Gateway to the Classics: Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by F. J. Gould
Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by  F. J. Gould

A Fighting King

T HE river ran by with a roar. Gray twilight covered the earth. "There are some men on the other side of the river," said one of the women; "talk to them."

"Ho-o-o-o-o!" shouted the young man. "Help us across the water. We have the little prince Pyrrhus (Pir-rus)  with us. The enemy are pursuing us!"

"Hi-i-i-i-i!" came back the answer from the farther bank. But neither party could hear the words of the other.

At length one of the young men tore a strip of bark from a tree, and, with a sharp piece of iron, he scratched a few words on the bark, saying that he and his friends were guarding the nurses of the infant prince, whom they had rescued from a tyrant. He tied the bark to a stone, and flung it across the stream. One of the people on the opposite side read it to his comrades. When they understood what was the matter, they made haste to cut down trees and tie the logs together to make a raft—there being no bridge in that place—and soon the nurses, the prince, and their guards were safe over, and were lodged in the town. Thence they travelled to the royal palace in a neighboring country. They found the king and queen sitting among the courtiers, and at the feet of the queen (who was a kinswoman of the infant prince) they laid the child. Young Pyrrhus, who was born about 318 B.C., did not know he had been in danger; he looked up and saw the king's face, and caught hold of his robe, and smiled. The king had been pondering whether he should assist little Pyrrhus or not, for he might bring trouble on himself by doing so. The child's smile touched his heart.

"Yes," he said, "I will take care of the prince of Epirus" (Ep-py-rus).  Epirus was a hilly land, north of Greece and bordering on the sea by Italy. When he was twelve years old his friends made him king. He was only seventeen years of age when he was again driven from the throne, and he spent some time in fighting battles in Asia. Then he returned to his fatherland. The one thing he seemed to live for was war. He longed to be a mighty captain. As soon as one war was done, he began another; and though he was often beaten, he never shrank from fighting again. His soldiers called him the Eagle, because he moved so swiftly and attacked so boldly.

"If I am an eagle," he replied to them, "you have made me one; for by the help of your spears and swords, and on your wings, have I risen so high."

You see he was quick in his wit. And I will give you an instance of his good-humor.

Some young men were brought before him to explain why they had spoken ill of the king while they sat drinking at a supper.

"Did you really say these bad things about me?" asked Pyrrhus.

"We did, sir," answered one, "and we should have said worse things about you if we had had more wine."

The king laughed and let them go, for he liked the frank and open reply.

He set his mind on pitting his strength against the Romans, for at this time (about 280 B.C.) the men of Rome were becoming very powerful through Italy, and they had it in their minds to conquer the island of Sicily, and many another broad land beyond.

Just before they went aboard the fleet a friend said to him:

"The Romans are excellent soldiers. But suppose, sir, that we beat them, what shall we do then?"

"We shall go up and down Italy, and every town will surrender to us."

"And what next, sir?"

"Next we shall make ourselves masters of the fruitful isle of Sicily."

"Will that be the end?"

"No, for we shall then be ready to cross the sea and capture the famous city of Carthage, in Africa."

"Very good, sir; and what after that?"

"I shall march against Macedonia, a country which I have long wished to add to my domain."

"Yes, sir, and what then?"

"Then I will conquer Greece."

"And after that, sir?"

"Oh, after that we shall take our ease, eat, drink, and be merry."

"Well, sir, but had we not better take our ease, eat, drink, and be merry now, instead of going through all these battles and hardships by land and water?"

No, King Pyrrhus loved the joy of battle (though it was a bad joy), and he was too restless to stay in his own home and look after the comfort of his own people. So he sailed for Italy in many galleys with twenty thousand foot-soldiers, three thousand cavalry, two thousand archers, five hundred slingers, and twenty elephants. A fierce storm smote the fleet on its way, and many a battleship went down with all on board. The king, thinking his army was lost, flung himself into the waves. Several of his friends plunged in after him, and rescued him from the foaming waters, and he lay all night, sick and faint, on the deck of his galley. The day broke; the coast of Italy was in sight; the soldiers landed with the horses and elephants, and the heart of Pyrrhus beat with hope once more.

At first the Romans were defeated. Brave though they were, they were struck with a new fear at the sight of the elephants, who carried little towers on their backs, and waved their trunks and snorted. Such animals had never been seen in Italy. The King of Epirus pressed on, and came within forty miles of the gates of Rome. He sent a messenger to summon the Romans to yield. The messenger entered the senate-house, where, on benches, sat two or three hundred elder men in council. It was the senate which governed Rome. An old Latin motto was: Senatus populusque Romanus,  which means, "The Senate and the Roman People."

Some of the senators said it would be better to make peace with Pyrrhus, and most of them began to think this was wise advice. A bustle was heard at the door. An old man was carried in on a chair. His name was Appius, and he was blind.

"Gentlemen," he cried, as he raised his hands, "I have often felt sad because I was blind; but now I wish I was deaf as well as blind; for then I should not be able to hear Romans talk of bowing down before the enemies of their country."

The old man's spirit set all hearts aglow, and the senate voted that the war should be kept going. The messenger went back to Pyrrhus, and told him the Roman senate was an assemblage of kings.

A Roman general named Fabricius (Fab-ris'-yus)  was sent to the enemy's camp to arrange for the exchange of prisoners—that is, for every hundred prisoners set free by the enemy the Romans would set free a hundred men of Epirus, and so on. King Pyrrhus had a long talk with this Roman captain, and was pleased with the conversation, and offered him a large sum of gold, which was refused. Next day the king thought to strike terror into the Roman's soul. He ordered that the largest of the elephants should be placed behind a curtain of the room where he and Fabricius were to consult. A signal was given, the curtain fell, the elephant lifted its trunk and made a fearful trumpeting noise. The Roman looked up without flinching, and then, turning with a smile to the king, he said:

"Neither your gold yesterday nor your beast to-day has power to move me."

Such was the manliness of Romans.

Some time later, when Fabricius was consul (or chief magistrate) of Rome, a letter came to him from the physician of Pyrrhus, offering for money to poison the king, and so rid the Romans of a troublesome foe. Fabricius had too noble a temper to take part in so mean a plot, and he sent the letter to Pyrrhus. When the king had read it he punished the traitor, and then, to show his admiration of the generous act of the consul, he set free all his Roman prisoners. Well, that was excellent; but what a pity it is men cannot see that when warriors do noble things it is the noble spirit that is good, and not the fighting; and when wars have come to an end forever, men will still know how to act fairly and honorably toward each other.

The battles began again. In one engagement, which lasted all day till sunset, each side lost heavily. The friends of Pyrrhus said he had gained a great victory. But he looked at the heaps of the dead, and answered:

"If we gain another victory such as this, we shall be lost."

And that is why we call a battle by which little is gained a Pyrrhic victory.

At last he was forced to leave Italy, and then to leave Sicily, and so he took ship and carried his beaten army—what there was left of it—to Epirus. But he could not rest. He made war on the city of Sparta. Round the city he drew his army, and the citizens prepared to resist to the death. The Spartans had thought of sending the women to a place of safety miles away. But one lady entered the council-chamber with a sword in her hand, and declared that the women would stay in the city and share the lot of the men. When the Spartans built up mounds of earth to prevent the foes from coming in, the women worked hard in piling up the new wall, and I am glad to say the city was not taken, and Pyrrhus retired.

His last campaign was against the Greek city of Argos. One night the gate of Argos was left open by a traitor, and Pyrrhus entered with a crowd of soldiers and a number of elephants, and got as far as the market-place. In the darkness, however, he could do little, for the citizens and their enemies could hardly see who was who in the narrow streets. Morning broke, and many a struggle took place in different parts of the town. The king was in the hottest of the fight. He was wounded by a javelin (a short spear), and was about to strike back at the man who injured him, when a large tile fell upon his neck and severely stunned him. The tile was thrown by an old woman. She had seen from a housetop that her son was in danger (for it was he who wounded Pyrrhus), and she hastened to save her son's life. Some men ran up and cut off the king's head. This was 272 B.C. So he never was able to "take his ease, eat, drink, and be merry." And if he had spent as much labor in useful work (say building, or ploughing, or sandal-making), what a good workman he might have become!

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