Pyrrhus, Pyrrhic victory, James Joyce, Ulysses

Pyrrhus: A Disappointed Bridge

To listen to a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast episode here.

In the Gilbert schema, the art of ‘Nestor’ is listed as history, so it is fitting that the episode opens with Stephen delivering a history lesson. The topic is Pyrrhus, an ancient Greek king mostly remembered by the phrase “Pyrrhic victory.” The basic facts of the battle are there, but let’s indulge in the art of history ourselves and expand on the details the young student Cochrane lays out in his recitation.

First, a definition: a Pyrrhic victory is a victory in which the victor incurs such heavy losses that it may as well be a loss. You can drop this phrase in conversation at fancy dinner parties to sound smarter when talking about politics or sports. I’m assuming. I don’t go to a lot of fancy dinner parties. Pyrrhus, as mentioned above, was a military leader in ancient Greece fighting against an early but ascendant Rome. Tarentum, as recalled by Cochrane, was a Greek city in the instep of the boot of the Italian peninsula. Pyrrhus’ army, which included several dozen war elephants because PETA didn’t exist back then, helped push the Romans out of Tarentum in 280 BCE.

Pyrrhus and his Elephants

The following year (279), Pyrrhus also defeated the Romans at Asculum, but the fighting was much fiercer, due in part to a lack of elephant warfare. The Romans were again defeated, but according to the ancient historian Plutarch, Pyrrhus remarked after the battle, “Another victory like that and we are done for.” The quote in Ulysses is a paraphrase, but since I’ve seen a variety of phrasings of the original, I’ve decided to stick with the Joycean version here. Following Asculum, Pyrrhus’ army retreated to Sicily and left his Greek allies on the peninsula high and dry.

One last bit of history before we begin poking through Stephen’s thoughts:


Had Pyrrhus not fallen to a beldam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away.

Pyrrhus’ death is less famous than his military victories but no less dramatic. While fighting in Argos, Pyrrhus found himself facing down an enemy soldier. The soldier’s mother, watching from the rooftop above, threw a tile at Pyrrhus, knocking him unconscious. He was beheaded soon after. So it goes. A “beldam,” by the way, is an older woman. There’s your new vocabulary word for the week.

‘Nestor’ is packed with historical reference, but it’s significant that it opens with a lesson on Pyrrhus. Like Cochrane, Armstrong and the rest of Stephen’s class, we the readers are waiting for a lesson from Joyce. History has already been blamed for the crimes of the English against Ireland in the previous episode (Thus spake Haines: “I guess history is to blame.”) This lets Haines (and the English) off the hook, since history is at fault for the ills of the past rather than people. Stephen (and Joyce) views history less passively, less fatalistically. History “must be a movement then, an actuality of the possible as possible.” That is, there are many possibilities throughout the course of history, but the outcomes are only set in stone after the fact. History is often taught to us when we are young as a foregone conclusion: whatever happened had to have happened because it results in the current paradigm, which I think is why many students consider it a boring topic. There are no surprises; we already know how the story ends.

So, why Pyrrhus? Joyce could have lead with literally any historical figure. If history is a foregone conclusion, then there can only be Pyrrhic victories. Stephen is looking out on a classroom full of boys whose futures are already decided: on to university, the professions and a comfortable life like their fathers’, no room for impoverished, free-thinking Artists like Stephen. Even if he succeeds in teaching these boys, they will go on to perpetuate a system that is driving him into eventual exile and paralysing his culture. These are the Buck Mulligans of the future, jesting and bored because their future is secure:

A jester at the court of his master, indulged and disesteemed, winning a clement master’s praise. Why had they chosen all that part? Not wholly for the smooth caress. For them too history is a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop.

As with many passages in Ulysses, diving into Joyce’s biography can help us as readers understand the deeper meanings. Ulysses wasn’t written in a vacuum, though Joyce maintained the book was apolitical. Though this scene is set in 1904, it was written between 1914 and 1917, years encompassing two major historical events: the Easter Rising in 1916 and World War I.

While Joyce supported Parnell and home rule of Ireland (meaning Ireland would remain part of the British Empire, but have a government independent of Westminster), he held complicated views about Irish independence. While he didn’t oppose the 1916 Rising, there is evidence that he considered it a Pyrrhic victory. Firsthand experience of anarchist bombings in Rome in 1906 had given Joyce a distaste for political violence. On top of that, he was never patriotic to start with, seeing Ireland as a place that stifled young Artists like himself (“the sow that eats her farrow”). Joyce is quoted as replying, when asked if he would die for Ireland, “I say let Ireland die for me.”

If we look to Joyce’s work, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (published 1916), Stephen Dedalus says to a zealously patriotic friend Michael Davin, “My ancestors threw off their language and took another… They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made? What for?” Davin was based on Joyce’s friend George Clancy who would be elected Sinn Fein mayor of Limerick in 1921 and killed shortly thereafter as a result of his politics. Clancy was one of a number of Joyce’s friends and colleagues who were killed in the fight for Irish independence. Perhaps these bright young men were too high a price to pay for an Irish republic.

I personally believe the Pyrrhic victory Joyce was thinking of in these pages was World War I. During the years that Joyce wrote ‘Nestor,’ the school where he worked in Trieste was closed due to the war, his brother Stanislaus was sent to an internment camp for his political beliefs and the impoverished Joyce-Barnacle family was forced to flee to neutral Switzerland. I find it hard to believe that a novel that contains dozens of obscure references to people and other  tidbits from Joyce’s life would be totally mute on such a cataclysmic event. Robert Spoo wrote an excellent analysis of World War I references in ‘Nestor’ which I strongly recommend if you’d like to know more on this topic. I’m just going to focus on the War as it appears in the Pyrrhus section for now.

Joyce definitely saw World War I as a Pyrrhic victory. Though the Allies won, the battles were so gruesome and the casualties so high, it’s hard to see a clear victor. After the Armistice, Joyce is quoted as remarking, “Who won this war?” He struggled to conceive of how to write about the experience of a war so traumatic to all who lived through those years. Joyce wrote to Hugh Walpole in 1915: “Reality is a world that was to be capable of this – and how to represent that horrific capability, historically latent, historically ahead of it?”

And so, I believe the War and its “wings of excess” crept its way into “Nestor,” which is so rooted in history, even the history that was unfolding as Joyce wrote it. This passage in particular, which follows directly after Pyrrhus’ famous quote:

That phrase the world had remembered. A dull ease of the mind. From a hill above a corpsestrewn plain a general speaking to his officers, leaned upon his spear. Any general to any officers. They lend ear.

During and after the War, there was an anger amongst the youth at the older generation for sending the young men into an unwinnable battle, dying horrific, painful deaths and wasting their lives while the old men commanded safely from the rear. This imagery was common amongst the war poets and other writers of the era, and I see it most directly reflected in this passage. The trappings are ancient Greek, but the setting could easily be World War I. The bulk of ‘Nestor” is, of course a young man squaring off against a conservative older man urging him into (intellectual) battle.

The boys in Stephen’s class, though they are only doughy figroll-munching children, some of whom somehow confuse Pyrrhus with Kingstown pier, are also potentially future officers in the British army. They are upperclass boys receiving an expensive education. In ten years time, it is possible they will be the officers receiving commands on the hill above the corpsestrewn plains of the Somme. Stephen can’t possibly know this, but Joyce does. I can say as a teacher, I think back on the students I taught in my first year teaching and imagine what age they are now and what they might be doing. I wonder if Joyce did the same.

Before I finish, I want to address the history nerds in the crowd. Yes, yes, Ulysses takes place in 1904, a full decade before the outbreak of World War I. It would be anachronistic for Stephen to reference it. Yes, the Boer War or the Russo-Japanese would fit much more cleanly into the timeline. If you’re still troubled by Stephen imagining his students in World War I, keep in mind that Mr. Deasy frets over the foot and mouth disease outbreak ravaging Ireland in this same chapter, an event that wouldn’t take place in real time until 1912. If Joyce felt comfortable moving foot and mouth up a few years, certainly World War I might receive the same consideration.


Further Reading

Birmingham, K. (2014, June 7). As the world went to war, James Joyce plotted his own revolution. The Irish Times. Retrieved from

Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Larkin, F. M. (2017, Jan. 25). James Joyce and the Easter Rising: the first revisionist. The Irish Times. Retrieved from

Spoo, R. (1986). “Nestor” and the Nightmare: The Presence of the Great War in Ulysses. Twentieth Century Literature, 32(2), 137-154. doi:10.2307/441379 Retrieved from

Stern, F. (1968). Pyrrhus, Fenians and Bloom. James Joyce Quarterly, 5(3), 211-228. Retrieved from

Williams, T. (1990). “As It Was in the Beginning”: The Struggle for History in the ‘Nestor’ Episode of “Ulysses”. The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 16(2), 36-46. doi:10.2307/25512826 Retrieved from


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