A neglected warrior

A new book on Pyrrhus

Rome fought many wars in its rise to Mediterranean dominance. One of the most important has been neglected in modern scholarship, in part because we have few sources for it. But Patrick Alan Kent has written a new book about the war with Pyrrhus.

Joshua R. Hall

In 297 BC, Pyrrhus gained control of the kingdom of Epirus – as its king – a position he in theory should have held since 306. For the next twenty years, he fought a series of wars in Greece, Italy, and Sicily which have established him as a major figure in the history of warfare. The expression “a pyrrhic victory” was named so because of the Battle of Asculum, which he “won” during his war with Rome. Although technically victorious, his losses were so high that it was in essence a defeat.

Even though he is a well-known figure from the Hellenistic world, he has not been studied in as much detail as others. This is, in part, because we don’t know all that much about his reign. The literary sources covering his life are rather sparse and were generally written much later. This is despite his being the last major adversary faced by Rome before the Punic Wars. However, Patrick Alan Kent tackles the story of Pyrrhus’ conflict with Rome in A History of the Pyrrhic War (2020).

A new book on Pyrrhus

Patrick Alan Kent’s A History of the Pyrrhic War is a slim tome that runs to about 129 pages of discussion, along with a bibliography. It opens, as all histories must these days, with a discussion of the evidence for Pyrrhus’ reign. Kent discusses the problems of the sources, rightly noting that early Roman historical writing “was as much a literary pursuit as one dedicated to finding the reality of the past” (p. 4). While his historiographical section is interesting, I am surprised to not find Cornell et al., Fragments of the Roman Historians (2014) cited anywhere, with reference for Roman historiography being mainly made to Oakley’s commentary. I think an even more critical introduction to the sources would have been warranted in a scholarly work like this.

In the introduction, Kent effectively justifies the need for his book. He points out that a scholarly study of Pyrrhus has not been written since Lévêque’s (1957) biography. Jeff Champion’s Pyrrhus of Epirus (2009) is duly noted but described as “an uncritical retelling of the ancient sources that rarely incorporates scholarly discussions and is aimed at a popular audience” (p. 20 n. 19). This is a fair assessment and reinforces the need for a new study aimed at an academic audience.

However, I will admit that the next note on the same page gave me worry: “for an in-depth bibliography of the expansive works on Pyrrhus, the Pyrrhic War, and related topics” see another book. This fear disappeared as I made my way through Kent’s book, but there is perhaps an old-fashioned (or simply German) scholarly attitude alive inside me which would have liked to see all of this bibliography here. I kept in mind that this was not a biography of Pyrrhus, but an examination of his war against Rome.

The second chapter looks at the social and political situation in Italy and Sicily in the period just before Pyrrhus’ intervention. This is an interesting discussion that opens with growing tensions between Rome and Tarentum, and then moves into an overview of Agathocles of Syracuse. The opening paragraphs of this chapter are interesting, though I was left a little perplexed by these sentences (pp. 25-26):

Italian mercenaries, mostly Oscan but also Etruscan, served in the armies of both Carthage and Syracuse. Roman merchants were ensured their rights to trade in Sicily through treaties with Carthage. While Italy was seen as a distinct geographic, ethnic, and political region under the Roman empire, that was not true before the Punic Wars. Peoples and goods flowed between Sicily and Italy, while those with ambitions of power stretched out their hands to unite the Greeks on either side of the Strait of Messana.

This really needed to be revised for clarity. My main question is who viewed Italy as a “distinct geographic, ethnic, and political region under the Roman empire” at this point in history? I presume that this is being tied to the previous sentences talking about the early treaties between Rome and Carthage, but I don’t think it is appropriate to say that these portray all of Italy as being under Roman hegemony. The only known treaty that claimed all of Italy for Rome (at least in respect to Carthage) was the so-called Philinus treaty (Polyb. 3.26.3).

The rest of the chapter focuses on Roman war-making and imperialism in Italy through to the event which triggered the war with Pyrrhus. In 282 BC, a Roman fleet was attacked and defeated by the Tarentines, despite not being at war with Rome and supposedly having no provocation to attack. It is here that we hear of the reasons for the war and the calling of Pyrrhus from across the Adriatic. Kent rightly argues throughout that the Roman portrait of this being a war instigated by Tarentum, and thus their response being an example of a bellum iustum, was propaganda. The real causes of the war can be found in the complex history of Roman expansion in Italy and the efforts by various peoples to resist this.

In chapter three, we finally get to the war between Pyrrhus and Rome. Kent’s discussion begins with the “preparations for war” in spring of 280 BC. He first confronts the issue – described as fanciful – of the ritualistic declaration of war by the Roman fetiales. These were priests who were responsible for the declaration of proper wars. The ceremony involved various things, including casting a spear into foreign territory (Livy 1.13). The fact that Pyrrhus was from Epirus made this an impossible task to complete, so a fantastic story was crafted in which one of his countrymen was taken to Rome, bought a plot of land, and the spear cast thusly (p. 41).

While Kent is right to reject this story, the issue could have been explored in more depth. Modern scholars have questioned much of the fetial college (some even its existence), and exploring these strands of scholarship was warranted here (see for instance Rich 2011).

The rest of this chapter is a critical narrative of the campaigns of 280 and 279. These saw Pyrrhus invading Campania and Latium, though unable to do any lasting damage to Rome. Rightly, Kent problematizes the devotion of Publius Decius Mus. This is a ritual sacrifice of a Roman commander, who dedicates his life on a battlefield to get the favor of the gods. The Decii Mures did this a few times throughout the history of the city, at least according to tradition.

I agree with Kent that “it is unlikely that any such ritual was successfully completed at Ausculum, or even attempted” (p. 52). The conclusion that this story was created on the model of earlier members of the family, though, seems problematic to me. Why could these not have been modeled off the devotion in 279? Thus, while I completely agree with Kent’s conclusions, a more detailed argument – and one that dove deep into Roman historiography – would have been welcome.

I also rather like his brief discussion of the historiography surrounding the battles of these years. In particular, Kent notes that the elephants used by Pyrrhus must have appeared as monsters to the Romans, who had not seen them before (most likely). These are also presented as a tool used by the Romans to create a dichotomy: the Romans were brave, the Greeks (Pyrrhus) had to use stratagems like monsters (p. 56).

Chapter four looks at the diplomatic negotiations in the years covered by the previous chapter. This is an interesting discussion in which Kent places these in the context of Roman internal and regional policy. By thinking about civil strife within the city, as well as the complex regional politics of the expanding republic (see Terrenato 2019), a more detailed understanding of the negotiations is presented. He also touches on the treaty supposedly forged between Rome and Carthage at this point. While these discussions are good, I still would have liked to see Kent dig deeper into the issues. Regardless, this is still one of the most interesting presentations of the negotiations taking place between Rome and Pyrrhus, and Rome and Carthage.

The penultimate chapter is a discussion of Pyrrhus’ time in Sicily. From 278 to 276 BC, the Epirate king went to the island. This is seen as an “extension of his hubris” by our ancient sources, but was really an extension to his empire building campaign (p. 82). Kent argues that the Italiote Greek cities were now under Pyrrhus’ control, and a system of alliances had been established with Italic peoples, allowing the king to shift his focus to extending his empire to the largest island in the Mediterranean.

Kent’s narrative examines how Pyrrhus established power in Syracuse and questions the veracity of his ever being the basileūs of Sicily. The emphasis put on the coinage he issued there is good, and shows that his position was rather complex (pp. 86-7).

Moving on from this, we hear about the campaign against the Carthaginian epikrateia, that is the Punic held western portion of Sicily. I quite like his portrayal of Punic armies as being well organized, describing their mixed consistency (in terms of ethnic units) as allowing “for a great deal of flexibility through an assorted mixture of different infantry, cavalry, and light infantry” (pp. 88-9). This lines up with my thinking (expounded in a number of forthcoming pieces).

The evidence for Pyrrhus’ actual campaign against the Carthaginian holdings on the island is very sparse. We know relatively little of what he did, except that he won a number of sieges, and accepted other cities’ surrenders. It appears that there was no large Punic army on the island, even though there had been one besieging Syracuse when Pyrrhus arrived (Diod. Sic. 22.8). We hear of a few garrisons being expelled from various towns, but no significant resistance was mounted. As Kent hypothesizes, Carthaginian commanders may have simply been taken by surprised at his quick advance and were thus unable to put together an army to oppose him (p. 93). Any theorized campaign they may have later launched has not been proven by any evidence and are completely absent from our literary sources.

Pyrrhus’ Sicily conquests broke like a wave on the walls of Lilybaeum, the Carthaginian stronghold of western Sicily. He supposedly had plans of conquering Libya, too, though this may have been an anachronistic addition to the narrative, based off of the similar goals and maneuvers of Agathocles and Marcus Atilius Regulus. Regardless of what he wanted to do, from 276 his power in Sicily began to dissolve, thanks to internal unrest amongst the Sicilian Greeks. The Carthaginians were thus able to retake their lost territory, and the Epirate king withdrew from the island.

Kent’s final chapter looks at the end of the war between Pyrrhus and Rome. Pyrrhus’ supposed moral collapse (which culminated in looting the temple of Persephone at Locri) is dealt with, and again we are confronted with historiographical problems. The chapter ends with the Battle of Beneventum and the eventual capture of Tarentum by the Romans.

A six-page epilogue follows the main text, which reflects on the narrative of the war. Kent astutely writes that “the narrative of the war is not only a commentary on the far future of the [Roman] Republic, but also a preamble to the challenges of the Punic Wars” (p. 125).

Closing thoughts

In general, this was a very good read. Kent’s writing is generally clear and engaging, though there were a few points that I think could have been edited for clarity. If I were to describe the book it would be as a critical narrative. Given the chronological approach, this was inevitable.

However, there are a few weaknesses to this, including leaving me with a need to know more about the armies of Pyrrhus’ wars in Italy and Sicily. While these are touched on in a few places, I think a broader topical methodology to set the scene would have helped. I also would have liked to see more detailed discussions on a number of issues (some of these are noted above), which I think would have made this a more robust piece of scholarship.

Regardless of this criticism, Kent has provided readers with an up-to-date and critical narrative of the Pyrrhic War. Undergraduates will find this to be extremely useful, and scholars of the mid-Republic and Hellenistic world should add it to their reading lists for Pyrrhus. Not doing so would be a mistake.

I would recommend this to all readers interested in the ancient world, if the price was different. For a rather short book (as academic titles go), the recommended retail price is USD $155 for the hardback, or USD $57.95 for the eBook. These are unreasonable, frankly, and will relegate this to a library book for most. Routledge would do well to offer an inexpensive – USD $20-ish – paperback edition. I have no doubt that this would sell and be considered a stellar example of writing modern war narratives.