In the annals of history, very few women have captured the interest of both historians and artists like Queen Olympias has. And why wouldn’t they be intrigued by her? She was the most famous wife of a great king and the mother to another legendary one—and yet, that’s just the beginning.
Whether she fought for her son or against her husband, Olympias is an enigmatic figure who has been romanticized, vilified, or glorified depending on who’s writing the history. Here are 44 little-known facts about Queen Olympias.
1. Fourth, But not Least
Although history remembers her as the queen of Philip II of Macedon, Olympias was hardly his only wife. Philip II would have seven wives over his reign, many of them at the same time. Olympias was the fourth of these wives, though today she might just be considered the most ruthless of these beautiful, powerful women.
2. My Name for a Horse
Olympias actually had four names over the course of her life. Her original name from birth was “Polyxena.” When she married Philip II, her name was changed to “Myrtale.” A year after that, when Philip II’s horse won a race at the Olympic Games in 356 BC, her new and most famous name became “Olympias.” Not content with this, she would later name herself “Stratonice” for a brief period of time.
3. Young Mom
Arguably the most famous portrayal of Olympias was in the film Alexander, where she was played by Angelina Jolie. Sadly, Jolie’s performance has become one of the most controversial aspects about the movie. For one thing, Jolie is actually less than a year older than Colin Farrell, who plays her son Alexander the Great in the film.
4. Royal Bloodlines
Olympias was born in 375 BC, and she was kind of a big deal. She was the daughter of King Neoptolemus I, who ruled the Greek tribe known as the Molossians in the kingdom of Epirus.
5. My Great-Great-Great-Great-Great…
Her high birth, however, didn’t stop there. Olympias and the rest of her family claimed to be descended from the ancient Greek hero, Achilles. Olympias’ famous son, Alexander, would take this alleged legacy and run with it, keeping a copy of the Iliad under his pillow, and even paying tribute to his supposed ancestor at the ruins of Troy.
6. Sounds Like a Bargain
Olympias was married to Philip II of Macedon in 357 BC. Despite the royal-style wedding, the union was more of a political match than a fairy tale love story. The year before, Olympias’ uncle, who was by then the King of Epirus, had made an alliance with Philip II. Philip wanted to make Macedon one of the most powerful Hellenic kingdoms, and marrying Olympias helped served his purposes quite well.
7. I’m the Boss Around Here
Although Olympias was the fourth wife of Philip II, she was recognized to be his queen consort. In other words, she was kind of the Queen of Queens.
8. That Would Probably Hurt!
Olympias’ son Alexander the Great was born in 356 BC. Allegedly, Olympias had a rather telling dream before the conception of her son. She dreamed that a thunderbolt struck her womb, and a massive fire was created, consuming everything before being suddenly extinguished. Not exactly a night terror, but we can’t imagine that would be a welcome experience!
9. Welcome Child #2!
Alexander the Great wasn’t the only child born to Olympias. Her daughter Cleopatra was born either a year or two years after her older brother.
10. The Family Black Sheep
Although we now know the might and power of Alexander the Great, he had some competition when it came to ruling Macedon. In fact, although Alexander was his father’s heir, he wasn’t the eldest son. That vaunted title went to Arrhidaeus, who was Philip II’s son with another one of the Macedonian king’s many wives.
11. He Doesn’t Like Her, Does He?
One reason why Arrhidaeus wasn’t considered the heir to Philip II was that, depending on which historian you read, he either had a learning disability, or he was completely mentally deficient. According to the historian Plutarch, this disability was due to a poisoning attempt by Olympias, who was jealous of the boy and wanted her son to be the heir.
12. Mom, Dad, Stop Fighting Please
Whether it was true love or just a political marriage, however, it’s clear that Philip II and Olympias had an apocalyptically bad relationship as the years went on. Philip II was known for his parties, affairs, and hot-blooded disposition, while Olympias had a reputation for being very jealous and ambitious. To the surprise of nobody, their son became involved in their disintegrating marriage.
13. Join the Club!
Though their marriage ended badly, many historians still maintain that Olympias and Philip genuinely fell in love with each other. At some point prior to their marriage, the two were initiated into the worship at a massive temple on the island of Samothrace, known as the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. It was there that the young lovers may have first met.
14. Irreconcilable Differences
The tension between Olympias, Philip, and Alexander came to a head when Philip married his seventh and final wife, Eurydice. Not only was she much younger than Olympias, but she was also a native Macedonian woman who was pregnant with Philip’s new child. Olympias was convinced that Philip would set her and Alexander aside if the child was a boy.
Further fuelling the fire was Eurydice’s uncle, Attalus, an important statesman who was also very ambitious. At a party, Attalus drunkenly threw Alexander’s legitimacy into question, which led to a fight between the two men. Not only did Philip fail to defend his son, but attempted to attack him, according to Plutarch. Olympias and Alexander fled Macedon’s royal court for Epirus, where Olympias’ brother was king and took them in.
15. The End of a Relationship
While Alexander was eventually welcomed back to Macedon by his father, and fought in his military campaigns to pacify Greece, Olympias stayed in Epirus for the rest of Philip’s life.
16. A Rendition From Old Hollywood
In 1956, Hollywood released a film titled Alexander the Great—three guesses what the subject was. Olympias was portrayed by French actress Danielle Darrieux, alongside Fredric March who portrayed Philip II, and Richard Burton, who portrayed Alexander. As with all productions involving Alexander the Great, it was one star-studded casting call.
17. Like House Targaryen Without the Dragons
In 336 BC, Philip arranged the marriage of Cleopatra, his daughter by Olympias. The bridegroom was none other than her uncle Alexander I of Epirus, Olympias’ brother. The too-close-for-comfort marriage was, like most of Philip II’s marriages, a political maneuver to gain him more allies. But it also left Olympias, still in exile, out in the cold with one less family member to protect her.
18. Tragic Irony
A shocking act of violence put an end to Olympias’ worries about the wedding between her daughter and brother that year. Philip was overseeing the wedding ceremony when made the mistake of walking into a theater without any armed protection. It was a fatal error: he was assassinated by Pausanias, a member of his bodyguard.
With the death of Philip, Alexander was soon crowned king. Olympias, of course, returned triumphantly to Macedon to support her favorite son.
19. A Friend in Need
One of Olympias’ allies in the royal court was the general and statesman known as Antipater. One of Philip II’s most trusted commanders, he would later assist Olympias in securing the Macedonian throne for her son, Alexander, after Philip II’s assassination. We’re sure Olympias thanked the man profusely…
20. Literary Subject Matter
Olympias has naturally been a character in many books written about Alexander the Great. Examples include a trilogy written by Mary Renault, Maurice Druon’s Alexander the God, and Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s Alexander: Child of a Dream. However, Olympias has also been the main subject of a few books of her own. One of the most prominent examples would be Michael A. Dimitri’s The Daughter of Neoptolemus.
21. Mom, Please Don’t Bug Me
Based on historical records, Alexander kept in regular contact with Olympias while he was campaigning. However, he seems to have tried to keep her at arm’s length when it came to politics. As you might have guessed, this didn’t quite work.
22. Strange Find
In 1902, a medal was found in Egypt that dated back to 225-250 BC. The medal is adorned with the image of a human-like mythical creature known as a Nereid riding another mythical creature. The name “Olympias” is on the medal, leading historians to assume it has to do with the former queen of Macedon. This theory is disputed, however.
23. This Isn’t Working out
Despite their former friendship, Antipater and Olympias would quickly become mortal enemies as they both held high power in Macedon while Alexander was out doing his thing and conquering the Persian Empire. Alexander was mostly uninvolved in their squabbling, but in 323 BC he seemed to settle the matter by summoning Antipater to Babylon with new Macedonian reinforcements for his army.
It remains unknown whether Antipater was being summoned to punishment or even death, because Alexander died before the transfer of power could be enforced.
24. Mama’s Boy
Unsurprisingly, Alexander was said to have regularly sent precious treasures back home to his mother as he conquered his way eastwards.
25. A Storm of Swords
After the death of Alexander, his former peers, generals, and followers began warring over who would inherit the vast empire that Alexander had built. One candidate was his elder half-brother, Arrhidaeus, but another was his young son by his wife Roxane. Olympias was fully involved in the power struggles and conflicts, eliminating rivals to her own power.
26. Meet Your Match
Arguably the bane of Olympias’ existence was not Antipater, but his eldest son, Cassander. Known for his ruthless and bloodthirsty disposition, Cassander is rumored to have been behind the death of Alexander the Great. Having been tutored alongside Alexander by Aristotle when they were children, Cassander went to Babylon in 323 BC.
Many years after the event, an enemy of Cassander’s family would write that he’d brought the poison which would kill Alexander. But even if he didn’t have anything to do with Alexander’s death, Cassander would later bring about the undoing of Olympias.
27. Mother/Daughter Bonding
In 330 BC, Olympias’ brother, King Alexander I of Epirus, died while campaigning abroad in Italy. His widow, Cleopatra, ruled as regent until her own son would come of age, but Olympias would also travel east to be with her daughter, shouldering the burden of the regency. Given how similar their positions were at the time, they probably had a lot to talk about together!
28. Big Screen Budget for a Small Screen Production
In 2018, an Indian mini-series aired that was titled Porus. The series was focused on the Battle of Hydaspes, fought between the Indian king Porus and Alexander the Great. As it followed the lives of those connected to that battle, Olympias was a character in the series. She was portrayed by Indian actress Sameksha.
With a budget of $72 million, Porus holds the record of being the most expensive Indian series yet made!
29. Someone Call Maury
While there’s no doubt that Olympias was the mother of Alexander the Great, a doubt lingered over whether Philip II was really the father of Alexander. Plutarch offered a number of suggestions based on the dreams we talked about before. One theory he came up with was that Alexander had actually been the son of the Greek all-father known as Zeus.
Another theory he offers is that Olympias was already pregnant before her marriage to Philip II. This kind of doubt naturally inspired various legends and stories around Alexander’s life. Director Oliver Stone even pays lip service to those ideas in his film about Alexander.
30. How Many Times Removed?
Believe it or not, Philip II and Alexander the Great weren’t the only famous kings who are connected to Olympias. One of the men in her large family produced a son whose name was Pyrrhus. He would go on to become the King of Epirus, and famously fight the emerging Roman Republic in Italy. Although he won great victories, they were so costly to his own side that Pyrrhus would inspire the phrase “Pyrrhic victory.”
31. Maybe She Wasn’t the Best Role Model
Speaking of Pyrrhus, he would go on to honor not only his famous second cousin, Alexander, but also Olympias herself. He would name a son after Alexander and a daughter after Olympias. Just like her namesake, Olympias II of Epirus would play a significant role in the politics of her nation as a ruling queen—and suffer a tragic death.
One of the most consistent stories surrounding the legacy of Olympias’ life is that she was behind the assassination of her husband, Philip II. Aristotle, the former mentor of Alexander, wrote about his suspicions that Olympias was responsible somehow for Philip II’s death, while she herself was said to have honored the corpse of Philip II’s killer, even after her son had ordered it to be crucified as punishment.
33. When’s That Time Machine Coming?
Despite the claims by ancient writers of the time, modern historians greatly dispute the idea that Olympias was involved in the murder of Philip II, or even the idea that she would publicly honor the corpse of his assassin. Philip II had garnered incredible amounts of loyalty around him, and there would certainly have been retribution of some kind of Olympias had flaunted her role in his death.
Sadly, this is a mystery we will likely never solve.
34. Like Mother, Like Daughter
Just as Olympias took action after Alexander’s death, so too did her daughter, Cleopatra. Because she was the only full-blooded sibling to Alexander and also a widow, she received marriage offers from many of Alexander’s former peers and generals, including Perdiccas, Leonnatus, and Cassander. However, Cleopatra either rejected her suitors, or her suitors were killed before she could marry them.
She was eventually given a gentle imprisonment by the aging statesman Antigonus, who saw her as too much of a threat. In fact, when Cleopatra, by now a middle-aged woman, agreed to a marriage to Antigonus’ rival, Antigonus had her assassinated in 308 BC.
35. Pick Me!
Olympias actually had a hand in the doomed second marriage of her daughter Cleopatra. The groom, a man named Perdiccas, was an emerging hero of the new empire. He thus made a perfect ally for Olympias, who wasn’t willing to relinquish any of her power or control. Sadly, her gamble ended with the death of her own daughter.
36. The Reptilian Queen
Bizarrely, Olympias was obsessed with snakes. She belonged to a snake-worshipping cult devoted to the god Dionysus, and she reportedly kept snakes in her bed while she slept. The first person to make this claim was the historian Plutarch, but he was writing during the 1st century AD, so it isn’t like he ever walked in on her taking a snooze with her snake friends.
After Philip died and before Alexander the Great rose to power, Olympias had to do a lot of work to see her son on the throne. For one, Philip’s seventh wife Eurydice and her children still posed a big threat to Alexander’s supremacy. Willing to go any lengths for her beloved Alexander, Olympias plotted a brutal revenge.
She had Eurydice’s children killed, and the horrific act then caused Eurydice to commit suicide. An alternate version of the events claims that Olympias ordered both the queen and her children killed—but is that much better?
38. New Challengers
In her later years, Olympias was surrounded by enemies. One of her more formidable foes turned out to be her stepson Arrhdiaeus, the very same man she was rumored to have poisoned and disabled. You see, Arrhdiaeus had married a very ambitious woman named Adea Eurydice, who wasted no time declaring herself Queen of Macedon in Olympias’ place.
39. The Tide Turns Again
The upstart queen Adea Eurydice ended up bringing her armies to the door of Olympias and her allies. It did not work well for the young usurper: When the Macedonian soldiers realized that they were going to have to fight the mother of their former king, they simply refused to fight. Without missing a beat, Olympias quickly captured the woman along with her husband.
40. Be Ruthless
With the capture of her stepson and his ambitious wife, Olympias was not merciful in her victory. She executed Arrhidaeus in a straightforward manner in order to be rid of him—but Adea Eurydice suffered a much darker fate. Olympias famously sent her a cup of poison, a noose, and a sword, telling 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.
41. Blood for Blood
In the end, it was pretty much just Olympias and her old enemy “Kingslayer” Cassander in the final battle. After Cassander captured Alexander the Great’s Roxane and her young son by the king, he also drove Mother Olympias back to the city of Pydna, where he laid siege in the hopes of forcing her to surrender.
42. To the Very End
When Cassander and his troops first laid siege to the city of Pydna, it was initially determined that Olympias’ life would be spared if she surrendered. To Olympias’ credit, she correctly predicted that Cassander would break his word and continued to hold the city against her enemies. It wasn’t until two years had passed that she finally gave up due to starvation.
43. These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends
After Olympias had finally surrendered, and the city of Pydna was taken, Cassander ordered his soldiers to kill her. However, such was the prestige of the queen and her son’s memory that the Macedonian soldiers still refused to lay a hand on her. Undaunted, Cassander turned to the families of those people whom Olympias had killed.
Only too happy to take revenge, they took the aging queen and publicly stoned her to death. To add insult to brutal injury, Cassander denied Olympias’ corpse a proper burial. Olympias was 59 at the time of her death.
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