Synopsis and Commentary
Plutarch wrote the life of Pyrrhus as part of his Parallel Lives in which he pairs a famous Greek and Roman with independent biographies of each. Pyrrhus is paired with Gaius Marius the famous Roman general that defeated Jugurtha as well as a major Germanic invasion of Italy and later helped to undermine the Roman Republic in his quest for power. Pyrrhus and Marius have very little in common, and conceivably were only paired to sustain the motif of the book.
Among the countless generals in the history of Western warfare perhaps none has won more battles in concert with ultimate defeat in wars than Pyrrhus of Epirus. Even though he failed in nearly all of his endeavors he was able to gain a lasting reputation for military genius which has endured and will endure in Western culture. His most towering opponent – republican Rome – possessed that crucial additive in warfare which Pyrrhus lacked: the resolve to never accept defeat. Such resolve was manifest in the belief that every war was a life-and-death struggle for republican Rome. Despite the ability of Pyrrhus to achieve awe-inspiring battlefield victories the war itself was more of a passing enthusiasm than a life-and-death struggle for him, and so he met failure after failure in the eventual aims of the wars he fought.
Pyrrhus remains an enigma in Western culture. His battlefield successes, his spectacular military genius, and his Alexander like charisma ought to have produced an unstoppable military juggernaut, but rather than climbing the heights that Alexander once did he met ultimate failure in war after war.
“…Pyrrhus only by arms and in action, represented Alexander. Of his knowledge of military tactics and the art of a general, and his great ability that way, we have the best information from the commentaries he left behind him. Antigonus, also, we are told, being asked who was the greatest soldier, said, ‘Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old’…
“…Hannibal of all great commanders esteemed Pyrrhus for skill and conduct the first, Scipio the second, and himself the third, as is related in the life of Scipio.
“The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.
“…What he got by great actions he lost again by vain hopes, and by new desires of what he had not, kept nothing of what he had. So that Antigonus used to compare him to a player with dice, who had excellent throws, but knew not how to use them.
*All excerpts have been taken from Plutarch’s Lives – Vol. I, Modern Library.