on the enemy camp. He set out after sunset, with his best troops and his fiercest elephants. He marched on a wide circuit through dense woods, but his soldiers lost their way and straggled. This created delay, their torches failed, and daybreak revealed them to the Romans as they descended the heights. The consul led his forces out and routed the Epirotes. Some of the elephants were captured. This engagement was followed by a conventional battle on the plain. Showers of burning arrows stampeded the remaining elephants, which ran in panic among their own men. Pyrrhus’s camp was captured and his army driven from the field.
The king did not entirely give up his dream of a western empire, but this was, to be realistic, the end of the expedition. As token of a hopeful return, he left a strong garrison at Tarentum under his son Helenus’s command, but with the rest of his troops—about eight thousand infantry and five hundred cavalry, less than half the number he had brought with him six years earlier—he set sail for Epirus. Despite his optimism, Italy had seen the last of him.
The Romans spent the next three years subduing the Samnites and their Sabellian cousins. Then they turned their attention to Tarentum, forcing out the Epirote garrison in 272 and compelling the Tarentines to hand over their fleet and pull down their walls. Tears in plenty rather than laughter now. Eventually, all the Greek cities in southern Italy came under Roman control.
As for Pyrrhus himself, his career went from good to worse. He defeated the existing king of Macedon, Antigonus Gonatas, and, to great applause, won back his throne. However, he had learned nothing from past experience and almost immediately alienated the Macedonians by occupying their towns with his troops and allowing some Celtic mercenaries to plunder the royal tombs at Aegae (archaeologists rediscovered them in 1976).
Unable to keep still, he suddenly turned up at the head of an army in the Peloponnese, with a mission to restore the ancestral rights of a Spartan general in his employ. Bogged down by a fierce Spartan defense, he then announced his intention to expel Antigonusfrom Greece and marched to Argos to do battle with him. Maddened by the killing of one of his sons, he challenged the Macedonian ruler to come down from the hills where he was encamped and fight for his kingdom. “Many roads to death lie open to Pyrrhus if he is tired of life,” came the dismissive response.
Argos begged the king to go away and leave them to their neutrality, but Pyrrhus was having none of it. An Argive friend of his let him and his soldiers into the city at dead of night. The alarm was raised, and Antigonus sent in some troops to help repel the Epirotes. Pyrrhus was in the marketplace and saw he was in trouble, so sounded a retreat. He sent a message to troops outside the walls, asking them to create a diversion. Due to a mishearing, reinforcements were sent into Argos through the same gate by which Pyrrhus was trying to leave. The result was that he was immobilized in a traffic jam. He attacked a local man, whose mother happened to be looking down from a rooftop. Seeing that her son was in danger, she flung a roof tile at Pyrrhus, which struck him in the base of the neck. His sight blurred and he fell off his horse. The man pulled him into a doorway. He decided to chop Pyrrhus’s head off but, made nervous by the recovering king’s glare, slashed him across the mouth and chin. It was some time before he finished the job.
PYRRHUS ACHIEVED NOTHING that lasted. Achilles and Alexander were his evil angels, but in his case the pursuit of glory was not accompanied by the necessary unswerving obsessiveness. Unlike his cousin, the conqueror of the Persian Empire, Pyrrhus’s cult of himself was not conducted within a broader framework of policy but was undiluted egoism.
He certainly had good qualities. He had a charismatic personality, a generous nature, and, on the battlefield, he led from the front. He enthusiastically flung himself into hand-to-hand combat, taking wounds and risking death. Famous for his chivalry, he was acourteous paladin of the ancient world. He was much admired for his genius as a field commander. Contemporaries said that other successor kings resembled Alexander,
with their purple costumes, their bodyguards, the way they copied the poise of his neck which was tilted slightly to the left, and their loud voices in conversation, but Pyrrhus, and Pyrrhus alone, in arms and action.
From our perspective thousands of years later, it is hard to understand his military reputation. This may not be his fault so much as that of our literary sources, whose accounts of his battles are confused and maddeningly vague just when precision is most needed.
For all the brilliance, energy, and charm, a cloud of pointlessness hangs over Pyrrhus’s career. He was an opportunist who failed to make anything of his opportunities. The danger the Molossian king posed to Rome was serious but never life-threatening. One senses that he failed to research his projects sufficiently. He did not understand until it was too late the extent of the Republic’s human reserves. The rapid Hydra-like rebirth of Laevinus’s mangled army came as a severe shock, but by then he was committed to Tarentum and war.
However, the failure of his Italian expedition had one major consequence. The Greeks now recognized that a new player had joined the international table. They were hypnotized by the steely stare of this warlike state that now dominated the Italian peninsula. For their part, having bloodied Pyrrhus’s nose, the Romans hoped they had persuaded the quarrelsome Hellenic world to mind its own business and leave them free to conduct theirs without interruption.
Now that they had won responsibility for the city-states of southern Italy, they wondered whether they might have to keep an eye open for trouble in Sicily, just across the narrow strip of water between Rhegium and Messana (today’s Messina). Instability there would act like an airborne infection capable of blowing across seas to an exhausted peninsula, which more than anything needed a period of peace and quiet.
After all, Pyrrhus had warned them. On his final departure from Tarentum, he discussed with his entourage the consequences of his failure in Sicily: “My friends, what a wrestling ring we are leaving behind for the Carthaginians and the Romans.”