How Southern Italy was Almost Conquered by Alexander of Epirus | History Hit

How Southern Italy was Almost Conquered by Alexander of Epirus

Image Credit: Public Domain / History Hit

In 334 BC, a new kingdom was growing on the Greek mainland. The Kingdom of Macedon, now ruled by its young king Alexander, was dominant. However, in Epirus (present day northwest Greece and southern Albania), another king, also called Alexander, was on the rise. Rather than look east as the Macedonians would do, Alexander of Epirus looked west across the Ionian Sea.

There lay the coastline of southern Italy, renowned for its lucrative waters and fertile lands. Many colonial Greek cities including Tarentum, Neapolis and Croton had prospered in the region for centuries. At their height, these Italiote-Greek cities had become some of the most famous Hellenic settlements in the whole of the Mediterranean, attracting merchants and exotic trade from afar. By 350 BC, however, this Italiote-Greek ‘Golden Age’ was fading.

Around 350 BC, coincident with the death of the great Tarentine statesman Archytas, two of the most powerful Italian tribes in southern Italy, the Lucanians and Bruttians, formed a military alliance. United, they descended on the Greek cities that dotted the coastline. The odds looked heavily in their favour; Greek power there was as low as it had ever been, with many of its cities having already fallen to previous ‘barbarian’ onslaughts. 

Portion of the Tabula Peutingeriana, a Roman map of the Empire, showing Tarentum. (The map is oriented with north-west to the left.)

Image Credit: Public Domain

Realising their desperate situation, Tarentum, the strongest remaining Greek city in southern Italy, decided to take action. Its citizens sent out a call for aid on behalf of all the Italiote Greeks. They sought a heroic general who could turn the tide of war for them. In 334 BC, they found Alexander of Epirus, who seized the opportunity the Tarentines offered with both hands.

Alexander in Italy

Arriving in Italy with a large Epirote army, Alexander witnessed first-hand the dire situation of many of the Italiote-Greek cities. Militarily weak and exhausted from constant war, their use to him, Alexander realised, would be limited. Yet Alexander remained undeterred. His Epirotes were some of the greatest soldiers in the Greek World, matching even the famed Macedonians. The ambitious Molossian king knew that with him as their leader, his force would be more than a match for the most battle-hardened Italians. 

Alexander’s initial successes were phenomenal. From Sipontum in northern Apulia all the way to Terina in southern Bruttium, Alexander defeated his enemies. Greek cities were liberated, Italian cities were stormed. Samnites, Bruttians, Lucanians and Apulians – all  found themselves bested by the formidable Molossian, culminating in a defeat at Paestum in 332 BC. Alexander now began to come into contact with Italian powers further to the North. One such power was Rome, arriving at Alexander’s court to seek friendly relations.

The dispute

Meanwhile, the mood in Tarentum was changing. On Alexander’s arrival they had rejoiced. But by 331, they had grown concerned that Alexander had not arrived to be their liberator, but conqueror. Fearing for their own freedom, the Tarentines began to turn on the Molossian king. Alexander, the man they had lauded as their saviour, now became a divisive figure. A long-term alliance where Alexander would slowly tear away their autonomy and remaining power in southern Italy was not in Tarentum’s interests, they proclaimed.

He had done his job, but now they insisted he leave. Alexander refused. The falling out between Tarentum and Alexander halted Alexander’s Italian onslaught. The Tarentine troops that accompanied Alexander deserted his cause and returned to Tarentum, and the Tarentines’ financial assurances also vanished. Alexander thus lost one of his strongest allies in the region. Yet many of his remaining Greek allies, still grateful for protection, stayed loyal. Alexander remained determined to carry on carving his own empire in the west. But the dispute had cost him precious time.

The Bruttians and Lucanians had not been idle in the meantime. Using the brief period of respite that Alexander’s break with Tarentum had caused, their forces regrouped, intent on renewing the war with fresh vigour. Forming a large army, its aim was simple: crush Alexander. Hearing of the new threat, Alexander set about confronting them. Arriving near a city called Pandosia on the borders of Lucania and Bruttium, he divided his army on three hills. From there, he intended to send his armies into the enemy lands in every direction. 

The Battle of Pandosia

It was at Pandosia in 331 BC that the great expedition of Alexander came to an abrupt end. Torrential rains flooded the flat lands that joined the three hills Alexander had encamped his army on, isolating each section from the rest of their force. The Lucanians and Bruttians, well-adapted to fighting in these conditions, commenced a surprise attack on Alexander’s stranded forces, Livy recalls what happened next:

Continuous rains, which flooded all the fields, having isolated the three divisions of the army and cut them off from mutual assistance, the two bodies other than the king’s were surprised and overpowered by the enemy.

Livy 8.24.7

Due to freakish weather and great misfortune, two-thirds of Alexander’s forces were wiped out by this attack. The opposing Lucanians and Bruttians had seized the opportunity the heavy flooding had caused and inflicted crushing losses on their opponent. In one swift move, Alexander’s hopes of western expansion crumbled. Alexander now found himself and his depleted forces besieged on his last remaining hill. It was not long before a group of Lucanian exiles, who had sided with Alexander, reconsidered their allegiance and offered to hand Alexander over to their countrymen, dead or alive. 

Terracotta relief of a horseman, Greek, South Italian, Tarentine, 4th century BCE.

Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

Hearing of the treachery, Alexander sallied out from the blockade with his bodyguard. In the thick of the action, Alexander allegedly faced the Lucanian general in a duel, cutting him down and proving to everyone around him just how capable a fighter he was. Breaking out of the blockade and rallying his broken army, Alexander ordered them to make all haste in their escape. Very soon, they reached a nearby river. Seeing that the bridge had collapsed due to the torrential rain of the previous days, Alexander and his men began to cross at the nearest fordable crossing. Having started to cross the river, Livy recalls:

a discouraged and exhausted soldier cried out, cursing the river’s ill-omened name, “you are rightly called the Acheron!”

Livy 8.24.11

According to Livy, upon hearing the name ‘Acheron’, Alexander froze.

The prophecy

The story goes that prior to departing for Tarentum, Alexander had travelled to the Sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona to consult the Oracle about his decision to aid the Tarentines. He had hoped it would foretell good fortune. The response, however, was much more ominous.

…the oracle had warned him to beware of the River Acheron and the city, Pandosia, for there he was destined to end his days.

                                                                                                            Livy 8.24.2

Disturbed at this warning, Alexander had heeded the oracle’s advice. Both the city of Pandosia and the River Acheron were places in Epirus. He had therefore hastened his departure to southern Italy, intending to escape his fate. He had not realised that there was also a River Acheron and a city called Pandosia in southern Italy.

The death of Alexander

It was this hesitation on hearing the ill-fated name of the river that is supposed to have proved Alexander’s greatest mistake. Too late, Alexander spurred his horse, hoping to reach the far bank and prove the prophecy wrong. But as he was reaching the shallows of the opposite bank, Alexander plunged lifeless into the swollen waters, struck by a Lucanian javelin. Floating downriver, the Italians discovered his body and mutilated the corpse in revenge. As Alexander perished, so too did the leadership of his army. Stranded, it is presumed that any remaining Epirotes, despairing at the sudden turn of their fortunes, either remained in the Greek cities of suthern Italy or managed to make their way home to Epirus.

Thus ended the story of Alexander the Molossian. In his lifetime, he had completely transformed the region of Epirus, turning it into a powerful, united kingdom. He would also set a precedent, paving the way for another, even more formidable Molossian king to attempt his own campaign in the West soon after: King Pyrrhus. Yet despite all this success, Alexander’s dreams were undone by Italian stubbornness, Greek disloyalty and freakish weather.

Tristan Hughes