Pyrrhus - Jacob Abbott

Wars in Macedon

The prince whom Pyrrhus displaced from the throne of Epirus on his return from Egypt, as narrated in the last chapter, was, of course, of the family of Neoptolemus. His own name was Neoptolemus, and he was the second son of the Neoptolemus who gave his name to the line.

Pyrrhus exercised an uncommon degree of moderation in his victory over his rival; for, instead of taking his life, or even banishing him from the kingdom, he treated him with respectful consideration, and offered, very generously, as it would seem, to admit him to a share of the regal power. Neoptolemus accepted this proposal, and the two kings reigned conjointly for a considerable time. A difficulty, however, before long occurred, which led to an open quarrel, the result of which was that Neoptolemus was slain. The circumstances, as related by the historians of the time, were as follows:

It seems that it was the custom of the people of Epirus to celebrate an annual festival at a certain city in the kingdom, for the purpose chiefly of renewing the oaths of allegiance on the one part, and of fealty on the other, between the people and the king. Of course, there were a great many games and spectacles, as well as various religious rites and ceremonies, connected with this celebration; and among other usages which prevailed, it was the custom for the people to bring presents to the king on the occasion. When the period for this celebration recurred, after Pyrrhus's restoration to the throne, both Pyrrhus and Neoptolemus, each attended by his own particular followers and friends, repaired to the city where the celebration was to be held, and commenced the festivities.

Among other donations which were made to Pyrrhus at this festival, he received a present of two yoke of oxen from a certain man named Gelon, who was a particular friend of Neoptolemus. It appears that it was the custom for the kings to dispose of many of the presents which they received on these occasions from the people of the country, by giving them to their attendants and the officers of their households; and a certain cup-bearer, named Myrtilus, begged Pyrrhus to give these oxen to him. Pyrrhus declined this request, but afterward gave the oxen to another man. Myrtilus was offended at this, and uttered privately many murmurings and complaints. Gelon, perceiving this, invited Myrtilus to sup with him. In the course of the supper, he attempted to excite still more the ill-will which Myrtilus felt toward Pyrrhus; and finding that he appeared to succeed in doing this, he finally proposed to Myrtilus to espouse the cause of Neoptolemus, and join in a plot for poisoning Pyrrhus. His office as cup-bearer would enable him, Gelon said, to execute such a design without difficulty or danger, and, by doing it, he would so commend himself to the regard of Neoptolemus, that he might rely on the most ample and abundant rewards. Myrtilus appeared to receive these proposals with great favor; he readily promised to embark in the plot, and promised to fulfill the part assigned him in the execution of it. When the proper time arrived, after the conclusion of the supper, Myrtilus took leave of Gelon, and, proceeding directly to Pyrrhus, he related to him all that had occurred.

Pyrrhus did not take any rash or hasty measures in the emergency, for he knew very well that if Gelon were to be then charged with the crime which he had proposed to commit, he would deny having ever proposed it, and that then there would be only the word of Myrtilus against that of Gelon, and that impartial men would have no positive means of deciding between them. He thought, therefore, very wisely, that, before taking any decided steps, it would be necessary to obtain additional proof that Gelon had really made the proposal. He accordingly directed Myrtilus to continue to pretend that he favored the plan, and to propose to Gelon to invite another cup-bearer, named Alexicrates, to join the plot. Alexicrates was to be secretly instructed to appear ready to enter into the conspiracy when he should be called upon, and thus, as Pyrrhus expected, the testimony of two witnesses would be obtained to Gelon's guilt.

It happened, however, that the necessary evidence against Gelon was furnished without a resort to this measure; for when Gelon reported to Neoptolemus that Myrtilus had acceded to his proposal to join him in a plan for removing Pyrrhus out of the way, Neoptolemus was so much overjoyed at the prospect of recovering the throne to his own family again, that he could not refrain from revealing the plan to certain members of the family, and, among others, to his sister Cadmia. At the time when he thus discovered the design to Cadmia, he supposed that nobody was within hearing. The conversation took place in an apartment where he had been supping with Cadmia, and it happened that there was a servant-woman lying upon a couch in the corner of the room at the time, with her face to the wall, apparently asleep. She was, in reality, not asleep, and she overheard all the conversation. She lay still, however, and did not speak a word; but the next day she went to Antigone, the wife of Pyrrhus, and communicated to her all that she had heard. Pyrrhus now considered the evidence that Neoptolemus was plotting his destruction as complete, and he determined to take decisive measures to prevent it. He accordingly invited Neoptolemus to a banquet. Neoptolemus, suspecting nothing, came, and Pyrrhus slew him at the table. Henceforward Pyrrhus reigned in Epirus alone.

Pyrrhus, was now about twenty-three years of age, and inasmuch as, with all his moderation in respect to the pursuit of youthful pleasures, he was of a very ambitious and aspiring disposition, he began to form schemes and plans for the enlargement of his power. An opportunity was soon afforded him to enter upon a military career. Cassander, who had made himself King of Macedon in the manner already described, died about the time that Pyrrhus established himself on his throne in Epirus. He left two sons, Alexander and Antipater. These brothers immediately quarreled, each claiming the inheritance of their father's crown. Antipater proved to be the strongest in the struggle; and Alexander, finding that he could not stand his ground against his brother without aid, sent messengers at the same time to Pyrrhus, and also to Demetrius, in Thessaly, calling upon both to come to his assistance. They both determined to do so. Demetrius, however, was engaged in some enterprises which detained him for a time, but Pyrrhus immediately put himself at the head of his army, and prepared to cross the frontier.

The commencement of this march marks an important era in the life of Pyrrhus, for it was now for the first time that he had an army wholly under his command. In all the former military operations in which he had been engaged, he had been only a general, acting under the orders of his superiors. Now he was an independent sovereign, leading forth his own troops to battle, and responsible to no one for the manner in which he exercised his power. The character which he displayed in this new capacity was such as very soon to awaken the admiration of all his troops, and to win their affection in a very strong degree. His fine personal appearance, his great strength and dexterity in all martial exercises, his kind consideration for his soldiers, the systematic and skillful manner in which all his arrangements were made, and a certain nobleness and generosity of character which he displayed on many occasions, all combined to make him an object of universal favor and regard.

Various anecdotes were related of him in camp, which evinced the superiority of his mind, and that peculiar sense of confidence and strength which so often accompanies greatness. At one time a person was accused of being disaffected toward him, and of being in the habit of speaking evil of him on all occasions; and some of his counselors proposed that the offender should be banished. "No," said Pyrrhus; "let him stay here, and speak evil of me only to a few, instead of being sent away to ramble about and give me a bad character to all the world." At another time, some persons, when half intoxicated, at a convivial entertainment, had talked very freely in censure of something which Pyrrhus had done. They were called to account for it; and when asked by Pyrrhus whether it was true that they had really said such things, they replied that it was true. "And there is no doubt," they added, "that we should have said things a great deal worse if we had had more wine." Pyrrhus laughed at this reply, and dismissed the culprits without any punishment. These, and other similar indications of the magnanimity which marked the general's character, made a great and very favorable impression upon the minds of all under his command.

Possessing thus, in a very high degree, the confidence and affection of his troops, Pyrrhus was able to inspire them with his own ardor and impetuosity when they came to engage in battle, and his troops were victorious in almost every conflict. Wherever he went, he reduced the country into subjection to Alexander, and drove Antipater before him. He left garrisons of his own in the towns which he captured, so as to make his conquests secure, and in a short time the prospect seemed certain that Antipater would be expelled from the country, and Alexander placed upon the throne.

In this crisis of their affairs, some of the allies of Antipater conceived the design of circumventing their enemy by artifice, since it appeared that he was so superior to them in force. They knew how strong was his feeling of reverence and regard for Ptolemy, the King of Egypt, his father-in-law, and they accordingly forged a letter to him in Ptolemy's name, enjoining him to make peace with Antipater, and withdraw from Macedon. Antipater, the letter said, was willing to pay him three hundred talents of silver in consideration of his doing so, and the letter strongly urged him to accede to this offer, and evacuate the kingdom.

It was much less difficult to practice a successful deception of this kind in ancient days than it is now, for then writing was usually performed by scribes trained for the purpose, and there was therefore seldom any thing in the handwriting of a communication to determine the question of its authenticity. Pyrrhus, however, detected the imposition which was attempted in this case the moment that he opened the epistle. It began with the words, "King Ptolemy to King Pyrrhus, greeting;" whereas the genuine letters of Ptolemy to his son-in-law were always commenced thus: "The father to his son, greeting."

Pyrrhus upbraided the contrivers of this fraud in severe terms for their attempt to deceive him. Still, he entertained the proposition that they made, and some negotiations were entered into, with a view to an amicable settlement of the dispute. In the end, however, the negotiations failed, and the war was continued until Alexander was established on his throne. Pyrrhus then returned to his own kingdom. He received, in reward for his services in behalf of Alexander, a grant of that part of the Macedonian territory which lies upon the coast of the Adriatic Sea, north of Epirus; and thus peace was restored, and all things seemed permanently settled.

It will be recollected, perhaps, by the reader, that at the time that Alexander sent for Pyrrhus to assist him, he had also sent for Demetrius, who had been in former years the ally and friend of Pyrrhus. In fact, Deidamia, the sister of Pyrrhus, was Demetrius's wife. Demetrius had been engaged with the affairs of his own government at the time that he received this message, and was not then ready to grant the desired aid. But after a time, when he had settled his own affairs, he placed himself at the head of an army and went to Macedon. It was now, however, too late, and Alexander was sorry to learn that he was coming. He had already parted with a considerable portion of his kingdom to repay Pyrrhus for his aid, and he feared that Demetrius, if he were allowed to enter the kingdom, would not be satisfied without a good part of the remainder.

He accordingly advanced to meet Demetrius at the frontier. Here, at an interview which he held with him, he thanked him for his kindness in coming to his aid, but said that his assistance would now not be required. Demetrius said that it was very well, and so prepared to return. Alexander, however, as Demetrius afterward alleged, did not intend to allow him to withdraw, but formed a plan to murder him at a supper to which he designed to invite him. Demetrius avoided the fate which was intended for him by going away unexpectedly from the supper before Alexander had time to execute his plan. Afterward, Demetrius invited Alexander to a supper. Alexander came unarmed and unprotected, in order to set his guest an example of unconcern, in hopes that Demetrius would come equally defenseless to a second entertainment which he had prepared for him the next day, and at which he intended to adopt such measures that his guest should not be able by any possibility to escape. Demetrius, however, did not wait for the second attempt, but ordered his servants to kill Alexander, and all who were with him, while they were at his  table. One of Alexander's men, when the attack was made upon them, said, as the soldiers of Demetrius were stabbing him, "You are too quick for us by just one day."

The Macedonian troops, whom Alexander had brought with him to the frontier, when they heard of the murder of their king, expected that Demetrius would come upon them at once, with all his army, and cut them to pieces. But, instead of this, Demetrius sent them word that he did not intend them any harm, but wished, on the contrary, for an opportunity to explain and justify to them what he had done. He accordingly met them, and made a set harangue, in which he related the circumstances which led him to take the life of Alexander, and justified it as an act of self-defense. This discourse was received with great applause, and the Macedonian soldiers immediately hailed Demetrius king.

How far there was any truth in the charge which Demetrius brought against Alexander of intending to kill him, it is, of course, impossible to say. There was no evidence of the fact, nor could there be any evidence but such as Demetrius might easily fabricate. It is the universal justification that is offered in every age by the perpetrators of political crimes, that they were compelled to perform themselves the deeds of violence and cruelty for which they are condemned, in order to anticipate and preclude the performance of similar deeds on the part of their enemies.

Demetrius and Pyrrhus were now neighboring kings, and, from the friendly relations which had subsisted between them for so many years, it might, perhaps, be supposed that the two kingdoms which they respectively ruled would enjoy, from this time, a permanent and settled peace, and maintain the most amicable intercourse with each other. But the reverse was the fact. Contentions and quarrels arose on the frontiers. Each nation complained that the borderers of the other made inroads over the frontier. Demetrius and Pyrrhus gradually got drawn into these disputes. Unfortunately for the peace of the two countries, Deidamia died, and the strong band of union which she had formed between the two reigning families was sundered. In a word, it was not long before Pyrrhus and Demetrius came to open war.

The war, however, which thus broke out between Demetrius and Pyrrhus did not arise wholly from accidental collisions occurring on the frontiers. Demetrius was a man of the most violent and insatiable ambition, and wholly unscrupulous in respect to the means of gratifying the passion. Before his difficulties with Pyrrhus began, he had made expeditions southwardly into Greece, and had finally succeeded in reducing a large portion of that country to his sway. He, however, at one time, in the course of his campaigns in Greece, narrowly escaped a very sudden termination of his career. He was besieging Thebes, one of the principal cities of Greece, and one which was obstinately determined not to submit to him. In fact, the inhabitants of the city had given him some special cause of offense, so that he was excessively angry with them, and though for a long time he made very little progress in prosecuting the siege, he was determined not to give up the attempt. At one period, he was himself called away from the place for a time, to engage in some military duty demanding his attention in Thessaly, and during his absence he left his son to conduct the siege. On his return to Thebes, he found that, through the energetic and obstinate resistance which was made by the people of Thebes, great numbers of his men were continually falling—so much so, that his son began to remonstrate with him against allowing so great and so useless a slaughter to go on. "Consider," said he, "why you should expose so many of your valiant soldiers to such sure destruction, when—"

Here Demetrius, in a passion, interrupted him, saying, "Give yourself no concern about how many of the soldiers are killed. The more there are killed, the fewer you will have to provide subsistence for!"

The brutal recklessness, however, which Demetrius thus evinced in respect to the slaughter of his troops was not attended, as such a feeling often is, with any cowardly unwillingness to expose himself to danger. He mingled personally in the contests that took place about the walls of the city, and hazarded his own life as freely as he required his soldiers to hazard theirs. At length, on one occasion, a javelin thrown from the wall struck him in the neck, and, passing directly through, felled him to the ground. He was taken up for dead, and borne to his tent. It was there found, on examination, that no great artery or other vital part had been wounded, and yet in a very short time a burning fever supervened, and for some time the life of Demetrius was in imminent danger. He still, however, refused to abandon the siege. At length, he recovered from the effects of his wound, and, in the end, the city surrendered.

It was on the return of Demetrius to Macedon, after the close of his successful campaign in Greece, that the war between him and Pyrrhus broke out. As soon as it appeared that actual hostilities were inevitable, both parties collected an army and prepared for the conflict.

They marched to meet each other, Pyrrhus from Epirus, and Demetrius from Macedon. It happened, however, that they took different routes, and thus passed each other on the frontier. Demetrius entered Epirus, and found the whole country open and defenseless before him, for the military force of the country was all with Pyrrhus, and had passed into Macedon by another way. Demetrius advanced accordingly, as far as he chose, into Pyrrhus's territories, capturing and plundering every thing that came in his way.

Pyrrhus himself, on the other hand, met with quite a different reception. Demetrius had not taken all his army with him, but had left a large detachment under the command of a general named Pantauchus, to defend the country during his absence. Pyrrhus encountered Pantauchus as he entered Macedon, and gave him battle. A very hard-fought and obstinate conflict ensued. In the course of it, Pantauchus challenged Pyrrhus to single combat. He was one of the most distinguished of Demetrius's generals, being celebrated above all the officers of the army for his dexterity, strength, and courage; and, as he was a man of very high and ambitious spirit, he was greatly pleased with the opportunity of distinguishing himself that was now before him. He conceived that a personal encounter with so great a commander as Pyrrhus would add very much to his renown.

Pyrrhus accepted the challenge. The preliminary arrangements were made. The combatants came out into the field, and, as they advanced to the encounter, they hurled their javelins at each other before they met, and then rushed forward to a close and mortal combat with swords. The fight continued for a long time. Pyrrhus himself received a wound; but, notwithstanding this, he succeeded in bringing his antagonist to the ground, and would have killed him, had not the friends of Pantauchus rushed on and rescued him from the danger. A general battle between the two armies ensued, in which Pyrrhus was victorious. The army of Pantauchus was totally routed, and five thousand men were taken prisoners.

The Macedonian troops whom Pyrrhus thus defeated, instead of being maddened with resentment and anger against their conqueror, as it might have been expected they would be, were struck with a sentiment of admiration for him. They applauded his noble appearance and bearing on the field, and the feats of courage and strength which he performed. There was a certain stern and lofty simplicity in his air and demeanor which reminded them, as they said, of Alexander the Great, whom many of the old soldiers remembered. They compared Pyrrhus in these respects with Demetrius, their own sovereign, greatly to the disadvantage of the latter; and so strong was the feeling which was thus excited in Pyrrhus's favor, that it was thought at the time that, if Pyrrhus had advanced toward the capital with a view to the conquest of the country, the whole army would have gone over at once to his side, and that he might have made himself king of Macedon without any further difficulty or trouble. He did not do this, however, but withdrew again to Epirus when Demetrius came back into Macedonia. The Macedonians were by no means pleased to see Demetrius return.

In fact, Demetrius was beginning to be generally hated by all his subjects, being regarded by them all as a conceited and cruel tyrant. He was not only unscrupulously ambitious in respect to the dominions of his neighbors, but he was unjust and overbearing in his treatment of his own friends. Pyrrhus, on the other hand, was kind and courteous to his army, both to the officers and soldiers. He lived in habits of great simplicity, and shared the hardships as well as the toils of those who were under his command. He gave them, too, their share of the glory which he acquired, by attributing his success to their courage and fidelity. At one time, after some brilliant campaign in Macedon, some persons in his army compared his progress to the flight of an eagle. "If I am an eagle," said he in reply, "I owe it to you, for you are the wings by means of which I have risen so high."

Demetrius, on the other hand, treated the officers and men under his command with a species of haughtiness and disdain. He seemed to regard them as very far beneath him, and to take pleasure in making them feel his vast superiority. He was vain and foppish in his dress, expended great sums in the adornment of his person, decorating his robes and vestments, and even his shoes, with gold and precious stones. In fact, he caused the manufacture of a garment to be commenced which he intended should outvie in magnificence and in costly adornments all that had ever before been fabricated. This garment was left unfinished at the time of his death, and his successors did not attempt to complete it. They preserved it, however, for a very long time as a curiosity, and as a memorial of vanity and folly.

Demetrius, too, was addicted to many vices, being accustomed to the unrestrained indulgence of his appetites and propensities in every form. It was in part owing to these excesses that he became so hateful in manners and character, the habitual indulgence of his animal appetites and propensities having had the effect of making him morose and capricious in mind.

The hostility between Pyrrhus and Demetrius was very much increased and aggravated at one time by a difficulty in which a lady was concerned. Antigone, the first wife of Pyrrhus, died, and after her death Pyrrhus married two or three other wives, according to the custom which prevailed in those days among the Asiatic kings. Among these wives was Lanassa, the daughter of Agathocles, the king of Syracuse. The marriage of Pyrrhus with Antigone was apparently prompted by affection; but his subsequent alliances seem to have been simple measures of governmental policy, designed only to aid him in extending his dominions or strengthening his power. His inducement for marrying Lanassa was to obtain the island of Corcyra, which the King of Syracuse, who held that island at that time under his dominion, was willing to give to his daughter as her dowry. Now the island of Corcyra, as will be seen from the map, was off the coast of Epirus, and very near, so that the possession of it would add very considerably to the value of Pyrrhus's dominion.

Lanassa was not happy as Pyrrhus's bride. In fact, to have been married for the sake of an island brought as dowry, and to be only one of several wives after all, would not seem to be circumstances particularly encouraging in respect to the promise of conjugal bliss. Lanassa complained that she was neglected; that the other wives received attentions which were not accorded to her. At last, when she found that she could endure the vexations and trials of her condition no longer, she left her husband and went back to Corcyra, and then sent an invitation to Demetrius to come and take possession of the island, and marry her. In a word, she divorced herself and resumed possession of her dowry, and considered herself at liberty to dispose of both her person and her property anew.

Demetrius accepted the offer which was made him. He went to Corcyra, married Lanassa, and then, leaving a garrison to protect the island from any attempt which Pyrrhus might make to recover it, he went back to Macedon. Of course, after this transaction, Pyrrhus was more incensed against Demetrius than ever.

Very soon after this Pyrrhus had an opportunity to revenge himself for the injury which Demetrius had done him. Demetrius was sick; he had brought on a fever by excessive drinking. Pyrrhus determined to take advantage of the occasion to make a new invasion of Macedonia. He accordingly crossed the frontier at the head of a numerous army. Demetrius, sick as he was, mounted on horseback, and put himself at the head of his forces to go out to meet his enemy. Nothing important resulted from this campaign; but, after some ineffectual attempts at conquest, Pyrrhus returned to his own country.

In this way the war between Pyrrhus and Demetrius was protracted for many years, with varying success, one party being sometimes triumphant, and sometimes the other. At last, at a time when the tide of fortune seemed inclined to turn against Pyrrhus, some circumstances occurred which were the means of attracting his attention strongly in another direction, and ended in introducing him to a new and very brilliant career in an altogether different region. These circumstances, and the train of events to which they led, will form the subject of the following chapter.