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As you surely know, it often said that behind every great man there is always a great woman. This is also true for mother and son! Meet Olympias, guest of our weekly Women's Wednesday and mother of Alexander the Great.

Olympias was originally born as Polyxena, then changed her name to Myrtale as part of her initiation into a cult devoted to Dionysus. After her marriage to King Philip II of Macedon, her name was once again changed to Olympias in memory of Philip's victory in the Olympic Games of 356 BC, the same year of the birth of their first son, Alexander. The marriage was very problematic and the tension finally exploded in 337 BC, when Philip (already polygamous) married Eurydice, a Macedonian noblewoman. This deeply annoyed both Olympias and Alexander, whose legitimacy was threatened by Eurydice's family: after one year of self-exile, Olympias allegedly commissioned her husband's assassination at the hand of one of his bodyguards.

With Alexander finally on the throne, Olympias gained even more influence in Macedonia: in order to assure his rule, the woman schemed the death of Eurydice and her offspring. The fame of Alexander is well-known, but his reign only lasted a mere 13 years and his sudden death, allegedly by poisoning, left the empire in the hands of the many generals and powerful families aiming at controlling the vast region. Olympias initially avoided conflict, but later joined in the chaos and led her soldiers to battle, eventually resulting in her army killing many exponents of the most powerful families in Macedonia, including her step-son and current ruler Philip III. With this, even the influent queen mother had to face her demise: the families of her many victims finally acted on their rage and stoned Olympias to death, an end she reportedly faced with no fear nor regret.


“Olympias”, illumination from the manuscript “Des cleres et nobles femmes”, ms. Royal 20 C V, f. 97r, 1st quarter of the 15th century, British Library, London.

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