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1. Wife of Philip II., king of Macedonia, and mother of Alexander the Great. She was the daughter of Neoptolemus I., king of Epeirus, through whom she traced her descent to Pvrrhus, the son of Achilles. (Just. 7.6.10; Plut. Alex. 2; Diod. 19.51; Paus. 1.11.1; Theopomp. fr. 232, ed. Didot.) Her temper, naturally vehement and passionate, led her to engage with wild enthusiasm in all the mystic rites and orgies of the Orphic and Bacchanalian worship; and we are told that it was on one of these occasions that Philip first met her at Samothrace, and became enamoured of her. (Plut. l.c. ; Himerius apud Phot. p. 367a.) But it was not till some time after the accession of the latter to the throne of Macedonia, B. C. 359, that their nuptials took place. (Justin. l.c.) The marvellous stories circulated at a subsequent period of the circumstances connected with the birth of Alexander, B. C. 356, and which gave rise to, or rather were invented in support of, the idea that the latter was the son of Ammon and not of Philip, are too well known to require further notice. (Plut. Alex. 2, 3 ; Paus. 4.14.7; Just. 11.11, 12.16; Lucian. Alex. 7; Arr. Anab. 4.10.3).

Plutarch and Justin absurdly ascribe to these suspicions the estrangement that subsequently arose between Philip and Olympias, for which the numerous amours of the former, and the passionate and jealous character of the latter are amply sufficient to account. It is certain that the birth of their second child Cleopatra was subsequent to that of Alexander; nor was it until many years after that event that the marriage of Philip with Cleopatra, the niece of Attalus (B. C. 337), led to an open rupture between him and Olympias. The latter took refuge at the court of her brother Alexander, king of Epeirus, whom she stimulated to engage in war with Macedonia, at the same time that she continued to foment the intrigues of her son and his partisans at the court of Philip. She appears to have been the prime mover of the scheme for the marriage of Alexander with the daughter of Pixodarus, which gave especial offence to Philip ; and it was even generally believed that she lent her countenance and support to the assassination of the king by Pausanias, B. C. 336. It is, however, that deed in the open manner asserted by some writers. (Plut. Alex. 2, 9, 10; Just. 9.5, 7 11.11; Athen. 13.557c.)

After the death of Philip she returned to Macedonia, where she enjoyed the highest consideration and influence through the affection and filial reverence of Alexander; of which she soon after took an unworthy advantage by availing herself of the absence of the young king to put to death her rival Cleopatra, together with her infant daughter; an act of cruelty which excited the vehement indignation of Alexander. (Plut. Alex. 10; Just. 9.7 ; Paus. 8.7.7). It is, indeed, a remarkable trait in the character of the latter that while he was throughout his life conspicuous for his warm attachment to his mother, he did not allow himself to be blinded to her faults : during his campaigns in Asia he maintained a constant correspondence with her, and lost no opportunity of showing her respect and attention; but her frequent complaints and representations against his personal friends, especially Hephaestion, remained unheeded, and he strictly forbade her to interfere in political affairs, or encroach upon the province of Antipater in the government of Macedonia. In this respect, however, his injunctions were ineffectual; Olympias and Antipater were continually engaged in the bitterest feuds, and their letters to Alexander in Asia were uniformly filled with complaints and recriminations against each other. Whether the representations of Olympias concerning the ambitious character and dangerous designs of the regent had really produced any effect upon the mind of the king, or that he deemed it best to put an end to these bickerings and jealousies by the separation of the parties, it is certain that Craterus had been appointed to succeed Antipater in the regency of Macedonia, while the latter was to conduct an army of fresh levies to Babylon, when the death of Alexander himself (B. C. 323) caused an entire change of arrangements. (Arr. Anab. 7.12 Plut. Alex. 39, 68; Diod. 17.32, 114, 118 ; Just. 12.14.) By that event Antipater was placed in the undisputed control of affairs in Macedonia and Greece, and Olympias deemed it prudent to withdraw herself beyond the sphere of his power : she accordingly took refuge in Epeirus, where she urged her cousin Aeacides to join the league of the Greeks against Antipater. (Pais. 1.11.3.) But the Epeirots refused to follow their king, and the victory of Antipater and Craterus over their confederates for a time crushed the hopes of Olympias. Her restless ambition and her bitter hatred to the Macedonian regent soon prompted her to fresh schemes. Leonnatus, in whom she had hoped to raise up a rival to Antipater, had fallen in the Lamian war [LEONNATUS], and she now turned her views towards Perdiccas, to whom she offered the hand of her daughter Cleopatra, in order to withdraw him from his projected union with Nicaea, the daughter of Antipater. (Arrian, apud Phot. p. 70a.) Perdiccas, however, did not judge it prudent as yet to break off the proposed alliance, though he secretly determined to marry Cleopatra : but his death in Egypt the following year (B. C. 321), put an end to all hopes from that quarter. Olympias, in consequence, continued to live, as it were, in exile in Epeirus until tiie death of her old enemy Antipater (B. C. 319) presented a new openingfto her ambition, Her vey name as the mother of Alexander, still carried much weight with the Macedonians, and her alliance was now eagerly courted uy the new regent Polysperchon, who stood in need of her support against Cassander ; and he sent her an honourable embassy, imploring her to return to Macedonia, and undertake the charge of the young prince Alexander, the son of Roxana. She, however, followed the advice of Eumenes, that she should remain in Epeirus until the fortune of the war was decided, and contented herself with interposing the weight of her name and authority in favour of Polysperchon in Greece, and of Eumenes in Asia. (Diod. 18.49, 57, 58, 62, 6.5.) For a time, indeed, fortune appeared to be unfivourable : the disasters of Polyspercholi in Greece, and the alliance concluded by Eurydice with Cassander, gave a decided preponderance to the opposite part. But in B. C. 317, Olympias determined to take a more vigorous part in the contest, and took the field in person, together with Polysperchon, at the head of an army furnished by the king of Epeirus. Eurydice met them with equal daring ; but when the mother of Alexander appeared on the field, surrounded by a train in bacchanalian style, the Macedonians at once declared in her ftvour, and Eurydice, abandoned by her own troops, fled to Amphipolis, where she soon after fell into the hands of her implacable rival, and was put to death, together with her unfortunate husband, the puppet king Arrhidaeus [EURYDICE]. Not content with this unnecessary act of cruelty, Olympias followed up her vengeance by the execution of Nicanor, the brother of Cassander, as well as of an hundred of his leading partisans among the Macedonian nobles, and even wreaked her tury upon the lifeless remains of his brother Iollas. (Diod. 19.11; Just. 14.5; Athen. 13.560,f. ; Paus. 1.11.4; Plut. Alc. 77; Ael. V. H.13.35.) But her sanguinary triumph was of'short duration : her cruelties alienated the minds of the Macedonians, and Casander, who was at that time in the Peloponnese, hastened to raise the siege of Tegea, in which he was engaged, and turn-his arms against Macedonia. Olympias on his approach threw herself (together with Roxana and the young Alexander) into Pydna, where she trusted to be able to hold out until Polysperchon or Aeacides should come to her relief; but Cassander succeeded in cutting off all succours from without, and kept the city closely blockaded both by sea and land throughout the winter. At length in the spring of 316, after suffering the utmost extremities of famine, Olympias was compelled by the increasing discontent of the garrison to surrender to Cassander, stipulating only that her life should be spared. But notwithstanding this promise, the conqueror caused her to be arraigned before the assembly of the Macedonians for her late executions, and condemned to death without being allowed a hearing. Olympias in vain protested against the sentence, and demanded to be heard in her own defence. Cassander feared the effect which her personal appearance might produce, and despatched a body of soldiers to put her to death. Even these men, awed by her daring and majestic carriage, hesitated to fulfil their orders, but the friends of the Maceoonians whom she had so lately put to death, rushed in and despatched her with many wounds. She met her fate with a fortitude and dignity worthy of the mother of Alexander. Cassander is said to have denied the rites of sepulture to her remains. (Diod. 19.35, 36, 49-51; Just. 14.6; Paus. 9.7.2; Polyaen. 4.11.3 ; Ael. NA 12.6; Euseb. Arm. p. 155.) Of her character it is unnecessary to speak, after the events above related : she was certainly not without something of the grandeur and loftiness of spirit which distinguished her son, but her ungovernable passions led her to acts of sanguinary cruelty that must for ever disgrace her name. Her life was made the subject of a separate biography by Amvntianus, a writer in the reign of M. Aurelius. (Phot. Bibl. p. 97a.)

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hide References (26 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (26):
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 17.114
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 17.118
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 17.32
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.11.1
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.11.4
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 9.7.2
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.14.7
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 8.7.7
    • Plutarch, Alexander, 10
    • Plutarch, Alexander, 2
    • Plutarch, Alexander, 68
    • Plutarch, Alexander, 9
    • Plutarch, Alexander, 3
    • Plutarch, Alexander, 39
    • Arrian, Anabasis, 4.10.3
    • Arrian, Anabasis, 7.12
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 18.49
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 18.57
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 18.58
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 18.62
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 19.11
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 19.35
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 19.36
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 19.49
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 19.51
    • Aelian, De Natura Animalium, 12.6
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