The Fool of Hope

(319 - 272 B.C.)


by Plutarch

In Pyrrhus' wild career of restless trouble-making, we see a soul incapable of satisfaction. He was a mighty man of war, and nearly conquered Rome, but he could never finish what he started before getting distracted by a new project.

Glaucias, King of Illyria, gave sanctuary to Pyrrhus, the baby son of the King of Epirus. Although the enemies of Pyrrhus' father offered Glaucias 200 talents for the boy, Glaucias refused to turn him over, and he allowed Pyrrhus to grow up in the palace as part of the royal family. When the right time came, Glaucias took an army and escorted Pyrrhus back to the throne he had inherited. At the age of twelve, Pyrrhus became King of Epirus. 1

By the time Pyrrhus was seventeen, everything seemed to be well-settled in his kingdom. He went out of Epirus on a visit to attend the wedding of one of Glaucias' sons, who was like a brother to him. As soon as he had gone, there was a coup, and Pyrrhus lost not only his kingdom but all of his property too.

So Pyrrhus joined up with Demetrius, 2 the husband of his sister. At the Battle of Ipsus [301 B.C.], 3 Pyrrhus, although he was still very young, defeated everyone he faced and became famous as a skilled fighter. But Demetrius lost the battle, and consequently lost control over Greece. Pyrrhus went to Egypt as a hostage to secure the peace treaty between Demetrius and King Ptolemy. 4

Throughout his career Pyrrhus was adept at courting the favor of his superiors, but he took no notice of those who were beneath him in social status. While he was in Egypt, Pyrrhus took care to ingratiate himself with whoever appeared to have the most real authority, especially the queen. In hunting and in military exercises Pyrrhus showed that he was a brave and strong man. He also was temperate in his pleasures. Out of all the young princes at the Egyptian court, Pyrrhus was chosen to be the husband of Ptolemy's step-daughter, the queen's child, Antigone.

Antigone was a good wife to Pyrrhus. Through her help and his own efforts Pyrrhus managed to raise enough money to recruit an army. Then he went to reclaim his kingdom [297 B.C.]. Pyrrhus' former subjects groaned under the rule of Neoptolemus, a violent and arbitrary man who had taken control of Epirus. Pyrrhus was afraid to fight because Neoptolemus might be able to call in help from neighboring states, so the two of them agreed to share the government.

One of Neoptolemus' friends was Gelo, who persuaded Myrtilus, the cup-bearer of Pyrrhus, to poison his master. But Myrtilus only pretended to go along with the plot, and he immediately told Pyrrhus. To get corroborating witnesses, Pyrrhus told Myrtilus to recommend other conspirators from among his friends. Gelo was fooled, and so was Neoptolemus, who bragged about how well things were going. Neoptolemus was overheard by a woman, and she told Pyrrhus' wife.

The two leaders continued to pretend to be friends, but as soon as there was an opportunity, Pyrrhus killed his opponent. First, however, Pyrrhus had made sure that the leading men of Epirus were behind him, and that the people were eager to get rid of Neoptolemus.

* * *

To his friends, Pyrrhus was easy-going, and not a man to lose his temper. He returned kindness zealously. One of his friends had done him a favor but died before Pyrrhus could reciprocate. This grieved Pyrrhus even more than the man's death. Although our debts may be paid to the heirs of our creditors, death forecloses the opportunity to give thanks, and that makes good men sad.

Some of Pyrrhus' friends told him that he should banish a man who had been saying bad things about him. To this, Pyrrhus replied: "It is better to have him here, saying these things, than rambling all over the world with them."

Pyrrhus asked some men whether or not they had made certain remarks about him at a drinking party. One of them replied: "Yes, we said all of that, and if there had been more wine we would have said even more." Pyrrhus laughed and let them go without any punishment.

* * *

Demetrius came with an army and installed himself as King of Macedonia.5 Demetrius and Pyrrus now clashed because their kingdoms were adjacent. Both men were infected with that innate disease of leaders: the urge to expand their authority. Now that Pyrrhus' sister (Demetrius' wife) was dead, there was nothing to prevent a war.

Demetrius invaded Epirus, and Pyrrhus marched out to meet him, but the two armies missed each other. Instead of Demetrius, Pyrrhus encountered the army that Demetrius had left behind in Macedonia under the command of Pantauchus. The combat was sharp, especially where the two leaders were. Pantauchus, who was the best fighter Demetrius had, challenged Pyrrhus to meet him man-to-man, and Pyrrhus accepted. The two armies paused to watch the duel. Both of them were strong and skilled martial artists. First, Pyrrhus and Pantauchus used their spears, and then they came to close range and drew their swords. Pyrrhus took one wound, but he returned two for it: one in the thigh and one in the neck of Pantauchus. Pyrrhus could not kill him because Pantauchus' friends rescued him when he fell, but the men of Epirus, exulting in the victory of their king, tore apart the Macedonian phalanx, killed many as they ran away, and took 5,000 prisoners.

The older Macedonians who had seen Pyrrhus in combat remarked that he looked and fought just like Alexander. Instead of being enraged by their defeat, they admired this young warrior king. Other kings might counterfeit Alexander's majesty with their guards and their royal insignia, but only Pyrrhus could match Alexander's valor. After the battle with Pantauchus, Pyrrhus returned home with a great reputation. The people of Epirus hailed him as "The Eagle." To this, Pyrrhus replied: "It is because of you that I am an eagle, because your arms are my wings."

Demetrius was sick, so Pyrrhus went into Macedonia and nearly took the whole kingdom when large numbers of the Macedonians deserted to him. Pyrrhus decided not to risk a showdown with Demetrius but to make a treaty instead. Demetrius was also willing to make peace because he did not want to be tied down with a struggle against Pyrrhus when he could be out winning rich cities from other kings.

Demetrius collected an army of 100,000 men and a navy of 500 ships. It was clear from the magnitude of his preparations that he intended to conquer a large territory. The kings around him knew very well what Demetrius was up to, so they contrived to keep him occupied close to home. Letters and ambassadors went from these kings to Pyrrhus, advising him that Demetrius, once he had developed a strong and practiced army, would be coming back to finish him off, so he should take advantage of the fact that Demetrius was now busy in the north.

But what may have been even more persuasive to Pyrrhus was the fact that Demetrius had taken one of Pyrrhus' wives, Lanassa, and along with her the island of Corcyra. After Antigone died, Pyrrhus had married several more times to enlarge his power. For her dowry, Lanassa brought the island of Corcyra. She had become jealous of the attention that Pyrrhus paid to his other wives, so she went to Corcyra and invited Demetrius to come and get her. Demetrius also installed a garrison to take control of the island -- an important part of Pyrrhus' kingdom. So while Demetrius was busy defending his northern border, Pyrrhus invaded Macedonia from the south.

In a dream, Pyrrhus saw Alexander sick in bed. Alexander promised to help with his name, even though his body was too sick to fight. This vision encouraged Pyrrhus, so he and his men moved on and took Beroea, an important city in the south of Macedonia. The army of Demetrius was seething with mutiny because of Demetrius' luxurious living, neglect of justice, and imperious manner. Demetrius decided that it would be better to take these discontented soldiers away from the north, where they might desert to other Macedonian commanders, and go with them to the south to fight Pyrrhus, who was to them a foreigner.

Many men came from Beroea to Demetrius' army, praising Pyrrhus as an invincible warrior, who was kind to his prisoners. Pyrrhus also sent some agents, who pretended to be Macedonians. These spies spread the suggestion that now the time had come to be liberated from the harsh rule of Demetrius by joining Pyrrhus, who was a gracious friend of soldiers. Before long, the whole Macedonian army wanted a look at Pyrrhus. One day, Pyrrhus came riding near them, but no one recognized him until he put his helmet on, which had a high crest and goat's horns. The Macedonians cheered and left their ranks to unite their fortune to that of Pyrrhus. As his army crumbled in mutiny, Demetrius put on a disguise and sneaked off to safety. 6 And so, without fighting, Pyrrhus became King of Macedonia [286 B.C.].

* * *

Lysimachus, who had harassed Demetrius in the north, proposed that Macedonia be divided between himself and Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus consented because he was not sure of the loyalty of his new Macedonian subjects. For the present, this partition prevented more war, but it was not so much a peaceful settlement as a reason for future quarrels. When two such ambitious men are neighbors -- both being the slaves of vast desires that not even oceans or mountains can limit -- they are always naturally at war. They use the words "peace" and "war" as they have need of them, and not as justice would indicate. They are really better men when they openly fight, instead of giving the names of "friendship" and "justice" to what is no more than the lack of opportunity to injure.

Pyrrhus made a peace treaty with Demetrius, who went off to conquer in Syria. But as soon as Demetrius was gone, Pyrrhus induced Demetrius' Thessalian subjects to revolt. Pyrrhus also besieged some of Demetrius' cities. He had found that it was easier to keep the loyalty of the Macedonians when he kept them busy with war, and Pyrrhus had a nature that was uncomfortable at rest.

After Demetrius had been defeated in Syria, Lysimachus launched a surprise attack on Pyrrhus and seized his supplies, causing a great scarcity of provisions in Pyrrhus' army. Then, by bribes, rumors and appeals to Macedonian chauvinism, he persuaded the leaders of the Macedonians to renounce their allegiance to Pyrrhus (who was not a Macedonian) and come over to him. So Pyrrhus was compelled to return to Epirus [283 B.C.], and he had nothing to do there but rule his own kingdom in peace.

Such kings are the great instructors of unfaithfulness and treachery. Therefore they should not be surprised that their own people also change allegiances as it suits their interests, and come to consider contempt of good faith to be the essence of wisdom.

* * *

The people of Tarentum and the other Italian Greeks were at this time locked in a struggle with the expanding power of Rome. The Tarentines were too weak to win the war, but they were too stubborn to make peace, and things were going very badly for them. The better citizens did not like the idea of inviting Pyrrhus to lead them, but these few were overruled by the noise and violence of the multitude.

The day came to formalize the decision to give the command to Pyrrhus, and all of the Tarentines had gathered in assembly when Meton (who was usually a very sober man) came dancing into the assembly like a drunken fool, with a woman playing a flute before him. In such crowds, fools always find an audience, and soon they were all clapping time and shouting for the woman to play on, and they called on Meton to give them a song. Meton pretended that he was going to sing, but when they had quieted down he only said: "It is right of you not to keep anyone from having a good time while we still can. If you are wise, you will do the same, because when Pyrrhus gets here you will have to change your way of living." The demagogues, who opposed peace because peace would mean that they would be delivered to the Romans, joined together and threw Meton out, and, despite the misgivings of many, the decree passed. Ambassadors went to Epirus and offered Pyrrhus the command of the 37,000 Tarantines.

As Pyrrhus was preparing to sail to Italy, Cineas, his chief ambassador, had the following conversation with him:

Cineas began: "The Romans are reported to be great warriors and conquerors of many nations. If the gods permit us to overcome them, how shall we use our victory?"

"That is an easy question," responded Pyrrhus. "Once we conquer the Romans, there will not be any city in all of Italy that will resist us."

Cineas paused, then asked: "Once we have Italy, what next?"

"Sicily, which is a wealthy island, should be easy to take," said Pyrrhus.

Cineas continued: "You speak what is perfectly probable, but will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?"

"Carthage and Africa would then be within reach," said Pyrrhus, "and once we have them, who in the world would dare to oppose us?"

"No one, certainly," said Cineas, "And then what shall we do?"

Pyrrhus still did not see where he had been led by this argument, so he said: "Then, my dear Cineas, we will relax, and drink all day, and amuse ourselves with pleasant conversation."

"What prevents us from doing that now?" said Cineas, "We already have enough to make that possible without any more hard work, suffering, and danger."

The logic of this argument troubled Pyrrhus, but he was unwilling to abandon the hopes of what he so much desired.

On the voyage over to Tarentum, a storm scattered the ships and wrecked Pyrrhus on the east coast of Italy. He gathered what soldiers he could find and marched with them to Tarentum, where he waited peacefully until the rest of his force was in the harbor.

Once he had reunited his army, which was 20,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers, and 20 war-elephants, 7 Pyrrhus commenced to discipline the Tarentines. Without some strong compulsion, the Tarentines were incapable of making soldiers of themselves. Pyrrhus saw that the Tarentines were intending to stay home in comfort while he and his men fought their battles for them. So Pyrrhus shut all of the places of amusement, and he prohibited all gatherings and parties of any kind, saying that now was not the time for fun. There was no longer any place for the Tarentines to get together and argue about how to fight the war. Then Pyrrhus drafted every man for service. Many of the Tarentines, who had no idea what it was to take orders, left the city, calling it slavery not be able to do as they pleased.

News came that the Roman consul Laevinus was on his way with a big army, plundering Lucania as he went. Reinforcements that had been promised to Pyrrhus by the other Italian Greeks still had not come, but Pyrrhus decided not to wait for them any more. In his judgment, it would be unwise to allow the Romans to penetrate so far without doing anything about it. So Pyrrhus marched out with only his own men and those of the Tarentines, and met the Romans in the plain of Heraclea.

When he saw the Roman camp, Pyrrhus was amazed by its high level of organization and discipline. That changed his mind about waiting for the allies. But the Romans wanted to fight before the allies arrived, so Pyrrhus was compelled to do battle.

Pyrrhus' valor impressed everyone, and he killed several of the best Roman warriors in single combat. Seven times, the tide of battle turned, and the pursuers became the pursued. When it became clear that this would be a long fight, and that Pyrrhus, if he were recognized, would be in danger from fresh and ambitious Roman soldiers as the day wore on, he changed armor with one of his friends. The change of armor probably saved Pyrrhus' life, but it nearly lost him the battle. The man wearing the armor was killed, and the Romans showed Pyrrhus' distinctive helmet all around the battlefield. On seeing it, the Romans shouted for joy, and the Greeks groaned with terror and discouragement. Finally, Pyrrhus had to bare his head and ride around among them, shouting that he was still alive.

The elephants were so frightening to the Roman horses that their cavalry retreated in disorder. When Pyrrhus saw this, he commanded his own cavalry to charge, and that decided the battle. The losses on both sides were nearly equal, but Pyrrhus took the Roman camp and claimed the victory [280 B.C].

Reinforced by the tardy allies, Pyrrhus advanced without opposition to within 37 miles of the city of Rome. Pyrrhus realized that the force he had brought would not be enough to take the city, and that a friendly settlement would be as glorious as an outright conquest, so Pyrrhus sent Cineas as his ambassador to see if a treaty could be negotiated.

Cineas brought presents for the leading men and their ladies, but no one would accept these Greek gifts. He made a speech to the Roman senate, offering to return all of the prisoners without ransom if only the Romans would leave the Tarentines in peace and become allies of Pyrrhus. Most of Rome wanted peace. They had already suffered one defeat, and now they feared another from Pyrrhus' increased force.

But when Appius Claudius heard that the Roman senate was about to vote on peace with Pyrrhus, he commanded his servants to carry him there in his chair, and his sons and sons-in-law carried him in. Appius Claudius was very old, and he was blind. He had been retired for many years, and only this crisis had roused him to action. Out of reverence for this distinguished general, the senate was respectfully silent.

"My blindness," he said, "has been a great annoyance to me, but now that I hear about these dishonorable proposals of yours, I wish I were deaf as well. Do you remember your brave words about Alexander? How you bragged that if he dared to come into Italy, he would not now be called 'the Great.' Today you prove that those words were nothing but foolish arrogance. You tremble at the name of Pyrrhus, who was only a servant to one of Alexander's guards [Demetrius], and comes here as a fugitive from enemies at home. Do not persuade yourselves that making him your friend is the way to get rid of him. Oh no -- that is the way to invite over others from Greece, who will despise Rome as easy prey. That is what you can look forward to if Pyrrhus gets away unpunished."

These words of Appius Claudius changed everything. Eagerness for war seized every senator. Cineas was dismissed with the following answer: if Pyrrhus would withdraw out of Italy, then Rome would talk about an alliance, but if he stayed, Rome would prosecute the war no matter how many defeats came before final victory.

While Cineas was managing this affair, he learned about the Romans and their system of government. On his return he told Pyrrhus that the Roman senate seemed to be an assembly of kings. He added that the Romans had raised an army twice the size of the one that Pyrrhus had defeated, and there were many more Romans ready for service. It appeared, Cineas said, that Pyrrhus was fighting a hydra. 8

* * *

Caius Fabricius, who was famous as a good soldier and an honest man, came from Rome to the camp of Pyrrhus to negotiate for the release of the Roman prisoners. Fabricius was extremely poor. Pyrrhus was very courteous to him, and tried to persuade him to accept some gold, claiming that it was offered only as a gesture of respect and hospitality and not for any evil purpose. Fabricius declined the gift.

The next day, Pyrrhus had a fully armored elephant placed outside the tent behind Fabricius as they talked. On his signal, the tent flap was lifted and the elephant trumpeted over Fabricius' head. Fabricius gently turned around, smiling, then said to Pyrrhus: "Neither your money yesterday, nor this beast today, has impressed me at all."

That night, the conversation turned to the philosophers of Greece. Cineas explained the doctrine of the Epicureans: the belief that the gods do not care about what happens on earth, but rather enjoy a life completely without business and devoted to fun, so the chief happiness is pleasure of the senses, and therefore a man should avoid taking on responsibilities.9 Before Cineas had finished with his explanation, Fabricius exclaimed: "Oh Hercules! May our enemies always entertain themselves with this sort of opinion as long as they are at war with us!" Pyrrhus admired the wisdom of Fabricius and asked him to be his chief of staff, but Fabricius replied: "Sir, that will not be to your advantage. Once your men get to know me, they will choose me over you."

Pyrrhus did not explode in a tyrannic tantrum when he heard Fabricius' answer, nor did he hold a grudge. On the contrary, among his friends he commended the great mind of Fabricius, and he entrusted Fabricius with all of the Roman prisoners, who were given leave to return to Rome for the Saturnalia. 10 Fabricius guaranteed to bring them back to captivity if the Roman senate still wanted war rather than peace after the holidays. All of the Romans returned, as Fabricius had promised.

After this, Fabricius became consul of Rome. A letter came to Fabricius from Pyrrhus' physician, offering to poison Pyrrhus in exchange for a reward proportional to this service. Fabricius sent the letter to Pyrrhus along with the following note: "You seem to have misjudged your friends as well as your enemies. You will understand by reading the enclosed letter that you are at war with honest men, and you trust villains. We do not disclose this to you out of any feelings of kindness, but because we do not want your death by such treachery to tarnish the glory of our victory."

Pyrrhus freed the Roman prisoners, and once more sent Cineas to negotiate peace. The Romans considered this kindness from an enemy too great to accept, so they responded by releasing an equal number of the prisoners they had taken from the Italian Greeks. However, the Romans stood firm in their demand that Pyrrhus leave Italy before any peace could be discussed. So a second battle became necessary.

This time, the two armies met at Asculum. As at Heraclea, the fight was long and equal. Pyrrhus himself was the first to open a hole in the Roman lines. The charge of the elephants crushed all opposition, so the Romans retreated to their camp. As in the first battle, the casualties were heavy on both sides. When someone congratulated Pyrrhus on this victory [279 B.C.], he said: "One more victory like this will be the end of me." 11

Most of the men Pyrrhus had brought over from Epirus were disabled or dead, including nearly all of his officers and friends. Recruiting would be impossible, and his allies were unreliable. The Romans, on the other hand, quickly replaced their losses with fresh men, and with every defeat the Romans were becoming more determined to win.

At this juncture, new projects distracted Pyrrhus. Ambassadors came from Sicily to offer him the cities of Syracuse, Leontini, and Agrigentum if he would lead the Sicilians against the Carthaginians. At the same time, news came from Macedonia that Pyrrhus could easily have the kingdom all to himself. Pyrrhus complained that so many opportunities were presented at once, seeing the choice of one as only the loss of another. He decided to go to Sicily because it was nearby, and it was a stepping-stone to the riches of Africa, but the choice was not an easy one.

The war with Rome was deferred, and Pyrrhus left a garrison in control of Tarentum. The Tarentines demanded that Pyrrhus either finish the war with Rome or withdraw the garrison, but Pyrrhus commanded them to be quiet and wait for his return. Then he sailed away to conquer in Sicily.

What he had designed in his hopes happened in reality. The cities of Sicily surrendered to Pyrrhus without any serious resistance. At the head of an army of 30,000, Pyrrhus defeated the Carthaginians and invaded their half of the island.

Eryx was the strongest fortress of the Carthaginians, and Pyrrhus decided to take it by assault rather than starve it into submission by a long siege. A blizzard of stones and arrows cleared the wall of defenders, then Pyrrhus and his men climbed up their ladders. Pyrrhus was the first one to stand on the wall. Soon there was a heap of dead men around him. Just the sight of Pyrrhus paralyzed the enemy with terror. This clearly demonstrates that Homer was right when he said that only bravery, out of all the virtues, displays itself in a divine frenzy.

After he had taken Eryx, and had offered magnificent sacrifices to Hercules, Pyrrhus began preparations for invading Africa. For this, he would need ships and sailors, which he proceeded to collect by force and threats. The Sicilians changed their minds about Pyrrhus, and now they considered him to be an ungrateful tyrant and a cheat. Some of the Sicilians even invited their old enemies, the Carthaginians, to come and help them get rid of Pyrrhus. Others brought in the Mamertines, and all over Sicily the cities were revolting against the oppression of Pyrrhus.

Then Pyrrhus received urgent letters from the Tarentines, telling him that the Romans had beaten them out of the battlefield and that they were now shut up in their cities desperately awaiting his help. This was a good enough excuse for leaving Sicily, which was coming apart like a ship in a storm.

As Pyrrhus was sailing back to Italy, the Carthaginian navy blocked the way and sank many of his ships. Then, when he landed what was left of his army in Italy, the Mamertines, who had crossed over to wait for him, attacked. These Mamertines were a fierce people from Sicily, whom Pyrrhus had conquered by force, and now they would get their revenge. They set up an ambush and cut off part of his rear guard. Pyrrhus came in person and forced the Mamertines to fall back by the power of his own arm. In this fight, he was wounded in the head by a sword, and as he was being treated for this wound behind the lines, the biggest and best-armored Mamertine stepped up and bellowed a challenge for Pyrrhus to come out and fight. Pyrrhus broke free of his doctors and his guards, pushed through his men, and with one mighty stroke of his sword cut the giant in half from head to foot. When the Mamertines saw the incredible force of this blow, which could only have come from a god, they withdrew. For the rest of his march to Tarentum, no one bothered Pyrrhus.

Pyrrhus arrived with 23,000 troops and collected some more from the Tarentines and other allies. They came unwillingly because they were unhappy with his detour into Sicily.

Each of the Roman consuls had a separate army. Pyrrhus sent some men to delay one of the consul's armies while he went to attack the other before the Romans could unite. Marching at night, through a thick forest, many of his soldiers lost their way. At dawn, the Romans cut off a large part of Pyrrhus' army and beat the rest in an open battle at Beneventum [275 B.C.]. This time, the elephants were stampeded back into their own side, and did Pyrrhus more harm than good.

And so, after six years [280 - 275 B.C.] in Italy and Sicily, Pyrrhus' hopes there came to an end. He returned to Epirus with only 8,500 men. Since he had no money to pay them, Pyrrhus needed to find some place to plunder.

Whatever Pyrrhus won, he lost by going on to new adventures, like a lucky gambler who does not know when to stop. What he won by great actions he lost by vain hopes. Because of his desires for new conquests, he lost what he had already won. On and on he went, building new ambitions on the ruins of old ones, and never finishing what he started.

Nevertheless, Pyrrhus was the most famous general of his time, and the one most respected for personal valor and expertise in command. No less a judge than the great Hannibal 12 considered Pyrrhus the greatest commander of all time (with himself in only third place).

Some Gauls 13 joined forces with Pyrrhus, and he invaded Macedonia again. This time, it was just to loot the country. Pyrrhus won some early victories, and this gave him hope of becoming king there again, so he boldly advanced, trusting more in his hope than his judgment. The Macedonian army was surprised by fear and disturbed by their previous losses, so they hesitated to fight Pyrrhus as he confidently advanced. Pyrrhus rode up to the Macedonians and called to his old friends by name. Soon they deserted to him, and King Antigonus 14 ran away secretly to the coast, where he still had a few loyal cities.

The greedy Gauls in Pyrrhus' army looted graveyards, but Pyrrhus did nothing to stop them. Either his attention was absorbed in other business, or he was unwilling to lose any soldiers, but whatever the reason, Pyrrhus became very much disliked in Macedonia because of this.

Yet again, Pyrrhus became distracted by a new project, and so, leaving his new kingdom to crumble behind him, he went to conquer Sparta. At this time, one of the two royal houses of Sparta had an internal dispute, and one faction decided to call in Pyrrhus to help. This client was Cleonymus, the uncle of King Areus. Areus's son, Acrotatus -- a youth in the full flower of manhood -- was having an open affair with Cleonymus' beautiful young wife, Chilonis, the daughter of Leotychides. The Spartans had never liked Cleonymus anyway (he was too arbitrary to be a leader) and the public snickering over this affair aggravated his bitterness. So Cleonymus brought Pyrrhus to Sparta with 25,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, and 24 elephants to avenge the wounded vanity of a cuckold.

It was obvious to everyone that Pyrrhus' ulterior motive was to take Sparta for himself. "If you are a god," a Spartan told him, "then you will do us no harm because we have harmed no one. But if you are a man, there may be another who is stronger than you." Pyrrhus told the Spartans that he only wanted to liberate them from slavery to Antigonus, who was still pretending to rule the old dominions of Macedonia. But as soon as Pyrrhus arrived, his army began to loot the country. Finally, Pyrrhus put aside all pretense and marched directly to sack the city.

The night that Pyrrhus arrived before Sparta, Cleonymus advised an immediate attack, but Pyrrhus was afraid of what his the soldiers might do in the darkness. He decided to wait until the next morning. The city had no fortifications, and the defenders were too few to keep up resistance for long. King Areus was away on an expedition in Crete with most of the Spartan army.

That night, the Spartans debated whether to send their women to Crete also, but the women refused to leave. They sent a representative to the assembly, who entered with a sword in her hand and asked the men whether they expected the women of Sparta to live after the city had been sacked. So it was decided that the women would stay. The women joined the old men in the work on the fortifications, while the young men rested for the next day.

That night, the Spartans dug a trench six feet deep, nine feet wide, and eight hundred feet long. They also set some wagons in the ground as an obstacle to the elephants. At dawn, the Spartans armed the young men and strengthened their resolve by reminding them that everyone would be able to see what they did, fighting and dying with Spartan fortitude. As for Chilonis, she tied a noose around her neck, resolving that if Sparta were taken she would commit suicide rather than live another day with Cleonymus.

The battle lasted all day. At nightfall, the Spartans still held their position. In the fighting at the trench, Pyrrhus was there in person, and that is where the action was most furious. Of all the Spartans who did marvelous things that day, Phyllius killed the most enemies. Many wounds, however, made him faint from loss of blood, but before he died he managed to crawl behind his comrades so that the enemies could not carry off his body.

Some of Pyrrhus' men tried to get around the trench through where the wagons were, but these wagons had been set so deep in the ground and so close together that finally it became necessary to dig them out and haul them away. Young prince Acrotatus saw this threat, and he collected 300 Spartans and sneaked around behind the enemy. This surprise attack from the rear killed many of Pyrrhus' men, and saved the Spartan position. Acrotatus returned to the city covered with enemy blood and elated with victory. All of the city had seen what he had done, and the old men shouted to him: "Go on Acrotatus, be happy with Chilonis, and give Sparta brave sons."

As Pyrrhus rested from the battle, in a dream he saw thunderbolts strike the city. This encouraged him, so he woke up and immediately ordered another assault for the next day. One of his fortune-tellers, however, interpreted the dream as a message from the gods that Sparta was not to be taken, because places where lightning had struck were considered sacred.

At dawn, the attack began anew. The Spartans' determination and bravery made up for their lack of soldiers. Dead bodies and debris filled the trench. Pyrrhus managed to get over the trench on his horse, and he started hacking his way into the city, but his horse was shot with an arrow in the belly, and it threw him off. Then the Spartans rallied and forced their enemies back.

After this, Pyrrhus called a halt. He thought that the Spartans might now be inclined to surrender, since most of the men were wounded and a large number had already died. But either the gods were satisfied with this test of the bravery of Sparta, or they wanted to prove how much can be done even in the most desperate situations, when all hope is nearly gone. Just in time, King Areus returned from Crete with 2,000 fresh Spartan soldiers.

Frustrated, Pyrrhus gave up on Sparta and went to Argos, where one side in the civil war there had requested his help. The other side had brought in Pyrrhus' old enemy from Macedonia, Antigonus. Pyrrhus always looked at success as a stepping-stone to greater things, and at defeat as something to be erased by new enterprises. There was therefore never any limit on his capacity for getting into trouble.

The people of Argos begged the soldiers helping the two factions to leave the city in peace. Pyrrhus pretended to consent, but in the darkness he sneaked up to the walls and was let through the gate by traitors. Pyrrhus' Gauls succeeded in occupying the marketplace of Argos.

There was a problem, however, with the elephants: the towers on their backs had to be taken off to fit through the gate, and once the elephants were inside, the towers had to be put back on. This caused a delay, which allowed the people of Argos time to sound the alarm and set up a defense. In this night fight, the darkness, the noise, the narrow streets, and the general confusion rendered all attempts at command futile. Nothing was accomplished by either side, and both waited for morning.

At dawn, Pyrrhus saw a bronze statue of a bull fighting a wolf. This brought to mind a prophecy that he had heard years before, which was that he would die on the day that he saw a wolf and a bull fighting. So Pyrrhus tried to get out of the city. However, there were so many of his men and animals pushing to get in that his men inside could not get out. No one could move anywhere, and the packed mass surged this way and that, unavoidably hurting each other with their weapons. One of the elephants, the largest one in Pyrrhus' army, fell down at the gate and blocked it. Another elephant, called Nicon, had lost his rider, who had been wounded several times and had fallen off. Trampling over friends as well as enemies, Nicon picked up the body of his rider and carried it on his tusks as he rampaged through the crowd.

During this melee, an old woman threw a tile down from her roof, and it happened to hit Pyrrhus on the neck. Stunned, Pyrrhus fell off his horse, and one of Antigonus' soldiers cut off Pyrrhus' head.

Antigonus gave Pyrrhus an honorable burial and took care of the family and the army that Pyrrhus had left behind.


1. Epirus is on the northwestern coast of Greece. The kings there were descended from that Pyrrhus (a.k.a. Neoptolemus) who was the son of Achilles, the famous Greek warrior of the Trojan War. Both Pyrrhus and Alexander were worthy descendants of Achilles, who, like them, was a fiery warrior whose restless soul could never be at peace.

2. Plutarch's life of Demetrius is not included in this collection. The ups and downs of Demetrius' wild career are entertaining, but not heroic. Plutarch, in his life of Demetrius, assures us that we may learn from the example of a bad man, just as the Spartan children learned from the example of the helots that were forced to get drunk in front of them. Any reader who is that hungry for this sort of instruction may consult the Dryden edition of Plutarch for more information on Demetrius Poliorcetes (Sacker of Cities).

3. The Battle of Ipsus (301 B.C.) was between Antigonus and other Macedonian generals who had carved kingdoms out of the empire won by Alexander. Antigonus and his son, Demetrius, lost at Ipsus their control over Greece and Asia Minor.

4. After the death of Alexander, Ptolemy had taken Egypt as his share of Alexander's empire. Ptolemy remained neutral in the battle of Ipsus. His dynasty later produced the famous Cleopatra who seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

5. Two brothers, Antipater and Alexander, were fighting over who would succeed King Cassander. Antipater had killed his own mother, and Alexander requested the assistance of Pyrrhus and Demetrius. Pyrrhus arrived first, and for payment he took a large slice of Macedonia. Alexander did not want the same thing to happen when Demetrius arrived, so he went to meet Demetrius. While Alexander was his guest, Demetrius killed him and took the rest of Macedonia.

6. Demetrius had ruled Macedonia for seven years. His son, Antigonus, later became king of Macedonia, and his descendants ruled there until 197 B.C., when the Romans conquered Macedonia.

7. Armored elephants had been encountered by Alexander in India, and Pyrrhus adopted this awesome weapon. The smell and noise of the elephants would panic horses who had never seen them before.

8. The hydra was one of the monsters that Hercules fought. It had nine heads, and every time one was cut off, two more grew in its place. Hercules succeeded by searing the hydra's stumps with a torch.

9. The followers of the Greek philosopher Epicuris were known as Epicureans. Epicuris advised: "Live unknown," enjoying a life of anonymous frolic. Plutarch's refutation of the central tenet of the Epicureans (that the gods do not care about what we do), as well as an interesting first-hand account of the retribution waiting in the afterlife, may be found in his essay in the Moralia entitled "On the Delay of Divine Punishment."

10. The Roman festival of Saturn was known as the Saturnalia. It was celebrated for three days in the middle of December, and during that time every sort of disrespect and lewd behavior was permitted.

Saturn was the Roman name for the Greek god called Cronos (Time), who was the father of Zeus (Jupiter), Poseidon (Neptune) and Hades (Pluto). Like time, Saturn would swallow his children, but Saturn's wife, Cybele (Great Mother), fooled him one day by giving him a rock instead of Jupiter. Jupiter grew up and then went to war with his father and the other Titans -- children of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaea (Earth) -- and defeated them. See Hesiod's Theogony.

The reign of Saturn was the Golden Age, a time of trust and happiness. His reign in Italy was remembered as a time of peace and plenty. During the Saturnalia, masters and slaves changed places and friends gave gifts to each other, to show the natural equality of human beings and the principle of brotherly generosity that prevailed in the Golden Age of Saturn. It appears that some vestige of this Roman festival has survived in Christmas.

11. Hence the expression "pyrrhic victory." The annals of litigation furnish many examples of victories where the cost cripples the victor.

12. Hannibal was a famous Carthaginian general in the Second Punic War (218 - 201 B.C.). This war was a fight to the death between Rome and Carthage. Hannibal started from Spain and crossed over the Alps into Italy with his army, including elephants. He won some stunning victories and nearly took Rome, but Rome held on and eventually he had to leave.

13. Gauls were people from what is now called France. They were fierce warriors, who had sacked Rome in 387 B.C., about a hundred years before Pyrrhus' career.

14. This Antigonus was the son of Demetrius.

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