Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


There was something in the bearing of Pyrrhus that excited terror rather than respect, and he had a peculiarity that no one could fail to notice. It was this: instead of teeth in his upper jaw he had one continued bone, marked with lines where the divisions of the teeth ought to have been. It was believed that he had power to cure the spleen by sacrificing a white cock, and by pressing with his right foot on the diseased spot while the patient lay flat upon the floor. All who were afflicted with the spleen, whether rich or poor, might at any moment apply to Pyrrhus, and he was willing to cure them, the only payment he ever demanded being a white cock for sacrifice. It was also said that the great toe of his right foot had a divine virtue in it, and when it was found in its natural state after his death, though the rest of his body had been reduced to ashes, no doubt remained that such was the case.

When Pyrrhus was a little child, his father, the king of Epirus, was driven from his throne by the Molossians, who made Neoptolemus king instead. Then Pyrrhus would certainly have been put to death had not some of his father's friends carried him off. They took him to King Glaucias of Illyria, who conceived such a fancy for the infant that he kept him, and had him educated with his own children until he reached the age of twelve; then the king went to Epirus with an army and placed his charge on the throne which was his by right of inheritance.

Pyrrhus ruled in peace for five years, but at the end of that period he went to attend the wedding of one of the daughters of King Glaucias, and during his absence Neoptolemus seized the throne again. Pyrrhus was then just seventeen years old, and did not possess the necessary means to assert his rights, so he went with his brother-in-law, Demetrius, to fight against Ptolemy. He distinguished himself at the great battle of Ipsus, and some time afterwards went to Egypt.

There he fell in love with Antigone, daughter of one of the wives of Ptolemy, and married her. She was a good wife, and loved Pyrrhus so much that she procured men and money to enable him to get back his kingdom. When he reached Epirus he was received with open arms, for Neoptolemus had been such a tyrant that all his subjects hated him. Still, Pyrrhus had too much consideration to dethrone him, so he proposed to share the government with him, and Neoptolemus was very glad to make that arrangement. It worked well for only a short time, for the two kings became jealous of each other, and this is what happened. It was the custom for the kings to offer sacrifices to the god Mars yearly in the Molossian country, and each time they made a vow to govern according to law, while the people swore to support the government. The kings were always attended on these occasions by a number of friends, and presents were exchanged among them all. The last time Pyrrhus and Neoptolemus sacrificed together, Gelon, one of the friends of the latter, presented Pyrrhus with two yoke of oxen. Myrtilus, cup-bearer to Pyrrhus, asked for the oxen, but his demand was refused. Gelon noticed that Myrtilus was not only disappointed but displeased, so he invited him to sup with him. After supper he urged his guest to become a friend to Neoptolemus and poison Pyrrhus. Myrtilus pretended to agree to the proposition of Gelon, but went straight home and told his master all about it. Pyrrhus then ordered him to take Alexicrates, his chief cup-bearer, to Gelon, and make believe that he could mix the poison better than any one else. Pyrrhus did this because he wanted to have sure proof of the plot. Gelon was thoroughly deceived, and so was Neoptolemus, who had urged on the conspirators. Everything seemed to be working so smoothly that Neoptolemus could not restrain his joy; and one evening when he had been drinking freely at an entertainment at his sister's house, he talked openly about the poison scheme and the probability that he would soon occupy the throne alone. Now there happened to be present a young woman engaged in the royal household, who was lying on a couch with her face to the wall. She was not observed, because she appeared to be sleeping; but she was wide awake, and not only heard all that Neoptolemus said, but ran early next morning to the apartment of Antigone, the wife of Pyrrhus, and repeated it to her. Of course Antigone warned her husband, but he did nothing until he had made sure that the majority of the Epirots were his friends and would stand by him; then he invited Neoptolemus to join him in a sacrifice, and killed him on the spot.

He now had the government in his own hands, and at once undertook the Macedonian wars against his brother-in-law, Demetrius, with whom he had ceased to be friendly, and he fought with such skill and courage that even his enemies were filled with admiration. They could compare him to nobody but the great Alexander, and Hannibal called him the most skilful of all the renowned commanders. The Epirots exulted in the heroic deeds of their king, and when he got back home gave him the name of "Eagle." "If I am an eagle," he said, "you have made me one; for it is upon your arms and your wings that I have risen so high."

Not long after, on hearing that Demetrius was dangerously ill, Pyrrhus entered Macedonia and almost succeeded in conquering the country, but such tremendous efforts were made to repulse him that he was driven out. Then Demetrius raised an immense army, knowing that his dangerous neighbor would trouble him again. So he did, not only with his own army, but with the assistance of three other kings, and all their forces united.

The night before he entered Macedonia again, Pyrrhus dreamed that Alexander the Great called him, and that on going to him he found him sick in bed. Nevertheless, Alexander, after expressing great friendship for him, promised him his assistance. "How can you, who are ill, help me?" asked Pyrrhus. "I will do it with my name," returned the warrior, as, mounting a swift horse, he seemed to lead the way to victory.

Pyrrhus was so much encouraged by this vision that he hurried on to battle, and took one city after another until he met that part of the enemy's troops that were under the command of Demetrius. These had heard so much of Pyrrhus's feats, and of his uncommon gentleness towards those whom he had conquered, that they were for the most part ready to mutiny. Besides, a number of Epirots disguised themselves as Macedonians and went among their pretended countrymen, telling them to go over to Pyrrhus as they intended to do. This had the desired effect, and the Macedonian army declaring for Pyrrhus, Demetrius was only too glad to make his escape in disguise. So, without striking a single blow, Pyrrhus became master of the camp and was proclaimed king of Macedonia.

He did not remain there long, however, for after a peace had been concluded with Demetrius, the Macedonians began to object to being ruled by a man whose ancestors had been their subjects, and he quietly went back to his own kingdom with his Epirot soldiers. Now was his chance to enjoy a life of repose and peace if he had so desired, but he could not rest quietly, and felt unhappy when not engaged in war. Therefore when the Tarentines, who were fighting the Romans, sent to ask him to command their forces, he eagerly accepted.

There was at the court of Pyrrhus a Thessalian named Cineas, who had studied oratory under Demosthenes, and whose words always had such weight that Pyrrhus said of him, "Cineas has gained me more cities by his speeches than I have won by the force of arms." Seeing Pyrrhus absorbed in preparations for the war in Italy, Cineas took occasion, when he was at leisure, to speak to him as follows: "The Romans have the reputation of being excellent soldiers, and have the command of many warlike nations; if it please heaven that we conquer them, what use, sir, shall we make of our victory?"

"Why, Cineas," replied the king, "when the Romans are beaten, there is no town, whether Greek or barbarian, that will dare to oppose us; we shall be masters of all Italy, whose greatness and power no man knows better than you."

"But," continued Cineas, after a short pause, "after we have conquered Italy, what shall we do next, sir?"

"There is Sicily very near," answered Pyrrhus; "a fruitful, populous island, easy to take."

"Is, then, the taking of Sicily to terminate our expeditions?" asked Cineas.

"Far from it," said the king, "for, if heaven grant us success in this, it will lead to greater things. Libya and Carthage will then be within reach, and after we have conquered them, will any of our enemies dare to resist us?"

"Certainly not," said Cineas, "for it is clear that so much power will enable you to recover Macedonia and to declare yourself sovereign of all Greece. But what are we to do then?"

"Why, then, my friend," said Pyrrhus, laughing, "we will take our ease, drink and be merry."

This was the answer Cineas had waited for, so he said, "And what hinders us from drinking and taking our ease now, when we have already in our hands that for which we propose to pass through seas of blood, through toil and danger, and through numberless calamities, which we must cause to others as well as to ourselves?"

Pyrrhus was troubled by what Cineas had said, but his ambition would not let him alter his purpose, so he sent the orator on to Tarentum with a great army, and afterwards set sail himself with more troops. But when he reached the Ionian Sea, he was overtaken by such a violent storm that his whole fleet came near being destroyed, and some of the ships were driven quite out of their course. Others were thrown on the rocky shore, and the one in which the king was seemed on the point of sinking; thereupon he threw himself overboard, and, after battling with the angry waves for some hours, reached the shore almost exhausted. The people near by did what they could for him and his men as the ships came in, and in a few hours Pyrrhus marched on to Tarentum with the remnant of his army that had survived the storm.

On hearing of the king's approach, Cineas went out to meet him, and, uniting their forces, the sovereigns proceeded to the field where Lævinus, the Roman consul, had encamped. But Pyrrhus sent forward a herald to propose to the Romans that they should take him as their mediator and settle all difficulties without fighting. Lævinus answered, "Tell Pyrrhus that the Romans neither accept him as a mediator nor fear him as an enemy."

Pyrrhus then moved forward; but when he beheld the Roman army drawn up in battle array he was amazed, and said to one of his friends near by, "Megacles, this order of the barbarians is not at all barbarian; we shall before long see what they can do." He was soon convinced that he had no mean opponents, but he exposed his person in the hottest of the fight and charged with the greatest desperation without once losing his presence of mind.

Presently, Leonatus of Macedon rode up to Pyrrhus to warn him of danger, and said, "Do you see, sir, that barbarian upon the black horse with white feet? he is constantly watching you, and seems to await an opportunity to attack you."

"It is impossible, Leonatus, to avoid our destiny," answered Pyrrhus; "but neither that Italian nor any other shall have much satisfaction in engaging with me."

While they were speaking, the man raised his spear and spurred his horse straight against the king, whom he missed. He killed the horse, however. Leonatus did the same to that of the Italian, and both animals fell dead together. Pyrrhus was caught and carried off by his friends, who brought down his assailant, though he fought fiercely to the last.

This incident made Pyrrhus more cautious, and, changing his robe and arms with Megacles, he charged on the enemy in this disguise. For a long time the battle was undecided, and, although his disguise saved the life of Pyrrhus, it very nearly cost him his victory. Many aimed at Megacles, and at last he was killed; his helmet and robes were carried to Lævinus, who, raising them on high, cried out that Pyrrhus was slain. The Roman army shouted for joy, and the Greeks were filled with grief and terror, until Pyrrhus uncovered his head and rode among them to assure them that he was still alive.

He then set his elephants against the enemy, and their horses were so frightened at the sight of the monsters that they turned and ran. Taking advantage of the disorder, Pyrrhus ordered his cavalry to charge, and the Romans were routed with great slaughter. He entered their camp, took possession of it, and gained over many cities that had sided with Rome, advancing to within thirty-seven miles of the great city itself. But his army was not then in a fit condition to take and hold Rome, so while he was waiting for more troops he sent Cineas to see whether he could not make terms of peace. Cineas carried all sorts of presents in his master's name to the women as well as the men; but they were refused. Cineas next put his eloquence to the test, and made a speech to the senate, offering such flattering terms that many seemed inclined to accept them. While the matter was being discussed, Appius Claudius, a noble old Roman, who on account of age and blindness had long since withdrawn from public affairs, ordered his servants to carry him to the senate-house. His chair was placed in the midst of the senators, and a respectful silence was observed by the whole body, who listened attentively when he began to speak. "Hitherto," he said, "I have thought my blindness a misfortune, but now, Romans, I wish I had been deaf as well as blind, for then I should not have heard of your shameful debate, so ruinous to the glory of Rome. Where now are your boasts echoed all through the world that if Alexander the Great had come into Italy when we were young he would not now be considered invincible, but either by his flight or his fall would have added to the glory of Rome? And yet you tremble at the very name of Pyrrhus, who all his life has been paying his court to one of the guards of that same Alexander. He is wandering about Italy not to help the Greeks here, but to avoid his enemies at home. Do not expect to get rid of him by entering into an alliance with him, for that would only open our doors to other invaders; for who is there that will not despise you and think you easy to conquer if Pyrrhus not only gets off without punishment for his insolence, but gains some of our colonies as a reward for his insult to Rome?"

When Appius ceased speaking, a unanimous vote was passed for war, and Cineas was sent back with this answer: "Tell Pyrrhus that when he quits Italy we will enter into a treaty of friendship with him if he desires it; but while he stays here we will fight him with all our force, even though he should defeat a thousand men like Lævinus."

Not long after, there was an engagement between the two armies near the city of Asculum, and the loss was so heavy on both sides that it was hard to decide which had gained the victory. Pyrrhus lost the fewer men, but when he was congratulated upon the result of the battle, he said, "One other such victory would utterly ruin me." For he had lost his best commanders and almost all of his particular friends, and he had no means of replacing them, while the Roman camp, on the contrary, was immediately filled up with fresh soldiers.

Now two offers were made to Pyrrhus, either of which he would have accepted had it been possible. The one came from the Sicilians, who asked him to free them from tyrants and drive out the Carthaginians; the other from the Macedonians, who wanted him to ascend their throne in place of Ptolemy Ceraunus, who had been slain. He was dreadfully perplexed, and grumbled at fortune for holding out to him two such glorious chances at once, but at last he decided in favor of Sicily, and sent Cineas on before, as usual, to treat with the various cities. The people of Tarentum were very angry when they found that he thought of leaving them in the lurch without having accomplished what he came for, but he haughtily ordered them to be quiet and await his pleasure, and so set sail.

He found everything in Sicily just as he had hoped; the people placed themselves at his command, and supplied him with such a large army and navy that he drove the Carthaginians before him and ruined their territory. At last he reached Eryx, the strongest of their cities, and, after making a vow to Hercules of games and sacrifices if in that day's action he should distinguish himself before the Greeks in Sicily as became his birth and fortune, he ordered the trumpets to sound the signal for battle. The enemy were soon driven from the walls, scaling-ladders were planted, and Pyrrhus was the first to climb one of them.

A crowd of warriors attacked him there, but some he drove back, some he pushed down from the walls on both sides, and others he slew with his sword until he had piled up a heap of dead bodies around him. Strange to say, he was not wounded in the least, and when the city was taken he remembered his vow, and offered splendid sacrifices to Hercules, and exhibited a variety of shows and plays besides.

But success did not improve Pyrrhus, and from a popular leader he changed into such a tyrant that the people of Sicily would no longer submit to him. Finding that he had made a mistake in trying to rule them harshly, he was glad when letters came from the Tarentines and Samnites complaining that they could not secure their towns from the Romans, and begging him to come to their aid. So, without appearing to run away from Sicily, he had a good excuse for returning to Italy. As he sailed away from the island, he looked back longingly and said, "Ah, my friends, how brave a field of war do we leave the Romans and the Carthaginians to fight in!"

Part of the enemy got to Italy before Pyrrhus did, and as he landed gave him battle. He lost a great many men and two of his elephants, and he was so badly wounded about the head that he was led from the field. This encouraged the enemy, and one of them, a tall, powerful man, advanced, calling for the king to come forth if he was still alive. This so excited Pyrrhus that, wounded and covered with blood as he was, he broke from his guard, seized his sword, rushed upon the challenger, and with one mighty blow cut him in two. This achievement amazed the barbarians, who, thinking that Pyrrhus must be a being of some superior sort, gave him no further trouble.

So he proceeded on his way until he met the Roman army, under the consul, Manlius Curius; a great battle was then fought, which after several hours ended in a splendid victory for the Romans. Others followed, until they gained the whole of Italy, and not long after Sicily fell into their hands also.

Thus, at the end of six years' hard fighting, Pyrrhus, though considered the bravest and best commander among the crowned heads of his time, found himself deprived of all hope of Italy or Sicily. So he returned with his army to Epirus, and, being joined by a body of Gauls, went to Macedonia, gained a victory there, and forced Antigonus, their king, to fly.

Next, at the request of Cleonymus, he marched against Sparta, but even the women of that city came out and helped to build barricades. Besides, they urged their husbands, fathers, and sons to fight with such desperation that Pyrrhus gained nothing, and so shifted his ground to Argos. On his arrival there the Argives requested him to retire, saying that they did not wish him to interfere with the affairs of their republic, because they could settle their troubles themselves. Pyrrhus pretended to comply, but Aristeas, who headed a strong party in Argos, and feared that his opponent was getting too powerful, opened the gates for Pyrrhus in the dead of night. Many of his troops entered and took possession of the market-place, but such a disturbance was created in getting the elephants through the gates that the citizens were alarmed, and many of them ran to the fortress and other places of defence to prepare to meet the enemy.

When day dawned, Pyrrhus was surprised to find the Argives ready for him, but his surprise was turned to horror when among the statues in the market-place he beheld one of brass representing a bull and a wolf in the act of fighting. The reason of this was that an old oracle had foretold that it was his destiny to die whenever he should see a wolf fighting a bull. He would have retreated, and sent orders to that effect to his son, who had remained outside the walls. But the messenger, for some reason or other, gave the contrary order, and the prince entered the town with the rest of the troops and elephants, causing such a confusion that those within the walls who had been ordered to retreat fell in with the advancing forces, and the elephants became entirely unmanageable; they trampled down the soldiers, who rolled this way and that, wounding one another, while the enemy, taking advantage of the uproar, attacked them in front and in rear.

Throwing off his plume and helmet, so that he might not be recognized, Pyrrhus rode in among the enemy. It so happened that he was wounded through the breastplate with a javelin, though not dangerously; but he turned upon the man who struck the blow, and just at that moment the mother, an old woman, who watched the fight from a house-top, picked up a huge stone and threw it with all her might at the king. It struck him on the back of the neck; all grew black before his eyes; he dropped the reins and fell from his horse. The crowd did not know him, but one among them exclaimed, "It is Pyrrhus!" and, as the wounded king showed signs of returning consciousness, raised his sword and cut off his head.

This was the inglorious end of one of the bravest and most warlike monarchs of ancient times, whose mistake was the undertaking of enterprises more from love of action than from any well-directed plan. Another king, who lived when Pyrrhus did, compared him to a gambler, and said, "He makes many good throws, but never seems to know when he has the best of the game."