This was around 250 BC or thereabouts, the before-time, the long-ago. Pyrrhus was more than just a soldier – he was a king of a tribe, head of a house, and sat on the thrones of two Greek states and of Sicily. He’d set himself up as an enemy of a swelling Roman empire, and waged war.
The world he grew up in was one of constantly feuding Greek states. His father was dethroned from Epirus when Pyrrhus was only two; Pyrrhus was restored to the throne when he was 13, but repeated his father’s fate at the ripe age of 17.
He learned to soldier, married a woman named Antigone, and with the help of his father-in-law won his throne back. All of these upsets and revulsions and back-stabbings must have had a formulating effect on his ethics because he then executed a series of betrayals and coat-turnings against his wife’s family, which resulted in him taking Macedon and then losing Macedon, all within a few years.
This was not the end of Pyrrhus’ career, but this might be the first of his acts which resulted in the unique kind of fame he culled for himself, and his name.
Over the next fifteen years he was encouraged or requested to carry out a variety of wars, some of which he accepted: against the burgeoning Roman Empire as well as other Greek states. He became known for suffering heavy losses in his victories. Even as his army and capital dwindled he continued his ambitious and unrelenting warring, until, while attempting to quell a “civic dispute” in Argos (which drew at least two opposing armies into conflict in the streets), he was bonked on the head by a flying tile – thrown by some cronish Argead termagant, according to legend – and while he was counting the stars and birdies, an enemy soldier decapitated him.
Dethroned, defeated, decapitated, but never in his life deterred.
Defamed, though, in his legacy. A Pyrrhic victory is a victory won at so great a cost that another such victory will surely result in defeat. The word pyrrhic, for which we can thank Pyrrhus’ unrelenting efforts to install himself in the annals of history, means “achieved at an excessive cost” or “costly to the point of negating or outweighing expected benefits.”
(A pyrrhic is also a metric foot, the opposite of a spondee. It’s two short, unaccented syllables, where a spondee is two long, accented syllables.)
I scored a pyrrhic A on my first exam, and in an exhausted state, churned out four or five C’s and B’s. I ate a delicious and pyrrhic cheesesteak last night, and tossed and turned all night.
Peripatetic, adj. traveling from place to place, esp. working / based in various places for short periods.
I long to live a flight attendant’s peripatetic lifestyle, and get free standby flights!