During the summer of 2023 the Kosmos book club read Chapter 17 of Diodorus Siculus’s Library, which described the career of Alexander the Great. I began to research more widely the women mentioned in the account, which involved researching Alexander’s family, background and contexts. Plutarch was also a useful source for this. The first blogpost told of the sources and methodology I used and described some of the social and religious environments at the time. This blogpost recounts some of the things I learned about the women in the life of Philip II of Macedon, Alexander’s father, who began the political and military campaigns that established the Macedonian Empire in the fourth century BCE.
Philip had seven wives, according to Wikipedia, although not all are mentioned in the sources I used. It is easy to confuse their identities, partly because the sources give little information about some of them, and partly because two of them, and one of their granddaughters, changed their names to Euridice, which was Philip’s mother’s name.
Audate/Euridice was Philip’s first wife. She was the daughter of King Bardyllis of Illyria, whose military defeat by Philip, during his establishment of the Macedon Empire, is described by Diodorus, although he does not mention her. It is likely that the marriage was arranged after Philip and Bardyllis negotiated peace, and after the marriage Audate changed her name to Euridice. Audate had a daughter, Cynna, or Cynanne, who was murdered during the Funeral Games, or wars of succession that took place after the death of Alexander the Great. Cynna’s daughter, Adea, also renamed Cleopatra/Euridice, married Philip III of Macedon (also called Arhidaeus), who was the son of Philip II’s sixth wife, Philinna of Larissa.
This is confusing, but, overall, we can see here attempts to keep power with the family, as relatives marry, whilst engaging in mayhem to eliminate opponents. The frequent name changes (infuriating when you are trying to sort them all out) were presumably intended to claim and to emphasise the continuity of inheritance pathways. Women seem to be as much involved in these events as men.
Phila of Elimma
Wikipedia gives as a source for this second wife Dicaearchus of Messana, who, like Alexander, was a pupil of Aristotle, and whose writings only survive in fragments. This does not appear to be the same Phila who figures in the Funeral Games that we will look at in Blogpost 4.
Nicessipolos of Pherae
Nicessipolos was Philip’s third wife, and we know little about her. She and Philip had a daughter, Thessalonike (after whom Thessalonika is said to be named) and died shortly after the birth. Thessalonike herself married a powerful man, Cassander, who had engaged in the wars of succession after Alexander the Great died. Diodorus wrote:
As for Cassander, now that his affairs had succeeded according to his intentions, he began to embrace in his hopes the Macedonian kingdom. For this reason he married Thessalonicê, who was Philip’s daughter and Alexander’s half-sister, since he desired to establish a connection with the royal house.
We see here a marriage that was politically expedient, while keeping power within the family.
Olympias was Philip’s fourth wife, and probably the most prominent of them all, certainly the best documented. She was a princess of Epirus in North West Greece. She exerted influence over Alexander, and engaged herself in events during the wars of succession that took place between Alexander’s generals after his death. She seems to have believed in patrilineal succession, because her action supported the men and boys that she saw as Alexander’s rightful heirs. However, she also believed that power descended through her, and Alexander was named after her father, so there is also a suggestion of matrilineality. She is presented by the sources as having almost supernatural powers, and as coming from a community of Bacchantes. There seems to have been a lot of communities of wild women. Plutarch wrote:
[A]ll the women of these parts were addicted to the Orphic rites and the orgies of Dionysus from very ancient times (being called Klodones and Mimallones), and imitated in many ways the practices of the Edonian women and the Thracian women about Mount Haemus, from whom, as it would seem, the word ‘threskeuein’ came to be applied to the celebration of extravagant and superstitious ceremonies. Now Olympias, who affected these divine possessions more zealously than other women, and carried out these divine inspirations in wilder fashion, used to provide the revelling companies with great tame serpents, which would often lift their heads from out the ivy and the mystic winnowing-baskets, or coil themselves about the wands and garlands of the women, thus terrifying the men
Olympias was initiated into the Mysteries of Samothrace, which are so mysterious I can find little about them. Plutarch again:
And we are told that Philip, after being initiated into the mysteries of Samothrace at the same time with Olympias, he himself being still a youth and she an orphan child, fell in love with her and betrothed himself to her at once with the consent of her brother, Arymbas. Well, then, the night before that on which the marriage was consummated, the bride dreamed that there was a peal of thunder and that a thunder-bolt fell upon her womb, and that thereby much fire was kindled, which broke into flames that travelled all about, and then was extinguished. At a later time, too, after the marriage, Philip dreamed that he was putting a seal upon his wife’s womb; and the device of the seal, as he thought, was the figure of a lion. The other seers, now, were led by the vision to suspect that Philip needed to put a closer watch upon his marriage relations; but Aristander of Telmessus said that the woman was pregnant, since no seal was put upon what was empty, and pregnant of a son whose nature would be bold and lion-like. Moreover, a serpent was once seen lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept, and we are told that this, more than anything else, dulled the ardour of Philip’s attentions to his wife, so that he no longer came often to sleep by her side, either because he feared that some spells and enchantments might be practised upon him by her, or because he shrank from her embraces in the conviction that she was the partner of a superior being
However, after his vision, as we are told, Philip sent Chaeron of Megalopolis to Delphi, by whom an oracle was brought him from Apollo, who bade him sacrifice to Ammon and hold that god in greatest reverence, but told him he was to lose that one of his eyes which he had applied to the chink in the door when he espied the god, in the form of a serpent, sharing the couch of his wife.
Olympias, then, was associated with religions deemed ‘superstitious’, and with magical relationships with snakes and lions. There is more to Olympias’s story, and we will return to her later. Meanwhile, to preserve continuity, we must consider Philip’s other wives.
Meda of Odessos
I only found Meda in Wikipedia, which says she was a Thracian princess who committed suicide after the death of Philip, and was buried with him. She does not feature in any of the ancient sources I consulted.
Philinna of Larissa
Philip and Philinna had a child, Arhidaeus (or Arrhidaeus), who seems to have had a learning disability, which Plutarch attributed to Olympias:
Arhidaeus was Philip’s son by an obscure and common woman named Philinna, and was deficient in intellect owing to bodily disease. This, however, did not come upon him in the course of nature or of its own accord, indeed, it is said that as a boy he displayed an exceedingly gifted and noble disposition: but afterwards Olympias gave him drugs which injured his body and ruined his mind.
Nevertheless, Arhidaeus became Philip III of Macedon.
There were at least three Cleopatras. One was Alexander the Great’s full sister, daughter of Olympias, and we shall meet her in the next Blogpost. The second, mentioned earlier, was Adea/Cleopatra/Euridice, daughter of Philip’s first wife. The third was the sixth wife of Philip of Macedon, who took the name of Euridice. She was the niece of Attalus who conspired against Alexander. She had a child by Philip, although it is not known whether it was male or female. Like Olympias, Cleopatra/Euridice engaged herself in political activity, for example, Diodorus described Pithon who was looking after the interests of Arhidaeus:
In Asia Arrhidaeus and Pithon, the guardians of the kings, setting out from the Nile with the kings and the army, came to Triparadeisus in upper Syria. There Eurydicê, the queen, was interfering in many matters and working against the efforts of the guardians. Pithon and his colleague were distressed by this, and when they saw that the Macedonians were paying more and more attention to her commands, they summoned a meeting of the assembly and resigned the guardianship; whereupon the Macedonians elected Antipater guardian with full power. When Antipater arrived at Triparadeisus a few days later, he found Eurydicê stirring up discord and turning the Macedonians away from him. There was great disorder in the army; but a general assembly was called together, and Antipater put an end to the tumult by addressing the crowd, and by thoroughly frightening Eurydicê he persuaded her to keep quiet.
The language of this extract is interesting. Euridice is engaged in ‘interfering’ and ‘stirring up discord’. These words do not suggest proper political activity, in contrast with the men, who had meetings and elections. Clearly, Cleopatra/Euridice’s actions were not viewed as legitimate.
Olympias now returns to the narrative. Much of Olympias’s political activity seems to take place after the death of Philip of Macedon at the hands of one Pausanias, who believed himself ill-judged. Plutarch implicated Olympias in the murder:
And so when Pausanias, who had been outrageously dealt with at the instance of Attalus and Cleopatra and could get no justice at Philip’s hands, slew Philip, most of the blame devolved upon Olympias, on the ground that she had added her exhortations to the young man’s anger and incited him to the deed; but a certain amount of accusation attached itself to Alexander also.
After the death of Philip, Olympias’s and Cleopatra/Euridice’s lives became intertwined with each other, and also with Barsine, Alexander’s wife, and her son, also Alexander. Alexander the Great embarked on his campaigns, leaving Olympias virtually in charge of Macedon. She took it upon herself to protect the interests of Alexander’s son, Alexander, by his wife Barsine, and she also engaged in a lot of letter writing, trying to influence Alexander’s campaigns. In return, he sent her some of the spoils of war:
Alexander himself, in a letter to his mother, says that he received certain secret responses, which he would tell to her, and to her alone, on what lofty airs his friends and bodyguards were wont to display over the wealth bestowed by him, is plain from a letter which Olympias wrote to him. She says: ‘I beg thee to find other ways of conferring favours on those thou lovest and holdest in honour; as it is, thou makest them all the equals of kings and providest them with an abundance of friends, whilst thyself thou strippest bare.’ Olympias often wrote him in like vein, but Alexander kept her writings secret, except once when Hephaestion, as was his wont, read with him a letter which had been opened; the king did not prevent him, but took the ring from his own finger and applied its seal to the lips of Hephaestion. . . . To his mother, also, he sent many presents, but would not suffer her to meddle in affairs nor interfere in his campaigns; and when she chided him for this, he bore her harshness patiently. Once, however, after reading a long letter which Antipater had written in denunciation of her, he said Antipater knew not that one tear of a mother effaced ten thousand letters.
Olympias also experienced some jealousy of Hephaestion, Alexander’s lover and comrade in arms:
Hephaestion enjoyed so much power and freedom of speech based on this friendship that when Olympias was estranged from him because of jealousy and wrote sharp criticisms and threats against him in her letters, he ended his letter as follows: “Stop quarrelling with us and do not be angry or menacing. If you persist, . . . we shall not be much disturbed. You know that Alexander means more to us than anything.” 
Olympias took Alexander’s son Alexander to Epirus, where her brother was king. She engaged in more letter writing from Epirus, and she also asked the general Eumenes to help protect the young Alexander:
There also came to him a letter from Olympias in which she begged and besought him to aid the kings and herself, saying that he alone was left, the most faithful of her friends and the one able to remedy the isolation of the royal house. Olympias asked him to advise her whether he thought it better for her to remain in Epirus and place no trust in those who were from time to time supposed to be guardians of the kings, but were in truth trying to transfer the kingdom to themselves, or to return to Macedonia. Eumenes at once replied to Olympias, advising her to remain in Epirus for the present until the war should come to some decision . . . [S]ince the son of Alexander was in need of help because of his orphaned state and the greediness of the commanders, he believed that it was incumbent upon himself to run every risk for the safety of the kings.
Eventually, Olympias wanted to return to Macedon and took arms:
For even against Antipater, Olympias and Cleopatra [this is Adea/Cleopatra/Euridice] had raised a faction, and had divided his realm between them, Olympias taking Epirus, and Cleopatra Macedonia. When he heard of this, Alexander said that his mother had made the better choice; for the Macedonians would not submit to be reigned over by a woman.
Nevertheless, Olympias wanted Macedon, where Cleopatra/ Euridice had assumed power. Olympias defeated Cleopatra/Euridice in battle, subsequently condemning her to a nasty death:
But after Olympias had thus captured the royal persons and had seized the kingdom without a fight, she did not carry her good fortune as a human being should, but first she placed Eurydicê and her husband Philip [this is Philip III, formerly Arhidaeus] under guard and began to maltreat them. Indeed she walled them up in a small space and supplied them with what was necessary through a single narrow opening. But after she had for many days unlawfully treated the unfortunate captives, she ordered certain Thracians to stab Philip to death, who had been king for six years and four months; but she judged that Eurydicê, who was expressing herself without restraint and declaring that the kingdom belonged to herself rather than to Olympias, was worthy of greater punishment. She therefore sent to her a sword, a noose, and some hemlock, and ordered her to employ whichever of these she pleased as a means of death, neither displaying any respect whatever for the former dignity of the victim whom she was unlawfully treating, nor moved to pity for the fate that is common to all. . . . Eurydicê, indeed, in the presence of the attendant prayed that like gifts might fall to the lot of Olympias. She next laid out the body of her husband, cleansing its wounds as well as circumstances permitted, then ended her life by hanging herself with her girdle, neither weeping for her own fate nor humbled by the weight of her misfortunes.
Olympias then massacred many of her opponents, and Diodorus reported:
But by glutting her rage with such atrocities, she soon caused many of the Macedonians to hate her ruthlessness; for all of them remembered the words of Antipater, who, as if uttering a prophecy on his death bed, advised them never to permit a woman to hold first place in the kingdom.
After the death of her son, Alexander the Great, Olympias had revenge. Plutarch reported that she suspected that Alexander was poisoned, and carried out vengeful executions:
And as for suspicions of poisoning, no one had any immediately, but five years afterwards, as we are told, upon information given, Olympias put many men to death, and scattered abroad the ashes of Iolas, alleging that he had administered the poison . . . Most writers, however, think that the story of the poisoning is altogether a fabrication; and it is no slight evidence in their favour that during the dissensions of Alexander’s commanders, which lasted many days, his body, although it lay without special care in places that were moist and stifling, showed no sign of such a destructive influence, but remained pure and fresh.
Thus, while the men in these stories committed murder, enslavement and massacre repeatedly, and their actions were seen as politically legitimate, heroic, or, of course, ‘Great’, the women were judged differently. Political activity was diminished by being described as interference, while the violent actions of one woman led to the belief that all women should be denied political power.
Olympias fled to Pydna, which was besieged by one of the Successors, Cassander. The siege is described in gruesome detail by Diodorus. Olympias took with her many of the women in the family:
[Olympias] herself went to Pydna accompanied by the following: Alexander’s son, his mother Roxanê, and Thessalonicê, daughter of Philip son of Amyntas; also Deïdameia, daughter of Aeacides king of the Epirotes and sister of that Pyrrhus who later fought against the Romans, the daughters of Attalus, and finally the kinsfolk of Olympias’ other more important friends. Thus there were gathered about her a large number of persons, but persons for the most part useless in war; and there was not a sufficient supply of food for people who were about to endure a very long siege. Although the risk involved in all these circumstances was clear, none the less she decided to remain there, hoping that many Greeks and Macedonians would come to her aid by sea . . .
Olympias, recognizing that her situation was beyond hope, sent envoys to treat of terms. When Cassander gave his opinion that she must put all her interests into his hands, she with difficulty persuaded him to grant the single exception that he guarantee her personal safety. 
Cassander, however, tricked her, and:
sent to her two hundred soldiers who were best fitted for such a task, ordering them to slay her as soon as possible. They, accordingly, broke into the royal house, but when they beheld Olympias, overawed by her exalted rank, they withdrew with their task unfulfilled. But the relatives of her victims, wishing to curry favour with Cassander as well as to avenge their dead, murdered the queen, who uttered no ignoble or womanish plea. Such was the end of Olympias, who had attained to the highest dignity of the women of her day, having been daughter of Neoptolemus, king of the Epirotes, sister of the Alexander who made a campaign into Italy, and also wife of Philip, who was the mightiest of all who down to this time had ruled in Europe, and mother of Alexander, whose deeds were the greatest and most glorious. 
As for Cassander, now that his affairs had succeeded according to his intentions, he began to embrace in his hopes the Macedonian kingdom. For this reason he married Thessalonicê, who was Philip’s daughter and Alexander’s half-sister, since he desired to establish a connection with the royal house
After the death of Olympias Cassander imprisoned other relatives of the family, including the women, to ensure there was no family inheritance, but he hoped that his marriage to Philip of Macedon’s daughter, Thessalonike, would legitimate his claim to the throne of Macedon. However, he capitulated when challenged by one Antigonus, a former general in Alexander’s army, and released the surviving female members of Philip’s family.
Philip of Macedon had seven wives, and the story of their lives is sometimes unclear. Their political manoeuvres were complicated and every bit as devious as those of their male contemporaries. What is clear, though, is that they were not only victims. Some of them were victimised and suffered unpleasant deaths, and some were political pawns. But while alive they were as deeply involved in politics as the men, and to some extent, also involved in military activity. Perhaps if they knew they were to be trafficked as political bargains, they decided to they would get involved in politics themselves. Some powerful men, and some of our source writers, thought that women’s political activity interfered with the more legitimate political activities carried out by the men. Nevertheless, like the men, women tried to maintain their own political power, the establishment and maintenance of the Macedonian Empire, and its rule by themselves or their allies and those they saw as the rightful heirs of Philip. In the next blogpost we will see the wives of Alexander the Great doing exactly the same things.
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.
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 Diodorus 16 6
4 Wikipedia article ‘Philip II of Macedon
5 Diodorus 19, 52
6 Plutarch 2,5
7 Plutarch 2 – 3
8 Plutarch 77
9 Diodorus 17, 2, 3
10 Diodorus 18, 39,
11 Plutarch, 10, 4
12 Plutarch, 39
13 Diodorus 17, 114 3
14 Diodorus 18, 58, 2
15 Plutarch 68
16 Diodorus, 19, 10, 4
17 Diodorus19, 11 9
18 Plutarch 77, 1
19 Diodorus, 19, 35, 4
20 Diodorus, 19, 50, 4
21 Diodorus, 19, 51, 4
22 Diodorus, 19, 52, 1
23 Kaltas, N. (2005) Olympia. Greece, Ministry of Culture. Archaeological Receipts Fund.
Stefano della Bella: Olympias (detail from print) 1620–1664
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Conception of Alexander the Great, Les faize d’Alexandre (translation of Historiae Alexandri Magni of Quintus Curtius Rufus), Bruges c 1468–1475
Courtesy British Library, Burney 169, f.14
Gold myrtle wreath thought to be that of Meda, from antechamber of tomb of Philip II of Macedon in Aigai Vergina, 336 BCE.
Photo: Mary Harrsch Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, via Wikimedia Commons
Alexander Putting his Seal Ring over Hephaestion’s Lips, 1781
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Juergen-Olymp, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license via Wikimedia Commons
Cassander and Olympias
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Brest, 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.
Anne Spendiff is a member of Kosmos Society