Olympias

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Olympias (ca. 375 bce-316 bce) was one of the wives of Philip II of Macedonia and the mother of Alexander the Great. Her original name was apparently Polyxena, but she changed it to Myrtale upon her marriage to Philip. When a chariot sponsored by her husband won at the Olympic Games of 356 bce she renamed herself Olympias.

Origins

Olympias came from Epirus, a region of northwestern Greece. Her father, Neoptolemus, king of Epirus, was from the tribe of the Molossians and claimed to be a descendent of Achilles. Olympias lost her parents at a young age.

She was given in marriage to Philip by her uncle Arymbas (the successor of Neoptolemus as ruler of Epirus) as a way to cement a political alliance between the two kingdoms. Ancient sources claim that she met Philip at the Aegean island of Samothrace, where they had both travelled to be initiated in the rites of the Cabiri, deities associated with the fertility of humans and animals. One year after her marriage, in 356 bce, Olympias gave birth to her famous son, Alexander. Two years later she gave Philip a daughter, Cleopatra.

Deeply religious, Olympias was a follower of the mystery cults of Orpheus and Dionysus. She was said to keep snakes as pets and to sleep with a giant one on her bed.

After twenty years of marriage, Philip decided in 337 bce to marry Cleopatra Eurydice, a niece of Attalos, one of his generals. The union may have been motived by the desire of his supporters to see him married to a Macedonian woman. Insulted by the union, Olympias moved with her son to Epirus, where her brother Alexander had become the new king.

She returned to Macedonia in 336 bce, after the assassination of Philip, an event that happened during the wedding ceremony of her daughter Cleopatra to her brother Alexander, the ruler of Epirus. Although the explanation was that the murderer, Pausanias of Orestis, had a grievance against Philip, rumours spread that Olympias had instigated him to commit the act.

Olympias’ position improved when Alexander succeeded Philip as new king of Macedonia. To protect her status, she ordered the death of Cleopatra Eurydice (or forced her to commit suicide) and of the son who resulted from the marriage to Philip, Caranus.

After Alexander’s departure to Asia in 334 bce, Olympias challenged the power of Antipater, nominated by her son as overseer of Macedonia and Greece. She kept a correspondence with Alexander, often complaining on her letters about Antipater. In 331 bce she once again left for Epirus, where she ruled with her widowed daughter.

Struggle for Macedonia

The death of Alexander in 323 bce left Macedonia without a clear heir and opened a period of turmoil that offered chances for Olympias to gain control over the kingdom.

Olympias offered her daughter Cleopatra in marriage to Leonnatus, one of Alexander’s generals, but he died in battle before the marriage could take place. She then sent her to Asia Minor to marry another of Alexander's generals, Perdiccas, an opponent of Antipater. When the latter learned about the plan, he imprisoned Cleopatra in Sardis. Meanwhile, the generals of Alexander had agreed to recognize as legitimate heirs Philip Arrhidaeus (a mentally unfit half-brother of Alexander) and Alexander IV (the son of Alexander and Roxane).

Antipater died in 319 bce, leaving as his successor Polyperchon, who invited Olympias to return to Macedonia to rule in the name of her grandson Alexander IV. She declined, following the recommendation of the general Eumenes, one of her closest advisers. Polyperchon was soon overthrown by Antipater’s son, Cassander, who was nominated by Philip Arrhidaeus as regent.

Polyperchon fled to Epirus with Alexander IV and Roxane and persuaded Olympias to fight Cassander. She raised an army and marched in person to Macedonia in 317 bce. At the border she met the Macedonian army led by Philip Arrhidaeus and his wife Eurydice. At the sight of Olympias the soldiers defected, since they did not want to fight the mother of Alexander, who they considered sacred.

Olympias had finally reached her goal: she had become regent of Macedonia. In celebration of her victory she changed her name to Stratonice. To impose her power, she ordered the death of a hundred supporters of Cassander, executed Philip Arrhidaeus and forced his wife to commit suicide.

However, Cassander, who was absent at the Peloponnesus during Olympias’ invasion, managed to enter Macedonia with his army. Caught by surprise, Olympias took refuge at Pydna, a town near Mount Olympus, with Roxane and Alexander IV. Her ally, Polyperchon, failed to break the siege of the town imposed by Cassander. In the spring of 316 bce Olympias was forced to surrender, after Cassander promised to spare her life.

Olympias was given the chance of leaving Macedonia for Athens on a ship, but she refused. Fearing her influence, Cassander asked the relatives of those killed during her short reign to accuse her in an assembly. Olympias was not allowed to defend herself in the assembly, where she was sentenced to death. Cassander sent 200 soldiers to execute the sentence, but they refused to kill Olympias. At the end, she was killed by the relatives of her victims.