Pyrrhic Army
297-272 BC

By Marc Adda

This list cover armies of the wars of Pyrrhus of Epirus—from his return to the throne of Epirus in 297BC to his death in Argos in 272BC.

The kingdom of Epirus lay in the most north western part of Greece, south of Illyria and immediately west of Thessaly. The larger kingdom of Macedon lay to the north-west.  It is therefore roughly equivalent to the modern Greek periphery (region) of Epirus and the southern part of Albania.

The Macedonian and Epirote royal houses were closely related and in the time of Philip of Macedon Epirus effectively became a satellite of Macedonia with Philip installing and supporting the Epirote King Alexander I. Alexander  I was the brother of Phillip’s wife the Epirote Princess Olympias. To cement the alliance Phillip arranged for Alexander to marry his daughter Cleopatra (Alexander’s own niece and Alexander the Great’s sister). It was at the ensuing marriage celebrations that Phillip was assassinated. Pyrrhus, who became King of Epirus as an infant following his father’s death on campaign in 313BC, was Alexander the Great’s second cousin—so it might be said that conquest was in his blood!

During the wars of the diadochi (the ‘successors’ of Alexander the Great) the seventeen year old Pyrrhus sided with Antigonus Monophthalmus (One-Eye) and his son Demetrius against a coalition of Cassander of Macedon, Lysimachus and Seleucus. Following defeat at Ipsus in 301BC Pyrrhus found himself a hostage of Ptolemy—a pawn in the wars of succession that were to rage over Alexander’s empire for years to come. Ptolemy provided Pyrrhus with the means to regain his throne in 297BC.

Pyrrhus lost no time in putting his mercurial talents to work—fighting a war against his former ally Demetrius King of Macedonia and ousting him from his throne. However, his conquests were to prove short-lived as he was ejected only 2 years alter, in 284BC by Lysimachus.

In 280BC the Epirote army marched into Italy in support of the Tarentines, where Pyrrhus fought a series of successful, if costly, battles against the Romans. He was then courted by the Sicilians who sought his aid against the Carthaginians—and once again the Epirote army proved successful in battle, driving out the Carthaginians and establishing control over Sicily. At this point the King of Epirus seemed ideally poised to consolidate his conquests into a western empire—but it was not to be. His despotic behaviour in Sicily turned the Greeks against him and he abandoned his position there, returning to Italy to face a newly formed and reinvigorated Roman army. Although undefeated, once again he was obliged to retreat. Thwarted in the west—he turned his attentions to Macedonia once more where he successfully defeated the army of Antigonus II Gonatas (‘knock-knees’) and installed himself as King. He spent his final year fighting in Greece—and was killed during street-fighting in Argos—supposedly felled by a roof tile thrown by one of the populace.

Pyrrhus was masterfully talented general—but a poor politician and terrible ruler. He always managed to achieve his military aims—but usually succeeded in losing the confidence of the very people he was fighting for by behaving in an arrogant or thoughtless way.  He seemed pathologically incapable of consolidating any of his conquests in his eagerness to engage fresh enemies, with the result that his wars in Italy, Sicily and Greece achieved very little in the long run. Upon his death his entire army deserted to his enemy Antigonus.