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.

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

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Kingly Apparel A tetradrachm of Philip II showing the king on horseback wearing a kausia (felt hat) and chlamys (cape), both garments typical of Macedonian dress.

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.)

Marriage alliance

Olympias was born in the northern kingdom of Molossia in the region of Epirus around the late 370s B.C. Molossia, in what is today northwestern Greece, was a remote place, bounded by mountains on many sides. It was greener, cooler, and more watered than central and southern Greece, and famous for its oracle of Zeus at Dodona.

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An impressive theater, was dedicated to Zeus at Dodona, in Epirus in northern Greece, where Olympias was born. The god would play a key role in the myths surrounding the conception of her son Alexander.

Most of the southern and central Greek peninsula was divided into city-states, some of them democracies and others more aristocratic governments. In the north, Molossia and Macedonia retained hereditary monarchies. In both governmental forms, women ordinarily played no role, apart from religion. Members of Olympias’s dynasty, the Aeacidae, believed themselves to be the descendants of the Greek hero Achilles who fought against Troy. (Archaeologists discovered the remains of Troy, lost for centuries.)

Olympias’s father, Neoptolemus, co-ruled with his brother Arybbas, who became Olympias’s guardian after her father died. The Molossians faced a threat from the Illyrians, a people from the north. A marriage alliance with another kingdom could help better protect the state. Olympias and her uncle Arybbas traveled to the distant island of Samothrace (off the coast of Macedonia), apparently to arrange her engagement to Philip II, king of Macedonia.

Philip, then about age 23, became king in 359. The Illyrians had also invaded Macedonia and killed his brother, Perdiccas III, along with 4,000 other Macedonians. Philip defeated them, drove off several claimants to the throne, but many enemies still threatened. The marriage of Olympias and Philip would unite the northern kingdoms in an alliance and enhance Philip’s power.

Molassians at court

By 357 B.C. Olympias had arrived in Pella (Philip’s primary residence) and married him, thus becoming one of his seven wives. Macedonian kings were typically polygamous, but Philip’s polygamy was on a grander scale, employed to unify his kingdom and expand his territory.

In 356 Olympias gave birth to her son Alexander; a year or two later, her daughter Cleopatra (“Cleopatra” means “fame of the father” and was a popular name among the Macedonian elite) followed. Philip had only one other son (later known as Philip III Arrhidaeus) by another wife, and it became apparent that he was mentally disabled. Alexander appeared to be the likely heir, which made Olympias the most prestigious of Philip’s wives (there was no formalized chief wife). Since kings could have many sons and no formal rules for succession seem to have existed, mothers tended to become succession advocates for their sons, and Olympias became that for hers.

Olympias was not the only Molossian at the Macedonian court: Several relatives, including her brother (the future Alexander I of Molossia) soon arrived. This Molossian Alexander remained at court for a number of years. About 343, Philip forced Arybbas into exile to put Olympias’s brother on the Molossian throne. This move was a logical development of the alliance that had begun years before, not necessarily a demonstration of Olympias’s influence with her husband, but it did increase her prestige. Olympias remained close to her Molossian roots the rest of her life.

Maternal maneuvers

Since Philip was frequently absent on campaign, Olympias took on a greater role in raising her son, who probably knew his mother better than his father. Plutarch described Alexander’s relationship with Philip as competitive but affectionate. Philip treated Alexander like his heir. He chose Aristotle as Alexander’s teacher, then left the 16-year-old in charge of Macedonia (with the assistance of his general Antipater) while Philip was off on campaign. A little later, in 338, Philip chose Alexander, then age 18, to play a decisive role in the great Macedonian victory at Chaeronea. (Did boys and girls receive the same education in ancient Greece?)

Yet the apparent security and prestige of Olympias and Alexander suddenly seemed to vanish on the occasion of Philip’s seventh marriage to a Macedonian woman, Cleopatra Eurydice. Philip had married many times, so yet another marriage was not necessarily a problem for Alexander (he was apparently invited to the wedding festivities), but this was Philip’s first marriage to a Macedonian woman, one with an ambitious guardian. It was another marriage alliance, this time an internal one.

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Plutarch reported that Olympias was not the Molossian queen’s given name. Philip changed it to Olympias after a chariot he sent to the games, being held in that city, won a race.

At the wedding, the wine flowed freely for Philip and his guests. The uncle and guardian of the bride, a Macedonian general named Attalus, asked those assembled to join him in a toast that the new marriage might bring to birth a legitimate successor. Alexander sprang up enraged, demanded to know if Attalus was calling him a bastard, and threw a cup at him. Philip attempted to draw his sword on his own son and failed because he was so drunk he tripped, and Alexander mocked him. After this drunken brawl, Olympias and Alexander went back to Molossia.

Exactly what the drunken Attalus meant by his insult is unclear: He could have been charging Olympias with adultery or insinuating that Alexander, the son of a foreign woman, was therefore not legitimate. He simply could have meant that any child born of this new marriage to his niece would be more legitimate than Alexander. His exact meaning is difficult to ascertain, as is Philip’s reasoning for supporting Attalus’s very public insult of his current heir. (How Alexander the Great's fear of losing power helped erode his empire.)

Murder at the feast

Philip did mend fences, and Alexander and his mother returned to Macedonia. Philip planned a wedding extravaganza celebrating the marriage of Olympias’s daughter, Cleopatra, to her uncle and Olympias’s brother, the king of Molossia. The union was meant to reassure Olympias and her family and convince the Greek world generally that Philip’s planned military invasion of Persia could proceed without more domestic upset.

At this moment of apparent reconciliation, Philip was suddenly assassinated by a young Macedonian noble and former lover, Pausanias. Previous Macedonian kings had been killed by family members, leading many to suspect that Olympias had arranged the murder to protect her son’s claim on the throne. Some believed Alexander was in on the plot, to avenge the earlier insult and to ensure that he, rather than his father, led the upcoming invasion. (Some believe this tomb belonged to Philip, Alexander the Great's father.)

Many others would have liked to see Philip dead, likely hoping that the invasion and Macedonian dominance of the Greek peninsula would not endure. It will never be known if Pausanias had help, and if so, whose. Alexander quickly eliminated all Macedonian threats and defeated all Greek attempts to overthrow Macedonian dominance. He had Attalus killed, and Olympias— with or without Alexander’s knowledge—had Philip’s new wife and baby killed.

In 334 Alexander led a combined Greek and Macedonian force to Asia, leaving the general Antipater behind in apparent control of the Greek peninsula. Olympias remained in Macedonia and Alexander’s sister Cleopatra, still married to her uncle, resided in Molossia.

Fighting for influence

As Alexander’s victories accumulated, Alexander sent plunder home to Olympias, and she made splendid dedications in his honor at Delphi and Athens. Tradition says that she offered advice to her son while he was away and warned him of threats. Chief among those was Antipater. (For centuries, the Oracle at Delphi attracted the powerful who sought answers from the gods).

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A Close Bond A cameo of Olympias and Alexander was carved in the fourth century B.C. from sardonyx, a colorful gemstone. National Archaeological Museum, Florence

Antipater, meanwhile, was also complaining to Alexander, with equal vehemence, about Olympias. Each seems to have thought that the other was overstepping their position. Ancient authors describe Olympias as difficult and assertive and insist that Alexander tolerated his mother but did not let her affect policy. At least not at first; toward the end of his reign it was different.

By 330 quarrels with Antipater forced Olympias to retreat to Molossia. Olympias was a grandmother now: Her daughter Cleopatra had borne a son and daughter. Around 334 Cleopatra’s husband left for a military expedition to Italy and died there. Cleopatra served as guardian and probably as regent for her young son, possibly sharing power with Olympias.

Meanwhile, Antipater’s relationship with Alexander deteriorated, and by 325, after Alexander’s return from India, rebellion began to spread in Alexander’s realms. Seizing the moment, Olympias and Cleopatra formed a faction against Antipater. Plutarch claimed that they divided rule between them, with Olympias taking Epirus, and Cleopatra Macedonia, but the true details of this arrangement remain unclear.

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The site of Pella, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, today lies in northern Greece. Here, Olympias lived as a wife of Philip II before giving birth to Alexander in 356 B.C.

According to Plutarch, Alexander congratulated his mother on having made the better choice since the Macedonians would never endure being ruled by a woman. Not long after, Alexander ordered Antipater to turn his position over and meet him in Babylon. When, months later in June 323, Alexander died in Babylon, Antipater was still in his old position, though several of his sons, including Alexander’s cupbearer, were with Alexander. His sudden death made many, including Olympias, suspect that Antipater’s family had poisoned him. Historians doubt that Alexander was murdered, but as with the death of Philip, little can be certain. (Clues to the lost tomb of Alexander have been uncovered in Egypt.)

Empire in chaos

The death of her son left Olympias in a precarious position. Alexander left behind no obvious heir. It was decided that the unborn child of Roxanne, one of Alexander’s wives, would co-rule with Alexander’s half brother, the mentally disabled Philip III Arrhidaeus, and a regent would be appointed. Roxanne gave birth to a boy, Alexander IV, but succession would be anything but smooth.

Alexander’s generals, “the successors,” fought fiercely among themselves to establish control over the empire. They broke into competing factions, each one controlling a different region. Antipater managed to hold on to Macedonia, and Olympias kept a safe distance in Molossia. Without Alexander, Olympias needed military protection from her family. Aeacides, Olympias’s nephew, seems to have become co-king with Alexander IV, Olympias’s young grandson, around this time.

Antipater died in 319, and the new regent, Polyperchon, urged Olympias to return to Macedonia to care for her grandson Alexander IV. Antipater had passed over his own son, Cassander, and named Polyperchon as his successor. The two men were at odds, and Polyperchon knew an alliance with Olympias could be useful. She refused for several years, not trusting any of the successors, but relented out of fear that Philip III Arrhidaeus and his Argead wife, Adea Eurydice (allies with Cassander), would kill Alexander IV.

War between women

In fall of 317, Olympias appeared in Macedonia at the head of an army with Polyperchon and her nephew Aeacides, and Adea Eurydice met her with her forces: Greek historian Duris of Samos called it the first war between women. Supposedly Olympias dressed as a Bacchant, and when the Macedonian army saw her, it threw its support to her. She killed Philip and Adea Eurydice, as well as a number of Cassander’s supporters.

Olympias’s success did not last because Polyperchon proved a bad general and Cassander an excellent one. His victories eroded public support for Olympias and Alexander IV. Cassander besieged Olympias at Pydna, and she surrendered, Cassander put her on trial, refused to let her speak, and had her executed. Olympias went to her death with courage. The Argead dynasty, for practical purposes, ended with her death, although Cassander waited a few years before he murdered Alexander IV.

Standing at the beginning of a long line of powerful women, Olympias set a precedent for women in Hellenistic monarchies: It became almost the norm for women to appear with armies, co-rule, and engage in fierce succession battles. Cleopatra III of Egypt co-ruled with one son, expelled him and co-ruled with another, who subsequently murdered her in 101 B.C. Cleopatra VII (the Great) fought two of her brothers, secured the throne of Egypt for herself, and lost it to Rome in 30 B.C.—ending the line that started with Olympias centuries before.