Historic Generals #3: Pyrrhus of Epirus

So I’ve not been great at this whole consistency thing. I’ve had a hectic few months, moving into new house with my wonderful girlfriend and applying for a PhD. But I have managed to keep up the blog posts in spirit, working on them, just never getting round to typing them up or uploading them. So now I can happily announce that I am back, and this time the post will be more regular (hopefully).

And so we come to Pyrrhus of Epirus.

File:Pyrrhus.JPG(Bust of Pyrrhus, National Archaeology Museum of Naples)

Pyrrhus of Epirus was a king of one the many successor kingdoms that rose up following the death of Alexander the Great (and reportedly, also a second cousin). Epirus was a small kingdom, and Epirus was made its ruler at a young age following the death of his father. He twice had to retake the throne, once as a minor, and then again when he was forced out by Macedon. During his second exile, as a young man, he served as an officer in the army of Demetrius. Once restored to power, and having had his co-ruler murdered, Pyrrhus set about strengthening his kingdom. He fought against his former ally and king Demetrius, but his invasion of Thessaly was repulsed. Between 286BC and 284BC, Pyrrhus controlled the kingdom of Macedon, before being driven out by another successor, Lysimachus.  He became involved in a war with Rome after being invited by Tarentum in Southern Italy to help them against Rome’s expansion. After two years in Italy, he was invited to Sicily to aid the Greek states there resist Carthage. After some initial success, he attempts to establish himself as the “Ruler” of the island, but is ultimately kicked out. He returns to Italy, but fails to make any further gains, and returns to Greece to ascend the throne of Macedon. He attempted to seize control of the Peloponnese, but was repulsed at Sparta, losing his first born son in the retreat. Asked to intervene in a dispute in Argos, Pyrrhus rushed into the city, and found himself surrounded by enemy troops in a hostile city. He was knocked from his horse, reportedly by a tile thrown by a woman, and was decapitated. However, his battles against Rome certainly gained him fame, and he was certainly feared by Rome, in a similar manner to Hannibal (indeed Hannibal was considered a second Pyrrhus by some). A man with such an active military career is surely worth a closer look.

Battle Tactics
Pyrrhus used his Macedonian style army with devastating effect in Italy and Sicily. His phalanx pikemen, superior cavalry and elephants defeated a Roman army at the Battle of Heraclea, causing between 7,000 and 15,000 Roman casualties (depending on the source). He used his cavalry to defeat their Roman counterparts, being used as a screen as the Romans crossed a river, and disrupted their battle formation. Pyrrhus led this attack, and withdrew to allow Roman infantry across, under a heavy onslaught of missile from Pyrrhus’ peltasts, archers and slingers. The ensuing infantry battle was long lasting; the phalanxs and the legions each launched seven attacks on the other, but neither side broke. Pyrrhus’ masterstroke was to send forward his reserve, his elephants.  These broke the cavalry on the flank and sent the entirety of the Roman army into a route, into which Pyrrhus released his cavalry, who harried and killed the enemy back across the river. This was however the high point of the war in Italy. At the next battle at Asculum Pyrrhus was again victorious, but with heavy costs. Pyrrhus said he could not afford another such victory, from which we get the term “Pyrrhic victory”, and a stalemate appeared to occur. During this stalemate two things happened; firstly several cities in Sicily appealed to him for aid against Carthage on the island, while he was also offered the kingship of Macedon. In Sicily, Pyrrhus was successful in pushing the Carthaginian’s back, attempting to set up a kingdom for himself, but he was eventually kicked out. His return to Italy saw an indecisive battle before Pyrrhus abandoned Italy for Macedon. He attempted to take control of the Peloponnese, but he was repulsed at Sparta and forced into a retreat, with heavy losses including his eldest son. Invited to intervene in a civic disagreement in Argos, Pyrrhus acted impulsively in an attempt to gain control of the city before his rivals, he raced into the city ahead of his army, but found it full of hostile troops. He was surrounded, knocked from his horse by a tile thrown by a townswoman, before being beheaded by a soldier.

Tactically, Pyrrhus’ greatest strength was the superiority of his army. He was an impulsive, active general, leading actions from the front, but tactically he wasn’t necessarily the most ingenious of the men we will examine. Actions like his disruptive cavalry charge and the use of his elephants as reserves show a good military sense, but they were not revolutionary tactics. 3.5/5

Campaign Tactics
Pyrrhus’ campaigns were mostly offensive in nature. With the various kingdoms that made up Alexander the Great’s empire at war with each other almost continuously, Pyrrhus (like many other leaders) appears to try and capitalise on the chaos, with mixed results. He saw the opportunities in Italy, Sicily and the Peloponnese to build up his empire in areas not under the particular rule of his rivals. Against Rome, his immediate offensive lead to the victory at Heraclea within his first year in Italy, and gained him territory, including several more towns and cities. His costly victory at Asculum the following year stopped his progress. Rome was weakened by two heavy defeats, but Pyrrhus’ army was also in a weakened state, and a stalemate appears to have ensued, with neither side willing to go on the offensive. This led to Pyrrhus’ expedition to Sicily, where he successfully pushed the Carthaginians back, and forced them to sign a treaty. His attempt to establish a kingdom for himself on the island was not welcomed by the various cities under his control, and he was kicked out two years after arriving. His return to Italy saw nothing change, and so he withdrew, giving up all his holdings apart from the city of Tarentum, to take up the crown of Macedon. His campaign into the Peloponnese seemed impulsive, with Pyrrhus having to move quickly in order to beat his rivals. It was however, a disaster which resulted in a heavy defeat at Sparta, and the death of Pyrrhus and his eldest son. Pyrrhus wasn’t always as reckless as he appeared to be in his Peloponnesian campaign; before moving into Italy, Pyrrhus secured alliances and non-aggression pacts with neighbours. In Italy, and again in Sicily, he was able to operate soon after landing, due to the allies he had secured or who had invited him to intervene, whereas in the Peloponnese he did not have these secure foundations. In my opinion, it would seem that for the most part, Pyrrhus attempted too much; throwing himself into a situation that is out of his control such as his offensive into Thessaly or the Peloponnese, or finds himself limited by distancing himself from reinforcements, such as in Italy, where the war ground to a halt after his losses.  3/5

Fighting Ability
Similarly to Hannibal, we have limited knowledge of Pyrrhus martial ability, but we can presume a lot. As part of the elite in Hellenistic society, Pyrrhus would have been highly trained by the best of instructors, similarly to Hannibal, and so therefore would be pretty handy with a sword. He was an able cavalry commanded, having gained experience in the army of Demetrios during his exile, and along with his social status, would have presumably been a superb horseman. He led several actions, such as the early cavalry strike at Heraclea, therefore proving he was more than willing to get stuck in. But without specifics, we can only really assume that Pyrrhus was as capable, or, as with Hannibal, slightly superior to most in his social class due to his exposure to war. 3/5

Intelligence, Personality and Charisma
Pyrrhus was an able commander, with a decent understanding of tactics and military theory, along with the logistics of campaigns and armies. He made a name for himself, as a soldier and a strong leader, and he became a respected leader, not just within his own army; being offered the kingship of  Macedon shows his standing amongst other peoples inside the Hellenistic world. He was ambitious, seeing opportunities to extend his power and influence everywhere, but it could be said that this was his downfall. His ambition led him to over extend himself and act somewhat impulsively, which saw many of his attempts fail, and his impulsive nature saw him killed in Argos. Several admirable characteristics, but equally several dangerous ones. 2.5/5

Success rate
Pyrrhus was undefeated in Italy. He fought three battles against Rome; One outright victory, one highly costly victory, and one indecisive action. And in Sicily, he was initially successful, driving the Carthaginians back and forcing them into a treaty and appearing to gain control of the territory he had won, before the Sicilians turned against him. However, his campaigns in Greece and Macedonia were far less successful. He was repulsed in his attempts to invade Thessaly and the Peloponnese; at Sparta his heavy losses included his eldest son, and his defeat may have influenced his impulsive entrance of Argos, where he was killed (and therefore we are counting Argos as another defeat). A fairly mixed bag, but even when he was initially successful, in Italy and Sicily, he was eventually forced to abandon his holdings. 2.5/5

File:20140415 ioannina524.JPG(Statue of Pyrrhus, Ionnina, Greece)

Pyrrhus, despite his reputation, appears to be a highly ambitious man who, while a capable soldier and commander, seems to become undone by his own ambitious and impulsive nature. A series of promising starts that ultimately came to nothing. 14.5/25