Queen Olympias earned a reputation as one of the most bloodthirsty women in the ancient world, and for good reason. Olympias didn’t just give birth to the mighty conqueror Alexander the Great, she also taught him everything he knew—from cunning power plays to brutal betrayals. Is it any wonder this terrifying Queen of Macedonia met such a scandalous end?
Olympias probably knew she was born to rule from a ridiculously young age. The daughter of Neoptolemus, the King of an Ancient Grecian tribe, Olympias sat right in the middle of the lap of luxury as she grew up. And while history was only supposed to be for powerful men like her father, little Olympias would soon prove all the boys wrong.
In 360 BC, when Olympias was only around 15 years old, her life changed with one huge loss. That year, her father passed, leaving the kingdom to Olympias’s uncle Arymbas. Suddenly, Olympias was no longer the ruling king’s little girl, and her future was one big question mark. Well, Arymbas didn’t take long to reveal his plans for her…
Just two years later, the still-teenaged Olympias got her first taste of being a pawn in the games of ambitious men. In order to shore up his power, her Uncle Arymbas married her off to the new King of Macedonia, Philip II. Macedonia was nearby and growing in influence, but the young and naïve Olympias hardly could have known what she was getting into.
As a teenaged bride, Olympias entered more into a nightmare than a fairy tale. Philip was nearly a decade older than her, and he was a hard, harsh man. The king had survived countless intrigues, including acting as a political captive during his youth. At this point, the only thing he truly cared about was his military accomplishments, and he didn’t really have time to romance young girls. Oh, and there was this one other thing…
When Olympias entered Philip’s royal household, she found the place quite crowded with other queens. She was actually wife number four, and Philip had married several times before her to women who were still very much still alive. While this wasn’t uncommon for Macedonia at the time, it could hardly have been that fun, either. But Olympias knew just what to do.
Although she was barely out of childhood, Olympias showed a rare self-possession. Sources say that even the cold-hearted Philip started to fall in love with her, and he showed his affection by making her his primary consort. The pair even underwent a secret initiation into the mysteries of the Ancient cult of Cabeiri, which…sounds very adventurous, to say the least. But Olympias had even more in store for Philip.
A year after her wedding, Olympias earned her place as queen with one act. In 356 BC, she gave birth to a baby boy, giving Philip yet another heir. Except, well, this wasn’t just any heir—Olympias named the babe Alexander, and under her wing, he would go on to become none other than Alexander the Great. Well, Olympias started building her son’s legend immediately.
In Ancient Greece, people believed that premonitions accompanied the births of great men. And wouldn’t you know it, Olympias insisted she had a dream just before Alexander's conception where a thunderbolt ignited her womb with an enormous fire. Wow, Olympias, that's a little on the nose for a "My baby will be a god" dream, but you're also smart as heck. Still, she would need every ounce of her intelligence to survive the next years.
Around 355, Olympias tried again to go for a spare heir, but ended up with a daughter she named Cleopatra. For reasons I’m sure have absolutely nothing to do with cunning, Olympias remained quiet when it came to any bizarre "premonitions" about the little girl, since she was, after all, "only" a girl. But this is where Olympias’s good times stopped rolling.
Although Olympias had given Philip children, their marriage hid dark issues behind their royal façade. Philip was an aggressive and even angry man, and Olympias had to be careful to avoid his wrath. On the other hand, she was becoming infamous around Ancient Greece for her overweening ambition (*cough* thunderbolt dream *cough*) and her inability to hear the word "no". Not a great combination, and it was about to get worse.
One of the main points of tension in the royal family was that Alexander had a rival claimant for the throne in Arrhidaeus, his elder half-brother. However, the boy had a minor but noticeable learning disability, which dropped him down a couple of rungs in everyone’s estimation. Still, to our girl Olympias, everything was a threat…
Olympias kept a sharp, watchful eye on Arrhidaeus, even once denying him a betrothal because she thought it upstaged her widdle Alexander. But she may have kept a darker secret. Some accounts whisper that years before, it was Olympias who fed Arrhidaeus poison and disabled him in the first place. Mere rumors? Possibly, but there's no doubt she had it in her. After all, as we’ll see, Olympias ended up inflicting a wicked end on Arrhidaeus anyway.
Besides Olympias’s growing desire for power, she was also becoming ever more jealous of the many other women in Philip’s life. By 338, he had married two more queens after her, and at any moment they could fully rival Olympias for her influence over the King of Macedonia, or else provide him with an even stronger heir. The thing is, this jealousy backfired on her big time.
As it happens, crude Macedonian warlords don’t take kindly to their wives being ambitious, gloriously power-hungry broads. Surprising no one, Olympias and Philip were soon all but estranged from each other. Instead, the Queen of Macedonia threw all of her time and energy into raising Alexander—but that didn’t mean she wasn’t incensed at Philip’s next "betrayal".
In 337, Philip took his seventh and final wife, Eurydice. And sure, a sister-wife was nothing new to Olympias, but this was her biggest threat by far. Crucially, the much younger Eurydice was also a native Macedonian, meaning any sons she bore Philip might get precedence over Olympias’s precious baby Alexander. Olympias set herself against Eurydice from the start—and she didn’t have to wait long for the girl's claws to come out.
Eurydice was so desperate for the top royal spot, she and her family didn’t wait until the wedding was over to make their move. On the night of the reception, Eurydice’s uncle Attalus—a powerful courtier and one of Philip’s friends—announced to the crowd full of influential people that he thought Olympias had been promiscuous, and that Alexander was illegitimate. You could probably have heard a pin drop…until chaos reigned.
Throwing the legitimacy of a king’s son into question in the middle of Ancient Macedonia was no joke, and Alexander responded by throwing a goblet at the man. Then Olympias’s husband went and made it worse. Instead of defending his son, Philip sided with Attalus, and even tried to attack Alexander with a sword. It ended in total embarrassment.
By this point, Philip was so in his cups, the minute he stood up to confront his son, he slipped and fell to the floor. Alexander, taking right after his mother, looked down scornfully at Philip and said, "See there, the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe into Asia, overturned in passing from one seat to another". Ah, Olympias, that’s your boy.
Don’t worry, though, Olympias personally made sure her husband felt consequences, too.
In the aftermath of this wedding drama, Olympias packed her bags, took her son, and went to live in "voluntary exile" in the court of her brother, Alexander I, who was now ruling in her home of Epirus. In other words, she was sending a message loud and clear to her husband: You go play with your new bride, I’ll be over here with your true son. Too bad Philip bit back, hard.
King Philip II must have had to deal with more than a few of Olympias’s tantrums, schemes, and various "voluntary exiles," and he knew how to deal with her. He came up with an even more devious plot. Within a few months, he’d taken their other child together, Cleopatra, and started shopping her around for advantageous marriages. The suitor he landed on was a stroke of brilliance.
Get this: Philip ended up signing a marriage deal for Cleopatra with none other than King Alexander I of Epirus, the very brother that Olympias was staying with in exile. This was obviously a huge power move on Philip’s part to show Olympias who actually wore the pants in their relationship, never mind that the young king was poor Cleopatra’s UNCLE.
Yes, Philip and Olympias are that divorced couple, the one who still uses their children as pawns in their sick mind games. But if you think Olympias gave up now, well, you don’t know Olympias.
Philip’s little marriage plot infuriated Olympias, and she now felt even more alone and isolated than ever, since her own brother was now firmly in Philip’s pocket. She had exactly two choices: She could go find another safe haven for herself, real quick-like, or she could try to pull off one of the bloodiest plots in history. Surprise! Olympias went for blood.
In 336 BC, everyone who was anyone in Ancient Greece gathered around to celebrate the nuptials of Olympias’s brother Alexander I of Epirus and her daughter Cleopatra, which sounds just as gross typing it out as it should have felt back then. As the father of the bride, Philip was in pride of place throughout the ceremony and could just lay back and watch his victory unfold. I mean, what could go wrong? Answer: everything.
During the celebrations one day, Philip walked into a theater in the center of the town—then everything unraveled in an instant. Suddenly, one of the men of his personal guard broke away from the rest and brutally stabbed Philip between the ribs. The crowd eventually stopped and slayed the traitor, but the damage was done: Philip had perished. Then all eyes turned toward Olympias.
Although historical records are uncertain on the matter, everyone in Ancient Greece certainly thought Olympias was behind the hit of her own husband, whether by ordering it herself or being a part of a coalition of Philip’s enemies. After all, wasn’t it the perfect revenge? And would you put it past her? Still, if the skeptics needed more proof, Olympias’s next moves certainly didn’t look innocent.
On the surface, everything now seemed to be going Olympias’s way. Indeed, immediately after Philip’s assassination, the crowd proclaimed her 20-year-old son Alexander as the rightful heir and the next king, making Olympias’s hard-won dreams come true at last. But although Philip was now conveniently out of her way and her son Alexander was king, she still had other threats to deal with…and she didn’t deal with them well.
At the top of Olympias’s "to-do list" was to handle her pesky sister-wife Eurydice, who had borne Philip two children before he passed, a daughter named Europa and a boy named Caranus. Now, good old paranoid Olympias was sure one or both of these babies would grow up to threaten Alexander’s throne. So, teeth clenched, she did the unspeakable.
Directly after Philip’s assassination, Olympias had both children, mere babies or not, slain for the sake of her son’s succession. Some even suggest that Alexander got in on the "fun" and personally took out Caranus himself, while leaving the girl child for his Mommie Dearest to deal with. Either way, there was one more tragedy to come.
In the wake of these brutal ends, Olympias’s long-time rival Eurydice couldn’t take the pain any longer and ended up taking her own life. As a bonus, even Eurydice’s uncle Attalus—the man who had thrown Alexander’s legitimacy into question—also perished in the melee. So now Olympias could just kick back and survey the destruction she had wrought. Just kidding—she started stirring up more drama immediately.
Even after all the Sturm und Drang about Alexander’s legitimacy, Olympias now started claiming that, oopsie, he actually wasn’t the late Philip’s son. Instead, she put forward a much more scandalous option. This marvelous broad reportedly started insisting Alexander was really the son of…the god Zeus. Listen, that whopper takes balls. And Olympias was just warming up.
Olympias took her duties as Queen Mother to Alexander the Great very seriously. She corresponded with him constantly even while he was away on campaign, acted as regent for a brief time in her home of Epirus, and then started annoying Alexander's own regent Antipater because she thought she could do a better job than him. It was Meddling Mother 101, and Alexander had to put his foot down.
Look, lord knows I love Olympias, but even I would tire of that power-hungry shtick. Alexander certainly did. He tried his hardest to get his mother to stay out of politics entirely, but do you think that worked? Heck no. Olympias had an adamantine will, and even the all-powerful Alexander ended up giving up and just splitting up Olympias and Antipater by sending the man away on campaign.
In a cruel twist of fate, this would be one of the last things Alexander ever did.
In 323 BC, Olympias woke to an utter nightmare. Her son Alexander had perished in Babylon while on campaign, leaving his wife Roxana to birth their baby boy, Alexander IV, just months later. Macedonia had lost its conqueror, and Olympias had lost her absolute pride and joy. Yet Alexander’s demise was not the end of Olympias’s story—really, it was just her second coming.
While mourning her son deeply, Olympias also knew that she had to act fast if she wanted to keep her power—and you know that’s what she wanted. So while the country tried to decide between crowning Alexander’s baby heir or his half-brother Arrhidaeus as the next ruler, Olympias set her sights on someone entirely different: The new regent named Perdiccas. And oh boy, did she ever play dirty.
Trust Olympias to always know the power source. As everyone else squabbled away, she courted Perdiccas’ favor with an intensity few others could muster. She did, however, have one main rival: Her old "friend" Antipater, who had cooked up a plot to marry off his daughter to the regent and thus have a direct line to the throne once more. That is, until Olympias threw a wrench in the proceedings.
When Antipater offered Perdiccas his daughter’s hand in marriage, Olympias came back at him with a vengeance. Suddenly, she offered up her daughter Cleopatra, newly widowed, as an alternative bride for the regent. And guess what? As always, Olympias won. Perdiccas chose her daughter, and Antipater and the rest of his family were, no duh, incensed.
Not that Olympias could care less. Except, this was maybe her biggest mistake.
As the years wore on and the nobles jockeyed for power over the throne, Antipater's son Cassander came out on top after his father passed. Indeed, by 319 BC, Cassander was even regent. This was very, very bad news for Olympias. Within months, Cassander—not forgetting all the damage Olympias had done to his family—kicked Olympias's grandson Alexander IV right off the line of succession and turned Olympias's old, hated stepson Arrhidaeus into the new king.
Now, maybe Olympias should have thrown in the towel here and said "I give up". But, uh, that’s not what she did. That’s not what she did at all.
In 317 BC, Olympias completed her most infamous act. This woman marched into Macedonia with a full-on army at her back. She was bent on destroying Arrhidaeus, his right-hand man Cassander, and anyone who got in the way of her little sweetums grandson from taking all the power he could wield in his chubby fists. Then Olympias dialed it up to 11.
Fair warning: You never, and I mean NEVER, want to face Queen Olympias in battle. When she saw the armies of the so-called "King" Arrhidaeus and his wife Adea Eurydice approach her, she felled the men using just her words. In no time at all, this glorious dame somehow convinced the soldiers to join her side; after all, she was the mother of freaking Alexander the Great.
Still, though Olympias spared the men from bloodshed, Arrhidaeus and his wife weren’t nearly so lucky.
With the capture of the two up-start royals, Olympias was not merciful in her victory—besides, she had waited decades to properly handle Arrhidaeus. Still, Olympias knew what he was due as a king, and had him executed in a straightforward and, all things considered, respectful manner. But she made sure his wife Adea Eurydice suffered a much darker fate.
In one horrifying move even for Olympias, the queen famously sent poor Adea Eurydice a cup of poison, a noose, and a sword...then told her to choose how she would die. According to the histories, Adea Eurydice chose to hang herself, though she cursed Olympias to the very end of her life. Whew. Well, a years-long vengeance plan done, Olympias. Time to pack it in now for sure. …Right?
Not content with slaying the would-be ruler of Macedonia and his family, Olympias was still out to make Cassander suffer as much as possible, if only because she had a long tradition of hating his entire family. Accordingly, when she couldn’t get to Cassander, she captured his brother and scores of his supporters. Uh, that got his attention alright.
Cassander and Olympias had been circling each other for months, and then Cassander went through with the unthinkable. Taking a play from Olympias’s "Ruthless Manoeuvres" book, he kidnapped both Olympias’s young grandson Alexander and the boy’s mother Roxana, taking everything that Olympias had to live for at this point. And then he drove the blade home.
Olympias had been holing up in the city of Pydna and, sensing she was weak, Cassander laid siege to the fortified town and hoped to draw her out before long. He would be sorely disappointed. Reminder: Olympias had an iron will, and refused to budge even after Cassander swore he would spare her life if she surrendered. This didn’t end well for anyone.
Olympias was so determined to defy Cassander, she managed to lock herself inside Pydna for months on end, all while the city’s supplies dwindled around her. If this was to be the final showdown—and it was—then Olympias wasn’t giving up without a fight. She managed to last two full years before she ran out of even the most meager food.
At last, the jig was up, and Olympias emerged from her fortress. She would live just long enough to regret it.
Although Cassander had sworn not to harm her, the queen experienced a stunning betrayal. As she must have always suspected, he went back on his word and ordered his men to execute the Queen Mother of Macedonia the moment he caught sight of her exiting Pydna. And still—Olympias had a final play up her sleeves. Because of course she did.
When Cassander ordered his forces to slay Olympias…they didn’t listen. As she had done before, the queen’s mere presence was enough to make men quake in their boots and remember that she had birthed none other than Alexander the Great into the world. In deference to her power and in memory of him, Cassander’s generals refused to touch her. But instead of leaving it be, Cassander got creative.
In the end, Queen Olympias suffered a brutal fate. After giving up on his own men, Cassander tracked down family members of all the people Olympias had hurt throughout her years in power, and asked them if they would like to take a shot at the Queen of Macedonia. They were all too happy to oblige, and their choice of execution was cruelly fitting.
In 316 BC, when Queen Olympias was 59 years old, all the vengeful ghosts from her past lined up to end her. Cassander's ringers stoned her until her body was a lifeless heap at their feet, all as Cassander watched on. It was an ignominious end for a woman who could make armies bend to her will, and Cassander still had a scornful insult in store for his sworn enemy.
As the ultimate mark of his disdain, Cassander refused to let any of his men give Olympias a proper burial, just to make sure everyone knew exactly how he felt about her. Then, only a handful of years later, he hunted down both Roxana and Olympias’s grandson Alexander IV and executed them, wiping out the line of Alexander the Great.
Reportedly, Queen Olympias was obsessed with snakes, a fitting emblem for her ambitious, cunning personality. According to the historian Plutarch, who was writing much later in 1 AD, Olympias also belonged to a snake-worshipping cult devoted to the god Dionysus, and she reportedly kept snakes in her bed while she slept. Perhaps more fiction than fact, but fun nonetheless.
Olympias’s real name wasn’t actually "Olympias," and in fact, she took no fewer than four names over the course of her life. Her original name was "Polyxena," but she changed it to "Myrtale" when she married Philip II. Soon after, Philip's horse won a race at the Olympic Games, and her new and most famous name became "Olympia" in honor of the victory.
But, as we know, nothing was ever enough her—she would later name herself "Stratonice".
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