Alexander I the Molossian: Leading the Prosperous Federate of Epirus
Alexander I the Molossian or Molossus was born in about 370 B.C.E. and was king of the Molossians and Epirus circa 350-331. He was the son of Neoptolemus I (r. 370-360) and brother of Olympias of Epirus and Troas. Alexander was a member of the royal house of the Aeacidae.
In 360, Arybbas, uncle of Alexander, assumed sole kingship over Epirus. Arybbas married the elder sister of Alexander, Troas, to promote stability in his kingdom. He also arranged, in 357, the marriage between the other sister of Alexander, Olympias, and Philip II of Macedon. Olympias likely took her brother with her when she went as a bride into the Macedonian court.
Alexander spent his teenage years in Pella. In circa 350, when he turned 20, Philip II expelled the unreliable Arybbas from Epirus and handed that kingdom over to Alexander. A new era for Epirus began.
A new political formation
During his reign, the term Epirus gained a proper political meaning. Upon ascending the throne in Epirus, Alexander established a new constitution among the Molossians (the largest Epirote tribe) and other tribes across Epirus. The Epirote Constitution of Aristotle, it seems, refers to this constitution established by Alexander. Accordingly, the loose union of Epirote tribes that originated since Alcetas I (r. 389-388; 385-370) turned formally into a federation or sympathy of the Epirotes (all inhabitants of ancient Epirus). We can refer to this newly formed political formation as the Epirote Alliance. It included, apart from the Molossian League, the Thesprotian League, each maintaining local autonomy.
In the context of regional developments, the Epirote Alliance (or Symachy) was a political formation similar to what Philip established at Corinth. By having their federation, the Epirotes did not have to become an unnatural part of the Panhellenic League at Corinth. After all, Epirus was a region with a low or uncertain degree of Hellenisation, traditionally non-participant in Greek political alliances. So, there was no seat for the state or Epirus in the Corinthian League. On the contrary, Epirus would continue having its king, ruling over a distinct Symachy.
Alliance with Macedon
Alexander acted as a natural ally of Macedon. In 343, he likely guaranteed safe passage to Philip II in his expedition across Epirus. The main targets of this concerted expedition were the regions of Cassiopeia and Ambracia. These populations controlled important trading stations along the Ambracian Gulf and thus held a monopoly over the trade between Ambracia and Corinth. In Cassiopeia, Philip assaulted three towns of the Eleians, Pandosia, Boucheta, and Elatea. After reducing them, he surrendered their territories to Alexander I. Along with these cities, the Epirot Alliance earned a strip of land along the Ambracian Gulf.
The expedition of Philip made Alexander Molossus the first ruler from Epirus to rule a land notably greater than those of his predecessors. Also, he could influence the politics of the Thesprotians and Cassopeians through the Symachy or Epirote Alliance. Furthermore, Alexander controlled the vastest sea access the Molossians had ever achieved.
Redimensioning the Epirote-Macedonian affairs
The relations between Alexander and Philip II of Macedon took a blow in 337. Olympias was expelled back into Epirus (while her son Alexander III went into Illyria). On her part, Olympias felt that the new marriage of her husband Philip with the Macedonian noble Cleopatra-Eurydice (niece of Attalus) threatened the Macedonian succession of her son. At the court of Epirus, Olympias may have encouraged her brother Alexander to enter into a war against Philip. The Molossian king remained wisely hesitant to accommodate such a request. Yet, even the thought of this idea playing out in Epirus must have worried Philip.
Philip thought to neutralize the potential plottings of Olympias in Epirus by offering to Alexander the Molossian his daughter by Olympias, Cleopatra, in marriage. The marriage of the Epirote king with his niece would, in Philip’s view, reaffirm the alliance between Macedon and Epirus.
The two Alexanders
In the summer of 336, the marriage between Alexander the Molossian and Cleopatra took place at Aegae (or Aigai – the old royal capital of the Macedonians). At the celebrations, Pausanias (who had an old grievance against Attalus and Philip himself) assassinated the Macedonian king. Alexander III, a nephew, and brother-in-law of Alexander the Molossian, whom history would call Alexander the great, stepped into the Macedonian throne. The Epirote interests were now more secure than ever in Macedonian politics.
The accession of the new king Alexander to the Macedonian throne did not change the relations between Macedon and Epirus and their respective political aims. Macedon continued to act as a prominent player in Epirote affairs. Both rulers carried forward their roles as protectors of Hellenism and, on such a pretext, embarked on imperial ambitions. Alexander of Macedon would commit to the long-sought goal of subduing Persia. The other Alexander, the one in Epirus, would launch a similar expedition in the west. In such context, it may have been no coincidence that both Alexanders launched their offensives into foreign lands simultaneously, the Macedonian crossing into Asia Minor and the Epirote sailing towards the southern Italic peninsula.
After the assassination of Philip II, the Epirote king returned to Epirus, taking his new wife, Cleopatra, with him. The new bride gave birth in Epirus to two children, princess Cadmeia and prince Neoptolemus II. With the royal line and domestic position secured, Alexander the Molossian could aim to achieve higher ambitions. The plans were already in motion.
Approach by Tarentum
The traditional narrative suggests that by 334, Alexander the Molossian received an appeal from Taras or Tarentum to help them against the Italic tribes threatening its position. It was not the first time a Hellenic colony in Italy invited a foreign force to campaign on its behalf. Accordingly, between 343 and 338, king Archidamus III of Sparta campaigned across southern Italy with mixed success. Also, between 344–337, the Corinthian Timoleon freed Syracuse in a series of wars against the Carthaginian threat. However, the approach of Alexander by Tarentines marks the first time an appeal goes to Epirus (a state outside mainland Hellas and seemingly not in a position to launch an expedition outside its borders).
A plausible theory suggests that the Tarentines first appealed to the Corinthian League sometime before Philip’s assassination. Thus, the appeal went to Philip, the hegemon of the Corinthian League. As the Macedonian king was planning an invasion of Asia Minor, he must have delivered that appeal to his ally Alexander of Epirus, even encouraging him to respond to that invitation. Alexander embarked on this mission, leaving his wife Cleopatra in charge of the Epirote League in his absence.
Italic expedition of Alexander the Molossian
In 334, Alexander the Molossian crossed the sea with a small force of fifteen vessels but many other trading ships. His army must have been relatively small, mainly in the form of cavalry units. As for the infantry, Alexander relied on troops recruited in Italy, such as units from Tarentum and exiled soldiers from native tribes (including 200 such exiled Lucanians). This infantry of different people likely followed the traditional hoplite fighting rather than the new phalanx formation. However, the Epirote adopted increased mobility of the cavalry.
Alexander achieved a meaningful victory against the Lucanians near the Lucanian shore, at the Hellenic city of Paestum, otherwise called Posidonia. This victory echoed throughout the whole of Italy. The Romans, then battling the Samnites for eighteen years, sent congratulatory embassies to Alexander and signed an alliance with him. Then, Alexander recaptured from the Lucanians the city of Heraclea (a colony of Tarentum) and the Brutti, Terina (Crotonian colony). His troops soon conquered the regions of Messapia and Lucania, capturing and subduing many people in the process. Alexander’s advance eventually concentrated in Pandosia, a Hellenic city of strategic importance, located at an imaginary borderline between the realms of Lucanians and Brutii. The Epirote plan was to turn this city into a base for launching future offensives against the Lucanians or the Brutii.
The Molossian king was already encountering problems when encroaching upon Pandosia. Tarentines perceived his victories as far more invasive than their interest. As such, they withdrew their support.
At the beginning of 331, during operations for control of Pandosia, the events turned against the Epirote king. Enemies assaulted his troops while they were divided and slow due to the flooded terrain. The enemy struck while Alexander attempted to cross his exposed troops over a bridge and escape the flooded lowlands. Eventually, the Lucanian exiles incorporated in the Epirote ranks slaughtered the Molossian king. At that same time, Alexandria was founded in Egypt by his Macedonian namesake.
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