Cleopatra of Macedon: the Other Cleopatra Who Ruled in Two Continents

Cleopatra of Macedon: the Other Cleopatra Who Ruled in Two Continents

Cleopatra of Macedon (also known as Cleopatra of Epirus) was born around 357 B.C.E. as the daughter of Philip II of Macedon and Olympias. She was the only full-sibling of Alexander the Great. Cleopatra was raised under the strong guardianship of her mother and prepared to assume important leading roles. While being raised at the royal palace of Pella, she received an education that covered many scientific disciplines as well as leadership training not that different from those received by males. 

Youth in Pella

Cleopatra’s youth was highly affected by the relations between her parents. Olympias and Philip had a problematic marriage. The king’s policy of marrying multiple wives is well-known, a policy that did not sit well with Olympias who, apart from seeing herself devalued, regarded these arrangements as a threat to her child’s’ royal inheritance.

Couples’ relations reached a low point in 337 when Philip decided to marry a Macedonian noblewoman also called Cleopatra (later took the name Eurydice), a niece of Attalus. Not only that, but during a banquet celebrating this matchmaking, Attalus had the courage to indirectly call the young Alexander the Great a bastard and remark that his niece would finally give Philip pure heirs (this idea was based on the fact that Philip’s children with Olympias were not pure Macedonians as the later was of Molossian or barbarian origin). The comment started a brawl between Alexander and Attalus, and then between Philip and Alexander.

The ruins of Pella
The ruins of Pella in current northwestern Greece, capital of ancient Macedon, the place where Cleopatra of Macedon grew up.

In the aftermath of this incident, Alexander and Olympias were punished in a voluntary exile. Olympias retreated in Epirus, her homeland and her brothers’ domain, while Alexander wandered north in Illyria. Yet, Cleopatra stayed in Pella with her father, as was apparently expected of her. At the time twenty years of age, Philip relied on her to resolve the problems he had just created; and this problem did not included only domestic problems: Olympias was plotting in Epirus pushing the ruler there, her brother Alexander the Molossian, into a war against Philip while her son Alexander, a talented commander would kindly join this plot, or at least that’s what Philip now feared. 

Marriage with her uncle, Alexander the Molossian

To prevent a complete crumble of his western and north-western frontier, Philip sought to intensify his ties with Alexander the Molossian with the aim of neutralizing him and isolating Olympias. Thus, he offered to Epirus’ ruler the hand of Cleopatra in marriage, a proposal that the Epirot accepted. Meanwhile, Philip recalled Cleopatra’s brother Alexander from Illyria back into Macedonia (where he could be checked) thus restoring domestic affairs and inter-state relations. Philip may have picked Cleopatra to marry her uncle Alexander Molossian because he could count on her strong-will, typical of Olympias offspring, to prevent Olympias from dominating Cleopatra’s new husband. The marriage was set for the summer at Aegae, the old royal capital of Macedonia.    

During the marital festivities that took place in Aegae, Philip was assassinated. This event brought Cleopatra’s brother into the Macedonian throne. Many accused Olympias for this assassination and indeed Cleopatra’s mother had strong causes steered against her husband. Yet, while her mother could return from Epirus into Macedon, Cleopatra followed her new husband into Epirus, away from the intrigues of the Macedonian court. 

XIX-th century illustration. Cleopatra’s father, Philip II, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, on the occasion of Cleopatra’s marriage with her uncle Alexander the Molossian. Some thought Olympias was behind the murder. It is believed that Philip was planning to announce to the Macedonians the opening of the campaign against the Persians.
XIX-th century illustration. Cleopatra’s father, Philip II, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, on the occasion of Cleopatra’s marriage with her uncle Alexander the Molossian. Some thought Olympias was behind the murder. It is believed that Philip was planning to announce to the Macedonians the opening of the campaign against the Persians.

Queen of Epirus

In Epirus, Cleopatra gave birth to two children, Cadmeia and Neoptolemus. There she was given the opportunity to lead when her husband and current ruler decided to depart on a campaign away from Epirus. It was the year 334 when her husband left Epirus to embark on a campaign in southern Italy.  

Cleopatra’s husband would fall fighting against a coalition of Italic tribes three years after leaving Epirus. Her husband’s absence and then demise gave Cleopatra the opportunity to govern the affairs of a whole state (technically rule as a regent on behalf of her minor son Neoptolemus). There is no evidence to assume that she failed at her new role. On the contrary, it seems that she ruled Epirus, her mothers’ homeland, with natural authority and the non-mentioning of turmoils suggest that Cleopatra effectively maintained order in a region often unstable. Apart from harnessing the inherent status of being a member of the Argead family and using her talent to govern with ease, we should note that even common women in Epirus were not marginalized as in Greek states or even Macedon. Thus, few if any Epirote subjects would rally to oppose a female ruler on the basis of gender alone. 

Female Ambassador

A theorodokoi (“sacred ambassadors”) list from Argos dated to circa 334-333 mentions Cleopatra as receiver on behalf of Epirus of these ambassadors apparently announcing the Nemeian festival. Cabannes suggests that the mentioning of the name “Epirus” rather than the mentioning of tribes constituting Epirus, means that Cleopatra ruled over a united federalist state of Epirus that has absorbed into it, apart from the Molossian tribes, other neighboring tribes such as the Thesprotians. If Cleopatra’s husband was not the founder of such a new federalist state then we can credit Cleopatra for such an expanded state formation.

There is growing support for placing the creation of the political entity of Epirus during the rule of Cleopatra. Even the mere presence of Cleopatra’s name as a receiver of theorodokoi can be enough to indicate her dominant authority in the region when accounting for how unusual it is to find a woman in this role (Cleopatra is the only woman in the Argive list).

Numismatic evidence further supports the creation of an expanded federalist political entity of Epirus during Cleopatra’s regency. Bronze coins struck in the 330-322 period bearing the inscription “Epirote Symmachy” (“Epirote Alliance”) replace the earlier Molossian silver and bronze coinage. It clearly shows that a body referred collectively as the Epeirotes (rather than mentioning certain constituent tribes of the region of Epirus) emerged during Cleopatra’s regency. This body had sufficient political identity and financial organization to issue a trusted coinage in their name for local use in common transactions. This united monetary policy further encouraged not only political unification, but also economic and commercial development, and the creation of a common Epirote identity. 

Influences from Macedon

In the meantime, Cleopatra maintained close ties with her brother even while the latter was campaigning in Persia. It seems that Alexander the Great was closer to Cleopatra, his full-sister, than he was to his other siblings. According to Plutarch, after the siege of Gaza in the autumn of 332 the Macedonian king sent a large quantity of booty back home. Part of this booty went to Cleopatra in Epirus. The queen may have used this stock to continue finance large building programs centred around Dodona, a site where the Aeacide rulers of Epirus had begun to invest since the early III-rd century B.C.E. 

Important Developments

Development in Macedon would determine the duration of Cleopatra as a ruler of the Epirot Alliance. Notably, in 324 the relations between Alexander’s appointed Macedonian governor Antipater and Olympias (who seem to have enjoyed in Macedon a status similar to Cleopatra’s in Epirus) reached the lowest point. To prevent factionalist eruptions, Alexander decided for his mother Olympias to swap places with Cleopatra. Plutarch viewed Cleopatra and Olympias as representative of a factionalist front against Antipater, which seems an oversimplification of a much more complex situation. Thus, Olympias replaced Cleopatra as regent of Epirus while the latter returned in Macedon to assume roles that involved duties she had already carried out in Epirus such as foreign policy and administrative affairs. 

Imperial Fallout & Perdiccas’ Dilemma

Cleopatra’s brother Alexander succumbed to illness in Babylon. This event marked a turning point for Cleopatra and many other personalities. This happened one year after she had assumed a leadership role in Macedon. After this event, Cleopatra gained a new importance. She was a widow, still at a child bearing age and could provide an Argead heir. The Successors who competed either for the universal control of Alexander’s empire or for some portions of it, possessed large military sources but no legitimate heritage to back up their ruling claims. The Successor who could get Cleopatra to marry with him would thus gain a more legitimate authority among Macedonians and surpass his rivals in the Succession Wars.   

Cleopatra wrote to Leonnatus, the satrap (governor) of Phrygia, inviting him to join her in marriage, either at her own intentions or at her mother’s suggestion. However, it may have well been Leonnatus himself who initiated this arrangement. Leonnatus had been a trusted friend of Cleopatra’s brother. Both knew each other since childhood times in the Macedonian royal palace. Leonnatus may have even had a distant family connection with Philip’s mother Eurydice. Thus, the plan to marry her and gain the throne was convenient for both. 

Leonnatus’ Logic

The satrap planned to bring his army into Macedon on the pretext of coming to help Antipater against other Successors. Leonnatus intended to claim the governance of Macedon as soon as he would enter its territory and back his claim by marrying Cleopatra, a member of the Argeads. Yet, before the plan could materialize, Leonnatus fell in combat fighting the Greeks in Thessaly. 

After the fall of Leonnatus, Cleopatra turned her attention to another candidate, Perdiccas. Yet again, it may have been the later who approached the former in the first place. At that time, Perdiccas was at the height of his power as he served as regent ruler of Alexander’s empire, at least formally, on behalf of Alexander the Great’s mentally disabled brother Philip Arrhidaeus and Alexander’s infant son, Alexander IV. The negotiations between Perdiccas and Cleopatra turned so serious that the latter travelled into Perdiccas’ headquarters at Sardis. Yet, upon her arrival, Cleopatra learned that Perdiccas had already married or decided to marry Nicaea, daughter of Cleopatra’s nemesis Antipater. 

Smart, Diplomatic Maneuvers

Scholars agree that a marriage with Cleopatra was very tempting to Perdiccas. Marrying her would push his claim into ruling a united empire of Macedon, but it required time and resistance against other Successors who would react violently to such an arrangement. On the other hand, the marriage with Nicaea, if it even actually happened, would help Perdiccas in the short-term with avoiding internal fractions. A passage of Diodorus best presents Perdicass’ dilemma, sometimes oversimplified by modern scholars, and reveals Cleopatra’s importance:

Perdiccas had formerly planned to work in harmony with Antipater, and for this reason he had pressed his suit when his position was not yet firmly established; but when he had gained control of the royal armies and the guardianship of the kings, he changed his calculations. For since he was now reaching out for the kingship, he was bent upon marrying Cleopatra, believing that he could use her to persuade the Macedonians to help him gain the supreme power. But not wishing as yet to reveal his design, he married Nicaea for the time, so that he might not render Antipater hostile to his own undertakings.” (Diodorus, XVIII. 23. 2-3).

Cleopatra must have clearly been aware of her important position as a legitimate and rare figure in Successors’ fight for power. The news on Perdiccas marrying Nicaea did not discourage Cleopatra. She continued to stay in Sardis either because she believed, as Perdiccas himself might have believed, that the match between Perdiccas and Nicaes was only a short-term solution soon to dissolve, or that the struggle between Successors would eventually reveal another convenient candidate whom she could marry. In fact, Perdiccas sent his trusted friend Eumenes to Cleopatra secretly promising to marry her after retreating from whatever settlement he had with Nicaea.

Stay in Sardis

Sometime during 322, Perdiccas appointed Cleopatra civil governor of Lydia, replacing in these duties the former governor Menander, who from now on had to obey Cleopatra although he was left in charge of the provincial military. This appointment shows Perdiccas’ intent towards Cleopatra. He made further presents to her, presented on his behalf by Eumenes. Most scholars have treated this event and many others of the period from the viewpoint of male Successors, following into the same gender non-neutral footsteps of the ancient historians. 

The Favourite, oil on canvas by John William Godward (1901). This Hellenic-Roman scene would not be fat from what Cleopatra of Macedon would have experienced in Sardis.
“The Favourite”, oil on canvas by John William Godward (1901). This Hellenic-Roman scene would not be far from what Cleopatra of Macedon would have experienced in Sardis.

Governing Lydia

What meant this role for Cleopatra? Alexander’s sister now controlled a large territory that she could easily govern from where she already was. Also, Lydia became the third state or province Cleopatra rose to its governance following her roles in Epirus and Macedon. This was a remarkable achievement, with a woman rising to the head of three different constituencies in two continents. This was a rare achievement even for the predominant male rulers of antiquity. Technically, only queen Victoria of the British empire matched this achievement, thousands years later.

Most importantly, Cleopatra had technically turned into a “Successor” in her own right. She was an Argead heir virtually by her presence. However, now she also governed a satrapy, as other male Successors controlled other provinces. If Macedonians would have regarded women with the same view as Epirotes did, Cleopatra could have risen to even higher powers. Also, most of the blood shed following Alexander the Great’s demise could be spared. 

Fall of Perdiccas

Before he could marry Cleopatra, Perdiccas ventured into Egypt in an attempt to defeat Ptolemy. In early 321, his forces turned against their own general and murdered Perdiccas on the Nile. After the fall of Perdiccas things went downhill for Cleopatra. At the Triparadeisos Conference in early 320 a certain Cleitus replaced Cleopatra in governance of Lydia. Meanwhile, the participants outlawed Eumenes Perdiccas’ and Cleopatra’s confidant.

Angered at such a decision, Eumenes acted on his own accord to threaten Antipater and signal his intentions to Cleopatra. Justin tells the following events:

He [Eumenes] next moved on to Sardis and Alexander the Great’s sister Cleopatra, with the intention of using her influence to secure the loyalty of his centurions and senior officers, who would think that royal authority vested on the side favoured by Alexander’s sister. Such was the respect that Alexander’s greatness commanded that even women were used as a path to the prestige conferred by his hallowed name.” (Justin. XIV. 1. 7-8). 

Against Antipater

Cleopatra moved cautiously towards Eumenes convincing him to leave Sardis before Antipater arrived there. Eumened did so but this did not stop Antipater to accuse Cleopatra openly of conspiring with Eumenes and his rivals. Cleopatra used the absence of Eumenes there to defend herself firmly; “in a way more like a man than a woman”, as Arrian puts it (Succ. fr. 140). She even launched accusations on Antipater relying apparently on him not running the risk of a mutiny by murdering her. Her strategy worked. Antipater gave up and he caused no harm to Cleopatra.

The name of Cleopatra appears in the sources only in events of a decade later. It seems that in the meantime she had stayed in Sardis, in a virtual house arrest enforced by Antipater. She seems to have realized that being a candidate for marriage would spare her life more than actually marrying. This self-preservation thinking explains why she refused offers to marry one of almost all Successors who courted her; such as Cassander, Lysimachu, Antigonus, and even Antipater himself and his son Demetrius. During this time, Cleopatra had witnessed the partition of Alexander’s vast empire; the assassination of her mother by Cassander; the murder of her nephew and slightly elder half-brother Heracles (Alexander supposed child by Barsine); and the fall of her family and many other seeking power in one of the cruelest periods of Antiquity. 

Cleopatra of Macedon’s Assassination

In 308 B.C.E., sources mentions Cleopatra as part of marital negotiations with Ptolemy, the satrap of Egypt. She was not anymore at a child bearing age. However, Ptolemy could still use her name to legitimize an incursion into Greece and across the Aegean. During this time, Ptolemy published an apparently forged testament of Alexander. According to this document, Ptolemy had to marry Cleopatra. Cleopatra responded positively to Ptolemy’s offer, abandoning her “self-preservation” policy. Thus, she made a re-run for matching with a Successor after ten year. 

King Antipater by Fanelli Francesco.  Antipater, governor then king of Macedon, ordered the assassination of Cleopatra to prevent her marrying Ptolemy, his rival. The marriage would allow Ptolemy to claim an Argead descent and thus, a legitimacy over the whole Macedonian territories conquered by Alexander the Great.
King Antipater by Fanelli Francesco. Antipater, governor then king of Macedon, ordered the assassination of Cleopatra to prevent her marrying Ptolemy, his rival. The marriage would allow Ptolemy to claim an Argead descent and thus, a legitimacy over the whole Macedonian territories conquered by Alexander the Great.

We cannot know what made Cleopatra reattempt to match with another Successor. She may have been fed up with staying isolated at Sardis. She may have been concerned about the lack of public reactions to the killings of the Argeads (Diodoros suggests that Cleopatra could no longer trust Antipater as her “protector”) or she may have considered Ptolemy a Successor worth the risk. It may have been a combination of these factors that made Cleopatra accept Ptolemy’s marriage proposal. She tried to set sail into Egypt but Antipater detained her in the harbor. The later ordered her execution. 


John Whitehorne in his work “Cleopatras” gives a good summary of Cleopatra especially as it related to her role during the Successor Wars:

Cleopatra did not merely survive through a period of unprecedented turbulence in the history of the Greek world. She survived with power and honour. Alexander’s sister Cleopatra demonstrates more clearly that any earlier figure the sort of authority and influence a royal woman could now command, given the qualities of skill and determination with which, like her mother and brother, she was so abundantly endowed”. 

Cleopatra’s name would survive in Egypt in a series of Ptolemaic princesses and queens carrying her name, descending all the way to the famous Cleopatra VII.


Akademia e Shkencave e Shqipërisë. Instituti i Historisë. Historia e Popullit Shqiptar, I, p. 94-95. Botimet Toena, 2002.

Diodorus. Bibliotheca Historica.

Justin, M. I. Epitoma. Historiarum Philippicarum. Pompei Trogi.

Kittelä S-I. (2013). Dodona and Neoptolemus

Lyngsnes Ø W. (2018). The Women Who Would Be Kings. Trondheim. 

Meeus, A. (2009). Studia Hellenistica. Kleopatra and the Diadochoi. PEETERS LEUVEN – PARIS – WALPOLE, MA. 

Photius’ Excerpt of Arrian’s Anabasis


Whitehorne J. E. G. (1994). Cleopatras. Routledge, 2001. 

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