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Was Pyrrhus of Epirus the ancient world’s greatest battlefield commander?

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Pyrrhus of Epirus was king of the Greek city state of Epirus from 297 BCE to 272 BCE. During his life time Pyrrhus fought numerous wars throughout the Mediterranean world and became famous for his skill in battle. He was thought by many at the time to be a great commander, but was he the greatest? According to Roman historian Plutarch, when Carthaginian General Hannibal was asked who he thought the greatest commander in history was declared that “the foremost of all generals in experience and ability was Pyrrhus”(Plutarch). If Plutarch’s account is to be believed Pyrrhus, at least from Hannibal’s perspective, was considered to be the greatest commander of all time.
This then begs the question of whether Pyrrhus actually was better than the other great generals of the ancient world. In this Article I will analyze Pyrrhus as a commander and try to determine if he really was as great as Hannibal made him out to be. My main focus in this article will be on Pyrrhus’ victory at the Battle of Heraclea, which I think shows his capacity as a commander. The main source for this article will be Plutarch • Life of Pyrrhus
In 281 BCE the Greek colony of Tarentum, located southern Italy, requested King Pyrrhus’s assistance in fighting the Roman Republic. Pyrrhus heeded his fellow Greeks call for help and invaded Italy at the head of an army of 20,000 Infantry, 3,000 cavalrymen, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers and 20 elephants. Pyrrhus shortly after arrival in Italy engaged the Roman “barbarians”, along the river Siris near the town of Heraclea. The Greek leader is said to have remarked when seeing the Romans that “the discipline of these Barbarians is not barbarous” (Plutarch).
Hoping to catch the Romans off guard while they were crossing the river, Pyrrhus formed his disciplined infantry into a line of battle. The Roman Legionaries after dispersing Pyrrhus’ advanced guard engaged his main body of infantry; the two forces fought each other to a stand still. At the height of the battle Pyrrhus took off his helmet showing his face to his wavering troops. The tide began to turn when Pyrrhus unleashed his elephants on the opposing Roman cavalry. The Roman cavalry which was unaccustomed to the smell and sound of elephants quickly routed. Pyrrhus then finished the battle by smashing the Roman Infantry with his Thessalian cavalry.
This battle proves a lot about Pyrrhus’ generalship. In contrast to future Hellenistic armies that would later face Rome, Pyrrhus was able to win. Like Alexander he showed his personal bravery in battle and led his cavalry superbly. Like Hannibal he was able to defeat a well disciplined Roman Army and like Seleucus he was able to employ elephants effectively. At Heraclea Pyrrhus used both his cavalry and elephants in support of his phalanx in order to achieve a truly great victory. It takes a commander of quality to manage this kind of complex army, many other Greek commanders, Antiochus III and Perseus to name a few, were never able to master this in the same way Pyrrhus did.
So was Pyrrhus the best battlefield commander of the Ancient world? The answer is complicated. I do believe Pyrrhus was better than contemporary commanders such Antigonus the One-eyed and Lysimachids. It is hard though to compare him to both commanders of both the past, like Miltiades and Epaminondas, and of the distant future, like Marius, Pompey and Caesar. Many people would probably think of Alexander the Great as a better battlefield commander than Pyrrhus, but since Pyrrhus combined Alexander’s tactics with that of the Diadochi, Alexander’s successors, to create an even more refined system of warfare, I don’t see him as being an inferior general. We could also look at Hannibal of course, but since he effectively disqualified himself with the quote above I don’t see that either. If we count out all of these people than the only person that’s really left is Scipio Africanus. I’ll let you as the reader make the final decision on whether Pyrrhus of Epirus was the ancient world’s greatest battlefield commander or whether it was someone else like Scipio.



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