Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Alexander the Great - Mother Olympia

by Alexandros Kallistos

No one in history has been more reviled than Olympias, the mother of Alexander. She has universally been condemned as an evil, scheming, murderous witch. The only good words ever written about her are that she was beautiful and she loved her son.

That she was beautiful cannot be doubted; even those contemporaries who most hated her concede this. The only surviving portrait of her is on a coin of the period and tells us nothing. It is simply a standard Greek head of a beautiful woman in the style of the day. Like the face on the cover of a contemporary fashion magazine, it says nothing about the woman other than the obvious fact that she is beautiful. Given her lineage and the knowledge that she was from The North, it is probable that she was fair. Mary Renault supposes her to have had red hair and that is not unlikely as that was most common in her area. Epirus shares boarders with the Celt Illyrian tribes and these fierce barbarians are Celtic peoples. She was born a princess of Epirus, a small semi barbaric kingdom to the northwest of Greece which is now Albania. Her father was killed when she was young and the new king, her uncle, raised her as his own.

She was descended from Neoptolemus, King of Aegina, who was the grandfather of Hercules and had semi divine, as well as, royal lineage. It is through his mother, Olympias, that Alexander traced back his blood to Hercules, the hero God that so influenced his life.

How she loved her son, Alexander, is another, more complicated question. Olympias was a woman in a world of men. In a time and place where women were considered to be somewhat less than human, Olympias held power over men. This fact alone would have been enough to extract the most severe criticism. Coupled with her haughty nature, it produced an excoriation which has not been duplicated in any other woman.

As a Epirote woman of the fourth century B.C., her power could only be possible through a man; this man was, at first, Philip II, King of Macedon. Being his wife and Queen gave her extraordinary power. The Marriage was said to be a love match in the beginning and though that is possible, The resulting alliance gave Philip some much needed security on his very volatile northwestern frontier. Epirus stood most conveniently between Macedon and the marauding tribes of The Northwest who regularly invaded and pillaged Macedon and Northern Greece.

Philip had at least 5 wives and all of them brought to the marriage some sort of political advantage. For Philip, sexual partners were available in great abundance and variety, marriages provided important alliances and the chance of a legitimate heir. The relationship between Olympias and Philip was stormy to say the least. Olympias was a foreign woman at the center of what was rapidly becoming the greatest power in The Western World; she produced her ultimate weapon, a male heir, Alexander. As long as Philip was King and Alexander his only heir, she was unassailable. and could wield her power even over The King. When Philip divorced her and she went back to Epiros, Alexander was her only real power. Should Philip’s new wife bear him a pure blood Macedonian heir, he would present a threat where none had existed before and Olympias would no longer be certain of the position of Queen Mother. Furthermore, should Alexander marry and beget a son, Olympias would never again have the right to claim the title of, “Queen of Macedon”. I have never been convinced that Olympias was in such a great hurry to get Alexander married off.

The assassination of Philip changed everything. Alexander was King and nothing would be the same for anyone. Olympias returned to Pella and did what any man of the times would do. In the age old tradition of Macedon, she destroyed both Kleopatra, Philips latest wife, and her hapless child. All prudent rulers of Macedon had done much the same thing, but they were men. As she was a woman, this was thought to be monstrous cruelty. It is reported that she put the little tike on the barby. The story seems very like sensationalism to me, but perhaps it is true. Olympias was not a pretty pink Greek princess, she was a wild Mollosian women, half civilized, from Epiros; the tiger does what the tiger will do, and who will blame it?

Her son became, Alexander The Great, the ruler of most of the known world. He could, and did, curb her powers, and give her direct orders which she could not refuse. She was, from her first breath to her last, ruled by men even her son; it was the way of the times. Unlike most women of her day, Olympias fought back. She fought men all of her life. She used her only possible weapons, influence and superstition. She used all of her influence with men to pit one against the other; she used the rites of her male god, Dionysus, to frighten men. She was a baccante and, in her position she must have been a high priestess in Macedon where Euripides wrote, “ The Bacchae “. It is the story of the wild and irrational side of woman, and Olympias was a woman.
She was a strong woman totally dominated by men and she reacted with rage and hatred. Whenever she felt slighted or in danger she struck.

At his birth Alexander became a weapon. He was the power of Olympias, her only real influence on Philip, her husband and her king. He was the trump card which she played until the time when it no longer worked.

Olympias was a woman who achieved power and fame against impossible odds. That she achieved this through others has little bearing upon the fact; she did achieve it. Whether or not she loved her son is immaterial; if she did, it is not remarkable enough to be a saving grace. If she did not, it would make little difference to Alexander. He was twenty one in the spring of 334 when he left her; he was never to see her again. Olympias would have been quite happy to sit upon the throne of Persia; Alexander never sent for her.

The entire Hellenic world was thrown into political chaos at the death of Alexander. Alexander's retarded half brother, Arrhidaeus, and his son Alexander IV, were proclaimed joint kings with Perdiccus, as regent. The power struggle continued for years. At one point Olympias was able to seize power ostensibly to care for her grandson, Alexander IV. True to form she had Arrhidaeus killed straight off. The old tigress was protecting her grandson and her position. Driven out of Pella, Olympias took refuge in the fortress of Pydna. When the fortress fell Kassandros ordered Olympias killed but the soldiers refused to kill the mother of Alexander; in the end, the families of her many victims stoned her to death with the approval of the son of her long time enemy Antipater, Kassandros.

Olympias was a woman, in a time when many women were confined to the upper rooms of a house and rarely allowed to leave it. She would not conform. She was a Princess and a Queen. She was the niece of a King and the sister of a King. She was the mother of a King and a Queen. She was the grandmother of a King and the mother of a God. How is such a person to be judged? She came to the rough and ready frontier town of Pella when she was about 17, a barbarian girl with a thin veneer of civilization. If she is judged by the gentler standards of of the civilization of the Greek women to the south she seems monstrous. She was not a Greek woman of The South. She was born and raised among the wild tribes of The Northwest. Considering who and what she was, none of her actions seem remarkable. She was, in short, who she was and should be judged by her Gods, not ours.


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