Thessalonike (c. 345–297 BCE)

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Thessalonike (c. 345–297 bce)

Macedonian queen. Born around 345 bce; murdered in 297 bce; daughter of Philip II, king of Macedonia, and Nicesipolis; married Cassander, king of Macedonia; children: three sons, Philip, Antipater (I), and Alexander (V).

Thessalonike was the daughter of Philip II of Macedon and Nicesipolis . It is not known precisely when Philip, who was polygamous, married Nicesipolis. One source suggests that they were wed early in Philip's reign, which began in 359, but it is more likely that they married in the 340s. Nicesipolis was the niece of Jason of Pherae, a tyrant and prominent player in politics of Thessaly, a land which lay directly to the south of Philip's realm. If Philip married Nicesipolis early in his rule, he did so to win powerful political allies and perhaps to open the door for involvement in Thessaly's affairs. If the union came later, Philip took Nicesipolis as part of the settlement which made him Thessaly's overlord. Thessalonike almost certainly was not born until the 340s, because her name means "Victory in Thessaly"—a claim Philip could not make at the beginning of his reign. Apparently Nicesipolis experienced complications during Thessalonike's birth, because she died only 20 days after bringing her daughter into the world.

Thessalonike was almost certainly reared by Olympias , Philip's chief wife and the mother of two of his children, Alexander III the Great and Cleopatra (b. 354 bce), both of whom were older than Thessalonike. We know nothing about Thessalonike until 317–16 bce, in the context of the civil wars which had arisen after Alexander's death near Babylon in June 323. Alexander had left behind no competent heir. Though his first wife Roxane was pregnant, she was not due to deliver until the fall. Alexander's only living male relative was Philip's son with Philinna , a mentally incompetent halfbrother named Arrhidaeus. For over 300 years, Macedon had been ruled by the Argeads (Alexander's house), but the lack of even one suitable heir apparently had never been faced before; thus, there was no precedent for what the Macedonians should do, and the army which was with Alexander when he died was not in agreement about what should be done about the succession. After much consternation, a compromise was hammered out by which Arrhidaeus was acclaimed king immediately (under the throne name Philip III), with the understanding that if Roxane's child turned out to be a son, he would share the throne. In fact, Roxane delivered a son and he was hailed Alexander IV. This joint monarchy was thereafter put under a regency—with a general named Perdiccas initially appointed as the kings' primary guardian. It was assumed by almost everyone that Philip III, not being of sound mind, would never become a factor in future accessions and that one day the empire would be ruled by Alexander the Great's son. The joint kingship, however, proved unworkable because almost immediately the most ambitious generals began to plot in their own interest, not initially to establish their own kingdoms, but rather to prevail as first of the Macedonians under the kings. This created a spirit of distrust, into which Eurydice (c. 337–317 bce), Philip II's only granddaughter, thrust herself by demanding Philip III in marriage in the hopes of hijacking the succession from Alexander IV. When this union was realized it posed a threat to the eventual accession of Alexander IV. For a time this threat was kept in check, but by 317 Eurydice and Olympias, on behalf of Philip III and Alexander IV respectively, were at war. Olympias seemed to have won this heavyweight bout when she captured and executed Eurydice and Philip, but before she died, Eurydice forged an alliance with Cassander, the son of Antipater (who when alive had been Olympias' single biggest political rival). Thessalonike was with Olympias, Roxane and Alexander IV, in the city of Pydna, when it came under attack by Cassander. After Cassander took Pydna, he had Olympias judicially executed, put Roxane and Alexander IV under "protective" custody (both would "mysteriously" die under his care, probably in 310), and married Thessalonike.

With one king dead and the other under house arrest, never to be set free, the Macedonian generals who were emerging as Alexander the Great's real heirs were in desperate need of some way to legitimize their authorities, for "might makes right" can only be carried so far before civil discord arises. Since marriage and politics had always gone hand in hand in Macedon, the more ambitious of these men sought to marry into the Argead house and thereafter father children who would be of half-royal ancestry. After 316, the only eligible Argead brides were Thessalonike and Cleopatra. The more highly desired of these was the latter, for she was the full sister of the great Alexander. Cleopatra was at the time a widow: her first husband, Alexander of Epirus, had died some years before while campaigning in Italy. Although she was the greater prize, none of the prospective suitors wanted her to marry anyone but himself. As a result, collectively they held her as a political hostage, until, when she did try to pick a husband in 309–08, she was murdered by another (Antigonus) whom she had not chosen. Thus, Cassander was the only successor of Alexander the Great to have any direct tie with the defunct Argead house, a fact which he hoped would make him more popular among the Macedonians at large. He was not able to rally Macedonian émigrés to his cause, but Thessalonike clearly was the primary reason why Cassander was able to rule Macedonia proper.

What Thessalonike thought about the demise of Olympias and her marriage is not known. Cassander, however, rendered her all due respect in public, as was only sensible in that his hopes to found a new royal dynasty relied heavily on her paternity. Yet, the sources are so curiously silent about Thessalonike after her marriage that is likely that Cassander did all that he could to keep her out of the public's eye so as to focus attention on himself. Nevertheless, Cassander did immortalize his bride by founding a city in her name (the modern Thessaloniki) which became one of the great cities of the ancient world and remains Greece's second largest city. His reason for doing so can be discerned. In Macedonia the founding and naming of cities was a royal prerogative. About the same time as Thessaloniki was established, Cassander founded another city named Cassandreia (a city which did not fare so well as Thessaloniki over time). Undoubtedly, the latter was created in order to set a precedent for Cassander doing something which, in his people's eyes, only a legitimate Macedonian king could do. Thessaloniki would thus have been added as a twin foundation to underscore his ties with the defunct Argead house and to mitigate any animosity which might arise as a result of his assuming a royal prerogative.

In 306, or about four years after the death of Alexander IV, which Cassander always insisted was not murder, Antigonus I in Asia became the first of the Macedonian successors to adopt formally the title of king. Thereafter, several rivals followed suit from their respective strongholds. Cassander was more circumspect in adoption of a royal title, because, since he alone ruled what was the ancestral homeland of the Macedonians, he had to be: nevertheless, he acted the part of a king without actually calling himself one, and, by the time of his death in 297 of consumption, Cassander had de facto established a new royal dynasty. Thessalonike and Cassander had three sons: Philip, Antipater, and Alexander—the first and third named to honor the two greatest Argead kings and the second to honor Cassander's father.

Philip (IV) succeeded his father, but very soon thereafter, died, probably also of consumption. Antipater and Alexander then became rivals for the vacant throne. It was at that moment that Thessalonike stepped out of the political shadows. Antipater seems to have been the older of her surviving sons (although neither was out of his teens), but Thessalonike apparently favored her youngest son. As a result, so as to leave Alexander some inheritance, Thessalonike attempted to divide the kingdom between the two. This act of "statesmanship" so enraged Antipater that he immediately murdered his mother. Amid the war which followed, both Antipater (I) and Alexander (V) claimed the kingship and sought alliances with Macedonians abroad: Antipater seeking the aid of his father-in-law, Lysimachus, and Alexander the help of Demetrius, the son of Antigonus I (and also the help of the Epirote, Pyrrhus). This was an age of treachery. Since both Lysimachus and Demetrius wanted to rule the homeland of their ancestors, each assassinated the son of Thessalonike who beseeched his help (in 294). Thus was Cassander's line eradicated, and with it, the last of the Macedonian kings to be biologically related to the Argead house. Demetrius (I) won the Macedonian stakes and became the country's king: his family ruled Macedon until the Romans conquered the realm and made it their first territorial province east of the Adriatic.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California