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45 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ancient History's Forgotten General,
Pyrrhus of Epirus was widely regarded in the Ancient World as one of the great commanders. Plutarch has Hannibal declare him as the greatest commander the world ever saw, whilst even Cicero praised his military insight. Unfortunately, Pyrrhus has become in modern scholarship something of a footnote, known because of the phrase "a pyrrhic victory" than for anything else (an appreciable irony is that this phrase was not used in the Ancient World as their preferred phrase was "a Cadmean Victory"). Pyrrhus probably suffers in mainstream academia for falling between the gaps of periodisation as a Hellenistic Monarch who fought against an Italian Pennisula based Rome and thus has avoided serious academic treatment, he also probably comes off worse for sharing Hannibal's gimick of fighting Rome with Elephants, sadly history only seems to want remember one Elephant Commander.
It is therefore good news for those with an interest in Ancient History that Jeff Champion has written such a solid work on Pyrrhus. The last dedicated book on the subject was Garoufalias in 1979, and this work offers a more up to date account and is highly accessible to a lay audience. The book is primarily a narrative account of Pyrrhus' career, and handles a good range of source material from Justin's Epitome of Trogus to Plutarch's life or Pyrrhus, Diodorus, Pausanias, Livy, Appian and several other ancient authors. Champion provides good authorial analysis of the sources (though on a personal level I feel he is a little harsh on Plutarch) and uses them to provides good accounts of the key battles at Heraclea, Asculum and Beneventum as well as producing a good chapter on Pyrrhus' time in Sicilly. Another quality of this work is in Champion's ability to create background information, the introduction sections of his chapters on Epirus, Rome, Sicilly and also on the Successors succeed in providing a succint assessment of previous events.
All in all I would recommend this book to anyone interested in developing an understanding of Pyrrhus or as a case study of Hellenistic Kingship. There are a couple of refinements the book could have used, it does lack a conclusion chapter, I would have been interested to read Champion's thoughts on Pyrrhus as a retrospective analysis and whether he shares (Plutarch's) Hannibal's opinion of Pyrrhus. The other issue in terms of layout would have been if the publisher could have arranged the battle maps to feature in the relevant chapter rather than at the start of the book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars He Died Young,
According to Plutarch, Antigonos, when asked who was the best general of the generation following Alexander, replied “Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old”.
From the author’s preface:
“His life would span the period of history known as the ‘age of the Successors’… The Successors were those generals of Alexander the Great, who would, to quote Plutarch, ‘carve up his empire like the carcass of some great slaughtered beast’…
Although this book is primarily a narrative history, any course of historical events cannot be understood in isolation. There will be, therefore, a number of short discourses on topics that are relevant to the general historical context of the period. Topics covered will include: the military developments of both the Greeks and Romans in the period immediately before Pyrrhus’ reign; short histories of Rome’s expansion into southern Italy and the conflicts between the Greeks and Carthaginians in Sicily; the character of Hellenistic kingship and the nature of the relationships between the Greek cities and the kings. This last theme is important in understanding the eventual failure of Pyrrhus’ expeditions to both Italy and Sicily… The first chapter will mainly be concerned with giving the background to the wars of the Successors and how Epirus, and more particularly the Epirot royal family, were drawn into these events.”
That basically sums up the book - it is a straightforward account of the life and campaigns of Pyrrhus. The chapters are:
Notes, Bibliography, Index – pp140-156.
The book is well written and as authoritative as you can be given the lack of contemporary sources for much of the Successors’ activities. The maps are good, and the reconstructed battle plans are very interesting (and useful for wargamers).
Recommended further reading would be John D. Grainger’s Alexander the Great Failure: The Collapse of the Macedonian Empire (Hambledon Continuum). The opening chapters on the early history of Macedon, the kingship and succession crises will give you a great understanding of the almost identical problems faced by Epirus. Much of that book focuses on the view from Macedon of the age of the Successors, and Pyrrhus and Epirus play a big part.
Nick Sekunda’s Hellenistic Infantry Reform in the 160s BC (Studies in the Ancient and Medieval Art of Warfare) has some interesting information on Pyrrhus in the Appendices. From Appendix A - The evidence for Roman influence on Hellenistic armies before the Third Macedonian War:
The first Appendix discusses Pyrrhus’s army reforms –“Ever since the Macedonian phalanx first emerged as a tactical formation, there existed a danger that the frontage would rupture if the phalanx was required to move forward for any distance over rough terrain… It seems that Pyrrhus was the first commander to attempt to solve this problem by alternating blocks of pike-men and medium infantry in the front line. According to Polybius… Pyrrhus made use of Roman weapons and of Italian troops, placing a maniple… of Italians alongside a phalanx block… in his battles with the Romans… The maniples of Italians would have served as flexible ‘joints’ between the pike-blocks, enabling the latter to deliver a series of individual ‘hammer-blows’ without disrupting the line. In this way the phalanx could ‘articulate’ and a rupture in the line was prevented.”
“An ‘articulating’ phalanx also seems to have been the tactical formation used at the battle of Magnesia in 190 BC, where Antiochus the Great deployed the pikemen of the Seleucid army as follows:
…”There were 16,000 infantry armed in the Macedonian manner, who are called phalangites. They formed the centre of the line, and their frontage was divided into 10 parts; and these parts were separated by intervals in which two elephants were placed (Livy)”. “The appearance of the phalanx was like that of a wall, of which the elephants were the towers (Appian)” Each of the elephants would have been accompanied by a guard of an uncertain number of infantry.”
“We have seen that it was reasonably common practice for the phalanxes of third century Hellenistic armies to be drawn up in articulating phalanx blocks until the battle of Magnesia. It seems that this ‘articulating phalanx’ was a military innovation of Pyrrhus, the result of his experiences in the Italian Campaign. Pyrrhus was clearly influenced by manipular tactics. There is no indication, however, that later armies used weapons other than the traditional ones of the phalanx.” And so on.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pyrrhus of Epirus, by Jeff Champion,
Pyrrhus of Epirus
Jeff Champion writes about the career of Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose battles against the Romans coined the well known term "a Pyrrhic Victory".
This book includes detailed descriptions of Pyrrhus' major battles and the surrounding historical events in a factual and candid manner. It includes maps, sufficient background information and describes the accuracy and context of the historical references, so that a non-historian can easily understand this work.
I highly recommend this informative and entertaining book for anybody with an interest in ancient history or warfare.
4.0 out of 5 stars A talented gambler who always wanted more?,
This book is a good general presentation of the military career of Pyrrhus of Epirus targeted at the general reader (as opposed to the historian). It is mostly well-written although it suffers, at times, from some oversweeping and over-simplified statements (such as light infantry being generally "ineffectual").
The book includes detailed descriptions and maps of the king's battles against the Romans but it is less good for the battles Pyrrhus fought in Greece or Sicily, largely because of deficiencies in the sources. It is a good read and presents what is the conventional view of Pyrrhus, largely derived from Plutarch's Lives: a talented high-risk general who was a bit of a restless gambler and always wanted more. There is also a resonably good description of what was expected from a Hellenistic monarch and how, for many (or even most) of them, there was a need to emulate Alexander in all respects, including in his style of command. For this, the book deserves four stars, but not five, because it goes no further.
I found that two things were somewhat missing from this conventional presentation. One was a discussion as to why Pyrrhus would have gained this reputation of being reckless and restless. The other was a discussion as to why neither Pyrrhus nor any other of the Successors (both the Diadochii and the Epigones - that is the first and the second generation of Alexander's Successors) never managed to be as successful as Alexander.
The two elements may be somewhat related. To consider just the case of Pyrrhus, his "restlesness" can be largely explained by his position of relative weakness throughout his whole career: he never really had a strong power base to begin with, that is a large and rich kingdom with a large enough army. Epirus was a second rate kingdom that could not really rival with Macedon or Lysimmachos' kingdom after 301, and even less with either the Ptolemies or the Seleucids. It was neither rich nor big. It wasn't very populated and it's army, while of a reasonable size, could not match that of his rivals.
Unable to conquer and hold Macedon for more than a few years in a row, Pyrrhus tried to conquer first Italy, but was checked by the Romans, and then Sicily, but he failed to expel the Carthaginians from their last fortress and raised the siege, losing the trust of the Sicilians. So he pulled out of Sicily to defend Greek Italy and lost out to the Romans. To land in Italy, he had to "borrow" Macedonian troops from Ptolemy Keraunos to make up the numbers for his pike phalanx. To fight the Romans, he had to enlist thousands of Greek and Italian allies that he could either not fully trust or whose fighting qualities and discipline did not match that of the troops he had brought over with hime from Greece. Neither could he entirely trust the Sicilians. Although Greek Sicily did have both the richness and the population needed to create a powerful kingdom, it was not his kingdom and the Sicilians had no real intention to let him become their king. As for his last campaigns in Greece, by that time, he was so short of money that he could barely pay his troops, even the cheap Galatians, and these campaigns seem to have been more plundering expeditions than real attempts to conquer a kingdom.
There would be at least two main differences with Alexander. Unlike his relative, who started as King of a Macedon that his father had made rich and predominant across the whole of the Balkans, Phyrrhus was no more than the king of a second rate power. Unlike Alexander, he could not rely on the same high number of outstanding and talented officers and generals to serve him - a mix of steady veterans from Philip's campaigns and young energetic and ambitious officers of his own age, something that the young Macedonian king also owed to his father. In particular, and although Pyrrhus had some good captains, he had no steady Parmenion and Antipater to, respectively, secure his left flank in battle and secure his home base. None of the other Successors ever managed to have both of these either...
So whether Pyrrhus was, or not, the best general of the generation after Alexander is a rather moot point. Antigonos' opinion, according to Plutarch, that "if he lives to be old" he would be the best general is typically the kind of made up statement that Plutarch (and other writers in Antiquity) comes up with. It is rather unlikely than Antigonos, then nearing 80, ever said such a thing about young Phyrrhos who was only about 18 at the time.
Whether the best or not, he lacked the power base to succeed to the same extent as Alexander and spent his whole life trying - and failing despite his talents - to conquer such a power base.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The True Achilles !,
Pyrrhus king of epirus ( north western greece ) was arguably the greatest
warrior in the history of Greece ! , and definitely one of the best and
talented commanders in antiquity but his biggest mistake was that he never
concentrate on one purpose , and one bird in the hand is better than ten
on the tree :)
About this book , i think any book dealing with pyrrhus the eagle - as he
was known - will be an entertaining one , because the story of this king
represent the word ( epic ) ! .. and the authur make this epic story even
better , he go deep into the various sources and try to take out the more
realistic opinion ..
My only criticism - if i have the right to - is the authur's scepticism in
most of the sources , words like ( claim - assume ..and so on ) are repeated
again and again ..
In general , and regardless of what i said above , the book deserve the 5
stars and i recommend it strongly even to those who not that much in history .
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A riveting read - history as it should be written,
This is a short book, but every page is packed with interesting historical events and facts. Champion strikes the perfect balance between providing the historical background to Pyrrhus' life (the few hundred years before it across the Mediterranean) and giving a narrative history of Pyrrhus' life. This is important because without knowing that historical background much of Pyrrhus' life would be impossible to understand and sound like just a list of strange actions by peoples with strange names. Pyrrhus' decisions are also hard to understand without knowing something of the background of the chaos and ruthlessness of the world of Alexanders' successors, in which fortunes rose and fell (and rose and fell again) almost overnight - and in which being able to change your mind and sieze opportunities was a matter of life or death for rulers and ruled alike.
While I know a fair amount of the history of the period from other books i've read i discovered many new and interesting things from this book - especially about the conflicts between Carthaginian and Greek colonists and traders in the period before the first Punic war.
Champion also manages to add many insights by comparisons between events in Pyrrhus' life and ones in earlier and later ancient history - from Alexander and Phillip II's campaigns before Pyrrhus' campaigns to Rome's conflicts with Hannibal, Phillip V and the Seleucids after Pyrrhus' death.
Champion also strikes the perfect balance between identifying the different accounts from the different historical sources - and the reasons why he's favoured one over another, on the one hand; and not interrupting the story with long, dull discussions of these details on the other.
Unlike many historians he manages to mention the sources and why he favours one over another on different points without taking up more than a sentence or two, instead of going on for a dozen pages on each point.
Pyrrhus is described as he was, in the context of a life in which he first faced people hunting him down to kill him when he was 3 years old. Champion does not hero worship Pyrrhus either though - he mentions his ruthlessness, his lack of concern for the fates of his allies and his arrogance and lack of diplomatic skills; along with his bravery and skill as a general.
Champion is quick to note possible or likely propaganda by ancient writers and writes a riveting story (or "narrative history") which is strong on facts, strong on acknowledging the possible flaws in the sources and the uncertainties and strong on deducing the likely facts based on comparison with similar events before and after Pyrrhus' life. This book is worth every penny.
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative,
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Enjoyable Read.,
Jeff Champion's book is a fine introduction to the life and times and military campaigns Of Pyrrhus of Epirus. After reading this book, one has a great appreciation of the ever-shifting fault-line between and Roman and Hellenistic worlds. A fine read.
0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pyrrhus of Epirus,
Greatly enjoyed the book! Quite a compact account of an incredible career. From memory, the main text is about 130 pages, but to write more given the historical evidence would be to either make assumptions on unknown detail or to drift off the subject. The author is careful to cite his sources and gives reasons for adhering to the view of one historian as opposed to others where there is a conflict of evidence. Also an excellent spectrum of narrative, describing the strategic scenario down to the battlefield tactics used.
0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book,
A very well written and researched book - accessible even if you're not an academic. I enjoyed learning about Pyrrhus - even though he wasn't in my opinion, as good as Hannibal, he was still clearly a good leader - a shame he couldn't stay still and consolidate his gains instead of rushing off for the next thrill!
Anyhow, well worth a read!
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Pyrrhus of Epirus by Jeff Champion