Pyrrhus

In Brief

According to Joyce's schemas, the "Art" of Nestor is history, and the chapter begins in the middle of a history lesson. Stephen asks the boys in his class, "what city sent for him?," referring to Pyrrhus (318-272 BC), the Hellenistic-era Greek general who "said: Another victory like that and we are done for. That phrase the world had remembered." His name lives on in the term "Pyrrhic victory."

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In 280 BC, Pyrrhus agreed to bring an army to the defense of "Tarentum," a Greek colony in the instep of the boot of Italy, against the Roman armies that were poised to conquer Tarentum and the other cities of Magna Graecia. His victories at Heraclea (280) and "Asculum" ("279 B.C.") were very costly, and Plutarch recorded his saying that one more victory like Asculum would ruin him. Seven years later, when the Tarentines learned of Pyrrhus' death in a street battle in the ancient Greek city of Argos, they quickly surrendered to Rome.

A bit later, Stephen thinks of "the end of Pyrrhus": "Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam's hand in Argos." A woman of Argos, watching the confused fighting in the streets below her, threw down a roof tile which knocked Pyrrhus senseless. An Argive soldier then decapitated him.

Nestor is about the tyrrany of the past. Early in the episode Stephen thinks of Irish leaders that "For them too history was a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop." Later he will say to his employer that "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Fittingly, the chapter opens with a scene of Irish schoolboys being instructed in the futility of a Greek general's resistance to the growing power of Rome.

It is probably no accident that they are learning this lesson in a school run by an Anglo-Irish, ardently Unionist headmaster. Five chapters later, Aeolus will propose symbolic parallels linking Rome's supremacy over Greece with Great Britain's supremacy over Ireland. Mr. Deasy's curriculum, it may be argued, is indoctrinating Anglo-Irish boys in the necessity of submission to imperial power. It has also been argued that the hockey games played at the school are preparing the boys for military conflict, specifically the Great War that would chew up so many of the youth of Europe.

JH 2012
Bust of Pyrrhus in the Museo Archeologico Nationale, Naples. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Pyrrhus' campaign on the Italian peninsula, 280-275 BC. Source: Wikimedia Commons.