Women in Diodorus Siculus | part 4: More Women, and Conclusions

Painting of man with beard, illustrating the possible appearance of Diodorus Siculus
Diodorus Siculus

This is the final blogpost that was inspired by my reading of Diodorus’s Library[1] for the Kosmos Society Book Club in 2023. Diodorus wrote about the actions of Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, and about the wars of succession that took place after the death of Alexander. Earlier blogposts looked at the general social and religious contexts at the time, and at the women in the lives of Philip and Alexander [links]. There were, though, other women, not included in the earlier categories, that Diodorus, and other writers, wrote about from these times. Sometimes they were only given a casual mention and we know nothing more about them. Sometimes they were the actors in stories Diodorus thought worth telling, and still others were queens. In this blogpost I look at some of those women, before presenting some of the more personal conclusions I have come to during my reading. I realise that other readers may come to very different conclusions, and I would be interested to read about them in the Kosmos discussion forums.

Neither Diodorus nor any of my sources tell us much about the lives of ordinary women, nor indeed men, other than soldiers. So we do not know who tended the crops and animals, who baked the bread, brewed the wine, built the houses, taught and nurtured the children and the elderly. In reading about Alexander’s travels from Macedon to Egypt and Pakistan, I wondered who took care of the logistics, fed and watered the troops, and carried the ubiquitous letters to Alexander from Olympias.

Some women are mentioned fleetingly, such as Thebe of Pherae who conspired with her brothers to assassinate her husband, Alexander of Pherae.[2] And Alcis, who allegedly had sex with her stepson[3], and Euthydice[4] and Amestris[5], who both made politically expedient marriages. And Stratonice, who helped some prisoners to escape[6]. The wives of the rapist Harpalus, Pythonice and Glycera, lived in luxury, a fact that is Diodorus uses to emphasise Harpalus’s corruption[7].

Occasionally Diodorus and other writers gave a little more detail, which enables me to speculate about these women. Agathocles’ mother, for example, is unnamed, but Diodorus reported that she was a native woman of Sicily, who saved her baby son from exposure after his father, Carinus, had nightmares about him[8]. This son, Agathocles, became a military commander and eventually established himself as King, or Tyrant, of Sicily.[9] His lover and patron was Damas:

A certain Damas, who was counted among the notable men of Syracuse, fell in love with Agathocles and since in the beginning he supplied him lavishly with everything, was the cause of his accumulating a suitable property;​ . . . When Damas died of illness and left his property to his wife, Agathocles married her and was counted among the richest men.[10]

I conclude from this that Agathocles’ mother was brave and willing to go against authority, and Damas’s widow was rich.

Fresco painting of mature seated woman looking thoughtful
Phila, c 40 BCE

Diodorus is very complimentary about Phila, the wife of Craterus and Demetrius, saying that she had sent Demetrius royal robes while he was on a military campaign[11]. Praise of women is rare, but Diodorus also thought she was wise, clever and generous:

At this time Ariston, to whose care the bones of Craterus ​had been entrusted by Eumenes, gave them for burial to Phila, who had formerly been the wife of Craterus, but now was married to Demetrius, the son of Antigonus.  This woman seems to have been of exceptional sagacity; for example, she would quell the trouble-makers in the camp by dealing with each individual in a manner appropriate to his case, she would arrange marriages at her own expense for the sisters and daughters of the poor, and she would free from jeopardy many who had been trapped by false accusations.  It is even said that her father Antipater, who is reputed to have been the wisest of the rulers of his own time, used to consult with Phila about the most important matters when she was still a child.[12].

Sculptured head of a mature woman, with a strong face, and elaborate hairstyle
Carian Princess, 360–325 BCE

Occasionally in the ancient texts we meet women who were rulers. In the case of two Queens of Caria (in present-day Turkey), they seem to have become rulers through sibling marriage. Mausulus, the dynast of Caria, died and was succeeded by Artemisia, his sister and wife, who reigned for two years[13]. She was succeeded by her brother Idrieus[14], who reigned for seven years and who was married to his wife and sister Ada. In his note to this account, Diodorus’s translator, Waterfield, said that sibling marriage was shocking to the Greeks, and continued:

It was supposed to (a) guarantee the purity of the dynastic bloodline; (b) reduce the number of cousins (by turning them into brothers and sisters) who might be rivals for the throne at the death of a ruler; (c) advertise the superiority of the royal family to conventional morality[15].

Thus, at a time when patrilineal inheritance could be challenged, sibling marriage emphasised its importance, and, indeed, the importance of inheritance in general. Waterfield’s assertion of the unacceptability of sibling marriage is put into question by the actions of Alexander himself, who supported Ada’s claim to the throne. She was deposed by her brother Pizodarus[16], who ruled for 5 years until the arrival of Alexander:

Photo of the Agora from above: ruined columns and wall, open grassy area, houses in the background
Agora at Alinda (where Ada greeted Alexander the Great)

King Alexander had his siege engines and provisions conveyed by sea to Halicarnassus while he himself with all his army marched into Caria, winning over the cities that lay on his route by kind treatment. He was particularly generous to the Greek cities, granting them independence and exemption from taxation, adding the assurance that the freedom of the Greeks was the object for which he had taken upon himself the war against the Persians. [2] On his journey he was met by a woman named Ada, who belonged by blood to the ruling house of Caria. When she presented a petition to recover the position of her ancestors and requested his assistance, he gave orders that she should become the ruler of Caria. Thus he won the loyal support of the Carians by the favour that he bestowed on this woman.[17]

Arrian reported the same story, and added that Ada subsequently adopted Alexander as her son[18].

Painting: Alexander the Great with some soldiers is greeted by women in front of a large palace, with other buildings in the background
Gerard Hoet: Queen Cleophis Offers Alexander the Great Wine after Conquering Massaga, c 1670–1733

Not all of the invaded queens received this respect, though. Cleophis of the Assaceni was a queen in the Lower Swat Valley of what is now Pakistan. As Alexander was advancing, she negotiated a truce and sent him gifts. He slaughtered everyone anyway, but the women took up arms, as reported by Diodorus:

As many were wounded and not a few killed, the women caught up the weapons of the fallen and fought beside their men, since the acuteness of the danger and the fierceness of the action forced them to be brave beyond their nature. Some of them, clad in armour, sheltered behind the same shields as their husbands, while others rushed in without armour, grasped the opposing shields, and hindered their use by the enemy. Finally, fighting women and all, they were overborne by numbers and cut down, winning a glorious death in preference to basely saving their lives at any cost.[19]

Photo: path bordered by red wild flowers leading to ruins with a slope behind

The final woman in my list is Cratesipolis, warrior Queen of Sicyon and Corinth during the wars of succession:

While this was taking place, Polyperchon’s son Alexander, as he was setting out from Sicyon with his army, was killed by Alexion of Sicyon and certain others who pretended to be friends. His wife, Cratesipolis,​ however, succeeded to his power and held his army together, since she was most highly esteemed by the soldiers for her acts of kindness; for it was her habit to aid those who were in misfortune and to assist many of those who were without resources.  She possessed, too, skill in practical matters and more daring than one would expect in a woman. Indeed, when the people of Sicyon scorned her because of her husband’s death and assembled under arms in an effort to gain their freedom, she drew up her forces against them and defeated them with great slaughter, but arrested and crucified about thirty. When she had a firm hold on the city, she governed the Sicyonians, maintaining many soldiers, who were ready for any emergency[20].

Cratesepolis was also a diplomat when necessary, and negotiated a land agreement with Ptolemy during his campaign in the wars of succession.[21] Diodorus seems to have been surprised by Cratesipolis’ daring, because she was a woman, which is odd because he actually recounted the deeds of many daring women, but he could not free himself from the stereotype. She was one of several queens reported in the ancient sources, who ruled with wisdom and/or military skill and courage.

Summary and Some Personal Conclusions

This series of blogposts was inspired by my reading, first, of Diodorus for the Kosmos Book Club, and, then, by Plutarch and Arrian, and various secondary sources, all of whom told some aspect of the story of Alexander the Great. In reading about Alexander, I encountered his mother, Olympias, and from her I moved on to read about her husband, Philip of Macedon, and his six other wives, and the military initiatives of Alexander’s generals after his death, in the wars of succession. A number of themes emerged in this reading, particularly the importance of inheritance, the ways marriage was used to secure inheritance, the characters of Philip and Alexander, and the bravery and resourcefulness of the women involved in the stories. I also became aware of how the stories have been depicted by subsequent artists, and wondered whether it is possible for a viewer to ‘see’ stories from the past outside of our own context.

We were told very little about the lives of ordinary women, neither of the camp followers who followed the armies, nor of those left at home in Macedon. The only ordinary women I read about were those who were victims of war, and of the invading armies. They were routinely abused, raped, enslaved, and oppressed. Occasionally (perhaps often?), some fought back, and some took up arms to defend their homes and families. These stories challenged the interpretations ancient writers gave of women and of the good characters of Philip and Alexander. It is true that Philip could be diplomatic, and that Alexander could be compassionate. However, they both permitted their armies to rampage, and they could be cruel when they chose to be. However, many women fought back and asserted their own choices and political views.

Sometimes aristocratic women could be treated with respect, although that is questionable. Alexander was said to treat Darius’ family with respect, but Darius’ wife died in childbirth nearly two years after she was captured. Philip, in particular, made a number of political marriages, and various women were married to Alexander’s generals out of diplomatic expediency. Philip was said to have loved Olympias, and Alexander Roxanne. I can believe the first, because Philip may have seen the resourceful and ruthless Olympias as some sort of alter ego. I find Alexander and Roxanne less believable because he had been besieging and massacring her people for some months when they married, and, in any case, he loved Hephaistion. Various rulers offered their daughters to Alexander, although he accepted the offer less often than his father. On the whole, though, the fates of these women were negotiable parts of the political process.

In this context, some women took control of the political or military process themselves. Olympias, for example, expressed her opinion in letters, and Cleopatra, Alexander’s sister, and the Amazon queen Thallestris were assertive in their choices of sexual partners. Others took violent revenge, or became oracles, or simply acceded in search of a quiet life, like Sisymgambris. Still others were queens who ruled countries and led armies.

Some women, through marriage, tried to take control of inheritance. Patrilineal inheritance does not appear to have been accepted as the norm, because it was frequently challenged by other family members and powerful generals. Perhaps this was a transition time as humans moved from political control through military might to control by inheritance through legitimate marriage. Philip and Alexander encountered a number of marriage practices that would be rejected by many people today, such as sibling marriage, marriage between other close relatives, and polygamy. These practices were probably intended to keep power, and perhaps land, within the ruling family. Olympias tried to do this by trying to exert political influence to ensure Alexander’s son succeeded him. Eventually she became as ruthless as the men in her pursuit of power. Such political activity was seen as unusual or unseemly when coming from women, although entirely acceptable in men, who were judged differently, and were seen as ‘great’ political and military leaders.

One feature of these blogposts has been the wonderful illustrations. These have been researched by Sarah Scott. I was struck that on several occasions the people in the pictures did not look like they did in my imagination. This first struck me in part 1, where Alexander’s entry to Persepolis looked like a scene from a movie, and Persepolis looked like a French château.

Medieval illustration of knights in armor on horseback entering a medieval style castle
Arrival of Alexander at Persepolis, 15th century

In part 3, Veronese’s painting of Darius’s family meeting Alexander depicted the women looking as though they had emerged from a sixteenth-century beauty parlour. In reality, they had been following an army for months.

Painting: queen in 16th-century robes kneels before men in clothing from the same era
Paolo Veronese: The Family of Darius before Alexander, 1565

And, did Alexander and Roxanne really have so many cherubs attending their wedding?

Decorative painting of a bedroom, scantily clad woman on a bed facing partially clad Alexander, various attendants and an abundance of naked cherubs
Il Sodoma: The Wedding of Alexander the Great and Roxane, c 1517

This all made me wonder how much I was projecting my ideas onto the stories, just as those medieval artists did. I believe we all see the stories from our own contexts, and it is difficult to remove ourselves from them, which is why I have described these conclusions as ‘personal’ to me.

Back to the women in the lives of Alexander and Philip: the men were, no doubt, great political and military leaders, when judged in their own terms. Victory was everything. The Romans eventually took over the Macedon Empire, and the Roman Empire shaped a lot of what I see in my own country today. My focus on the women in the stories, though, enabled me to see more. It threw the men’s cruelty into sharp relief and enabled me to question some of the positive judgements made about them. It emphasised the importance of inheritance, and of women’s role, not only in the defence of their own bodies, lands and people, but also in the ways they tried to ensure the inheritance they wanted. And also I saw their bravery and skill in trying to manage a system that was hostile to them. They were fine role models for women fighting similar systems today.

Related posts

Women in Diodorus Siculus | part 1: Introduction and Contexts

Women in Diodorus Siculus | part 2: Women Associated with Philip II of Macedon

Women in Diodorus Siculus | part 3: Women Associated with Alexander the Great

Gallery | Alexander the Great


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 16, 17: Online at Perseus

Books 18, 19, 20: Online at LacusCurtius

References are to book number, chapter number and section number.

2 Diodorus, 16.14.1

3 Diodorus, 20.33.5

4 Diodorus, 20.40.5

5 Diodorus, 20.109.6

6 Diodorus, 19.16.2–4

7 Diodorus, 17.108.7

8 Diodorus, 19.2

9 Diodorus, 19.3

10 Diodorus, 19.3.1

11 Diodorus, 20.93

12 Diodorus, 19.59.3–6

13 Diodorus, 16.36.2

14 Diodorus, 16.45.7

15 Diodorus of Sicily Library. Translated by R. Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2019. p 435.

16 Diodorus, 16.74.2

17 Diodorus, 17.24

18 Arrian Anabasis 1.23.8, in Alexander the Great. The Anabasis and the Indica. Translations by M. Hammond. Oxford: University Press, 2013. p32.
References are to book number, chapter number and section number.

19 Diodorus, 17.84.5–6

20 Diodorus, 19.67

21 Diodorus, 20.37.1

Image credits

Painting of Diodorus Siculus, unknown artist, (dated as 800 on Wikimedia).
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Phila, detail from fresco depicting personifications of Macedonia and Persia, probably Antigonus Gonatus and his mother Phila, c 40 BCE
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Alinda, Agora [stronghold of Ada where she greeted Alexander]
Photo: Ana al’ain, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons

Carian Princess, 360–325 BCE, Bodrum Museum
Photo: Dosseman, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, via Wikimedia Commons

Gerard Hoet: Queen Cleophis Offers Alexander the Great Wine after Conquering Massaga, c 1670–1733
Rijksmuseum, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Carole Raddato, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, via Wikimedia

Paolo Veronese: The Family of Darius before Alexander, 1565
Public domain, Google Art Project, via Wikimedia Commons

Il Sodoma: The Wedding of Alexander the Great and Roxane, c 1517
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Arrival of Alexander at Persepolis. Illustration to Quinte-Curce, Histoire d’Alexandre le Grand (traduction
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 galleries or museums, or on Wikimedia Commons or Flickr, at the time of publication on this website.

Images retrieved February 2024

Acknowledgements: thank you to Sarah Scott for the picture research.


Anne Spendiff is a member of Kosmos Society.