Biography of Olympias, Mother of Alexander the Great

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

Olympias (c. 375–316 BCE) was an ambitious and violent ruler of ancient Greece. She was the daughter of Neoptolemus I, the king of Epirus; the wife of Philip II, who ruled over Macedonia; and the mother of Alexander the Great, who conquered the territory from Greece to northwest India, establishing one of the largest kingdoms of his time. Olympias was also the mother of Cleopatra, the queen of Epirus.

Fast Facts: Olympias

  • Known For: Olympias was the queen of Macedonia and the mother of Alexander the Great.
  • Also Known As: Polyxena, Myrtale, Stratonice
  • Born: c. 375 BCE in Epirus, Ancient Greece
  • Parents: Neoptolemus I of Epirus, mother unknown
  • Died: c. 316 BCE in Macedonia, Ancient Greece
  • Spouse: Philip II of Macedonia (m. 357-336 BCE)
  • Children: Alexander the Great, Cleopatra

Early Life

Olympias was born around 375 BCE, the daughter of Neoptolemus I of Epirus, a Greek king, and an unknown mother. Her family was a powerful one in ancient Greece; they claimed to be descended from the Greek hero Achilles, the main character in Homer's "Iliad." Olympias was also known by several other names: Polyxena, Myrtale, and Stratonice. Historians believe she chose the name Olympias to celebrate her husband's victory in the Olympic Games.

A follower of mystery religions, Olympias was famed—and feared—for her ability to handle snakes during religious ceremonies. Some scholars believe she belonged to the Cult of Dionysus, a group that worshipped the god of wine, fertility, and religious ecstasy.

Reign

In 357 BCE, Olympias was married to Philip II, the new king of Macedonia, as a political alliance arranged by her father Neoptolemus, who ruled the Greek kingdom 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 of 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 the two had been married for about 20 years, Philip married again, this time to a young noblewoman of Macedonia named Cleopatra. Philip seemed to disown 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 succession, as he had some kind of mental impairment. Olympias and Alexander tried to substitute Alexander as the groom, alienating Philip.

A marriage was eventually 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.

Ascension of Alexander

After Philip's death and the ascension of their son, Alexander, as ruler of Macedonia, Olympias exercised considerable influence and power. Olympias is alleged to also have had Philip's wife (also named Cleopatra) and her young son and daughter killed—followed by Cleopatra's powerful uncle and his relatives.

Alexander was away frequently and, during his absences, Olympias assumed a powerful role to protect 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 now the regent. But eventually Antipater's power weakened and she returned to Macedonia. During his reign, Alexander oversaw the expansion of the Macedonian kingdom, as he conquered the territory from Greece to northwest India. His military skills were unmatched; within a matter of years he was able to conquer the Persian Empire, and he still hoped to make further incursions into Asia when he became sick and died in 323 BCE. Although records indicate that he died of fever, some historians suspect foul play.

Battle With Cassander

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

Olympias eventually became the regent for Alexander IV, her grandson (the 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 by then Cassander had escaped. Around this time, Olympias formed an alliance with Polyperchon, Antipater's successor, and Eurydice, the wife of Philip III. The latter provided soldiers for Olympias to command in battle.

Cassander maneuvered a surprise attack and Olympias fled; he then besieged Pydna, she fled again, and she finally surrendered in 316 BCE. Cassander, who had promised not to kill Olympias, arranged instead to have Olympias murdered by relatives of the people whom she had executed.

Death

Following Cassander's orders, relatives of Olympias's victims stoned her to death in 316 BCE. Scholars are not certain whether or not the Macedonian queen was given a proper burial.

Legacy

Like many powerful figures from ancient history, Olympias lives on in the public imagination. She has been depicted in a variety of books, films, and television series, including the 1956 epic "Alexander the Great," Mary Renault's Alexander trilogy, the Oliver Stone film "Alexander," and Steven Pressfield's "The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great."

Sources

  • Bosworth, A. B. "Conquest and Empire: the Reign of Alexander the Great." Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Carney, Elizabeth Donnelly, and Daniel Ogden. "Philip II and Alexander the Great: Father and Son, Lives and Afterlives." Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Carney, Elizabeth Donnelly. "Olympias: Mother of Alexander the Great." Routledge, 2006.
  • Waterfield, Robin. "Dividing the Spoils: the War for Alexander the Great's Empire." Oxford University Press, 2013.