AUG 1 ― Bouncing back has been on my mind lately following a near-miss with death during a minor operation. In an unforeseen occurrence, some local anaesthetic entered my bloodstream.
Since the toxin is capable of stopping my heart, I was temporarily rendered unconscious. Luckily the dose wasn’t high enough to require intubation or to cause death.
I was roused pale-lipped, numb, in a cold sweat, and momentarily not knowing where I was. I was later informed by an anaesthetist that I was lucky to be alive. Near death is a high price to pay for removing a blackened toenail.
Brush with death notwithstanding, I had to bounce back and write my inaugural column. Coincidentally, I was researching the life of Pyrrhus of Epirus ― he of the “Pyrrhic victory.” Never one to pass up exploiting synchronicity for writing, I thought I’d present the history behind the phrase ― which may prove useful for impressing your friends when discussing the upcoming elections ― and examine Pyrrhus’ talent for making a comeback from costly victories.
The Carthaginian general Hannibal, who led an elephant army through the Alps to march on Rome, ranked Pyrrhus the second greatest general of his time behind Alexander the Great, and himself the third.
Whilst being a formidable commander Pyrrhus was possessed, as Plutarch notes, by “the innate disease of princes, ambition of greater empire.” This ambition frequently led him to hasty overextension of his forces and ruinous gains.
Pyrrhus was a man from a small kingdom, Epirus. Perhaps it was not unreasonable for him to hunger after empire, he claimed descent from Achilles and was second cousin to Alexander the Great. In early battles his fearless and formidable prowess on the field caused many to think him Alexander reborn.
Alexander hailed from Macedon, to the north of Greece, which had been considered by the Greeks to be a backwater until Alexander’s father Philip conquered them with his revolutionised military force of pike phalanx and shock cavalry. Pyrrhus’ kingdom of Epirus lay to the west of Macedon, just east of the heel of Italy across the Adriatic Sea.
After some initial troubles securing his throne in Epirus, the ambitious Pyrrhus hatched a plan to conquer first Italy, Sicily, then the north African territories of Libya and Carthage. Whilst hot-headed, Pyrrhus was not without charm, and he had won the support of Ptolemy, the Macedonian ruler of Egypt, who gifted him with 20 war elephants, the tanks of ancient times.
Invited by the Greek colonists in Tarentum, located in the heel of Italy, to help them stave off Roman imperialism, Pyrrhus happily seized this chance to incorporate southern Italy under his rule. Pyrrhus’ habit was to intervene in political disputes and exploit them for empire-building; he was a proto-Victorian of sorts ― think Perak War.
He crossed the Adriatic with 25,500 men and his elephants. But disaster struck in the form of a storm that scattered the fleet and wrecked Pyrrhus’ flagship. He washed up onto the shores of Italy with only 2,000 men and two elephants.
For Pyrrhus, bad fortune and poor timing were inseparable from skill in battle and strength in arms. He had little time to consolidate before his first fight.
Despite using the forces and tactics developed by Philip and Alexander that had proved so terribly effective in conquering Persia, Pyrrhus faced a far tougher foe in the Romans.
Having once fought with spear and shield like the Greeks, the Romans now used a chequer board “manipular” formation featuring compact units of heavily armoured infantry who would hurl javelins before closing with their swords.
Organisation and drill were tight, morale was excellent, and manpower was inexhaustible. On first seeing a Roman camp. Pyrrhus realised he was facing no ordinary barbarians.
Pyrrhus’ battles against the Roman legion saw him pull off military success at great cost. At Heraklea he introduced Romans to the terror of elephants for the first time. He routed them, but at the cost of thousands of his troops and many of his best commanders.
In 279 BC at Asculum he fought for two days over unfavourable terrain. This time the Romans had flaming anti-elephant wagons. Just as the tide turned against Rome, Pyrrhus found out that Roman allies who had arrived late to the battle had instead headed straightaway to loot Pyrrhus’ camp.
Forced to split his army to pursue the fleeing Romans as well as to defend his men’s booty, Pyrrhus later declared, “One more such victory and I shall be utterly undone.”
Disenchanted by his Pyrrhic victories in Italy, Pyrrhus intervened in Sicily where he defeated the Carthaginians but alienated his Sicilian sponsors. Eventually quitting Italy altogether, he returned to attempt a conquest of Macedonia and Greece.
Macedonia fell swiftly. In Greece he intervened in a case of adultery as pretext to lay siege to Sparta. Faring poorly in the siege, he then leapt to meddle in a dispute in Argos, but not before losing his son to pursuing Spartans.
While fighting in the streets of Argos it is said that Pyrrhus had to work his way around one of his elephants that was blocking a gate.
An Argive woman threw a roof tile from above that struck him on the head.
Stunned, Pyrrhus was decapitated by an Argive soldier. And so, by roof tile and blade the last great Hellenic general was brought down.
There would be none like him to stand against the eastward march of Rome.
A rival and contemporary described Pyrrhus as a man who threw great rolls in dice, but knew not what to do with them.
Relatively dynamic and decisive in battle, he was able to seize, but unable to keep, an empire. Poor fortune as much as a lack of consolidation limited his success.
Yet, setbacks never dulled his boundless ambition and determination.
The story of Pyrrhus is rich enough to speak for itself with no further effort to link it to contemporary personalities. But this is Malaysia, and ofttimes audiences desire things to be spelled out. Here is one application.
Our present political situation promises an election with Pyrrhic results. Victory may be won, but at a crippling financial, political, and social cost. High debt, depleted fiscal coffers, and voters angry with disenfranchisement are the potential remains of this battleground.
Given the potential slenderness of victory and the high degree of mutually destructive factionalism, he who wins the battle may not necessarily survive to enjoy the empire. And I’m not just referring to Barisan Nasional.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.