Alexander the Great's warrior mom wielded unprecedented power

Defying the ancient world's rules for women, Olympias charted her—and her son's—rise to power through wits, ambition, and might.

Olympias is represented in profile in this 18th-century Italian bas-relief from the imperial Pavlovsk Palace near St. Petersburg, Russia.
AKG/Album

Olympias, wife of Philip II, king of Macedonia, and mother of Alexander the Great, was the first woman to participate actively in the political events of the Greek peninsula. Olympias was murderous, vengeful, and brave—much like her male kin—but history has not treated her as grandly.

The violence of her husband and son, both responsible for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of deaths, tends to be taken for granted—even celebrated—whereas both ancient and modern authors often fault Olympias, for not being nice. She wasn’t. But neither was Philip or Alexander.

Most of the sources about Olympias, written many centuries after her death, treat her hostilely because she transgressed Greek expectations about women who were supposed to be quiet, passive, stay out of public life, and maintain the family. Olympias did none of those things. First-century A.D. Greek historian Plutarch wrote extensively about her, using her as a foil in his portrayal of Alexander. In Plutarch’s work, Alexander controls his passions (not something Alexander much did), where Olympias is driven by them, creating a somewhat biased but vivid portrait of this trailblazing Greek woman. (Meet history's brave female warriors.)

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