Pyrrhus I.

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Pyrrhos I ( ancient Greek Πύρρος "head of fire, red-haired", Latin Pyrrhus , ancient Latin Burrus ; * approx. 319/18 BC; † 272 BC in Argos ) was a king of the Molossians and hegemon of the Epiroten from the dynasty of the Aiakiden in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Against the historical background of the Diadoch Wars , he was one of the leading warlords of the early Hellenistic era in the generation after Alexander the Great . He was best known for the Pyrrhic War against the young Roman Republic, named after him . Despite his ultimate defeat in this war, his military prowess remained in high esteem. The term " Pyrrhic victory " for a success bought too dearly is derived from his name.


Early years

Pyrrhus was the only son of King Aiakides and a daughter of the Thessalian cavalry general Menon of Pharsalus . He was related to Alexander the Great through his great-aunt Olympias , which later turned him into an advantage several times. His sister Deidameia was at the instigation of Olympias in 317 BC. . BC with Alexander IV. Aigos been married, the son of the conqueror. In the war against Cassander for power in Greece and Macedonia, Olympias (316 BC) and finally Aiakides (313 BC) were killed one after the other. When his father died, Pyrrhus was only five years old, whereupon his uncle Alketas II seized the opportunity and rose to be king in Epiros. Because the uncle was a vassal of Cassander, Pyrrhus had to be rescued by some of his father's faithful to the north, to the Illyrians , where he was adopted and raised by King Glaucias .

Cassander's position of power in Greece was increased by the landing of Demetrios Poliorketes in 307 BC. Chr. Questioned what caused the Epiroten to revolt against the unloved Alketas II. After his murder, the twelve-year-old Pyrrhos was brought back to Epiros with the military support of his adoptive father and was enthroned as king. In order to assert himself against Kassander, he had based his foreign policy on Demetrios Poliorketes, who in 303 BC. Chr. Deidameia had married. But when 302 BC Chr. Pyrrhus had left the country on the occasion of the wedding of one of his Illyrian "brothers", his opponents, supported by Cassander, took advantage of this to install Neoptolemus II as a counter-pretender. Forced again into exile, Pyrrhus joined the entourage of his brother-in-law Demetrios Poliorketes in Asia Minor, who was just on the way to uniting his armed forces with those of his father Antigonos Monophthalmos . But in the decisive battle of Ipsos in the summer of 301 BC. BC, in which Pyrrhus was able to prove his outstanding bravery for the first time, the Antigonids suffered a heavy defeat; Antigonus had fallen and Pyrrhus and Demetrios were forced to flee onto the sea. The chances of regaining his kingdom had thus vanished.

For the sake of a peace with the mighty ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy I , Pyrrhus was conquered in 298 BC. BC sent by Demetrios to Alexandria as a hostage , which should ultimately prove to be trend-setting for Pyrrhus. Because Ptolemy was interested in an expansion of his influence in Greece and found a means to do so by protecting Pyrrhus. Through his marriage to his stepdaughter Antigone , Pyrrhos was accepted into the family of Ptolemy, who continued to give him money, ships and mercenaries for his return to Epiros in 297 BC. Provided. After Neoptolemus II and his followers were quickly eliminated by murder, Pyrrhus was the absolute ruler of the country. He chose Ambrakia as his capital . In the Macedonian fratricidal war he supported Alexander V against Antipater I , for which he stood up in 294 BC. Was rewarded with the landscapes Tymphaia and Parauaia . But in the same year Alexander V was eliminated by Demetrios Poliorketes, who thus took over power in Macedonia. From then on, Pyrrhus stood in the struggle for rule in Greece in a rivalry with his former friend. 293 BC He had attacked it for the first time in league with the Boeotians and had penetrated as far as the Thermophyls , but was then thrown back to Epiros by Demetrios.

In terms of foreign policy, Pyrrhus secured himself through an alliance with Agathocles of Syracuse , the Paionier king Audoleon and the Illyrian king of the Dardanians Bardylis II , of whom he married one daughter each in polygamy . The alliance with Agathocles did not last long, however, as his daughter Lanassa was not ready to accept her equality with the "barbaric" concubines of her husband. She left Pyrrhus in 291 BC. And offered himself to Demetrios Poliorketes for marriage. 289 BC BC Demetrios marched into Epiros, but could be driven back to Macedonia. Thereupon Pyrrhus allied himself with Lysimachus , who ruled in Thrace , in order to involve Demetrios in a two-front war. 288 BC BC Pyrrhus marched with his army to Beroia , where Demetrios opposed him. Before the battle broke out, however, the Macedonians defected to the side of Pyrrhus, who, as a relative of Alexander the great, was found more worthy to be their king. After Demetrios was fleeing from Macedonia, Pyrrhos followed him to Athens , where, after his rival had finally withdrawn, he could move to Asia and offer a victim sacrifice in the Parthenon on the Acropolis . In Macedonia, Pyrrhus had to come to terms with Lysimachus for the time being, against whom he now allied himself with Antigonos Gonatas , the son of Demetrius. 285 BC However, they were defeated by Lysimachus, who then took over sole rule in Macedonia.

Fight against Rome

Pyrrhus' advance on Rome - 280 BC BC to 275 BC Chr.
Bronze coin from Syracuse, Heracles head, e.g. Time of Pyrrhos, 287-276 BC Chr.
Reverse: Athena Promachos with lightning as a spear and with a shield

Pyrrhos now largely stayed out of the concerns in Greece. Instead, he planned a long campaign on the Italian peninsula after he had received a request for help from the Greek city of Taranto against Rome, which expanded into the Magna Graecia area after the Samnite Wars : In Taranto, civil war ( stasis ) broke out between those who dominated the city with Roman backing, and came their inner-city rivals; the latter turned to Pyrrhus. He apparently believed in an opportunity to build his own kingdom over the rich Greeks of southern Italy and promised help. The almost simultaneous death of Lysimachus and Seleucus in 281 BC. He did not take advantage of this and made a peace with Ptolemy Keraunos , to whom he willingly left rule in Macedonia. In return, he received support for his Italian campaign from all the leading Hellenistic kings; Antigonos Gonatas provided him with ships for the troop transport, Antiochus I provided the financial maintenance, Ptolemaios Keraunos provided Macedonian warriors, while Ptolemaios II contributed 5,000 infantrymen, 4,000 cavalrymen and 50 war elephants . The Egyptian ruler was also to take over the patronage of Epiros for the time of Pyrrhus' absence. Not least because of this, this campaign is sometimes viewed in historical research as a Panhellenic “crusade” to “liberate” the Greeks of the West from Roman and Carthaginian rule, analogous to the liberation of the Greeks of the East by Alexander the Great. It is more likely, however, that the Hellenistic kings were simply happy to be able to remove a dangerous rival in the form of Pyrrhus from the eastern Mediterranean and divert it to the west.

With 20,000 phalangites , 3,000 Thessalian riders, 2,000 archers, 500 slingshots and 20 war elephants, Pyrrhus set in the spring of 280 BC. BC to Italy and immediately defeated the Romans under Publius Valerius Laevinus in the battle of Heraclea . Then he marched united with the Samnites , Lucanians and Tarentines through Campania and Latium to Rome, whose political leaders, despite his military strength, refused peace negotiations. After the winter of 279 BC. BC in Campania, he defeated the Romans under Publius Decius Mus again in the battle of Asculum . This victory was, however, diminished by his own high losses, which is why the historian Diodorus characterized it as a "Cadmeic victory" , according to which Pyrrhus was allegedly attacked by dark premonitions regarding a possible further victory against the Romans, which in the end left him with none of his own warriors would have. From Plutarch, the saying allegedly made by Pyrrhus "If we are victorious again against the Romans, we are lost!" From this the metaphor of the Pyrrhic victory established itself .

The Romans were determined to use their superior resources. After Rome had again refused any peace negotiations and instead entered into an alliance with Carthage , Pyrrhus continued in 278 BC. BC to Sicily to support the Greeks there against the offensive of the Punic naval power. As before in Taranto, the occasion was a stasis this time, this time in Syracuse. Because of his previous marriage to a daughter of King Agathocles of Syracuse, Pyrrhos probably cherished the hope of taking over the royal rule over the Greeks of Sicily. In 277 BC he added to the Carthaginians. BC suffered a heavy defeat with the conquest of their strongest fortress, Eryx , whereupon he began peace negotiations with them. In contrast, however, his Greek allies intervened, who refused to accept that the heavily fortified port city of Lilybaeum (today Marsala) remained in Carthaginian hands. Under their pressure, Pyrrhus broke in 276 BC. The negotiations ended and the siege of Lilybaeum had to start, which was unsuccessful due to the lack of own siege machines. His request to requisition funds to build a fleet with which the city was to be sealed off from the seaside had met with rejection from his allies. When he proceeded to garrison the Sicilian Poleis , the Sicilians entered into separate negotiations with Carthage to settle the battle. A request for help from the Tarentines and Samnites against the advancing Romans was sent by Pyrrhus in 275 BC. BC the welcome excuse to end his expedition to Sicily and return to Italy, where Rome had now occupied all the cities of Magna Graecia with the exception of Taranto. The battle of Beneventum against Manius Curius Dentatus ended for Pyrrhus with a first and decisive defeat. To continue the struggle he asked the Hellenistic rulers for further material and financial support, but this was refused - even Ptolemy II of Egypt had in the meantime sought a peaceful settlement with Rome. Pyrrhus therefore declared the struggle against Rome over and returned to Epiros, leaving behind a small garrison in Taranto.

Roman valuation

Overall, Rome looked back with pride on the successful defensive battle against Pyrrhos and, unlike many other opponents, has not retroactively vilified it. This was probably mainly due to the close relationship between Pyrrhus and Alexander the Great and his origins in the Hellenic culture. Roman historiography stylized Pyrrhus as the most capable and most worthy of all of Alexander's successors, whereby the victory over him also manifested Rome's superiority over the Alexandrian school of war. When Appius Claudius Caecus 280 BC When he argued against a peace with Pyrrhus, he emphasized that Alexander would no longer have been called invincible if he had ever dared to march against Rome himself. In Hannibal's assessment , Pyrrhus is said to have been the most capable general of all time, even before Scipio Africanus and himself. In a different tradition, he referred him to second place behind Alexander.

Last years

In the almost six years of his absence, the political situation in Greece had changed. As early as 279 BC The Celts invaded Greece on their southern migration and advanced to Thermopylae . Ptolemy Keraunos had fallen against them and after a few years of anarchy Antigonus Gonatas was able to establish himself as king in Macedonia. As a result of the defensive struggle against the Celts south of Epiros, the Aitolian league of cities had risen to regional size. As soon as he returned from Italy, Pyrrhus fell in 274 BC. BC with 8,000 infantrymen and 500 cavalrymen in Macedonia and defeated Antigonus, from whom 2,000 warriors had gone over to his side, in two battles. He then succeeded in taking Aigai , with his Celtic mercenaries plundering the burial mounds of the Macedonian kings. As a pretext for his war against Antigonus, Pyrrhus had used his lack of support in Italy.

At the instigation of Cleonymus , Pyrrhus turned in 272 BC. BC to the Peloponnese to fight for the Spartan throne for the pretender . On his march he was followed by Antigonos Gonatas by sea, which blocked off the isthmos behind him . In the battle for Sparta, Pyrrhus suffered another defeat, in which his eldest son Ptolemy fell. Meanwhile, however, was in Argos a stasis erupted between two cited by Aristippus and Aristeas parties. Aristippus called Antigonus to help, Aristeas Pyrrhus. When he arrived in front of the city, his attention was drawn to Antigonus, who was already lying on the hills. After the latter had not accepted the invitation to battle, Pyrrhos seized the city of Argos in a night attack, whose night watch treacherously left one of its gates open. When the Argives found their city occupied by foreign troops the next morning, they rose against the occupiers, led by Aristippus. In a street fight, Pyrrhos was hit on the neck by a roof tile allegedly thrown from the roof of her house by an old woman, whereupon he fell unconscious from his horse at the tomb of Likymnios and was beheaded by an enemy warrior. Antigonus then arranged for a cremation according to the custom and sent his ashes to Epiros for burial.

In the year of Pyrrhus' death, Taranto was conquered as the last free polis of the Magna Graecia of Rome.

Wives and children

Pyrrhus led a polygamous married life and was married to at least four women. His first wife was 298/97 BC. Married Antigone , stepdaughter of Ptolemy I of Egypt. She was the mother of his eldest son Ptolemy († 272 BC). After her he took Lanassa , daughter of Agathocles of Syracuse, as well as a daughter each of the Paionier king Audoleon and of the Illyrian king Bardylis II as his wife. His second son and successor Alexandros II († 245/40 BC) was a son of Lanassa. Other children were the son Helenos and the daughters Olympias and Nereïs, although it is unclear from which mothers they come. Nereïs was married to Gelon, son of the tyrant Hieron II of Syracuse , and she became the mother of the tyrant Jerome of Syracuse .

A remark by Justin also suggests that Pyrrhus 281 BC. I married a daughter of Ptolemy Keraunos as the fifth wife, whereby this marriage connection was probably confused with that with Antigone.


Plutarch wrote a Vita of Pyrrhus, which he compared with Gaius Marius in his parallel biographies. Diodorus also dealt with the events of Pyrrhus in the twenty-second book of his universal library and Appian in his descriptions of the Samnite war, which are only preserved in fragments. Further information is provided by the epitoms of the seventeenth and eighteenth books of Justin , as well as the sixth book on the Strategika of Polyainus .


  • Hermann Bengtson : rulers of the Hellenism. Munich 1975, ISBN 3-406-00733-3 , pp. 91-109.
  • Jeff Champion: Pyrrhus of Epirus. Barnsley 2009 (rather uncritical retelling of the ancient sources).
  • Paul Corbier: Pyrrhus en Italie. Reflections on the contradictions des sources. In: Pallas 79, 2009, pp. 221-232.
  • PR Franke: Pyrrhus . In: The Cambridge Ancient History . Volume 7.2 ( The Rise of Rome to 220 BC ) Ed. By FW Walbank u. a. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989, pp. 456 ff.
  • Petros Garoufalias: Pyrrhus: King of Epirus . London 1979 (first 1946).
  • Herbert Heftner : The Rise of Rome. From the Pyrrhic War to the fall of Carthage (280–146 BC) . Regensburg 1997, pp. 26-42 and pp. 430-432.
  • NGL Hammond: Which Ptolemy Gave Troops and Stood as Protector of Pyrrhus' Kingdom? In: Historia 37, 1988, pp. 405-413.
  • Patrick Alan Kent: A History of the Pyrrhic War. London 2019 (standard work on the campaigns in the west).
  • Dietmar Kienast : Pyrrhos 13). In: Paulys Realencyclopadie der classischen Antiquity Science (RE). Volume XXIV, Stuttgart 1963, Col. 108-165.
  • Elena Santagati Ruggeri: Pirro e la Sicilia . Messina 2016.

Web links

Commons : Pyrrhos I.  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Pyrrhos' year of birth and age is deduced from Plutarch, Pyrrhos 3, 3, according to which he was returned to Epiros in 306 BC. Was twelve years old.
  2. Justin's report (17, 2, 14-15) suggests that Ptolemy Keraunos was responsible for the provision of 5,000 infantrymen, 4,000 cavalrymen and 50 war elephants. However, this is strongly doubted in the research literature, but rather attributed to Ptolemy II of Egypt. See Ref. Hammond (1988).
  3. See Hammond (1988), p. 413.
  4. Diodorus 22, 6, 1-2.
  5. Plutarch, Pyrrhos 21: 9.
  6. Plutarch, Pyrrhos 19, 1.
  7. Plutarch, Pyrrhos 8, 2.
  8. Appian, Syriake 2:10 .
  9. Plutarch, Pyrrhos 26: 6; Diodorus 22, 12.
  10. Polybios 7, 4, 5; Pausanias , Elis II (6), 12, 3.
predecessor Office successor
Alcetas II King of the Molossians
Hegemon of Epirus

306–302 BC Chr.
Neoptolemus II.
Neoptolemus II. King of the Molossians
Hegemon of Epirus

297–272 BC Chr.
Alexandros II
Demetrios I. Poliorketes King of Macedonia
287–285 BC Chr.