Saturday, January 23, 2021

Armor from the original Pyrrhic victory

Pyrrhus  was born to prince Aeacides of Epirus, and Phthia, a Thessalian noblewoman, the daughter of the Thessalian general Menon. Aeacides was a cousin of Olympias, making Pyrrhus a second-cousin-once-removed to Alexander the Great. When Aecides father died, he left Epirus to the joint rule of Aeacides and his younger half-brother Neoptolemus.

Aeacides supported Olympias in her fight against Cassander and marched on Macedon. When Cassander was ultimately victorious, Epirus became a puppet kingdom of Cassander. Pyrrhus' family fled north and took refuge with Glaukias of the Taulantians, one of the largest Illyrian tribes. Cassander marched against Glaukias, and with his army defeated, Glaukias promised not to act against Cassander, but refused to give up Pyrrhus and his family.

By 313 BCE, Cassander was distracted by his war against Antigonus Monophthalmus so Aeacides returned to Epirus and raised a large army. However, Cassander, not that distracted,  sent an army under his brother Philip, who defeated Aeacides in two battles. Aeacides was wounded in the last battle and died soon after. But young Pyrrhus survived.

In 307 BCE, Glaukias invaded Epirus and put Pyrrhus on the throne. When Pyrrhus was seventeen he travelled to the court of Glaukias in Illyria to attend the wedding of one of Glaukias' sons. While he was in Illyria the Molossians rose in rebellion, drove out Pyrrhus' supporters, and returned his half brother Neoptolemus to the throne. So, Pyrrhus travelled to the Peloponnese and served his brother-in-law Demetrius Poliorcetes who was campaigning against Cassander in southern Greece.  In 302 BCE, Demetrius took his army to Asia Minor to support his father Antigonus Monophthalmus. Although Demetrius and young Pyrrhus fought on the losing side at the Battle of Ipsus, the largest and most important battle of the Wars of the Successors, Demetrius escaped along with Pyrrhus and 9,000 men. 

However, in 298 BCE his brother-in-law gave him over as a hostage to Ptolemy I Soter in Alexandria. He eventually married Ptolemy's stepdaughter, though, and Ptolemy helped restore Pyrrhus to his throne. In the years that followed Pyrrhus struggled against Demetrius and Lysimachus, who had survived the wars of the Diadochi to rule Macedon.

In 280 BCE, the citizens of the Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy asked Phyrrhus to lead their war against the Romans.  Due to his superior cavalry, his elephants and his deadly palanx infantry he defeated the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea and, in 279 BCE, the Battle of Asculum. It was at the Battle of Asculum that the consul Publius Decius Mus almost managed to break the back of Pyrrhus' Epirot army. In the end, the Romans lost 6,000 men and Pyrrhus 3,500 including many officers. Pyrrhus later famously commented on his victory at Asculum, stating, "If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined".  It is from reports of this semi-legendary event that the term Pyrrhic victory originates.

Images: Bronze muscle cuirass and silvered helmet of King Pyrrhus I of Epirus at the Archaeological Museum of Igoumenitsa in northwest Greece courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Harrygouvas.

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