Comparison of the Lives of Pyrrhus and Marius in the Manner of Plutarch.

By David Trumbull COPYRIGHT, 2005

¶ Pyrrhus and Marius were both great military leaders; yet the victories of Pyrrhus were sometimes of doubtful and transient value. [1] As soldiers and as leaders of armies, it is difficult to find greater examples of valor, military might, and courage, than Pyrrhus, who alone among his successors, was ranked, by the Macedonians, in his life, as the equal of Alexander [8], and Caius Marius, honored as the third founder of Rome [27] after Romulus the original founder and Camillus who saved Rome after the invasion of by the Gauls. Yet, for all his success as a tactian and commander, we give lower ranking to Pyrrhus, for his gains --such as winning and then losing, Macedonia [12]-- were reversed even in his lifetime and his big undertakings --the Sicilian and Italian expeditions [26] and the war against Demetrius and Antigonus-- were without lasting successes. The victories of Pyrrhus were often at greater cost than the benefits they returned him, so that over two thousand years later we still speak of the "Pyrrhic victory" as one not worth its cost, as of Pyrrhus' victory over the Romans at Asculum [21]. It must also be noted that Pyrrhus was constantly pursuing new hopes for conquest in varied lands, not solely from his great passion for new conquests, but often because he had lost his previous conquests and must move on to new theatres of operation.
¶ Marius was better at consolidating and making permanent his victories. Marius, on the other hand, brought peace and compliance for many years to come in the provinces where he put down rebellions. So in this regard, consolidation of gains, we must also give first rank to the Roman. The reorganization of the Roman army by Marius [9], who enlisted slaves and poor people, changed the character of the army with far reaching implications for Rome. It solved the chronic shortage of soldiers in the old citizen army, but the new professional army was dependent on their general for their advancement and had less loyalty to Rome so that they could, and in later years did, march even against Rome. Marius' other innovation in warfare, his improved javelin [20], was an unadulterated benefit to the Romans. At home too, as well as in the battle-field, Marius was distinguished, being seven times elected Consul (more times than any Roman had ever been so honored of the people). Indeed, aside from his war with Sylla (for Rome could never have sheltered two such strong personalities at the same time) Marius was never forced to step out of public life in his city. The achievements of Marius are all the more noteworthy when we consider that he rose from entirely undistinguished origins [3] to be the first man in the Republic.
¶ Neither man developed that philosophic outlook which enjoys present benefits and recognizes the limits of a man's span of years. [2] In physical courage, such as he showed when undergoing, with no anesthetic, costmetic surgery on his leg [6], Marius excelled. However, of Marius [45] Plutarch also writes that in the end he undid himself, being one of those, "Unmindful and thoughtless persons who let all that occurs to them slip away from them as time passes on. Retaining and preserving nothing, they lose the enjoyment of their present prosperity by fancying something better to come. Yet they reject their present success, as though it did not concern them, and do nothing but dream of future uncertainties." For Marius [2] it was lack of a liberal education --that great gift that the conquered Greeks bestowed on the Romans-- that left Marius, in his old age, unable to enjoy his considerable successes, and, quite embarassingly, at age 70 exercising with the young men, thinking he could some how return for yet another, greater, military campaign [34].
¶ Nor did they comprehend that conquest, to be truly satisfying and lasting, must be for some purpose, as was Alexander's conquest of the world which spread Hellenistic culture far outliving the conqueror. Likewise, Plutarch writes that Pyrrhus [14] setting against the Romans from his secure kingdom of Epirus had, in his vanity and his undisciplined mind, allowed himself to plan his future conquest, considering defeat of the Romans a thing as easily said as done. When his wise friend Cineas asked Pyrrhus what he would do after all the victories that he was, in his fancy, already tallying up, Pyrrhus replied: "we shall live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation." At which Cineas remarked that they were free to do that now, being undisputed and unmolested rulers of a kingdom. Furthermore, said Cineas, victory will be won, if at all, only through, "much blood and great labor, and infinite hazards and mischief done to ourselves and to others." "Such reasonings rather troubled Pyrrhus with the thought of the happiness he was quitting, than any way altered his purpose, being unable to abandon the hopes of what he so much desired."
¶ Marius miscarried in the transition from war to peace; while Pyrrhus showed a better understanding of the arts of management in civil government as well as in warfare. [3] Surely the aim of war is to secure a safer, happier, more prosperous and freer life once peace has been restored. Marius was a marvel at defeating Rome's enemies abroad but his victories did little to improve his or any other Roman's life at home. He even made him self odious to the people who had honored him for his successes on their behalf. Although he had been six times, during periods of war, elevated to the highest office in the Republic, that of consul, Marius, when a period of peace ensued, proved ill-fitted to management of civil government [31]. Frustrated of his plans by the rise of Sylla, Marius turned his fury against Rome herself, slaying many of the prominent citizens in an orgy of blood-letting. So savage was the latter Marius that at his death the people considered themselves delivered from a tyrant [45]. In this, the conduct of home affairs and management of domestic rivals, Pyrrhus is more to be emulated, for rather than directly confronting his rival and co-ruler Neoptolemus (and thus perpetuate the intestine warfare), Pyrrhus made an accomodation with Neoptolemus and then waited for Neoptolemus to break faith, so that Pyrrhus could be seen to be exercising just revenge when he finally slew his faithless co-ruler [5]. In other ways too, such as his eagerness to return favors and his willingness to forgive annoying but essentially harmless insults, Pyrrhus showed a magnaminity [8] lacking in Marius, who ordered the murder of the orator Marcus Antonius [44], the grandfather of that Marc Antony whose life Plutarch also wrote, as well as of many others of the leading men of his day.
¶ Both men married well; Marius above himself and to his lasting fame and to to the glory of Rome. [4] Both men conducted their family duties with prudence. Pyrrhus married Antigone [4], the step-daughter of Ptolemy, Alexander's successor in Egypt. It was in this manner Pyrrhus used, advantageously, the friendship he had cultivated in Ptolemy to advance himself, for it was Antigone who raised the money for Pyrrhus to return to Epirus and reclaim his throne [5] after the people revolted and went over to his cousin Neoptolemus. After the death of Antigone, Pyrrhus married several wives, not to satisfy carnal lusts and appetites, but to advance his position through shrewd diplomatic alliances [9] The sons of those marriages he educated to be warriors, befitting the unsettled world into which they were born. Neverthless, Pyrrhus, who rose as a military leader during the wars over the succession from Alexander, failed to consolidate power and dispaired of contributing anything toward future stability of the Hellenistic world. Now to turn to the Roman. Marius, through application of hard work and his reputation for simple tastes, gained the respect of the people as well as of the best families in Rome, so that he made able to make an advantageous marriage with Julia [6] of the family of the Caesars. Marius' marriage is all the more remarkable as he came from humble origins yet was able, while lacking both money and eloquence, to marry into a leading family of Rome. In fact, it was Marius, his uncle by marriage, to whom Julius Caesar, the dictator, looked as his model for emulation, so that we might say that indirectly, Marius was the foundation of Rome's later greatness under the Caesars.

Here Ends the Comparison of the Lives of Pyrrhus and Marius.


Plutarch, Life of Marius.

__________, Life of Pyrrhus.