One of the Most Powerful Women of Ancient Hellenic Origin
Born: c.375 BC, Present-day Epirus, Greece
Died: c.316 BC, Present-day Pydna, Greece
Original Name: Myrtle
Olympias was the daughter of the king of the Mollosians, a powerful tribe in Epirus. She was also the second wife of Philip II of Macedon (they married when she was about eighteen and he was around twenty-eight) and she was the mother of Alexander the Great (as well as a daughter named Cleopatra). Olympias even claimed her family was descended from the legendary Greek hero Achilles, and that his power and might had lived on in their blood. Her son would eventually travel to the ancient site of Troy to pay homage to his ancestor, and some say he carried a copy of The Iliad with him wherever he went as a consequence as well.
Long story short, Olympias was connected to lots of powerful men to say the least.
Olympias was given the name she is now most associated with after her husband’s prized horse was victorious in the Olympic Games. According to the ancient scholar Plutarch, Olympias gave birth to her son, Alexander, on the same day as her husband’s victory at the games. These two events corresponding on the same day foretold a great future for Olympias’s son; a future he more than lived up to.
Olympias may have poisoned Alexander’s half-brother (who wasn’t her son) so the boy wouldn’t be a threat to Alexander’s ambitions for the throne. The boy didn’t die, just became mentally impaired as a result. The proof of whether or not Olympias was actually responsible for this act is circumstantial, but the fact that it has persisted for so many centuries is telling.
The Macedonian people disliked Olympias for being a cult follower of Dionysus. The cult of Dionysus is remembered for being very hedonistic; drinking wine (unsurprisingly), enjoying some fun in the bedroom with several other adults (trying to keep this PG in case someone young comes across this article…), as well as keeping company with snakes. Some of the ancient sources went so far as to say Olympias slept with snakes in her bed. To me that seems very uncomfortable and more dangerous than it would be worth, but maybe she was about that life. I don’t judge.
After twenty years of marriage, Phillip divorced Olympias to marry a fully-Macedonian woman (rumors were swirling that Phillip himself was only half-Macedonian and therefore he and his son’s claim to the throne was in jeopardy). The politically savvy Phillip knew that by marrying his new Macedonian bride, if he managed to get her pregnant, he would be scoring a child worthy of inheriting the Macedonian throne.
The main issue here? This would obviously remove Alexander from the line of succession. Around the same time she was divorced from her husband, Olympias’s brother, who was king of Epirus, came into a marriage contract with his niece, Olympias’s daughter Cleopatra. This meant that, should the marriage go forth and should Phillip’s newest wife give birth to a boy, Olympias would be completely void of any political power in Macedonia or Epirus. Her world was about to come tumbling down.
Luckily for Olympias, fate was about to intervene.
Phillip was assassinated (possibly with Olympias’s help) at the wedding banquet for his and Olympias’s daughter (who did end up marrying Olympias’s brother, the poor girl’s uncle—luckily for the bride, the groom died not long after). With Phillip dead, Alexander rose to the throne and Olympias became the mother of the king, just like she had always wanted.
Soon after, Phillip’s new wife and daughter (and possibly son if she had one) were put to death on Olympias’s orders. According to some accounts, the family was burned to death, while others claim Cleopatra-Eurydice, Phillip’s widow, was hung until dead. Either way, their end was swift and brutal, leaving Olympias and Alexander the winners of that round.
Soon after becoming king, Alexander left to conquer large swaths of the world. Before he left, Olympias pulled her son aside and told him his father was not actually the now dead and deposed Phillip, but actually the god Zeus. Alexander more than lived up to his supposed divine heritage (you don’t earn the nickname “The Great” for nothing!) but Olympias and Alexander would never meet face to face again. Though mother and son corresponded all throughout his travels, Alexander died from an infection a long long way from home while still in his thirties, his only child not yet born.
With Alexander dead, the struggle for his empire soon began. Eventually, the vast empire was split apart, certain swaths given to certain generals. The portion that contained his native Macedonia (as well as other swaths of land) was eventually given to the general Polyperchon to rule as regent, but he was soon ousted by a brutal man named Cassander. Technically speaking, the plan was for Cassander to rule as regent until Alexander’s son (and Olympias’s grandson) would grow old enough to rule in his own right. For the time being though? Cassander ruled as regent while the mentally ill prince (Alexander’s half-brother that had survived an assassination attempt so many years before) wielded the title of king. Olympias realized soon after that, so long as Cassander breathed, her grandson would never be able to take the throne as Alexander IV (his father, Alexander the Great, was technically Alexander III).
After several years of struggle, Olympias and her cousin, the new king of Epirus, tried to invade Macedonia in order to place Olympias’s grandson on the throne. In 317 BCE, Olympias finally succeeded in murdering the current king, Alexander’s half-brother, the boy she may have tried to poison many years before. With the king as well as hundreds of other citizens who had been loyal to Cassander dead, Olympias may have finally felt secure once again. However, Cassander himself wasn’t dead and still remained regent of the area. Though the man initially vowed to save Olympias’s life, he decided she was too much of a threat to his own ambitions to keep alive.
Olympias was executed in 316 BCE. Sometime after (possibly as long as six years later), her grandson, Alexander IV, as well as his mother Roxanne (Alexander the Great’s widow), were both put to death as well. Alexander IV was only around fourteen years old at the most when he died. Olympias had battled her entire adult life for her son and grandson, but in the end, her ambition to save her family’s right to the throne was what also led to her doom.
Find a Grave Marked
Located In My Personal Library:
Tough Mothers by Jason Porath
Arsinoe of Egypt and Macedon, a Royal Life by Elizabeth Donnelly Carney
Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity by Sarah B Pomeroy
Lost Bodies by Jenni Davis
Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs: 100 Discoveries That Changed the World edited by Ann R Williams
National Geographic History Magazine November/December 2019 Edition article “The Woman Behind the Throne, Olympias”