Alexander the Great was born in July 356, in the royal palace in Pella, while his father Philip II was campaigning against the Greek cities in the Chalcidice peninsula. As is to be expected in the case of a man whose achievements were to be so impressive, stories of omens surrounding his birth later circulated widely. The temple of Artemis at Ephesus supposedly burned down on the day Alexander was born, and it was suggested that Artemis, who was associated with child-birth among other things, had neglected her temple because she was attending the Macedonian prince’s birth. It was also said that Philip received the news of Alexander’s birth on the same day that he also learned that his chariot had won the Olympic Games, and that his general Parmenion had defeated the Illyrians. On the basis of this coincidence, seers were said to have predicted that Alexander would be ‘invincible’ or ‘unconquered’ (the Greek word is aniketos). This is a word that was frequently used to describe him by later writers.
Of the Alexander historians only Plutarch has anything to say about his childhood. Some of what Plutarch says is supported by other writers, in particular his account of Alexander’s education under the guidance of the philosopher Aristotle, but several of the more dramatic stories seem to be included because they foreshadow Alexander’s later achievements rather than because they are reliable. These include the story of how Alexander came to master his horse, Bucephalas, which was considered to be impossible to control, after he made a bet with his father that he could do this. Alexander does appear to have had particular affection for this horse, and is said to have offered a huge reward for its return when it was stolen in northern Iran. After the horse died during Alexander’s campaigning in the Punjab, he named a city that he founded in the region Bucephala in its memory. The question of whether the story of his taming Bucephalas explains this affection, or whether the story was inspired by Alexander’s later actions, remains open.
For the Greeks and Macedonians of Alexander’s time, and the Greeks and Romans of the time of the Alexander historians, an orderly society was one where decisions were taken by men. It was acceptable for women to protect the interests of their children, particularly their sons, by appealing to the male members of their families, but not to act on their own behalf. Greek literature as far back as the poems of Homer offered positive images of women who could influence their husbands to show kindness to strangers, or respect to the gods, but it also presented negative images of dangerous women who challenged the proper order of things. In democracies women’s influence was necessarily limited, but in monarchies the women of the royal family could have considerable indirect power, and would be expected to use it on their children’s behalf. Macedonia was no exception.
Plutarch tells a number of stories about Alexander’s mother Olympias, with whom he had a close relationship throughout his life. Even while he was on campaign they corresponded by letters, and he sent gifts back to her from the spoils of his victories. Plutarch’s stories are not favourable to Olympias: she is presented as jealous and suspicious in her relationship with Alexander’s father Philip, and also as wild and dangerous. Part of the explanation for this is that Olympias was involved in the competition and conflict between Alexander’s successors after his death, and various individuals had reasons to present a negative picture of her. It is difficult to know where the truth behind these depictions lies, but it is possible to get a more balanced understanding of the place of women in the Macedonian court by looking at the experience of other royal women. What we can say about Alexander’s grandmother Eurydice and his sister Cleopatra can help us understand more about his mother.
The career of Eurydice, wife of Amyntas III and mother of Philip II, who may well have been alive during Alexander’s early childhood, demonstrates what women could achieve, and what they might have to endure, both in life and in reputation. Eurydice was either Illyrian or Lyncestian, and Amyntas married her to maintain good relations with potentially dangerous neighbours. She bore him three sons, and this, more than anything else, will have raised her status in the Macedonian court. When Amyntas died, Eurydice was forced to enter the world of diplomacy. Her eldest son Alexander II was at this point already dead or else on the frontier fighting against the Illyrians, while a pretender, Pausanias, was making a rapid advance into Macedonia. Eurydice took her younger sons, Perdiccas and Philip, and went to the Athenian general Iphicrates, who was in the region trying to take control of the Greek city of Amphipolis. Iphicrates had been adopted by Amyntas, so Eurydice could claim him as her own step-son. According to the Athenian orator Aeschines, Eurydice put her sons into Iphicrates’ lap, and begged him to protect them as his brothers. The appeal to family ties made what might otherwise have been an inappropriate action for a woman acceptable, and Iphicrates drove Pausanias out of Macedonia. A less reliable story has Eurydice, not long after this, marrying a man called Ptolemy, who had successfully installed himself as regent for Perdiccas, so that she could continue to protect her sons’ interests. Who this Ptolemy was is uncertain, but it has been suggested that he was her son-in-law, who had killed her son Alexander II. If so, then Eurydice was marrying the killer of one of her sons to protect the others. An even more lurid version of events is told by Justin: he claims that Eurydice, out of a desire to marry Ptolemy, had attempted unsuccessfully to murder Amyntas, and that after his death she herself had first had Alexander and then Perdiccas killed. Aeschines’ sympathetic story was told less than 30 years after the events, whereas Justin’s source, Pompeius Trogus, was writing over 300 years later, with a Roman’s distaste for women intervening in political affairs, but Justin’s version of events was, until recently, accepted as fact. The way in which Eurydice was transformed by ancient and modern scholars from a mother relying on family connections to protect her sons into an ambitious schemer prepared to kill them should give us pause when we consider the accounts of her daughter-in-law, Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great.
It was at the wedding of Alexander’s sister to her uncle, Olympias’ brother, generally referred to as Alexander of Epirus, that their father Philip was assassinated. Cleopatra, like Olympias, received gifts from Alexander’s spoils, and at some point she interceded with him on behalf of a local dynast in Anatolia, not an inappropriate action for a sister. Alexander of Epirus died on campaign in Italy, leaving a son Neoptolemus, and a daughter, Cadmeia, and Cleopatra acted as regent for them: Neoptolemus did become ruler of Epirus some 30 years later. As Philip’s daughter Cleopatra became a potentially valuable wife for the generals competing for power after Alexander’s death, but she was eventually killed under uncertain circumstances in 308 BCE, when she was around 50 years old. Her life, like that of her grandmother, for all that it gave her important responsibilities, was defined by her relationships to the male members of her family.
Olympias’ career was not very different from those of her mother-in-law and her daughter. She was the daughter of Neoptolemus of Molossia, in Epirus, and her marriage to Philip was, as usual, arranged for diplomatic reasons. As the mother of Alexander her standing in the court will have been high, but little is reported about her in the period before Alexander became king—and that little is likely to be fantasy rather than fact. The story of the birth of Alexander became associated with miraculous events, and over time even stories about his conception grew up. A tradition, probably originating in Egypt in the 3rd century, claimed that Alexander was the son of Zeus, or the Egyptian god Amun, who came to Olympias in the form of a snake. Plutarch reports this story, but offers what appears to be a rationalizing explanation for it: Olympias was, he says, like most women in the region, a devotee of Orphic and Bacchic rites—that is the ecstatic worship of the god Dionysus—and she provided large snakes for these rites. It is true that the story of the death of Orpheus, torn apart by maenads or bacchants, devotees of Dionysus, was traditionally associated with Macedonian Pieria, and that Euripides’ tragedy, Bacchae, in which the king of Thebes, Pentheus, is killed by his mother and other women in a maenadic frenzy, was first performed in Macedonia at the court of Archelaus. It is also the case that Dionysiac imagery is found on some of the magnificent vessels buried in 4th-century Macedonian tombs. But even if Olympias did take part in Bacchic rituals, which is by no means certain, and even if they did involve handling snakes, which is less likely, the resulting image of Olympias as snake-obsessed is pure invention. In those places where we have clear evidence of women taking part in Bacchic activities (and they do not include Macedonia in this period), the women who acted as priestesses were not seen as deviant in their behaviour.
After Philip’s death, Olympias, as queen mother, continued to have an important role at the court in Macedon, while Alexander was on campaign. Plutarch and Arrian both refer to correspondence between Alexander and Olympias, although the texts they had access to are generally reckoned not to be genuine. It is probable that she did not have a good relationship with Alexander’s regent, Antipater, and she moved back to Molossia around 330. After Alexander’s death, Olympias’ position became dependent on the fortune of Alexander’s infant son, Alexander IV, and she was part of his entourage when she was killed by Cassander, Antipater’s son, in 315. Like her mother-in-law, Eurydice, Olympias is depicted negatively in the surviving narratives; but attempts to invert these accounts to present Olympias as a powerful and independent woman are not necessarily any closer to the truth. Her position, like Eurydice’s, depended on her son, and later her grandson. If we could get to a true picture behind the misleading representation of the surviving ancient narratives, which we cannot, it is likely that we would find that she was neither heroine nor monster, but that she fulfilled the expected role of a woman in Macedonian society, dutifully working for her children, at whatever cost.
The life of a prince
Archaeological excavation at the royal sites of lower Macedonia in the last few decades has done more than anything else to cast light on the world in which Alexander grew up. Although Alexander was born in Pella, which had been the royal centre of Macedon since the end of the 5th century, it is the excavations at the palace and tombs at Aegae, near modern Vergina, that have expanded the understanding of Macedonian public life in his time.
The palace at Aegae was probably built by Philip II. It stood on an outcrop of rock on the slope of the hill that formed the acropolis of the ancient city of Aegae, dominating the city below it with a monumental entrance facing the city. At the centre of the palace was an open area surrounded by a peristyle. In this open court the king could address his courtiers, and in the rooms that opened off the peristyle they could dine in groups of up to 30. Some of the mosaic floors of the palace survive, showing that it was richly decorated, but inevitably the wall decorations and the contents of the building have not survived. However, something of their wealth and splendour can be guessed at from what was found in the most famous archaeological discoveries at the site of Vergina-Aegae, the Macedonian royal tombs. These tombs, one of which may be that of Philip II, contained rich grave goods including furniture decorated with gold and ivory, as well as jewellery and other ornaments of gold and silver. Elsewhere in Macedonia other rich burials have been excavated, packed with vessels of gold, silver, and bronze. The royal tombs were painted with scenes from myth and from court life, and the palace will have been decorated in the same way. One theme of Macedonian art is particularly worth noting, and that is the Royal Hunt.
There is no doubt that hunting was an important part of Macedonian elite life. In his collection of texts about eating and drinking, The Learned Banqueters, the writer Athenaeus of Naucratis includes the statement from a 3rd-century historian Hegesander, that no Macedonian was permitted to recline at dinner unless he had killed a wild boar without the use of nets. One of the plots against Alexander from within his court started after Alexander had one of his pages flogged, because, during a hunt, he killed a boar which Alexander was about to claim for himself. A successful boar hunt marked a transition between boy and man, and so for Alexander to dishonour a youth who had just made that transition by beating him was a particularly humiliating act. Hunting was a frequent subject of Macedonian art. Mosaics from Pella, and the largest painting from the royal tombs at Vergina-Aegae depict Philip and Alexander hunting lions, either on horseback or on foot. Mountain lions could be found in Macedonia in that period, but lion hunts will have been less common than boar hunts. It is likely that one of the reasons for depicting lions was emulation of Persian, and before them Assyrian, kings, who decorated their own palaces with scenes of lion hunts, and close combat between the king and one or more lions. As he advanced through the territories of the Achaemenid empire Alexander visited and hunted in some of the hunting parks created by satraps and by previous kings.
As we have seen, the early history of the Macedonian monarchy was linked to the campaigns of the Persian king Darius in the north Aegean area. Even after Persian forces had left Europe at the end of Xerxes’ unsuccessful invasion, the courts of the Persian satraps in Asia Minor remained powerful models for the monarchs of Thrace and Macedonia just to their west. It has been argued by some scholars that Philip II, even while he planned his campaign against the Persian empire, was prepared to emulate some of the Great King’s court practices. He introduced the practice of aristocrats sending their young sons to the palace to serve as pages, and especially to accompany the king when he went hunting; the 4th-century historian Xenophon describes the Persian king as being accompanied in the same way. Alexander’s upbringing will have prepared him well not only for ruling Macedonia, but for dealing with the powerful empire to its east.
Alexander becomes king
Alexander’s life in the Macedonian court was interrupted when he went into exile in Illyria after quarrelling with his father, who had recently married his last wife, Cleopatra, a Macedonian woman, the daughter of one of Philip’s generals, Attalus. Plutarch, who reports the incident, implies that Alexander’s position as Philip’s heir was under threat, although this seems unlikely. Alexander returned to Macedon not long after this, in time to be present at his sister’s wedding to her uncle, Alexander of Epirus. The wedding was celebrated with a great festival at Aegae, to which ambassadors from the Greek cities were invited. It was at this wedding that Alexander’s father Philip was assassinated.
The killer was arrested before he could escape. He was one of Philip’s bodyguards, called Pausanias, and it is possible that his motives were entirely personal. There were, however, inevitably many suggestions that he was part of a larger conspiracy. Two men from the leading family of Lyncestis in Upper Macedonia, Heromenes and Arrhabaeus, were accused of involvement in the plot, and executed alongside Pausanias, although their brother Alexander was not implicated. Alexander the Great is said later to have accused the Persian king Darius of plotting to assassinate Philip: his death would certainly have served Darius’ interests, but no ancient writer appears to have made a connection between him and Pausanias. An alternative theory that Plutarch suggests was spread at the time was that Olympias was behind the assassination, and Justin implicates Alexander himself in the plot. It is difficult to see how Philip’s death at this point would have benefited Alexander, however. Nor is it plausible that Olympias would have acted for Alexander without his knowledge. There is much that remains unclear about the death of Philip, but it left Alexander as heir to all his father’s positions, above all as king of Macedon, and as leader of a proposed Greek expedition to seek for revenge against the Persians for the destruction they caused in 481–479.