Olympias was the daughter of Neoptolemus I, the ruler of Epirus; the fourth wife of Macedonian king Philip II; and the mother of Alexander III, famously known as Alexander the Great. She is said to have changed her name to Olympias after one of Philip’s race horses won in the ‘Olympic Games.’ She was a doting mother to Alexander and later became actively involved in the politics of succession. After her son’s death, she safeguarded his wife and son. She wished to see her grandson, Alexander IV, as the next king. Thus, she allied with Polyperchon and fought against Cassander. However, she was eventually captured and executed by Cassander. Olympias continues to be live through numerous accounts, in books and movies.
Childhood & Early Life
Olympias was born in 375 B.C., in Passaron, Epirus, southwest of Macedonia, Ancient Greece, to Neoptolemus I, who was the king of a Greek tribe known as the Molossians. Alexander I was her brother.
They were the descendants of Aeacus, known as the Aeacidae, and were said to be related to Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War.
Her original name was “Polyxena.” However, she changed her name to “Myrtale” just before she got married to Philip II of Macedon.
“Olympias” was one of her four names known to people. She is believed to have adopted the name to honor Philip's win in the ‘Olympic Games’ of 356 B.C., an event that coincided with the birth of her son, Alexander.
She then came to be known as “Stratonice,” an epithet added to her name after her triumph over Eurydice in 317 B.C.
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Marriage to Philip II & the Birth of Alexander
After her father’s death in 360 B.C., her paternal uncle, Arymbas, took to the throne. In 358 B.C., Arymbas made a political alliance with Philip II, the king of Macedonia (or Macedon), and arranged the marriage between his niece, Olympias, and Philip.
There are variations to this tale. Legend has it that Olympias met Philip on the island called Samothrace, located in the Aegean Sea, between Macedonia and Troy. Philip fell in love with her while they were both being initiated to ancient deities known as the Cabeiri. They got married in 357 B.C.
Olympias was his fourth wife. She was around 18, while Philip was 28 when they got married. They had two children: a son named Alexander and a daughter named Cleopatra.
Her son, Alexander, also known as Alexander the Great, was born on July 20, 356 B.C. It is said that the day Alexander was born, Philip was away fighting at Potidaea. The same day, he learned he had won against the Illyrians. He then also came to known that his race horse had won at the ‘Olympic Games.’
Legends also state that Alexander’s birth had been announced by a dream that Olympias had had a day prior to the consummation of her marriage. She had dreamed that a thunderbolt struck her womb and started a fire. Similarly, Philip had dreamed that he stamped a seal resembling a lion, on his wife's womb. Olympias was also rumored to have slept with snakes in her chamber, since she believed in the cult of Dionysus.
Cleopatra later got married to her uncle and Olympias’s brother, Alexander I of Epirus, to strengthen the bond between Macedonia and Epirus.
Problems in Marriage
In 337 B.C., Philip married a Macedonian noblewoman named Cleopatra, who was the niece of Attalus. Philip later named Cleopatra “Eurydice.” Following this marriage, Philip could not prove Alexander's succession to the Macedonian throne when Attalus attacked Alexander’s legitimacy, calling him a bastard. This created issues between Philip and Olympias. Following this, Olympias and Alexander went to Epirus and settled at the court of Alexander I, her brother.
In 336 B.C., Philip, in an attempt to reconcile, offered Alexander I the hand of his daughter, Cleopatra, in marriage. This caused Olympias to lose her grip on her brother. Philip was killed at the wedding, by Pausanias, his own bodyguard. Olympias then returned to Macedonia, and many suspected her of having planned Philip’s murder.
Alexander the Great's Rule & the Battles of the Diadochi
After Philip’s death, Olympias ordered the murders of Cleopatra “Eurydice” and her child, to ensure her son Alexander's succession as the king of Macedonia. Some sources state they were burned to death, while many others claim Cleopatra “Eurydice” had hanged herself.
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Olympias kept in touch with Alexander during all his campaigns. She also once told him that he was fathered by Zeus and not Philip. Alexander often tried to keep Olympias away from politics.
However, Olympias became a force to reckon with in Macedonia and created issues for the Macedonian regent, Antipater. She returned to Epirus in 330 B.C. She then became a regent to Aeacides, her cousin, in the Epirote state, after her brother, Alexander I, died in southern Italy.
Following the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon in 323 B.C., his wife Roxana (or Roxanne) gave birth to his son, Alexander IV. Alexander IV and his uncle, Philip III Arrhidaeus (half-brother of Alexander the Great), were subject to the regency of Perdiccas.
Perdiccas was then about to get married to Antipater's daughter Nicaea. However, Olympias soon offered Perdiccas her daughter Cleopatra’s hand in marriage. Perdiccas chose Cleopatra and thus made Antipater angry. Antipater allied with other Diadochi and dethroned Perdiccas. Following this, Antipater became the regent but died within the year.
Antipater was succeeded by Polyperchon in 319 B.C. However, Antipater's son, Cassander, declared Philip II's son, Philip III (Arrhidaeus), the king and ousted Polyperchon from Macedonia. Polyperchon took Roxana and Alexander IV with him and escaped to Epirus.
The Final Years & Death
Initially, Olympias was not part of the conflict between Polyperchon and Cassander, but she then realized that if Cassander and his loyalists were to rule, her grandson, Alexander IV, would never be able to be the king. Thus, in 317 B.C., she joined hands with Polyperchon.
The combined forces of Olympias and Polyperchon, along with the house of Aeacides, marched into Macedonia to oust Cassander.
In October 317 B.C., Olympias ordered the executions of Phillip III, his wife (Adea Eurydice), and those Macedonians who were loyal to Cassander. However, Olympias was captured by Cassander at Pydna.
Cassander had initially promised to spare her life but executed her in 316 B.C. It is believed Cassander had her stoned to death and even denied her a proper burial. Roxana and Alexander IV, too, were executed in 310 (or 309) B.C.
A medal with "Olympias" written on it was found in the town of Abu Qir, Egypt, in 1902. The medal is said to have been from the years 225 to 250 and now belongs to the ‘Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.’
Olympias has been immortalized in various books and movies. She was the main character in Michael A. Dimitri's 1993 novel ‘The Daughter of Neoptolemus.’ Two novels of Mary Renault's ‘Alexander Trilogy,’ ‘Fire from Heaven’ (1969) and ‘Funeral Games’ (1981) revolve around Olympias.
French actor Danielle Darrieux played Olympias in the 1956 movie ‘Alexander the Great.’
She was portrayed by Angelina Jolie in Oliver Stone's 2004 movie ‘Alexander.’