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Olympias (Greek: Ολυμπιάς) (c. 376 BC316 BC) was an Epirote princess, a wife of Macedonian king Philip II of Macedon and the mother of Alexander the Great. She was a strong believer in the god of wine, Dionysus, and often had snakes in her bed and around her neck.


Olympias was daughter of Neoptolemus, king of Epirus. Her father claimed descent from Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. When her father died c. 360 BC, his brother and successor Arymbas made a treaty with the new king of Macedonia, Philip II. The alliance was cemented with a diplomatic marriage: Arymbas' niece Olympias became queen of Macedonia in 359 BC.

It is said that Philip II had first fallen in love with Olympias when they were among the initiants into the Kabeiria Mysteries of Dionysus in Samothrace. However, their marriage was stormy, and, feeling neglected and angry, Olympias returned to Epirus in the fall of 357 BC, wintering there. Late in spring 356 BC, under pressure from her uncle, the Epirotan king Arymbas, she returned to Pella, the Macedonian capital. Upon her return, she was pregnant, and she bore her famous son Alexander in late July, 356 BC.

Despite the arrival of his first son, Philip II was scorned for having a child not of "pure Macedonian blood". Angry at her husband for not accepting Alexander, Olympias insisted it was Zeus, King of the Gods, who had impregnated her while she slept under an oak tree (which were sacred to him). Alexander appeared to have believed the tale, as he later sought – and probably received – confirmation of his divine descent at the sanctuary of Zeus Ammon (of the sands) in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt.

The fickleness of Philip and the jealous temper of Olympias led to a growing estrangement that ripened when Philip married a new wife, Euridice, in 337 BC. Olympias, accompanied by Alexander, withdrew into Epirus for approximately a year. Her son returned to Pella after an apparent reconciliantion, or at least cessation of hostilities. Soon after Philip was murdered, which her detractors have said she countenanced. Olympias returned immediately after.

During the absence of Alexander, with whom she regularly corresponded on public as well as domestic affairs, she had great influence, and by her arrogance and ambition caused such trouble to the regent, Antipater.

Upon Alexander's death in 323 BC, Olympias found it prudent to withdraw again into Epirus. She supported her grandson Alexander, son of Alexander the Great, and in 317 BC, allied with Polyperchon who had succeeded Antipater in 319 BC. Olympias took the field with an Epirote army in an attempt to drive Cassander, Antipater's son, from power in Macedon. She was successful in killing the rival king Philip Arrhidaeus and his wife Eurydice. The opposing troops at once declared in her favor, and for a short period Olympias was mistress of Macedonia.

Cassander hastened from Peloponnesus, and, after an obstinate siege, compelled the surrender of Pydna, where Olympias had taken refuge.

One of the terms of the capitulation had been that Olympias' life should be spared. In spite of this, she was brought to trial for the numerous and cruel executions of which she had been guilty during her short lease of power. Condemned without a hearing, she was put to death in 316 BC by the friends of those whom she had slain, and Cassander is said to have denied her remains the rites of burial.

By tradition, Olympias was descended from another woman of the same name, daughter of Neoptolemus and Andromache and so granddaughter of Achilles and Deidamea. This formed the basis of Alexander's claims to be a new Achilles.

Further reading

  • Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great. 1994 ISBN 0140088784

External links

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