Pyrrhus and the Golden Table of Zeus

October 6, 2017

 

When we study the lives of notable personalities of the ancient world we are taught of those who made a lasting impression on the society of the time. Those who are remembered are those whom the victors, the witnesses and heirs of the events and the experience, chose to remember. For every one of those notables in the past who are remembered, there are many who have been all but forgotten. 

 

An example of someone who has been remembered in history for being such a cosmic earth mover is Hannibal. He challenged the burgeoning Roman empire and swore to bring that empire to it's knees, and for a time did just that. Hannibal was a brilliant military commander and organizer who took his army equipped with war elephants on a trek from Africa, across the Iberian peninsula and over the Alps to invade the Italy and attack the Romans from the north, completely surprising them. His military genius and tactics are still studied today at military academies all over the world as he defeated his Roman adversaries time after time on their own ground and dangerously close to Rome itself. His strategy at Cannae, in which his front lines feinted retreat while his flanks enveloped and destroyed the hapless Romans is considered a marvel of daring, brilliant generalship and determination which proves Hannibal to be one of history's greatest generals. Due to lack of supplies and reinforcements, the great Carthaginian leader was forced to vacate the Italian peninsula. Eventually, a Roman army under one Scipio who would gain the title 'Africanus' learned well from earlier mistakes and invaded the Carthaginian mainland, defeating Hannibal at Zama in what is now Tunisia. The victorious Romans, like many if not most of the ancient empires of the past, destroyed Carthage plundering the city, killing the inhabitants, raping and taking women and children as slaves. Then, they sowed salt into the furrows of the farmland, so that nothing would grow again. Thus did Rome's rival fall forever, guaranteed never to rise again. 

 

The impact of Hannibal on the Romans created a legacy of awe and amazement, as he came very close to sacking Rome itself. The man united the various peoples and tribes of north Africa, Iberia, Gaul, Sardinia and Sicily and marched to counter what was seen as a growing threat in the Mediterranean. For this Hannibal is rightly remembered, as stories of his military prowess were repeated as a warning to future would be generals and consuls. However, despite his obvious genius Hannibal didn't think of himself as the greatest general of the age. Rather, he paid homage to one who lived a few decades before him who also challenged the growing might of Rome. This man, said Hannibal, was the greatest general of his day, a brilliant tactician and organizer known for daring tactics and shrewd designs. This man was Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, a nation on the western Balkan peninsula that was a buffer state between the city states of Greece and the unruly tribes of the Thracians to the north and the Illyrians, who inhabited the limestone mountains that ran along the coast of that rocky region. 

 

It is often noticed in history that nations rise or fall due to their ability to either unite or fall into chaos. Pyrrhus was born in 318 BC, a time of stagnation and the political downfall of what was Greek civilization. He fought wars against his neighbors, sought alliances with them, attacked one nation then joined with whomever was their enemy and attacked the nation he was just supporting, no different than any of the other states that he knew so well. Macedon, Thessaly, Athens and other the Greek speaking states were anything but unified throughout their history. Only when a foreign invader appeared would the Greek city states unwillingly unite for a short while to stem the threat- as when these city states united to stop Persian expansion, with such battles as Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis recorded and honored in history and legend. In unity there is strength, to be sure, but unity was not the order of the day in Pyrrhus' time. Rather, the peoples of the ancient Balkans were in a constant state of war against each other, with the Greek city states vying for power against the remnants of what was Alexander's Macedon, the Illyrian and Thracian tribes to the north exploiting that chaos by making and breaking alliances or sending reinforcements to aid or hinder their Greek neighbors for the price of gold and slaves. Amid all this chaos and political intrigue Pyrrhus sought to expand the power of his own nation of Epirus. This nation was a proud one, the rulers being of both Greek and Illyrian bloodlines who claimed Alexander and even Achilles as their ancestors. Alexander's mother was a daughter of the Molossian king, married to Philip as part of a treaty, and Pyrrhus had ties to various Illyrian princes, such as Glaukas who protected him when he was young when he was dangerously in the middle of a power struggle that would have seen him assassinated had he not gone to hide in the mountains. The picture we get of Pyrrhus is like that of the later Tatar conqueror Tamerlane or the Moghul Babur and others who rose to greatness in history after they were considered despised outcasts. Pyrrhus eventually unites tribes and city states, inviting them to be part of his realm. He rises to power, defeats many enemies and becomes king of Epirus amid assassinations, bloodshed and murder. He becomes, at this early stage of his career, the most powerful man in the Hellenic world. 

 

Unable to fully unite the Greek states and the nations surrounding them into a loyal cohesion as Alexander did before him Pyrrhus does what many ancient kings, like modern politicians, would do to encourage an alliance. Alexander warned of the Persian threat to the east and accused their king Darius of assassinating his father, Philip, who's death was shrouded in mystery. In this way Alexander was able to encourage support for what would be his trek across Asia. Pyrrhus similarly warns his neighbors of the rising nation to the west, Rome, and insists that Epirus and her allies must invade Rome across the Adriatic sea and tame it, lest Rome expands and conquer them in turn. There were many Greek speaking city states in southern Italy and Sicily at the time who feared the rise of Roman power. Pyrrhus, just as Pope Urban does later in 1096 AD, preaches a 'crusade', a united alliance of Hellenic states to set out and destroy Roman power once and for all. To get it all started he accuses the Romans of breaking a truce regarding the waters surrounding the Greek city of Tarantum, in the very south of the Italian boot, in which Roman war galleys were forbidden to sail. Yes, saber rattling is very old indeed. Using the Roman's daring display of naval power in the gulf of Tarentum, in 280 BC Pyrrhus sails across the Adriatic and lands his forces, augmented by the addition of armored war elephants which he received from allies in Egypt.


He meets the Romans and defeats them, proving himself to be a tactician and military genius, achieving a brilliant victory at the battle of Heraclea. He commanded his forces not from the rear but in the midst of the battle, fighting and inspiring his men. His war elephants smashed through and crushed the Roman lines while his Macedonian phalanx moved in for the kill. The phalanx was a feature of Phillip and Alexander the Great's victories, with hundreds of men standing together in solid moving squares holding long sarissa pikes, the mass presenting itself as a human porcupine bristling with these long spears impaling man and horse alike in it's advance. The victory at Heraclea was complete, the Roman legions utterly routed. Achieving a number of such brilliant victories, Pyrrhus settled down with his army to winter in the region of Campania, planning his Spring expedition to finally crush and immobilize Rome. It seemed that the tide of the new rising power in the Italian peninsula would be stemmed. The city of Romulus and Remus, the two brothers considered to be the mythological founders of Rome nursed as they were by a she wolf, was in danger of falling to the forces of the Epirot king. Only the onset of Winter stopped him from achieving his goal, as ancient armies ceased their campaigns in later autumn. Mountain passes might be blocked by snow, or heavy rains rain could cause havoc to an army on the march. Pyrrhus and his army hunkered down and made plans to capture Rome in the Spring. Their previous great victories yielded great confidence as Pyrrhus was loved, honored and lauded by his soldiers. Confident of swift victory, they would follow their general anywhere. 

 

Pyrrhus celebrated his victories by holding lavish feasts accompanied by bards who would sing his praises and recount his exploits. A vast quantity of food was served and beakers of wine consumed on what was called The Golden Table of Zeus while the bards sang about the glory of the conqueror, a hero sought after and much needed by a failing civilization in the face of a rising new power across the Adriatic known as Rome. 

 

I am Pyrrhus, king of Epirus

Let the table groan from the weight

Of the ample delicacies I provide

Great loaves of bread and heaps of cheese, olives, fruit   

And beakers of wine blood red, sweet and tart in taste

From vineyards on the banks of the river Aous *

Blessed by Zeus himself, and Dionysus

Let them drink their full, command the musicians to play

So those present will recall not the day nor the hour

But shall they know, on the morrow

They dined at the court of a king

While the army of Pyrrhus was made up of various Greek and related Illyrian peoples from city states and tribes across the Adriatic who were, previously to their unification were often odds with each other, the Romans on the other hand were united in a singular purpose. They knew they had to defend their city and Roman interests at all costs. These Roman "barbarian upstarts" as the Greeks called them were nonetheless astute learners and studied in detail the tactics that defeated them in previous battles. Just as the Japanese learned and improved on that which they learned from China, Rome learned from Greece and applied that knowledge for their own benefit. Defeat was unthinkable and unacceptable in their militaristic mindset. Over the Winter they would drill and come up with new tactics and strategies based on their experience of defeat at the hands of the Epirot conqueror. This has always been a feature of Roman warfare, patiently learning from mistakes and working to attain revenge for a previous defeat by delivering a crushing blow to the enemy. In 279 BC Pyrrhus demanded Rome's surrender, which the latter promptly refused to do. Upon their refusal he resumed his campaign and met the Romans at Asculum. This time around the Roman legions were prepared for him. They learned to avoid getting in the direct line of the approaching phalanxes. Archers shot volleys of arrows at them, legionnaires threw javelins at close range so as to not miss their targets. Great war machines, artillery called ballistas shot stones or large pointed shafts into the ranks of the solid moving Macedonian phalanx mass, causing many casualties. After the phalanx became somewhat disorganized the Roman infantry would then rush in for the kill and engage in hand to hand combat, rendering the long sarissa pikes of the phalanx useless in the face of the short sword of the Romans. Swift suicidal velites risked being crushed to death as they ran under the bodies of the elephants to cut their tendons with swords, enraging the animals and causing them to panic, now turning on their their own ranks and crushing the men behind them. Pyrrhus was everywhere on the field that day, and received several wounds as he engaged and killed a number of Romans in hand to hand combat. After a hard fought battle he at last managed to defeat the Romans. However, the battle was costly and he lost several of his best commanders. In fact his losses were so immense he is reported to have said "another such victory and we are lost". The term Pyrrhic victory became an expression for success gained at an immensely high price.Brave were the comrades on that dayObeying orders, fearless, sallying aheadHad I wished they'd refused and behind would stayMy trusted commanders, deadPerhaps I, Pyrrhus, grew too assured Of victory as promised by the godsBut nay, tis not the working of heaven's planThat we face such mighty oddsBlood red grow the flowers of Spring On that field of AsculumPyrrhus was forced to retreat from the Italian mainland and traveled to Sicily, where the Greek city states asked him for help against the Carthaginians, the great grandfathers of Hannibal. Though he was offered the throne of Macedon as the king there was killed by invading Gauls, Pyrrhus saw opportunity in Sicily, where he could stem the tide of both Rome and Carthage. He could not be content being a king of one country, at the offer of a crown. He was an ambitious man with ambitious dreams who sought to carve his own destiny, so he decided to assist these Sicilian city states with the intention of adding the island to his realm. However, true to the chaotic and corrupt ways of the politics of the day the Greek city states in Sicily changed their minds, perhaps sensing Pyrrhus' designs. They would not send or grant their support to the conqueror and soon turned against him. They too followed the political mode of corruption and dishonesty of the nations that Pyrrhus knew, contributing to the disunity and subsequent break up and finality of the Hellenic world. This lack of unity would pave the way for both Carthage and Rome to vie for power. They would rise and become two major forces, the very balance of power in the Mediterranean. By now Pyrrhus knew this, but there was nothing he could do. Having made enemies of both Rome and Carthage, without any support from his allies at home he was forced to abandon his dream of conquering Italy. Upon embarking, he predicted a new contested balance of power which would explode into what became known as the Punic Wars and the eventual career of Hannibal. Pyrrhus, upon leaving Sicily, remarked: "What a battleground we leave for Rome and Carthage! One will eventually triumph, and the other will be utterly destroyed." Rome raised an army of fresh recruits and conquered every Greek city in the Italian peninsula except Tarentum, the port city where the campaign of Pyrrhus started. Pyrrhus tried once more to raise an expeditionary force to battle the Roman onslaught and met this army at Beneventum, which ended in a draw. The two forces so bloodied each other that day, they willingly retreated from the battlefield. This time there would be no feasts nor would the bards sing their praises of Pyrrhus. Rather, the songs sung were the odes to the dead and the dying, odes known as miroloi, the pentatonic scaled dirges that called on the spirits of the Earth and the heavens to receive the thousands of brave souls who met swift death on the field of Beneventum.

 

 

Pyrrhus, having failed to realize his dreams of empire followed his destiny back to his homeland. Facing mutiny and uprisings, he won a great victory against the rebelling Macedonians. Then, he was asked to assist a king of Sparta claiming the throne of that nation against rival factions. Pyrrhus traveled there to support his new ally. By this time Pyrrhus despised the petty political intrigue of his people and neighbors, for their inability to unite for a common cause would prove their downfall. In this endeavor in Sparta, Pyrrhus saw the chance to conquer the region of the Peloponnesus and add southern Greece to his domains. During a battle in this campaign his beloved son Ptolemy who rode alongside his father and fought bravely, was killed, and the loss was heavy on his heart. It seemed that every victory in his life was a Pyrrhic victory. I struggle and persist, I fight for thee, my sonSo that you might live a life befitting an heir to the throneFree from all worry, for want of nothingFor thee have I struggled all my lifeAll my dreams I saw in youBut now greed and the selfish desires of men, like my own selfish desiresHas seized all joy from meAnd left me an old man who mourns The loss of youth, vigor and hopePyrrhus had little time to mourn as he was now asked to settle a dispute in the city of Argos. Time and again throughout his life the leaders of city states, nations and tribes would ask Pyrrhus to intervene with his military genius and his gift of organization. Time and time again they would turn on him after he achieved their goals and desires. With a Macedonian army fast approaching Pyrrhus slipped into the city of Argos with his small force, hoping to surprise the rival force there and seize the city in one fell swoop. However, he found himself outwitted, perhaps thought trickery and deceit, and was surrounded by hostile troops. These troops attacked him and cut his regiment to shreds. The fighting was from street to street, the narrow alleys concealing hostile soldiers everywhere. Pyrrhus fought like a wild bull, defeating every enemy soldier who approached him. At the end of one street he was trapped, and was forced to watch as his comrades were cut down one by one. As he was fighting one such enemy soldier, a sword wielding youth in shining golden armor, the young man's mother watched from a rooftop as her son was engaged in a sword fight with the great Pyrrhus. Dost thou think that your golden breastplate and plumed helmetWould protect against my mighty sword arm?I have smitten many a warrior before, bedecked in such splendid arrayNone have been spared, though they be my equal in battleFlee thou, oh youth, flee and maintain your lifeLest it finish today, for Ares decides who shall live and who shall perishFearing that he would be surely killed by the great warrior king as none ever lived to tell the tale of a duel with Pyrrhus, the youth's mother desperately threw a tile at the king of Epirus, causing him to fall from his horse, a fall which paralyzed him. The youth in golden armor ran up to his prone body, drew his sword in an arc and promptly beheaded the conqueror. He recited as he held aloft the now bloody head of Pyrrhus...If Ares decides, then I am the sword of Ares!For fate decides our day only if we decide our fateDid you live your life accordingly, oh Pyrrhus? Or were you a servant of your vanity, oh king?On this day ye boasted your lastA mother's love has held you fastI carve my will with my sword in handAs you once did, in all the landThus was the end of an energetic and ambitious man who was once the very terror of nations and rising empires. All through his life Pyrrhus created his own destiny and carved out his own niche. Now, a youth in golden armor reminded him that man, not Ares, decides one's fate. Pyrrhus was a military genius and a great organizer. He carved out an empire of his own by acting as a mercenary, seeking to exploit situations for his own benefit. This may have been his undoing, or perhaps he was merely a victim of the chaotic times in which he lived. The inability to procure lasting support for his cause which could have united nations against the rising power of Rome or Carthage is what ultimately defeated him, as it was the undoing of Hellenic civilization. The story of Pyrrhus informs us of the reality of our life. In some instances in history we see individuals arise from obscurity to become great kings of lasting dynasties. This would not happen for Pyrrhus, and he is therefore less remembered than the likes of Hannibal, who thought him the greatest general of his time. Years after Pyrrhus' demise Hannibal would seek inspiration from this energetic warrior, study him and himself invade Italy, with war elephants and a complex system of military organization continuing the struggle. Pyrrhus predicted this conflict, and perhaps bemoaned the fact that he would not live to see nor be part of it. Pyrrhus, like all of us, could dream. Like all of us, he would realize that we are subject to the world we live in, a world of dreaming individuals all clamoring for immortality. What Pyrrhus discovered at the time of his death is what he forgot- if the gods decide our fate, so be it. What we do with the situations they put before us is what we will be remembered for. Pyrrhus, once a great general who defeated a whole succession of armies was defeated by a mother protecting her son, a handsome youth dressed in golden armor. Had Pyrrhus lived in another time where he might have had the support of true allies and nations committed to a united cause perhaps he would have become the greatest conqueror of the ancient world. Hannibal certainly thought so.

 

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