Sunday, October 21, 2012

Pyrrhus – The Underrated Military Mind of Antiquity

King Pyrrhus of Epirus is best known to us for his “Pyrrhic” victory over the Romans at the Battle of Asculum, but that single event does not begin to characterize the life and the skill of this great military mind of antiquity. Scipio Africanus described a conversation he had with Hannibal where he asked the Carthaginian general who he thought was the greatest commander of all time. Hannibal immediately named Alexander as the greatest. Then, when Scipio pressed him for his opinion on the second best, expecting Hannibal to name himself or Scipio, Hannibal replied, “Pyrrhus of Epirus”. Antigonus, when asked who he believed to be the greatest general said, “Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old.” Pyrrhus was good enough to rate a spot in Plutarch’s lives, paired with no less a figure than Gaius Marius. Sadly, the comparison document, which would have paralleled their lives, was lost.

Pyrrhus was born in 319 B.C, the son of Aeacides, King of Epirus, and Phthia, second cousin to Alexander the Great. Aeacides was deposed in 317 B.C. and his family took refuge with Glaukias, King of the Taurantians. Aeacides died in 313 B.C. so Pyrrhus, as heir, was placed his father’s throne by Glaukias in 306 at the age of 13. Deposed again in 302 B.C, Pyrrhus went on to serve under his brother-in-law Demetrius Poliorcetes, son of Antigonus, satrap of Alexander. In 298 B.C. he was sent to Egypt as a hostage after a treaty was concluded between Ptolemy and Demetrius. While there, Pyrrhus married Ptolemy’s step daughter Antigone and used the Egyptian King’s financing and military aid to regain his throne in 297 B.C. Pyrrhus then moved the Epirian capital to Ambrakia and began to wage war on Demetrius. At one point during the war, Pyrrhus was challenged to one on one combat against Pantaucus, one of Demetrius’ senior officers, and defeated him. He took Macedonia and was declared king, but the conquest could not be held and Pyrrhus was pushed out by Lysimachus in 285 B.C.

Plutarch tells us what happened next. "At this  time, then, when Pyrrhus had been driven back to Epirus and had given up Macedonia, fortune put it into his power to enjoy what he had without molestation, to live in peace, and to reign over his own people. But he thought it tedious to the point of nausea if he were not inflicting mischief on others or suffering it at other's hands and, like Achilles, could not endure idleness."

He looked westward.

In 282 the Thurii tribe, located in the heel of Italy, asked Rome for help against the city of Tarentum, so Rome sent a small fleet to the Gulf of Tarentum to assess the situation. More than likely the Romans were exercising a show of support for the aristocrats of Tarentum who were trying to regain power from the democratic faction running the city. Whatever the reason, the convoy was attacked by the Tarentines, and four of the Roman ships were sunk. Rome dispatched an envoy carrying a protest and he was purposely insulted. The Tarentines clearly wanted a war and they appealed to Pyrrhus for support. The following year, the consul L. Aemilianus Barbula was sent with an army and an ultimatum for Tarantum to compensate for the attack on the convoy or face the consequences. The Tarentines were at the point of capitulation when the envoy from Pyrrhus arrived with a message saying the king would lend them a hand.

Pyrrhus, always the adventurer, was ready to move away from the frustrations of Greek politics and pursue something more interesting. As the son-in-law of Agathocles King of Syracuse and a relative of Alexander the Great, he had a legacy to apply to empire building in the west. Courageous, ambitious, and skillful, Pyrrhus would present a challenge to the Roman citizen army.

He arrived in Tarentum in 280 B.C. with 25,000 professional soldiers and 20 elephants.

“When he learned that the Romans were near and lay encamped on the further side of the river Siris, he rode up to the river to get a view of them; and when he had observed their discipline, the appointment of their watches, their order, and the general arrangement of their camp, he was amazed and said to the friend that was nearest him: ‘The discipline of these Barbarians is not barbarous; but the result will show us what it amounts to.’”

That summer he met the consul Valerius Laevinus in the Battle of Heraclea. The Romans had never fought the Greek Phalanx before and the horses of their cavalry were frightened by the elephants. Pyrrhus won the battle, leaving 4,000 men on the field versus Rome’s 7,000, but his victory was dubious because in a foreign land he could not afford significant losses with no way to obtain new recruits. After the battle, Pyrrhus, anticipating Hannibal, raced for Rome hoping to turn the Roman allies to his side, but his efforts to treat with Rome were unsuccessful, so he headed back to Tarentum. In the spring of 279, he fought the Romans again at Asculum, winning a second dubious victory. After that battle he quipped, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined." 

But now Pyrrhus had become bored with Italy and looked to move on once again. As Plutarch tells it, “there came to him from Sicily men who offered to put into his hands the cities of Agrigentum, Syracuse, and Leontini, and begged him to help them to drive out the Carthaginians and rid the island of its tyrants; and from Greece, men with tidings that Ptolemy Ceraunus with his army had perished at the hands of the Gauls, and that now was the time of all times for him to be in Macedonia, where they wanted a king.”

Pyrrhus decided Sicily would be more interesting because it could serve as a gateway to Africa, so he proceeded there.

Named king, he sought to rid the island of Carthaginians, but his popularity quickly declined after he began to act like a tyrant. The Sicilians sought aid to expel him, but before they took action, Pyrrhus sailed back to Tarentum. The Romans used two consular armies to push him out of Italy in 275 B.C. and he was finished with Rome for good. Returning to Epirus, Pyrrhus sought war with Antigonus over Macedonia. After a few victories, he became restless once again.

Cleonymus, pretender to the Spartan throne asked Pyrrhus to back his claim with an army so he headed south to Sparta in 272 B.C. He was hesitant to destroy the city with no walls and delays caused by indecision allowed the Spartans to prepare a defense. The attack was unsuccessful.

Plutarch tells us what happened next. “He could accomplish nothing, and met with fresh losses, he went away, and fell to ravaging the country, purposing to spend the winter there. But Fate was not to be escaped. For at Argos there was a feud between Aristeas and Aristippus; and since Aristippus was thought to enjoy the friendship of Antigonus, Aristeas hastened to invite Pyrrhus into Argos. Pyrrhus was away entertaining one hope after another, and since he made one success but the starting point for a new one, while he was determined to make good each disaster by a fresh undertaking, he suffered neither defeat nor victory to put a limit to his troubling himself and troubling others.”

Pyrrhus took his army to Argos and fought a difficult battle within the city walls. His army took the market place but the fighting was treacherous because the streets were too narrow for elephants and he did not know the city. During a street battle, Pyrrhus was injured by a roof tile thrown down on him by an old woman and, before he could regain his senses, was beheaded by an adversary. The head was sent to Antigonus who wept at the death of such a renowned family member.

So the world lost an enigma – a man of many talents as a strategist and military leader, an aristocrat who was comfortable as king, but also a man who bored easily and gave up what he had won more often than not. When politics made his conquests stale, Pyrrhus invariably moved on to the next battle hoping for a better outcome.

Plutarch states “…Pyrrhus would seem to have been always and continually studying and meditating upon this one subject (warfare), regarding it as the most kingly branch of learning; the rest he regarded as mere accomplishments and held them in no esteem. For instance, we are told that when he was asked at a drinking-party whether he thought Python or Caphisias the better flute-player, he replied that Polysperchon was a good general, implying that it became a king to investigate and understand such matters only.

Men believed that in military experience, personal prowess, and daring, he was by far the first of the kings of his time, but that what he won by his exploits he lost by indulging in vain hopes, since through passionate desire for what he had not, he always failed to establish securely what he had. For this reason Antigonus used to liken him to a player with dice who makes many fine throws but does not understand how to use them when they are made.”

Pyrrhic Victory was coined from a single battle, but Pyrrhic behavior (half winning) was a self-inflicted disease that would haunt the man his entire life.

This post was originally published 3/10/2009.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Greek Phalanx and Its Influence Over Politics in Archaic Greece

The word Phalanx conjures up images of the formidable Greek battle formation and its impact on warfare over half a millennium. Designed to be impregnable through its reliance on a structure of unit strength made up of equal parts, the Phalanx anticipated every power formation in the future of battle including the modern tank.

Lost in the military view of the Phalanx, however,  is the impact it had on the development of the Greek political system. Indeed, it was also the social leveling force in Greek society that helped push the Polis into being and sowed the seeds of modern government.

Our story begins in the Greek Archaic period (800 to 500 B.C.) which saw the development of the Polis as a stable political institution. But to get to a Polis, we must first weave together the threads of government and war.

The phalanx was not invented by the Greeks. The earliest example of the formation was depicted in a Sumerian stone carving from 2,500 B.C. The word phalanx was first used by Homer to describe combat in an organized battle line as distinguished from combat between individuals. Trouble is we don’t know what kind of formation Homer was describing, so we can’t know if our concept of the Phalanx dates from his time.

In the time before the Phalanx, Greek battles were disorganized affairs consisting of two opposing armies running at each other in a line. Once the Greeks perfected it, the Phalanx became the default battle formation ancient armies, until the Romans developed the maniple.

Its political importance is based on the following scenario. At the time the Phalanx came into being, Greek cities contained a mixture of wealthy, poor, and those rising in economic status -- an emerging middle class. Ruling kings realized that they could build an army around larger military formations because more men could now afford to buy the necessary equipment. We can only speculate about the chicken and egg here. Did the kings coerce at first and then later the hoplites figured out how to leverage political power, or did the hoplites refuse to fight unless they were given political rights? I suppose we can imagine a case where the initial formations were small coerced units which grew in size when more independent men decided to participate.

Accurate data pinpointing the advent of the Phalanx is elusive. Written evidence is non-existent so we have to rely of archeology to guide us. The following image, referred to as the Chigi vase, dates from around 650 B.C.

We might ask how long the phalanx existed before it was painted on vases, but any answer is only a guess. Certainly the artists had to be interested in the subject and capable of representing it before it was first rendered. Unfortunately, the many attempts to validate the dating by translating the two dimensional formations on pottery into a three dimensional representation of the Phalanx have not met with much success.

The design of the Phalanx required that all hoplites operate as a single unit, meaning that each soldier had an equal, and important role, in the army’s success. Since everyone was an equal, each had the right to demand political authority when the war was over, because he had made an equal contribution to victory. This demand for political authority eventually manifested itself in the strengthening of the legal code, which protected the rights of the lower classes, and increased their participation in the apparatus of government.

With the advent of the phalanx, arms buried with the dead went out of favor because they lost their value as a status symbol. The new middle class could afford the weapons that would make them equals.

This article was originally posted 8/21/09.

Revisiting Old Posts

My subject matter derives from a combination of influences, including efforts to broadly cover the subject matter, finding the truth (and excitement) in history, and reflecting on topics that stimulate me. But my readers matter too, because a major goal of this blog is to stimulate interest in ancient history, so if the posts are not relevant and interesting, I will have failed.

Looking at the 279 posts, I see about ¼ which have been read in high volume, ½ in moderate volume, and ¼ largely ignored. In some cases the former and the latter make me scratch my head at the number of reads, but I won’t question why people read a particular post in high volume. I'm very interested, however, in determining why good posts have not been read.

Some may have poorly chosen titles that cannot be identified by a search. Key words are absolutely critical, especially if the post is not recent. Many of the early posts are not as comprehensive or complete as recent ones. Often a page or less, they were snippets of history rather than stories from history. Old posts that are hard to find and lack completeness are justly ignored.

Still, there are some good topics there, so I’m going to resurrect them and freshen them up to re-connect them to my readers. The articles will be re-posted with additional content so they provide the complete picture my readers have come to expect from this blog.

Stay tuned.