Pyrrhus of Epirus is a bizarre figure to study. His was a very human character—a chaotic mix of short-term mastery and long-term flaws. Pyrrhus was the type of political schemer who knew how to pit his foes against each other, yet he could never quite deliver the final masterstroke. In his generalship, Pyrrhus could win battles with awe-inspiring military innovation and strategy, yet still lose the overall war. Not even Pyrrhus’s death was free of a certain sense of peculiarity. In fact, the way King Pyrrhus died may have been the most bizarre event of his life.
King Pyrrhus (r. 306-272 BCE) thrived in the political chaos brought about by the death of Alexander the Great. He came to power in a time when the late Alexander’s generals and their successors were fighting amongst themselves for different pieces of the lands that Alexander had conquered. From his seat of power in Epirus, King Pyrrhus was able to grow his domain by taking advantage of the Kingdom of Macedonia’s conflicts with the other splinters of Alexander’s empire. Yet, Pyrrhus’ greatest fame (or infamy) would come when he sailed with an army over to Italy in 280 BCE, intending to attack both Rome and Carthage. He won several ‘Pyrrhic victories’ there, which were so costly and indecisive that the victories did little to help his war effort. By 275 BCE, his Pyrrhic victories had become true defeats, and he finally decided to withdraw back to Greece.
King Pyrrhus’s death came in 272 BCE. That year, he was campaigning in the Peloponnesus as a result of his ongoing meddling in Macedonian politics. This campaign brought King Pyrrhus to Argos, which would be the last place on earth that the king would see. As the story goes, while King Pyrrhus was fighting in the city streets, he was attacked by an odd weapon, hurled by an even more unusual assailant. The mighty King Pyrrhus was reportedly cracked across the head by a soaring roof tile, supposedly thrown by an old Argive woman. Details of his final moments vary—some say the old woman killed him with the tile, while others say she just dazed the king long enough for warriors on the street to finish him off. Either way, it was a fittingly odd death for the strange life of King Pyrrhus.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene from the life of Pyrrhus, by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.