Home  |  Authors  |  Books  |  Stories  |  What's New  |  How to Get Involved 
   T h e   B a l d w i n   P r o j e c t
     Bringing Yesterday's Classics to Today's Children                 @mainlesson.com
Search This Site Only
 
 
Pyrrhus by  Jacob Abbott


 

 

THE LAST CAMPAIGN OF PYRRHUS

[268] IMMEDIATELY on receiving the invitation of Cleonymus, Pyrrhus commenced making preparations on a very extensive scale for the intended campaign. He gathered all the troops that he could command, both from Macedon and Epirus. He levied taxes and contributions, provided military stores of every kind, and entered into all the other arrangements required for such an enterprise. These preliminary operations required a considerable time, so that he was not ready to commence his march until the following year. When all was ready, he found that his force consisted of twenty-five thousand foot, two thousand horse, and a troop of twenty-four elephants. He had two sons, neither of whom, it would seem, was old enough to be intrusted with the command, either in Macedon or Epirus, during his absence, and he accordingly determined to take them with him. Their names were Ptolemy and Helenus. Pyr- [269] rhus himself at this time was about forty-five years of age.

Although in this expedition Cleonymus supposed that Pyrrhus was going into Greece only as his ally, and that the sole object of the war was to depose Areus and place Cleonymus on the throne in his stead, Pyrrhus himself entertained far different designs. His intention was, while invading the country in Cleonymus's name, to overrun and conquer it all, with a view of adding it to his own dominions. Of course, he gave no intimation to Cleonymus that he entertained any such designs.

The approach of Pyrrhus naturally produced great excitement and commotion in Sparta. His fame as a military commander was known throughout the world; and the invasion of their country by such a conqueror, at the head of so large a force, was calculated to awaken great alarm among the people. The Spartans, however, were not much accustomed to be alarmed. They immediately began to make preparations to defend themselves. They sent forward an embassage to meet Pyrrhus on the way, and demand wherefore he was coming. Pyrrhus made evasive and dishonest replies. He was not intending, he said, to commit any hostilities against [270] Sparta. His business was with certain other cities of the Peloponnesus, which had been for some time under a foreign yoke, and which he was now coming to free. The Spartans were not deceived by these protestations, but time was gained, and this was Pyrrhus's design.

His army continued to advance, and in its progress began to seize and plunder towns belonging to the Spartan territory. The Spartans sent embassadors again, demanding what these proceedings meant. The embassadors charged it upon Pyrrhus, that, contrary to the laws and usages of nations, he was making war upon them without having previously declared war.

"And do you Spartans," said Pyrrhus, in reply, "always tell the world whatever you are going to do before you do it?" Such a rejoinder was virtually acknowledging that the object of the expedition was an attack on Sparta itself. The embassadors so understood it, and bid the invader defiance.

"Let there be war, then," said they, "if you will have it so. We do not fear you, whether you are a god or a man. If you are a god, you will not be disposed to do us any injury, for we have never injured you. If you are a man, you can not harm us, for we can produce men [271] in Sparta able to meet any other man whatever."

The ambassadors then returned to Sparta, and the people immediately pushed forward with all diligence their preparations for putting the city in an attitude of defense.

Pyrrhus continued his march, and at length, toward evening, approached the walls of the city. Cleonymus, who knew well what sort of enemies they had to deal with, urgently recommended that an assault should be made that night, supposing that the Spartans would succeed in making additional defenses if the attack were postponed until the morning. Pyrrhus, however, was disposed not to make the attack until the following day. He felt perfectly sure of his prize, and was, accordingly, in no haste to seize it. He thought, it was said, that if the attack were made in the night, the soldiers would plunder the city, and thus he should lose a considerable part of the booty which he hoped otherwise to secure for himself. He could control them better in the daytime. He accordingly determined to remain in his camp, without the city, during the night, and to advance to the assault in the morning. So he ordered the tents to be pitched on the plain, and sat quietly down.

[272] In the mean time, great activity prevailed within the walls. The senate was convened, and was engaged in debating and deciding the various questions that necessarily arise in such an emergency. A plan was proposed for removing the women from the city, in order to save them from the terrible fate which would inevitably await them, should the army of Pyrrhus be successful on the following day. It was thought that they might go out secretly on the side opposite to that on which Pyrrhus was encamped, and thence be conducted to the seashore, where they might be conveyed in ships and galleys to the island of Crete, which, as will appear from the map, was situated at no great distance from the Spartan coast. By this means the mothers and daughters, it was thought, would be saved, whatever might be the fate of the husbands and brothers. The news that the senate were discussing such a plan as this was soon spread abroad among the people. The women were aroused to the most strenuous opposition against this plan. They declared that they never would seek safety for themselves by going away, and leaving their fathers, husbands, and brothers in such danger. They commissioned one of their number, a princess named Ar- [273] chidamia, to make known to the senate the views which they entertained of this proposal. Archidamia went boldly into the senate-chamber, with a drawn sword in her hand, and there arrested the discussion in which the senators were engaged by demanding how they could entertain such an opinion of the women of Sparta as to suppose that they could survive the destruction of the city and the death of all whom they loved. They did not wish to be saved, the said, unless all could be saved together; and she implored the senate to abandon at once all ideas of sending them away, and allow them, instead, to take their share in the necessary labors required for the defense of the city. The senate yielded to this appeal, and, abandoning the design which they had entertained of sending the women away, turned their attention immediately to plans of defense.

While these earnest consultations and discussions were going on in the senate, and in the streets and dwellings of the city, there was one place which presented a scene of excitement of a very different kind—namely, the palace of Cleonymus. There all were in a state of eager anticipation, expecting the speedy arrival of their master. The domestics believed confident- [274] ly that an attack would be made upon the city that night by the combined army of Cleonymus and Pyrrhus; and presuming that it would be successful, they supposed that their master, as soon as the troops should obtain possession of the city, would come home at once to his own house, bringing his distinguished ally with him. They busied themselves, therefore, in adorning and preparing the apartments of the house, and in making ready a splendid entertainment, in order that they might give to Cleonymus and his friend a suitable reception when they should arrive.

Chelidonis, however, the young and beautiful, but faithless wife of Cleonymus, was not there. She had long since left her husband's dwelling, and now she was full of suspense and anxiety in respect to his threatened return. If the city should be taken, she knew very well that she must necessarily fall again into her husband's power, and she determined that she never would fall into his power again alive. So she retired to her apartment, and there putting a rope around her neck, and making all other necessary preparations, she awaited the issue of the battle, resolved to destroy herself the moment she should hear tidings that Pyrrhus had gained the victory.

[275] In the mean time, the military leaders of the Spartans were engaged in strengthening the defenses, and in making all the necessary preparations for the ensuing conflict. They did not, however, intend to remain within the city, and await the attack of the assailants there. With the characteristic fearlessness of the Spartan character, they determined, when they found that Pyrrhus was not intending to attack the city that night, that they would themselves go out to meet him in the morning.

One reason, however, for this determination doubtless was, that the city was not shut in with substantial walls and defenses, like most of the other cities of Greece, as it was a matter of pride with the Spartans to rely on their own personal strength and courage for protection, rather than on artificial bulwarks and towers. Still, such artificial aids were not wholly despised, and they now determined to do what was in their power in this respect, by throwing up a rampart of earth, under cover of the darkness of the night, along the line over which the enemy must march in attacking the city. This work was accordingly begun. They would not, however, employ the soldiers in the work, or any strong and able-bodied men capable of bearing [276] arms. They wished to reserve the strength of all these for the more urgent and dreadful work of the following day. The ditch was accordingly dug, and the ramparts raised by the boys, the old men, and especially by the women. The women of all ranks in the city went out and toiled all night at this labor, having laid aside half their clothes, that their robes might not hinder them in the digging. The reader, however, must not, in his imagination, invest these fair laborers with the delicate forms, and gentle manners, and timid hearts which are generally deemed characteristic of women, for the Spartan females were trained expressly, from their earliest life, to the most rough and bold exposures and toils. They were inured from infancy to hardihood, by being taught to contend in public wrestlings and games, to endure every species of fatigue and exposure, and to despise every thing like gentleness and delicacy. In a word, they were little less masculine in appearance and manners than the men; and accordingly, when Archidamia went into the senate-chamber with a drawn sword in her hand, and there, boldly facing the whole assembly, declared that the women would on no account consent to leave the city, she acted in a manner [277] not at all inconsistent with what at Sparta was considered the proper position and character of her sex. In a word, the Spartan women were as bold and stern, and almost as formidable, as the men.

All night long the work of excavation went on. Those who were too young or too feeble to work were employed in going to and fro, carrying tools where they were required, or bringing food and drink to those who were digging in the trench, while the soldiers remained quietly at rest within the city, awaiting the duties which were to devolve upon them in the morning. The trench was made wide and deep enough to impede the passage of the elephants and of the cavalry, and it was guarded at the ends by wagons, the wheels of which were half buried in the ground at the places chosen for them, in order to render them immovable. All this work was performed in such silence and secrecy that it met with no interruption from Pyrrhus's camp, and the whole was completed before the morning dawned.

As soon as it began to be light, the camp of Pyrrhus was in motion. All was excitement and commotion, too, within the city. The soldiers assumed their arms and formed in array. [278] The women gathered around them while they were making these preparations, assisting them to buckle on their armor, and animating them with words of sympathy and encouragement. "How glorious it will be for you," said they, "to gain a victory here in the precincts of the city, where we can all witness and enjoy your triumph; and even if you fall in the contest, your mothers and your wives are close at hand to receive you to their arms, and to soothe and sustain you in your dying struggles!"

When all was ready, the men marched forth to meet the advancing columns of Pyrrhus's army, and the battle soon began. Pyrrhus soon found that the trench which the Spartans had dug in the night was destined greatly to obstruct his intended operations. The horse and the elephants could not cross it at all; and even the men, if they succeeded in getting over the ditch, were driven back when attempting to ascend the rampart of earth which had been formed along the side of it, by the earth thrown up in making the excavation, for this earth was loose and steep, and afforded them no footing. Various attempts were made to dislodge the wagons that had been fixed into the ground at the ends of the trench, but for a time all these [279] efforts were fruitless. At last, however, Ptolemy, the son of Pyrrhus, came very near succeeding. He had the command of a force of about two thousand Gauls, and with this body he made a circuit, so as to come upon the line of wagons in such a manner as to give him a great advantage in attacking them. The Spartans fought very resolutely in defense of them; but the Gauls gradually prevailed, and at length succeeded in dragging several of the wagons up out of the earth. All that they thus extricated they drew off out of the way, and threw them into the river.

Seeing this, young Acrotatus, the prince whom Areus his father, now absent, as the reader will recollect, in Crete, had left in command in Sparta when he went away, hastened to interpose. He placed himself at the head of a small band of two or three hundred men, and, crossing the city on the other side, he went unobserved, and then, making a circuit, came round and attacked the Gauls, who were at work on the wagons in the rear. As the Gauls had already a foe in front nearly strong enough to cope with them, this sudden assault from behind entirely turned the scale. They were driven away in great confusion. This feat be- [280] ing accomplished, Acrotatus came back at the head of his detachment into the city, panting and exhausted with the exertions he had made, and covered with blood. He was received there with the loudest applause and acclamations. The women gathered around him, and overwhelmed him with thanks and congratulations. "Go to Chelidonis," said they, "and rest. She ought to be yours. You have deserved her. How we envy her such a lover!"

The contest continued all the day, and when night came on Pyrrhus found that he had made no sensible progress in the work of gaining entrance into the city. He was, however, now forced to postpone all further efforts till the following day. At the proper time he retired to rest, but he awoke very early in the morning in a state of great excitement; and, calling up some of the officers around him, he related to them a remarkable dream which he had had during the night, and which, he thought, presaged success to the efforts which they were to make on the following day. He had seen, he said, in his dream, a flash of lightning dart from the sky upon Sparta, and set the whole city on fire. This, he argued, was a divine omen which promised them certain success; and he called [281] upon the generals to marshal the troops and prepare for the onset, saying, "We are sure of victory now."

Whether Pyrrhus really had had such a dream, or whether he fabricated the story for the purpose of inspiring anew the courage and confidence of his men, which, as would naturally be supposed, might have been somewhat weakened by the ill success of the preceding day, can not be absolutely ascertained. Whichever it was, it failed wholly of its intended effect. Pyrrhus's generals said, in reply, that the omen was adverse, and not propitious, for it was one of the fundamendal principles of haruspicial science that lightning made sacred whatever it touched. It was forbidden even to step upon the ground where a thunder-bolt had fallen; and they ought to consider, therefore, that the descent of the lightning upon Sparta, as figured to Pyrrhus in the dream, was intended to mark the city as under the special protection of heaven, and to warn the invaders not to molest it. Finding thus that the story of his vision produced a different effect from the one he had intended, Pyrrhus changed his ground, and told his generals that no importance whatever was to be attached to visions and dreams. They [282] might serve, he argued, very well to amuse the ignorant and superstitious, but wise men should be entirely above being influenced by them in any way. "You have something better than these things to trust in," said he. "You have arms in your hands, and you have Pyrrhus for your leader. This is proof enough for you that you are destined to conquer."

How far these assurances were found effectual in animating the courage of the generals we do not know; but the result did not at all confirm Pyrrhus's vain-glorious predictions. During the first part of the day, indeed, he made great progress, and for a time it appeared probable that the city was about to fall into his hands. The plan of his operations was first to fill up the ditch which the Spartans had made; the soldiers throwing into it for this purpose great quantities of materials of every kind, such as earth, stones, fagots, trunks of trees, and whatever came most readily to hand. They used in this work immense quantities of dead bodies, which they found scattered over the plain, the results of the conflict of the preceding day. By means of the horrid bridging thus made, the troops attempted to make their way across the ditch, while the Spartans, form- [283] ed on the top of the rampart of earth on the inner side of it, fought desperately to repel them. All this time the women were passing back and forth between them and the city, bringing out water and refreshments to sustain the fainting strength of the men, and carrying home the wounded and dying, and the bodies of the dead.


[Illustration]

THE CHARGE.

At last a considerable body of troops, consisting of a division that was under the personal charge of Pyrrhus himself, succeeded in breaking through the Spartan lines, at a point near one end of the rampart which had been thrown up. When the men found that they had forced [284] their way through, they raised loud shouts of exultation and triumph, and immediately rushed forward toward the city. For a moment it seemed that for the Spartans all was lost; but the tide of victory was soon suddenly turned by a very unexpected incident. An arrow pierced the breast of the horse on which Pyrrhus was riding, and gave the animal a fatal wound. The horse plunged and reared in his agony and terror, and then fell, throwing Pyrrhus to the ground. This occurrence, of course, arrested the whole troop in their progress. The horsemen wheeled suddenly about, and gathered around Pyrrhus to rescue him from his danger. This gave the Spartans time to rally, and to bring up their forces in such numbers that the Macedonian soldiers were glad to be able to make their way back again, bearing Pyrrhus with them beyond the lines. After recovering a little from the agitation produced by this adventure, Pyrrhus found that his troops, discouraged, apparently, by the fruitlessness of their efforts, and especially by this last misfortune, were beginning to lose their spirit and ardor, and were fighting feebly and falteringly all along the line. He concluded, therefore, that there was no longer any prospect of accomplish- [285] ing his object that day, and that it would be better to save the remaining strength of his troops by withdrawing them from the field, rather than to discourage and enfeeble them still more by continuing what was now very clearly a useless struggle. He accordingly put a stop to the action, and the army retired to their encampment.

Before he had opportunity to make a third attempt, events occurred which entirely changed the whole aspect of the controversy. The reader will recollect that Areus, the king of Sparta, was absent in Crete at the time of Pyrrhus's arrival, and that the command of the army devolved, during his absence, on Acrotatus, his son; for the kings of the other line, for some reason or other, took a very small part in the public affairs of the city at this time, and are seldom mentioned in history. Areus, as soon as he heard of the Macedonian invasion, immediately collected a large force and set out on his return to Sparta, and he entered into the city at the head of two thousand men just after the second repulse which Acrotatus had given to their enemies. At the same time, too, another body of re-enforcements came in from Corinth, consisting of allies of the Spartans, [286] gathered from the northern part of the Peloponnesus. The arrival of these troops in the city filled the Spartans with joy, and entirely dispelled their fears. They considered themselves as now entirely safe. The old men and the women, considering that their places were now abundantly supplied, thenceforth withdrew from all active participation in the contest, and retired to their respective homes, to rest and refresh themselves after their toils.

Notwithstanding this, however, Pyrrhus was not yet prepared to give up the contest. The immediate effect, in fact, of the arrival of the re-enforcements was to arouse his spirit anew, and to stimulate him to a fresh determination that he would not be defeated in his purpose, but that he would conquer the city at all hazards. He accordingly made several more desperate attempts, but they were wholly unsuccessful; and at length, after a series of losses and defeats, he was obliged to give up the contest and withdraw. He retired, accordingly, to some little distance from Sparta, where he established a permanent camp, subsisting his soldiers by plundering the surrounding country. He was vexed and irritated by the mortifications and disappointments which he had en- [287] dured, and waited impatiently for an opportunity to seek revenge.

While he was thus pondering his situation, uncertain what to do next, he received one day a message from Argos, a city in the northern part of the Peloponnesus, asking him to come and take part in a contest which had been opened there. It seems that a civil war had broken out in that city, and one of the leaders, knowing the character of Pyrrhus, and his readiness to engage in any quarrel which was offered to him, had concluded to apply for his aid. Pyrrhus was, as usual, very ready to yield to this request. It afforded him, as similar proposals had so often done before, a plausible excuse for abandoning an enterprise in which he began to despair of being able to succeed. He immediately commenced his march to the northward. The Spartans, however, were by no means disposed to allow him to go off unmolested. They advanced with all the force they could command, and, though they were not powerful enough to engage him in a general battle, they harassed him and embarrassed his march in a very vexatious manner. They laid ambushes in the narrow defiles through which he had to pass; they cut off his detachments, and plun- [288] dered and destroyed his baggage. Pyrrhus at length sent back a body of his guards under Ptolemy, his son, to drive them away. Ptolemy attacked the Spartans and fought them with great bravery, until at length, in the heat of the contest, a celebrated Cretan, of remarkable strength and activity, riding furiously up to Ptolemy, felled him to the ground, and killed him at a single blow. On seeing him fall, his detachment were struck with dismay, and, turning their backs on the Spartans, fled to Pyrrhus with the tidings.

Pyrrhus was, of course, excited to the highest pitch of phrensy at hearing what had occurred. He immediately placed himself at the head of a troop of horse, and galloped back to attack the Spartans and avenge the death of his son. He assaulted his enemies, when he reached the ground where they were posted, in the most furious manner, and killed great numbers of them in the conflict that ensued. At one time, he was for a short period in the most imminent danger. A Spartan, named Evalcus, who came up and engaged him hand to hand, aimed a blow at his head, which, although it failed of its intended effect, came down close in front of his body, as he sat upon his horse, and [289] cut off the reins of the bridle. The instant after, Pyrrhus transfixed Evalcus with his spear. Of course, Pyrrhus had now no longer the control of his horse, and he accordingly leaped from him to the ground and fought on foot, while the Spartans gathered around, endeavoring to rescue and protect the body of Evalcus. A furious and most terrible contest ensued, in which many on both sides were slain. At length Pyrrhus made good his retreat from the scene, and the Spartans themselves finally withdrew. Pyrrhus having thus, by way of comfort for his grief, taken the satisfaction of revenge, resumed his march and went to Argos.

Arrived before the city, he found that there was an army opposed to him there, under the command of a general named Antigonus. His army was encamped upon a hill near the city, awaiting his arrival. The mind of Pyrrhus had become so chafed and irritated by the opposition which he had encountered, and the defeats, disappointments, and mortifications which he had endured, that he was full of rage and fury, and seemed to manifest the temper of a wild beast rather than that of a man. He sent a herald to the camp of Antigonus, angrily defying him, and challenging him to come down from his en- [290] campment and meet him in single combat on the plain. Antigonus very coolly replied that time  was a weapon which he employed in his contests as well as the sword, and that he was not yet ready for a battle; adding, that if Pyrrhus was weary of his life, and very impatient to end it, there were plenty of modes by which he could accomplish his desire.

Pyrrhus remained for some days before the walls of Argos, during which time various negotiations took place between the people of the city and the several parties involved in the quarrel, with a view to an amicable adjustment of the dispute, in order to save the city from the terrors attendant upon a contest for the possession of it between such mighty armies. At length some sort of settlement was made, and both armies agreed to retire. Pyrrhus, however, had no intention of keeping his agreement. Having thrown the people of the city somewhat off their guard by his promise, he took occasion to advance stealthily to one of the gates at dead of night, and there, the gate being opened to him by a confederate within the city, he began to march his soldiers in. The troops were ordered to keep silence, and to step noiselessly, and thus a large body of Gauls gained admis- [291] sion, and posted themselves in the market-place without alarming or awakening the inhabitants. To render this story credible, we must suppose that the sentinels and guards had been previously gained over to Pyrrhus's side.

The foot-soldiers having thus made their entrance into the city, Pyrrhus undertook next to pass some of his elephants in. It was found, however, when they approached the gate, that they could not enter without having the towers first removed from their backs, as the gates were only high enough to admit the animals alone. The soldiers accordingly proceeded to take off the towers, and then the elephants were led in. The towers were then to be replaced. The work of taking down the towers, and then of putting them on again, which all had to be done in the dark, was attended with great difficulty and delay, and so much noise was unavoidably made in the operation, that at length the people in the surrounding houses took the alarm, and in a very short period the whole city was aroused. Eager gatherings were immediately held in all quarters. Pyrrhus pressed forward with all haste into the market-place, and posted himself there, arranging his elephants, his horse, and his foot in the manner best adapt- [292] ed to protect them from any attack that might be made. The people of Argos crowded into the citadel, and sent out immediately to Antigonus to come in to their aid. He at once put his camp in motion, and, advancing toward the walls with the main body, he sent in some powerful detachments of troops to co-operate with the inhabitants of the city. All these scenes occurring in the midst of the darkness of the night, the people having been awakened from their sleep by a sudden alarm, were attended, of course, by a dreadful panic and confusion; and, to complete the complication of horrors, Areus, with the Spartan army under his command, who had followed Pyrrhus in his approach to the city, and had been closely watching his movements ever since he had arrived, now burst in through the gates, and attacked the troops of his hated enemy in the streets, in the market-place, and wherever he could find them, with shouts, outcries, and imprecations, that made the whole city one widespread scene of unutterable confusion and terror.

The general confusion and terror, however, produced by the assaults of the Spartans were the only results that immediately followed them, for the troops soon found that no real progress [293] could be made, and no advantage gained by this nocturnal warfare. The soldiers could not distinguish friends from foes. They could not see or hear their commander, or act with any concert or in any order. They were scattered about, and lost their way in narrow streets, or fell into drains or sewers, and all attempts on the part of the officers to rally them, or to control them in any way, were unavailing. At length, by common consent, all parties desisted from fighting, and awaited—all in an awful condition of uncertainty and suspense—the coming of the dawn.

Pyrrhus, as the objects that were around him were brought gradually into view by the gray light of the morning, was alarmed at seeing that the walls of the citadel were covered with armed men, and at observing various other indications, by which he was warned that there was a very powerful force opposed to him within the city. As the light increased, and brought the boundaries of the market-place where he posted himself into view, and revealed the various images and figures which had been placed there to adorn it, he was struck with consternation at the sight of one of the groups, as the outlines of it slowly made themselves visible. [294] It was a piece of statuary, in bronze, representing a combat between a wolf and a bull. It seems that in former times some oracle or diviner had forewarned him that when he should see a wolf encountering a bull, he might know that the hour of his death was near. Of course, he had supposed that such a spectacle, if it was indeed true that he was ever destined to see it, could only be expected to appear in some secluded forest, or in some wide and unfrequented spot among the mountains. Perhaps, indeed, he had paid very little attention to the prophecy, and never expected that it would be literally realized. When, however, this group in bronze came out to view, it reminded him of the oracle, and the dreadful foreboding which its appearance awakened, connected with the anxiety and alarm naturally inspired by the situation in which he was placed, filled him with consternation. He feared that his hour was come, and his only solicitude now was to make good his retreat as soon as possible from the fatal dangers by which he seemed to be surrounded.

But how to escape was the difficulty. The gate was narrow, the body of troops with him was large, and he knew that in attempting to [295] retire he would be attacked from all the streets in the vicinity, and from the tops of the houses and walls, and that his column would inevitably be thrown into disorder, and would choke up the gateway and render it wholly impassable, through their eagerness to escape and the confusion that would ensue. He accordingly sent out a messenger to his son Helenus, who remained all the time in command of the main body of the army, without the walls, directing him to come forward with all his force, and break down a portion of the wall adjoining the gateway, so as to open a free egress for his troops in their retreat from the city. He remained himself at his position in the market-place until time had elapsed sufficient, as he judged, for Helenus to have received his orders, and to have reached the gate in the execution of them; and then, being by this time hard pressed by his enemies, who began early in the morning to attack him on all quarters, he put his troops in motion, and in the midst of a scene of shouts, uproar, terror, and confusion indescribable, the whole body moved on toward the gate, expecting that, by the time they arrived there, Helenus would have accomplished his work, and that they should find a broad open- [296] ing made, which would allow of an easy egress. Instead of this, however, they found, before they reached the gate, that the streets before them were entirely blocked up with an immense concourse of soldiers that were pouring tumultuously into the city. It seems that Helenus had, in some way or other, misunderstood the orders, and supposed that he was directed to enter the city himself, to re-enforce his father within the walls. The shock of the encounter produced by these opposing currents redoubled the confusion. Pyrrhus, and the officers with him, shouted out orders to the advancing soldiers of Helenus to fall back; but in the midst of the indescribable din and confusion that prevailed, no vociferation, however loud, could be heard. Nor, if the orders had been heard, could they have been obeyed, for the van of the coming column was urged forward irresistibly by the pressure of those behind, and the panic which by this time prevailed among the troops of Pyrrhus's command made them frantic and furious in their efforts to force their way onward and get out of the city. An awful scene of confusion and destruction ensued. Men pressed and trampled each other to death, and the air was filled with shrieks and cries of pain and [297] terror. The destruction of life was very great, but it was produced almost entirely by the pressure and the confusion—men, horses, and elephants being mingled inextricably together in one vast living mass, which seemed, to those who looked down upon it from above, to be writhing and struggling in the most horrible contortions. There was no fighting, for there was no room for any one to strike a blow. If a man drew his sword or raised his pike, his arms were caught and pinioned immediately by the pressure around him, and he found himself utterly helpless. The injury, therefore, that was done, was the result almost altogether of the pressure and the struggles, and of the trampling of the elephants and the horses upon the men, and of the men upon each other.

The elephants added greatly to the confusion of the scene. One of the largest in the troop fell in the gateway, and lay there for some time on his side, unable to rise, and braying in a terrific manner. Another was excited to a phrensy by the loss of his master, who had fallen off from his head, wounded by a dart or a spear. The faithful animal turned around to save him. With his trunk he threw the men who were in the way off to the right hand and the left, and [298] then, taking up the body of his master with his trunk, he placed it carefully upon his tusks, and then attempted to force a passage through the crowd, trampling down all who came in his way. History has awarded to this elephant a distinction which he well deserved, by recording his name. It was Nicon.


[Illustration]

DEATH OF PYRRHUS.

All this time Pyrrhus was near the rear of his troops, and thus was in some degree removed from the greatest severity of the pressure. He turned and fought, from time to time, with those who were pressing upon his line from behind. As the danger became more imminent, he took out from his helmet the plume by which he was distinguished from the other generals, and gave it to a friend who was near him, in order that he might be a less conspicuous mark for the shafts of his enemies. The combats, however, between his party and those who were harassing them in the rear were still continued; and at length, in one of them, a man of Argos wounded him, by throwing a javelin with so much force that the point of it passed through his breast-plate and entered his side. The wound was not dangerous, but it had the effect of maddening Pyrrhus against the man who had inflicted it, and he turned upon him with great [301] fury, as if he were intending to annihilate him at a blow. He would very probably have killed the Greek, had it not been that just at that moment the mother of the man, by a very singular coincidence, was surveying the scene from a house-top which overlooked the street where these events were occurring. She immediately seized a heavy tile from the roof, and with all her strength hurled it into the street upon Pyrrhus just as he was striking the blow. The tile came down upon his head, and, striking the helmet heavily, it carried both helmet and head down together, and crushed the lower vertebrę of the neck at their junction with the spine.

Pyrrhus dropped the reins from his hands, and fell over from his horse heavily to the ground. It happened that no one knew him who saw him fall, for so great had been the crowd and confusion, that Pyrrhus had got separated from his immediate friends. Those who were near him, therefore, when he fell, pressed on, intent only on their own safety, and left him where he lay. At last a soldier of Antigonus's army, named Zopyrus, coming up to the spot, accompanied by several others of his party, looked upon the wounded man and recognized [302] him as Pyrrhus. They lifted him up, and dragged him out of the street to a portico that was near. Zopyrus drew his sword, and raised it to cut off his prisoner's head. At this instant Pyrrhus opened his eyes, and rolled them up with such a horrid expression as to strike Zopyrus with terror. His arm consequently faltered in dealing the blow, so that he missed his aim, and instead of striking the neck, only wounded and mutilated the mouth and chin. He was obliged to repeat the stroke again and again before the neck was sundered. At length, however, the dreadful deed was done, and the head was severed from the body.

Very soon after this, Halcyoncus, the son of Antigonus, rode up to the spot, and after learning what had occurred, he asked the soldiers to lift up the head to him, that he might look at it a moment. As soon as it was within his reach, he seized it and rode away, in order to carry it to his father. He found his father sitting with his friends, and threw down the head at his feet, as a trophy which he supposed his father would rejoice to see. Antigonus was, however, in fact, extremely shocked at the spectacle. He reproved his son in the severest terms for his brutality, and then, sending for the mutilated [303] trunk, he gave to the whole body an honorable burial.

That Pyrrhus was a man of great native power of mind, and of extraordinary capacity as a military leader, no one can deny. His capacity and genius were in fact so great, as to make him, perhaps, the most conspicuous example that the world has produced of the manner in which the highest power and the noblest opportunities may be wasted and thrown away. He accomplished nothing. He had no plan, no aim, no object, but obeyed every momentary impulse, and entered, without thought and without calculation, into any scheme that chance, or the ambitious designs of others, might lay before him. He succeeded in creating a vast deal of turmoil and war, in killing an immense number of men, and in conquering, though temporarily and to no purpose, a great many kingdoms. It was mischief, and only mischief, that he did; and though the scale on which he perpetrated mischief was great, his fickleness and vacillation deprived it altogether of the dignity of greatness. His crimes against the peace and welfare of mankind did not arise from any peculiar depravity; he was, on the contrary, naturally of a noble and generous spirit, though [304] in process of time, through the reaction of his conduct upon his heart, these good qualities almost entirely disappeared. Still, he seems never really to have wished mankind ill. He perpetrated his crimes against them thoughtlessly, merely for the purpose of showing what great things he could do.


 Table of Contents  |  Index  | Previous: Sparta 
Copyright (c) 2000-2012 Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.