Introduction – The Years Before
He was never the best. He was never the most cunning. Not always did he have a good understanding of the enemy forces. But yet, he never lost his troops’ loyalty. Never did he fear confronting a city or an army of any size from amongst the barbarians, Phoenicians or Greeks. His name has gone down in the annals of history. Maybe forgotten as a king or governor, but remembered for his exploits in the west. Never will his tactics or strategies be forgotten. He was the Basileus of Macedon, Basileus of Epirus, protector of the city state of Tarentum, “the barbarian worthy amongst Greeks” – Pyrrhus of Epirus.
However, our story begins long before one of Pyrrhus turning points in his military career. He was not always the Basileus of Epirus. Even though he enjoyed all the respect for being Megas Alexandros’ second cousin (through his mother’s, Olympias’ side), he had a very though and demanding childhood. Pyrrhus spent much of his early life struggling to survive the political turmoil wrought by the Diadochi in Greece. When he was two years old (317 BC), his father was driven out of Epirus, so Pyrrhus was forced to flee for his life from the agents of Kassander. He was restored to the throne in Antigonos Monopthalmos’ drive to control Greece, the youth forged strong ties with the Antigonid line, even joining the family when his sister married Demetrius the Besieger in 303 BC. However, soon Demetrius was recalled to Anatolia and through a coup Pyrrhus was yet again without a thrown. He fled to Demetrius and greatly distinguished himself through his bold actions at the Battle of Ipsos.
They both returned to Greece with the remnants of Antigonos’ army to manage Demetrius’ holdings, therefore Pyrrhus was sent to Egypt as a political hostage in Ptolemy Soter’s court. There, the Egyptian king was persuaded by Pyrrhus to give the youth a small army for an attempt at reclaiming his birthright – Epirus. Gaining control of the country, he soon started expanding into Macedonia at the request of one of Kassander’s sons, who was involved in a bitter feud with his brother over the division of their late father’s kingdom. Pyrrhus, of course, benefitted from this struggle, but soon it attracted unwanted attention from Demetrius, who murdered the dominant brother, occupied the kingdom and proclaimed himself king of Macedonia.
This was a problem for Pyrrhus as he now shared a border with his insatiable former ally. The situation wasn’t stable, and it led to open war in which a coalition of kings succeeded in driving out Demetrius from Macedonia (though his son Antigonos Gonatas remained in Greece with a small army). Thanks to an unanticipated attack from the west, Pyrrhus was able to take control of Macedonia, though the treacherous actions of his jealous neighbour, Lysimachus, ensured that his time on Alexander’s throne would be brief.
Pyrrhus’ wildly vacillating fortunes soon changed after rising rapidly from a nationless prince to the Basileus of Epirus, Macedonia and parts of Greece. At the hands of his ruthless neighbours, the hapless king lost most of his conquests and was forced to retreat to his homeland of Epirus. While he pondered where to launch his next gamble for glory, an embassy of Greeks arrived at his court from the city-states of Magne Graecia with a golden opportunity.
This opportunity led Pyrrhus, with one of the best armies in the world, to the shores of Italy to fight against the barbarian Romans. However, the gods didn’t seem to be on his side. Pyrrhus had an army, a virtual copy of the fearsome killing machine Alexander had unleashed in the East. It was made of 20’000 infantry, 3’000 cavalry, 2’000 archers, 500 slingers and 20 war elephants, a weapon Alexander had never fielded. With the most powerful force in the western Mediterranean at his back, Pyrrhus set sail to Italy. However, fortune changed quickly. In midcrossing of the sea a terrible storm came by, unleashing its full wrath on the fleet. All the ships were sent to every direction of the wind. Pyrrhus himself had to jump off the Royal Vessel and make his way to the shore. When he got there, he was shocked. Of his grand army of 25’500 men, a shattered force of less than 2’000 men and just 2 elephants remained.
Regardless of this setback, Pyrrhus pressed with all speed to Tarentum, where his thoughtful dispatch of 3’000 troops earlier that year paid off. Soon, his fleet was slowly making its way back to Tarentum, and soon Pyrrhus had a full force yet again. But the Romans did not sit idly by. They sent an army under Publius Valerius Laevinus, to defeat this barbarian. At the battle of Heraklea, Pyrrhus decisively defeated the Roman army. After the battle, Italians and mercenaries found their way to his camp with ease, though Pyrrhus had a hard time to keep them all paid (it would have been impossible unless Tarentum would’ve been on his side).
After a winter of fruitless negotiations, in the spring of 279 BC Pyrrhus reassembled his army, now augmented by a large number of Italian allies, and again marched northwards, bent on finishing the task he had left unfinished the previous year…
That’s like an intro. All above is how it historically happened, but from here on, all will be a work of my campaign.