Monday, 11 July 2011

Review: Pyrrhus of Epirus by Jeff Champion

Pyrrhus of Epirus is a concise biography of the chap in question, from his origins in Epirus (roughly where Albania is now) through numerous battlefields from Phrygia (modern day Turkey) to Italy, Sicily and Greece.

Jeff Champion has a nice, easy-to-read writing style, and the book’s suitable as the first book of this type for someone, but also interesting for people who’ve read a bit of classical history beforehand.

Mr. Champion, very wisely, begins by setting up the context of the world in which Pyrrhus was born. Essentially, the world was slightly disintegrating as the power vacuum left by Alexander’s premature death led to what could be loosely described as a massive, decades-long civil war of Macedonian leaders. Indeed, Pyrrhus had to be smuggled out of Epirus as a baby to avoid him being murdered.

Later, he returned and was hailed as king. He fought in arguably the single most important battle of the Diadochi (Successors to Alexander) alongside Demetrius Poliorcetes, his brother-in-law. Later, he became Ptolemy’s son-in-law and then fought against Demetrius (Pyrrhus’ sister had died so they were not bound by that tie anymore).

However, he is most famous for heading west from Epirus and fighting the Romans. After beating them in battle he deserted the Tarentines, who had invited him in to save them from the Roman menace, to help the Greek cities of Sicily drive out Carthage. He succeeded, almost entirely, but (and it’s hard to be sure because of the lack if historical sources) ended up managing to get on the wrong side of the cities through high taxation and a failure to conquer the last tiny bit of Carthaginian power on the island.

So, he left Sicily, fought the Romans again and lost this time, and then went over to Macedon where he defeated Antigonus Gonatas, the son of Demetrius Poliorcetes, and became King of Macedon. Following this, he assaulted Sparta but failed to take it and got involved in some fighting in Argos, where he met his end.

Motivated by ambition and a lust for glory, Pyrrhus was an interesting character. He was unimpressed with social inferiors, but loyal to friends and (in the spirit of the age) had great personal bravery in battle. Tactically, he was an intelligent man but a reckless and impulsive one. Many victories were his, but a lack of strategic foresight meant that he was unable to consolidate his battlefield triumphs into any lasting success. He was also not especially diplomatic, devoting himself to military education and neglecting the softer but useful art of diplomacy.

His life was never less than interesting, with mortal danger faced the moment he left the womb, family ties to two of the most powerful Diadochi dynasties and becoming King of Epirus, King of Macedon and effectively the ruler of Tarentum/Sicily for a time. He was involved in an enormous battle, with over 100,000 men fighting, and impressively beat the Romans in two battles out of three (albeit in such a manner as to create the term ‘Pyrrhic Victory’).

If there are any criticisms of the book, I suspect the slight brevity would be one, but when there aren’t many historical sources I prefer this to a book padded with blind speculation.

Pyrrhus forms a crucial link between the era of the Diadochi and the decline of Hellenistic power and the rise of Rome, epitomised by their victories in the Punic Wars. The Pyrrhic Victory term has meant his name is fairly well-known, but he has slightly fallen in the shade between the two ancient geniuses Alexander and Hannibal.


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