Cleopatra Eurydice: A Queen in the Midst of Plots and Intrigues
Cleopatra Eurydice was the last of the seven wives of king Philip of Macedon. She was a member of a noble family from the lower/coastal Macedon. Some then and many later believed that Philip’s marriage with Cleopatra threatened Alexander’s royal inheritance.
Cleopatra and her family were relative newcomers to the Argead court. However, her descent was held in high esteem. Cleopatra’s brother Hippostratus had been a member of Philip’s hetairai until he fell fighting the Illyrians in 344-343 B.C.E. Her uncle Attalus, the only surviving male of her family, appears in the sources only when Philip began to consider marrying Cleopatra.
Case of Attalus
Attalus’ late appearance in the sources means that it was Cleopatra marrying Philip that elevated Attalus and not the latter influencing the marriage. Thus, we have Philip marrying Cleopatra for love, not for appealing to an otherwise irrelevant Attalus or other Macedonian nobility. Consequently, to appeal to his new wife, Philip appointed Attalus as a high ranked commander in his army.
Philip married Cleopatra in 337. Of note is the incident caused by Attalus’ remarks during the wedding symposium. Cleopatra’s uncle, embolden by the match, congratulated the king on marrying a wife of pure Macedonian blood, capable of producing rightful heirs rather than bastards. Alexander, present there and insulted, shouted at Attalus while then avoiding drunken Philip’s attempt at shooting him with a spear. In the aftermath, Alexander went to Illyria while his mother retreated in Epirus.
Attalus’ insult at the crown prince, if true, was a political and diplomatic gaffe on Attalus’ part. A year later, the assassination of Philip and Alexander’s accession had Attalus on the new king’s unwanted list. Meanwhile, during a year of marriage, Cleopatra bore Philip a daughter, Europa, and an ill-documented son, Caranus. Upon marriage, she received the name Eurydice in honor of Philip’s mother.
Cleopatra/Eurydice’s Position after Philip’s Assassination
After her husband’s assassination, Cleopatra was in a less weak and vulnerable position than popular belief. That’s because Alexander’s position as a new king was not as firm as what most believe. As such, Cleopatra was part of Alexander’s plan for strengthening his rule over the Macedonians, especially over the nobility of the lower Macedon. Part of that plan was a levirate marriage meaning Alexander marrying Cleopatra, former wife of his deceased father.
Sons marrying their fathers’ widows were not uncommon in Macedonian royalty. Archelaus and Ptolemy had previously done so. Once such marriage was established, the new king could easily get rid of what descendant his new spouse had with his father without causing widespread discontent. This had been the case with both Archelaus II (r. 395-394) and Ptolemy Aloros (r. 368–365). Upon engaging in levirate marriage, Archelaus killed Aeropus whereas Ptolemy killed his half-brother Alexander II.
Cleopatra and Attalus in Alexander’s Scheme
Alexander never forgot the insult Attalus made him at the marriage symposium. Upon accession, he immediately sent Hecataeus to join Attalus’ ranks in Thrace where he would have the option to kill the odious commander. Attalus’ figure was a clear obstruction to Alexander marrying his mother-in-law.
Yet, this situation allowed for Alexander pretending to consider marrying Cleopatra rather than actually marrying her. After all, Alexander’s quarrel with Attalus was with him alone, not Cleopatra. Not only that but Alexander himself actually treated Cleopatra with genuine respect. Specifically, when he removed Cleopatra’s statue from the Philippeum at Olympia he transferred it to another place of honor in the nearby Heraion.
Pretending to marry Cleopatra/Eurydice may have been Alexander’s ultimate plan after all. By only courting Cleopatra, Alexander could still appease the powerful Macedonian noble houses. This, combined with his open refusal to marry the daughters of his generals, Antipater and Parmenio, kept the lower Macedonian nobility content and in check.
Cleopatra’s role in Alexander’s elaborate and cautious plan threatened politically his own mother Olympias. The highly perceptive mother imagines how a marriage between Cleopatra and Alexander would diminish her royal power. Upon marriage with Cleopatra, Alexander could easily have his mother retreat in Epirus, in the same way, Philip II had done a while ago.
In this situation, Olympias decided, on her own, to kill Cleopatra. For this, she had to wait for Alexander to engage away from the court. She did not have to wait long. While Alexander was away dealing with the rebellious Thebans and the contender Amyntas IV and his followers, Olympias made her move. This happened sometime during September 335 B.C.E.
According to Justin, Olympias “forced Cleopatra, for whom Philip had divorced her, to hang herself, having first murdered her daughter in her mother’s arms, and it was from the sight of her rival hanging there that Olympias gained the vengeance she had accelerated by murder” (IX. VII. XII).
Pausanias tells a different story that involves an infant son instead of a daughter. According to the latter, Olympias killed Cleopatra and her infant son by dragging them over a bronze vessel filled with fire. (Pausanias VIII. VII. VII.).
When Alexander heard the news on Olympias assassination of Cleopatra/Eurydice, he “was angry at Olympias for her savage treatment of Cleopatra while he was away”. (Plutarch. Alexander. X. VII). By killing Cleopatra/Eurydice in such a way, Olympias had shown no consideration for Alexander’s plans before her own interests. As for the deceased’s children, it’s easy to imagine Olympias executing either a daughter or both of them. However, it’s as much easy to imagine Alexander executing them on his own.
Because of conflicting accounts, the accepted narrative suggests Olympias killing Cleopatra’s infant daughter as suggested by Justin, while Alexander getting rid of Cleopatra’s infant son (if there was such a son) to prevent claimants to the throne.
Bosworth, A. B. (2015). Cleopatra-Eurydice, Olympias, and a Weak Alexander. East & West in the World of Alexander the Great.
Justin. Historiarum Philippicarum. Pompei Trogi. IX. VII.
Plutarch. Life of Alexander. X. VII.
Pausaniae. Descriptio Graeciae. VIII. VII.
Whitehorne J. E. G. (1994). Cleopatras. Routledge, 2001.