Alexander’s Women: Olympias and the Ladies Who Shaped a Conqueror
It’s the wee hours of the morning, the light painting the walls of your bedroom pink and golden.
You look down at the newborn baby in your arms: the child you just brought into the world, despite the dangers. You know already that you would do anything to protect him. But how far will you go to ensure his future greatness? Would you do anything it takes, even if that means violence? Would you lie, would you steal…would you kill?
Strategic, passionate, ruthless and determined, this ancient Greek queen went to epic lengths to ensure her son Alex ended up on the throne. In doing so, she helped make him worthy of his title: Alexander the Great. Alexander accomplished a lot all on his own, but there’s no doubt he got a lot of help from his momma. Despite what some people believed about women being meek and quiet, Olympias was one of the most influential people in his life. She was the ultimate momager, shaping his view of himself and the world, maneuvering through the complexities of a cutthroat court to ensure her son became a conqueror, becoming one of the most powerful women in the ancient Greek world. But she wasn’t the only strong-willed woman in Alex’s orbit. There were others: a sister who broke hearts and helped ruled a kingdom; a half-sister and her daughter, who led armies and killed queens; even an Amazon who traveled quite a long way to demand some connubial communion with him in his tent.
In this episode, let’s dive into the lives and times of the women who helped shape Alexander’s Greatness, and accomplished a whole lot of their own along the way. Get ready to enter Macedonia. We’ll face assassinations, intrigue, a little snake worship, warrior women, and an epic battle for an empire that would put Game of Thrones to shame.
Grab your dagger, a little poison, a silver tongue, and your best poker face. Let’s go traveling.
Let’s get conquering!
Alexander the Great, from a mosaic at the National Archaeological Museum Naples. Accessed on Wikipedia
By The Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire. Ian Worthington, Oxford University Press, 2014.
Olympias: Mother of Alexander the Great. Elizabeth Carney.From the Women of the Ancient Worldseries, Routledge, 2006. Without this book, this episode wouldn’t be possible. Her book is the only contemporary and thoughtful biography I could find on this dynamic woman, and I found it incredibly helpful.
Women and Monarchy in Macedonia. Elizabeth Carney, University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World. Joyce E. Salisbury, ABC Clio, 2001.
“When Alexander Met Thalestris.” By Adrienne Mayor, History Today Magazine, Jan. 2015.
“Alexander the Great Died Mysteriously at 32. Now We May Know Why,” by Sarah Pruitt, HISTORY.com, Jan. 2019.
“Cleopatra of Macedonia.” By Jona Lendering, Livius.org.
“Behind Tomb Connected to Alexander the Great, Intrigue Worthy of Game of Thrones.” By Heather Pringle, National Geographic, Nov. 2014.
Alexander the Great. Epic History TV, Nov. 2017.
“Men in Heels: a His (and Her) Story.” Dressed: The History of Fashion podcast, May 2019.
“The Surprising History of Men in Heels.” The ArtList, Google Arts & Culture.
GROWING UP POLYXENA
We’ll start, of course, with Olympias: she’ll be our main player, as she’s the one we know the most about. Before she becomes the dynamic queen known as Olympias, she’s born sometime around 375 BCE under a different name entirely. Like a proper diva, she’s going to take four different monikers during her lifetime, and we’re not exactly sure which one she’s born with. Elizabeth Carney, author of Olympias: Mother of Alexander the Great, thinks she’s born as Polyxena, a Trojan name that fits right in with the rest of her family. At some point she’ll take on the name Myrtale, a name she probably chooses herself as part of a religious ritual. Later she’ll become Olympias, and even later Stratonice, which means something like “victory in military matters.” A new name for every new stage in her life.
For now, we’ll call her Polyxena. Her dad is Neoptolemus, the king of Molossia, a region in Epirus southwest of Macedonia. We have no idea who her mother was, because sometimes history sucks at preserving women’s stories. Too bad she didn’t poison someone important! She grows up with a sister, Troas, a brother, Alexander, and a meddlesome uncle who we’ll meet momentarily.
Her family has powerful political pull and a great origin story. They come from divine stock, or so everyone likes to tell her. They claim they’re related to Molossia, the son of Trojan wife Andromache and Neoptolemus. A little background on who they are and why they matter: during the Trojan War, Andromache was married to the mighty Trojan warrior Hector. But when he died, killed by godlike Achilles, everything went downhill for her from there.
After Achilles died, his son Neoptolemus showed up to win his own slice of glory. This he did by killing Troy’s king, Priam, and dashing Hector’s son against some rocks to ensure the dynasty could never rise again. And because ancient history is all about living war prizes, he takes Andromache captive as his slave. So, to be clear, they’re claiming to be descendants of a baby killer who forced himself on the mother of the child he murdered. Sort of a weird claim to fame, but maybe that’s just me. They also claim to be descended from Helenus, another son of Trojan king Priam. So on one side there’s a mythic hero, and on another a gilded king.
Polyxena’s family calls themselves the Aeacids, and this gilded family tree is widely known throughout the Greek world. It influences the way that others see her family, but it also shapes how she sees herself: as a heroine of epic proportions. And as we’ll see, many of the elements in that whole Trojan War saga are going to find a way into her storyline.
We know next to nothing about her childhood, but we can create a little framework around her and make some educated guesses about what her life is like. First, let’s talk about Molossia, because while it’s still part of Greece, it’s VERY different to the southern cities—our friends in Athens barely consider it Greek at all. It’s a mountainous region: instead of olive trees and sunshine, we’re talking deep forests, hefty snows that keep outsiders away all winter, and gushing streams and bursting foliage when the snow melts in spring. Wild, green, and isolated: this is the landscape of Polyxena’s childhood.
The southern Greek writers who give us much of this story see Molossia as something of a barbarian backwater. It’s run by a monarchy, for Zeus’s sake, and one where kings marry more than one wife! And it’s far from cohesive: Epirus is distinctly non-urban, ruled by tribal clans that bear some resemblance to Scotland’s highland clans, warrish and often at odds with each other. And their monarchies are unstable at best. Though the Aeacids rule over Molossia, the governmental structure ensures they don’t exercise absolute power. Every year, after sacrificing to Zeus Areius, the king has to promise that he’ll serve according to the law and not just his whims, and so he can never lean back in that throne and get overly comfortable.
Plus, they may not be operating under primogeniture: the idea that the kingship passes from father to oldest son by default. So their lofty lineage is not a guarantee. Staying in power depends very much on how savvy you are and how good you are at warring, and is subject always to the winds of popular opinion. The Molossians are known to kick kings out just to invite them back, and they aren’t afraid to force them to rule jointly with someone. And thus when Polyxena’s uncle, a guy named Arybbas, elbows his way in and makes his brother share the spotlight, there isn’t much her dad can do.
As northern buffer states, both Molossia and Macedonia are constantly dealing with threats from places like Illyria, where some of the warrior women we’ve talked about like to roam. Growing up, Polyxena’s sees her fair share of political drama. For one, she sees her father lose independent control over his region, forced to share the throne with Arybbas.
Living with the constant threat of violence amid war-minded people with an unstable monarchy makes life for any royal somewhat tenuous. But it also probably gives Polyxena an early education in power: how to win it, how to hold it, and what it feels like to lose it. I imagine it ingrains a burning desire to grab as much of it as she can.
The good news is that women in Epirus seem to enjoy more freedom than their southern counterparts. In Molossia, women can own property, act as guardians for minors, and pass their citizenship on to their children. They have no guardians themselves—at least once they’re considered adults. And given that Olympias corresponds with many political leaders later, we can assume she learns to read and write. I like to imagine her perched in a palace window overlooking the mountains, reading The Iliad for the fourteenth time and wishing Achilles didn’t die in the end
At some point, her father passes away, leaving her uncle in control of Molossia. At some point after that, he marries Polyxena’s sister Troas, probably to cement his royal lineage. Uncle/niece loving? Yup, we’re into it. We have no way of knowing how Polyxena feels about any of this: is her creepy uncle a controlling bastard she can’t wait to get away from? Maybe. Is he someone she feels she can trust with her future? Who knows. But by the time she meets her future husband, Philip II, she is an orphan who has already dealt with her fair share of uncertainty, and who knows how to look out for herself.
Before we see Polyxena leave her Molossian life behind, let’s meet the man she’s to marry: Philip II of Macedon. Born in 382, he is going to grow up to be a force to be reckoned with .
PHILIP II BEFORE OLYMPIAS
Though there’s plenty Molossia and Macedonia have in common—tribal structure, a love of warring, and a monarchy—there’s also a lot that sets them apart. First, Philip II grows up in a court where military success mean everything, even more so than in Molossia. Whereas their kings have checks and balances to keep them honest, in Macedonia the king had almost total power, and his dynasty, the Argeads, have a pretty loyal fanbase. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of complicated family drama. If Macedonia is known for one thing, it’s a bloody and violent monarchy, and the Argead clan is no exception. Exile, murder, poisoning? All par for the course. So keep your hand over your wine glass.
Philip II, who will later lose an eye in battle. Scarred and dangerous.
When we first meet Philip, he isn’t king yet: his brother is on the throne, and he’s busy getting an kingly education, attending rowdy symposia, learning the ways of warcraft, getting buff and hanging out with his hetairoi. Does that word sound familiar? If you listened to It’s All Greek to Me Part 2, it should. But while hetairai are female companions, Philip’s hetairoi are his closest bros. Also called the Royal Youths, these boys from powerful families are sent to court to be the equivalent of ladies in waiting: they form his posse at court, party and hunt with him, and form a key part of his warrior elite. It’s likely they all grow up together, running around court having each other’s backs. Some of them likely become Philip’s lovers. This isn’t considered odd in any way. As we learned in That Loosener of Limbs, where we talked about Sappho and sexuality, relations between men in ancient Greece is fairly commonplace under certain conditions. Though it seems that in Macedonia in particular, the rules around such couplings are a lot more relaxed than way down south. Bisexuality is something no one’s batting any eyes at. Philip II has male lovers through his teens, but also into adulthood, and they’re often the same age he is. This is something his son Alexander will take on board later, and sadly, it will help bring about Philip’s demise.
Stabbing things while naked! It’s the ancient Macedonian way (except not really).
The Stag Hunt Mosaic, c. 300 BC, from Pella. the figure on the right is possibly Alexander; the figure on the left wielding a double-edged axe could be Hephaestion, one of Alexander's favorite bros.
But right now he’s still kicking, so let’s talk about how Philip ends up king of Macedonia. At 14, he’s sent as a war hostage to Thebes. This isn’t as bad as it sounds: he lives with a politician, who teaches him some of the shock tactics and battlefield maneuvers that will make him such a war savant later. He puts those skills to good use when, still a teen, his kingly brother puts him in command of some troops. And he slays.
His eldest brother Alexander II is assassinated by his mother’s boyfriend after maybe a year on the throne; his other brother, Perdiccas II, and his army fall in a massacre perpetrated by those wily Illyrians. And so, though he is third in line, Phil finds himself in the #1 spot. Well, sort of. Three pretenders pop up in quick succession, saying they’re the ones with a true claim to the throne—and two of them bring foreign backing with them. Macedonia hops from one tire fire to another, dangerously close to burning down. But young Philip is a force to be reckoned with. He manages to deal with all of these knuckleheads in just two years and fend off further Illyrian invasions. He’s a conqueror by personality: if another country as a soft spot, he finds it. If he sees the chance to exploit an alliance, he presses that button fast and hard. And in Olympias, he’s about to meet his match.
GOING TO THE RITUAL
We don’t know exactly when they meet and marry, but most sources say they come together on the island of Samothrace somewhere around 357. This remote island is nestled between Macedonia and Troy. It’s a religious center for the twin gods Caberi, or to some mystery deities called the Great Gods. They live at the heart of a mystery cult that’s collecting a following. Pilgrims show up here to seek protection, or improve their souls, or strengthen their odds in the afterlife. And like any good cult, everyone’s eligible to be initiated: rich and poor, women and men, enslaved and free. Come on down!
The Macedonians are big fans of this island and have given a lot of money to build up its temples. And though he may be getting up to some religious business, Philip has more than the gods on his mind. In between ritual cleanings, he meets a fiery redhead and, says Plutarch, he “fell passionately in love with her, and although he was only a young adult and she was an orphan, he went right ahead and betrothed himself to her…” This makes for a pretty story, but the whole notion that Phil sees a random girl in a hallway and is like, “break me off a piece of THAT” is pretty unlikely. He’s probably on this island precisely becausehe wants to marry Polyxena, not because he loves her, but because he wants an alliance with Molossia. As we’ll see, Phil is fond of marrying for political advantage: what king in this era isn’t? The alliance may be initiated by Polyxena’s uncle Arybbas, who travels to the island with her, but it’s likely to be Philip’s idea. This island is his turf, after all. It certainly suits them both, as allied they’ll be much better able to fend off those pesky Illyrians. Does creepy uncle make sure to work out a good deal for his niece—does he even think about what’s going to happen to her in Macedonia? If there’s one thing the Aeacids feel very strongly about, it’s their pride and honor, and he may negotiate for giving her pride of place in Philip’s court. One thing we can be sure of: Polyxena probably has zero say in the matter. But that doesn’t mean sparks aren’t flying between these two intense, ambitious people. The sources tell us that their relationship is a passionate one from the start.
All we can hope is that this savvy, calculating soon-to-be queen is liking what she sees in young king Philip, and that she sees this union as the opportunity it is. This is a more prestigious match than any Aeacid woman has made before her, and this is a chance for her to be an influential queen.
Cult Ritual + marriage ceremony = a surefire good time.
A fresco of a mystery ritual related to Dionysus from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, Italy. Wikicommons
But don’t get too excited for Polyxena just yet. It’s customary for Macedonian kings to marry more than one lady, and Philip will become quite famous for marrying MANY and often. In fact, he weds five women in the course of two years. As Athenaeus has it, “Philip of the Macedonians did not lead women into war…but Philip always married in connection to a war.” Polyxena will be his fifth wife—and she isn’t going to be his last one. Which is going to lead to some…serious drama.
Does she care that she’s becoming part of a small harem? Or is she just psyched to walk into a position of power with a man who seems a little obsessed with her? It’s hard to say. But given who she’s going to grow into, we can assume she’s already looking for ways to make the most of it. One thing becomes clear from the get go: this woman is not going to be pushed around OR pushed aside.
While at Samothrace, Polyxena and Philip are probably both initiated into the mystery cult. Engagement party plus cult ritual: now that’s killing two birds with one stone! We don’t know a whole lot about what this initiation entails: only that we’re going to have to be okay with having someone blindfold us, then go about whatever our cult business is in front of a bunch of people. This is probably where she picks up the name Myrtale: let’s just call her Myrtle. The ceremony happens at night and seems to involve dancing, and we hope some good wine, so: a pretty hopping scene.
After or amongst all this religious party time, 18-year-old Myrtle and 28-year-old Philip get married. And the drama’s going to kick off pretty much right away.
MOVING TO MACEDONIA
Over in Macedonia, Myrtle finds herself living amongst strangers in a whole new country, embedded in a court full of more intrigue than your favorite murder mystery. It’s more cosmopolitan than Molossia, to be sure, but her lineage is considered even fancier than that of her husband’s: and that guy says he’s related to Heracles, so.
When she arrives, her husband’s star is on the rise, and he’s moving the country from defensive mode to serious expansion. He’s keen to get out there and win himself new territory: dead set on taking the Greek world by storm.
Though Myrtle will become the most influential woman here, she probably doesn't start out that way. She’s what we call a STRONG personality. She prompts intense reactions in those around her: you either love her or you hate her, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of in between.
She’s a foreigner, too, which some people don’t look on so favorably. In Greek culture, a woman stays forever closely tied to the family of her birth. If things don’t work out with her husband or he dies, she’s going to go straight back to her family of origin. So it makes sense that, especially with a family-proud woman like Myrtle, she brings strong feelings about her Molossian heritage with her. That can’t be something that endears her to the Macedonian courtiers, but it’s something she’s going to drill into her soon-to-be son early on.
There’s also the possibility that Philip’s mom, Eurydice, is still alive and serving as queen mother. Just as over in Egypt, the mother of the king wields a whole lot of influence. But she has some image issues. If scholars like Justin are to be believed, she’s something of a she-devil: thirsty for the blood of her sons, committing adultery with her daughter’s husband, and poisoning anyone who gets in her way. But given that we’re dealing with ancient misogyny and that guy Justin’s just salty, I’m willing to bet she’s a fierce mother lion who works hard and without mercy to ensure her sons all get to rule. If she’s alive when Olympias arrives, then she’s probably serving as a great example of the do’s and don’ts of Macedonian power grabbing. But she’s unlikely she and Olympias are having many intimate teas.
And then there are Philip’s other wives. There’s Audata, an Illyrian woman, who bears him a daughter named Cynane (we’ll be back for her later); Phila; Nicesipolis and Philinna, both from Thessaly; and Meda from Thrace, with a few more still to come.
This is not strictly a harem situation: she’s unlikely to be living in one house with these ladies, having family meetings where they squabble over the weekly sex schedule. Each one probably has her own building complex, attendants, and supporters. Team Olympias all the way! The elephant in the room, though, is that there is no Chief Wife like over in Egypt: no clear pecking order, which pretty much guarantees both fights and competition. These other women are a direct threat to her position, particularly if they’re able to pop out an heir. Myrtle’s ability to keep up with the competition—to win friends and favors, negotiate alliances and scare enemies into submission—is going to be everything.
If that’s not all messy enough, she’s also dealing with her husband’s male lovers. She likely isn’t batting a judgmental eye over these gentlemen: in Macedonia, such lovers are pretty much a nonissue, and it’s not like they’re going to give him any heirs. But bedfellows of the king expect rewards and some favors, and because they’re often erotic rather than political relationships in nature, there’s always the possibility of finding jilted lovers conspiring together behind columns.
If there’s one thing the ancient sources have to say about Olympias, it’s that her jealousy can grow to epic proportions. She is not a gal who likes to share, and she has to share with a whole gaggle of lovers and wives alike.
Though she’s far from home, she does have some Molossians around her…in fact her brother, Alexander, comes to spend time at her new court. It’s possible he and Philip become lovers. Whew, that Philip II is busy! “So my brother’s sleeping with my husband,” I imagine her saying. “Try not to be such a prude about it.” It does have positive ramifications for her family, though. Philip will eventually do brother Alexander a solid by getting rid of their creepy uncle Abyddas, installing Alexander on the throne instead.
At some point in all this, she picks up the name she’s most famously known by: Olympias. One version of how she gets it is that she takes it on in celebration of her husband’s victory at Olympia, where his chariot team wins a big race. But it’s just as likely she gets it as part of a Macedonian festival in honor of Zeus. Given the claims she’ll later make about her special friendship with the god of lightning, this seems fitting. So we’re going to call her Olympias from now on.
The number one thing she’s concerned about is begetting an heir as quickly as possible, which she and Phil get right down to doing.
Olympias running the room, as always.
Cassandre et Olympia by Jean Joseph Taillasson
There are many tales and omens surrounding their first night between the sheets. “On the night before they were to be locked into the bridal chamber together,” says Plutarch, “the bride had a dream in which, following a clap of thunder, her womb was struck by a thunderbolt; this started a vigorous fire which then burst into flames and spread all over the place before dying down.” Not one to be outdone, Philip ALSO has a dream. In it “… he was pressing a seal on his wife’s womb, and that the emblem on the seal was the figure of a lion…” In other words, all signs point to the product of this union being a Big. F-ing. Deal.
Philip is away when his son is born on July 20, 356, but he’s overjoyed when he hears the news: that very same day his horse won at the Olympics AND he won a battle against the Illyrians. Which probably means his tiny son is going to be invincible.
But when Olympias looks down at her son in her arms, she understands that greatness needs guidance. So she makes herself a promise: she will do anything to make sure he becomes the next king of Macedonia. “No: I’m going to help him conquer the world.”
And that means weeding out some of the competition. One of the young throne hopefuls is Alexander’s half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, born to Philinna and a little older than Alexander. “Wouldn’t it just be tragic,” she thinks,slowly twirling her wine glass,“if young Arridaeus was to suffer some kind of tragic accident?” And indeed something does seem to happen to him. Plutarch doesn’t mince words when it comes to his opinion on the matter. “…his mind became ruined when he was poisoned by Olympias.”
We have no proof that this is Olympias’s handiwork. It’s possible thathe always had some mental deficiencies that don’t make themselves known until he gets older. But that’s not to say that Olympias isn’t clapping her hands over it.
She gives Philip one more child—a daughter named Cleopatra. Because as we’ll cover when we talk about Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra VII, it is indeed a Macedonian name. She’ll grow to be close with both daughter and son: their best cheerleader, vicious protector, and most overbearing boss.
We don’t know a whole lot about Olympias’s relationship with her husband: do they see each other as equal partners? Unlikely. Do they even like each other? It’s impossible to say. Most sources say their relationship is all bonfires and thunderstorms, hot one minute and downpour the next. And there’s a pretty juicy rumor, almost certainly false, that explains why they never have more than two children. It involves religious ritual and…many snakes.
But before we bust that story open, let’s talk about how religion plays into Olympias’s life and powerbase.
As we’ve discussed before, religion sits firmly in an ancient Greek woman’s domain, and it can give her power, respect, influence, and freedom. Inside the household, women are in charge of many religious rituals, particularly when it comes to handling the dead. They get out in public to go to all-lady religious festivals and sometimes serve as priestesses, a position that affords them more power than almost anything else. For those with money, they often travel to religious centers to make offerings, and their families praise them for it. For royal women, being involved in public religious ritual gives them an in on some aspects of politics. Offering patronage to a certain cult, or denying it, can be a way to influence issues and relations outside of the religious sphere.
In Macedonia, some of the most popular cults belong to Dionysus: that wild god of wine, revelry, and drama. There are also cults of Zeus, the Muses, the Great Gods we saw on Samothrace, and Heracles, who Philip’s family says they’re descended from. But Olympias is Team Dionysus all the way. We don’t know a lot about what went on in this cult in terms of ritual, but we know Olympias is never shy to use her participation in religious activities as a way to make a name for herself. Which she does, of course, with a flare for drama.
Plutarch says she brought some exotic magic practices with her from Molossia—including a gift for snake handling during religious rites:
The way Plutarch tells it, she’s charming snakes on the regular. In fact, he asserts, it’s her affinity for snakes that chases Philip out of her bed. One night, he arrives in their bedchamber to find her sleeping with some of her slithery companions. And because he’s a) freaked out, because *bleh* b) fearful one of the snakes is a god in animal form, he decides it’s time to vacate for good.
Does this snake charming claim have any merit? Given that our source, Plutarch, quite obviously loathes Olympias, probably not. Plus, who wants to sleep with snakes? Shiver. But that doesn’t mean her connection with snakes isn’t accurate. They’re often used in ritual, where they’re sometimes meant to represent a phallus. I like to imagine a python twined around her arm as she contemplates her next power play. Olympias the Witch and the Snake Charmer: there are worse things to be known for!
BRINGING UP ALEX
Alex’s childhood is in many ways similar to his father’s. Until at least the age of six, he lives in close quarters with Olympias. Between her and his nurse, he’s spoiled within an inch of his life. Later, he has stricter tutors to teach him: the first is Leonidas from Molossia, who instructs him in fighting and hunting. A later tutor—and the most famous—is Aristotle. The great philosopher teaches him ethics, biology, zoology, math, literature. Just like his mother, Alex pores over the Iliad. He’ll later take the annotated copy Aristotle gives him on campaign with him, keeping it (and a dagger) under his pillow while he sleeps.
Move over, Phil. I’ve got this.
Olympia Presenting The Young Alexander The Great to Aristotle, Gerard Hoet
He has his own posse of Royal Youths, all men from highborn families dedicated to protect and serve him. And no doubt he’s spending some time with his sisters: Cleopatra, Cynane, and Thessalonike. Hopefully they’re thwacking him with their practice swords now and then.
Alex grows up with some interest in women, more interest in men, and the most interest in power. “He scorned sensual pleasures to such an extent that his mother was anxious lest he be unable to beget offspring." So apparently she and Philip bring in a high-class hetaira to tempt him.
Always, he stays especially close to his mother. It’s likely he is much closer to her than to Philip. Dad’s away a lot on campaign, taking Macedonia’s ragtag army and turning them into fighting machines. He’s stabbing foreigners with a sarissa, a very long lance he introduced to his army, and subduing troublemakers down in southern Greece. It’s hard to love a dad you don’t really know. But it’s also because Olympias is his number one fan and supporter. If he doesn’t triumph, than neither does she, and he knows it. Plus, in a court filled with intrigue, competition, and suspicion, he needs a cutthroat strategist to keep the path clear. Olympias is the ultimate momager, always shaping his image and working to ensure he gets his due. Maybe that’s why, later in life, he makes such a big deal of calling himself an Aeacid instead of an Argead like his father. Olympias tells him early and often that he’s descended from a slew of heroes, and that he should be proud of that heritage. She gives him the confidence and inflated ego he’ll need to make it to the top.
It seems as if, even from a young age, Alexander considers himself the son of a god. There’s a story, most probably repeated and hammered home by his mother, that on the night of his conception Zeus himself appeared in Olympias’s bed. And when Zeus comes calling, you don’t kick him out of bed, know what I’m saying? Alex is still Philip’s son, of course, but he’s ALSO the son of the number one god up on Olympus.
If Olympias comes up with this story—either because she wants Alex to believe it or she actually does—it’s brilliant. Though it’s also dangerous, as it suggests she cheated on Philip: not a thing Greek men take lightly. Maybe if it’s with a god it doesn’t count? She may not start the story, and we don’t know when it takes root, but I can imagine she’d be quick to cement it: to teach her son that he is destined to be a man of great and godly worth.
By age 16, when poppa Philip marches off to Asia, he leaves his son to act as regent on his behalf. This is a big deal, as it shows that he’s the chosen successor and gives Alex the chance to prove he’s earned it. When tribes along the border revolt, it’s up to him to suit up and take his troops out to defeat them. He drives them right out, then names the land they used to occupy Alexandropolis. He will name MANY a city after himself in just a few short years. Not shy, our Alexander. When dad gets home, he’s thrilled with his teenaged conqueror. Olympias has to be thrilled as well. After more than a decade of careful scheming, things are turning up roses for the prince’s mother, who finds herself experiencing quite a lot of reflected glory.
A young Alexander, dreaming of conquest.
Bust of Alexander the Great, Wikicommons.
But she can’t ever rest easy in this court of nightmares. She must always be attuned to her husband’s moods and whims—always looking out for a change in his favor. We can’t know for sure how she feels about her husband by this point, but the rumor mill has it that things have definitely soured between them. Ancient sources describe her as vindictive and jealous of Philip’s many wives and lovers. Or maybe she’s just a woman with naked ambition who’s not interested in pretending to be anything else.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE BANQUET HALL…
The drama ratchets up a notch in 337 when Philip decides to get married again. This time he’s marrying a Macedonian girl named Cleopatra, the niece of a guy named Attalus. You’ll read a lot of things about this moment: that some members of the court are whispering in Philip’s ear, saying that his son Alexander is only half Macedonian and wouldn’t it be better to have a full-blooded heir? Some suggest he divorces Olympias to marry Cleopatra, who he apparently falls in love with hard. But knowing what we know about our cast of characters, none of that makes much practical sense. Olympias must have known that other brides were always in the offing, and her son is old and strong enough to deal with any heirs that come after him. But a new bride is likely to shake things up, causing a healthy dose of uncertainty. Olympias may well have felt slighted by the many implications imbedded in his decision to marry; jealous and angry about what it might mean for her son.
But it’s at the all-male wedding after-banquet that things get go sideways. Copious wine and fragile egos spell trouble every time. Alex has already got to be gripping his wine glass, trying to ignore the veiled comments about his not being of full Macedonian stock. And then, Plutarch tells us, Attalus makes a loud and quite pointed comment: “…he called on the Macedonians to pray to the gods for a legitimate heir to the throne.” The hot-headed Alexander is NOT down for it. Apparently he jumps up and throws a drink in Attalus’s face. In that moment, Philip doesn't just fail to defend his son: he actually rises drunkenly from his seat and points his sword at Alexander. This betrayal cuts Alex deeply, offending him so much that mother and son pack their bags and exile themselves to Molossia. If they don’t want us, we’ll take our godly talents somewhere else!
They have reason to go. First, their pride is hurt by Philip’s actions, and this little family does not suffer its reputation to be damaged. This turn of events may also make them nervous about Philip’s intentions: is he really going to leave the throne to Alexander, as his actions up to this point seemed to promise? Or is he running some other kind of game behind the scenes? Either way, this whole affair leaves a permanent stamp on Olympias and Alex’s psyche. Never again will they trust quite so easily—never will they suffer someone to threaten their power or publicly call it into question.
Alexander trots off to Illyria, the seat of his enemy, perhaps to piss Philip off. Meanwhile Olympias stays in Molossia with her brother Alexander, now the king, and probably tries to persuade him to march on Macedonia. Back at court, nursing a wicked hangover, Philip’s starting to see the error of his ways. If they had phones to text with, I imagine this married couple’s conversation going a little bit like this:
Philip: Hey, look, I know you and I have had our issues. The snakes in the bed thing was just too weird for me….
Olympias: Gods, you’re boring.
Philip: Anyway. I didn’t MEAN things to get so out of hand. I’d had, like, three jugs of wine, okay? I don't even remember it.
Olympias: Well I do, Philip. I do. And I’m not likely to forget. (wine emoji, sword emoji, skull emoji)
It dawns on him that he’s chased away his only truly good heir and that he needs to make a public apology. That he does, and Alex and Olympias go back to court. Philip feels that all hurts can be soothed by a marriage alliance, so in the summer of 337 he’s like “hey, how about we marry our daughter to your brother? Uncle/niece loving that ties together two countries. Everybody wins.”
In our century, this is not the solution we’d be keen on, and Olympias probably isn’t either. Her daughter might be becoming queen of her home country, but this whole thing robs her of her brother’s support. So she stays in Molossia, not-so-quietly sulking. And perhaps doing a spot of scheming on the side…
In 336, Alex is ushered back to court, and Philip II goes full on over the top with this wedding, turning it into a major religious celebration with parades and processions and probably glitter floating in all the fountains. At every event, he makes sure to walk with brother-in-law Alexander of Molossia on and Alexander his son on the other, clapping them on the back to show how much they all love each other.
But behind the scenes, things are a whole lot murkier. Alexander and Olympias get wind that Pixodarus, a governor from Caria, is trying to make an alliance with Macedonia by marrying his daughter off to Alex’s half-brother Philip Arridaeus. Olympias and Alex’s Royal Dudes are very worried about this particular maneuver and convince Alex it means that Philip is going to leave the kingship to Arridaeus. So Alexander makes a bold move: he writes to Pixodarus and says that he’ll marry her instead. When Philip hears, he imprisons the agent Alexander sent with the message, publicly yells at his son, and sends his Royal Dudes into exile. Philip just lost an ally and Alexander lost a whole lot of support at the Macedonian court. Whoops.
But one thing is clear from the Pixodarus incident, as badly as it went: that Alex trusts his mother’s advice and is suspicious of his father. And that they’re both probably nursing some hurt feelings and frustration. But still, we’ve got a marriage to celebrate! It’s all flowers and toasting…until someone gets stabbed.
GOODNIGHT, PHILIP II
Here’s where Philip’s tendency to take too many male lovers comes back to haunt him. A hot young Macedonian thing named Pausanius gets into a fight with another of Philip’s side pieces. When Attalus and Phil’s new wife Cleopatra, who are friends with lover #2, find out, they send a group of men to sexually assault Pausanius. Angry and probably pretty traumatized, he goes to Philip demanding vengeance. But fearing Attalus’s wrath, the king does nothing, leaving Pausanius with his honor on the line and a whole lot of pent-up anger.
Philip had planned some public games in a theater at daybreak. He pimp walks into the stadium, looking fly in a white cloak, with the two Alexes on either side of him. He waves off his guards and listens to the crowd roar his name. Just at that moment, Pausanius runs out and stabs Philip in front of everyone. RIP, Philip II. As the crowd descends into chaos, Pausanius makes a break for it, to a spot where several horses are conveniently tethered and waiting. But then he trips, giving the guards the time they need to catch up and stab him to death.
Almost immediately, the whispers start circling: it may have been Pausanius who wielded the knife, but it was Olympias and Alexander who pushed him to it. But mostly Olympias, because she’s a snake woman meddler with too loud a mouth. As Plutarch says, “most of the blame attached itself to Olympias, on the grounds that she had encouraged the young man in his anger and incited him to do the deed …” Ah, ancient misogyny.
Plutarch makes sure to strengthen this claim by saying that it’s Philip’s marriages and love affairs that create all the drama, but only because it allows the royal women to step in and contaminate the kingdom. Olympias, he says, makes the whole thing worse because she’s difficult and jealous, and she manipulates her son to violence. I’m with you on blaming Philip here, Plutarch, but the rest?…maybe it’s time for your nap.
We don’t know if Olympias and Alex are involved: there are arguments for why they wouldn’t be. A public assassination was always bound to bring suspicion down on them: there are more discreet ways they could have offed him, and Olympias is a queen of subterfuge. And there wasn’t any immediate need to kill him: tensions aside, Alex was first in line for the throne, and this move wasn’t going to win him any friends at court, given Philip’s success in expanding the empire. But there are those several tethered horses, left there like several someones might need to make a break for it. And we can’t deny that mother and son both benefit from having the throne suddenly empty.
We can’t know how Olympias feels when she finds out her husband’s been murdered. Is she sad? Triumphant? Or just relieved that her son is king at last? As mother of the new king, Olympias is about to wield more power and influence than ever, and that’s a pretty powerful vintage.
But first she and her son have to cement their position in a court full of, as Plutarch puts it, “great jealousies, terrible hatred, and danger everywhere.”
Alex begins by burying his father with much fanfare. He cremates the body on a huge funeral pyre and builds him a very fancy tomb, including a gold and ivory deathbed. Then he turns to dealing with the threats at his door, both within and without. There are plenty of external conflicts to deal with: a revolt in Greece, Illyrian invasions, Theban upstarts. Philip did a great job of expanding the empire during his time as king, pushing into barbarian lands to the north and east and down south into mainland Greece, turning his mountain country into an enviable empire. For the first time, he brought most of Greece together as a united political alliance called the Hellenic League and named himself its hegemon, or Supreme Leader. And now Alexander has to keep it together, which means convincing Philip’s army that he’s their man and up to the task. The best way to do that is to lead them into battle, swiftly achieving such charming triumphs as burning the Greek city of Thebes to the ground and selling all of its residents into slavery.
But before all that, there are internal issues to deal with. In these unstable days, he and Olympias have to hurry up and get rid of anyone who might challenge his kingship.
Don’t worry, Alex. Momma’s got you.
A statue of Olympias and Alexander from Vienna, Wikicommons
And so we circle back to Alexander’s hard-riding half-sister Cynane. Her mother, Audate, was an Illyrian princess, brought up amongst a warrior culture where girls learned to ride, hunt, and fight with brutal efficiency. And though her daughter grew up running around with Alex and his merry band of fellows, she never leaves her mother’s roots behind. Because in truth, Audate was an unwilling captive of this court, and it’s likely that in some ways her daughter feels the same: never quite at home.
Later, in her teens, she actually marched with Alex into battle, distinguishing herself as a hardcore warrior queen. As Polyaenus tells us: “she conducted armies, and in the field charged at the head of them.” And in a battle against her mother’s own Illyrian people, she’s said to have gone into hand-to-hand combat with their queen Caeria. It’s perhaps the only story from the ancient world that pits lady against lady on the battlefield. In this epic clash, Cynane slays their queen and becomes a Macedonian hero.
But despite being a Queenslayer and all-around champion, she’s still a woman, and so has little control over her fate. Before he died, Poppa Philip II gave her in marriage to her cousin Amyntas and eventually gave birth to a daughter, Adea. When dear old dad dies, she goes to her husband and is like: “Hey Amyntas, the throne is ripe for the plucking! Shall we swoop in?” and he’s like “Eh, that sounds like a lot of work.” Which is a huge mistake, because Alexander sees the threat a mile away and has Amyntas dealt with. He leaves his sister alone, though, freshly widowed, even though she refuses to marry again. More than that: later, when Alex tries to marry her off to the non-threatening Langarus, King of the Agrianians, he will die of a rather mysterious illness. We can’t know what it is, but I’m going to call it Poisoned Wine-itis. So Cynane settles down to raise her daughter up into a warrior goddess, probably just biding her time.
After Amyntas, more deaths follow. That guy Attalus who insulted Alexander’s honor? See ya. A few other haters who don’t like the new regime? Bye. But the most unsavory of these executions is carried out by Olympias herself.
Philip’s latest wife, Cleopatra, and her baby fall onto Olympias’s chopping block. This is where her uncanny resemblance to Circe Lannister comes into very sharp relief. We have a couple of versions of how she does the deed: some say Olympias drags them both over a burning brazier. Another says that Olympias kills the baby in front of Cleopatra and then forces the woman to hang herself. Another says that Olympias sends Cleopatra three things—a rope, a dagger, and a vial full of poison—and lets her choose which way she wants to go out.
Scholars maintain that this savagery is motivated by the desire for revenge against the woman who dared marry her husband after her. Alexander kills someone and it’s political; Olympias does it and it’s because of jealous rage. But that’s more likely to be ancient writers’ tendency to see women as emotional harpies than any sort of objective truth.
I’m not saying it’s nice, this whole business. But we’re in a cutthroat court where rivals are dispatched out of necessity, and Cleopatra’s death by hanging isn’t the worst way to go in terms of her honor. It’s a private death, away from the prying eyes of court. Olympias makes a ruthless tactical decision: to kill a woman and her child to make sure they’ll never rise to challenge her son. And it teaches the court something important: if you mess with the snake that is Olympias, you can expect to get the fangs.
In 334, once things have chilled out at home a little, Alex prepares to ride off on his big decade-long adventure: the one where he conquers much of the known world. I can just see her now, standing proud and stoic as she watches her 20-year-old son ride into the morning sunlight. Little does she know that she will never see her son again.
Alexander follows on where his father left off, squaring up against the major superpower who has been harassing Greece for decades: the mighty and formidable Persians. I’m not going to talk a whole lot about his campaigns and tactics, though they’re worth diving into: check out the video below if you want to learn more about that. Suffice it to say that when Alex and his 40,000-strong army cross the Hellespont and start attacking Persia’s satrapies, different regions ruled by a governor, he makes a strong and brutal impression. The Persians call him Alexander the Accursed because of how much grief he gives them.
All the while, Olympias and Alexander write letters back and forth. We can’t be sure that any of the snippets we have of their correspondence is genuine, but it hints that Olympias has a LOT to say about Alexander’s decisions, and that he doesn’t always take her advice to heart. Ancient historians paint it as a classic overbearing-Mom-calling-the-dorm situation. I can just picture Alexander holding the phone away from his ear as he wanders around in his boxer shorts. “Yeah, Mom. Right. Okay. Uh-huh.”
Alex does send her some plundered booty, though, and she makes offerings for him at far-flung places like Athens and Delphi, praying for his triumph and safe return. And though she wields a lot of power at the Macedonian court in his absence, she’s not acting as regent: no one is. Alex has left his father’s old commander friend Antipater more or less in charge, and these two have a very uneasy relationship. Plutarch confidently tells us that “Alexander did not allow her to interfere in his affairs or military matters,” but that doesn't stop Olympias from trying. While Antipater tries to keep her from meddling too directly in military operations, she tries to influence things as much as she can, participating in all kinds of international diplomacy. She and her daughter, now the queen over in Molossia, use all the tools in their royal women’s arsenal: they buy, sell, and donate supplies to different countries, cementing alliances and reminding anyone thinking of rebelling who’s in charge. Her acts of philia, or friendship, help to keep this new Greek landscape together.
Ancient historians like to paint her as more of a hindrance than a help, more a wannabe ruler than an actual influencer. But the fact remains that while her son is out conquering, someone is keeping things together in Macedonia: keeping pretenders from swooping in and keeping Alexander’s allies from getting too big for their britches. And while she can’t get all the credit, it’s easy to imagine crafty, calculating Olympias pulling the strings behind the scenes—always fighting to ensure her son’s continued legacy, shaping the political landscape in any way she can.
But as we know already, she’s not a woman who likes sharing, and Alexander has some influential favorites by his side as he goes about conquering the world. One is a guy named Hephaestion, who has been one of Alex’s closest friends since he was a teen. They’re not only best friends, but many say lovers. Which is par for the course in the Macedonian court, but there’s an issue: Alex is a fairly effeminate-looking guy, and many whisper that he’s playing the woman’s role in the bedroom. And as we’ve covered, this is a thing the Greeks aren’t down with. When Alex and his BFF get to Troy, they make sacrifices at the shrines of Achilles and Patroclus: two war heroes who were also very, veryclose. It doesn’t help that Alex is very taken by Persian fashion. As Diodorus Siculus tells us, "…he put on the Persian diadem and dressed himself in the white robe and the Persian sash.” These areoutfits his soldiers find scandalous indeed, and also effeminate.While we’re talking about Persian fashion: did you know that the Persians were the first to wear high heels? They’re invented to help them stay in the saddle while riding their horses. I don’t know if Alex is sporting any, but I like to imagine he is.
Diodorus tells us that, in her jealousy, Olympias write “threatening” and “harsh” letters to Hephaestion. Like all young boyfriends everywhere, he probably just laughs and rolls his eyes. Damn, your mom is scary.
But mom has a point: if he wants to stay in power, he needs to start popping out some little heirlets. He gets what she’s saying: he knows he needs to wife up. But right now, he’s busy winning decisive military battles.
After defeating Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333, Alexander kept on trucking, heading south into Syria, Phoenicia, Judah, and Egypt, where they celebrate him as their pharaoh and priests dub him a son of Amun. He then turns east to take over Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis, pushing out farther than any Greek has gone before. “He advanced to the ends of the earth,” says the first Book of Maccabees. “He…ruled over countries, nations and princes, and they became tributary to him” (I Maccabees 1:3,4).
In 330, Alex pushes into Amazon territory near the Caspian Sea. Plenty of tribal leaders come to pledge fealty to this mighty warrior. It’s there, the story goes, that he meets the mighty queen Thalestris. She’s traveled a very long way to get to his camp with her 300 warrior women on horseback. And she has one goal in mind: to have Alexander’s baby. As Diodorus explains: “He was the greatest of all men in his achievements, and she was superior to all women in strength and courage … presumably the offspring of such superlative parents would surpass all other mortals in excellence.” And he’s like, “I mean, I’ll do my best.” And so he does, for 13 days. Gotta give it your very best effort!
A clash of titans.
The Amazon Queen, Thalestris, in the Camp of Alexander the Great by Johann Georg Platzer, c.1750.
But it isn’t all rolls in the hay he’s having. Perched at the very edge of the known world and feeling homesick, his troops are getting tired of Alexander’s ceaseless need for conquest. At Maracanda in Sogdia, in modern-day Tajikistan, he gets into a drunken argument with one of his generals, called Cleitus the Black, and kills him. He feels bad about it, but his extreme arrogance is starting to wear on people’s nerves. What’s worse, he then tries to get his troops to perform the Persian act of proskyensis: that is, prostrating themselves in front of their king: a blasphemous act. He’s starting to have to worry quite a lot about assassination.
It isn’t until 327 that he finally marries: the daughter of a Bactrian lord named Roxana. Apparently he falls in love with her immediately, though there may not be any more truth in that than in the story about young Olympias and Philip. The marriage does help put down any local resistance against him, but he marries her despite some pushback from his companions and generals. There will be several other wives, all of them foreign. In 324, he marries Stateira II, one of Darius III’s daughters, who he has been carting around with him as a well-treated prisoner of war for years. While he’s at, we think he ALSO marries Parysatis, the youngest daughter of Artaxerxes III of Persia. These marriages are only one of many that happen at what’s called the Susa weddings: an event where Alex has hundreds of his officers marry Persian noblewomen, thus forcing the two to mix and mingle in ways he hopes will ensure everyone gets along. He also marries his BBF Hephaestion off to another one of Darius’s daughters. One big, really confusing family.
In 326, he meets another captivating lady as he burns his way through modern-day Pakistan. He marches into the territory of the Assacani people. When their leader Assacanus dies in battle, his mom Cleophis takes over, and eventually she strikes a deal with Alexander. She must be very persuasive, because he allows her to remain in charge of the area. Some later sources, though questionable, say that she even bears him a son. What long-suffering wife #1 is doing during all this is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, back at home in Macedonia, Olympias leave the court and goes back to Molossia. Perhaps things have gotten to complicated with Antipater: letters between Antipater and Alexander accuse her of being an interfering shrew, and she writes back complaining that he’s taking more power than is his due. However cutthroat, calculating, and malicious Olympias might be, it’s all to keep her son in power. And so eventually she persuades her son that Antipater’s up to no good, and he should be demoted. He commands the general to meet him in Babylon, but Antipater sends his son Cassander instead, which pisses Alexander off.
By this point, Alex has conquered the world’s largest empire. It seems like he’s unstoppable: a living god. But just as he is plotting to march into Arabia, he gets some mysterious disease. After almost two weeks in bed with severe stomach aches and fever, he dies in Babylon, aged just 32. We aren’t sure how he dies: the theory range from alcoholism to typhoid to poisoning. One recent scholar suggests that maybe he had Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that causes our immune system to attack healthy cells in the nervous system. That may be why it’s said he doesn’t start decomposing for many days afterward: because he was paralyzed, but not actually dead.
But one thing we know: to the last, he loves his mother.According to Curtius, after he was given a very dangerous wound in India, Alex said he wanted to consecrate her to immortality. To make his mother a god, just like him.
When Olympias receives the news, we can only imagine her anguish. Her boy, who she hasn’t seen in years, has died far from home where she can’t clean his body and bury him. Everything she’s worked for, gone. But this is also the moment when she truly steps out of her son’s shadow and finds a way to come into her own.
WHO RUNS THE WORLD?
Alexander leaves a giant hole in the world he’s just spent years creating, and a steaming pile of chaos descends in his wake. The big issue is that there’s no clear princeling to succeed him. The two main contenders are both problematic: first there’s Arrhidaeus, that dim-witted half-brother Olympias supposedly poisoned, who isn’t capable of ruling on his own. But for those who want to use him for power—namely, a general named Perdiccas who steps in as his regent—that might not be a bad thing. But there’s also Alexander’s wife Roxana to consider. She’s about to give birth to a baby who may in fact be a boy. And then there are all those Royal Bros, who we’ll now call the Successors, who start acting like kings the minute their #1 friend expires. There a lot of players in this bro vs. bro drama, but we’re only going to call out the important ones. We’ll see three wars erupt over the next few decades for control of the Macedonian throne, called the wars of the Diadochi, and Olympias will play a part in two of them.
Bear with me, friends: this is a very tangled web we weave.
In 322, as the army makes the long march back to Macedonia with Alexander’s body, everyone’s on edge and wondering what’s going to happen. One of Alex’s Top Bros, a guy named Ptolemy, has the bright idea to steal his corpse and run off to bury it in Alexandria, Egypt, the idea being that the populace will accept him as their pharaoh if they think Alexander sanctioned it. He’s the first in a long line that will lead to Cleopatra, the last killer pharaoh queen of Egypt. But we’ll get to her in a couple of centuries.
And so war #1 begins. Back in Macedonia, two very different camps are forming: Team Philip Arridaeus and Team Baby Alexander IV, Roxana’s newborn son. Meleager steps in to serve as regent for Arridaeus, while Perdiccas joins up with Team Alexander. If only Macedonia supported lady regents like Egypt, this is the moment Olympias would pull a Hatshepsut and step up to the throne. Instead, all of her hopes hinge on Roxana’s baby, Alexander VI. What are the chances in all this chaos that baby’s going to make it to the throne without being assassinated? Lucky he’s got a not-so-secret weapon: a Grandmomager extraordinaire. Eventually, Olympias will tell Roxane to come to Pella where she and baby Alex will be safe. But she has some pressing concerns to deal with first.
Antipater is still ruling in Macedonia alongside a guy named Craterus, and Olympias still hates him with a fiery passion. Pretty much right away, she starts crying for Antipater’s blood. From her seat in Molossia, she tells everyone who will listen that it was he and his sons who poisoned her Alexander, and she wants to see them punished. By doing so, she reminds everyone who she’s related to and ensures she and her daughter Cleopatra aren’t going to get lost—or killed—in the ensuing power struggle. And that struggle isn’t just going to play out on the battlefield: it’s also going to happen on Macedonia’s marriage market. And as the full blooded sister of Alexander the Great, Cleopatra has a major part to play in what comes next.
At this point, Cleopatra’s already spent some time as regent of Molossia. Her husband died at war in 331, and she’s been running things for her two kids, dealing with grain shortages and keeping in close touch with her conquering brother Alex.
Now that Alex is dead, everyone’s trying to solidify their power by either wiping out their enemies in battle or marrying women who will help them form alliances or tie them more closely with Alex’s family line. In this way, royal women have a big part to play in consolidating and centralizing power. Since Cleo is his only full-blooded sister, every one of the Royal Bros wants to put a ring on it. But she doesn’t wait for them to propose: she chooses which one will suit her best and makes the first move. She sees this as a means of protecting her family, but also of making sure the throne stays where it belongs: in her family’s hands. Not just for her brother Alex, but for herself. Because who better to rule than Philip II’s daughter?
She gets busy putting the moves on Royal Bro Leonnatus, who she sees as a strong pick and someone who can get rid of Philip Arrhidaeus. Knowing he’ll look better if he goes down south to help subdue some Greeks, who are currently revolting against Macedonia, he heads down to a battle at Lamia. And there he’s killed, and Cleo has to move onto the next.
She goes to Sardis in Asia Minor, where both kings and their armies are, and sidles up to Alex IV’s regent Perdiccas, with Olympias’s support, expressing interest in marrying him. He’s keen as well, as their union would help unite the empire and let him rule for the foreseeable future. But there’s an issue, which is that he’s already engaged to Antipater’s daughter Nicea. If he breaks it off, a whole lot of stabbing will ensue. He gently puts Cleo off, biding his time until he can break his engagement without causing a war. But when Antipater and Craterus find out what he’s planning, hostilities ensue, eventually ending with Perdiccas being murdered by his own men. Cleo’s betrothed sure do suffer a high casualty rate.
Meanwhile, Alex’s sister Cynane isn’t sitting on the sidelines waiting for all the drama to die down. She sees her half-brother’s death as an opportunity, and she isn’t going to pull an Olympias and try to manipulate it from behind some curtain. Though she’s only in her thirties herself, she rushes with an army toward Babylon to offer her daughter Adea to Philip Arrhidaeus in marriage. But Perdiccas isn’t having it: he sends our old friend Antipater to cut her off in Strymon, where she gives him a spanking with her superior battle tactics and continues right on her way. But he tries again, this time sending his brother Alcetus to lead the force. He and Cynane grew up together at court, so the hope is that she’ll see him and her feminine heart will melt into a puddle of feminine essence. Instead she rides right up to him, says "you know what? You’re a dick," and gets ready to rumble. Polyaenus writes: “The Macedonians at first paused at the sight of Philip’s daughter, and the sister of Alexander…undaunted at the number of his forces, and his formidable preparations for battle, she bravely engaged him; resolved upon a glorious death, rather than, stripped of her dominions, accept a private life...” Unfortunately, Alcetus chooses that moment to kill her. RIP, you warrior queen!
Alcetus claps his hands and says, “Mischief managed!” But he is decidedly incorrect. When his Macedonian army sees him kill Cynane, Macedonian legend, they throw down their swords and demand that Adea be married to Arrhidaeus anyway. And she makes sure the troops continue to remember that she’s a member of the Argead dynasty they’ve fought for for so long.
Let’s not forget Alexander’s wives in all this. Somewhere in this time period, we THINK Roxana manages to murder both of Alexander’s other wives. Plutarch gives us wild jealousy as her motive—mmk, Plutarch—but perhaps it is just to ensure they won’t cause any trouble for her son in future. I’d rather picture them all running away and forming an all-lady commune (and kidnap recovery group) on some sunny island somewhere, but alas, the ancient sources don’t offer us such an ending.
Cleopatra stays in Sardis, in the heart of the action, even after she hears about Cynane’s death, knowing it’s a dangerous game she’s playing. She will go on to be chased by Cassander, Lysimachus, and Antigonus. In this game of razorblade chess, she’ll refuse them all. She grew up with these boys and probably knows just how to treat them mean and keep them keen. Being Alexander’s sister makes her that prime jewel that all of them want to win. It gives her power, but it also puts a target on her back: if she doesn’t marry the right suitor, or doesn’t marry at all, it could spell the end of everything. The stakes couldn’t be much higher for Olympias and her daughter now.
Over in Olympias’s court, things aren’t looking great. Perdiccas is dead, so he’s no longer in charge of Team Alex. Craterus and Meleager are dead, too, wiping a co-ruler of Macedonia and another king regent off the board. But in the battle for Macedon, that crusty old Antipater still has the upper hand. But then he does her a solid and dies of old age complaints in 319 BCE. He’s elected another one of Alexander’s commanders, Polyperchon, to replace him, and he is much more Olympias-friendly. He invites her to come on back to Pella to take over the care of her grandson. She refuses him a bunch of times before realizing it’s the only card she has to play if she wants to stay in the game. And it’s a dangerous one, too: she could be walking into the lion’s den, where those in charge are just as likely to kill her as anything.
Meanwhile, Antipater’s son Cassander is still alive and causing trouble. Plus Cynane’s daughter Adea, now called Eurydice, is officially married to king Philip Arrhidaeus and is feeling pretty large and in charge. She’s crafty, too: she’s been wooing the unstable Macedonian army over to her side, getting them to listen to her instead of the male commanders, and making sure they get the back pay they’ve been promised to sweeten up the deal. She’s pulling ALL the strings behind her husband’s throne chair and has made an alliance with Cassander that threatens everything Olympias holds dear.
It’s a tense time for these female dynamos. Olympias knows that if she can’t keep young Alexander IV alive until he’s old enough to command an army, she and her dynasty will be snuffed out. Eurydice is vulnerable because she has no heir, and if her half-wit husband dies, one of those wily Successors is likely going to force her to marry them. And thus in this epic game of thrones, we see lady pitted against lady, and they’re about to take this squabble outside.
Their armies meet in the fall of 317 at the Macedonian-Molossian border. Olympias rides in with her nephew Aeacides, now king of Molossia, Polyperchon and both of their armies. Eurydice marches in without Cassander having arrived yet, but with plenty of Macedonian troops in tow. Though neither of these women command these forces, they are most certainly at the head of them. Duris tells us that Eurydice dresses in full Macedonian battle gear, while Olympias is decked out as a worshiper of Dionysus, hopefully complete with several snake armbands. I like to imagine her astride her horse, hair whipping in the wind as she stares down at her army, ready to go all in for this last, epic bid for power. As Alexander’s mother, she knows the power and awe she can inspire if she works it. When the opposing army sees her there, looking regal and resplendent, they abandon Eurydice and switch sides to join Olympias. Without Cassander having arrived to back her up, she can do nothing but surrender.
We think this is when this 50-year-old queen mother takes on her final title, Stratonice. And she has more power than any woman in the Greek world. I’d love to linger over her triumphant ride back to Macedonia, basking in the glory of a decades-long fight won. But her victory is short lived. Within a year, she’ll be dead.
Before we feel too sorry for her, let’s talk about what she does following her victory. First, she not only has Philip Arrhidaeus and Eurydice captured, but bricked up in tiny prisons with only a mail slot to receive their food through. When the courtiers express pity for this grisly ending, Olympias says, “ugh, FINE. You’re all SO boring,” and puts them out of their misery. She has Philip stabbed, but she lets Eurydice choose her own ending. That ending is by hanging, the death of choice for royal women of this time and place. But the trouble is that she doesn’t stop there. She kills Cassander’s brother Nicanor and defiles the tomb of his other brother Iolus in revenge for her son’s untimely death: not a great idea. She, in a move that Justin calls “more feminine than royal,” she points her finger at 100 of Cassander’s friends and says she thinks they’re going to have to go. The whole thing, which Pausanius calls “unholy,” makes her a whole lot of enemies. And while I think we have reason to consider this testimony of her actions fairly suspect, it does seem as if Olympias was, much like her Trojan War-going forebears, big on getting revenge and on an epic scale.
Is this behavior any worse than so many of the men around her? Not really. But she’s a woman in charge and indulging in violence, and that quickly wins her enemies.
Sometime soon after this all goes down, Cassander abandons his campaign over in the Peloponnese and marches himself back to Macedon, pissed as hell about what Olympias has done to his friends and family. And though Olympias and her buddy Polyperchon must know he’s coming, they don’t seem to be that well prepared. He heads out to try and cut Cassander off, but he’s stymied at every turn by Cassander’s smart moves and a bunch of desertions. Soon there’s nothing between Olympias and her foe. We can only imagine her thought process: flee, into the mountains and leave her life in the Macedonian court behind her? Or stay, knowing that’s what a Trojan queen would do, proud to the last no matter what lies in store for her? She digs in, hoping more allies will come to her aid. But they don't, and before long she’s in a serious siege situation with enough food to wait it out.
Then Cassander shows up and, after an aborted escape attempt, Olympias is forced to yield. And though some ancient scholars want us to believe that her people don’t fight for her because of her brutal actions, it’s most likely because they know it isn’t a fight they can win.
For a while he promises to spare her life, but—shockingly—he changes his mind and puts her to death in 316. She’s put on trial, though she must know it isn’t one she’ll ever escape alive from, and we aren’t clear on how she dies. Pausanius says the Macedonians stone her to death...let’s hope not. Justin gives her a little more noble drama, saying she goes out to meet the forces armed against her in full royal regalia and with a bunch of her loyal handmaids. When the crowd sees her, they’re reminded of what a goddess she is and find they can’t kill her. Cassander has to send relatives of those killed by her orders to kill her, as no one else is willing to finish the job. When they come, she doesn’t shout: instead she dies like a warrior, and, as Justin has it, “you could see Alexander even in his dying mother.”
Diodorus says that Cassander casts her out unburied: much like her ancestor Achilles once dragged Hector behind his chariot, he desecrates her body and her memory by leaving her in the dirt. Luckily, someone buries her against his orders in Pynda, encased in the ashes of her own ambition.
Meanwhile, sister Cleopatra’s been under house arrest at Sardis ever since Antipater died—12 years in total. Her son takes the throne of Molossia, and is dethroned just a few years later. Her mother dies, and she can’t do anything to stop it. Desperate, she tries to escape Sardis and fly into the arms of Ptolemy, now pharaoh of Egypt. But she’s caught and killed on the orders of Antigonus, one of the other generals. He gives her a lavish funeral and probably feels weird about it, but like her mother, she was just too important—and too crafty—to be left alive.
After decades of maneuvering, Olympias’s dream of a grandson on the throne is not to be. Once Cassander takes over, he marries Thessalonike—remember her, that other one of Alex’s sisters?—who will go on to bear him three sons and kick-start a whole new dynasty. One of those sons, apty named Antipater, will go on to murder her. So, messy deaths for these women all around.
Cassander also puts Roxana and Alexander IV under house arrest. They will die in 310 BCE, ending the Argead dynasty for good. The empire her son built was split up between his Royal Bros, each taking a chunk of it with them and starting their own dynasties, which would come to change history. But the Aeacid dynasty, Olympias’s people, still lived on in Macedonia. One of the best-preserved of their gravestones reads: “I am of Aeacid descent, Neoptolemus was my father, my name was Alcimachus, one of those descended from Olympias…” The fact that she’s mentioned as a forebear to be proud of speaks volumes about the legacy she left.
Think what you want about her tactics, and the brutal decisions made by the women around her. But in a world where women couldn’t rule, this steely-eyed maneuverer pulled important strings, raising her son up to be one of the most successful conquerors of all time. And in doing so, Olympias claimed a lot of power for herself, influencing the Greek world for decades. Ruthless, violent, cunning: she was all of these things. She was also proud, ambitious, determined, fiercely loyal, and believed enough in herself to accomplish what few other women could.
And with that, we come to the end of our time in ancient Greece. Though we’ll continue to feel their influence as we travel on to our next ancient empire: the fascinating juggernaut that is ancient Rome. Get ready for more epic schemers, lady poisoners, queen pharaohs and rebel warrior queens.
Until next time.