This series of blogposts originated in the Kosmos Society’s Book Club reading, in the summer of 2023, of Diodorus Siculus’ Library, Book 17, which concerns the campaigns of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. As we read, it became evident that more contextual material was available in Books 16, 18, 19 and 20 of the Library, and also in the works of Plutarch and Arrian. Wikipedia dates Diodorus to around 60 BCE, and Plutarch and Arrian to the second century CE. They give some information about the sources they used, so they themselves are, at best, secondary sources. Most of the writings cover military tactics and events, which have been well covered in more modern secondary sources. However, focussing on the women mentioned by these writers brought other themes into focus, and it also enabled me to recover some of the histories of the women, many of whom have been forgotten.
Diodorus intended to write, as far as possible, a history of the world. Chapter 16 of his Library tells us a lot about the history of his native Sicily, and some of the women who lived there, and he also included reports of the military and colonising campaigns of Philip II of Macedon, who lived from 382 BCE to 336 BCE, and who established much of the Macedon Empire around the Aegean Sea. One of his six wives was Olympias of Epirus, and their son was Alexander the Great (356 BCE – 323 BCE), whose colonising and campaigning took him from Egypt to what is now Pakistan. Alexander’s story is told by all three of my source writers. Both Philip and Alexander encountered women along the way. They married some of them, treated some well, and some badly. After the death of Alexander, his generals and members of his family, known as the Successors, fought a series of wars to establish their own power within his empire. These stories are told in Diodorus’ Library, chapters 18, 19 and 20, and they were fictionalised by Mary Renault in her novel vividly named Funeral Games.
In focusing on the women, I became less aware of military tactics, and more aware of the importance of politics, religion and inheritance in the women’s lives. The women’s qualities also became more evident, and we encounter women as victims, strong women, brave women, and, sometimes, violent women.
Following this introduction, this first blogpost uses examples of some of the lesser known women encountered to look at attitudes to women in general in Macedon, and at some of the practices Alexander and Philip encountered in other cultures. Attitudes towards real women are then contrasted with behaviour towards goddesses. The second blogpost will explore the lives of some of the women associated with Philip; the third at some associated with Alexander, and, finally, I shall look at some of the women who fit into none of these categories.
The environment in which most women lived is certainly presented by our three sources as patriarchal. A focus on the women enables us to see more clearly the victims of war, rather than just passing them over as collateral damage, reading quickly to the next description of a brilliant military tactic. Women were victims; they were raped and enslaved, particularly after military victories, and they were used, in marriage agreements between men, as political pawns. The enslavement of conquered peoples occurred repeatedly in Philip’s and Alexander’s campaigns. For example, Philip ordered the women of Syracuse to be sold into slavery, and Alexander had the women and children of Tyre sold into slavery and the men of military age crucified. Diodorus gave a vivid description of the Alexander’s looting of Persepolis and the abuse and enslavement of the women:
Persepolis was the capital of the Persian kingdom. Alexander described it to the Macedonians as the most hateful of the cities of Asia, and gave it over to his soldiers to plunder, all but the palaces.  It was the richest city under the sun and the private houses had been furnished with every sort of wealth over the years. The Macedonians raced into it slaughtering all the men whom they met and plundering the residences; many of the houses belonged to the common people and were abundantly supplied with furniture and wearing apparel of every kind.  Here much silver was carried off and no little gold, and many rich dresses gay with sea purple or with gold embroidery became the prize of the victors. The enormous palaces, famed throughout the whole civilized world, fell victim to insult and utter destruction.
 The Macedonians gave themselves up to this orgy of plunder for a whole day and still could not satisfy their boundless greed for more.  Such was their exceeding lust for loot withal that they fought with each other and killed many of their fellows who had appropriated a greater portion of it. The richest of the finds some cut through with their swords so that each might have his own part. Some cut off the hands of those who were grasping at disputed property, being driven mad by their passions.  They dragged off women, clothes and all, converting their captivity into slavery.
Alexander’s brutality is evident in this and other examples, but occasionally Plutarch tells of his compassion, such as in the case of Timocleia of Thebes, who was one of the women who fought back:
Among the many and grievous calamities which thus possessed the city, some Thracians broke into the house of Timocleia, a woman of high repute and chastity, and while the rest were plundering her property, their leader shamefully violated her, and then asked her if she had gold or silver concealed anywhere.  She admitted that she had, and after leading him by himself into the garden and showing him a well, told him that when the city was taken she had with her own hands cast in there her most valuable possessions. Then, as the Thracian was bending over and inspecting the place, she came behind him and pushed him in, cast many stones upon him, and killed him.  And when the Thracians led her, with hands bound, to Alexander, she showed by her mien and gait that she was a person of great dignity and lofty spirit, so calmly and fearlessly did she follow her conductors; and when the king asked her who she was, she replied that she was a sister of Theagenes, who drew up the forces which fought Philip in behalf of the liberty of the Greeks, and fell in command at Chaeroneia. Amazed, therefore, at her reply and at what she had done, Alexander bade her depart in freedom with her children.
Axiothea, the wife of Nicocles, on learning of her husband’s death, slew her daughters, who were unwed, in order that no enemy might possess them; and she urged the wives of Nicocles’ brothers to choose death along with her, although Ptolemy had given no instructions in regard to the women but had agreed to their safety.  When the palace had thus been filled full of death and unforeseen disaster, the brothers of Nicocles, after fastening the doors, set fire to the building and slew themselves. Thus the house of the kings of Paphos, after meeting such tragic suffering, was brought to its end in the way described.>
When describing the Funeral Games attack by Agathocles on Erbita, Diodorus accounted for rape as a weapon of war, and also distanced himself from the acts themselves, making what probably passes for a subjective moral comment:
The party of Agathocles spent the day in the murder of their fellow citizens, nor did they abstain from outrage and crime against women, but they thought that those who had escaped death would be sufficiently punished by the violation of their kindred. For it was reasonable to suppose that the husbands and fathers would suffer something worse than death when they thought of the violence done their wives and the shame inflicted upon their unmarried daughters. [4[ We must keep our accounts of these events free from the artificially tragic tone that is habitual with historians, chiefly because of our pity for the victims, but also because no one of our readers has a desire to hear all the details when his own understanding can readily supply them.  For men who by day in the streets and throughout the market place were bold to butcher those who had done no harm need no writer to set forth what they did at night when by themselves in the homes, and how they conducted themselves toward orphaned maidens and toward women who were bereft of any to defend them and had fallen into the absolute power of their direst enemies.
The use of women as political pawns and bargaining chips is reported almost as incidental to the main diplomatic events, with little attention to the effects this might have had on the individual women. Darius tried at least twice to bargain with his daughter, for example:
Meanwhile, however, Parmenio sent a letter to Alexander from the camp, urging him to be on his guard against Philip, for the reason that he had been persuaded by Dareius with the promise of large gifts and a marriage with his daughter, to kill Alexander.
. . .
When Dareius sent to him a letter and friends, begging him to accept ten thousand talents as ransom for the captives, to hold all the territory this side of the Euphrates, to take one of his daughters in marriage, and on these terms to be his ally and friend, Alexander imparted the matter to his companions. ‘If I were Alexander,’ said Parmenio, ‘I would accept these terms.’ ‘And so indeed would I,’ said Alexander, ‘were I Parmenio.’
Alexander was not above using women as spies, as he did with Antigone of Pydna:
[W]hen Dareius had been defeated in Cilicia and the wealth of Damascus was taken, among the many prisoners brought into the camp there was found a young woman, born in Pydna, and comely to look upon; her name was Antigone.  This woman Philotas got; and as a young man will often talk freely in vaunting and martial strain to his mistress and in his cups, he used to tell her that the greatest achievements were performed by himself and his father, and would call Alexander a stripling who through their efforts enjoyed the title of ruler.  These words the woman would report to one of her acquaintances, and he, as was natural, to somebody else, until the story came round to Craterus, who took the girl and brought her secretly to Alexander. He, on hearing her story, ordered her to continue her meetings with Philotas and to come and report to him whatever she learned from her lover.
Alexander’s travels took him from Macedon to Egypt, through Persia and into Pakistan, and back to Persia. On the way, he encountered a number of marriage customs that the writers thought worth recording, such as suttee and sibling marriage. For example, Diodorus wrote, of Alexander:
Then he came into the country of the Cathaeans,  among whom it was the custom for wives to be cremated together with their husbands. This law had been put into effect there because of a woman who had killed her husband with poison.
Arrian told of marriage with children in the area he called ‘India’, where the character the ‘Indians’ called Heracles married his seven-year old daughter. He also recorded strict status differences between castes, and said that marriage between castes was not allowed. What we would now think of as incestuous marriages were also recorded. Sibling marriage occurred in the royal family in Caria for the queens Artemisia and Ada. The Macedonians themselves engaged in polygamy, as evidenced by both Philip and Alexander, and Philip’s sister, Cleopatra, married her uncle. We will meet with more specific examples of these marriages in subsequent blogposts.
In contrast with the apparently exploitative use of women, occasionally there were examples of privileges, although probably not to all women. The Persian kings evidently distributed money to women, although occasionally they avoided the practice. Towards the end of his campaign Alexander adopted some Persian cultural practices, including this one, which was recorded by Plutarch:
In Persia, to begin with, he distributed the money among the women, just as their kings were accustomed, as often as they came into Persia, to give each one of them a gold piece. And for this reason, it is said, some of their kings did not come often into Persia, and Ochus not even once, being so penurious as to expatriate himself.
Inheritance appears in the stories as a theme and as an issue for the characters involved. Alexander himself was certain that he was the heir of Philip, notwithstanding his ‘adoption’ by a number of people on his travels. Plutarch, with a lovely sarcastic aside about Philip’s age, reported:
The most open quarrel was brought on by Attalus at the marriage of Cleopatra, a maiden whom Philip was taking to wife, having fallen in love with the girl when he was past the age for it. Attalus, now, was the girl’s uncle, and being in his cups, he called upon the Macedonians to ask of the gods that from Philip and Cleopatra there might be born a legitimate successor to the kingdom. At this Alexander was exasperated, and with the words, ‘But what of me, base wretch? Dost thou take me for a bastard?’ threw a cup at him.
There may be just a suggestion here of ultimogeniture: that Alexander, Philip’s eldest son might be replaced as heir by a younger sibling. On another occasion, Alexander’s brother was contemplating marriage to a Carian princess:
But when Pixodarus, the satrap of Caria, trying by means of a tie of relationship to steal into a military alliance with Philip, wished to give his eldest daughter in marriage to Arrhidaeus the son of Philip, and sent Aristocritus to Macedonia on this errand, once more slanderous stories kept coming to Alexander from his friends and his mother, who said that Philip, by means of a brilliant marriage and a great connexion, was trying to settle the kingdom upon Arrhidaeus.
Alexander objected to this alliance, which never happened. Thus, those trying to establish an inheritance pattern different from male primogeniture were confounded. It proved to be significant that Olympias, Alexander’s Mother, was involved in this last story, although briefly. As we shall see in a subsequent blogpost, she involved herself in a number of events to confirm Alexander as Philip’s heir. However, Alexander himself had no heirs, as told by Diodorus:
When [Alexander] was quitting life in Babylon and at his last breath was asked by his friends to whom he was leaving the kingdom, he said, “To the best man; for I foresee that a great combat of my friends will be my funeral games”.
Women might have been victimised and treated as political pawns, but some of them did find ways to assert themselves, as we shall see. First, it will be useful to consider what roles religion, and Goddesses, played in these stories. Greek and Macedonian treatment of Goddesses was far more respectful than their treatment of women.
In his book about Thebes, Cartledge asserted:
The ancient Greeks did not ‘have a word for’ religion, however. They had words for worship and for piety and for gods and goddesses, and other objects of worship and piety such as heroes and heroines, but religion as such was so much a part of the air they breathed that they did not feel the need for a special word to pick out this as a unique human category, concept or activity.’
This is an interesting reversal, that something is so important that there is not a word for it. Certainly, Alexander’s campaigns, particularly as detailed by Arrian, took him from one shrine to the next, and religion will recur as a theme in future blogposts. Women were often involved in religious ritual. Diodorus gave a beautiful description of the Temple Of Ammon at Siwa, famously visited by Alexander to seek a blessing for his colonisations:
Outside of the fortress at no great distance there is another temple of Ammon shaded by many large trees, and near this is the spring which is called the Spring of the Sun from its behaviour. Its waters change in temperature oddly in accordance with the times of day.  At sunrise it sends forth a warm stream, but as the day advances it grows cooler proportionally with the passage of the hours, until under the noon-day heat it reaches its extreme degree of cold. Then again in the same proportion it grows warmer toward evening and as the night advances it continues to heat up until midnight when again the trend is reversed, and at daybreak once more the waters have returned to their original temperature.
 The image of the god is encrusted with emeralds and other precious stones, and answers those who consult the oracle in a quite peculiar fashion. It is carried about upon a golden boat by eighty priests, and these, with the god on their shoulders, go without their own volition wherever the god directs their path.  A multitude of girls and women follows them singing paeans as they go and praising the god in a traditional hymn.
Women, of course, were often Oracles, the most famous being the Oracle at Delphi, called the Pythia. There must have been several, because they continued in existence for many years, but we are never told who they were. Diodorus, in a micronarrative, told of the origins of the Delphic Oracles:
They say that the manner of its discovery was the following. There is a chasm at this place where now is situated what is known as the “forbidden” sanctuary, and as goats had been wont to feed about this because Delphi had not as yet been settled, invariably any goat that approached the chasm and peered into it would leap about in an extraordinary fashion and utter a sound quite different from what it was formerly wont to emit.  The herdsman in charge of the goats marvelled at the strange phenomenon and having approached the chasm and peeped down it to discover what it was, had the same experience as the goats, for the goats began to act like beings possessed and the goatherd also began to foretell future events. After this as the report was bruited among the people of the vicinity concerning the experience of those who approached the chasm, an increasing number of persons visited the place and, as they all tested it because of its miraculous character, whosoever approached the spot became inspired. For these reasons the oracle came to be regarded as a marvel and to be considered the prophecy-giving shrine of Earth.  For some time all who wished to obtain a prophecy approached the chasm and made their prophetic replies to one another; but later, since many were leaping down into the chasm under the influence of their frenzy and all disappeared, it seemed best to the dwellers in that region, in order to eliminate the risk, to station one woman there as a single prophetess for all and to have the oracles told through her. And for her a contrivance was devised which she could safely mount, then become inspired and give prophecies to those who so desired.  And this contrivance has three supports and hence was called a tripod, and, I dare say, all the bronze tripods which are constructed even to this day are made in imitation of this contrivance . . .  It is said that in ancient times virgins delivered the oracles because virgins have their natural innocence intact and are in the same case as Artemis; for indeed virgins were alleged to be well suited to guard the secrecy of disclosures made by oracles. In more recent times, however, people say that Echecrates the Thessalian, having arrived at the shrine and beheld the virgin who uttered the oracle, became enamoured of her because of her beauty, carried her away with him and violated her; and that the Delphians because of this deplorable occurrence passed a law that in future a virgin should no longer prophesy but that an elderly woman of fifty should declare the oracles and that she should be dressed in the costume of a virgin, as a sort of reminder of the prophetess of olden times.
The Oracle wielded such power as was available to her. Diodorus, for example, told of the shrine being violated by Philomelus of Phocis. She had her revenge, though, after the gods visited all kinds of retribution on Philomenus and his allies:
[F]irst it is only right, so we think, to record the punishment which was visited by the gods upon those who had committed the outrage on the oracle. For, speaking generally, it was not merely the perpetrators of the sacrilege but all persons who had the slightest connection with the sacrilege that were hounded by the inexorable retribution sent of Heaven.  In fact the man who first schemed for the seizure of the shrine, Philomelus, in a crisis of the war hurled himself over a cliff.
– – – and there was more, which I shall spare us. Of most relevance here is the prediction the Oracle made to Philip, who was contemplating war, and:
. . . asked the Pythia whether he would conquer the king of the Persians. She gave him the following response: “Wreathed is the bull. All is done. There is also the one who will smite him.”  Now Philip found this response ambiguous but accepted it in a sense favourable to himself, namely that the oracle foretold that the Persian would be slaughtered like a sacrificial victim. Actually, however, it was not so, and it meant that Philip himself in the midst of a festival and holy sacrifices, like the bull, would be stabbed to death while decked with a garland.
The Pythia was well-known for her enigmatic responses, which may have been her way of asserting herself. Women in ancient Greece and Macedon were abused, enslaved, oppressed, and used as political pawns. But some of them found ways to gain revenge, and/or to acquire political power, perhaps through religious activity, or through marriage, or through inheritance. The next blogpost will look particularly at the lives of the wives and daughters of Philip of Macedon, where we will see them doing just that.
1 Diodorus Siculus. Diodorus of Sicily in Twelve Volumes with an English Translation by C. H. Oldfather. Vol. 4-8. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, Ltd. 1989.
Books 18, 19, 20:
References are to book number, chapter number and section number.
2 Plutarch, Alexander. Bernadotte Perrin, Ed.:
References are to chapter number and section number.
3 Arrian. Alexander the Great. The Anabasis and the Indica. Translations by M. Hammond. Oxford: University press, 2013.
4 In these blogposts I use ‘Macedon’ to name the ancient kingdom that was established by Philip of Macedon and extended by Alexander the Great. ‘Macedonian’ is the adjective I use to describe, for example, the Macedonian people of the time. Where other writers and translators have used other terms, I have transcribed them directly rather than change them. A review of the issues involved in language choices in this context can be seen here:
If readers would have preferred other choices, please let us know in the forums.
5 Renault, Mary (1981) Funeral Games. London: John Murray.
6 Diodorus 16, 19,4.
7 Diodorus 17, 46, 3.
8 Diodorus 17, 70
9 Plutarch 12,1
10 Diodorus 20, 21, 2
11 Diodorus 19, 18, 3
12 Plutarch 19,3
13 Plutarch 29, 4
14 Plutarch 48, 3
15 Diodorus 17, 91, 3
16 Arrian Indica 9
17 Arrian Indica 12
18 Plutarch 69
19 Plutarch, 18, 2
20 Plutarch 10, 1
21 Diodorus, 18, 2, 4
22 Cartledge, P. (2020) Thebes: the forgotten city of Ancient Greece. London, Picador. P. 49.
23 Diodorus 17, 50, 7
24 Diodorus 16, 26
25 Diodorus 16, 26
26 Diodorus 16, 61
27 Diodorus 19, 2
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Sarah Scott for picture research and editorial advice.
Painting of Diodorus Siculus, unknown artist, (dated as 800 on Wikimedia).
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Plutarch, statue at Chaeronia, Greece.
Photo: Odysses. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons
Arrival of Alexander at Persepolis. Illustration to Quinte-Curce, Histoire d’Alexandre le Grand (traduction Vasque de Lucène), Flanders, 15th century
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Elisabetta Sirani (after Merian’s engraving) Timoclea Kills the Captain of Alexander the Great. 1659.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Colossal statues of a man and a woman from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, traditionally identified as Maussollos and Artemisia II, around 350 BCE, British Museum.
The British Museum, however, says “The statue probably represents one of the female members of the Hekatomnid family. There is no reason to identify her specifically with Artemisia.”
Photo: Carole Raddato, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, via Wikimedia Commons
Oracle of Jupiter Ammon as imagined by Ortelius, 1595
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Preparing to consult the oracle at Delphi,
illustration from Anthoni van Dale, Verhandeling van de oude orakelen der heydenen. De oraculis ethnicorum dissertationes duæ, Amsterdam 1687.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible by those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons or Flickr at the time of publication on this website.
Texts and images accessed September 2023.
Anne Spendiff is a member of Kosmos Society