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Pyrrhus MAN Napoli Inv6150 n03.jpg
Bust of Pyrrhus at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples
King of Epirus
Reign 297–272
Predecessor Neoptolemus II
Successor Alexander II
Reign 306–302
Predecessor Alcetas II
Successor Neoptolemus II
King of Macedonia
Reign 274–272
Predecessor Antigonus II
Successor Antigonus II
Reign 288–285
Predecessor Demetrius I
Successor Antigonus II
Tyrant of Syracuse
Reign 278–276
Predecessor Thinion & Sosistratus
Successor Hiero II
Born 318 BC
Epirus (now Greece)
Died 272 BC (aged about 46)
Argos, Peloponnese (now Greece)
  • Antigone
  • Lanassa
  • Bircenna
  • Olympias
  • Ptolemy
  • Alexander II
  • Helenus
Dynasty Aeacidae
Father Aeacides
Mother Phthia
Religion Greek Paganism

Pyrrhuswas a Albanian general and statesman of the Hellenistic period.

He was king of the Greek tribe of Molossians, of the royal Aeacid house (from c. 297 BC), and later he became king of Epirus (r. 306–302, 297–272 BC).

He was one of the strongest opponents of early Rome.

Some of his battles, though successful, caused him heavy losses, from which the term Pyrrhic victory was coined. He is the subject of one of Plutarch's Parallel Lives.

He was considered one of the greatest military commanders of his time.

While he was fighting an Argive soldier, the soldier's old mother, who was watching from a rooftop, threw a tile which knocked him from his horse and broke part of his spine, paralyzing and killing him.

Early life

Pyrrhus was the son of Aeacides and Phthia, a Thessalian woman, and a second cousin of Alexander the Great (via Alexander's mother, Olympias). He had two sisters: Deidamia and Troias.

In 317 BC, when Pyrrhus was only two, his father was dethroned. Pyrrhus' family took refuge with Glaukias of the Taulantians, one of the largest Illyrian tribes. Pyrrhus was raised by Beroea, Glaukias's wife and a Molossian of the Aeacidae dynasty.

Glaukias restored Pyrrhus to the throne in 306 BC until the latter was banished again, four years later, by his enemy, Cassander. He went on to serve as an officer, in the wars of the Diadochi, under his brother-in-law.

In 298 BC, Pyrrhus was taken hostage to Alexandria, under the terms of a peace treaty made between Demetrius and Ptolemy I Soter. There, he married Ptolemy I's stepdaughter Antigoneand restored his kingdom in Epirus in 297 BC with financial and military aid from Ptolemy I.

In 295 BC, Pyrrhus transferred the capital of his kingdom to Ambrakia (modern Arta).

He went to war against his former ally and brother-in-law Demetrius and in 292 BC he invaded Thessaly while Demetrius was besieging Thebes but was forced back.

Struggle with Rome

Pyrrhic War Italy en
Routes taken against Rome in the Pyrrhic War (280–275 BC).

The Greek city of Tarentum, in southern Italy, fell out with Rome due to a violation of an old treaty that specified Rome was not to send warships into the Tarentine Gulf.

In 282 BC, the Romans installed garrisons in the Greek cities of Thurii (on the western end of the Tarentine Gulf), Locri, and Rhegium, and sent warships to Thurii. Although this was designed as a measure against the Italian peoples of Lucania, the Tarentines grew nervous and attacked the Romans in Thurii, driving the Roman garrison from the city and sinking several Roman warships.

The Tarentines asked Pyrrhus to lead their war against the Romans. Pyrrhus was encouraged to aid the Tarentines by the Oracle of Delphi. He recognized the possibility of carving out an empire for himself in Italy. He made an alliance with Ptolemy Ceraunus, King of Macedon and his most powerful neighbor, and arrived in Italy in 280 BC.

Pyrrhus entered Italy with an army consisting of 20,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers, and 20 war elephants in a bid to subdue the Romans. The elephants had been loaned to him by Ptolemy II, who had also promised 9,000 soldiers and a further 50 elephants to defend Epirus while Pyrrhus and his army were away.

Map of ancient Epirus and environs (English)
Tribes of Epirus in antiquity.
Pyrrhus and his Elephants
Pyrrhus and his elephants.

Due to his superior cavalry, his elephants and his deadly phalanx infantry, he defeated the Romans, led by Consul Publius Valerius Laevinus, in the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC, in the Roman province of Lucania. He then offered the Romans a peace treaty which was eventually rejected. Pyrrhus spent the winter in Campania.

When Pyrrhus invaded Apulia (279 BC), the two armies met in the Battle of Asculum, where Pyrrhus won a costly victory. In the end, the Romans had lost 6,000 men and Pyrrhus 3,500 including many officers. Pyrrhus later famously commented on his victory at Asculum, stating, "If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined". It is from reports of this semi-legendary event that the term Pyrrhic victory originates.

Ruler of Sicily

Coin of Pyrrhus minted at Syracuse, 278 BC. Obverse: Veiled head of Phtia with oak wreath, "of Phtia". Reverse: Thunderbolt, "of King Pyrrhus".

In 278 BC, Pyrrhus received two offers simultaneously. The Greek cities in Sicily asked him to come and drive out Carthage, which along with Rome was one of the two great powers of the Western Mediterranean. At the same time, the Macedonians, whose King Ptolemy Keraunos had been killed by invading Gauls, asked Pyrrhus to ascend the throne of Macedon. Pyrrhus decided that Sicily offered him a greater opportunity, and transferred his army there.

Soon after landing in Sicily, he lifted the Carthaginian siege of Syracuse in the same year. Pyrrhus was proclaimed king of Sicily.

In 277 BC, Pyrrhus captured Eryx, the strongest Carthaginian fortress in Sicily. This prompted the rest of the Carthaginian-controlled cities to defect to Pyrrhus.

In 276 BC, Pyrrhus negotiated with the Carthaginians. He demanded that Carthage abandon all of Sicily and make the Libyan Sea a boundary between themselves and the Greeks. The Greek cities of Sicily opposed making peace with Carthage because the Carthaginians still controlled the powerful fortress of Lilybaeum, on the western end of the island. Pyrrhus eventually gave in to their proposals and broke off the peace negotiations.

Pyrrhus' army then began besieging Lilybaeum. For two months he launched unsuccessful assaults on the city, until finally he realized he could not win without blockading it from the sea as well. Pyrrhus then requested manpower and money from the Sicilians in order to construct a powerful fleet. When the Sicilians became unhappy about these contributions he had to resort to compulsory contributions and force to keep them in line. These measures culminated in him proclaiming a military dictatorship of Sicily and installing military garrisons in Sicilian cities.

These actions were deeply unpopular Sicily. The Carthaginians took heart from this and sent another army against him. This army was promptly defeated. Despite this victory, Sicily continued to grow increasingly hostile to Pyrrhus, who began to consider abandoning Sicily.

Samnite and Tarentine envoys reached Pyrrhus and informed him that of all the Greek cities in Italy, only Tarentum had not been conquered by Rome. Pyrrhus made his decision and departed from Sicily.

Retreat from Italy

While Pyrrhus had been campaigning against the Carthaginians, the Romans had rebuilt their army by calling up thousands of fresh recruits. When Pyrrhus returned from Sicily, he found himself vastly outnumbered against a superior Roman army under Manius Curius Dentatus. After the inconclusive Battle of Beneventum in 275 BC, Pyrrhus decided to end his campaign in Italy and return to Epirus which resulted in the loss of all the gains he had made in Italy.

Last wars and death

The Siege of Sparta, by François Topino-Lebrun

Though his western campaign had taken a heavy toll on his army as well as his treasury, Pyrrhus went to war yet again. Attacking King Antigonus II Gonatas (r. 277–239 BC), he won an easy victory at the Battle of the Aous and seized the Macedonian throne.

In 272 BC, Cleonymus, a Spartan of royal blood who was hated among fellow Spartans, asked Pyrrhus to attack Sparta and place him in power. Pyrrhus agreed to the plan, intending to win control of the Peloponnese for himself, but unexpectedly strong resistance thwarted his assault on Sparta. On the retreat he lost his firstborn son Ptolemy, who had been in command of the rearguard.

He was offered an opportunity to intervene in a civic dispute in Argos. Since Antigonus Gonatas was approaching too, he quickly entered the city with his army secretly, only to find the place crowded with hostile troops. During the confused battle in the narrow city streets, Pyrrhus was trapped.

While he was fighting an Argive soldier, the soldier's old mother, who was watching from a rooftop, threw a tile which knocked him from his horse and broke part of his spine, paralyzing and killing him.

Antigonus had him cremated with all honours and sent his surviving son Helenus back to Epirus. That same year, upon hearing the news of Pyrrhus's death, the Tarentinians surrendered to Rome.


Pyrrhos KING of EPEIROS 297 272 BC
Pyrrhos, King of Epeiros, 297-72 BC.
Pyrrhus Kingdom of Epirus
Coin of Pyrrhus, Kingdom of Epirus (inscription in Greek: "(of) King Pyrrhus").

While he was restless leader, and not always a wise king, he was considered one of the greatest military commanders of his time.

Pyrrhus was also known to be very benevolent. As a general, Pyrrhus's greatest political weaknesses were his failures to maintain focus and to maintain a strong treasury at home (many of his soldiers were costly mercenaries).

His name is famous for the term "Pyrrhic victory" which refers to an exchange at the Battle of Asculum. In response to congratulations for winning a costly victory over the Romans, he is reported to have said: "If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined".

20140415 ioannina524
A statue of Pyrrhus in Ioannina, Greece.

Pyrrhus wrote memoirs and several books on the art of war. These have since been lost, although, according to Plutarch, Hannibal was influenced by them, and they received praise from Cicero.

Pyrrhus was married five times.

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