The extraordinary history of the “Eagle of Epirus”

If you are a history fan with a love for antiquity, then you probably have heard of King Pyrrhus. Nicknamed "the eagle", he is remembered as one of the most epic and legendary kings and war generals of all time. Is safe to say that Pyrrhus had an extraordinary life and proved himself to be a great leader, even though his rise to power was not easy.  

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Early life: 

Pyrrhus was the son of prince Aeacides and Phthia, born in the Molossian royal family, which claimed to be descended by Achilles, the legendary. Maybe that strong belief they had, predestined them to glory and power because Pyrrhus is not the only one in his family that made history. 

His father, prince Aeacides was the first cousin of princess Olympia, the mother of Alexander the Great. Therefore, Pyrrhus was a second cousin of Alexander. 

Aeacides supported Olympias in her fight against Cassander and marched on Macedon, two times with his military. But this cost Aecides his throne because his soldiers rebelled and the aristocrats turned against their king. Soon Cassander managed to turn Epirues into one of his puppet states, by sending one of his most trusted generals, to act as a regent to the throne. 

Pyrrhus, only 2 years old, as the direct heir was in great danger. His family fled Epirus seeking help and protection from king Glaukia of the Illyrian kingdom of  Taulantian. The legend says that when the Pyrrhus family was in front of the king, Pyrrhus, just a little child crawled to the queen's throne, smiling at her. The queen named Borea felt immense compassion and insisted on her husband, the King to take them under his protection. And so they did. 

Pyrrhus when a child brought to Glaucias king of Illyria for protection 

 

Rise to glory

King Glaukia practically adopted Pyrrhus and taught him everything he knew about leadership, politics, and the art of war. When Glaukia invaded Epirus, years later he put Pyrrhus on the throne, when he was just 12 years old. This is considered as the first part of his reign and lasted only 5 years. When Pyrrhus was away from his kingdom, to attend Glaukia's son’s wedding, whom he considered as his brother.

While the young king was away, his opponents took advantage of his absence and did a coup d'etat, overthrowing Pyrrhus from his throne. The years that followed were difficult but crucial to Pyrrhus's life. He served as an officer, in the army of his brother-in-law, Demetrius, king of ancient Macedonia.            

 In 298 BC, Pyrrhus was taken hostage to Alexandria, under the terms of a peace treaty made between Demetrius and Ptolemy, king of Egypt. During this time, Pyrrhus proved to be incredibly brave in the battles, showed great leadership skills, and also was very skilled when it came to diplomacy and politics. He gained many powerful allies and married Ptomely's daughter, straightening his position. 

Soon after, he returned to Epirus regaining the throne and becoming king again, as the rightful heir. The second part of his reigns begins and so does his rise to glory. 

Pyrrhus was a warrior king, he fought greatly for the independence and freedom of his kingdom, and later he fought to expand his borders. Unlike the rest, Pyrrhus fought alongside his soldiers in the battle, making heroic acts, which made him very popular and liked by his army. 

He fought against Macedonian kings and only two years and soon after became the king of Macedonia as well. His greatest inspiration and role model was his own cousin, Alexander the Great, he was eager for new victories, power, and success.

During his military campaigns in Macedonia, Greece, and Italy he never lost a single battle. He was the first European king that used elephants in the war. So great was his heroism and abilities as a military general, that his soldiers named him "The Eagle of Epirus" and "Pyrrhus the man". 

His most famous battle was without a doubt the one fought against the Romans legions, in the city of Tarentum in southern Italy. Pyrrhus fought bravely and won, but the cost of his victory was incredibly high. During the battle, he lost almost all of his soldiers and officers, fighting against an army that was twice in number. So great was his sacrifice, that Pyrrhus himself said "One more victory like this, and I'll return to Epirus myself." From his history originates the famous expression "Pyrrhic victory" that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victory that it is tantamount to defeat.  

 Pyrrhus battle with elephants

 

Diplomacy and leadership 

King Pyrrhus won battles not only with his sword but also by using his skills in diplomacy. He created the "Epirus treaty", forming a federative kingdom between the main Epiriotes tribes, establishing peace. He also had a great relationship with the Illyrian kingdoms, both politically and economically. History shows that Pyrrhus never fought against any Illiryan king or queen, nor did he have conflicts with any of them. 

Pyrrhus reformed his kingdom encouraged trade, imposed taxes and monopolies, and also produced his own coins. During his reign, Epirus went from a small, poor, and divided by many conflicts kingship, to become one of the most influential, important, and richest states of the region. King Pyrrhus sent his own ambassador across all Mediterranean kingdoms, built new cities, and strengthen the existing ones, built streets, castles, amphitheaters, public baths, etc. 

 

A generous king

Pyrrhus was also known for being a man of his word, having compassion towards his citizens, allies, and even enemies, and being a very generous king. He had a great reputation amongst common people, which at the time were more used to tyrants, and kings like Pyrrhus were the rare exception.

One of the most famous episodes of his reign happened during a battle against the Romans. After winning the battle, his army had caught alive more than 1800 Romans soldiers and officers. The Romans consular begged the king to have mercy and offered him a dizzying amount of gold to release them. 

King Pyrrhus refused the gold and famously said "My soldiers and I don't fight for gold, but by putting our hearts and honor in our swords." The king ordered the immediate release of all the prisoners and also gave the Romans time to bury their dead, respecting all of their mourning ceremonies. 

The international Red Cross highlighted this amazing act of human compassion, in 1957 as a great example of how the forces in the war, should treat each other. 

Pyrrhus statue 

 

Pyrrhus legacy

King Pyrrhus is widely considered one of the best generals in history. 

When Hannibal, the legendary general of Cartagena was asked who were the greatest generals of all times, he named Alexander the great as his first choice, Pyrrhus of Epirus as the second, and himself as the third. 

The "Pyrrhic dance" from which the famous "Osman Taka" dance divided is still very popular to this day, in Albania, Greece, Montenegro, North Macedonia, etc. The reputation of king Pyrrhus is still unmatched and even 23 centuries after his death, he still reigns in the heart of the people. 

Even Scanderbeg himself was inspired by him and felt immense pride that he was descended from the same race of men as king Pyrrhus. In a letter sent to the prince of Toronto, Scanderbeg wrote:

"It would seem you know nothing of the origin of our race. Our elders were the Epirotes from whence Pyrrhus himself came forth, the might of whom the Romans could barely withstand. Those very Epirotes whom with their weapons set forth and conquered  Taranto and much of Italy.....   

And since you proclaim Albania as part of Macedonia, you grant also then, our elders as nobles who went as far as India under Alexander the Great, defeating all the people that came before them with great ease."

Skanderbeg's letter sent to prince of Toronto

Prepared by Eldolina Keputa
January 24, 2021 — Alban Selami