[uh-lim-pee-uh, oh-lim-]
Olympias, d. 316 B.C., wife of Philip II of Macedon and mother of Alexander the Great. She did not get on well with Philip, who had other wives, but the story that she murdered him is probably false. She reputedly had great influence in molding her son and in giving him an interest in mysticism and in art. Her violent ambitions plunged her into quarrels with Antipater, whom Alexander had left as regent in Macedonia, and after Alexander's death she tried to forestall Cassander, Antipater's son, in Macedonia. He in turn besieged her in Pydna on the Gulf of Thessaloníki, and after her capture he ordered her execution.
Olympias (in Greek, Ὀλυμπιάς; ca. 376–316 BC) was an Epirote princess, the fourth wife of the king Philip II of Macedon, the mother of Alexander the Great and queen consort of Macedon. A devout worshipper of the Greek god Dionysus, she was said to have kept snakes that terrified the men. Olympias apparently was originally named Myrtale (or 'Mistilis'). Later she may have been called Olympias as a recognition of Philip's victory in the Olympic Games of 356 BC. As a child she was called Polyxena and then, at marriage, Myrtale; later she was also known as Olympias and Stratonice.


Olympias was daughter of Neoptolemus, king of Epirus, descent from the lineage of Aeacidae (a well respected family of Greece). Neoptolemus was named after the son of Achilles, from whom the family claimed descent. Her brother was Alexander I of Epirus, a kingdom ruled later by Pyrrhus. When her father died ca. 360 BC, his brother and successor Arymbas (grandfather of Pyrrhus) made a treaty with the new king of Macedonia, Philip II of Macedon. The alliance was cemented with a diplomatic marriage: Arymbas' niece Olympias became queen of Macedonia in 359 BC.

It is said that Philip II had first fallen in love with Olympias when they were among the initiates into the Kabeiria Mysteries of Dionysus in the Greek island of Samothrace. Their marriage was stormy, however, and Olympias returned to Epirus in the fall of 357 BC, wintering there and having an adulterous affair. Late in spring 356 BC, under pressure from her uncle, the Epirotan king Arymbas, she returned to Pella, the Macedonian capital. Upon her return, she was pregnant, and she bore her son Alexander in late July 356 BC. Not long afterwards (late spring 355 BC) she also bore Philip a daughter, Cleopatra.

Despite the arrival of his first legitimate son (he had already fathered another illegitimate son, Philip III), Philip II was scorned for having a child not of "pure Macedonian blood". Angry at her husband for not accepting Alexander, Olympias insisted it was Zeus, King of the Gods, who had impregnated her while she slept under an oak tree (which were sacred to him). Alexander appeared to have believed the tale, as he later sought confirmation of his divine descent at the sanctuary of Zeus Ammon (of the sands) in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt.

Olympias was angered by Philip's marriage to Cleopatra Eurydice, in 337 BC. She was not angry because Philip had chosen a new woman to be his wife — indeed, he had several lovers, both male and female, and multiple wives — but because upon marrying Eurydice he divorced Olympias and disowned their son, Alexander. At the wedding banquet, Cleopatra Eurydice's guardian Attalus wished that the new couple would produce "legitimate heirs" together.

Accompanied by Alexander, Olympias withdrew for approximately a year to Epirus, where her brother Alexander I of Epirus was now king. She and her son returned to Pella after an apparent reconciliation, or at least cessation of hostilities; Philip had cemented his ties to Alexander I by offering him the hand of his and Olympias' daughter Cleopatra in marriage. At Philip's wedding soon afterwards, he was murdered; it is unclear whether Olympias had anything to do with its planning, but unlikely that Alexander, her son, was in on the murder. It is only known for sure that Alexander had the body of Philip's assassin (Pausanias of Orestis) chained to stakes and left on public display to starve as a criminal (apotumpanismos. The head of the body of Pausanias was found to have on it a golden crown, supposedly put there by Olympias. Pausanias' body was ultimately taken down from the crucifixion cross and placed over Philip's body. The two were cremated together in a typical Macedonian rite. Olympias dedicated a memorial to Pausanias. The sword used by Pausanias to kill Philip was hung in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, per special orders from Olympias herself, under the name Mistilis.

Olympias murdered Caranus, son of Philip and his last wife, Cleopatra Eurydice. She also murdered Caranus's sister, Europa, and forced Cleopatra Eurydice to hang herself. During the absence of Alexander, with whom she regularly corresponded on public as well as domestic affairs, she wielded great influence in Macedon, causing trouble to the regent, Antipater.

Upon Alexander's death in 323 BC, Olympias withdrew again into Epirus. She supported her grandson Alexander, son of Alexander the Great, and in 317 BC, allied with Polyperchon who had succeeded Antipater in 319 BC. Olympias took the field with an Epirote army in an attempt to drive Cassander, Antipater's son, from power in Macedon.

When she engaged Eurydice III (Philip's granddaughter through his wife Audata) in battle, Eurydice's troops defected to Olympias, unwilling to fight against the mother of Alexander. Olympias imprisoned Eurydice and her husband Philip Arrhidaeus; he was executed and Eurydice was forced to hang herself. For a short period Olympias was mistress of Macedonia.

Cassander hastened from Peloponnesus, and, after an obstinate siege, compelled the surrender of Pydna, where Olympias had taken refuge. One of the terms of the capitulation had been that Olympias' life should be spared. In spite of this, she was brought to trial for the numerous and cruel executions of which she had been guilty during her short span of power. Condemned without a hearing, she was put to death in 316 BC by the friends of those whom she had slain. Cassander is said to have denied her remains the rites of burial.

Olympias in the modern world

See also

  • Olympias, reconstruction of Greek trireme.

Further reading

  • Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great. 1994 ISBN 0-14-008878-4

External links



Primary sources

  • Orosius, Historiae adversus paganos iii.14, 23.30-32
  • Justinus, Epitome Historiarum philippicarum Pompei Trogi vii.6.10, ix.5-7, xiv.5-6

Secondary sources

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