Medallion image thought to be of Olympias
Medallion image may be of Olympias. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Olympias Facts:

Known for: ambitious and violent ruler; mother of Alexander the Great

Occupation: Ruler
Dates: About 375 BCE - 316 BCE
Also known as: Polyxena, Myrtale, Stratonice

Background, Family:

  • Father: Neoptolemus, ruled Molossia in Epirus, Greece
  • Claimed descent from Achilles through his son, Neoptolemus, and his captive concubine, Andromache, who was the widow of Hector of Troy whom Achilles killed 
  • Husband: Philip II of Macedonia, married 357 BCE
  • Children: Alexander the Great born 356 BCE, Cleopatra born about 354 BCE

About Olympias

A follower of mystery religions, Olympias was famed--and feared--for her ability to handle snakes in the religious ceremonies.

Olympias was married to Philip II, newly king of Macedonia, as a political alliance arranged by her father, Neoptolemus, king of Epirus.

After fighting with Philip--who already had three other wives--and angrily returning to Epirus, Olympias reconciled with Philip at Macedonia's capital, Pella, and then bore Philip two children, Alexander and Cleopatra, about two years apart. Olympias later claimed that Alexander was actually the son of Zeus. Olympias, as the father of Philip's heir presumptive, dominated at court.

When they had been married about twenty years, Philip married again, this time to a young noblewoman of Macedonia named Cleopatra. Philip seemed to disowned Alexander. Olympias and Alexander went to Molossia, where her brother had assumed the kingship. Philip and Olympias publicly reconciled and Olympias and Alexander returned to Pella. But when a marriage of note was offered to Alexander's half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, Olympias and Alexander may have assumed that Alexander's succession was in doubt. Philip Arrhidaeus, it had been assumed, was not in the line of success, as he had some kind of mental impairment. Olympias and Alexander tried to substitute Alexander as the groom, alienating Philip.

A marriage was arranged between Cleopatra, daughter of Olympias and Philip, to a brother of Olympias. At that wedding, Philip was assassinated. Olympias and Alexander were rumored to have been behind her husband's murder, though whether this is true or not is disputed.

After Philip's Death

After Philip's death and the ascension of their son, Alexander, as ruler of Macedonia, Olympias exercised considerable influence and power. 

Olympias is supposed to also have had Philip's wife (also named Cleopatra) and her young son and daughter killed--and then also that Cleopatra's powerful uncle and his relatives.

Alexander was away frequently and, during his absences, Olympias assumed a powerful role protecting her son's interests. Alexander left his general Antipater as regent in Macedonia, but Antipater and Olympias frequently clashed. She left and returned to Molossia, where her daughter was, by then, the regent. But eventually Antipater's power weakened and she returned to Macedonia.

After Alexander's Death

When Alexander died, Antipater's son, Cassander, tried to become the new ruler. Olympias married her daughter Cleopatra to a general who contended for the rulership, but he was soon killed in a battle. Olympias tried to marry Cleopatra to yet another possible contender to rule Macedonia.

Olympias became regent for Alexander IV, her grandson (posthumous son of Alexander the Great by Roxane), and tried to seize control of Macedonia from Cassander's forces. The Macedonian army surrendered without a fight; Olympias had the supporters of Cassander executed but Cassander was not there.

Cassander maneuvered a surprise attack and Olympias fled; he besieged Pydna where she fled, and she surrendered in 316 BCE. Cassander, who had promised not to kill Olympias, instead arranged to have Olympias murdered by relatives of his supporters that she had executed.

Places: Epirus, Pella, Greece

Religion: follower of mystery religion