Pyrrhus of Epirus vs. The Spartan Women

After the death of Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus of Epirus emerged as the Hellenic world’s leading strongman. That he did so was remarkable, considering his weak position. Epirus was by no means a great power before Pyrrhus, but he turned his and his country’s marginal position around, to become the leading figure at the opening of the third century BC. He forged such a reputation that no less a figure than Hannibal named him as a general second only to Alexander in standing, but did he actually deserve it? Hannibal praised Pyrrhus “because he considered boldness the first qualification of a general.” Another bold foe, who opposed him near the end of his career, were the women of Sparta. This is the story of Pyrrhus of Epirus vs. the Spartan women, a clash that set the latter on his way to final defeat.

Background

Pyrrhus’ western expeditions did not go well. He defeated the Romans twice, but his victories cost him dearly. This is the origin of our phrase “Pyrrhic victory.” An attempt to dominate Sicily succeeded at first, but the King of Epirus could not consolidate his gains, as he proved a poor administrator whose policies were deeply unpopular. He then returned to Italy and met defeat in his third battle with the Romans at Beneventum in 275 B.C. With this loss, he decided to return to Epirus and abandon the Western Mediterranean.

Pyrrhus of Epirus was not a man to rest for an extended period, however. He always looked to expand his power and he had lost many resources and much prestige in the west. He needed fresh victories, and his old enemy, Macedon, ruled by the Antigonid Dynasty, looked like a promising target. Pyrrhus attacked and the initial campaign went well. Ironically, he had turned down the Macedonian throne when it was offered to him a few years earlier, to embark on his Sicilian campaign. Now, he was close to subjugating the country, as Antigonus Gonatus was left only with a few fortresses on the coast.

Unfortunately for the King of Epirus, his poor talent as an administrator quickly showed again. Mercenary Gauls had been among his troops. To pay them, he allowed them to rob the tombs of the Macedonian kings. This made him deeply unpopular and played right into Antigonus’ hands. Antigonus was in fact waiting for Pyrrhus to overextend himself again. His opportunity to counterattack arose in a Spartan dispute.

Cleonymus’ Appeal

Cleonymus was a Spartan of royal descent but widely hated. Plutarch’s description of him is as follows:

Cleonymus was of royal descent, but seeming too arbitrary and absolute, had no great respect nor credit at home; and Areus was king there. This was the occasion of an old and public grudge between him and the citizens; but, beside that, Cleonymus, in his old age, had married a young lady of great beauty and royal blood, Chilonis, daughter of Leotychides, who, falling desperately in love with Acrotatus, Areus’s son, a youth in the flower of manhood, rendered this match both uneasy and dishonorable to Cleonymus, as there was none of the Spartans who did not very well know how much his wife slighted him; so these domestic troubles added to his public discontent.

Cleonymus sought Pyrrhus’ assistance in subduing his domestic enemies. The King of Epirus saw the chance to establish his supremacy in southern Greece and agreed. Plutarch says that he took an army of 25,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, and 24 elephants, marching directly for Sparta.

This was a significant force, far in excess of what the Spartans could raise. That city had lost its great power status far earlier. It still had the spirit it had at Thermopylae, however. It stood as the only city in Greece that Philip II and his son Alexander never subjugated. Sparta would not just roll over.

Pyrrhus Arrives at Sparta

Sparta famously had no walls. It considered its elite hoplites enough for defense. Yet, Pyrrhus’ attack took the Spartans by surprise. Their army was serving under King Areus in a Cretan expedition, leaving the city’s defenses bare. There was a proposal to send the women of Sparta to Crete, but the former Queen of Sparta, Archidamia, refused. Plutarch gives a remarkable account of her resolve:

In the night the Lacedaemonians held a consultation to ship over all the women into Crete, but they unanimously refused, and Archidamia came into the senate with a sword in her hand, in the name of them all, asking if the men expected the women to survive the ruins of Sparta.

Archidamia of Sparta leads the Spartan women
Archidamia took a sword into the Spartan assembly. Image originally found at Historica Wiki.

With this prodding from Archidamia, the Spartans dug entrenchments around their city, fearful that Pyrrhus’ elephants would run riot in the absence of fortifications. The Spartan women eagerly participated in this effort:

When they had just begun the work, both maids and women came to them, the married women with their robes tied like girdles round their underfrocks, and the unmarried girls in their single frocks only, to assist the elder men at the work.

Pyrrhus made a major mistake in not attacking right away. He thought that with the Spartan army gone and no walls around the city, he would be able to strike anytime. He wanted to give his men rest from their march, but time was of the essence. Sparta would surely reach out to Antigonus for aid. Yet, he held back and the Spartans finished their fortifications. They were prepared to hold to the last.

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Pyrrhus Attacks – The Spartan Women Respond

While the Spartan men stood on the front line, the women were just behind the line, ready to assist as needed.

The first assault was stalled. Plutarch says that the earthen trench was so loose that the soldiers could not find a firm footing. One cannot take away from Pyrrhus’ personal bravery here. He fought on the front lines and saw that he needed a flanking force, so he sent his son Ptolemy on that mission with 2,000 Gauls, along with some elite Greek mercenaries.

Potlemy’s attack looked like it would succeed. Wagons had been placed in this area as a crude obstacle, but it also prevented a cohesive Spartan counterattack. The Epirote army managed to remove these when the Spartan Prince Arcotatus:

…Seeing the danger, passing through the town with three hundred men, surrounded Ptolemy undiscerned, taking the advantage of some slopes of the ground, until he fell upon his rear, and forced him to wheel about. And thrusting one another into the ditch, and falling among the wagons, at last with much loss, not without difficulty, they withdrew.

Arcotatus won his spurs from this action, but Pyrrhus was far from gone. Another day of battle for Sparta loomed.

On the second day, Pyrrhus tried a new tactic. His troops attempted to fill the trench with dirt and corpses, rather than taking it by a sudden storm. The Spartan resistance depended on this trench and so they resisted fiercely.

Now the climax of the battle for Sparta came. Pyrrhus personally led a cavalry charge in the most solid area of the trench. He broke through and rushed toward the city. Plutarch makes no mention of it directly, but since the Spartan women were at this point behind the fighting line (“shrieking and running about,” he says), they must surely have participated in the opposition of this “with all their force.” At some point in the confusion, A javelin struck the King of Epirus’ horse. That turned the tide. Spartan resistance strengthened and he withdrew.

The King of Epirus retreated badly to Argos. The Spartans pursued him and killed Ptolemy in the process, striking a dire blow to the King.

At Argos, he finally met his end at the hands of the Argives, reinforced by Spartans and troops from Antigonus. At last, the King of Epirus had overextended himself one time too many, and the Spartan women played a crucial role in breaking his power for good.

Pyrrhus death
19th century rendition of the death of Pyrrhus.

The King of Epirus and his fall shows us that we must always marshal our resources wisely and we must not think that our enemies are weak simply because they appear weak (he must have thought he’d have an easy time of it, seeing women among the opposition). Those who do not heed this, no matter how talented they are, are in for a bad ending. Read Lives of the Luminaries to see much more of this law of history in action.

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