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

Historic Generals #2: Spartacus

I have decided to continue in a similar vein as Hannibal and the next “general” under the microscope is another enemy of Rome. Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator-turned-rebel leader was not necessarily the greatest general of all time, but he certainly had ability and there is a certain mythical or legendary association with him. Thanks to the classic movie, and the recent (and may I add excellent) television series, Spartacus has become a cult icon as a hero who fought against the overwhelming power of an oppressor, and he has become a symbolic figure throughout history with various individuals and movements, including Karl Marx, using him as an example to live up to. So let’s see if the gladiator-turned-general is really as good as the legend.Spartacus_statue_by_Denis_Foyatier(The statue of Spartacus by Denis Foyatier in the Louvre)

Battle Tactics
Spartacus certainly understood the strengths of his army and was a competent tactician. He recognised that, at the beginning of his rebellion, his army was too small to face a Roman force in open battle. Using the terrain and the superior ability of the gladiators, they survived in the countryside around Capua until they were driven to seek refuge on Mount Vesuvius by a militia force, which proceeded to lay siege to the mountain. They escaped by scaling down the bare cliffs using vines and launching a surprise attack on the unprotected rear of the camp. They similarly ambushed a second expedition sent against them, before their numbers started to grow rapidly. However they were soon stopped by two full legions under Marcus Crassus, and a marching battle ensued as they tried to move south to avoid Crassus’ force.  After several setbacks, Spartacus managed to force his way through Crassus’ forces, only to be caught trying to flee into the mountains (possibly the Picentini Mountains). Faced with little choice, Spartacus threw his full force into battle and was heavily defeated. Tactically, Spartacus’ early efforts were impressive, but as the campaign went on and he came up against sterner tests, Spartacus’ tactics became simpler, attempting to use the sheer weight of numbers at his disposal. Whereas he started with a small force of highly trained gladiators, he soon had thousands of slaves joining his cause, and while this did make his force more dangerous, the slaves were not as highly trained as the legions they now faced in open battle.

Campaign Tactics
Spartacus’ campaign does not seem to have much direction in the start, and allowing himself to be trapped on Vesuvius, while showing him to be aware of the surrounding terrain, does not suggest the most competent commander. However, after rescuing the situation and defeating two Roman forces, Spartacus moves his forces north; it is widely thought that he was trying to cross the Alps and make a big to escape from Rome’s power. However, Crassus outmanoeuvred him and while the attempted encirclement failed, Spartacus was forced to flee south in a series of running battles that eventually led him to be trapped in Southern Italy. After plans to sail to Sicily with the aid of some pirates fell through, Spartacus fought his way out of Crassus’ encirclement and headed for the safety of the nearby mountains. Spartacus appears to be a reactionary leader, who is very competent at adapting his plan to the safest course. However, the campaign is a disaster and the vast majority of rebels were killed, either in battle with Crassus or caught by Pompey feeling the battle, or crucified. A failed campaign with so many setbacks cannot score a high mark.

Fighting Ability
As a gladiator, Spartacus was one of the highest trained swordsmen of the age. Before his time as a gladiator, Spartacus was a warrior. He was either a warrior in his native Thrace who fought against Rome and was captured, or served in the Roman auxiliary and was captured and sentenced to slavery after deserting. While the details are unclear, both show that Spartacus had a military past before he became a gladiator. The training he would have gone through in the ludus would have sharpened his skills and made him a highly trained professional killer. His ability with a sword would have been greater than the average Roman soldier he faced, and the skills of Spartacus and his fellow gladiators was what secured the rebels their early successes. You wouldn’t find many better individual fighters – Full marks.

Intelligence, Personality and Charisma
Spartacus clearly was an intelligent and determined individual. To endure years of slavery and fighting followed by leading a rebel force in the heart of hostile territory, the man must have been both physically and mentally strong. We can assume he led from the front and placed himself at the crucial positions of the battles, where the fight was going to be won or lost. We can also assume that he was an inspirational figure, and his presence would have had a profound effect on those following him, At start of the final battle, as he prepared to throw his full force against Crassus, Spartacus killed his horse to show he would not be fleeing and claimed if they were victorious he could have his pick of the Roman horses. He was driven, but level-headed and sensible; when he found his force in an unfavourable position, he manoeuvred them to the safest course of action. Unfortunately these are all assumptions as we do not have much information available in terms of the actual Spartacus. With no specifics, I can’t really give Spartacus a massive score.

Success Rate
Judgement time: Spartacus, another enemy of Rome who would go on to be a bogeyman figure as well as a symbol of hope and resistance, is actually a little disappointing really. The early victories over two small expeditions showed promise, but when you compare these to the running battle with Crassus and the series of setback that preceded the rebellion’s final defeat, the score evens out somewhat. However the (almost) complete annihilation of the rebels by Crassus (and Pompey), where the greater number of his followers either falling in battle or being captured and crucified, tips the scales. Crassus is considered by many to be a rather uninspiring and, in some cases, lousy general, so to be outmanoeuvred by such a man does not necessarily demonstrate the highest ability. So outmanoeuvred by Crassus, and then completely out-gunned by the legions at Crassus’ disposal, Spartacus does not have a very good success rate.

With a score propped up by his fighting prowess, Spartacus manages to score 15/25. He doesn’t seem to live up to his legend, but the actual chances of a successful campaign were very slight. Spartacus and his rebels faced unimaginable odds and sadly failed, but the statement made by them taking such a stand is one that has carried through history. Maybe that makes up for the low score.

Historic Generals #1: Hannibal

So let’s begin. First man under the microscope is a particular favourite of mine; Hannibal Barca (247BC-183-1BC). Hannibal was arguably the greatest general of the ancient world and certainly one of the finest tacticians ever to have lived. So with a reputation to uphold  as the man the terrorised Rome for a lifetime, does he live up to it?


Hannibal’s numerous successes suggest that his tactics were simply brilliant. He fought countless battles and skirmishes with an army that was more often than not far smaller than the Roman forces opposing them, not to mention they were often in a poorer condition due to constant movement and poor lines of supply. Countless times he turned to tables on Rome, forcing them into battles on his terms on a battlefield of his choosing. Repeatedly, the Romans were lured into a trap; Trebia, where they were encircled by a hidden force; Lake Trasimene where they were ambushed in a narrow defile; and Cannae where the crescent formation pulled the vast numbers of Romans into the jaws of a trap (two flanking forces of heavy infantry that closed in and enveloped the Romans). Sieges were rare in the Second Punic War; Hannibal’s army was too small to encircle any towns or cities of any great size, and they did not have any heavy siege equipment. Nor could they afford to stay in one place for a long period of time; they lived off the surrounding land and could quickly exhaust the available supplies and it ran the risk of being trapped by a much larger force on unfavourable ground. However Hannibal did sack a number of minor towns throughout Italy, and several larger cities, such as Capua, allied themselves to the Carthaginian, or allowed his forces into the city, such as Tarentum.

Hannibal continued to plague Rome even after Carthage’s defeat and his voluntary exile from his native city, offering his services to the kingdoms in the Near East and Asia Minor, who were now clashing with Rome. The most notable moment came when, before a sea battle, Hannibal ordered a large number of snakes to be collected and put into sealed jars. During the battle these jars were fired onto the enemy ships. The jars broke, the snakes escaped and caused panic amongst the enemy sailors, allowing the naval force under Hannibal to sweep in and seize victory.

It is perhaps interesting then to note that Hannibal’s only defeat (or his only defeat as a Carthaginian general) was a battle in which the tactics were very basic. The Battle of Zama 202BC was the final showdown between Hannibal and a man who had studied Hannibal throughout the war and had essentially become a Roman Hannibal, Scipio (later Africanus). Following the chaos of a failed elephant charge, Hannibal’s cavalry was swept from the field, pursued by their Roman counterparts. What followed could hardly be described as military genius; the Carthaginian and Roman infantry were both arranged in three lines. The first lines fought to a standstill, before second lines joined and the line extended, and when those lines fought to a standstill, the third lines joined the battle. These extended single lines of infantry fought a bloody and exhausting battle until the Roman cavalry returned and hit the Carthaginians in the rear.

So certainly a tactical genius, but he was finally defeated by a man who was essentially his greatest pupil. Close to perfect, but not quite.


Campaign Tactics
Hannibal’s campaign started in Spain, before he moved across Southern Gaul and then famously crossed the Alps in winter to enter Northern Italy. Once in Italy, Hannibal’s army moved almost constantly and not always by the easiest route, making it hard for the Romans to follow him or predict his next move. However, Hannibal knew when to rest his troops, normally after particularly hard periods, such as after crossing the Alps or the Arno Marshes. He repeatedly managed to secure valuable supplies when his army was getting desperate. Hannibal’s tactic of releasing Italian prisoners did bare some fruit as some cities, such as Capua allied themselves to him after breaking their ties to Rome. However Hannibal’s plan required this to be a greater success; his small army needed supplies and reinforcements, and he wished to turn the Italian states against Rome as he had the Gauls of Northern Italy, which would shift the balance of power. Equally Carthage failed to reinforce him once he was in a strong position; even when he secured a port in Southern Italy, the majority of Carthage’s resources were being used in Spain and Sicily, where Carthage’s territory and allies were under attack. Hannibal can’t be faulted for that, and he remained undefeated in Italy but because his campaign did not achieve what he wished it would, he loses some marks.


Fighting ability
While records of Hannibal’s actual fighting ability are limited, there are several things we can assume about it. As a member of Carthage’s aristocratic elite, and the son of it’s premier general, it can be assumed that Hannibal was trained for a military career from a young age. At age eight he was taken to Spain by his father and growing up in an army environment would have certainly toughened the young Hannibal, and given him plenty of time to hone his martial skill. He was supposedly involved directly in several actions during his battles; famously at Cannae where he personally led the Celtic and Gallic centre. Appian records him exchanging javelins with Scipio at the Battle of Zama but this account is of a questionable nature. With limited evidence, we can only assume Hannibal would have been as able, if not slightly more so due to his exposure to war, as the rest of social cast.


Personality, Intelligence and Charisma
Everything we have mentioned so far points to Hannibal being a highly intelligent man. He was well educated and an incredibly driven, passionate in his hatred for Rome. He was a strong leader, who suffered many hardships alongside his men. He had a powerful presence and naturally drew men to him. He knew how to use this presence and took steps to increase it; he rode through Northern Italy on the remaining elephant to awe the local Gallic tribes. He never seemed to give up, and throughout the fifteen years he terrorised Italy his army remained loyal to him. An example of just how impressive this man’s resolve truly was is that at Cannae, where 50,000 Carthaginians faced over 80,000 Roman and Allied men and won, Hannibal was not only at the thick of the fighting, but was just 25 years old and had only recently recovered from a wound which had resulted in the loss of an eye. Even after Carthage’s defeat, Hannibal’s actions as a politician in Carthage led their recovery and his actions as a mercenary military advisor shows an intelligence and a drive that a lifetime of war and suffering did not extinguish. And Hannibal even showed defiance in death; poisoning himself when he had finally run out of places to escape Rome’s power to deny them the victory of the capturing him.


Success Rate
Well now we get down to the brass tax of things; this is where we find out whether or not Hannibal lives up to his reputation. Well with only one major defeat during his military career (at least when he was in command and not merely and advisor) Hannibal boasts a pretty impressive record. While Carthage lost the war, Hannibal only lost one major engagement, Zama. Hannibal and what remained of his army in Italy were exhausted from fifteen years of fighting in enemy territory, and while he had been winning and terrorising Rome in Italy, Carthage’s other generals were being defeated firstly in Spain and Sicily and then in Africa. There is only so much one man can do, and while Hannibal was contained in Italy, ultimately Rome proved itself stronger than Carthage, but Hannibal remained the terror of Rome, becoming a bogeyman figure long after his death. So just the one blemish on the record, but as the defeat came at the probably the most important battle of the war, the “father of strategy” has to lose marks.


So Hannibal appears to live up to the legend, a reasonably strong score of 19.5. A truly remarkable character, and an excellent start to this series of blogs.


Further reading
Nothing can beat the two major ancient sources we have for the war; Livy and Polybius. Other highly recommended modern authors include Nigel Bagnal, Adrian Goldsworthy and Dexter Hoyos.

Additionally, if you wish, I wrote a piece examining the Roman generalship of the Second Punic War; I found it fascinating and highly enjoyable to research and write.
You can find it here: https://www.academia.edu/20084858/_Lions_led_by_donkeys_an_analysis_of_Roman_generalship_during_the_Second_Punic_War


Something new

Hello all, for too long my blog has lain dormant so I have come up with an exciting idea for a new series of posts. So without further ado, I present:

Historic Military Leaders from the Ancient and Medieval West

As long as there has been war, there has been a chance for men to gain fame and glory through success in war either through their fighting prowess or their tactical brilliance, or sometimes both. Sometimes these figures gain semi-mythological status as stories of their exploits are spread and passed down through time. These figures are heralded as gods of war and men who revolutionised the art of war. But do these men necessarily deserve this status? Are these men as good as the stories of their exploits would make them seem?

Well this series of posts will examine them, using chosen criteria. Both their battle (and siege) and campaign tactics will be analysed. Their own fighting ability, their personality, intelligence and charisma and of course, their success rate will also be scrutinised. Each of these criteria will be marked out of 5, giving a total out of 25 (think of it a bit like Deadliest Warrior). Then the reputation of these figures involved (including Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the Great, Richard the Lionheart and Edward I) could be similarly analysed and rated, allowing for a simple comparison that will allow us to see whether or not these figures live up to their famed reputations. After a few entries, a league table will start and we will be able to see how these men compare to each other as well. Obviously, due to the shortened nature required for a blog post, this may not be the most thorough analysis, though it should be an accurate one (hopefully).

By way of a quick example, let us have a quick look at everyone’s favourite mythical king – King Arthur.

(Sorry couldn’t resist)

Battle (and Siege) Tactics
In the legends Arthur is undefeated, but there is little in the way of detailed explanation of the tactics used and what information we do have  has been passed down through literature and as such may not be the most reliable of information. However using this information, combined with the examples of other military systems in place in Northern and Western Europe at this time, we could probably assume that Arthur’s forces would have fought in formations similar to the shield-walls of the Nordic peoples and the similar formations of the Romans and the traditional British armies. Arthur’s cavalry, his “knights”, were probably his strongest arm, and at the time heavy cavalry was the dominant force of the battlefields of the day and he used his knights to great effect. It is likely that any battle would have been a series of straightforward charges and a clash of shield-walls.- 3.5

Campaign Tactics
Again, we don’t have much information on Arthur’s campaigns, as his histories are focused on singular pitched battles. However, given that he defeated the Saxons and pushed them back, it could be assumed that there was a successful campaign involved. – 4

Fighting Ability
Arthur’s prowess as a warrior is part of his legend. – 5

Personality, Intelligence and Charisma
Arthur’s leadership was legendary. Men were drawn to him and were very loyal – the many deeds of the knights of the round table, such as the quest for the holy grail, required a great deal of personal risk and suffering. Equally, a great number of men die in service to him, either on quests such as the Holy Grail or falling in battle defending Arthur. This suggests the man they are sworn to is a man worth these actions, and such a man would have to be very charismatic amongst other things. – 5

Success rate
Arthur was undefeated, even in the great battle against Mordred that saw him mortally wounded. 100% success rate equals the maximum score. – 5.

(Unfortunately as there is no completely solid historical fact in the Arthurian legend, this analysis will not have a comparison between reputation and historical fact)

Total – 22.5/25. A pretty strong score for the Mythical British King (Not that I imagine that that is much solace to him in the below picture, “The Death of King Arthur” by James Archer).