Heir to Greatness: Part 5 – Other Contenders

Besides the initial generations of daidochi, there were others who could (and would try to) lay claim to Alexander’s legacy.

We’ll begin with one who probably has more claim than most, a blood-relative of the Macedonian king who, according to the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, was held in great esteem and described thus:

“They thought his countenance, his swiftness, and his motions expressed those of the great Alexander, and that they beheld here an image and resemblance of his rapidity and strength in fight; other kings merely by their purple and their guards, by the formal bending of their necks and lofty tone of their speech, Pyrrhus only by arms and in action, represented Alexander.”

Pyrrhus of Epirus was born in 319BC, a second-cousin of Alexander the Great (via Alexander’s mother Olympias, a member of the Epirot royal family).

The kingdom of Epirus was located to the west of Macedonia on the Adriatic Sea, and long-established bonds of alliance and culture kept the two realms close. Heir to his father’s throne, Pyrrhus was made an exile while only two years old when his father was deposed. For much of the rest of his youth he would attempt to reclaim his birthright, being restored and deposed himself before spending time amongst the great soldier-commanders of the day, including Antigonus “the One-Eyed”, Demetrius and Ptolemy “Soter”. He fought at the Battle of Ipsus in 301BC and acquitted himself admirably despite being only eighteen years old and on the losing side.

It was during the aftermath, as a hostage in Egypt, that he fell in love and married the daughter-in-law of Ptolemy, the newly-crowned king and pharaoh. With the resources of his new family at his disposal, he was re-established on the throne of Epirus in 297BC and held it until his death in 272BC.

Between those years he campaigned almost ceaselessly, being king of Macedon as well, twice, and leading expeditions to Italy and Sicily in the west. He fought the Romans when their republic was still establishing itself, and almost brought the nascent imperialists low. Twice he triumphed against their legions, at Heraclea in 280BC and Asculum in 279BC. This was the occasion of his famous quote, when being praised for his victory:

“Another such victory and we shall be ruined.”

Thus the expression, Pyrrhic Victory: a victory won at such great cost that it is almost a defeat.

Eventually though he was defeated be the perpetually obstinate Romans, at Beneventum in 275BC, but not before winning and losing the island of Sicily.

The end came at Argos, in the Peloponnese: in the midst of combat, a tile thrown from a roof above his head struck Pyrrhus and killed him. He was forty-seven years old.

In terms of military genius, leadership and vision, Pyrrhus could be called Alexander’s equal: he dreamt of a vast western empire, regularly led armies comprised (at least in part) of mercenaries and successfully used war elephants to overawe his opponents. His failings though were those of magnanimity and legacy: he did not possess the necessary skill to win the allegiance of civilian leaders, and his gains (though numerous) were never consolidated. After his death, Epirus never again produced such a remarkable character as Pyrrhus.

Next Week: The Last Antigonoids

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About ethanreilly

Ethan Reilly is an author and blogger who lives in Brisbane, Australia. Did he mention he blogs?
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