6. One of the Hellenistic Era’s Greatest Generals Was Killed by an Old Woman Armed With a Roof Tile
Pyrrhus of Epirus (319 – 272 BC) was a Hellenistic general and statesman who started off as a tribal king, before becoming king of Epirus in the western Balkans. A distant relative of Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus was a formidable enemy of both the kingdom of Macedon and a rising Rome. His costly victories against both gave rise to the term “pyrrhic victory” – a victory that comes at such a high price that it amounts to a de facto defeat.
Pyrrhus was born to struggle and strife. His father was an Epirote who got dethroned when Pyrrhus was two years old, and the family had to flee and seek refuge with a nearby Illyrian tribe. His tribal hosts put Pyrrhus on his father’s former throne in 306 BC, but he was dethroned four years later, and forced to hit the road and make a living as a mercenary officer. He ended up in Egypt, where he married king Ptolemy I’s stepdaughter, and his new in-law gave him financial and military backing that restored him to the Epirote throne in 297 BC.
Pyrrhus then spent the next few years making a name for himself as a brilliant general in a series of conflicts in the Balkans. In 282 BC, the Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy got into a dispute with an expansionist Rome, and turned to Pyrrhus for help. Encouraged by a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi, and eager for an opportunity to create an empire in southern Italy, Pyrrhus agreed. He formed an alliance with the neighboring kingdom of Macedon, and landed in southern Italy in 280 BC with an army of about 20,000 infantry, 3000 cavalry, and 2500 archers and slingers. He defeated the Romans in costly battles whose losses he could not afford, but which the Romans, with their deeper manpower pool, were able to bounce back from. After one such victory, he quipped “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined“.
Taking a break from Italy, he took off to fight the Carthaginians in Sicily, but by the time he returned, the Romans had recovered and formed a vastly superior army. So Pyrrhus cut his losses and left Italy in 275 BC. His end came in 272 BC, when he took sides in an internal dispute in the city of Argos. An old woman threw a tile from a roof that hit Pyrrhus in the head, knocking him off his horse and snapping his spine. Whether or not he survived the fall, his fate was sealed when an enemy soldier rushed in and beheaded the Epirote king.