Roman medallion with Olympias, Museum of Thessaloniki
|Queen of Macedonia|
|Tenure||c. 357-316 BC|
|Died||316 BC (aged 59)|
Macedonia, Ancient Greece
|Spouse||Philip II of Macedon|
|Issue||Alexander the Great|
Cleopatra of Macedon
|Father||Neoptolemus I of Epirus|
|Religion||Ancient Greek religion|
Olympias (Ancient Greek: , pronounced [olympiás], c. 375-316 BC) was the eldest daughter of king Neoptolemus I of Epirus, the sister of Alexander I of Epirus, the fourth wife of Philip II, the king of Macedonia and the mother of Alexander the Great. She was extremely influential in Alexander's life and was recognized as de facto leader of Macedon during Alexander's conquests. After her son's death, she fought on behalf of Alexander's son Alexander IV, successfully defeating Adea Eurydice. After she was finally defeated by Cassander, his armies refused to execute her, and he finally had to summon family members of those Olympias had previously killed to end her life. According to the 1st century AD biographer, Plutarch, she was a devout member of the orgiastic snake-worshiping cult of Dionysus, and he suggests that she slept with snakes in her bed.
Olympias was the eldest daughter of Neoptolemus I, king of the Molossians, an ancient Greek tribe in Epirus, and sister of Alexander I. Her family belonged to the Aeacidae, a well-respected family of Epirus, which claimed descent from Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. Apparently, she was originally named Polyxena, as Plutarch mentions in his work Moralia, and changed her name to Myrtale prior to her marriage to Philip II of Macedon as part of her initiation into an unknown mystery cult.
The name Olympias was the third of four names by which she was known. She probably took it as a recognition of Philip's victory in the Olympic Games of 356 BC, the news of which coincided with Alexander's birth (Plut. Alexander 3.8). She was finally named Stratonice, which was probably an epithet attached to Olympias following her victory over Eurydice in 317 BC.
When Neoptolemus I died in 360 BC, his brother Arymbas succeeded him on the Molossian throne. In 358 BC, Arymbas made a treaty with the new king of Macedonia, Philip II, and the Molossians became allies of the Macedonians. The alliance was cemented with a diplomatic marriage between Arymbas' niece, Olympias, and Philip in 357 BC. It made Olympias the queen consort of Macedonia, and Philip the king. Philip had allegedly fallen in love with Olympias when both were initiated into the mysteries of Cabeiri at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, on the island of Samothrace, though their marriage was largely political in nature.
One year later, in 356 BC, Philip's race horse won in the Olympic Games; for this victory, his wife, who was known then as Myrtale, received the name Olympias. In the summer of the same year, Olympias gave birth to her first child, Alexander. In ancient Greece people believed that the birth of a great man was accompanied by portents. As Plutarch describes, the night before the consummation of their marriage, Olympias dreamed that a thunderbolt fell upon her womb and a great fire was kindled, its flames dispersed all about and then were extinguished. After the marriage Philip dreamed that he put a seal upon his wife's womb, the device of which was the figure of a lion. Aristander's interpretation was that Olympias was pregnant of a son whose nature would be bold and lion-like. Philip and Olympias also had a daughter, Cleopatra, who later married her uncle, Alexander I of Epirus, to further diplomatic ties between Macedonia and Epirus.
According to primary sources, their marriage was very stormy due to Philip's volatility and Olympias' ambition and alleged jealousy, which led to their growing estrangement. Things got more tumultuous in 337 BC when Philip married a noble Macedonian woman, Cleopatra, the niece of Attalus, who was given the name Eurydice by Philip. At a gathering after the marriage, Philip failed to defend Alexander's claim to the Macedonian throne when Attalus threatened his legitimacy, causing great tensions between Philip, Olympias, and Alexander. Olympias went into voluntary exile in Epirus along with Alexander, staying at the Molossian court of her brother Alexander I, who was the king at the time.
In 336 BC, Philip cemented his ties to Alexander I of Epirus by offering him the hand of his and Olympias' daughter Cleopatra in marriage, a fact that led Olympias to further isolation as she could no longer count on her brother's support. However, Philip was murdered by Pausanias, a member of Philip's somatophylakes, his personal bodyguard, while attending the wedding, and Olympias, who returned to Macedonia, was suspected of having countenanced his assassination.
After the death of Philip II, which Olympias was believed to have either ordered or been an accessory to according to some ancient historical accounts, Olympias was allegedly also involved in overseeing the execution of Eurydice and her child in order to secure Alexander's position as the rightful king of Macedonia. During Alexander's campaigns, she regularly corresponded with him and may have confirmed her son's claim in Egypt that his father was not Philip but Zeus. The relationship between Olympias and Alexander was cordial, but her son tried to keep her away from politics. However, she wielded great influence in Macedonia and caused troubles to Antipater, the regent of the kingdom. In 330 BC, she returned to Epirus and served as a regent to her cousin Aeacides in the Epirote state, as her brother Alexander I had died during a campaign in southern Italy.
After Alexander the Great's death in Babylon in 323 BC, his wife Roxana gave birth to their son named Alexander IV. Alexander IV and with his uncle Philip III Arrhidaeus, the half brother of Alexander the Great who may have been disabled, were subject to the regency of Perdiccas, who tried to strengthen his position through a marriage with Antipater's daughter Nicaea. At the same time, Olympias offered Perdiccas the hand of her and Philip's daughter, Cleopatra. Perdiccas chose Cleopatra, which angered Antipater, who allied himself with several other Diadochi, deposed Perdiccas, and was declared regent, only to die within the year.
Polyperchon succeeded Antipater in 319 BC as regent, but Antipater's son Cassander established Philip II's son Philip III (Arrhidaeus) as king and forced Polyperchon out of Macedonia. He fled to Epirus, taking Roxana and her son Alexander IV with him, who had previously been left in the care of Olympias. At the beginning, Olympias had not been involved in this conflict, but she soon realized that in the case of Cassander's rule, her grandson would lose the crown, so she allied with Polyperchon in 317 BC. The Macedonian soldiers supported her return and the united armies of Polyperchon and Olympias, with the house of Aeacides, invaded Macedonia to drive Cassander out from power.
After winning in battle by convincing the army of Adea Eurydice, the wife of Philip III, to side with her own, Olympias captured and executed the two in October 317 BC. She also captured Cassander's brother and a hundred of his partisans. Cassander soon blockaded and besieged Olympias in Pydna and one of the terms of the capitulation had been that Olympias's life would be saved, but Cassander had decided to execute her, sparing only temporarily the lives of Roxana and Alexander IV (they were executed a few years later in 309 BC). When the fortress of Pydna fell, Cassander ordered Olympias killed, but the soldiers refused to harm the mother of Alexander the Great. In the end, the families of her many victims stoned her to death with the approval of Cassander, who is also said to have denied to her body the rites of burial.
A medal bearing the name "Olympias" was found in 1902 at Abu Qir, Egypt that dates back to AD 225-250, and belongs to the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. The reverse shows a Nereid mounted on a fantastic sea creature. It had been suggested that the Olympias depicted on the medal was Queen Olympias, but this theory has been challenged. The name ? is thought to refer to the Olympiads instead.
Together with 59.1 and 59.3, this piece is part of a series of large gold medallions that was commissioned to honor Emperor Caracalla, representing him as the descendant of Alexander the Great. These medallions, found at Aboukir in Upper Egypt, demonstrate the artistry and technical prowess achieved by an imperial mint, perhaps that of Ephesus or Perinthus (both cities in western Asia Minor). Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, is depicted here in profile. The back shows a "nereid" (sea nymph), perhaps Thetis, the mother of Achilles, riding on a hippocamp, a mythical sea-creature. Thus, the medallion forms part of a double comparison: Caracalla is compared to Alexander, the conqueror of the East; Alexander is compared to Achilles, a hero of the Trojan War.