In 331BC, beside a rain-swollen river in Southern Italy, the ruler of the Hellenic kingdom of Epirus lay dying.
His name was Alexander.
Shot through with a javelin by a Lucanian exile, he is said to have remarked (according to Livy, writing centuries later in his seminal work, The History of Rome) at his ill-fortune in comparison to that of his better-known nephew (and brother-in-law by marriage), Alexander “the Great” of Macedon. Specifically, he is to have said that while he had fought men, his nephew had “waged war against women.”
Three years earlier Alexander, at the behest of the Greek colony of Taras, had set sail from Epirus with an army trained in the traditions set down by the recently-assassinated Philip II. It had been the occasion of Alexander’s marriage to Philip’s daughter Cleopatra, the second such marriage alliance between the neighbouring kingdoms (the first having been Philip’s marriage to Olympias, Alexander’s sister), when the assassin Pausanias had struck. An inauspicious inauguration for a new era…
After arriving in Italy, Alexander made his war against the Brutti, Lucanians and their Samnite allies.
A series of victories followed, at Paestum, Heraclea, Terina, and Sipontum. Inspired by his successes, Alexander sought to make alliances with whomever he could, including the Romans.
But the successes proved short-lived.
At Pandosia, events conspired against the budding conqueror. Making his camp on a trio of hills and accompanied by a force of local exiles, the king of Epirus was ideally positioned to attack either the Lucanians or the Bruttians. But heavy rains isolated the hills from one another, and when his enemies attacked they were able to destroy Alexander’s army piecemeal.
Fearing imminent defeat and capture, the Lucanian exiles with Alexander decided to switch sides and sent word to their countrymen, offering the king (dead or alive) in exchange for their freedom.
Catching wind of the plot, Alexander made a breakout with his loyal troops, and managed to kill the general of the Lucanians in the process.
Coming to a river ford, it was here (according to the later-Roman historian Justin) that he came face to face with his own mortality.
Years earlier, the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona had warned him to beware the River Acheron and the city of Pandosia. Naturally, Alexander assumed that the so-named river and city in Epirus were the subjects of the warning. Little did he know though that there were similarly named places in Italy – and he had arrived at them.
Informed as much, he hesitated. But with the Lucanians in pursuit, he had little choice. Spurring his horse into the river, he tried to make good his escape, and almost did. But then the javelin flew, and found its mark.
Thus ended the first attempt by the Epirots to conquer the lands of Italy. Some fifty-one years later, another nephew, Pyrrhus, would try his own luck.
But that is another story…
For the moment, let us consider what might have been. It is an interesting notion to consider what could have happened had this Alexander succeeded in his plans. From Italy it is a short jump to Sicily. And from there to Africa, Spain, and beyond…
Livy, The History of Rome, Book 8, Penguin 1982.
Justin, Epitome of Pompeius Trogus, Books 12, Oxford University Press 1997.