A prince named Pyrrhus lived in the state of Epirus not far from the home of the great Achilles. At twelve years of age he became king, but the government was carried on for him by guardians.
About that time he read the story of Alexander the Great, and determined to be like him, a great conqueror. While he was dreaming of victories in foreign lands war came to him in his own country, and he was driven from Epirus. Ptolemy of Egypt helped him to defeat his enemies and regain his throne. Then he resolved anew to conquer as Alexander had conquered, and he began with Alexander's own Macedonia. After a war that lasted several years he got possession of one-half the country. One of Alexander's generals took the other half. However, the people in Pyrrhus' half preferred the old general as a ruler, and in seven months Pyrrhus had to give up his Macedonian kingdom.
He reigned quietly in Epirus for a few years. Then a chance came to try and conquer the Romans who lived just across the Adriatic Sea. Pyrrhus was delighted. Ruling Epirus was a dull business. In the south of Italy a great many Greeks had settled. Greek was the language of the people who lived there and the region was called "Great Greece."
Rome wished to rule all Italy, but those Greeks were not willing to be under Roman rule; so they sent word to Pyrrhus that they were in trouble and would like him to help them.
Preparations for war were at once made and as soon as possible Pyrrhus landed on the shores of Italy with an army of about 30,000 men and twenty elephants.
A great battle was fought, and Pyrrhus won the victory, but the loss of life was dreadful. As he walked among the dead after the battle he said, "Another such victory and I shall have to go home alone." Half his men were slain.
However, the Greeks of South Italy furnished him with fresh soldiers and he gained a second victory.
The war came to an end in a very curious way. One of the servants of Pyrrhus deserted to the Romans and offered to poison his master for the consuls. The consuls sent back the deserter to Pyrrhus under guard and with a message that they scorned to gain a victory through treason.
Pyrrhus, to show his gratitude, then sent back to Rome all the prisoners whom he held, without asking any ransom. This made the enemies friends, and a truce was concluded. It was one of the terms of the truce that Pyrrhus should leave Italy.
A large number of Greeks lived in Sicily. They had built Syracuse and other large cities and towns. At that time Carthage in Africa was a powerful city and the Carthaginians were trying to conquer the Sicilian Greeks. Pyrrhus crossed to Sicily to help his countrymen.
But his Italian friends got into trouble with the Romans again and begged him once more to help them. Accordingly he left Sicily and went back to Italy. Now, however, his good fortune forsook him. He was totally defeated by the Romans under Curius Dentatus and forced to leave Italy.
He now returned to Epirus, but as he was no lover of peace he soon went to war a second time with Macedonia. Again he conquered the land of Alexander, but again the king of Macedonia regained the kingdom.
Not content to rule Epirus, Pyrrhus next went into the Peloponnesus and fought against the Spartans, but they drove him from their territory.
Finally he went to Argos and took part in a civil war which was going on in that state.
A fight took place in one of the streets of Argos, and during it a woman threw a tile from the roof of her house. It struck Pyrrhus upon the head and stunned him, and some of the soldiers of the party against whom he was fighting ran up and killed him. (287 B.C.)
Sicily, about whose struggle with the Carthaginians you have just read, was the home of a famous mathematician named Archimedes. He was born at Syracuse in 287 B.C., and was only a boy when Pyrrhus was in Sicily helping the Carthaginians fight the Sicilians. Many years later Syracuse was besieged by another enemy, the Romans. Archimedes, then an old man, proved of great help to his countrymen. He invented engines for throwing stones at the enemy. By using these engines the Sicilians kept the Romans at bay for a long time.
THE DEATH OF ARCHIMEDES
It is said that Archimedes set fire to the Roman ships with powerful burning-glasses. At last, however, Syracuse fell, and Archimedes was put to death by a Roman soldier, contrary to the order of the Roman commander.