Alexander the Great’s Mother: Olympias

Queen Olympias (in Red) negotiating with king Cassander

Olympias is famously known as the mother of Alexander the Great. She was born around 375 B.C. to the king of the Molossioans, Neoptolemus, and an unknown mother. According to the Greek historian Plutarch, Olympias’ original name was Polyxena, but this was changed to Myrtale before marrying Philip II of Macedonia.

In 360 B.C., Neoptolemus died, and his brother, Arymbas, succeeded him on the throne. Two years later, Arymbas forged a political alliance with Philip II of Macedonia. In 357 B.C., Arymbas had Myrtela marry Philip II to strengthen the alliance.

People in ancient times strongly believed that when a historic man arrived in this world, omens coincided with his arrival. As Plutarch writes about the events after the marriage, “The night before the consummation of their marriage, Olympias dreamed that a thunderbolt fell upon her body, which kindled a great fire, whose divided flames dispersed themselves all about, and then was extinguished. And Philip, sometime after he was married, dreamt that he sealed up his wife’s body with a seal, whose impression, as to be fancied, was the figure of a lion.”

The following year, Philip’s horses won at the Olympic Games. As a result, Myrtale assumed the name Olympias to recognize her husband’s victory. It was also that summer that Olympias gave birth to Alexander, her first child by Philip. However, Plutarch says that Alexander was born on the same day that Philip’s horses won at the Olympics. Around two years later, Olympias gave birth to a daughter named Cleopatra.

Rise to Power

It could be assumed that Olympia’s standing in Philip’s court was established after giving birth to an heir and a princess that could be useful for political matters. However, in 338 B.C., after Philip conquered the Greeks, he married another woman named Cleopatra, who was kin to Attalus, an aristocrat. This marriage caused hostilities between Philip, Olympias, and the young Alexander. Because of this, Olympias decided to distance herself by heading to Molossia, where her brother, Alexander, was assigned by Philip to be king in 350 B.C. Shortly after, Philip had Alexander of Molossis marry Olympias’ daughter, Cleopatra. However, Philip could not have foreseen what happened next: During the wedding ceremonies, as he was approaching the theater, he was stabbed in the ribs by one of his bodyguards. Philip was not wearing armor then because he had to appear friendly to Greek dignitaries who were present. Rumors went around that Olympias and her son Alexander were behind the assassination. The rumors gathered more strength when she went home to Macedonia and ordered the killing of Cleopatra, Philip’s other wife, and her child. The rumors did not seem to bother her, as Alexander, her son, was now king, and nobody could lay hands on her as long as he was king.

As Mother to the King

Olympias kept communicating with her son through letters, even during his military campaigns. By this time, Alexander could have already claimed he was the son of the Greek god Zeus. And most likely, Olympias confirmed this by saying that Alexander was not fathered by Philip but by the god Zeus Ammon. Her relationship with her son remained pleasant, but Alexander kept her at a distance from matters of the state.

Macedonia was now under the authority of Antipater, one of Philip’s trusted commanders. Antipater made sure that Alexander would ascend to the throne after his father, Philip, was assassinated. Olympias and Antipater apparently disliked each other, and Olympias was only too happy that she could head back home to Mollosis in 330. Her brother, Alexander, had been killed and was replaced by her cousin, Aeacidas, who she now serves as regent.

After the Death of Alexander

In 323 B.C., Alexander the Great died, and his generals divided his empire among themselves. Alexander’s wife, Roxana, was pregnant at the time but gave birth a few months later to a baby boy named Alexander. The baby Alexander was now under the authority of Alexander the Great’s vizier, Perdiccas, who was now the commander of the imperial army. Perdiccas also had under his command Alexander the Great’s half-brother, Philip Arridaeus, who was too mentally impaired to rule.

Perdiccas now tried to gain more power by seeking to marry Antipater’s daughter, Nicaea. But Olympias had plans of her own and offered Perdiccas to marry her daughter, Cleopatra, Alexander’s full-blooded sister. Perdiccas welcomed the offer, and Antipater felt he was wronged. A civil war followed and was won by Antipater, and now he was the royal family’s regent. However, in 319 B.C., Antipater died of old age.

Before Antipater died, he chose his aging general, Poyperchon, to replace him. However, Antipater’s son, Cassander, felt he should be the one chosen by his father. Cassander not only battled with Polyperchon and pushed him out of Macedonia but he also abducted the mentally-impaired Philip Arridaeus. Polyperchon escaped to Epirus and took with him Roxana and the baby Alexander. Olympias had not been taking sides in the disputation, but then she figured that if Cassander rose to power, her grandson would surely be eliminated from the power struggle. And so, Olympias led the troops of Aeacidas and combined them with the troops of Polyperchon, then attacked Cassander in Macedonia.


With her army, Olympias soon recovered Philip Arridaeus, but she had him executed, worried that he might again be used as a pawn against her. She also had Cassander’s supporters killed. However, Cassander had managed to surround Olympias in the city of Pydna and offered to not execute her if she surrendered. When Cassander’s troops breached the walls of Pydna, Cassander decided to execute Olympias after all. When Cassander ordered the soldiers to kill her, they refused. They had too much respect for the mother of Alexander the Great. Ultimately, Cassander allowed the relatives of Olympias’ victims to stone her to death. Cassander is also believed to have denied Olympias a proper burial.

Many historians view Olympias as a ruthless woman. However, this may be an exaggeration, as her main concern in all her decisions was to survive the political chaos and to ensure the passing of power to her son and grandson. Numerous military leaders have fought for power only for their own interests, but Olympias was looking out for the legitimate succession to the throne.