Pyrrhus meets Rome; the world takes note

Let me now start to unravel some of the mysteries I have been setting up in my recent thread about Carthage, Rome and Hellenism–the historical backdrop for the main plot in my coming book.

The first mystery, in brief, is this: Why did two powers, which had been very alike and on friendly terms for centuries, start fighting some of the most brutal wars in all of history, ending in one of them (Rome) completely erasing the other (Carthage)?

In this post, let’s first look at how Rome even came to the attention of the Mediterranean world as a whole. Recall that Rome had been an obscure and small land power in central Italy of which Alexander had apparently never even heard!

Well, that’s because the Romans had been busy for several centuries fighting their immediate neighbors in Italy. As they subdued them piecemeal, these tribes–such as the Samnites and Etruscans–essentially disappeared from history. But with each victory, the Romans got closer to the tip, or “boot”, of southern Italy. And, this being the Hellenistic era, this brought the Romans into contact at last with the Greek world. The first great city of the Greeks in Italy to take offense was Tarentum (modern Taranto).


As it happened, there was at this time a very colorful and strapping young king just across the Adriatic in today’s Albania, which at that time was a Hellenistic kingdom called Epirus. His name was Pyrrhus. He is one of my favorite characters in ancient history (as I told you when I talked about Pyrrhic victories).

Pyrrhus had a bit of a complex. The Epirotes, like the Macedonians next door, were sort of, just barely, Greek. Which is to say that the “real” Greeks couldn’t quite make up their minds whether the Epirotes were really barbarians masquerading as Greeks. So Pyrrhus was forever overcompensating.

He claimed that he descended from Achilles, the greatest Greek hero ever. And he wanted to be as grand as Alexander, the Macedonian who had made himself the lord of all Greeks and conquered their old enemies. So Pyrrhus was constantly getting into wars here and there to prove his mettle.

His big break, or so he thought, came in 281 BCE, as Tarentum invited him to come over to help fight off some barbarians (the Romans). Pyrrhus, the defender of the Greeks! Pyrrhus, the descendant of Achilles fighting Trojan War 2.o against the descendants of Troy! He was thrilled. He packed his bags and swords, along with 20 war elephants and a huge, splendid army of Greek hoplites. And off he was to Italy.

Call me Achilles

Let’s pause briefly to grasp what kind of man Pyrrhus was. Here is Plutarch, describing a moment when Pyrrhus was wounded in the head once and his enemies were closing in for the kill:

one of them advancing a good way before the rest, large of body and in bright armour, with an haughty voice challenged him to come forth if he were alive. Pyrrhus, in great anger, broke away violently from his guards, and, in his fury, besmeared with blood, terrible to look upon, made his way through his own men, and struck the barbarian on the head with his sword such a blow, as with the strength of his arm, and the excellent temper of the weapon, passed downward so far that his body being cut asunder fell in two pieces.

Pyrrhus was more than brawny and brave; he was also a great tactician and general, perhaps the best of his time. So now, for the first time ever, Roman legionaries clashed with the famous phalanxes of Greek hoplites.


This picture actually does not do it justice. The hoplites in the phalanx stayed in tight formation, each holding his long spear so that the phalanx as a whole advanced as though it were a deadly porcupine with its quills pointing forward.

The Romans gave way. Then Pyrrhus’ elephants did the rest. And so Pyrrhus won victories, but they were “Pyrrhic”–which is to say that they did not help him win the war and cost him so much in lives that he himself said that he could not afford another.

Roman and Greek: Clash of Civilizations

But there was more going on here than battles. This was the first time that these two cultures actually met en masse. And the Greeks did not know what to make of these Romans.

In the Greek (Hellenistic) world, war was a higher form of sport and art. One or two victories on the battlefield, and the gentlemanly thing to do was to make a treaty, call it quits and go to the gymnasium to get oiled. So Pyrrhus was waiting for the Romans to cry Uncle.

But they didn’t. And the Greeks just did not understand. Why did the Romans just keep coming, and coming and coming, when they were dying in such large numbers? Who, or what, were these people?

There were more surprises. In the Greek world, you opened diplomacy with a gift or two, and perhaps the equivalent of a discreet brown envelope to the right persons. So Pyrrhus sent an envoy to talk to the Romans. But when he offered his gifts to the Roman senators, they were so shocked at the implication of venality that all diplomacy ended abruptly.

Bizarre! Even stranger, the Romans then saved Pyrrhus’ life. The king’s own doctor was a traitor and offered the Romans to poison Pyrrhus. The Romans, far from accepting the offer, promptly informed Pyrrhus, who had his doctor taken care of. There was nobility in these barbarians, he thought!

Long story short, Pyrrhus, after some distractions in Sicily, eventually left Italy and went home to Epirus, to keep looking for adventures and glory there.

Rome had survived its first encounter with the Greeks unbeaten and was now master of all Italy. All over the Mediterranean, people sat up and held their breath. Wow. A new power, living by exotic values and playing by incomprehensible rules, had arrived on the scene.

Even Rome’s old friends in Carthage suddenly realized that these Romans were now awfully close to Sicily, and rather more menacing than Carthage had ever thought. Whatever Rome was now, it was certainly no longer obscure.

Bookmark and Share

Archimedes between Carthage and Rome

"Don't disturb my circles."

"Don't disturb my circles."

Above you see a 78-year-old Greek man drawing mathematical diagrams into the sand, a split second before a Roman soldier stabbed him to death in a war against Carthage. The old man’s name, of course, is Archimedes, and when the Romans ran toward him he apparently said, simply, “Don’t disturb my circles.”

I have been thinking about how to illustrate for you, in one terse but punchy anecdote, the essence of the Hellenistic era that I wrote about in the previous post. And this is it.

Remember: This was an era when 1) two mighty powers, Carthage and Rome, clashed and changed our world forever and 2) the entire known world, including Carthage and Rome, was simultaneously taking its cultural, linguistic, artistic, scientific and aesthetic cues from the Greeks. (Oh, and it was the era that forms the backdrop to the main story in my forthcoming book, a book that is really about the ups and downs in your life.)

But why this moment, the stabbing of Archimedes?

Because it was a microcosm of the larger situation. Consider:

  • Archimedes was stabbed in 212 BCE, just as Hannibal, the Carthaginian commander who is my main character, was in Italy, killing Romans (he killed about one quarter of all free Latin men at the time!).
  • The Romans, who were losing, were worried that Sicily, the ethnically Greek island between Italy and Carthage which they had wrested from Carthaginian control in a previous war might go over to Carthage again, thus giving Hannibal a base for supplies and reinforcement and sealing their likely fate: extinction.
  • So the Romans, while fighting Hannibal in Italy itself, attacked and laid siege to the Greek city of Syracuse on Sicily, once a Roman ally but now flirting with Carthage.
  • But Syracuse, a proud and ancient Spartan Corinthian colony, was a more refined–ie, Hellenistic–culture than either Rome or Carthage. It was Greek, rich, old, full of art and learning. And it was the home of Archimedes!
  • Archimedes, using Hellenistic values of science and thought (as opposed to brute Roman force) helped his city to keep the Romans at bay for two years.
  • He figured out a way to use mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto the Roman ships until they burnt–the Hellenistic form of Star Wars. He designed cranes that, using the principle of leverage, lifted the Roman ships out of the water and let them crash down.
  • Eventually, the Romans got into the city and had their Roman way with it. But the swash-buckling Roman commander, Marcellus, gave orders to save the great man, Archimedes–a gesture that was itself a sign of the Hellenistic Zeitgeist. Alas, the young legionaries did not recognize Archimedes and killed him.
  • And so Sicily stayed Roman and did not become a base to resupply Hannibal in Italy. Hannibal would later kill Marcellus in Italy, and things would take their course…

So there you have it: the three civilizations–Greek, Roman and Carthaginian–meeting in one spot at one time. But there is another reason to choose Archimedes.

Archimedes perfectly epitomized his Hellenistic time and his Greek culture. He was curious, full of wonderment, inquiring into everything. As he was taking a bath one day, he noticed how his leg, moving in and out, displaced the water, which gave him the idea for measuring the volume and density of any object. He was so excited that he ran out into the streets, stark naked and dripping, screaming what might be the the best and ultimate slogan for Hellenism itself:


Bookmark and Share

It was all Greek to them. No, literally.


I left off in my thread on the general historical backdrop to the main story in my forthcoming book with a nod to Hellenism. That is because my main characters, Hannibal (Carthage) and Scipio (Rome), clashed, with consequences for us today, during the third century BCE, the height of the so-called Hellenistic era.

This may sound weird. Hellenism is named after Hellas, Greece, but what we know about this epic clash is that it happened between the two superpowers of the day, Rome and Carthage. What does Greece have to do with this?

This is what I want to explain, briefly and simply, in this post.

“Greece” was never, in antiquity, a country. Even Homer, writing about the Trojan War that was the mythological foundation for all Greeks, never once used the word Greeks! (Instead, he called the Greeks Argives, Achaeans, Aetolians, and so on.) During the Classical era, the Greeks had independent city states (Athens, Sparta, Thebes etc) that constantly fought against, or allied with, one another.

But although they never thought of themselves as a country, they always thought of themselves as a civilization. The definition of Greekness was simple: if you were allowed to send competitors to the Olmpic Games, you were Greek. And who was allowed? Broadly, those who spoke Greek. All other languages sounded to the Greeks like “bar bar bar bar”, hence barbarian.

Then, in the fourth century BCE, something big happened: While the Greek cities kept fighting each other about rather petty things, as usual, a new power rose to the north. This was Macedonia. Whether the Macedonians were Greek was at first controversial, but might made right, and Philip, then his son Alexander, became not only Macedonian but also Greek.

Alexander, completing the dream his father had dreamt when he was murdered, then swept ferociously across the Hellespont to the east, reversing the direction of the earlier Persian invasions, and conquering most of the known world. In the process he brought Greek language, culture, philsophy, theater, art and architecture to the entire “Middle East”. His name lives on in many garbled city names, such as Kandahar.

Then Alexander died, prematurely. His generals carved up his huge empire and for the next couple of centuries, huge and powerful kingdoms with Greek aristocracies ruled the area. The two biggest were the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic empires. The last Greco-Macedonian queen was, of course, Cleopatra (who happens to be another of the characters in my book.)

What did this mean? It meant that in the whole Mediterranean and “Middle East”, there was one cosmopolitan, urban culture, which was Greek–ie, Hellenistic. There were lots and lots of other peoples–Phoenicians, Romans, Gauls, Numidians, Illyrians etc–who abutted on this Greek pond from all sides, and they each had their own culture and language. But the haute couture, the lingua franca, the aesthetic style, the entire outlook and sensibility of the era–all this was Greek.

There are no perfect parallels in history for this astonishing cultural dominance. The reach of Han Chinese culture during the Tang Dynasty and “Anglo-Saxon” culture today (from English-as-a-second-language to Hollywood films) are the two that seem to come closest.

So there. Hannibal spoke Punic, Scipio spoke Latin, but both of course also spoke Greek. Scipio, in fact, loved Greek culture so much that his political enemy, Cato the Elder, a sort of Roman Joe McCarthy, even tried to spin a scandal out of it.

It was a culturally refined and complex era. A fascinating era.

Bookmark and Share