Olympias (c. 371–316 BCE)

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Olympias (c. 371–316 bce)

Wife of Philip II of Macedon and mother of Alexander the Great, who pursued dynastic interests through her son and grandson until the struggle to establish the latter as the sole king of an enormous empire prompted enemies to orchestrate her execution. Name variations: Myrtale; Polyxena; Stratonike. Pronunciation: Oh-LIM-pee-as. Born Polyxena in (or about) 371 bce, probably at Dodona in Epirus; died at Pydna in Macedonia in 316 bce; daughter of King Neoptolemus of Epirus, who died when she was young; raised by his brother, Arybbas; educated as befit a princess: she was literate, versed in politics and economic management, and devoted to esoteric religious rites; married Philip II, king of Macedon, in 357 bce; children: Alexander III the Great (356–323 bce), king of Macedon; Cleopatra (b. 354 bce).

Honored with the name "Olympias" by her husband after the twin good fortunes of Alexander's birth and Philip's chariot victory in the Olympic Games (356 bce); relationship with Philip had cooled (late 330s); suspected of complicity when Philip was assassinated (336 bce); during son's Asian sojourn (334–323 bce), helped look after his interests in Europe (where she feuded with Antipater, also appointed by Alexander); after Alexander's death (June 323 bce), and the posthumous birth of his son, Alexander IV (autumn 323 bce), championed her grandson's dynastic interests against the rival claims of Philip III (Philip II's son by a different wife); resulting conflict led her to murder of Philip III and his wife, Eurydice (317 bce); captured by Cassander, son of Antipater and a supporter of Philip III, was judicially executed (316 bce).

Epirus, the land of Olympias' birth, was a backward state on the northwestern frontier of the Greek world—in many ways akin to its northeastern counterpart, the realm of Macedon. Epirus' very existence helped to shield the more advanced Greek city-states in the south from the devastation threatened by various "barbarian" peoples (chief among them the Illyrians) whose homelands lay between modern Greece and the Danube River. The Epirotes were a Greek people, but one whose isolation on the frontier of the Hellenic world retarded their political and social development. Although most Greeks in the south had abandoned or severely restricted kingship long before the 4th century bce, at the time of Olympias' birth (c. 371), Epirus was still ruled by a powerful monarch. In addition, its people were spread over the countryside—not concentrated into cities with more advanced economies, as was the case in the south.

Olympias' name at birth was Polyxena. Her father, King Neoptolemus of Epirus, died when she was very young, leaving her to be reared (and her future to be arranged) by his brother and royal successor, Arybbas. At the time of Neoptolemus' death, the Illyrians who lived to the north of Epirus constituted a potent military threat, for leaders possessing both military and political skill had begun to consolidate the various Illyrian tribes into a coalition, which, if unchecked, could develop the institutions of a permanent and imperialistic state. Shortly after the accession of Arybbas, Macedon's old king (Amyntas III) died, bringing his son, Alexander II, to the throne of that land. Like Arybbas, Alexander II dreaded Illyrian ambitions on his realm, and their common fear drove both to a defensive alliance.

In their part of the world such pacts were usually reinforced by marriage ties, and this association was no different. Although probably no more than two or three years of age at the time (369 bce), Olympias traveled with Arybbas eastward to the sacred island of Samothrace off the Thracian coast, where they met with a Macedonian contingent led by Philip (II), himself at most 14 years old, the youngest brother of King Alexander II. There, under the cover of religious initiation into the Samothracian mysteries, with the collaboration of at least some Thracians, and far from watchful Illyrian eyes, the marriage of Philip and Olympias was arranged. While she was obviously too young to be a bride in 369 bce, her betrothal to Philip nevertheless constituted a formal contract which would in the future be consummated. In the meantime, it sufficed to bind the two kingdoms together in common opposition to the Illyrians.

The visit to Samothrace and the Samothracian rites perhaps left a lasting impression upon the young girl, for later in life Olympias devoted much of her time to esoteric religious worship (her penchant for ritual snakes apparently left Philip cold). Regardless, although the exact nature of these mysteries is unknown, they appear to have represented initiations of some sort, with the devotee "transformed" by the secrets therein revealed. As such, it was probably at Samothrace where Polyxena (as Olympia was then called) experienced her first name change (in baptismal fashion), becoming "Myrtale."

The 360s were a tumultuous decade in the north, especially in Macedon. Under the shadow of an Illyrian peril, Alexander II not only sought foreign allies, but also attempted domestic reforms, including the creation of an effective infantry force to complement the already existing, and well respected, national cavalry. Since infantries throughout the Greek world were traditionally drafted from a state's sedentary farming population, and since Macedon had too few such farmers to compose a viable unit (most of its population was still supported by herding), Alexander's reform demanded social and economic changes as well as military innovation. However, since the development of a farming population required some redistribution of land, vested interests were bound to be adversely affected. The perhaps predictable result of this reform was domestic unrest, culminating in Alexander's assassination (367 bce). The rival responsible for the murder (a Ptolemy) dominated Macedonian affairs for about two and a half years (although a pretender named Pausanias challenged him) before himself succumbing to assassination—this time organized by Alexander II's next younger brother, Perdiccas III. Perdiccas ruled for about five years, building on his older brother's policies. By 360 bce, he had at his command a sizable infantry force, which in that year he mustered to repel an Illyrian invasion of his realm. However, Perdiccas failed: when his battle against the Illyrians was over, he and several thousand of his troops lay dead.

This disaster propelled Perdiccas III's younger brother, Philip II, to the forefront. With Illyrians plundering the land, and with several other foreign enemies (including such Greek states as Athens) exploiting the opportunity to both pillage and seize Macedonian territory, Philip's realm initially was no larger than the small army he had at his personal command. Nevertheless, displaying strategic competence, military expertise, boundless energy, and diplomatic tact, within a handful of years Philip not only expelled all invaders and re-established the security of his kingdom, he also led a reconstituted army to major victories against many of his enemies, including the Illyrians whose military power he crippled.

A large part of Philip's success resulted from his marriage diplomacy: to secure long-term advantage he would draw upon his dynasty's polygamous heritage and in the course of his reign acquire seven wives—Audata , Olympias, Meda, Nicesipolis, Philinna, Roxana , and Cleopatra of Macedon —without divorcing any previously wed. Philip's polygamy was politically motivated, for his wives would not be mere spouses—they would also be vital liaisons between Macedon and the states which their original families represented (six of Philip's wives were foreign; only the last was from Macedon). Although Olympias was Philip's first betrothed, she did not become his first wife. Nonetheless because of the importance of Epirus, as soon as Olympias was old enough (357 bce), she took her place by Philip's side.

When Olympias came to Philip's court (at Pella) she was not his most important spouse; however, the birth of Alexander (III the Great) in 356 bce (and Cleopatra two years later) raised her status considerably. Despite Philip's multiple wives, he did not have many children. In fact, besides Alexander, Philip had only one other son, Arrhidaeus (the future Philip III), with Philinna, who was from the Thessalian city of Larissa. Alexander seems to have been the older of these two, for when Philip (who was campaigning at the time) almost simultaneously learned of his chariot's victory in the Olympic Games and of the birth of Alexander, in honor of both propitious events, he renamed Polyxena "Olympias"—the name that she would be known by thereafter, although military activity late in life would earn her the nickname "Stratonike" (Victorious in Battle). Primogeniture was not a Macedonian custom, but as the years passed it became evident that Arrhidaeus was not mentally competent. As a result, Alexander faced no sibling rivalry and most gladly accepted a gifted youth as Philip's uncontested heir. With this status came an even greater elevation in Olympias' importance, and she became established as Philip's chief wife.

As such, Olympias had many responsibilities in the palace, including the management of its women's quarters and the palace's staff, as well as some authority over its domestic arrangements and finances. Since the royal household was at once both a private and a public institution, her duties brought her authority which few women in her time knew. In addition to her palace duties, her proximity to Philip and Philip's heir made her a figure to be reckoned with at court. She took every opportunity to supplement her political influence. In fact, her ambition to rule as a "queen" alongside Philip eventually provoked him, as he found her too willing to meddle in affairs which he considered exclusively his. As the years passed, whatever affection the two had ever felt diminished and a kind of rivalry grew over their son. In fact, because of her intimate emotional relationship with Alexander, until the boy reached puberty Philip was forced to concede her more influence than he otherwise wished her to wield.

Growing up, Alexander saw little of his father, whose expanding interests and foreign conquests frequently meant that he was not at home. In traditional fashion, Alexander was left in the care of his mother, who both nourished the growing prince and arranged for his primary education. Fully realizing that her power at court largely depended on her control of Alexander, Olympias guarded her maternal prerogatives. Thanks to Olympias' influence, her relative, Leonidas, became Alexander's chief-of-tutors. In addition to maintaining tight control over Alexander's associates, Olympias personally supervised the young boy as frequently as she could. In the process, she both demonstrated her love for Alexander (which he always reciprocated) and worked to drive an emotional wedge between him and his father. How successful she might have been in this endeavor is uncertain. Certainly, Philip took pleasure in his maturing heir, and (despite later misunderstandings) Alexander openly respected his father's achievements. Whether love accompanied respect, however, is information lost to us, for the highly charged political climate of the court made normal family relationships difficult at best.

When Alexander was 13, Philip thought the time had come to separate the boy from his mother and to immerse him fully in the world of men. As a result, in 343 bce Philip summoned Aristotle—not to Pella, where Alexander would remain under his mother's influence, but to Mieza (a garden spot about a day's journey west of Pella)—to establish a school for Alexander and other boys from the court of about the same age. There the prince remained for three years, distanced from Olympias. When Alexander was recalled to Pella (340 bce), he immediately began to assume a variety of public responsibilities under the tutelage of his father and his father's most trusted friends. As a result, although Alexander and Olympias were not incommunicado, their time spent together was diminished.

Cleopatra (b. 354 bce)

Princess of Macedon. Born around 354 bce; daughter of Olympias (c. 371–316 bce) and Philip II, king of Macedon; sister of Alexander III the Great (356–323 bce), king of Macedon; married her uncle Alexander (brother of her mother Olympias), king of Epirus.

Though Philip clearly acknowledged Alexander as his heir, several incidents during the final years of Philip's life indicate that Alexander remained emotionally closer to Olympias than to his father, and that he was prone to misread his father's actions. Chief among these was Philip's last (but first Macedonian) marriage. At the wedding feast, the uncle of the bride, Cleopatra of Macedon, toasted the union with the wish that it would produce a "legitimate" heir for Philip. Alexander, who was present, naturally took offense, and when Philip would not avenge the insult (almost certainly because he was fettered by the well-established bonds of hospitality), Alexander first removed Olympias to Epirus and then fled himself to Illyria, seeking support for his claim. Not all of the nuances of the situation are understood, but the swift reconciliation of father and son proves that Philip had no intention of disinheriting Alexander, although he seems to have been angling to establish the newly wed Cleopatra of Macedon as his chief wife in place of Olympias.

Duris reports that the first war between two women pit Olympias against Eurydice; in it Olympias advanced in the manner of a Bacchant, accompanied by tambourines.


This and other differences of opinion between Philip and Alexander were apparently overcome by the fall of 336 bce, at which time a marriage was celebrated between Olympias' and Philip's daughter Cleopatra and her uncle (Olympias' brother, another Alexander), who was now the king of Epirus. Where Olympias resided between her flight to Epirus and the marriage of her daughter is unknown, although it is quite likely that she may have remained in Epirus, unsuccessfully attempting to aggravate her brother against her husband. If so, then her brother's marriage to Cleopatra may be considered Philip's counter-move, for, clearly, the marriage established her brother as a close ally of Philip. Regardless of where Olympias might have been before, her presence at the wedding validated Cleopatra's nuptials. Thus, it should come as no surprise that when a private vendetta led a Macedonian noble to assassinate Philip at the celebration's culminating event, Olympias was suspected of having abetted the executioner. Despite suspicions, Olympias' intimacy with Alexander III, now king, placed her above formal accusation.

However important Cleopatra's marriage was to Philip's Epirote strategy, it was also staged as a rally to kick off Philip's next major foreign-policy initiative—the invasion of the Persian Empire (had he not been assassinated, he intended to immediately join troops already campaigning in northwestern Turkey). As luck had it, his death delayed Alexander's invasion of Asia for almost two years, for the new king first had to prove that he was every bit as talented as his father, whose constant campaigning for over 20 years had established Macedon's ascendancy throughout the Balkans. By the spring of 334 bce, however, Alexander was ready to pursue his father's dream. Needing reliable allies to look after things in Europe while he was in Asia, Alexander chose three whom he considered beyond reproach: Antipater (one of Philip's most trusted companions), Olympias, and his sister, Cleopatra. The first two shared duties in Macedonia, while Cleopatra operated from Epirus. In typical fashion, the precise responsibilities of each were left undefined—a fact which would soon lead Antipater to resent what he considered to be the interference of Olympias in the administration of Macedonian affairs.

After 334 bce, both Olympias and Cleopatra assumed their right to govern in the Balkans—an attitude which would grow when Olympias' brother, the Epirote Alexander, invaded Italy (333 bce) in a pale reflection of his nephew's campaign. The Epirote's death abroad (330 bce) would only stimulate the ambitions of both thereafter. With the Alexanders away, Olympias and Cleopatra maintained high profiles. Acting as heads of state, they received ambassadors, oversaw administration (including the organization of famine relief in a year of bad harvests), presided over religious business, and kept the Alexanders abreast of Balkan affairs. The undefined limits of their power, however, embroiled them in an increasingly bitter series of disputes with Antipater, with both sides inundating the great Alexander with letters of complaint. Busy with more pressing affairs, he did little but return reassuring responses while endorsing the status quo. Eventually, however, Olympias' rivalry with Antipater became so intense that she fled Macedon for Epirus a second time (331 bce). There, she remained, viciously attacking Antipater until after the death of her son eight years later. Alexander died before acting on his mother's protests, but it appears that her constant assault had an effect, for although the order was nullified by Alexander's death (June 323 bce), shortly before that event, using ominous words, Alexander commanded Antipater to "join" him in Babylon.

Alexander the Great's death precipitated a dynastic crisis. He had married officially at least twice while in Asia, but neither spouse had given birth before his demise. One wife (the Bactrian Roxane ), however, was several months pregnant when he died. The choice facing Alexander's army at Babylon was not an enviable one, for only two candidates remained as potential kings: the first was Alexander's incompetent half-brother Arrhidaeus, and the other was Roxane's child, although no one knew if it would be a boy. As events violently unfolded, it was decided to elevate Arrhidaeus (under the throne name Philip III) at once since much royal business (especially that which was religious) was only ceremonial (although it was believed that a descendant of the royal family had to preside over such affairs). A proviso, however, was added: if Roxane's child were a boy, he would share the throne of an unprecedented "joint kingship." When Roxane gave birth to Alexander IV, this eventuality came to pass. Unfortunately, the inability of either king to assert himself led to the formation of conniving factions, more interested in social advancement than in the well-being of either monarch.

The resulting intrigues split the Macedonian world and forever shattered Alexander's empire. The chief partisan supporting the claims of Alexander IV was Olympias, both because she wished her grandson to reign as Macedon's sole king, and because she realized that he would require a lengthy regency before he could rule for himself. Who better as regent, thought Olympias, than she? Arrhidaeus' faction came to be led by his 15-year-old second cousin and niece, Eurydice (c. 337–317 bce, a granddaughter of both Perdiccas III and Philip II), who, in 322 bce, became Arrhidaeus' wife in the knowledge that she could manipulate him as a puppet. Both Olympias and Eurydice realized the stakes, as both attempted to foster their mutually exclusive visions of the future.

This rivalry was complicated by the ambitions of Alexander's generals, all of whom were used to serving dynamic kings, and many of whom began to envision the subdivision of the expansive Macedonian Empire. A sweeping civil war followed, with the first casualty being Alexander's dynasty. During the fray, the two kings became valuable pawns. First, they fell under the control of a general named Perdiccas (whose loyalty Olympias and Cleopatra attempted in vain to win [thanks to counter-moves by Antipater] through an offer of the latter in marriage). Upon Perdiccas' death, the kings fell into the hands of Antipater who returned them (along with Eurydice) to Macedon (321 bce). There, Antipater, one of the few who hoped to reunify the Macedonian world under the old monarchy, jealously guarded both kings from harm. To accomplish this feat, he both cowed would-be secessionists and protected each king from his foremost feminine adversary: Arrhidaeus rested safely only because Olympias remained in Epirus, and Alexander IV (along with Roxane) continued to live only because Antipater closely guarded the actions of Eurydice.

Antipater, however, died in 319 bce, and his hand-picked successor—surprisingly, not his son Cassander, but rather an old associate in arms, Polyperchon)—lacked both the prestige and talent to keep Antipater's dream alive. When it became clear to Polyperchon that virtually none of his military peers in Asia or Africa recognized his authority, and that he was even losing control of southern Greece, he attempted to restore his flagging fortunes through a closer association with Olympias—now, as the mother of Alexander the Great (who was posthumously metamorphosed into a god), revered by most common Macedonians. As a result, Polyperchon invited Olympias to return to Macedon to care for her grandson, but, even though Olympias hesitated (fearing a trap?), in issuing his invitation when he did Polyperchon seriously erred. Subsequently forced to campaign in the Peloponnesus, Polyperchon neglected to take the kings with him to the south. As a result, Eurydice was at least temporarily free of her "guardian" and threatened by the imminent return of Olympias to Macedon. Seizing the moment, she issued a proclamation in Arrhidaeus' name, decommissioning Polyperchon as royal guardian and elevating Cassander to that position. This move upset Olympias greatly because of her deep hatred of Cassander's father Antipater.

Before Cassander could respond, Olympias raised an army among the Epirotes and invaded Macedonia. Having no immediate champion, the then 20-year-old Eurydice organized and commanded an army. The two met in western Macedonia, but, before blows were struck, Eurydice's men—awestruck by the sight of the religiously attired mother of Alexander the Great—deserted. Having thus fallen into Olympias' hands, Arrhidaeus and Eurydice were summarily executed (317 bce). Then, venting bile stored up by years of "exile" in Epirus and countless slights to her ambitions, Olympias allowed her army to ravage portions of Macedon. Of particular savagery was her vindictive desecration of the cemetery of Antipater's family.

Her overreaction cost Olympias public support throughout Macedon, with the result that when Cassander finally made an appearance, the populace accepted as legitimate the commission given him by the dead Eurydice. Olympias, Alexander IV, Roxane and another member of the royal house, one Thessalonike , the youngest daughter of Philip II whom Cassander would eventually marry, were besieged by Cassander in Pydna, with no allies in a position to help them. In 316 bce, after a long siege, and with starvation figuring in her capitulation, Olympias surrendered. Cassander spirited Alexander IV and Roxane away to Amphipolis where they were kept under house arrest (officially, "under close protection to insure their safety") until both were quietly murdered (officially they died "natural deaths") in 310 bce.

Olympias met with a swifter fate. Though she was an unredeemable enemy, Cassander nevertheless wished to avoid the odium of being known as the murderer of Olympias. As a result, he attempted to bribe others to commit the act, and the ghost of Alexander momentarily saved her. Yet, knowing that public opinion could turn again in favor of the now powerless Olympias, Cassander decided to effect her destruction quickly. This time, after a hasty trial, Olympias was turned over to the relatives of some of those she had been responsible for killing during her recent Macedonian rampage. These relatives, driven by a sense of responsibility to their dead kin, were able to disregard Olympias' majesty and see to her demise. Not wishing to create a martyr whose death might someday hamper his growing desire to rule Macedon as his own, Cassander ordered that Olympias be given but a humble burial. Nevertheless, unknown supporters gained control of her body, and, whether during the ascendancy of Cassander's house (316–294 bce) or later, an appropriate tomb was constructed near Pydna which drew visitors for hundreds of years.


Arrian. The Campaigns of Alexander. Trans. by A. de Selincourt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

Curtius Rufus. The History of Alexander. Trans. by J. Yardley. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

Diodorus Siculus. The Library of History. Vols. 7–9. Trans. by C.L. Sherman, C.B. Welles, and R.M. Geer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952, 1963, 1974.

Justin. The History of the World. Trans. by J.S. Watson. London: Bohn, 1875.

Plutarch. "Life of Alexander," in The Age of Alexander. Trans. by I. Scott-Kilvert. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

suggested reading:

Carney, E.D. "Olympias," in Ancient Society. Vol. 18, 1987, pp. 35–62.

Greenwalt, W.S. "Polygamy and Succession in Argead Macedonia," in Arethusa. Vol. 22, 1989, pp. 19–45.

Macurdy, G.H. Hellenistic Queens. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1932.

related media:

Alexander the Great (141-min. film), starring Richard Burton and Danielle Darrieux as Olympias, 1956.

W. S. S. , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California