Olympias of Epirus: The Surreal Story of a King’s Mother
Olympias of Epirus was born around 375 B.C.E. with the name Myrtale. She was the daughter of the Molossian king Neoptolemus in Epirus, part of the Aeacidae royal house. As for her mother, she is absent from sources, but some scholars have suggested that she was a Chaonian princess, in northwestern Epirus. This match makes sense when considering the Molossians’ strong relationship with their neighboring Chaonians.
Olympias’ Family & Lineage
As siblings, we can identify an apparently older sister of her, named Troas, who, when Olympias was still an infant, must have married her uncle, Arybbas (ascended the throne in around 360 B.C.E.), the successor of her father Neoptolemus. Olympias also had a younger brother, Alexander, who would later become famous for his campaign against the Lucanians and Brutii in southern Italy.
As a member of the Aeacidae, Olympias was thought that she descended “from Aeacus by Neoptolemus” (Plutarch, Lives, Alexander, II), a mythical king who was the grandfather of Achilles. Also, Olympias seems to have claimed descent from Helenus of Troy, son of King Priam and Hecuba, a popular belief among the Chaonians. This strong lineage combined with a focus on martial prowess and the powerful authority of women in a Molossian society shaped a strong and ambitious character in Olympias.
The Molossian princess learned at a young age the power of symbols and their influence in politics, even using herself in a symbolic manner. Another name of hers was Polyxena, the mythical daughter of Priam who comforted the hero Achilles, thus drawing attention to her heroic Greek-Trojan connection.
Marriage with Philip
Another element present in Olympias was her zealous dedication to the cult of Dionysius, a cult that in Olympias’ practice involved snake charmings and sexual rituals among groups of women. Even Olympias’ name as a youth, Myrtale (“Myrtle”) seems to illustrate Olympias’ dedication to Dionysiac rites. Olympias would later pass both her belief in divine power and divine descent to her son, Alexander the Great.
We can credit her for Alexander’s later fascination with Trojan heroes, especially Achilles, with the Macedonian prince carrying a copy of “Iliad” with him at all times. Olympias also stood behind the fiction of Alexander as an offspring of her and Zeus rather than her and Philip II, a fiction that she did not hesitate to implant on Alexander himself.
When Olympias turned eighteen, in 357, she married Philip II, ten years older. The couple had met for the first time on the island of Samothrace while both of them were being introduced to a very old cult, important to Macedonians and northern Aegeans, known as the Samothrace Mysteries. About this match, Plutarch tells that Philip “being still a youth…fell in love with her and betrothed himself to her” (Plutarch, Lives, Alexander, II).
Whether with love or not, the marriage seems to have been arranged by Olympias’ uncle/stepfather Arybbas. It also fulfilled the first stage of Philip’s policy of marrying multiple wives from the neighboring regions for the purpose of securing Macedon’s borders.
In 356, Olympias gave birth to Alexander who would later conquer the whole Persia. It was the same year when Philip captured Potidaea, his general Parmenio defeated the Illyrians, and Philip’s “race-horse…won the course” at the Olympic Games in July (Plutarch, Lives, Alexander, III). The combination of the successes related with Alexander’s birth made the Macedonian consider the infant prince as a good omen.
In honor of her husband’s victory at the Olympic Games, Alexander’s mother took the name Olympias. The latter also had a daughter, born in quick succession after Alexander, Cleopatra. The nature of her relations with her daughter remain unclear but those with her son Alexander appear more frequently.
Giving birth to a son presented new challenges and opportunities for Olympias. It elevated her to the status of the mother of a potential successor king. Yet, it also brought conflict into a royal house with other wives thinking for the path to kingship of their own sons. Plutarch’s accusation of Olympias for poisoning Alexander’s half-brother Arrhidaeus causing him dementia reflects the rivalling nature in Philip’s household. However, the ancient author seems to have gone too far in what seems to have been Arrhidaeus’ born deficiency.
By all accounts, Olympias was a domineering and interfering mother who sought to pave the way for Alexander’s accession into the throne. Her son grew influenced by her mother’s ambitions with both developing a warm and close relationship.
Crack with Philip
Philip continued to marry other wives, a practice that did not sit well with Olympias, eager to make her son an heir. In Plutarch’s view, the couple’s source of problems were Olympias’ snake charming cults. The queen made a habit of having a snake near her in the marital bed, a habit that “dulled the ardour of Philip’s attention to his wife” so that the king ousted her “either because he feared that some spells and enchantments might be practised upon him by her, or because he shrank from her embraces in the conviction that she was the partner of a superior being”. (Plutarch, Lives, Alexander, II).
The truth in marital crack seems to have been less romantic than what Plutarch presents. It has its roots in the growing pressure from Philip’s Macedonian friends on him marrying a woman of true Macedonian blood. This would ensure a true Macedonian heir. In Macedonian view, young Alexander was half-Macedonian, half Barbarian (Olympias was considered non-Macedonian/Bardanian due to her Chaonian and/or Molossian ethnicity).
The threat to Alexander’s kingship inheritance materialized in 337 when Philip decided to marry a Macedonian noble called Cleopatra (who would change her name to Eurydice). The match was expected to bring a true Macedonian heir. Attalus himself made this point at a banquet celebrating the match, a remark that angered Alexander. Olympias exiled herself in Epirus while Alexander did the same in Illyria.
Assassination of Husband & Accession of Son
In Epirus Olympias found her brother already at the Molossian throne. With the help of Philip some years ago, Alexander the Molossian had even started the process of creating an Epirote Alliance, a united federative state that expanded beyond Molossia and that initially included, apart from Molossia, Cassopaea and Thespotis. We are told that Olympias started a plot that involved her brother assaulting the neighbouring Macedon.
Although a successful invasion of Macedon from Epirot forces would have been difficult, Philip feared Olympias’ influence in such projects. For this, he sought to renew and strengthen his alliance with Epirus by offering to Olympias’ brother Cleopatra, his daughter with Olympias (thus Alexander’s niece). The Epirot ruler accepted the proposal which reestablished Philip’s influence and isolated Olympias.
The wedding celebrations between Cleopatra and Alexander I of Molossia took place in summer at Aegae, old Macedonian capital. At those celebrations, Pausanias of Orestis, a royal guard, killed the king. Alexander and his retinue soon overpowered the assassin and with that same speed announced Alexander III as the new king. The new ruler immediately led a purge against any contented to the throne and enemies. He had his cousin Amyntas IV, who was for many a rightful heir, executed. Assassins were sent to Attalus who had offended Alexander, killing him too.
Return into Macedon
Olympias returned into Alexander’s Macedon. At her orders, soldiers slew Philip’s other widow Cleopatra/Eurydice and her infant daughter Europa. Many then believed Olympias was behind the murder of her own husband Philip. She had the motive (Philip’s murder prevent Cleopatra/Eurydice as a “pure Macedonian” from giving birth to a son of “pure Macedonian” legitimacy; it allowed the undisputed accession of her son Alexander on the throne). Other accounts mention Olympias paying respects to Pausanias’ body (Philip’s assassin) rather than Philip’s.
It’s unclear if accounts incriminating Olympias are fabricated, or, based on her motive, there are some elements of truth in them. If Olympias was behind the assassination, other close to Philip must have been in it too, since she herself was away in Epirus. In this scenario, the closest other suspect would be Alexander the Great himself. The things then get so complicated that the scholars must agree Olympias had no meaningful role in the assassination; even ancient authors did not explicitly put the murder on Olympias.
Alexander’s accession paved the way for Olympias prominence in Macedon. Olympia’s authority in Macedon is especially confirmed in an inscription dated in 330-326. It lists the recipients of grain shipments from Cyrene during the time of famine. Among the names of the states and their respective grain relief/subsidy quantity, only two individual names appear: Olympias and her daughter’s Cleopatra. Specifically Olympias’ grain quantity was 72,600 medimnos (at least 3,760,680 kg), second only to Athens’ 100,000 medimos. This means Olympias was acting as the state leaders in this matter, specifically, she was synonymous with Macedon.
Olympias’ cultivated a popular and reputable reputation among the Greeks. Her popularity in Athens is especially meaningful. According to Lyngsnes: “Olympias seem to have had many supporters in Athens. Olympias is noted by Hyperides in his speeches for donating to temples, sending associated on “shopping trips” to the great agora in Athens, as well as addressing the Athenian ekklesia [assembly] through letters on several occasions” In 324, Olympias had the capacity and authority to send an embassy to Athens, demanding extradition for Harpalus (Alexander’s treasurer who went rogue).
The privileged position of Olympias in Macedon conflicted with the role of Antipater as Macedon’s governor (ruler in Alexander’s absence). Rather than a bureaucratic friction, tensions between Olympias and Antipater were of a characterial/personal nature. In fact, tensions between the two so intensified that Alexander had to interfere himself to prevent a destabilization of Macedon. Accordingly, the king had Olympias retreat in Epirus with Cleopatra taking her mother’s place in Macedon. By 324, Olympias was in Epirus.
In 323, Alexander III succumbed to illness in Babylon. A thirsty hunt for power followed between Alexander’s successor. In Epirus, Olympias was already away from the cut-throat politics, free to mourn her loss. Reports suggest that she believed the rumors of Cassander and his brother Iolaos poisoning Alexander on Antipater’s instructions. This explains her natural hate for Cassander.
In 318 Polyperchon sent words to Olympias in Epirus offering her the guardianship (“epimeleia”) of her grandson Alexander IV. The regent needed Olympias’ popularity and charisma that he apparently lacked himself among his fellow Macedonians. Diodorus even mentions that Polyperchon offered Olympias the role of “basilike prostasia”, an unclear office of high authority and prominence.
Olympias spent almost two years evaluating Polyperchon’s offer of prostasia. In the process, she asked Eumenes (a loyal general to the Alexandrians) via letters for his opinion. The latter advised her to move cautiously, not openly siding with a faction before fighting revealed more insights.
Intervention in the Succession Wars
By summer or autumn 317, Olympias made up her mind: she accepted Polyperchon’s offer. However, when she made her move, her allies were at a loss; Eumenes was fighting an unwinnable war in Asia while Cassander had crushed Polyperchon’s troops in Greece. Yet, Olympias knew that if the Alexandrian line was to survive, she needed to gain custody of Alexander IV. If she remained inactive, the latter’s execution would be a matter of time.
Once Olympias joined the conflict, she outranked Polyperchon both by virtue of her greater popularity and by virtue of larger forces she commanded. Aeacides, king of Epirus, provided her with most forces while also supporting her himself. Olympias’ involvement turned the conflict between Polyperchon and Cassander into a conflict between her and Cassander.
Adea/Eurydice, wife of king Philip Arrhidaeus and ally of Cassander, was determined to keep Olympias inactive. It eventually came down to a conflict between two Argead women representing two different, traditionally conflicting, Argead branches. Olympias opponent Adea realized that letting another highly regarded Argead take custody of Alexander IV would reduce her husband Arrhidaeus and herself into inferior, negligible status. Thus, Adea’s haste to meet Olympia’s army in open battle with her Macedonian home army.
Triumph at Euia; Purge at Pella
The two forces met in Euia, an unidentified place in Dassaretis (current southeast Albania). Here, Olympias came forward dressed as a Bacchante to the beat of a tympanum drum. This act resonated with the Macedonians troop’s dedication to Dionysos on the opposing ranks. More importantly, in the mind of Macedonians, Olympias represented stability and glory; her figure being a symbol of the order and prosperity experienced during the reign of Philip and Alexander. As a result, most of Adea’s army defected to Olympias’ side.
King Philip Arrhidaeus and his retinue fell captive on the spot. Soon after, Adea also fell captive while trying to make way to Amphipolis with Polycles, one of her consullers. After the victory Olympias assumed yet another name, “Stratonice” meaning “victorious commander”.
After Euia, Olympias, with Arrhidaeus and Adea captive, entered victorious in Pella, where she physically took the guardianship of Alexander IV. She marked her return in Macedon with a purge. Olympias had Arrhidaeus and Adea walled up, then had the first executed (having technically ruled for six years and two months) and the latter forced into suicide. Also, the new regent queen had some a hundred Macedonian nobles loyal to Cassander killed as well, among whom Cassander’s brother Nicanor.
With the execution of Adea and Arrhidaeus, Olympias’ grandson Alexander IV became the sole king of Macedon at the age of six. Due to his age, Olympias could effectively rule undisputed.
Olympias’ purge did secure her from contenders of Argead descent. The only ones left were part of her retinue: young Alexander IV, her daughter Cleopatra, and her step-daughter Thessalonike. However, the scale of such executions considerably damaged her reputations among Macedonians. Justin summarizes this destructive policy by stating that Olympias “committed great slaughter among the nobility throughout the country, like a furious woman rather than a queen, she turned the favour with which she was regarded into hatred” (XIV.VI.I).
During the whole period of Olympias’ return and establishment in Macedon, Cassander was tangled south in the siege of Tegea, Peloponnesus. On news about affairs in Macedon reaching him, he quickly came to terms with the Tegeans and led his army on march to Macedon. Aetolians, allies of Olympias, had occupied the passes at Thermopylae blocking Cassander’s entrance into Thessaly, and thus, into Macedon. This forced Cassander into an alternative route. He secured boats and barges from Locris and Euboea and ferried the army into Thessaly, avoiding the blockade at Thermopylae.
Cassander had to avoid two other potential blockades: Polyperchon had stationed his army at Perrhabeia ready to intercept Cassander’s advance. Meanwhile, Aeacides of Epirus could also come to the aid of Olympias if necessary. Thus, Cassander sent a detachment of his forces to engage Polyperchon where he was. That force was enough to keep Polyperchon checked. Simultaneously, another force of Cassander held Aeacides inactive.
Learning of Cassander’s progress, Olympias sent her newly appointed general Aristonous to intercept Cassander. The regent queen counted on Aristonous loyalty and experience: he had participated in Alexander’s expeditions as a somatophylax, one of the seventh highest honored bodyguards. His side with Olympias shows that the queen could still rely on some top generals despite the purge she committed on some Macedonian nobles. Aristonous control of Amphipolis could also prove valuable for meeting with any potential reinforcements. In the meantime, Olympias retreated from Pella to Pydna, along with Thessalonike, Roxane (Alexander’s IV mother), Alexander IV, Deidameia (Aeacides’ daughter).
Siege of Pydna and Execution
Olympias, on her own at Pydna, could count on a very small force, no match for Cassander’s approaching army. The available contingent consisted only of some court soldiers, some Ambracian cavalry men and a few of Polyperchon’s elephants. The queen clearly hopes on some naval assistance from Eumenes. That’s why she chose Pydna over Pella: in this port, she could receive any naval assistance soon and with ease. So much for Olympias’ efforts, for Cassander reached Pydna in no time, laying siege to the city and blockading its harbor.
Olympias surrendered in late 316, after Cassander promised her safety. The queen had to send a personal letter to Aristonous in Amphipolis for him, still loyal, to give up the fight. Yet, after her surrender, Cassander gathered an “assembly of Macedonians” to judge the queen. This assembly sentenced her to executions. The first soldiers sent to carry out the sentence, aware of Olympias’ worthiness (“axioma”), could not lay a sword on the queen. Cassander had to send another unit composed of family members of the men Olympias had executed to kill the queen. And in a scene worthy of a Greek drama, Justin writes the following:
“Olympias, seeing armed men advancing towards her, bent upon her destruction, went voluntarily to meet them, dressed in her regal apparel…she did not shirk from the sword or the blow, or crying out like a woman…As she was expiring, she is said to have settled her hair, and to have covered her feet with her robe, that nothing unseemly might appear about her” (Just. XIV. VI. IX-XII).
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