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When Worlds Collide: Meeting the... Romans!

Welcome to the first edition of When Worlds Collide, where we discover the many cultures ancient Greeks encountered in history! We're starting with one of the most influential of these cultures, who were ultimately responsible for the collapse of Greek rule over Europe – the Romans! And it all starts with a Greek king, Pyrrhus of Epirus...

The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus depicting the Romans at war with the Goths (3rd century CE)
The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus depicting the Romans at war with the Goths (3rd century CE). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Pyrrhus: The Child King

In 307 BCE, the ancient world was divided into seven kingdoms ruled by Hellenistic kings, spreading Greek culture throughout the world. In the north-west of Greece, the Illyrian king Glaukias invaded the small kingdom of Epirus. He did not take the throne himself, but instead gave it to an 11 year old boy named Pyrrhus.

For years, Pyrrhus ruled under the guidance of older generals and guardians. But at the age of 17, while attending the wedding of one of Glaukias’ sons, there was a revolt in Epirus and Pyrrhus was exiled from his kingdom. He found himself in a region of Greece known as the Peloponnese, where he became a great military commander – that is, until he was taken hostage by the king of Egypt! That's the life of a Hellenistic king for you...

A map of the Hellenistic kingdoms around the time of Pyrrhus' arrival at the throne. Image by Raymond Palmer via Wikimedia Commons.
A map of the Hellenistic kingdoms around the time of Pyrrhus' arrival at the throne. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Bust of Pyrrhus as a young man. Held in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy. Image © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5.

Pyrrhus Regains Rule over Epirus

Now aged 20, Pyrrhus teams up with the king of Egypt to regain rule over his native kingdom of Epirus. He rules successfully for 15 years but never succeeds in expanding his kingdom as much as he would like.

Then, in 282 BCE, a letter comes from Tarentum, a Greek colony in Italy. A small community of people known as "Romans" are invading, and the Tarentines need help to fend them off.

Pyrrhus is overjoyed. Perfect! he thinks, This is exactly what I need! I'll make quick work of this upstart tribe of 'Romans' or 'Bomans' or whatever they're called, and soon all of Italy will be mine!

He assembles his army, assembles his ships, and readies himself to cross the Adriatic Sea, headed west for Italy...

Fighting the Romans: A Rookie Mistake

Pyrrhus arrived in Tarentum with 4,000 cavalry (soldiers mounted on horses) and 20 war elephants. The Romans took one look at his army and ran off. Pyrrhus was already making plans to take the rest of Italy, but the Romans were preparing for their return.

They met Pyrrhus again at Heracleia, and while the Romans lost this battle, they caused a great deal of damage to Pyrrhus' army. Even more importantly, they figured out how to defeat the war elephants.

In their next battle with Pyrrhus, the Romans prepared chariots with rope strung between them. They then circled the elephants, one by one, tripping them over the ropes. (Fun fact: this is the same method used by the rebels in Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back against the Imperial AT-AT walkers!)

Although Pyrrhus won his battles with the Romans, they were causing too much damage to his army while never seeming to be weakened by defeat themselves. In 275 BCE, Pyrrhus decided that if he fought another battle with the Romans — whether he won or lost — he would be ruined. He packed up his things and sailed home to Epirus, leaving behind a victorious Rome.

Frieze of the Pergamon Altar depicting Nike and Athena battling Alkyoneus
The frieze of the Pergamon Altar. Greco-Roman friezes were constructed like comic strips, in panels which told a story. Here, we see the goddesses Athena (centre) and Nike (right) in battle with the Giant Alkyoneus (left). Athena has lifted Alkyoneus up from the earth, since it was said that Alkyoneus was immortal as long as he was touching the the ground. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Greco-Roman friezes – like the one above – were created in panels that told stories, much like the way comics are formatted today. For this month’s activity, we encourage you to be inspired by this style of storytelling and create your own comic strip re-telling your favourite part of Pyrrhus’ life story. You can imagine his first time on the throne at 11, his experience as a hostage in Egypt, witnessing the war elephants taken down by the Romans — anything!

This month's Create activity is also a giveaway!

Send us your final comic strip and you'll have a chance to win a free mythology comic from the Hellenic Museum shop, plus have your artwork published in the next edition of Argo News and on social media.

Entries are open Tuesday 22 August – Monday 11 September 2023. To enter, get your parent or guardian to send a quality photo or scan of your comic to – you must have their permission to enter! We will choose the best comic and notify the winner by Friday 15 September 2023.

Until next time, λεῖος πλόος!

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