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The Snake-Worshipping, Fur-Wearing Woman Who Made Alexander Great

One of the most fascinating and fearsome women obscured by the shadow of history.

By E.B. Johnson Published 2 months ago 10 min read
Top Story - May 2024
Olympias presenting Alexander the Great to Aristotle by Gerard Hoet, 1733.

What do you know about the mother of Alexander the Great? It's not a trick question. The woman who gave birth to one of history's military greats has been much obscured by the long, dark shadow of history. Short of a few awkward caricatures in film, little has been brought into focus about the infamous Olympias of Molossia.

If you were asked to picture this woman, it would be no surprise if you imagined a handsome, middle-aged woman in long white robes. Like the depiction above, this is the classical image that has been painted of Alexander the Great's mother. But what if you learned she was far more interesting than Victorian paintings and Hollywood films would have you believe?

The reality is that the real Queen Olympias was as different from a white-robed maiden as an apple is to a horse.

Far from being the regally-robed figure painted by romantics like Hoet (above), the fourth wife of Phillip II of Macedonia was a fearsome woman driven by ambition and pride. She was said to sleep with snakes and engage in orgiastic cults, and when she greeted dignitaries it was often robed in a tunic made of fur. (Rowson. 2022.)

Olympias was a woman who wasn't afraid to flex her power and that, perhaps, is why she was the woman who gave birth to one of the most powerful men in history.

The woman who would do anything for her son...and her power.

This Macedonian queen has been largely forgotten by the hand of history, and treated hostilely by the few who have dared to pick up a pen in her name. Far from being the quiet and docile woman that Greek culture expected, Olympias was documented by historians such as Plutarch as murderous, vengeful, and brave, three traits that would come to be closely associated with her son (and her husband, too).

Olympias was said to be driven by her passions, something that was no doubt affected by the warped lens through which her male contemporaries saw her. All the same, it led to a woman who was both cunning and determined, who rose from a family in the hills of Molossia to one of the most powerful women in the world.

Becoming a Queen

Around 357 BCE, the kingdom where Olympias was raised (Molossia) fell under threat from a northern kingdom (Illyria). To protect her people, a marriage was necessary. The young woman traveled to the distant island of Samothrace and made a deal. She would become the wife of Phillip II, a young king and great warrior, in order for his protection of Molossia.

It was the brave first step in the direction of her destiny.

Olympias became the 4th of 7 wives and gave birth to her son, Alexander, a year after her marriage to Phillip II. While Alexander was technically the second son (after Phillip's first son, Arrhidaeus) he was quickly made the heir apparent, due to the mental disabilities of Phillip's first son.

Being the mother of the heir gave Olympias her first taste of real power. She wielded it with ease. In truth, that was a must in the Macedonian court. With 7 wives to contend with and no formal rules of succession, Olympias had to become an advocate for her son as heir - making connections and forming factions that would keep him elevated in the eyes of his father and the rest of the court.

At first, this was easily done. Phillip was often away playing war games, and Olympias was left in charge of raising her son. Importantly, Olympias was not the only Molossian at the court. Her brother, the future king of Molossia was there, as well as other members of the Molossian ruling families. Their support of Alexander, as well as his place as heir apparent, gave the entire family a lift in power both at court and abroad.

Olympias reigned supreme beside her son Alexander, who was left in charge of Macedonia at the age of 16 (while his father left on campaign in Illyria and Greece). For a time…

The Fall

The cracks begin to show in the story of both Olympias and Alexander after Phillip's 7th and final marriage. This is where one starts to see who Olympias truly was, the motivations behind her increasingly power-hungry behavior, and the visions that she had for her son's future.

This time, King Phillip II wed himself not to some distant princess, but to a woman from a powerful Macedonian woman. Called Cleopatra Eurydice, this newest addition to Phillip's harem of wives was surrounded by an ambitious faction of her own, as well as a guardian who was a beloved general, named Attalus.

During the wedding feast, Alexander was snubbed by Attalus (the new bride's guardian) and called a bastard in front of the whole court. Alexander threw his cup at him and demanded this his father defend his honor…and his legitimacy.

Phillip did nothing of the sort. Instead, he moved as if to pull his blade on his own son and fell over in a drunken fury. A scandal ensued and Alexander and Olympias were exiled together that very night from Macedonia.

Alexander fled to Molossian-controlled Illyria, while his mother went back to her home to begin her work anew. Even in exile, Olympias never stopped working to further establish her power or the power of her son.

She became a named member of one of the most powerful temples in the region. Thought to be a temple of Dionysus, the sect was linked to some of the wealthiest individuals in the realm and was highly secretive about its practices. Being a high-ranking member of the temple was akin to being a senator or congress person in today's society. It gave Olympias connections and it gave her power.

That power she wielded for her son by forging connections and making alliances in their exile. Olympias's efforts can be seen in factions that were beginning to form around Phillip II and the Macedonian court. Alexander, meanwhile, was sent to a nearby city where he was tutored academically by Aristotle and trained in the arts of war by some of the greatest Molossian athletes and generals.

The Rise

Eventually, Olympias's machinations worked. She returned to Pella and the side of her husband (and his seven wives). Shortly after, Alexander was recalled to Macedonia where he was openly embraced by his father and reinstated in the favor of Phillip II. But the damage was done…

While Phillip and Alexander had mended fences, the bad blood remained.

At the wedding of Alexander's sister (Cleopatra) to her uncle (the King of Molossia), Phillip II was assassinated by a young Macedonian noble and former lover, Pausanias. Despite the impassioned man's obvious guilt, it was long suspected that Olympia's hand was involved. Did she push the man to kill her husband? Many thought so because of what she had to gain - a son on the throne of Macedonia.

The rumors of her involvement with Phillip's death only worsened when 

Olympias had Phillip's new wife and baby killed.

As Alexander planned to wed his father's last widow (allegedly) Olympias saw a threat to her power and acted. According to the historian Justin, Olympias,

"…forced Cleopatra, for whom Phillip had divorced her, to hang herself, having first murdered her daughter in her mother's arms, and it was from the sight of her rival hanging there that Olympias gained the vengeance she had accelerated by murder…" (IX. VII. XII.)

According to another source, Olympias killed the two by having mother and child dragged over a bronze vessel filled with fire.

A mother becomes a legend.

With rivals cleared and his father's assassin dead, Alexander was able to claim the throne of Macedonia with his mother beside him. In 334 BCE Alexander set out from Macedonia with a combined force of Greeks and Macedonians, and Olympias was left in Macedonia to rule behind the scenes in his absence. Rule she did, too, to mixed effect.

Endless machinations

Alexander heaped up the victories as he cut his way across the Middle East and into Asia. All the while, he sent home plunder to his mother, who used it to make elaborate dedications for him in the temples at Delphi and Athens. She grew more powerful as her son enriched her, and she used that power to create plots and factions that disrupted her son's rule as much as it helped her son's rule.

Correspondence from Alexander still exists, and in it, we can see his frustrations with his mother - even at the height of his power. There are commands to her to "stop meddling" in his affairs, and multiple reports of her forging diplomatic relationships and making diplomatic threats (in his name) on behalf of maintaining her power and growing his.

The best example of this can be seen in the great "Antipater Incident".

Antipater was a popular Macedonian general and statesman who served both under Phillip II and Alexander the Great. Olympias warned Alexander that Antipater was a great threat to him, and Antipater too complained often to Alexander that his mother was a nuisance and a menace that was overstepping her position in Macedonia (and beyond).

The issue came to a head around 325 when Alexander returned from India to find rebellion in his realms. Olympias seized the moment and placed the blame and the doubt on Antipater, pushing him out and placing herself (and her daughter, Cleopatra) as joint rulers of Epirus and Macedonia, respectively.

Bitterness and bloodshed

Olympias never stopped working in the name of Alexander's power, not even after his death, at which time Olympias's image becomes ever-clearer - and her position even more precarious.

The death of Alexander the Great in Babylon in 323 left his empire in chaos. With no obvious heir left behind, it was left to those who survived him to choose an heir and keep the realms together. Olympias kept her distance but eventually backed the newest wife of Alexander, Roxanne, who gave birth to Alexander's son (Alexander IV) shortly after the ruler's death. Still, the succession would not be a smooth one.

Generals left behind to man the empire after Alexander's death quarreled among one another. Eventually, that quarrel split into a bigger conflict between Polyperchon and Cassander - two generals who believed in their right to rule Macedonia and the empire Alexander left behind.

In 317 BCE, Olympias threw her support in with Polyperchon, the son of Antipater, and appeared in Macedonia at the head of an army. The ruling queen of the time, Adea Eurydice met her with an army of her own and the war coined, "The first war between women," commenced.

Olympias, who wore her wild furs into battle, came out victorious. Her army captured Adea Eurydice and her husband Phillip. The two were quickly dispatched, along with Cassander's brother and a hundred of his closest partisans.

The queen's legendary love for bloodshed was cemented, but not for long.

As with all Greek tragedies, the end was not far behind Olympias. She was blockaded and besieged in Pydna later in 317 BCE, and executed by her nemesis Cassander, who had proved a more skilled general and more popular with the people of Macedonia. The method of execution was particularly grim.

Olympias was taken outside of her prison and stoned to death by the families of the people she had killed during her reign. When it was done, her body was denied the rite of burial and disposed of as trash or a fallen animal.

Whatever Alexander was (or was not), Olympias was a part of it.

It matters little where the general opinion of Olympias falls. In the story of Alexander the Great, the hand of Olympias of Molossia remains a foundational force. Alexander and his rule were colored by her ambitions, perhaps even tainted by it (depending on what stories you believe). He himself was shaped by his upbringing with her and the lessons and behaviors she taught him.

And no matter how far his legend of greatness roams, we see still that little boy, leaning on his mother as the pressure mounts over his shoulders.

We see Alexander writing home to her at the height of his campaigns. We see him confiding in her, trusting in her judgment, and even showing his frustrations with her when she can't "stop meddling" in his affairs of state.

Perhaps in that, we find the real humanity of Alexander. Chipping away at the veneer of greatness that has been swaddled around him, we find something different, something more vulnerable. That little boy peeking behind his mother's fur-tipped robes, perhaps? Or something else? Perhaps a part of Alexander that longed for the validation of a parent he could hardly say "no" to?

There may never be answers, but the stories linger in our minds as both mythology and the ever-present lesson that each of us is little more than the reflection of the world that births us. As Alexander was a shade of his mother, so Olympias was a shade of infamy in an age of heroes and villains.

© E.B. Johnson 2024

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Resources:

  • "Olympias, the Mighty Mother of Alexander the Great". National Geographic Society. 3 December 2019. Archived from the original on December 5, 2019.
  • Justin. Historiarum Philippicarum. Pompei Trogi. IX. VII.
  • Plutarch. Life of Alexander. X. VII.
  • Pausaniae. Descriptio Graeciae. VIII. VII.
  • Rowson, A. (2022). The Young Alexander: The Making of Alexander the Great. William Collins, pp.20–40.
  • Lindenlauf, Astrid. (2009). Thrown Away Like Rubbish - Disposal of the Dead in Ancient Greece. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology. 12. 10.5334/pia.161.

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E.B. Johnson

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Comments (11)

  • Mike Singleton - Mikeydredabout a month ago

    Excellent and Deserved Top Story, We are featuring this in the Vocal Social Society Community Adventure on Facebook and would love for you to join us there

  • Anna about a month ago

    Congrats on your Top Story!

  • Esala Gunathilakeabout a month ago

    Congratulations on your top story.

  • Carol Townend2 months ago

    That was fantastic, insightful, and made for very informative reading.

  • Dana Crandell2 months ago

    Thank you for an interesting history lesson and congratulations!

  • JBaz2 months ago

    I like a good history lesson and hers is a great story to focus o . Nicely detailed.congratulations

  • Very good

  • Kendall Defoe 2 months ago

    Excellent article on a legend I should know more about...! Top Story, indeed!

  • Shirley Belk2 months ago

    Wonderful research and analysis, E.B.! Nature vs Nurture, Alexander had both.

  • Andrea Corwin 2 months ago

    Too much intrigue and murder for power - it would have been frightening to try and maneuver all of that. I guess that is why humans think to be the one in charge or the leader of the gang, it must be a violent lead to keep them in line.

E.B. Johnson Written by E.B. Johnson

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