Olympiada

No one in history has been more reviled than Olympiada, the mother of Alexander. She has universally been condemned as an evil, scheming, murderous witch. The only good words ever written about her are that she was beautiful and she loved her son. That she was beautiful cannot be doubted; even those contemporaries who most hated her concede this. The only surviving portrait of her is on a coin of the period and tells us nothing.

Daughter of Neoptolemus, king of Epirus, wife of Philip II of Macedon, and mother of Alexander the Great. Her father claimed descent from Pyrrhus, son of Achilles. It is said that Philip fell in love with her in Samothrace, where they were both being initiated into the mysteries (Plutarch, Alexander, 2). The marriage took place in 359 B.C., shortly after Philip’s accession, and Alexander was born in 356.

The fickleness of Philip and the jealous temper of Olympiada led to a growing estrangement, which became complete when Philip married a new wife, Cleopatra, in 337.

Alexander, who sided with his mother, withdrew, along with her, into Epirus, whence they both returned in the following year, after the assassination of Philip, which Olympiada is said to have countenanced.

How she loved her son, Alexander, is another, more complicated question. Olympiada was a woman in a world of men. In a time and place where women were considered to be somewhat less than human, Olympiada held power over men. This fact alone would have been enough to extract the most severe criticism; coupled with her haughty nature, it produced an excoriation, which has not been duplicated in any other woman.

As a Greek woman of the fourth century B.C., her power could only be possible through a man; this man was Alexander The Great, the ruler of most of the known world. He could, and did, curb her powers, and give her direct orders, which she could not refuse. Men from her first breath to her last, ruled her; it was the way of the times. Unlike most women of her day, Olympiada fought back. She fought men all of her life. She used the only possible weapons, influence and superstition. She used all of her influence with men to pit one against the other; she used the rites of her male god, Dyonisias, to frighten men.

She was a strong woman totally dominated by men and she reacted with rage and hatred. At his birth Alexander became a weapon. He was the power of Olympiada, her only real influence on Phillip, her husband and her king. He was the trump card, which she played until the time when it no longer worked.

Olympiada was a woman who achieved power and fame against impossible odds. That she achieved this through others has little bearing upon the fact; she did achieve it. Whether or not she loved her son is immaterial. If she did, it is not remarkable enough to be a saving grace, if she did not, it would make little difference to Alexander.

He was twenty-one in the spring of 334 when he left her; he was never to see her again. Olympiada would have been quite happy to sit upon the throne of Persia; Alexander never sent for her. As he did not marry before he left Macedonia, he left no other queen than Olympiada at Pella. She was queen but she did not reign. Alexander left a man, Antipater, to do that. Olympiada hated him until the day of her death. Had Alexander married and fathered a child before leaving for Asia as all his men advised, Olympiada would have been queen mother, a position of great respect, but inferior to a new queen and a prince. Olympiada could not have wanted that. This is a part of the story, which is never considered when the old question of Alexander’s not marrying before leaving Macedonia is debated. His mother would be dead set against it. She would have taken second place to any wife of Alexander. If that wife bore a male heir before Alexander’s departure, it would have greatly eclipsed the position of Olympiada. It is certain that, in the case of Alexander’s death, the Macadones would have elected his son to the throne, but unlikely that the unpopular Epirote queen would be named as regent; she would have been finished in Macedonia and she knew that.

The entire Hellenic world was thrown into political chaos at the death of Alexander (323). Alexander’s retarded half brother, Arrhidaeus, and his son Alexander IV, were proclaimed joint kings with Cassandros, the son of Antipater, as regent. The power struggle continued for years. At one point Olympiada was able to seize power ostensibly to reign in the name of her grandson, Alexander IV.

Driven out of Pella, Olympiada took refuge in the fortress of Pydna. When the fortress fell Cassandros ordered Olympiada killed but the soldiers refused to kill the mother of Alexander; in the end the families of her many victims killed her (316).