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The region of Hellas known as Epeiros was first settled by Hellenic colonists in the 6th Century BC. They set up a dynasty known as the Molossians. The Molossians believed that they were descended from Neoptolemos, the son of the famed classical hero Achilleus. Neoptolemos was a savage and ruthless warrior who had fought at Troia after the death of his father. According to the Molossian legend, following the war he and his followers emigrated to the shores of Epeiros.

Epeiros was important to Hellenic religion and practice, because it was the home of the sacred shrine at Dodone. Here there was an ancient and massive oak tree that was alleged to contain Zeus’ spirit which would communicate to the oracles through the rustling of the leaves. The oracle at Dodone was the second most important in Hellenic mythology, behind only the oracle at Delphoi.

A second Neoptolemos entered Epeirote history sometime in the 4th Century BC, and unlike the Neoptolemos of the 12th Century BC, this one was real and not a product of legend. Neoptolemos bore two children of great renown in the ancient world. His daughter, Olympias, was married off to Philippos II of Makedonia, and was the mother of the ruler of the known world: Alexandros. His son was another Alexandros, known as Alexandros Molossss, who was outshone by his cousin in Makedonia of the same name. Nevertheless, when Alexandros Molossos attained the throne in 343 BC, he had plans for expansion.

In 333 BC, the city of Taras (Tarentum) in southern Italia, a traditional Hellenic bastion in that region of the Mediterranean, asked for assistance in a war against the Samnitai, Leukanoi, and Brettioi. In the same year that Alexandros set off to conquer the Persian Empire, an Epeirote Alexandros set off to invade Italia and the western Mediterranean. Ironically, it was under very similar circumstances that faced Pyrrhos five decades later. Alexandros Molossos was initially successful in Italia, and even entered into a pact with the Romaioi against the Samnitai. Unfortunately for him, his benefactors, the Tarantinoi, double-crossed him and he lost his favorable position. In 330 he was defeated by an allied army at Pandosia and was killed in the battle. Thus ended the first Epeirote foray into Italia.

Back in Epeiros, Aiakides assumed the empty throne. After the death of Megas Alexandros in 323 BC, he played politics in the tumultuous neighboring kingdom of Makedonia, siding with Olympias in her struggle against one of Alexandros' successors, Kassandros. Aiakides shared Olympias’ fate, and when she was put to death in 313, he was dethroned simultaneously. His son, soon to be a great general of the ancient age, was then only two years old, and the family had to fly from Epeiros to Illyria. Epeiros was a Makedonian client state until 306, when Pyrrhos of Epeiros, only 12 years old at the time, was put back on the Epeirote throne. His early reign was filled with intrigue and interruption as he was dethroned in 301 BC while attending a wedding outside the country. At the age of 17, Pyrrhos was brought on campaign with his brother-in-law, Demetrios, a prince of Makedonia, in the Fourth War of the Diadochoi. At this point, Demetrios was fighting alongside his father, Antigonus, the then ruler of most of the former empire of Alexandros. Arrayed against him were forces under the other Diadochoi: Ptolemaios, Seleukos, and Lysimachos. The climactic battle of that war was fought at Ipsos in that same year (301), and Pyrrhos’ side was defeated. Antigonus was killed, Demetrios fled back to Hellas, and Pyrrhos himself, though he had fought well, was made a hostage of Ptolemaios I Soter in a treaty between he and Demetrios.

Once in Aigyptos, Pyrrhos charmed the stepdaughter of Ptolemaios and made a good impression on the aging king. In 297 Ptolemaios re-established Pyrrhos as king of Epeiros. Pyrrhos then allied himself with the Lysimachid kingdom in Thraikia, and he and Lysimachos invaded Makedonia in 287, successfully deposing Demetrios and jointly ruling the kingdom. The peace between Lysimachos and Pyrrhos did not last long, however, and by 284 Pyrrhos was sent packing from Makedonia back to Epeiros. He soon began looking for another avenue of expansion and was not forced to wait long.

His attention was turned westward in 282, just as Alexandros Molossos’ had some 51 years earlier. Once again, the Tarantinoi were having troubles with their neighbors. This time their neighbors happened to be the Romans. After sinking a Roman flotilla and declaring war in 282, the Tarantinoi called upon support from Pyrrhos. Pyrrhos, through no love of the Tarantinoi but rather a desire to become the next Alexandros, accepted the invitation. The Tarantinoi promised him many thousands of allied troops, and after a harrowing crossing from Epeiros, he arrived in Taras with an army of 26,000 men, including 20 war elephants.

The Romaioi advanced a consular army to the vicinity of Taras much faster than Pyrrhos had anticipated. This was well before he could receive any significant reinforcement. Worrying that morale might sink if he did not confront the Romaioi, he set out to find and fight them in 280. The two armies met at Heraklea where the pitched battle was indecisive for many hours until Pyrrhos’ elephants turned the tide in favor of the Epeirotes. Having beaten a Roman army, Pyrrhos felt confident enough to march on Rome, which he did to no effect in early 279. The Romaioi instead kept two consular armies on the move throughout Italia to harass and annoy him. Unable to ignore these threats, Pyrrhos marched south and confronted the Romans again at Asklon (Asculum). The battle progressed in a fashion similar to that at Heraklea, where the infantry of both sides remained deadlocked for a day before Pyrrhos sent in his elephants and defeated the Romaioi once more. Even still, the Romaioi did not sue for peace, and Pyrrhos grew weary of this conflict.

In the year 278, Pyrrhos faced three choices. He could either stay and fight things out with the pesky and persistent Romaioi, he could withdraw to Makedonia, where at that time a horde of Celtic invaders were wreaking havoc throughout the countryside, or he could move south and invade Sikilia at the behest of the Mamertinoi, who were currently facing a Karchedon onslaught. He chose the latter. In 277, he arrived on the shores of Sicily where he swiftly and brilliantly pushed the Karchedonioi back to the westernmost part of the island. He sacked their stronghold at Eryx, and left the remnants bottled up in Lilybaion. Unfortunately at this point he had a falling out with the Syrakousai and Mamertinoi due to his aggressive method of conscripting Sikilioi as soldiers. He also received a treaty from the Karchedonioi, but imposed harsh terms upon them, so harsh in fact that they refused to accept them. Due to popular opinion being against him and a renewed Karchedon resistance, he was forced to withdraw from Sikilia in 276.

Back in Italia, he renewed the war he had abandoned against the Romaioi. Marching north, he fought one more great battle with them at Beneventum. This battle, as at Heraklea and Askalon, was evenly fought overall, except this time the Romaioi managed to frighten Pyrrhos’ elephants and force him to retreat. With that, Pyrrhos decided to end his Italian adventure once and for all, and withdrew to Epeiros in 275, largely broke and weary from years of campaigning, but leaving a garrison in Taras for the time being with one of his sons in control there.

Despite this, Pyrrhos once again embarked on war in Makedonia. This time victory proved easy and he deposed the sitting king, Antigonos Gonatas, without much trouble. In 272 he was approached by the Spartan Kleonymos who beseeched him to invade Sparte and place Kleonymos on the throne. Pyrrhos agreed, but blanched when he found Sparte well, if sparsely, defended. He took up an offer to intervene in a civic dispute in Argos, but when his army arrived there under cover of night, a confusing street battle erupted. Pyrrhos was killed in the fighting. He was hit on the head by a roof tile, allegedly thrown by an old woman, which allowed him to be swiftly dispatched by an Argive soldier.

The glory days of Epeiros died with Pyrrhos in Argos. The kingdom remained alive and the Molossian dynasty ruled until the 2nd century BC, during which they blundered into war with the Romaioi once more. This time the Romaioi were the invaders and the Epeirotes formed an alliance with other Hellenes to fight them off. The Epeirotes and many other Hellenes lost their independence when the Romaioi won the battle of Pydna in 168 BC. In 146 the former Kingdom of Epeiros was officially made a Roman province, and would be ruled by the Romaioi for the next 500 years.