Olympias, Mother of Alexander the Great

Introduction

Olympias

Olympias was notorious for her deception and propaganda—establishing herself as one of the most influential women in Grecian history. As the wife of King Philip II, Olympias was famed as his Macedonian queen and the mother of Alexander the Great. However the term ‘queen’ is used loosely here. The wives of Macedonian kings had no title, their sole source of status was being the mothers of heirs to the throne– nonetheless all ancient Macedonian women, even queens, shared a lowly standing. But Olympias’ strength of will and strong impact during and after her son’s reign made her nearly as powerful as a king.

Her remarkable life is evident in her legacy—as the Mother of Alexander the Great she held great prestige during his reign and continued to influence the politics of ancient Greece after his death. Ancient historians portray the Molossian princess as the villainess of antiquity, however we must regard their accounts with speculation. There seems to be an evident “unstated presumption that woman should/ought to be/are nicer, kinder then men” and any vicious behavior committed by a man is done “out of policy”, furthermore it was believed that “men take vengeance for a reason; women are simply vengeful” (Carney). As controversial as Olympias’ character is today she was equally, if not more, controversial among her peers.This double standard is clear in Alexander’s numerous biographies—he is portrayed as the perfect, Hellenic man whereas his mother is illustrated as the barbaric foreigner that attempts to corrupt him. Nonetheless Olympias and Alexander shared a close relationship, some speculate too close, and he allowed her some say in international policy. And although the motives behind many of her actions are not known, one thing remains clear—Olympias had a fierce loyalty towards her family and the reign of Alexander IV, an allegiance that would lead to her downfall and the death of her remaining Aeacid lineage.

Early Life

Little documentation remains regarding Olympias’ early life. It’s known that she was the daughter of the Molossian king Neoptolemus, leader of a tribe whom claimed to be of the ‘Aeacid’ lineage (descendants of Aeacus) and her given name was Myrtale. This relation to mythic heroes like Achilles and Neoptolemus would continue to influence her and her son’s reign. Reasoning regarding her strong persona can be revealed through her life as a Molossian princess.  The region was notorious for much “less narrow expectations for women” (Carney). Women of her homeland could independently own land, receive citizenship, and had no legal guardians once they were of age. This lifestyle completely contrasts the oppressive society of Athens or even Macedonia, the people whom documented her life.

Olympias & Philip

According to Plutarch’s narrative Alexander Olympias and Philip II met in Samothrace and fell in love as they were both initiated into the Bacchic mysteries. However this account is doubtful since practically all marriages, particularly royal marriages, were arranged. This tale may also be the source of the rumors of her devotion to the Orphic rites and love of serpents. Most likely the marriage of King Philip II and Olympias was made for political reasons, in order to enforce a “unified Molossian/Macedonian front against the Illyrian menace” (Carney) whom had recently murdered Philip’s brother.

It is believed she was renamed the year after her marriage when a chariot that Philip had sent to the Olympic games  in 356 was victorious, giving the queen the name ‘Olympias’. According to the Greek author Plutarch she gave birth to her first child later that day, Alexander. This propaganda furthered the fame of her baby son since in antiquity it was believed the birth of a great man was supplemented by portents. This story creates another mythic tie in life of Olympias, further emphasizing the Aeacid point of view.fresco3

Olympias and Philip had a very tumultuous marriage, which led to estrangement. The largest rift in their marriage was caused by his marriage to the Macedonian girl named Cleopatra in 337. Although he was a polygamist this marriage created tension among the Macedonians and between him and Olympias, hostility furthered by his sexual relationship with her brother. Because of these issues Olympias placed herself in voluntary exile in Epirus. Later during his reign Philip’s former lover Pausanias was gang-raped under the command of his new wife Cleopatra and her uncle Attalus whom were both associates of Pausanias’ rival. Pausanias expected some retribution from Philip but when he received none he began to plot the death of Philip—eventually stabbing him during a public procession. Suspicion has since arose that Olympias and Alexander were involved in the assassination however this has not been proven. According to Justin’s narrative Alexander Olympias killed Cleopatra’s baby Europa in her mother’s arms and then forced Cleopatra to hang herself. Yet there is little proof of this private incident and her motives still remain unclear. Most cite jealousy or revenge as Olympias’ reasoning for their murders but then one must wonder– why would she be jealous of her polygamist husband’s new wife? Could Cleopatra have claimed to be pregnant with a new heir? The reasons for this murder remain unknown.

Bad Religion

According to Plutarch Olympias’ practiced religious rituals involving snakes and magic. In this excerpt he describes her foreign, Orphic rites in a barbaric, frightening manner:

religion quote

Again one must consider biases when researching Olympias– her portrayal is a form of propaganda in the ancient world. Plutarch’s narrative emphasizes her foreignness and non-Hellenic qualities in order to further idealize her son. Although whether she practiced Bacchic rites remains unknown these rumors added to the public’s fascination and hatred of this Molossian woman.

Olympias the Great

Although Plutarch claims, “Alexander did not allow her to interfere in his affairs or military matters” (Carney) Olympias did play a part in international policy and she and her daughter Cleopatra were heads of state and grain recipients. However constant quarrels with her son’s associate Antipater caused her to return to Molossia. In her homeland she continued a close relationship with her son and they regularly corresponded. However there were rumors of fights with Alexander’s closest associate and lover, Hephaestion. According to Diodorus, Olympias was jealous of Hephaestion and wrote “threatening” and “harsh” letters to him.

Statue of Olympias and Alexander

Statue of Olympias and Alexander

After Alexander

When Olympias learned of her son’s death she was residing in Eprius. The former Queen quickly blamed Alexander’s death on her rival Antipater and spread rumors that his family had poisoned her son. Although Olympias’ arguments were valid (Antipater did gain political power with the death of Alexander) she likely had ulterior motives– her goal was to see her grandson Alexander IV come of age and occupy the throne, a motive Olympias would continue to devote the remainder of her life towards.

After Alexander’s death Olympias knew she knew she was no longer physically protected so she searched for military aid through her daughter’s marriage. Cleopatra pursued a Greek outlaw with a large army– however she eventually asked him to leave for fear of causing a civil war. Although Antipater did not kill her for this brief alliance he did strip her of all her independence and Cleopatra never saw her mother again.

The eventual death of Antipater by the hands of his own guards led to the reign of Macedonian general Polyperchon. The new king invited the former queen to return to Macedonia and join him in a political alliance. However, even though Antipater had died, Olympias made new enemies including his son Cassander and the wife of King Phillip III, Adea Eurydice. Macedonia’s two kings–Polyperchon and Philip III constantly collided on personal and political grounds.

coin of Olympias

coin of Olympias

Olympias made it her objective to bring down the royal couple. Eventually she succeeded and had Eurydice and Phillip III imprisoned– ‘purging’ the Macedonian royal families by killing them and many of Antipater’s relatives whom she continued to blame for the poisoning of her son (Diodorus).

However these vicious actions made her unpopular among the Macedonians. Cassander captured Olympias and put her on trial for these murders. Although he initially promised her safety she was eventually put to death.There are two versions of her murder: Pausanias claims she was stoned to death and Justin said she was stabbed to death—both humiliating for an elite woman of antiquity. And to further insult the memory of Alexander’s mother, Cassander’s men left her corpse unburied (Diodorus). However Olympias’ imprint on history remains: playing a powerful role in politics and defying the Hellenic standard of Grecian woman.

Sources:

Carney, Elizabeth. Olympias, Mother of Alexander the Great. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Worthington, Ian; Roisman, Joseph. A Companion to Ancient   Macedonia [eBook]. Wiley, 2010, accessed 23 October 2013;   available from http://utsa.eblib.com/patron/  FullRecord.aspx?p=624730; Internet.

Waterfield, Robin. “Olympias’ Funeral Games.” History Today 61, no. 8   (August 2011): 19-24. World History Collection, EBSCOhost   (accessed October 23, 2013).

MITCHELL, L. G. (2012). THE WOMEN OF RULING FAMILIES IN ARCHAIC AND CLASSICAL GREECE. Classical Quarterly, 62(1), 1-21.   doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0009838811000590


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