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The Rise and Fall of Pyrrhus of Epirus

Even for a skilled military leader like Pyrrhus of Epirus, achieving victory wasn’t always straightforward. This could mean many things from defeating the enemy, conquering land, or showing superiority. But victory always comes at a cost and not everyone is willing to pay for it.

It is easy to look at the numbers on paper and disregard the cost, but remember that each number represents a person. The loss of these people can have long-lasting consequences for any war effort. This was the lesson of Pyrrhus of Epirus where we get the term pyrrhic victory.

Pyrrhic Early Life

Pyrrhus of Epirus was a Greek general and statesman who lived during the 3rd century BC. He was a member of the Royal Aeacid dynasty of Epirus, a region in northwestern Greece. He was a skilled military commander and ambitious ruler whose talents won him the attention of powerful rulers such as Ptolemy and Antigonus, who fostered and trained him.

He was considered one of the second-generation successors of Alexander the Great, those who never met Alexander but revered his memory. Pyrrhus was considered one of the most talented successors and closest to Alexander in both ambition and skill.

This drove him to attempt to expand his influence across the Mediterranean. He first attempted to gain control of Macedon but was forced out by the ruling Antigonid Dynasty. Instead, he turned his attention across the Adriatic towards Italy.

Here he received a message from the local Greek cities who pleaded for help to protect them from the burgeoning Roman Republic. His military campaigns against the expanding Roman Republic would become known as the Pyrrhic Wars.

With an army of over 20,000 men, Pyrrhus sailed to Italy and engaged in battles against the Romans. Despite winning several battles, including notable victories at Heraclea and Asculum, Pyrrhus suffered significant losses in terms of soldiers and resources, including many of his best and most reliable troops.

Pyrrhus of Epirus Victory

In the end, Roman tenacity won out and Pyrrhus of Epirus was forced to leave Italy in defeat, returning to Greece where he would continue his plans of conquest, but would perish when attempting to seize a city. His legacy would live on in the term, “Pyrrhic victory” or a victory so costly it was not worth the cost.

Pyrrhus of Epirus‘ attempt to halt Roman expansion in Italy presented a golden opportunity for the Greeks. A united front could have contained Rome’s growing power. However, disunity and Pyrrhus’ own shortcomings led to his defeat. This opened the door for Rome to conquer vast swathes of the Greek world throughout the following century.

Beyond his military role, Pyrrhus of Epirus was also a scholar, writing influential works on warfare. Interestingly, his personal life was quite colorful, with five marriages throughout his lifetime.

The two armies separated; and we are told that Pyrrhus said to one who was congratulating him on his victory,

“If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” 10 For he had lost a great part of the forces with which he came, and all his friends and generals except a few; moreover, he had no others whom he could summon from home, and he saw that his allies in Italy were becoming indifferent, while the army of the Romans, as if from a fountain gushing forth indoors, was easily and speedily filled up again, and they did not lose courage in defeat, nay, their wrath gave them all the more vigour and determination for the war.

-Plutarch, writer on the Life of Pyrrhus

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