10. THE WOMEN OF ALEXANDER’S FAMILY (1)
Olympias’s birth name appears to have been Polyxena, which she changed to Myrtale upon initiation to a cult, and to Olympias upon her marriage to Philip. Given that Alexander was born in 356 BC, when Olympias may have been around 20, most historians appear to assume that she was married to Philip in the preceding year. This assumption appears to be based upon the date of a treaty between Philip and the king of Epirus, Olympias’s uncle Arybbas in 358 BC, the year after Philip became king. This treaty followed Philip’s defeat of the Illyrian king Bardylis in 358 BC. In this year Philip, at 24, took three wives: Audata, the daughter or granddaughter of Bardylis; Phila, a princess of Elimeotis; and the Thessalian Philinna. Olympias was thus reckoned to be Philip’s fourth wife, possibly in 358 or 357 BC.
However, Plutarch says that Philip and Olympias met and fell in love on the island of Samothrace where they were both being initiated into the mysteries of the earth gods, the Cabeiri. This has been dated to between 365 BC and 361 BC. It has always struck me as a little odd that Philip should therefore wait between 3 and 8 years before they married, and a little fortuitous that in a year in which Philip was making political alliances left, right and centre, he should make a political marriage to a woman he was already in love with. Perhaps the love was a later romantic embellishment: perhaps they had already met and liked each, other which would have made the marriage easier; perhaps Olympias was too young to marry, but surely not a child if she was old enough for the 20 year old or so Philip to fall in love with her. Yet Plutarch seems to imply that Philip approached Arybbas straight away, perhaps placing the marriage in 360 BC, before Philip became king, and the year in which Olympias’s father Neoptolemus died, as Plutarch says she was an orphan when Philip approached her uncle.
Olympias therefore might have been Philip’s first wife, which may account for a lot of her later behaviour, and there is nothing to say that Alexander was her first child. There may well have been an older brother or two, which might account for Justin’s ‘many sons’ of Philip. Alexander’s birth has been placed anywhere between July and October 356 BC, and if the marriage took place in 358 BC, there is time for a child before Alexander, perhaps even his sister Cleopatra, for I don’t believe we know how old she was.
It would certainly seem to be Philip’s first marriage of choice, the three mentioned above being just political marriages. This would have given Olympias a status above Philip’s other wives. Both of these factors, together with being the mother of Philip’s heir apparent, would account for Olympias’s indignation at being supplanted as ‘first wife’ by Attalus’s niece Cleopatra, a girl young enough to be her daughter.
Like Olympias, Alexander’s older half-sister Cynane was a strong, politically-minded woman. Trained by her Illyrian mother Audata to ride, hunt and fight, she defeated an Illyrian army in battle, killing their queen with her own hand. Philip married her to his nephew Amyntas, and she bore Amyntas a daughter Adea before he was executed by Alexander in 336 BC. Cynane crossed with an army into Asia after Alexander’s death to marry her 14 year old daughter to Philip Arrhidaeus but was killed by Perdiccas’s brother Alcetas on Perdiccas’s orders. Adea, renamed Eurydike, was married to Arrhidaeus but they were killed by Olympias in 317 BC. Cassander buried Cynane, her daughter and Arrhidaeus in the royal cemetery at Ageae.
Alexander’s full sister Cleopatra, like the rest of her family, was a strong political presence and she acted as regent for her husband Alexander in Epirus. After his death, she assumed the regency for her young son but Alexander’s cousin Aeacides, Arybbas’s son, became king. In around 324 BC, Cleopatra returned to Macedon, while Olympias, who had fallen out with Antipater, returned to Epirus. After Alexander the Great’s death the following year, Cleopatra was sought in marriage by most of Alexander’s Successors – Leonnatus, Eumenes, Perdiccas, Cassander, Lysimachus and Antigonus. Antipater accused her of being involved in her sister Cynane’s death, and she was kept as a royal prisoner in Sardis by Antigonus after a failed attempt to marry Ptolemy. Antigonus had her murdered in 308 BC.
Alexander’s other sister Thessalonike was Philip’s daughter by the Thessalian Nicesipolis. She was about 11 years younger than Alexander, and Olympias brought her up when her mother died. When Olympias returned to Macedon in 317 BC with Polyperchon, Antipater’s successor, together with Roxane and Alexander IV to fight Cassander, Thessalonike took refuge with Olympias in the fortress of Pynda against the advance of Cassander. After the fall of Pynda, Olympias was executed in 316 BC, Roxane and Alexander IV were poisoned by Cassander in 310 BC, when the young king was about 12 or 13 and just beginning to present a possible threat. The following year, Cassander bribed Polyperchon to murder Alexander’s other son Heracles who was about 17 when he died.
However, Cassander married Thessalonike to legitimise his kingship of Macedon. She would have been about 28, which seems rather late for a marriageable princess’s first marriage. Perhaps Alexander’s absence overseas hindered her early matrimonial prospects, or she was a widow. Cassander appears to have treated her with great respect, naming the city Thessalonica after her, and she bore him three sons – Philip, Antipater and Alexander.
After Cassander’s death in 297 BC, Philip succeeded his father, but when he died soon afterwards – he can have only been about 18 - Thessalonike insisted Antipater share the throne with his younger brother Alexander. Angered by her favouritism, Antipater killed her in 295 BC, and Alexander fled to Antigonus’s son Demetrius. Demetrius ousted Antipater, killed Alexander and installed himself as king of Macedon. Antipater was killed by Lysimachus who had become king of Thrace.
Thessalonike was immortalised as a mermaid who wrecked ships unless she was told that Alexander still lived and ruled, and this apparent obsession with her brother would appear to be at odds with her husband’s known antipathy to Alexander, although this did not prevent him from installing Neoptolemus, Alexander’s nephew, as king of Epirus in 317 BC.