Behind every great man there is a great woman
Olympias lived from 375-316 BCE. She was a princess from a kingdom in the region of Epirus, located in the northwestern part of Greece. Accounts of her life were only recorded after her marriage to Philip II, the Macedonian king. Olympias’ involvement in a snake-worshipping cult, in honor of the god Dionysus, is believed to be the cause of the rift in their marriage.
She is famous, however, for being the mother of Alexander the Great. Scholars give Olympias some credit behind his success in gaining control over the largest empire in the ancient world. Her life mission was to get Alexander on the Macedonian throne. Her success did not last long as Alexander died in 323 BCE. Olympias then became passionate and did everything in her power to make sure Alexander’s son, Alexander IV, took his father’s place on the throne. Unfortunately, she was not successful as Cassander, son of regent for Macedon, killed her in 316 BCE and her grandson Alexander IV along with his mother Roxanne six years later.
Olympias’ birth name was Myrtale and she was the daughter of King Neoptolemus I of the Molossians, an ancient Greek “tribal state that ruled over the region of Epirus” (Carney, 2006, p. 8). Scholars do not know who her mother is, but most assume she was a Chaonian princess because of the Molossians’ strong relationship with the Chaonians, another kingdom in the northwest part of Epirus. Olympias had a sister named Troas and a brother named Alexander I.
Her family believed that they were descendants “from Aeacus by Neoptolemus” (Plutarch, Lives, 463, John Dryden), a mythological king who was the grandfather of the hero Achilles. It was said that Olympias continuously reminded Alexander that he was descendant of the demi-god Achilles, which influenced him to have “constantly laid Homer’s Iliad under his pillow” (Plutarch, Lives, 482, John Dryden). Plutarch also tells us in his text Lives that Olympias’ parents were both deceased by the time she met Philip II.
Olympias & Philip II
According to Plutarch, Philip II fell in love with Olympias while both were being “initiated into the religious ceremonies” of Samothrace (Plutarch, Lives, 470, John
Dryden), an island in the Aegean Sea. Although most historians agree that it was probably an arranged marriage to unite the two kingdoms. Macedon was an area that accepted the idea of polygamy, which Philip used to his advantage by taking new wives in order to create alliances. Olympias was his fourth wife. A few nights after their wedding, Philip witnessed Olympias sleeping with snakes, presumably due to her being a devoted worshipper to a snake cult for Dionysus. Regardless, after this incident Philip lost affection for her. Plutarch notes that Philip did not sleep with her after that “because he feared that some spells and enchantments might be practiced upon him by her, or because he shrank for her embraces in the conviction that she was the partner of a superior being” (Plutarch, Lives, 464, John Dryden). This is further evidence for the reason why Alexander thought he was the son of Zeus rather than Philip because this god was often associated with serpents. Despite his later claims of being the son of a god, Alexander was one of the two children Olympias and Philip had together, along with a daughter named Cleopatra. The month Alexander was born was also when Olympias received this name; she changed her name from Myrtale to Olympias in honor of Philip’s “race-horse [that] had won the course” (Plutarch, Lives, 465, John Dryden) at the Olympic games in July 356 BCE.
After Philip had begun losing feelings for Olympias, her value to him was only determined by the alliance she created between her father’s kingdom and Macedon as well as providing Philip with an heir. However, Olympias became disposable when Philip took another wife named Cleopatra who was fully Macedonian. His new bride provided him with not only an heir but an heir with only Macedonian blood, which Alexander did not have because Olympias was Molossian. Therefore, Olympias and Alexander went into exile from the Macedonian palace at Pella to her brother’s kingdom in Epirus. However, Philip created a new alliance with Epirus by marrying their daughter Cleopatra to her uncle (Olympias’ brother) Alexander I, the new reigning king of Epirus. Olympias returned to Macedon along with Alexander for this wedding in 336 BCE.
Olympias, The Murderer?
Olympias is called by ancient authors as one of the most ruthless women in history, since she was known for countless murders. She was also a prime suspect in Philip’s assassination, though there was no proof that she committed the crime. One of the king’s bodyguards (and former lover), Pausanias, stabbed Philip at the wedding of Alexander I and Cleopatra. The reason for suspicion of Olympias’ involvement, is due to the fact that there was horses ready for Pausanias to escape on, which he failed to accomplish. Only wealthy people could afford horses in the ancient world as they were very expensive to maintain, so people questioned how a young bodyguard could afford such a luxury. The ancient historian Justin notes that it was “believed that Pausanias had been suborned by Olympias” (Justin, Epitome of The Philippic, 22, Heckel Waldemar) to kill Philip. Olympias also had the motive to get rid of Philip because after his death, Olympias got her wish to see Alexander become king. When she was secure in her role as the king’s mother, she ordered Philip’s wife Cleopatra along with their newborn daughter to be executed.
Mother of Alexander the Great
Olympias finally fulfilled her life goal; to see her son on the Macedonian throne. As the new king prepared to leave on his campaigns, it was said that Olympias had taken Alexander aside to tell him a crucial part of his past. Many believe that she told him that he was not the son of Philip but instead a son of the divine. This knowledge would affect Alexander’s quest to conquer Asia Minor as it is written in various accounts that he wanted to find out if he truly was the son of Zeus.
One cannot be certain that Olympias actually told Alexander this. I believe that she may have been implying that he should act with the courage of a god. On his quest to conquer Asia Minor, Olympias exchanged letters with Alexander providing advice as well as complaints about Antipater, the man he left in charge of Macedon. His departure would be the last time Olympias would see him. Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BCE, leaving the Greek world as well as the newly conquered Asia Minor in complete disarray.
Olympias had little time to mourn her deceased son before she began fighting for the rights of her grandson Alexander IV. When Alexander died, he left behind his wife Roxanne, who was seven months pregnant at the time with a son. This unborn child became the rightful heir to the Macedonian throne as well as to Alexander’s empire. Until he became 14 years old, different regents, along with his uncle Philip III would rule in his place. It all went according to plan until the regent of Macedon, Antipater, died in 329 BCE and passed his title on to another general instead of his son Cassander. In retaliation, he joined forces with Philip III’s wife Eurydice and declared war against the newly appointed Macedonian regent whom Olympias was allied with. She knew if Cassander took the throne he was not taking it to be the regent but as the official king. Polyperchon, the newly appointed regent of Macedon, lost the battle against Cassander forcing young Alexander IV and his mother to flee. Meanwhile, Olympias remained focus on getting her son’s kingdom back by facing Cassander in battle again with the help of the army from her old kingdom in Epirus. In what is called “the first war between women” (Carney, 1996, p. 120), Olympias faced her component Eurydice. The odds seemed to be in her favor as Eurydice’s army refused to fight against Olympias because she was the mother of Alexander whom they deeply respected. With this victory, Polyperchon was able to retake control over Macedon. Then once Eurydice and Philip III were captured, Olympias had them both executed.
Olympias was finally defeated in her next battle against Cassander in 316 BCE in Pydna. Although Cassander agreed to let her live in exchange for her surrender, he went back on his word and ordered her to be killed. However, Olympias’ reputation as Alexander’s mother proved to be influential yet again as Cassander’s own soldiers refused to kill her. Unfortunately, since his army would not do the job, Cassander rallied up those who lost a love one in the battles against Olympias. Cassander pointed the blame on Olympias for the loss of their family members so they stoned her to death in revenge.
I don’t think Olympias gets enough credit in history. She was looked down on by ancient authors who believed she was a terrible person, while there were many men in history doing far worse things during the same period. Olympias did what was best for herself and her son. The way she accomplished these tasks may have been extreme, but I truly believe she did what she thought was necessary. Olympias was a young orphaned girl who had to move to this new land just for her husband to abandon her for a new wife, then had to fight for the safety of herself and her child. When Alexander died, she was put back into the same position. She may have been treated unfairly because she was not Macedonian and therefore, an outsider. However, as the mother of one of the most respected men during that period, I think it was that fact that she was a powerful woman that intimidated others. In the modern world, people still depict Olympias as cruel but yet they admire women such as Cleopatra VII who killed her own siblings for the throne. Olympias was a brave, independent woman who did what she had to do to survive. If a present-day woman was put in the same position, I don’t think that they would have been able to handle it as well as she did. It took a certain type of woman to stand up for what she believes in, especially while living in a world ruled by men.
Fun Fact: Angelina Jolie played Olympias in the movie Alexander based on Alexander the Great’s life. This clip shows how the director portrays Olympias’ reaction to her husband’s death and confessing to Alexander that he is not the son of Philip II but of the god Zeus. It also gives a good representation of how much she loved Alexander and wanted everything for him.
Olympias & Philip II’s Family Tree:
There are only a few sources focusing on Olympias herself, since most texts from antiquity focus their attention on men. Therefore, the information we have about her is very limited. Primary sources for Olympias are only included in the histories written about her son, Alexander. Thankfully, many ancient authors wrote about his life, and included some details about his parents. The primary sources used on this web page includes Plutarch’s Lives, Diodorus’s Bibliotheca and Justin’s Epitome of The Philippic. Each of these men portrayed Olympias as savage, barbaric and ‘unwomanly’ in their works. I would like to put emphasis on the fact that these accounts were written by men for men. Therefore, one has to take their interpretation of Olympias at face value. It is important to note that none of these authors lived at the time of Alexander or his mother, they are basing their works off previous writings now lost to us. I had to include these works because they are the only surviving written evidence we have from the ancient world about Olympias whatsoever. After further research, I have concluded that there is not a lot of writings about Olympias by ancient authors as well as modern scholars. I believe it is important to give credit to Elizabeth Carney, one of, if not the only modern scholar to focus her research on Macedonian women as well as Olympias herself. She gives her readers a refreshing perspective of Olympias from a female point of view. Besides the primary sources, her work is heavily used throughout this page. I also give credit to the historian Peter Green whose work I also used in my research, in particular, on Olympias’ final days.
Carney, Elizabeth (2006). Olympias. New York: Routledge.
Carney, Elizabeth (1996). Women and Monarchy in Macedonia. Oklahoma: Oklahoma Press.
Green, Peter (2007). The Hellenistic Age. New York: Random House.
Plutarch (1971). Lives. London: Aldine House.
Waldemar, Heckel and Yardley, J.C (2004). Alexander the Great, Historical Sources in Translation. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Featured Image – By Fotogeniss – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25564979
Other Photos are by – Schurl50