Elizabeth D. Carney
W. W. Tarn famously doubted that Alexander “ever cared for any woman except his terrible mother.”1 More than a generation later Peter Walcott made Olympias, Alexander’s mother, the prime suspect in an article entitled “Plato’s Mother and Other Terrible Women.”2 In the years since Tarn passed this judgment, scholars have rejected virtually every other aspect of his interpretation of Alexander’s life and reign, but I suspect that many would still agree with his take on Olympias and her relationship with her son. This is so despite an important ambiguity in Tarn’s assessment: did he mean that Olympias was a terrible person or a terrible mother?
My own view is that Olympias, her son Alexander, and her husband Philip II were all, in various ways, “terrible.” (One might make a similar judgment about a number of their associates and enemies. Murder and violence were commonplace at the Macedonian court and had been for generations.) On the other hand, I do not believe that Olympias was a terrible mother. In fact, in the context of ancient Macedonia and Hellenic culture more generally, I think she was a good one. Her son achieved supreme excellence by the standards of his society and it is difficult not to connect both his achievements and some of his character traits that, even in his own world, seemed negative to the character and values of both his parents.
My concern in this essay is to consider the relationship between Alexander and his mother. This is a particularly daunting task because, though some documentary evidence survives that is relevant to any discussion of their dealings with each other, most of what we know on this topic comes from anecdotes preserved in much later – and usually misogynistic – literary sources, which often seem to use stories about Olympias as a way of venting resentment against Macedonian power. These same sources may also bear traces of the propaganda wars that mirrored and supported the actual wars of the Successors, battles in which, in the early stages, Olympias was a participant.3
Olympias,4 a daughter of a former Molossian king, was betrothed and then married to Philip II of Macedonia by her uncle Arybbas, the current ruler of the Molossians. Olympias’ dynasty, the Aeacids, claimed descent from Achilles, just as the Argeads took Heracles as their ancestor. Like the Argeads, her dynasty had Hellenized and functioned as patrons of major Greek writers, but Molossia was a more remote region than Macedonia, though similar in some respects to its more prosperous neighbor. Like Philip’s other marriages, that to Olympias was clearly a political alliance, in this case between two northern rulers with some common interests. By the time Olympias married Philip, around 357, he had already taken at least three and probably four other wives. Philip would acquire two additional wives much later in his reign.5
Thus, Olympias was involved in a polygamous marriage and Alexander grew up in court with many women and royal children. Arguably, Olympias was more distinguished by birth than Philip’s other wives, but the fact that she bore Philip a son, Alexander, in 3566 was a more important element in Olympias’ position than her high birth. (Soon after Alexander’s birth, she also bore Philip a daughter, Cleopatra.) Despite his many wives, Philip had only one other son, Arrhidaeus (usually called Philip Arrhidaeus since he later took his father’s name). Though Alexander and Arrhidaeus were close in age and so might have seemed equally likely successors, Arrhidaeus suffered from a sort of mental disability.7 It is likely that by the time Alexander had reached his early teens (and possibly sooner), Philip had begun to treat him as his presumptive heir and Olympias had therefore acquired greater prestige than his other wives.8 In Macedonian monarchy at this time, however, there was no formal position as chief wife (in fact, no title for royal women of any sort) nor was there anything like the institutionalized role of Prince of Wales for the king’s presumed heir. Thus, though Alexander and his mother became dominant at court, their situation was, by definition, uncertain and both were highly vulnerable to changes in court factions or in Philip’s preferences. He could always marry again and produce another male heir whom he might then prefer.
In Alexander’s early years, Olympias played an important role in his life for a number of reasons. In the Hellenic world, mothers were generally responsible for the care of both girls and boys until they were 7 or so. Alexander did have a wet nurse, Lanice, a member of the Macedonian elite. Though Alexander developed and maintained close ties to Lanice’s family,9 nothing suggests that this detracted from his relationship with his mother. Almost certainly, he was closer to Olympias than to Philip. For one thing, his father was frequently absent on campaign;10 Olympias would have been a constant presence in a way that Philip was not. As a consequence, Alexander probably spent more time with his mother, even after his early childhood, than might youths whose fathers were less absent.
In the period before his teens, Alexander may have spent more time with his mother’s kin and supporters than with his father. Whether they lived in a physically separate structure or simply had a suite of rooms in the palace, Olympias, Alexander, and Cleopatra formed a family subunit at court, but one with a number of supporters and Molossian connections. Olympias’ brother joined the Argead court at some point and remained there until Philip helped to put him on the Molossian throne. Alexander’s chief tutor was a kinsman of Olympias named Leonidas (Plu. Alex. 5.4, 22.4, 25.5),11 a choice surely meant to honor Olympias and her family; possibly the choice of Leonidas also reflected Olympias’ influence on Philip. Leonidas favored an education heavy on austerity and military training; he supposedly checked to make sure that Olympias was not smuggling forbidden luxuries to her son. Another early tutor, Lysimachus of Acarnania (Plu. Alex. 5.4), was quite possibly also chosen through the influence of Olympias and her family.12Lysimachus stressed Alexander’s Aeacid descent rather than the Heraclid line of Philip: he called himself “Phoenix,” Alexander “Achilles,” and Philip “Peleus” (Plu. Alex. 5.5), thus turning Philip himself into an honorary Aeacid. In a patriarchal and patrilineal world like that of fourth-century Greece, Alexander’s identification of himself as an Aeacid (and the tendency of the sources to stress this identification) is striking. Arrian (1.11.8) has Alexander say that he was descended from the genos (clan) of Neoptolemus.13
Philip’s toleration, one might almost say encouragement, of this distinctive non-Macedonian identity of Alexander’s, an identity clearly tied to Olympias’ oikos (house), is not unique to his treatment of Alexander. We know that he apparently allowed his Illyrian wife Audata to bring up their daughter Cynnane in a fashion very much at odds with Macedonian expectations about women; Cynnane was trained to fight as a warrior (indeed she apparently fought in at least one battle during her father’s reign) and would train her daughter in turn.14 Exactly why Philip seems to have invited these alternate identities in the children of his wives by non-Macedonian women is not clear, but it did give them a sense of themselves that was not exclusively grounded in court politics and the current succession pecking order.
Alexander’s lineage meant more to him than simple prestige or high birth. While his emulation of heroes certainly included his father’s supposed ancestor Heracles,15 it was his mother’s mythical forebear who proved the more compelling model for his behavior. Though Macedonian society and monarchy was generally more Homeric in its value system and institutions – for instance, hetairoi (Companions) accompanied Macedonian kings as they did Homeric ones – than the cultures of southern Greece,16 Olympias’ focus on her ancestry was certainly the origin of Alexander’s tendency to explain himself through Achilles. Aristotle doubtless influenced this aspect of Alexander’s life as well (Plu. Alex. 8.2; Str. 13.1.27), but Olympias and his tutors were the first to focus on it.17
Hellenic culture, beginning at least with Homer, was notoriously competitive: an agon (contest, trial) existed for virtually every kind of human endeavor and only through victory in an agon could aret be achieved and tim assigned. In effect, one could not simply be good; one had to be better than others. These agonistic values were responsible for both remarkable achievements and for destructive behavior and devaluation of cooperative behavior and compromise. Achilles epitomized the aret ideal: he was supreme in warfare, brave, young, unyielding, and comparatively uninterested in common goals and activities. Of course, Achilles was famously fated to face a choice of a short and glorious life or a long and inglorious one and naturally chose the former. While, as I have suggested, Olympias and tutors chosen from her family’s sphere of influence were probably the first to instil the image of Achilles and the values of Homer in Alexander, the inculcation of these values would surely have met with approval from Philip. Rather than being the warped standards of a woman who could “realize her own thwarted ambitions only vicariously through her offspring,”18 these were cultural norms, if carried to an extreme degree of success in the case of Alexander and Philip. Indeed, father and son competed with each other in many ways: “emulation and resentment”19 characterized the relationship between father and son, even after Philip’s death (see further below).
A story attributed to Theophrastus (ap. Athen. 10.435a) asserts that Olympias and Philip also shared a similar point of view about another parental concern, Alexander’s sexuality. According to Theophrastus, Alexander was not interested in matters sexual, and his parents, fearing he might be womanish, arranged a sexual relationship with a beautiful hetaira, Callixeina. Theophrastus actually pictures Olympias nagging Alexander to have sex. The tale, however entertaining, does not inspire much confidence in its truth. Apart from the three wives Alexander ultimately took and the two sons he sired, it is certain that he had at least one non-obligatory sexual relationship with a man (Bagoas) and one with a woman (Barsine), and probably many more, including a long-term emotional tie to Hephaestion (see Ogden, ch. 11). He may well have been more interested in power than sex, but he was hardly a “mama’s boy” in any clinical sense.20 Whatever the truth of Theophrastus’ account, it does represent Olympias and Philip acting in agreement and concert as parents and that appears to have been true, at least up until the period after the battle of Chaeroneia in 338.
Despite the larger world Alexander began to enter as he began his teens (studies under Aristotle away from the court at Mieza, time as regent during his father’s absence, his prominent role in the great victory of Chaeroneia),21 a fundamental fact of his life kept him tied to his mother (and to much lesser degree, his full sister). His mother’s status, even her safety, derived from his existence and from his position as heir presumptive. Generally, royal women had more influence as kings’ mothers than they had as kings’ wives; this was particularly true in a situation where a king could have many wives but, of course, only one mother. Not surprisingly, royal mothers acted as succession advocates for their sons. (Full sisters tended to function as part of the succession unit as well; the kind of marriage a sister might make would be determined, in good part, by her brother’s success.) Philip’s mother, for instance, took dramatic public action to safeguard the throne for her remaining sons (Aeschin. 2.26–9).
In the competitive situation created by royal polygamy, a king’s son inescapably grew closer to his mother than to his father because the former was his succession advocate since, as we have seen, her status derived from her son’s success whereas his father had or could have more sons and might prefer one of them. A king’s preference could change; an aging monarch might begin to find a younger son more preferable to one of adult or nearly adult years; the more youthful son postponed thoughts of debility and death (a famous example of this would be Lysimachus’ rejection of his adult son Agathocles in favor of his younger son Ptolemy22). Plutarch (Mor. 178e–f) tells a story (surely fictional) in which Alexander complains to Philip because he was producing children by many women and Philip orders him, by means of this contest for royal power, to prove he was worthy to rule because of himself, not just Philip. While dubious at best from a historical point of view, the anecdote provides a fairly accurate picture of how Argeads gained and then retained their hold on the throne and it recognizes an essential truth about relations between royal fathers and sons. A king’s son always had reason to distrust his father, even when he seemed currently on good terms, but he could count on his mother since her self-interest and his own were, at least until he became the king, more or less identical. Almost certainly, the situation that bred political closeness between mother and son also generated emotional closeness. The royal Macedonian court was a frightening place; having someone you could always count on was critical and doubtless inspired affection.
Still, though retaining a certain amount of paranoia was healthy for royal wives and children (after all, there usually was someone out to get them!), the comparative uncertainty about their position that may have characterized the early years of Olympias’ marriage and Alexander’s childhood had, probably about the time Alexander neared or reached his teens, surely dwindled. Arrhidaeus’ mental limits were now obvious and Philip had surely signaled his intention to have Alexander succeed him by his very public choice of Aristotle as Alexander’s tutor, by entrusting the kingdom to Alexander when he was only 16, and by Alexander’s command of the cavalry at Chaeroneia and his diplomatic role in the negotiations after the great victory.
Despite claims to the contrary, we know nothing about relations between Philip and Olympias at any period before 338: perhaps they were always distant or hostile, perhaps first they were passionate and later antagonistic, perhaps not. People were pragmatic, not romantic, about marriage in the ancient world – it was to produce children – and particularly so about royal marriages since their origins were so often political. The fact that a marriage was polygamous would only intensify this situation. Whatever their personal feelings, public relations between Philip and Olympias, so far as we can tell, remained good.23 The Macedonian and Hellenic world was patriarchal and, of course, a double standard applied: quite apart from other wives, Philip had many lovers, female and male, possibly including Olympias’ own brother. This need not mean that Alexander’s family life, in his teens, was particularly stressful because of tension between his parents. There is no evidence that Olympias was ever sexually jealous24 and if she ever were, nearly twenty years of marriage to Philip would surely have muted such feelings. There is good evidence that she was, however, quite jealous of her son’s position. But, until soon after Chaeroneia, she had no obvious reason for concern there. Indeed, the monument that Philip apparently commissioned soon after the battle to commemorate his victory, the Philippeum, also commemorated the comfortable dynastic status quo: inside the building were statues that appeared to be made of gold and ivory, thus imitating images of the gods, of Philip, his father Amyntas III, his mother Eurydice, Alexander, and Olympias. Philip planned to place this structure at Olympia, within the sacred precincts, a dynastic statement aimed at a Panhellenic audience. Olympias and Alexander could hardly have asked for a clearer validation of their status or one directed at a larger audience. Ironically, within months of Philip’s decision to have the Philippeum constructed, the dynastic unity and stability it projected had shattered.25
Had a situation not occurred which jeopardized Alexander’s succession to the throne, it is possible that the mother–son relationship would not have remained as important during Alexander’s later life. Certainly, events transpired that inevitably tied his fate and hers together and inspired in both tremendous uncertainty and anger. The sudden and unexpected fall from favor that both experienced colored all their future political dealings and surely inclined both to suspicion and to vengeance. Roughly eight years of what passed for security at the Argead court had lulled them into a kind of calm that neither would again manage to entertain.
Trouble for Alexander and Olympias began as a consequence of Philip’s decision to marry yet again, this time to a young Macedonian woman, Cleopatra, the ward of her uncle Attalus.26 Philip’s decision to marry yet again (this was his seventh marriage) seems unremarkable in itself: many Macedonians contracted marriages in the period just before the beginning of the invasion of the Persian empire, in hope of leaving sons behind; Philip himself had only one viable son, a son who may have been going to accompany his father on campaign and Argead kings rarely died in bed so there was clear need for more dynastic backup; Attalus, though we know nothing about his career before this period, was certainly prominent in the last years of Philip’s reign and so this marriage, like the earlier ones, was some sort of political alliance as well. It was not, however, the marriage itself that caused the trouble. Philip had married at least one woman, perhaps two, after his marriage to Olympias, with no obvious upset and no child from a new marriage could possibly jeopardize the more or less adult Alexander’s position in the succession for many years. Alexander attended the symposium connected to Philip’s wedding, a sign that he considered his father’s latest marriage innocuous. It was not the marriage itself but events at the symposium that precipitated dynastic meltdown.
After the men had been drinking for a while (if Cleopatra, Olympias, or any royal women were present, their presence is not mentioned by any ancient author) and Attalus and Philip and probably Alexander too were quite drunk, the guardian of the bride, Attalus, called upon the Macedonians to beg the gods that from the marriage of Philip and Cleopatra might come a “gnesion . . . diadochon tes basileias” (genuine or legitimate successor to the kingdom or rule; Plu. Alex. 9.4–5). Another source (Satyr. ap. Ath. 13.557d–e) preserves a similar account that employs the same termgnesios. Justin (9.7.2–3) tells a different story, one that has Alexander start the argument because he was concerned that a son born from this marriage would be a rival. For a variety of reasons, Justin’s account has generally been considered less credible than the other tradition.27 Whatever the literal intent of Attalus’ insult (some believed it attacked Olympias’ and thus Alexander’s Molossian ethnicity, some Olympias’ sexual fidelity, and I think it was, in effect, comparative – a son by Cleopatra, in Attalus’ view, would be more genuine or legitimate than Alexander), it was, however drunken, an assertion of self-interest. Not surprisingly, we hear that Alexander threw a wine cup at Attalus (and perhaps he at Alexander; Satyr. ap. Ath. 13.557d–e). What is surprising is not Attalus’ bravado, but Philip’s reaction. According to Plutarch (and Just. 9.7.4), Philip not only did not support his son but actually attempted to attack him with his sword and was foiled only by his own drunkenness or the efforts of his friends. Even if he did not actually draw his sword on Alexander, Philip apparently allowed this public questioning of Alexander’s ability to inherit. Alexander left the symposium and the kingdom, in company with his mother. Alexander left Olympias with her brother, now king of Molossia, but he himself went on to stay among the Illyrians, traditional enemies of Macedonia but also kinfolk.28
Alexander and Olympias went into self-imposed exile (Philip did not send them into exile) because of Attalus’ insult and what it implied about Philip’s intentions. Whatever Attalus had intended by using the term gnesios, it was a term that dishonored Olympias and her clan. Justin claims that Olympias wanted her brother the king to go to war with Philip (9.7.7); naturally that did not happen, but Attalus had treated their lineage with contempt; not only Olympias but the Aeacid dynasty had been publicly humiliated. Not surprisingly, particularly because of the imminence of Philip’s departure for Asia, a public reconciliation was patched together (Plu. Alex. 9.6; Mor. 70b, 179c; Just. 9.7.6). Alexander and his mother returned to Macedonia (Plu. Mor. 179c). Plutarch (Alex. 10.1–3) alone tells a story that suggests that, despite the formal rapprochement, Alexander and Olympias remained extremely anxious about Alexander’s ability to succeed: supposedly, on the advice of Olympias and other friends, Alexander tried to substitute himself for his brother Arrhidaeus as groom in a projected marriage with the daughter of a critical ruler in Asia Minor, Pixodarus. Apparently Alexander, Olympias, and the rest understood the marriage as a sign that his brother was now the favored choice to succeed Philip. When Philip found out what Alexander had done, he was furious and sent several of Alexander’s friends into exile. If this incident is historical, Alexander and Olympias were still acting as a succession unit but in this case, as opposed to Attalus’ insult, their judgment seems questionable. The insult, with its public destruction of the tim of mother and son (Arr. 3.6.5), in effect, required that they depart so that Philip would then have to publicly restore their tim. In the Pixodarus incident, even if their reading of the significance of the projected marriage were correct, they actually made matters worse; more likely they caused a problem where none had really existed. It is hard not to conclude that the earlier episode had so shaken their confidence in Alexander’s position that they overreacted.29
Whatever the truth of the Pixodarus affair, Philip certainly did do something dramatic to symbolize the reconciliation and assuage damaged Aeacid pride (contra Weber, ch. 5, p. 86): he arranged a marriage between his daughter by Olympias, Cleopatra, and Olympias’ brother, the king of Molossia. Moreover, he turned the wedding into an international event and festival, obviously intending to showcase the newly restored harmony of the royal family as well as the wealth and power of Macedonia on the eve of the great Asian expedition (D.S. 16.91.4–6). Unfortunately for Philip, his assassin saw this ancient media event as the perfect occasion for the murder of the king. The identity of Philip’s assassin – Pausanias, a bodyguard and former lover of the king – is known but, since Pausanias was killed very soon after the assassination, we can only speculate as to whether he acted alone (he did have strong personal motivation) or in concert with others at court (Arist. Pol. 1311b; D.S. 16.93–4; Just. 9.6.4–7.14). Regicide was common in Macedonia but, with one exception, it had previously involved other members of the dynasty. Inevitably, suspicion fell on Alexander and Olympias, particularly because of their recent troubles with Philip (Plu. Alex. 10.4; Just. 9.8.1–14). Olympias and Alexander both later demonstrated their willingness to commit murder and Philip had, after all, threatened his son, either directly or indirectly. Even though the baby Cleopatra, Philip’s bride, had so recently given birth to was probably female30 and thus Alexander faced no immediate threat to his succession, his succession did appear to be years in the future. The death of Philip meant that Alexander got to lead the expedition; we do not even know if Philip had planned to take him. More generally, killing Philip would have ended the chronic insecurity of their position. Obviously Alexander and Olympias were capable of murder and had clear motivation. Philip had many enemies and Pausanias may have acted alone. We cannot rule Alexander and Olympias out but neither is there enough evidence to assume that they were guilty. What is impossible to believe is that either instigated the assassination without the knowledge and consent of the other. So far as we know, in all the other events connected to the succession troubles at the end of Philip’s reign, they had acted together. Besides, it would have been too risky for either to surprise the other on the day of assassination.31
The less than two-year period between Philip’s murder and Alexander’s departure for Asia was a transitional one for the relationship of Alexander and Olympias. In Macedonia typically instability followed the death of a king. Alexander had to prove himself against the Illyrians and possible Greek defectors from the alliance Philip had constructed and he did just that and was recognized as the new hegemon. He had to blame the assassination on someone, so he found appropriate Macedonian candidates, people whose absence happened to be convenient from his own point of view, and eliminated them. In addition to dealing with these threats to the stability of the kingdom and projected expedition,32 Alexander chose to deal with someone he clearly considered an enemy, Attalus. At the time of Philip’s murder, Attalus was in Asia along with Parmenion, helping to command the preliminary force Philip had sent to Asia. Alexander had him eliminated, apparently with the collusion of Parmenion. Since Attalus had questioned Alexander’s worthiness to rule, his death can hardly have come as a surprise (see Heckel, ch. 4).33
Cleopatra, Philip’s last bride, and her baby were killed as well. Only one of the major narratives of Alexander’s reign mentions the deaths of mother and child; two categorically different accounts from two late and dubious sources are extant (Just. 9.7.12; Paus. 8.7.7). Clearly, the murder was not a public act. Both accounts assert that Olympias had Cleopatra murdered and this seems quite likely: just as Olympias and Alexander had functioned as a succession unit, so had Attalus and his niece. Death, like virtually everything else in the Greek world was gendered; men were supposed to die in public, the victims of sharp weapons, while women died in private, within the world of women and might most nobly (assuming they were of high birth) hang themselves. So Alexander arranged the death of their male enemy and Olympias the death of their female enemy. Their house, their clan, had been insulted and they paid the insult back. Plutarch (Alex. 10.4), who does not directly mention the death of Cleopatra (let alone her child), does say that Alexander was angry with his mother because, during his absence, she had treated Cleopatra savagely. It is difficult to know what to make of this passage: is Plutarch euphemistically referring to Cleopatra’s murder? If so, why the euphemism? Is it plausible that Alexander did not know that Olympias was going to do this? Even if Plutarch thought that Alexander was sincere in his approval, apparently others did not; in this same passage Plutarch includes a reference to sources that have Alexander quote a line from theMedea (289) that implies Alexander was encouraging Pausanias to bring about the deaths of Cleopatra, Philip, and Attalus. Justin, having mentioned only Olympias in his narrative of the murder, has Alexander, after the killing of Cleitus, regret various murders including that of Cleopatra and his “brothers” (Just. 12.6.14). The great likelihood is that mother and son planned the elimination of their enemies together. Granted the dominance of Judeo-Christian ethics in modern culture, vengeance has a bad name. In the Greek world, where the axiom was that one should help one’s friends and harm one’s enemies, something close to the reverse applied. Moreover, for members of the Macedonian elite, eliminating enemies was a practical matter, not simply an issue of emotional satisfaction. If they were dead, they couldn’t plot against you. Both Cleopatra and her baby could have formed a faction or been used by a faction to jeopardize Alexander’s hold on the throne, not just in 336, but even years later.
By the time of Alexander’s departure for Asia, he was secure on the throne and no longer needed his mother’s advocacy as he had before. Inevitably their relationship grew more complex: Alexander was now an adult, less in need of political support, and pursuing his own policies. Distance doubtless complicated this situation. Mother and son never saw each other again and their experiences, during the years of his reign, were quite different. It is unlikely, however, that either Alexander or his mother entertained the notion that Olympias would go east with her son. Macedonian monarchs did not generally take their wives with them and both mother and son probably thought that Olympias would be more useful on the Greek peninsula than traveling with her son’s court. It was a position that entailed a greater possibility for the exercise of power, but also greater vulnerability.
Both power and vulnerability were a possibility because of the arrangement Alexander left behind him. Clearly Antipater had some sort of general administrative and military responsibility for Macedonia and the Greek peninsula, but even early on Olympias had some sort of public responsibility, possibly deriving from a role in dynastic ritual. In any case, though there is evidence for no previous enmity, Antipater and Olympias now began to squabble and complain about each other in letters to Alexander. In the early years of his reign Alexander needed Antipater to send reinforcements and deal with real and potential revolts. Apparently because she was losing out in the struggle for authority with Antipater, Olympias left Macedonia for her homeland of Molossia. Olympias’ brother the king had died on campaign and it would appear that she and her daughter ruled Molossia together for some time.34 By the later years of Alexander’s reign, Antipater’s influence was waning and Olympias’ increasing. Plutarch says (apparently in terms of the last year or two of Alexander’s reign) that mother and daughter formed a faction together, Olympias taking Molossia and her daughter Macedonia (Plu. Alex. 68.3). Plutarch has Alexander essentially ignoring the situation, other than joking about it, apparently indifferent to what came of it. Of course, Alexander called Antipater to Babylon, planning to replace him with Craterus, but Antipater, at the time of Alexander’s death, had not budged. It would appear that Olympias had lost the first battle but won the war with Antipater (or would have, had Alexander lived).
In some respects, Olympias and Alexander’s relationship during this period was conventional. He sent his mother (and sister) plunder and Olympias made rich dedications with it at Delphi (Plu. Alex. 25.4; SIG3 1.252N.5ff.). She made offerings at Athens to Hygieia (Hyp. Eux. 19), probably on her son’s behalf. There are, however, a number of indications that Olympias’ relationship with her son was not only emotional but political. Olympias and her daughter both received grain shipments in times of grain scarcity, in effect functioning as heads of state, possibly in concert with Alexander (SEG ix. 2).35 At times, Olympias acted as though she had some official position (D.S. 17.108.7) and contemporaries sometimes spoke about her as though she did (Hyp. Eux. 20). Our sources refer to frequent correspondence between Olympias and Alexander and periodically quote from or paraphrase their letters. The authenticity of this epistolary exchange is uncertain and has typically been addressed on a case-by-case basis.36 In any event, aside from references to the Olympias–Antipater feud, our sources indicate that Olympias fairly frequently warned her son against people she considered a threat and more generally against policies she felt threatened his interests. Like some of Alexander’s male courtiers, Olympias was clearly jealous and competitive; doubtless Alexander was familiar with this point of view. According to Plutarch (Alex. 39.7), Alexander did not permit his mother to interfere in campaigns or public affairs and she complained about this. Plutarch’s judgment is problematic on several grounds, not least of which is the fact that Olympias clearly did involve herself in public affairs. Moreover, it is difficult to know how Alexander (or his mother) might have defined interference.
Whereas many people take Plutarch at his word and assume that Alexander never paid attention to his mother’s political advice, they do often believe that she did influence her son in terms of his claims to be the son of Zeus. What little ancient evidence survives is ambiguous. Plutarch (Alex.3.2) cites two traditions: Eratosthenes for the notion that Olympias told Alexander that he was the son of a god before he left Macedonia, but others have Olympias denying that she had any role and joking that he was slandering her to Hera.37 This claim of divine sonship, apparently first asserted publicly in Egypt after his visit to the oracle of Zeus Ammon, moved him in the direction of what would become divine monarchy. Argeads (and other elite families and dynasties in the Greek world) had always claimed descent from the gods, but asserting that one’s father was a god was another matter, particularly since such an assertion meant denying that Philip II was his father. Indeed, divine sonship was clearly unpopular with many Macedonians for exactly this reason. Even if we assume that Olympias, after 338, loathed Philip, we should not assume that she would have been the one to advocate divine sonship, especially early in her son’s reign. The insult of Attalus was still fresh in everyone’s mind and any woman had to avoid any implication that she had slept with anyone other than her husband. Olympias was the one who first inspired the heroic values her son embraced, the sort of world view that might make divine parentage imaginable, but the specific notion was probably Alexander’s, not hers. Curtius alone (9.6.26, 10.5.30) asserts that Alexander planned to deify his mother after her death; this could be true but it could also be an anachronistic Roman understanding of the situation. Whatever the specifics, it does seem likely that the Homeric values of Olympias and Alexander contributed to an understanding of Alexander as divinized.
Did Olympias generally have influence with Alexander? Her influence was certainly not automatic, as the situation with Antipater demonstrates. She always had access to the king and it is likely that Alexander, though clearly recognizing that she pursued her own self-interest as well as his own, must have valued her as an independent source of information (as indicated by the report that he generally kept the content of her letters secret; Plu. Alex. 395; Mor. 180d, 33a, 340a), one whose interests were close to his own though hardly identical with them. Even Plutarch (Alex. 39.7) conceded that she had more influence than Antipater, in the end, and events tend to bear that out. Our tradition heavily depends on Plutarch, who is demonstrably hostile to Olympias, pictures Alexander as a fond and dutiful son, but one who at times found his mother overbearing. Some of this may be Plutarch or that Alexander needed to play to Greek convention and deny that Olympias or any other royal woman had a role in public affairs, but some of it could be real.
For Olympias, as for everyone else, the death of her son was entirely unexpected, almost unimaginable. His death meant that Olympias was vulnerable in a way she could never have been during her son’s reign and her actions suggest that she was well aware of her danger. She claimed that Antipater and his sons had poisoned Alexander (D.S. 19.11.8; Plu. Alex. 77.1). Doubtless she believed it: they had motive and opportunity and she hated them. She was not the only one who found it hard to believe that the invincible and still young Alexander had died of natural causes. To the degree she was able, Olympias attempted to punish the clan of Antipater for the betrayal of which she believed they were guilty. Olympias clearly saw herself as the custodian of her son’s memory. In the end she risked and lost her life as part of what would ultimately prove a disastrous military attempt to insure the throne for Alexander’s son, Alexander IV. Just as during Alexander’s life Olympias had spent her time in fierce pursuit of her son’s and her own self-interest, after his death her pursuit of her grandson’s and her own self-interest brought about her own.38
Making judgments about the nature of other people’s relationships is always an act of imagination to some degree, and making such a determination about a relationship more than 2,000 years in the past, one that existed in a radically different culture, is far more speculative, particularly in the absence of evidence deriving directly from the two parties. The Alexander Romance paints a highly sentimental picture of an idealized and loving relationship between Alexander and Olympias; in effect, it implies that Tarn was right, that Olympias really was the only woman he loved. Perhaps that is the truth. What is more certain is that she was the only woman he could trust.
1 Tarn i. 76.
2 Walcott 1987.
3 See Carney 2006: 125–37 for a discussion of the extant sources on Olympias.
4 On the life of Olympias, see Heckel 83; Carney 2006.
5 Our main source on the marriages of Philip II is Satyrus ap. Ath. 13.557b–e. For a discussion of the order and dates of his marriages, see Tronson 1984; Carney 2000b: 52–75.
6 Hamilton 1965 remains a good source for ancient references to Alexander’s early life but its interpretation is now somewhat out of date.
7 Heckel 52–3; Carney 2001; Greenwalt 1985.
8 My discussion of the factors affecting the status of royal wives stresses the production of children as the most important factor and then birth (including family connections). Many scholars would focus on a royal woman’s ethnicity; this point of view is particularly relevant to discussions of the insult Attalus made to Alexander (see below). I am less certain that ethnicity was a major factor in the ranking of wives. See discussion and references in Carney 2000b: 26–7.
9 See Heckel 145.
10 Mortensen 1997: 168, fig. 5 has a helpful chart of Philip’s probable absences between Alexander’s birth in 356 and 340 (when he was 16 and functioned as regent). It suggests that Philip was gone for months every year during this period but one and that he was virtually never there when Alexander was between 13 and 16.
11 Heckel 146–7.
12 Heckel 153.
13 See Carney 2006: 28 n. 50.
14 On Audata, Cynnane, and Adea Eurydice, daughter of Cynnane, see Carney 2000b: 57–8, 69–70, 129–31, 132–7.
15 Huttner 1997: 86–123.
16 See Cohen 1995.
17 Ameling 1988; Carney 2000a: 274–85. See also Cohen 1995.
18 Walcott 1987: 13 and passim. He seems to understand the aret ethic quite narrowly, as somehow the product of mothers whose husbands had failed to succeed and therefore turned to their sons. Though he sees Alexander as his prime Greek historical example, he seems to forget that Philip II was hardly a failure and Olympias, whatever her personal feelings about him, was unlikely to think that he was.
19 Fredricksmeyer 1990. While I do not agree with every argument in Fredricksmeyer 1990, it is generally a compelling portrait of the father–son relationship and an excellent source of references to incidents in the relationship.
20 As some scholars assume. For instance, Wirth 1973: 120 speaks of his “mother complex.”
21 On Alexander’s studies with Aristotle at Mieza, see discussion and references in Carney 2003a: 49–59. On his role as regent (or perhaps co-regent with Antipater), see Plu. Alex. 9.1; Theopompus, FGrH 115 F217; Isoc. Ep. 4; and discussion in Hamilton 1969: 22. On Chaeroneia and his role in the diplomacy following the battle, see D.S. 16.86.1–4; Plu. Alex. 9.2; Just. 9.4.5.
22 Lund 1992: 196–8.
23 Apart from the general good treatment of her son that Philip displayed and that would, of course, have benefited dealings between the two, there are some chance references that imply a continuing connection to Philip: letters between the two (Ath. 10.435a; Plu. Demetr. 22.2) and shopping done for Olympias by Philip’s agents in Athens (Dem. 18.137). Plu. Mor. 799e, in reference to the same correspondence the Athenians happened upon, says that they chose not to break the seal of a letter from an absent husband to his “affectionate” wife.
24 Plu. Mor. 141b–c has Olympias summon a Thessalian woman (possibly one of Philip’s Thessalian wives) with whom Philip had an erotic relationship. Since the woman was suspected of using drugs on Philip, it is not clear whether Olympias was initially acting out of sexual jealousy, concern for Philip’s welfare, or the general need to be alert to the ever changing favorites of the king. In any event, Plutarch praises her for being a model wife because, once she met the woman, she was charmed by her and discounted the hostile stories. Her clear jealousy of Philip’s last bride, Cleopatra, appears only in the context of the challenge to Alexander’s role as heir and so appears to be political rather than sexual jealousy.
25 Schultz 2007a, 2007b; Carney 2007.
26 See Carney 2006: 31–7 for discussion and references to the marriage, sympotic quarrel, and subsequent reconciliation.
27 Justin mistakenly believes that Philip divorced Olympias before he married Cleopatra and generally seems confused about polygamy at the Macedonian court.
28 Just. 9.7.5 and Plu. Alex. 9.5 have Alexander go with his mother to Epirus and then on to the Illyrians whereas Satyrus ap. Ath. 13.557e seems to imply that they left separately.
29 One wonders if Plutarch’s picture – however subjective – of Olympias as “jealous, stubborn, and difficult” (Alex. 9.3), clearly made in the general context of the last troubled years of Philip’s reign, is actually more specific and refers to her role in the Pixodarus incident, though the characterization appears a bit before the Pixodarus incident.
30 Satyrus ap. Ath. 13.557e says it was girl named Europa, Justin (9.7.12) says the baby Olympias killed was female (see below), but Paus. 8.7.7 says the baby was male and Just. 11.2.3 elsewhere speaks of a boy Caranus who seems to be a son of Cleopatra. See Heckel 1979 for the view that Satyrus’ testimony is preferable.
31 On the assassination of Philip see, generally, Heckel 182 and Carney 2006: 38–9.
32 See Bosworth 1988a: 25–35 for a general narrative of events after Phillip’s death and before Alexander’s departure.
33 See Heckel 62 for events leading to the death of Attalus, who may or may not have plotted against Alexander after Philip’s death. Just. 11.5.1 claimed that Alexander killed all of Cleopatra’s relatives before he left for Asia whereas Heckel argues that it was only Attalus. The chronological order of the deaths of Attalus and Cleopatra is uncertain; my own view is that she was killed soon after Philip’s murder and that Attalus’ death came somewhat later.
34 The evidence for Olympias’ whereabouts and position is confusing; see Carney 2006: 52–3.
35 See discussion and references in Carney 2006: 50–1. Those on the list were the ones who paid for the grain; whether Olympias and Cleopatra used Alexander’s funds or their own, acted independently or at his behest, it is significant that only they are mentioned; the inscriptions highlight their benefactions.
36 Carney 2000b: 87 nn. 11–12 for doubts about their viability. The Alexander Romance includes many clearly fictional letters, something it would be wise to recall.
37 In addition, Arr. 4.10.2 claimed that Callisthenes referred to Olympias’ lies about Alexander’s birth. See further Carney 2006: 102–3.
38 See Carney 2006: 60–87 for her actions after Alexander’s death.