Before Pyrrhus

Two major regions of Greece bordered on Macedonia to the south and south-west, of unequal importance: to the south was the rich and important territory of Thessaly; to the south-west the poor and mountainous region of Epirus. Relations with Epirus were relatively easily managed. Around the end of 358 or beginning of 357 the Epirote ruler Neoptolemus the Molossian died, leaving three children: two teenage daughters and a son named Alexander, around five years old. It was, consequently, Neoptolemus’ younger brother Arrybas who became ruler, marrying the older of his two nieces, Troas, and becoming guardian of his nephew Alexander. It was easy for Philip, fresh from his great victory over Bardylis, to establish an alliance with the new ruler Arrybas, cemented by Philip marrying Arrybas’ younger niece Olympias, who thus became Philip’s fourth wife, after Phila of Elimea (m. ca. 360), Audata the Illyrian (m. 359), and Philinna of Larissa (m. 358, see below). That alliance and marriage settled relations between Philip and Arrybas for seven years, until Philip felt the need to re-visit the relationship in 350. The cause is not clear-perhaps Arrybas had become too friendly with the Molossian ruling family’s traditional allies, the Athenians-but Philip intervened in Epirus and took custody of his young brother-in-law Alexander, now about twelve years old, carrying him off to Pella to be educated under Philip’s eye. It seems likely that some borderlands, Atintania and Parauaea bordering on the upper Macedonian canton of Tymphaea, were now added to Macedonia. Young Alexander was educated in Philip’s school at Pella, and in time became one of Philip’s paides, learning to be a good leader and loyal to Philip. In the winter of 343/2, finally, when Alexander was about twenty, Philip again invaded Epirus and completed his settlement of the region as a subordinate ally of Macedonia by removing the ruler Arrybas and setting young Alexander on the throne. Almost Philip’s last act was to further secure his relationship with Alexander, in 336, by marrying his daughter by Olympias, Cleopatra, to her uncle Alexander, making the latter his son-in-law as well as his brother-in-law.

The sun of Hellenism was slowly sinking in the west. The Greek cities in southern Italy had long suffered at the hands of the Sabellic Lucanians and Bruttians, who were receiving the final thrust of that pressure of peoples which began beyond the Alps. Unwilling, as always, to cooperate voluntarily, and not forced into a semblance of unity by the strong hand of a tyrant, many Italiote cities had succumbed to the natives. The southernmost cities, of which Tarentum was the strongest thanks to its trade with the neighbouring hinterland and with Greece, had maintained their ground by hiring professional soldiers from Greece. Archidamus of Sparta had been called in and involuntarily did Rome the service of distracting the attention of the Samnites during the Latin revolt before he fell fighting in 338.

The Tarentines called next on the services of Alexander the Molossian in 334 BC. Unlike the conscientious Archidamus, Alexander saw an opportunity to carve out an empire in Italy. Tarentum’s security benefited from his successful campaigns – he recovered lost ground in Apulia, overran Lucania and, as we have seen, defeated the Lucani and Samnites at Posidonia – but the democracy had unwittingly invited in an even more dangerous enemy. Alexander made his intentions very clear when, after recovering Heraclea from the Lucanians, he transferred the headquarters of the Italiote League to Thurii and encouraged the individual cities to make alliances with him. Metapontum, keen to emerge from Tarentine domination (she had the geographical misfortune to lie between Tarentum and Heraclea) was happy to do this. As noted above, the Greek cities of southern Italy were bitter rivals; only the barbarian threat gave them any unity of purpose. Tarentum immediately withdrew her support from Alexander and may have sought an alliance with the Samnites. With their interests in Apulia and the wool trade, the Samnites were hardly natural allies, and helmets of Tarentine manufacture nailed up as trophies in Samnite sanctuaries may indicate armed conflict with Tarentum (although the helmets could have reached other opponents through trade), but in Alexander they found a common enemy. It was, however, the Lucani and Bruttii who dealt with the troublesome Alexander. (Tarentine financial and material support to these peoples cannot be discounted.) The Molossian, whose vast but fragile territory stretched from southeast Apulia to northwest Lucania, sought to add Bruttium to his empire, but the Lucani were far from subdued.

The Lucani were well-known as an offshoot of the Samnites. It was believed in antiquity that their name derived from lykos, the Greek for wolf. This would be an appropriate pathfinder animal, but the etymology is false and the true meaning of their name remains uncertain. Rather than driving out or destroying the peoples they encountered, it is most likely that the Sacred Spring sent out by the Samnites defeated, then dominated, the native population, who were Oscanized and gradually formed into a loose Lucanian nation. By 433 BC the Lucani had advanced as far south as the Gulf of Tarentum and threatened Thurii. The Bruttii were closely related to the Lucani. It was thought that their name derived from the Lucanian Oscan dialect for runaways or exiles, but that is not true. The name may in fact be derived from an Illyrian word for deer. Illyrians had settled in eastern Italy in prehistoric times, and the Messapii spoke an Illyrian dialect, so it would not be surprising to find loan words in other languages in southern Italy. If the Bruttii were named after a deer, this was probably a pathfinder animal (compare the Hirpini and the wolf). It is mostly likely that the Bruttii had their origin in a Sacred Spring sent out by the formative Lucani. They advanced into the toe of Italy and, again, rather than drive out the inhabitants, subdued and Oscanized them. By 357/6 BC, the Bruttian settlements were organized into a league.

In the autumn of 331 BC Alexander was operating in the vicinity of Pandosia. As the weather was foul and the land in the valley of the River Acheron was flooded, Alexander’s army was forced to divide into three contingents. The king’s division was surrounded by the combined forces of the Lucani and the Bruttian League. Alexander killed the Lucanian meddix in single combat, and with a small band of companions burst through the encirclement. Preparing to make his escape across a swollen river, one of his companions, a Lucanian exile, hurled a javelin at Alexander and killed him. The vengeful Lucani and Bruttii hacked Alexander’s corpse in two, sending one half to be displayed before the walls of Consentia, which Alexander had captured from the Bruttii, and bombarded the other half with javelins and stones. His mangled remains were eventually reunited, taken to Metapontum, and from there transported to Epirus.

Rome’s alliance with Naples in 327 must have attracted the notice of the southern Greeks, while her operations in Apulia during the Second Samnite War, especially the founding of a colony at Luceria, irritated the Tarentines, who were probably forced to resign their claims to northern Apulia. Renewed attacks by the Lucanians induced the Tarentines to call in Cleonymus of Sparta in 303; his personal ambitions soon caused his dismissal after a defeat by the barbarians, who were probably not supported by the Romans as tradition relates. The intervention of Agathocles of Syracuse temporarily checked the Bruttians (c. 298–295), but more significant was the founding of a Latin colony at Venusia in 291. The smaller Greek cities began to look for help from the Romans, who though allied to the Lucanians had overthrown the Samnites, rather than from Tarentum or from Agathocles, whose early brilliance had declined and whose empire collapsed at his death in 289.

About 285 Thurii appealed to the Romans for help against the Lucanians. Some aid was apparently given, in return for which a Roman tribune was honoured with a golden crown. In 282 Thurii again appealed and the Romans sent C. Fabricius with a consular army to drive back the Lucanians and to garrison Thurii. Rhegium, Locri and perhaps Croton also availed themselves of Rome’s protection. Rome was thus suddenly forced to define her policy towards southern Italy. After due deliberation she decided to intervene rather than to abandon the Greek cities to the onslaughts of her Lucanian allies; this decision was due perhaps to the influence of the younger plebeian leaders whose power was increased by the recent political victory of the plebs in 287. But although it was becoming increasingly evident that the Senate must now think in terms of Italy as a whole and extend the range of its policy, it is equally true that the Romans liked quiet neighbours. Alexander of Epirus had advanced as far as Paestum and Agathocles had caused considerable trouble; Rome would be glad to end the need for these foreign condottieri. Also the infant Roman fleet might find Thurii a useful station now that Rome had established colonies on the Adriatic. Finally, as the Lucanians had become restless when the Gauls attacked Rome’s northern frontier, the Romans would welcome the opportunity of punishing them. Thus all considerations forced Rome to undertake the cause of Thurii.

The Tarentines, who had done little to justify their hegemony among the Italiotes, replied by attacking ten Roman ships which appeared off their harbour; they sank four, captured another and scattered the rest. They followed up this unprovoked attack by marching to Thurii, driving out the Roman garrison and sacking the town. Roman envoys, who demanded very moderate reparations, were insulted. War was forced on the Romans; the consul L. Aemilius Barbula was sent to attack Tarentum if it still refused to make redress (281). The Tarentines, who had already summoned the help of Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, were on the point of capitulating when the King’s envoy, Cineas, arrived and turned the scales in favour of war. The cause of this remarkable outburst is perhaps found in the party politics of Tarentum. It is true that by sailing east of the Lacinian promontory the Romans had broken their formal treaty; but as this was old and had been made with King Alexander it might well be considered to have been abrogated. The Roman fleet may have been innocently cruising round on a tour of inspection or on its way to the new Adriatic colonies, but more probably it had come to offer moral if not physical support to the pro-Roman oligarchs in Tarentum. The Tarentine democrats may thus have had good cause to distrust its presence and resorted to violence in the expectation of help from Pyrrhus. Rome’s quarrel with Tarentum would have soon been over and have had little significance, had not Pyrrhus answered the appeal.

1 thought on “Before Pyrrhus

  1. Pingback: Before Pyrrhus – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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