March 11, 2024 | Miles Brucker

Devastating Facts About Pyrrhus Of Epirus, Greece's Warrior King

In the history of battle, Pyrrhus of Epirus stands out. A leader in Greece, he quashed many early efforts on the part of the burgeoning Roman Empire. However, his’ many victories were tempered by difficult losses, and his frequent removal as ruler of one territory or another speaks to the volatile nature of the waning Greek empire, but he presented a unifying challenge to the early Roman empire and, though victorious over them, proved the power of the Roman army. Here are 44 victorious facts about Pyrrhus of Epirus.

1. Make a Name for Yourself

Pyrrhus was legendary in his time, and was considered by many to be second only to his cousin, Alexander the Great, in terms of leadership and skill. However, in modern times we think of him in a different light. He is best remembered for the series of near-losses against the ascendant Roman Empire which led to the term, “a Pyrrhic victory". 

Pyrrhus of Epirus

2. Win Some, Lose a Lot

If you're unfamiliar with the term, a Pyrrhic victory essentially means a battle where you win, but you lose so much in the process that you might as well have lost. The historians of ancient Greece attributed a quote to him after a battle where he remarked that yes, he'd won, but "one other such victory would utterly undo him".

One famous modern example that is often referred to as a Pyrrhic victory is the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War.

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3. A Great Family

Pyrrhus I was born in 319 or 318, BCE, in the Greek city-state of Epirus, of which his father, Aeacides, was king. Through his father, Pyrrhus was related to the family line of Alexander the Great: They were second cousins.

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4. Big Sandals to Fill

Pyrrhus was born into the Aeacidae, a family line which included not only royal families in Epirus and Macedon, but also, supposedly, legendary heroes Achilles, Ajax the Great, and Neoptolemus—who also went by the name Pyrrhus in Greek mythology.

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5. The Rise of the Prince

Pyrrhus's father Aeacides was overthrown by the Epirots in 317 and forced to flee. The family sought refuge with Glaukias, king of Illyria. As the legend goes, the infant Pyrrhus was laid at the feet of Glaukias but pulled himself to his feet by Glaukias’ robes. Glaukias was impressed by the little prince’s determination and vowed to look after him from then on.

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6. In and Out

In 313, Aeacides was restored to the thronebut a dark fate was lurking around the corner for him. Aeacides’ reign didn’t last a year before he was overthrown again. This time, Aeacides was slain, and Pyrrhus remained with King Glaukias in Illyria.

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7. My First Job

The new ruler of Epirus, Alcetas II, perished in 307. With the help of his foster-parent Glaukias, 12-year-old Pyrrhus returned to Epirus to claim the throne. His reign lasted just four years before he was ousted by Cassander, and he left to serve as an officer in the army of his brother-in-law, Demetrius Poliorcetes.

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8. Hostage Negotiations

If Pyrrhus expected to be protected by his brother-in-law, he was dead wrong. As part of a treaty with Ptolemy I Soter, Demetrius sent Pyrrhus to Alexandria as a captive. However, Pyrrhus turned it around for himself. He married Ptolemy’s stepdaughter, Antigone, forging an alliance that allowed him to once again seize control of Epirus in 297.

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9. Nightmare Co-Worker 

There was a catch, however: Pyrrhus had to share the throne with Neoptolemus II, the cousin who had initially overthrown him in 302. Pyrrhus was not keen to partner with his former rival, howeverand he came up with a devious plan to solve this problem. Pyrrhus had him assassinated, and had the throne all to himself. 

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10. Safe at Home

Leadership of Epirus had changed hands many times over Pyrrhus’ lifetime, and now that he alone was king, He sought to escape some of the bad luck that seemed to hang over the throne. He moved the capital from Passaron to Ambracia in 295. He would retain the kingship until his passing.

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11. Trust Fall

At this time, Demetrius was engaged in a battle over the territories once held by the recently deceased Alexander the Great. After a falling out, Pyrrhus allied himself with fellow conspirator Lysimachus to seize control of Macedonbut Lysimachus should not have been trusted. He later turned on Pyrrhus, seizing control of the region for himself.

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12. Widower

Antigone bore Pyrrhus a daughter, Olympia, and a son, Ptolemy. She passed on in 295, giving birth to the latter. Pyrrhus founded and named a city, Antigonia, in her honor.

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13. Five’s a Crowd

Pyrrhus would have four more wives. Simultaneously. Just one of these, a Sicilian princess named Lanassa, disapproved of Pyrrhus’ polygamous lifestyle and divorced himbut their story didn't end there.

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14. King Take-Your-Girl

Lanassa would later marry Pyrrhus’ one-time brother-in-law and rival, Demetrius Poliorcetes. As part of the union, Lanassa gave Demetrius rule over Corcyra, an island which she had originally given to Pyrrhus as part of her dowry.

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15. A Trip to Italy

In 280, Tarentum, a Greek-occupied city in southern Italy, began to feud with the rising Roman Empire. The Tarentines asked for Pyrrhus’ help in fending off Roman attacks. He agreed, and so began the Pyrrhic Wars.

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16. Ask the Oracle

Before agreeing to go to battle with Rome, Pyrrhus consulted the Oracle of Delphi. He thought that the Oracle’s prediction implied the battle might ensure for him an Italian empire of his own.

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17. Today Rome, Tomorrow the World

Pyrrhus might have done better to listen to Cineas. A Thessalian and a trusted advisor, Cineas urged him not to go to battle with the Romans, but instead be happy with his current possessions. When Pyrrhus outlined his plan to first take control of Italy, then Sicily, then Carthage, and then Libyra, Cineas asked the king what he would do next. His reply was, “Be much at ease, and drink many bumpers".

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18. There’s More in the Trunk!

Pyrrhus marched into Italy with a full army that included more than 25,000 men, and a herd of 20 elephants he borrowed from Ptolemy II. Ptolemy also lent Pyrrhus 50 more elephants to protect Epirus while he was away.

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19. What Are Those?!

Romans had never encountered elephants before the Battle of Heraclea. Their confusion and uncertainty over how to attack the creatures was one of the deciding factors in the battle.

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20. Hate to Say I Told You So

Pyrrhus eked out a victory at Heraclea, but at a horrific cost. He petitioned the Romans for a truce, but they refused, making it clear that they could throw wave after wave of men at them until he went away. Cineas was critical of the battle, and he told Pyrrhus, “the Epirot Eagle is fighting a hydra".

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21. Pale Imitation

The Carthage general Hannibal considered Pyrrhus, if not the history’s greatest leader, then a close second to Alexander the Great. Like his hero, Hannibal attempted to march into Rome with a pack of elephants. Hannibal was less successful, however—unlike Pyrrhus, who sailed to Italy, Hannibal tried to march his elephants over the Alps. Few of the elephants survived the journey.

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22. To Coin a Phrase

After a battle at Heraclea which saw heavy casualties on both sides (as many as 28,000 all told), Pyrrhus’ army met the Romans again in Asculum. While they were once again victorious, heavy losses to his army prompted him to remark, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we are ruined". 

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23. These Colors Don’t Run

Pyrrhus spent hours after the Battle of Asculum combing the battlefield. He was looking for a Roman warrior who had been wounded from behind. He never found one.

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24. Private Island

His army severely depleted, Pyrrhus turned his attentions instead to Sicily to fend of the invading Carthaginians. While the Carthaginians were willing to broker a peace, the Sicilians opposed the idea, but their reluctance to contribute to their own protection forced Pyrrhus to declare himself dictator of Sicily in 276.

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25. Take Your Pick

Pyrrhus had two options at the time. There was the campaign in Sicily, but he had also been offered the throne of Macedon in return for fending off the invading Gauls. He felt Sicily was the better option between the two. The Macedonians managed just fine without him, and Antigonos Gonata defeated the Gauls in 277.

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26. By the Book

In addition to being a general and a statesman, Pyrrhus was also a pretty good writer, earning praise from no less an authority than Cicero. He wrote several memoirs, as well as a widely-read military handbook (said to be a favorite of the legendary Carthaginian general Hannibal). Sadly, his writings have all been lost to history.

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27. You’re On Your Own

Pyrrhus was deeply unpopular in Sicily, and despite quashing another invasion by the Sicilians, threats from within the Sicilian Greek state forced Pyrrhus to leave the region. He seemed to understand better than the Sicilians that this spelled doom for their colony: as he left, he said “What a wrestling ground we are leaving for the Carthaginians and the Romans".

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28. You Sunk My Battleship!

The Carthaginians must have missed the memo. As Pyrrhus was departing Sicily, he was set upon by the Carthaginian navy. The loss was devastating. Of Pyrrhus’ 110 warships, 98 were destroyed.

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29. Unfinished Business

Pyrrhus returned to Italy to finish his battle with Rome. Predictably, the Romans had used Pyrrhus’ sojourn in Sicily as an opportunity to add even more men to their already-large army. The Roman force led by Manius Curius Denatus was massive. Pyrrhus no longer had an advantage against them.

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30. Short-Handed

Pyrrhus launched just one more battle against the Romans. The Southern Italian tribes who had helped him before refused to join him. In their opinion, Pyrrhus had abandoned them to fight off the Romans alone while he rested in Sicily.

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31. A Change in Strategy

The Romans had also altered their strategy considerably: this time they went at the elephants first, leaving many wounded, slain, or otherwise immobile. The loss of the elephants took away Pyrrhus’ last remaining advantage, forcing him to fight with a greatly diminished and exhausted army against the now-superior Romans.

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32. Throwing in the Towel

The Battle of Beneventum still nearly came to a draw, but most contemporary reporters gave the edge to the Romans. At this point, Pyrrhus gave up his attack on Rome. What was to be merely a first step towards a Mediterranean empire turned out, ultimately, to signal the beginning of the end for Pyrrhus.

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33. A Change in Fortunes

Undeterred by what was, at best, a mitigated victory in Rome, Pyrrhus launched an attack on Macedon. Pyrrhus desperately needed money to pay his men, so planned a raid. With an army of 8,500 men, including a team of Gauls, Pyrrhus’ raid proved more successful than expected, forcing Macedonian ruler Antigonus II Gonatas to disguise himself and flee.

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34. Join the Team!

At one point, the Gauls closed in on a troop of 2,000 Macedonian men and a herd of elephants. Rather than kill the men, Pyrrhus successfully negotiated to have the Macedonians join his army, and help install him as ruler of Macedon.

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35. And They Called It “Archaeology”

While Pyrrhus would remain in control of Macedon until his passing, his reign would be neither successful nor popular, and marked by many grave missteps. For example, Pyrrhus installed a garrison of Gauls in the Macedonian capital of Aegae; the Gauls caused an outrage among the Macedonians by digging up the graves of ancient Macedonians and looting the graves of their gold.

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36. Sparta

In 272, at the behest of unpopular Spartan prince Cleonymous, Pyrrhus invaded Sparta. This turned out to be a disastrous decision. While much of the Spartan army was preoccupied in Crete, the Spartan home guard overwhelmed Pyrrhus’ army and he was forced to retreat. Spartan forces took the life of Pyrrhus’ son, Ptolemy, in the process.

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37. Leading by Example

Pyrrhus won the respect and admiration of his men by fighting alongside them on the front lines. Once, when wounded in a battle against the Mamertimes, he was forced to retreat. A Mamertime troop shouted for Pyrrhus to come out of hiding and prove he was alive. Enraged, Pyrrhus broke away from his guard, raced into the field and literally cut the man in half. The terrified Mamertimes troopers ran away.

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38. Equal Opportunity Employer

Pyrrhus’s armies were notable in that he freely hired mercenaries and soldiers from other tribes or kingdoms. During the Battle of Asculum, for example, his army stood 70,000 strong, only 16,000 of whom were Greek. Other men were enlisted from cities and tribes in southern Italy who were hostile to the Romans. While this did make for a strong army, it proved far costlier than pressing his own subjects into service.

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39. Lots in Common

Pyrrhus was featured in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, a book which compares the lives of notable Greeks with notable Romans. He was paired with Roman general and statesman Gaius Marius.

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40. You Again

Also featured in Parallel Lives was Pyrrhus’ rival, Demetrius Poliorcetes. He was paired with Mark Antony.

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41. Should’ve Studied

At the Battle of Heraclea, Pyrrhus had been promised a further 37,000 Tarentine men to aid him in dispatching the Romans, but he was too impatient and eager to get to work. It would end up costing him dearly. He had never even seen the Romans until he met them on the field at Heraclea. Believing them to be a ragtag group of Barbarians, he was taken aback by their sophisticated formations and wished to withdraw. 

By then, it was already too late. Pyrrhus eked out a victory, but just barely, and there were many casualties. 

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42. Camping Out

Pyrrhus led his men to victory at the Battle of Asculum, but at an unbelievably horrific cost—and the worst was yet to come. While many were slain in battle, many more passed later from the conditions immediately after that battle. With the battle won, his army returned to discover that their tents, rations, and pack animals had mostly been destroyed. 

They had to spend the next several days sleeping outdoors with little food, which led to the losses of many more men who, if not for the rough conditions, would likely not have succumbed to their wounds.

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43. A Tile Tale

Pyrrhus’ fighting days came to an end in 272, during a battle in the city of Argos. Unbefitting of a general of his legendary standing, it was an elderly woman who ended his life. She dropped a stone on his head. Seeing Pyrrhus approach her son, an Argive soldier, the woman dropped the tile which paralyzed him. The young man seized this opportunity to behead the general, ensuring that this would be Pyrrhus's last battle.

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44. Their Only Hope

News of Pyrrhus’ passing soon spread to Tarentum. Upon hearing the news, the Tarentines surrendered immediately to the Romans.

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Sources:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 11, 12, 13


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