318–272 BC

Pyrrhus was the King of Epirus and a major figure during the final years of the Wars of the Diodochi. He is most famous for his battles against Rome when he led the Greeks of southern Italy against that rising power, but he also fought battles in Sicily, Greece, and Macedonia. Although widely acknowledge as the most brilliant general of his age, and greatly admired by his soldiers, Pyrrhus almost never followed up on his battlefield victories, and virtually all that he gained was eventually lost. Although personally chivalrous, he behaved more as a soldier of fortune, than a statesman or national leader.

Pyrrhus was born in 318 B.C. during the Second War of the Didochi, and his family was embroiled in the conflict between Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, and great aunt of Pyrrhus, and Cassander, the son of Antipater. When a mere lad he became king of the wild mountain tribes of Epirus, and learned the art of war at the hands of Demetrius and his father Antigonus I. He fought by their side at the battle of Ipsus (301) in Phrygia, in which they were decisively defeated. Soon afterwards he was sent to the court of Ptolemy of Egypt at Alexandria. Through Ptolemy, whose step-daughter Antigone he married, Pyrrhus was enabled to establish himself firmly on the throne of Epirus, and became a formidable opponent to Demetrius, who was now king of Macedonia and the leading man in the Greek world. After defeating one of Demetrius's generals, he briefly held a large part of Macedonia. But in 286 B.C. he was defeated by Lysimachus at Edessa, driven out of Macedonia, and compelled to fall back on his little kingdom of Epirus.

In 281 B.C. came the great opportunity of his life. An embassy was sent to him from the Greek city Tarentum in southern Italy with a request for aid against Rome. Once a treaty was concluded with the Tarantines, his general Milo crossed with a body of troops and occupied the citadel. Pyrrhus soon followed with a miscellaneous force of about 25,000 men and some elephants. The Tarentines and Italian Greeks shrank, however, from anything like serious effort, and resented his calling upon them for men and money. Rome meantime made serious preparations for war. For the first time in history Greeks and Romans met in battle at Heraclea near the shores of the Gulf of Tarentum, and the cavalry and elephants of Pyrrhus secured for him a complete victory, though at so heavy a cost as to convince him of the great uncertainty of final success (hence is derived the phrase of a Pyrrhic victory). Although he now had the Samnites as well as the Lucanians and the Bruttians and all the Greek cities of southern Italy with him, he found every city closed against him as he advanced on Rome through Latium. The peace negotiations, carried on by the skilful diplomatist Cineas, the minister of Pyrrhus, led to no result; the senate seemed inclined to come to terms, but the fiery and patriotic eloquence of the aged and blind Appius Claudius (the censor) carried the day. Cineas was ordered to leave the city at once and to tell his master that Rome could not negotiate so long as foreign troops remained on the soil of Italy.

In the second year of the war (279 B.C.), Pyrrhus again defeated a Roman army at Asculum, but failed to break up her Italian confederacy. Instead of following up on this victory, he quitted Italy for Sicily, at the invitation of the Syracusans, with the idea of making himself the head of the Sicilian Greeks and driving the Carthaginians out of the island. He passed three years in Sicily, but offended the Greek cities, which he governed in the fashion of a despot. Finding that he could no longer hold Sicily in face of the ill feeling thus aroused, he decided to return to Italy, but found the situation there a difficult one. The Italian Greeks refused to supply him with enough men or money rebuild his army. Thoroughly disheartened, he made one more effort and engaged a Roman army at Beneventum (275 B.C.) but was defeated with the loss of his camp and the greater part of his army. Nothing remained but to go back to Greece.

The brief remainder of his life was passed in camps and battles, without any glorious result. He gainied a victory on Macedonian soil over Antigonus Gonatas, king of Macedonia, whose troops hailed him as king. In 273 B.C. he was invited by Cleonymus to settle by force of arms a dispute about the royal succession at Sparta. He besieged the city, but was repulsed with great loss. Next, at the invitation of a political faction, he went to Argos, where, during a fight by night in the streets, he was struck on the head by a huge tile. He fell from his horse, and was put to death by one of the soldiers of Antigonus.

— Adapted from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Key events during the life of pyrrhus:

318 BC
Born in Epirus.
  Ascended to the throne of Epirus
302 BC
Fought with Demetrius and Antigonus I at the battle of Ipsus.
  Visited Ptolemy in Alexandria.
287 BC
Helped win control of Macedonia from Demetrius.
286 BC
Driven back to Epirus by his former ally, Lysimachus.
281 BC
Called to Tarentum to fight the Romans in Italy.
280 BC
Great victory against Rome at Heraclea.
279 BC
Another victory over Rome at Asculum.
278 BC
Called to Sicily to help drive the Carthaginians off the Island.
275 BC
Returned to Italy. Defeated by Rome at Beneventum.
272 BC
Killed during a night battle in Argos.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Master of Strategy  in  Stories from Ancient Rome  by  Alfred J. Church
Fighting King  in  Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch  by  F. J. Gould
Pyrrhus and His Elephants  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Pyrrhus  in  Famous Men of Greece  by  John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland
Pyrrhus  in  Our Young Folks' Plutarch  by  Rosalie Kaufman
Pyrrhus, King of the Epirots  in  The Story of Rome  by  Mary Macgregor
Pyrrhus and the Romans  in  Historical Tales: Greek  by  Charles Morris
Great Conflict  in  On the Shores of the Great Sea  by  M. B. Synge

Book Links
Pyrrhus  by  Jacob Abbott

Image Links

Pyrrhus viewing the Roman Encampment.
 in Pyrrhus

The Elephant Concealed
 in Pyrrhus

The Assault
 in Pyrrhus

The Fallen Elephant
 in Pyrrhus

Death of Pyrrhus
 in Pyrrhus

An elephant stretched out his trunk over the roman's head and loudly trumpeted.
 in Stories from Ancient Rome

Pyrrhus and his Elephants
 in The Story of the Romans

Elephants of Pyrrhus
 in Famous Men of Rome

The armour of Pyrrhus was richer and more beautiful than that of his soldiers.
 in The Story of Rome

Short Biography
Ptolemy I General of Alexander, founded Egyptian Dynasty that lasted for 300 years.
Demetrius Son of Antigonus, active in the wars of the Diadochi.
Lysimachus Bodyguard of Alexander. Took control of Thrace on his death. Engaged in Wars of Diadochi.
Cineas Minister of Thessaly, and friend and advisor of Pyrrhus of Epirus.
Fabricius Incorruptible Roman ambassador who negotiated with Pyrrhus. Emblem of Roman Republican virtue.
Cleonymus Contender for the throne of Sparta who called Pyrrus to his aide.