Queen Olympias of Macedon – the Mother of Alexander the Great
Following the assassination Philip II of Macedon, in 336 BC, it was rumored that his second wife, Queen Olympias of Macedon, had a hand in Philip’s demise. This seemed plausible as Olympias and her son, Alexander the Great, ended up being the biggest beneficiaries of the death of Philip. However, there is no concrete evidence whatsoever to support those rumors.
With her son, Alexander, crowned king of Macedon, Olympias wielded considerable amount of power and influence across Macedonia and Greece. She was even seen as the de facto ruler of Macedon at some point, especially during Alexander’s military campaigns abroad. Sadly for her, that power quickly eroded following the death Alexander the Great in 323 BC. In the ensuing power struggle and fight among Alexander’s generals over the king’s vast territories, Olympias lost out and was killed in 316 BC by one of Alexander’s right hand man, Cassender.
Olympias: Fast Facts
Date of birth: 375 BC
Place of birth: Molossia, Epirus, Ancient Greece
Died: 316 BC
Cause of death: Stoning to death
Father: King Neoptolemus of Epirus
Siblings: Alexander I of Epirus, Troas
Spouse: Philip II of Macedon
Children: Alexander the Great, Cleopatra of Macedon
Other names: Myrtale, Stratonice
Olympias and the cult of Dionysus
Hellenistic philosopher and historian Plutarch stated that Olympias was a fervent follower of the cult of Dionysus, particularly the orgiastic snake-worshiping sect of the cult. Her foreign roots posed a slight problem for Alexander’s claim to the Macedonian throne. Also, many Macedonians did not appreciate the fact that she was a devout member of the cult of Dionysus.
Olympias, born Myrtale, was born into royalty. She was one of the daughters of Neoptolemus, the king of Epirus, which was a relatively powerful kingdom located southwest of Macedonia.
As it was common for ancient Greeks to trace their ancestry to divine and mythical beings, so did Olympias’ family. It was said that Olympias’ ancestors, the Molossians, specifically the Aeacidae, were the offspring of Molossus, who was one of the descendants of the Greek demigod Achilles.
Olympias and King Philip II of Macedon
It’s often been said that the marriage (in 357 BC) between Olympias and Philip II of Macedon was used to secure a political alliance between Epirus, Olympias’ kingdom, and the Macedonians. In 358 BC, Philip II had signed a peace pact with the rulers of Epirus, and the marriage was intended to further strengthen the relationship between the two nations.
In one account of the story, Philip met Olympias while attending a religious ceremony on the Samothrace, an island in the Aegean Sea. It was during this ceremony that Olympias was initiated into the mysteries of Cabeiri at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace. The sanctuary was sometimes associated with Greek god Hephaestus.
It’s said that the Macedonian king was instantly love struck by Olympias, an 18-year-old, red-haired woman with a not so calm personality. Olympias then became one of the numerous wives of Philip, as it was not uncommon for Macedonian kings to have multiple wives.
Olympias tumultuous relationship with her husband, Philip II of Macedon
The marriage was said to be fraught by difficulties due to Philip’s somewhat abrasive character. Her relationship with her husband also suffered from the fact that she was obsessed with carving out more power for herself. Then of course, Olympias was jealous, especially after Philip took himself another wife by the name Eurydice, a noblewoman and the niece of Attalus.
By his wife Philinna, a commoner, Philip II fathered a son called Philip Arridaeus, later Philip III Arridaeus. Greek historian Plutarch states that Olympias’ jealousy caused her to poison her stepson Philip Arridaeus, making the potential heir to her husband’s throne unhinged.
The fact that Olympias was from foreign nation also did not help matters. It’s said that many Macedonians did not appreciate the fact that she was a devout member of the cult of Dionysus.
Plutarch writes in his work, Greek Lives, that Philip ceased visiting Olympias’ bedchamber after he saw Olympias in bed with a bunch of snakes in his dream. This explains why Olympias had two known children – Cleopatra and Alexander. Some devotees of the cult of Dionysus were known to worship or revere snakes.
Lastly, Philip was reluctant to openly declare Alexander as his heir. Even after his father-in-law Attalus, father of his new bride Cleopatra-Eurydice, called Alexander a bastard, Philip chose to remain silent as he did not want to offend Attalus.
Brief exile in Epirus
After a severe falling out, Olympias, along with her son, committed herself into exile in Epirus, where she stayed with her brother Alexander I, then-king of Epirus. Some say that Olympias tried her hardest to lure brother, Alexander, to break the peace pact with Macedonia and attack Philip. Alexander refused doing so as he was by then married to Philip and Olympias’ daughter, Cleopatra.
The positive omen that surrounded the birth of Alexander the Great
According to Plutarch, a thunderbolt is said to have lit up in the womb of Olympias during the consummation of her marriage to Philip II of Macedon. Olympias would later interpret the great fire that lit up in her as Alexander the Great’s divine birth. During her son’s reign, she helped spread the rumor that Alexander was the son of the Greek god Zeus and not Philip. Hence the thunderbolt, a very common symbol of Zeus.
It was also said that Alexander was conceived with the seal of his father’s, which was a figure of a lion
A 4th-century BC seer by the name of Aristander of Telmessos stated that due to powerful omen that surrounded the birth of Olympias’ son, Alexander, the future king went on to have a very strong character, one almost similar to a lion. By the way Aristander was Alexander the Great’s favorite seer.
Macedonians, like other ancient Greek nations, believed that the birth of a great man often coincided with a good omen. In the year that Alexander the Great was born, i.e. 365, Philip’s race horse secured a famous victory at the Olympic Games. Some historians state that this victory is how come Olympias earned her name.
It’s also been said that Alexander the Great’s birth fell on the day Philip II won hard-fought battle against the Illyrians.
With all the alleged good omens surrounding Alexander’s birth, Olympias worked assiduously to ensure that it was her son who succeeded her husband.
She also constantly reminded the young Alexander of their family’s lineage to Greek fighters and heroes like Achilles. Alexander is said to have religiously read Homer’s Iliad. To foster that self-belief and confidence in her son, she made sure that Alexander the great had the best mentors and tutors, including Aristotle and Leonidas of Epirus.
Olympias’ children with Philip II
In addition to Alexander the Great, Olympias also gave birth to Cleopatra, who ended up marrying Alexander I of Epirus, Olympias’ brother. Similar to Olympias’ marriage, Cleopatra’s (in 336 BC) was designed to build stronger ties between Macedonia and Epirus.
Assassination of Philip II
In 336 BC, Philip II of Macedon was assassinated by a disgruntled palace guard called Pausanias of Oretis. The assassin, who was a member of Philip’s somatophylakes (personal bodyguards) – murdered Philip because the king had refused to reprimand Attalus, his father-in-law. It was alleged that Attalus, a Macedonian nobleman and military commander, had not only verbally assaulted Pausanias, but also raped him. With nothing but revenge on his mind, Pausanias came in from the king’s blindside and stabbed him in the ribs multiple times. The assassin tried to make his way out of Aegea. However, he quickly rounded up by Philip’s bodyguards. In the ensuing chaos, Pausanias was stabbed to death by the bodyguards.
Some leading politicians, perhaps as a way to prevent Olympias from succeeding to the throne, accused Olympias of being an accessory to the assassination of her husband.
Reign of Alexander the Great
It is unclear whether Olympias was involved in the murder of her husband; however what is emphatically clear is her involvement in the death of Cleopatra-Eurydice and her infant son. Olympias ordered the execution of the mother and child in order to secure her son’s claim to the Macedonian throne.
In her new found position as the mother of the king, Olympias helped spread the rumor that Alexander was the son of Zeus and not Philip. She wielded enormous influence over her son even though Alexander tried very hard to keep her from getting involved in the kingdom’s politics.
The last time Olympias saw her son was when he was about to match the Macedonian army across Hellespont into Asia Minor.
While campaigning abroad, Alexander placed Antipater, a leading Macedonian statesman and general, in charge of the kingdom. However, real power resided firmly in the hands of Olympias, the king’s mother. Safe to say that Olympias and Antipater hated each other, as they constantly accused each other of sabotaging the other.
Macedonian general and statesman Antipater was chosen as the regent of the kingdom in the absence of Alexander the Great. Basically, Antipater ruled the kingdom along with his son Cassender and Olympias, the king’s mother.
In 330 BC, she served as regent to her cousin Aeacides in Epirus. This came after her brother, Alexander I of Epirus, had died while campaigning in Italy.
Death of Alexander the Great
Olympias was devastated upon hearing the untimely death of her son, Alexander the Great, in Babylon in 323 BC. Her son was survived by his wife, Roxana, and his their son Alexander IV. With Alexander IV relatively young, Alexander’s half-brother Philip III Arrhidaeus was proclaimed king. Perdiccas was chosen to serve as regent. In an attempt to still remain relevant, Olympias convinced Perdiccas to marry her daughter, Cleopatra, instead of Antipater’s daughter, Nicaea. Much to Antipater’s fury, Perdicass chose Cleopatra. Antipater and his son, Cassender, then allied with the Diadochi – rival generals, politicians, family members of Alexander the Great – to remove Perdiccas from power. Antipater then became regent for a few months before he was succeeded by his son Cassender.
Olympias versus Cassender
It’s worth mentioning that Macedonian general Polyperchon briefly succeeded Antipater as regent in 319 BC. However, he was driven out by Cassender.
Angered by his forced removal from power, Polyperchon took Roxana and her son Alexander IV with him.
All this while, Olympias was bent on having her grandson, Alexander IV, be crowned king. As a result she went into an alliance with Polyperchon in 317 BC. She then solicited the support of her cousin Aeacides, King of Epirus. Together with those two armies, Olympias was able to invade Macedonia, driving her chief rival Cassender out of the kingdom. She is believed to have ordered the execution of her stepson Philip III Arrhidaeus and his wife Adea Eurydice that same year. She also killed many leading politicians and statesmen loyal to Cassender, including Cassender’s brother.
Meanwhile, Olympias’ invasion of Macedonia was not going as planned as it faced stern resistance from Cassender. In the end Olympias pegged back by Cassender forces. The general besieged Pydna, where Olympias was, forcing her to accept his peace terms. She conceded defeat and her life was spared by Cassender, only for a few months though.
Death of Olympias
However, in 316, Cassender had a change of mind and allowed Olympias to be stoned to death by the families of the people she had killed over the years. He had initially ordered his soldiers to kill her, but none of them wanted to kill the mother of Alexander the Great. Cassender’s hatred for Olympias was so much that he refused giving her burial rites.
Initially, he spared the lives of Roxana and Alexander IV, but he later had them executed in 309 BC, dashing Olympias’ dream of having her grandson become king of Macedon.
More on Queen Olympias of Macedon
- According to Greek historian Plutarch, Olympias was originally called Polyxena. She then changed her name to Myrtale after tying the knot with Macedonian king Philip II.
- Also, her name Olympias most likely came after her husband’s horse secured a famous victory in the Olympic Games in July 20, 356 BC.
- She came to be known as Stratonice after defeating Eurydice, the wife of her step son Philip III, in 317 BC.
- Her father, Neoptolemus I, died in 360 BC. He was succeeded by Arybbas of Epirus, Olympias’ brother-in-law and uncle.
- Philip II of Macedon is said to have been love struck by the beautiful red-haired Olympias. Somehow, Olympias’ fiery temper was endearing to the king. When the two tied the knot, Philip was in his late 20s and Olympias was around 18.
- In 1902 in Egypt, a medal bearing Olympias name was found. The medal dates back to the early third century AD. On the reverse side of the medal, a sea nymph (i.e. Nereid) can be seen riding a sea creature.