Pyrrhus - Jacob Abbott

Early Life of Pyrrhus

In the two preceding chapters we have related that portion of the history of Macedonia which it is necessary to understand in order rightly to appreciate the nature of the difficulties in which the royal family of Epirus was involved at the time when Pyrrhus first appeared upon the stage. The sources of these difficulties were two: first, the uncertainty of the line of succession, there being two branches of the royal family, each claiming the throne, which state of things was produced, in a great measure, by the interposition of Olympias in the affairs of Epirus some years before; and, secondly, the act of Olympias in inducing Ĉacides to come to Macedonia, to embark in her quarrel against Cassander there. Of course, since there were two lines of princes, both claiming the throne, no sovereign of either line could hold any thing more than a divided empire over the hearts of his subjects; and consequently, when Ĉacides left the kingdom to fight the battles of Olympias in Macedon, it was comparatively easy for the party opposed to him to effect a revolution and raise their own prince to the throne.

The prince whom Olympias had originally made king of Epirus, to the exclusion of the claimant belonging to the other branch of the family, was her own brother. His name was Alexander. He was the son of Neoptolemus. The rival branch of the family were the children of Arymbas, the brother of Neoptolemus. This Alexander flourished at the same time as Alexander the Great, and in his character very much resembled his distinguished namesake. He commenced a career of conquest in Italy at the same time that his nephew embarked in his in Asia, and commenced it, too, under very similar circumstances. One went to the East, and another to the West, each determined to make himself master of the world. The Alexander of Macedon succeeded. The Alexander of Epirus failed. The one acquired, consequently, universal and perpetual renown, while the memory of the other has been almost entirely neglected and forgotten.

One reason, unquestionably, for the difference in these results was the difference in the character of the enemies respectively against whom the two adventurers had to contend. Alexander of Epirus went westward into Italy, where he had to encounter the soldiery of the Romans—a soldiery of the most rugged, determined, and indomitable character. Alexander of Macedon, on the other hand, went to the East, where he found only Asiatic races to contend with, whose troops, though countless in numbers and magnificently appointed in respect to all the purposes of parade and display, were yet enervated with luxury, and wholly unable to stand against any energetic and determined foe. In fact, Alexander of Epirus used to say that the reason why his nephew, Alexander of Macedon, had succeeded, while he himself had failed, was because he himself had invaded countries peopled by men, while the Macedonian, in his Asiatic campaign, had encountered only women.

However this may be, the campaign of Alexander of Epirus in Italy had a very disastrous termination. The occasion of his going there was a request which he had received from the inhabitants of Tarentum that he would come over and assist them in a war in which they were engaged with some neighboring tribes. Tarentum was a city situated toward the western shore of Italy. It was at the head of the deep bay called the Gulf of Tarentum, which bay occupies the hollow of the foot that the form of Italy presents to the eye as seen upon a map. Tarentum was, accordingly, across the Adriatic Sea from Epirus. The distance was about two hundred miles. By taking a southerly route, and going up the Gulf of Tarentum, this distance might be traversed wholly by sea. A little to the north the Adriatic is narrow, the passage there being only about fifty miles across. To an expedition, however, taking this course, there would remain, after arriving on the Italian shore, fifty miles or more to be accomplished by land in order to reach Tarentum.

Before deciding to comply with the request of the Tarentines that he would come to their aid, Alexander sent to a celebrated oracle in Epirus, called the oracle of Dodona, to inquire whether it would be safe for him to undertake the expedition. To his inquiries the oracle gave him this for an answer:

     "The waters of Acheron will be the cause of your death, and Pandosia is the place where you will die."

Alexander was greatly rejoiced at receiving this answer. Acheron was a stream of Epirus, and Pandosia was a town upon the banks of it. He understood the response to mean that he was fated to die quietly in his own country at some future period, probably a remote one, and that there was no danger in his undertaking the expedition to which he had been called. He accordingly set sail from Epirus, and landed in Italy; and there, believing that he was fated to die in Epirus, and not in Italy, he fought in every battle with the most desperate and reckless bravery, and achieved prodigies of valor. The possibility that there might be an Acheron and a Pandosia in Italy, as well as in Epirus, did not occur to his mind.

For a time he was very successful in his career. He fought battles, gained victories, conquered cities, and established his dominion over quite an extended region. In order to hold what he had gained, he sent over a great number of hostages to Epirus, to be kept there as security for the continued submission of those whom he had subdued. These hostages consisted chiefly, as was usual in such cases, of children. At length, in the course of the war, an occasion arose in which it was necessary, for the protection of his troops, to encamp them on three hills which were situated very near to each other. These hills were separated by low interval lands and a small stream; but at the time when Alexander established his encampment, the stream constituted no impediment to free intercommunication between the different divisions of his army. There came on, however, a powerful rain; the stream overflowed its banks; the intervals were inundated. This enabled the enemy to attack two of Alexander's encampments, while it was utterly impossible for Alexander himself to render them any aid. The enemy made the attack and were successful in it. The two camps were broken up, and the troops stationed in them were put to flight. Those that remained with Alexander, becoming discouraged by the hopeless condition in which they found themselves placed, mutinied, and sent to the camp of the enemy, offering to deliver up Alexander to them, dead or alive, as they should choose, on condition that they themselves might be allowed to return to their native land in peace. This proposal was accepted; but, before it was put in execution, Alexander, having discovered the plot, placed himself at the head of a determined and desperate band of followers, broke through the ranks of the enemies that surrounded him, and made his escape to a neighboring wood. From this wood he took a route which led him to a river, intending to pass the river by a bridge which he expected to find there, and then to destroy the bridge as soon as he had crossed it, so as to prevent his enemies from following him. By this means he hoped to make his way to some place of safety. He found, on arriving at the brink of the stream, that the bridge had been carried away by the inundation. He, however, pressed forward into the water on horseback, intending to ford the stream. The torrent was wild, and the danger was imminent, but Alexander pressed on. At length one of the attendants, seeing his master in imminent danger of being drowned, exclaimed aloud, "This cursed river! well is it named Acheron." The word Acheron, in the original language, signifies River of Sorrow.

By this exclamation Alexander learned, for the first time, that the river he was crossing bore the same name with the one in Epirus, which he supposed had been referred to in the warning of the oracle. He was at once overwhelmed with consternation. He did not know whether to go forward or to return. The moment of indecision was suddenly ended by a loud outcry from his attendants, giving the alarm that the traitors were close upon him. Alexander then pushed forward across the water. He succeeded in gaining the bank; but as soon as he did so, a dart from one of his enemies reached him and killed him on the spot. His lifeless body fell back into the river, and was floated down the stream, until at length it reached the camp of the enemy, which happened to be on the bank of the stream below. Here it was drawn out of the water, and subjected to every possible indignity. The soldiers cut the body in two, and, sending one part to one of the cities as a trophy of their victory, they set up the other part in the camp as a target for the soldiers to shoot at with darts and javelins.

At length a woman came into the camp, and, with earnest entreaties and many tears, begged the soldiers to give the mutilated corpse to her. Her object in wishing to obtain possession of it was, that she might send it home to Epirus, to the family of Alexander, and buy with it the liberty of her husband and her children, who were among the hostages which had been sent there. The soldiers acceded to this request, and the parts of the body having been brought together again, were taken to Epirus, and delivered to Olympias, by whom the remains were honorably interred. We must presume that the woman who sent them obtained the expected reward, in the return of her husband and children, though of this we are not expressly informed.

Of course, the disastrous result of this most unfortunate expedition had the effect, in Epirus, of diminishing very much the popularity and the strength of that branch of the royal family—namely, the line of Neoptolemus—to which Alexander had belonged. Accordingly, instead of being succeeded by one of his brothers, Ĉacides, the father of Pyrrhus, who was the representative of the other line, was permitted quietly to assume the crown. It might have been expected that Olympias would have opposed his accession, as she was herself a princess of the rival line. She did not, however, do so. On the contrary, she gave him her support, and allied herself to him very closely; and he, on his part, became in subsequent years one of her most devoted adherents and friends.

When Olympias was shut up in Pydna by the army of Cassander, as was related in the last chapter, and sent for Ĉacides to come to her aid, he immediately raised an army and marched to the frontier. He found the passes in the mountains which led from Epirus to Macedonia all strongly guarded, but he still determined to force his way through. He soon, however, began to observe marks of discontent and dissatisfaction among the officers of his army. These indications increased, until at length the disaffection broke out into open mutiny, as stated in the last chapter. Ĉacides then called his forces together, and gave orders that all who were unwilling to follow him into Macedon should be allowed freely to return. He did not wish, he said, that any should accompany him on such an expedition excepting those who went of their own free will. A considerable part of the army then returned, but, instead of repairing peaceably to their homes, they raised a general insurrection in Epirus, and brought the family of Neoptolemus again to the throne. A solemn decree of the state was passed, declaring that Ĉacides, in withdrawing from the kingdom, had forfeited his crown, and banishing him forever from the country. And as this revolution was intended to operate, not merely against Ĉacides personally, but against the branch of the royal family to which he belonged, the new government deemed it necessary, in order to finish their work and make it sure, that many of his relatives and friends, and especially his infant son and heir, should die. Several of the members of Ĉacides' family were accordingly killed, though the attendants in charge succeeded in saving the life of the child by a sudden flight.

The escape was effected by the instrumentality of two of the officers of Ĉacides' household, named Androclides and Angelus. These men, as soon as the alarm was given, hurried the babe away, with only such nurses and other attendants as it was necessary to take with them. The child was still unweaned; and though those in charge made the number of attendants as small as possible, still the party were necessarily of such a character as to forbid any great rapidity of flight. A troop was sent in pursuit of them, and soon began to draw near. When Androclides found that his party would be overtaken by the troop, he committed the child to the care of three young men, bidding them to ride on with him, at their utmost speed, to a certain town in Macedon, called Megarĉ, where they thought he would be safe; and then he himself, and the rest of his company, turned back to meet the pursuers. They succeeded, partly by their representations and entreaties, and partly by such resistance and obstruction as it was in their power to make, in stopping the soldiers where they were. At length, having, though with some difficulty, succeeded in getting away from the soldiers, Androclides and Angelus rode on by secret ways till they overtook the three young men. They now began to think that the danger was over. At length, a little after sunset, they approached the town of Megarĉ. There was a river just before the town, which looked too rough and dreadful to be crossed. The party, however, advanced to the brink, and attempted to ford the stream, but they found it impossible. It was growing dark; the water of the river, having been swelled by rains, was very high and boisterous, and they found that they could not get over. At length they saw some of the people of the town coming down to the bank on the opposite side. They were in hopes that these people could render them some assistance in crossing the stream, and they began to call out to them for this purpose; but the stream ran so rapidly, and the roaring of the torrent was so great, that they could not make themselves heard. The distance was very inconsiderable, for the stream was not wide; but, though the party with Pyrrhus called aloud and earnestly, and made signs, holding up the child in their arms to let the people see him, they could not make themselves understood.

At last, after spending some time in these fruitless efforts, one of the party who were with Pyrrhus thought of the plan of writing what they wished to say upon a piece of bark, and throwing it across the stream to those on the other side. They accordingly pulled off some bark from a young oak which was growing on a bank of the river, and succeeded in making characters upon it by means of the tongue of a buckle, sufficient to say that they had with them Pyrrhus, the young prince of Epirus, and that they were flying with him to save his life, and to implore the people on the other side to contrive some way to get them over the river. This piece of bark they then managed to throw across the stream. Some say that they rolled it around a javelin, and then gave the javelin to the strongest of their party to throw; others say that they attached it to a stone. In some way or other they contrived to give it a sufficient momentum to carry it across the water; and the people on the other side, when they obtained it, and read what was written upon it, were greatly excited by the tidings, and engaged at once with ardor and enthusiasm in efforts to save the child.

They brought axes and began to cut down trees to make a raft. In due time the raft was completed; and, notwithstanding the darkness of the night, and the force and swiftness of the current of the stream, the party of fugitives succeeded in crossing upon it, and thus brought the child and all the attendants accompanying him safely over.

The party with Pyrrhus did not intend to stop at Megarĉ. They did not consider it safe, in fact, for them to remain in any part of Macedon, not knowing what course the war between Polysperchon and Cassander would take there, or how the parties engaged in the contest might stand affected toward Pyrrhus. They determined, therefore, to press forward in their flight till they had passed through Macedon, and reached the country beyond.

The country north of Macedon, on the western coast, the one in which they determined to seek refuge, was Illyria. The name of the King of Illyria was Glaucias. They had reason to believe that Glaucias would receive and protect the child, for he was connected by marriage with the royal family of Epirus, his wife, Beroa, being a princess of the line of Ĉacides. When the fugitives arrived at the court of Glaucias, they went to the palace, where they found Glaucias and Beroa; and, after telling the story of their danger and escape, they laid the child down as a suppliant at the feet of the king.

Glaucias felt not a little embarrassed at the situation in which he was placed, and did not know what to do. He remained for a long time silent. At length, little Pyrrhus, who was all the while lying at his feet, began to creep closer toward him; and, finally, taking hold of the king's robe, he began to climb up by it, and attempted to get into his lap, looking up into the king's face, at the same time, with a countenance in which the expression of confidence and hope was mingled with a certain instinctive infantile fear. The heart of the king was so touched by this mute appeal, that he took the child up in his arms, dismissed at once all prudential considerations from his mind, and, in the end, delivered the boy to the queen, Beroa, directing her to bring him up with her own children.

Cassander soon discovered the place of Pyrrhus's retreat, and he made great efforts to induce Glaucias to give him up. He offered Glaucias a very large sum of money if he would deliver Pyrrhus into his hands; but Glaucias refused to do it. Cassander would, perhaps, have made war upon Glaucias to compel him to comply with this requisition, but he was then fully occupied with the enemies that threatened him in Greece and Macedon. He did, subsequently, make an attempt to invade the dominions of Glaucias, and to get possession of the person of Pyrrhus, but the expedition failed, and after that the boy was allowed to remain in Illyria without any further molestation.

Time passed on, until at length Pyrrhus was twelve years old. During this interval great changes took place in the affairs of Cassander in Macedon. At first he was very successful in his plans. He succeeded in expelling Polysperchon from the country, and in establishing himself as king. He caused Roxana and the young Alexander to be assassinated, as was stated in the last chapter, so as to remove out of the way the only persons who he supposed could ever advance any rival claims to the throne. For a time every thing went well and prosperously with him, but at length the tide of his affairs seemed to turn. A new enemy appeared against him in Asia—a certain distinguished commander, named Demetrius, who afterward became one of the most illustrious personages of his age. Just at this time, too, the King of Epirus, Alcetus, the prince of the family of Neoptolemus, who had reigned during Pyrrhus's exile in Illyria, died. Glaucias deemed this a favorable opportunity for restoring Pyrrhus to the throne. He accordingly placed himself at the head of an army, and marched into Epirus, taking the young prince with him. No effectual resistance was made, and Pyrrhus was crowned king. He was, of course, too young actually to reign, and a sort of regent was accordingly established in power, with authority to govern the country in the young king's name until he should come of age.

This state of things could not be very stable. It endured about five years; and during this time Pyrrhus seemed to be very firmly established in power. The strength of his position, however, was more apparent than real; for the princes of the other branch of the family, who had been displaced by Pyrrhus's return to power, were of course discontented and restless all the time. They were continually forming plots and conspiracies, and were only waiting for an opportunity to effect another revolution. The opportunity at length came. One of the sons of Glaucias was to be married. Pyrrhus had been the companion and playmate of this prince during his residence in Illyria, and was, of course, invited to the wedding. Supposing that all was safe in his dominions, he accepted the invitation, and went to Illyria. While he was there, amusing himself in the festivities and rejoicings connected with the wedding, his rivals raised a rebellion, took possession of the government, and of all of Pyrrhus's treasures, killed or put to flight his partisans and friends, and raised a prince of the family of Neoptolemus to the throne. Pyrrhus found himself once more an exile.

The revolution in Epirus was so complete, that, after careful consideration and inquiry, Pyrrhus could see, with the resources he had at his command, no hope of recovering his throne. But, being of an ambitious and restless spirit, he determined not to remain idle; and he concluded, therefore, to enter into the service of Demetrius in his war against Cassander. There were two considerations which led him to do this. In the first place, Cassander was his most formidable enemy, and the prospect of his being ultimately restored again to his throne would depend almost entirely, he well knew, upon the possibility of destroying, or at least curtailing, Cassander's power. Then, besides, Demetrius was especially his friend. The wife of Demetrius was Deidamia, the sister of Pyrrhus, so that Pyrrhus looked upon Demetrius as his natural ally. He accordingly offered to enter the service of Demetrius, and was readily received. In fact, notwithstanding his youth—for he was now only seventeen or eighteen years of age—Demetrius gave him a very important command in his army, and took great pains to instruct him in the art of war. It was not long before an opportunity was afforded to make trial of Pyrrhus's capacity as a soldier. A great battle was fought at Ipsus, in Asia Minor, between Demetrius on one side and Cassander on the other. Besides these two commanders, there were many princes and generals of the highest rank who took part in the contest as allies of the principal combatants, which had the effect of making the battle a very celebrated one, and of causing it to attract very strongly the attention of all mankind at the time when it occurred. The result of the contest was, on the whole, unfavorable to the cause of Demetrius. His troops, generally, were compelled to give way, though the division which Pyrrhus commanded retained their ground. Pyrrhus, in fact, acquired great renown by his courage and energy, and perhaps still more by his success on this occasion. Young as he was, Demetrius immediately gave him a new and very responsible command, and intrusted to him the charge of several very important expeditions and campaigns, in all of which the young soldier evinced such a degree of energy and courage, combined, too, with so much forethought, prudence, and military skill, as presaged very clearly his subsequent renown.

At length an alliance was formed between Demetrius and Ptolemy, king of Egypt, and as security for the due execution of the obligations assumed by Demetrius in the treaty which they made, Ptolemy demanded a hostage. Pyrrhus offered to go himself to Egypt in this capacity. Ptolemy accepted him, and Pyrrhus was accordingly taken in one of Ptolemy's ships across the Mediterranean to Alexandria.

In Egypt the young prince was, of course, an object of universal attention and regard. He was tall and handsome in person, agreeable in manners, and amiable and gentle in disposition. His royal rank, the fame of the exploits which he had performed, the misfortunes of his early years, and the strange and romantic adventures through which he had passed, all conspired to awaken a deep interest in his favor at the court of Ptolemy. The situation of a hostage, too, is always one which strongly attracts the sympathy and kind feelings of those who hold him in custody. A captive is regarded in some sense as an enemy; and though his hard lot may awaken a certain degree of pity and commiseration, still the kind feeling is always modified by the fact that the object of it, after all, though disarmed and helpless, is still a foe. A hostage, however, is a friend. He comes as security for the faithfulness of a friend and an ally, so that the sympathy and interest which are felt for him as an exile from his native land, are heightened by the circumstance that his position makes him naturally an object of friendly regard.

The attachment which soon began to be felt for Pyrrhus in the court of Ptolemy was increased by the excellent conduct and demeanor which he exhibited while he was there. He was very temperate and moderate in his pleasures, and upright and honorable in all his doings. In a word, he made himself a general favorite; and after a year or two he married Antigone, a princess of the royal family. From being a hostage he now became a guest, and shortly afterward Ptolemy fitted out an expedition to proceed to Epirus and restore him to his throne. On arriving in Epirus, Pyrrhus found every thing favorable to the success of his plans. The people of the country had become discontented with the government of the reigning king, and were very willing to receive Pyrrhus in his place. The revolution was easily effected, and Pyrrhus was thus once more restored to his throne.