The Spies of Ancient Athens: The Conception of Alexander

The index of posts in this series can be read here
Read the Introduction here
Based on The Spies of Ancient Athens by Reynard and Grün (London, 2004)
“Philip II of Macedon and Olympias of Epirus married in 357 BC. Their wedding was celebrated in Aegae, where Philip would meet his end at the hands of an assassin twenty-one years later.
On the eve of the marriage, Aegae was struck by a fierce storm, which caused panic across the city. Athens appears to have had only two spies in the Macedonian court at this time; unamed in the sources, they have – since the time of Stern – been nicknamed B(road) and P(ersonal)  for the type of the intelligence that they sent back to Athens.
Thus, while B. tells us about the storm itself,

[the] … thunderstorm caused palace to shake. I saw lightening stike several homes, destroying them and burning people alive. In the market this morning, many were frightened. The storm is believed to be gods’ anger, though no-one knows for what. Whispers against king in marketplace

P. – whose reports are tightly condensed – focuses on what was happening within the palace – to no less a person than Olympias,

Myrtale* awake all night. Severe headache. Temporary blindness. Myrtale told handmaid that Zeus was ma love to her. She was not strong enough for him. Story repeated among servants. Believed to be nonsense as queen watched all night. Despite all, servants relieved – Myrtale [was] feared to be dying.

Both these reports are dated, which is how we now that Olympias suffered her migraine, or visit from Zeus, on the night of the storm. What is intriguing, though, is the fact that Olympias saw fit to tell a servant that Zeus had had sex with her. She must have known that there was a fair chance the handmaid would gossip about it and that the information might eventually come to Philip’s ears. Would he appreciate hearing that he had been cuckolded by a god? But maybe that is what Olympias wanted. Maybe she wanted him to be angry, and even fearful. We’ll come back to this idea later on.
A few days after the storm, P. sent another report to Athens. It gives a fascinating, if rather unnerving, insight into Olympias’ character.

Myrtale entered her bed chamber. Stood at her offering table. Offerings made. [She] said, You blessed me and I was not afraid. She took a knife. Exposed her left breast and cut it next to her nipple letting the blood drop onto the offering table. She repeated the words You blessed me, and I was not afraid. I left the bed chamber in fear.

Several weeks now passed during which – Philip and Olympias’ wedding aside – nothing of consequence happened. Then, B. suddenly reported that there was,

… great consternation among seers. They walk quickly and with darting eyes through the palace, seeing everyone but speaking to no one. The servants and guards are very worried. Even Parmenion looked anxious as he drilled the men this afternoon.

B.’s next few reports contained no further information. But Athens wanted to know more.

It is very difficult to obtain information. The seers no longer walk among us but either with one another or in the shadows. When they meet, they admit no servants or slaves. Even the guards are told to wait outside.

In the end, it was P. who came good. One of the seers fell ill. As he lay on his deathbed, he spoke to his son who, it seems, was also a seer. P. was present waiting on Aristander.

Aristander** worried for Olympias. Told son Philip dreamt he sealed [her] womb. [Has she been] unfaithful?. Aristander told his son seers have advised Philip to ignore dream[. U]rged him to do same in future. Coughing fit. Expired.

There is no mention here of the ‘fact’ (according to Plutarch) that Philip – after sealing Olympias’ womb, put a seal in the shape of a lion on it. Could it be that this detail was added a later date – after Alexander had proved his leonine nature? Perhaps, but it is worth noting the following report that P. wrote in late 357 BC.

Olympias did not bleed this month. The Telmessian*** confirmed she is with child. Olympias excited. [She asked] what manner of child she would give birth to. [Aristander said i]f her child has her blood then he will be exceedingly strong and cunning.

Six months later…

Olympias bedridden. Child kicks her with great strength. Impatient to be born. Olympias said It is as if I have a lion inside me, not a baby. Many servants now afraid to go near her lest the lion break out.

P.’s use of the word ‘confirmed’ is significant as it shows that Aristander had already stated his belief that Olympias was pregnant. This would tie in with Plutarch’s sources who say that he – Aristander of Telmessus – was the only seer to correctly interpret Philip’s dream as meaning his wife was pregnant rather than unfaithful. Further to this, I wonder if – even if unwittingly – Aristander is the ultimate source of the lion seal detail. Perhaps Olympias was remembering his ‘strong and cunning’ comment when she said ‘It is as if I have a lion inside me’; her aside then became part of palace oral tradition before eventually finding its way to the Macedonian people and into Plutarch’s Lives.
* Olympias changed her name a number of times throughout her life. The name ‘Olympias’ came in 356 BC to reflect her husband’s success at the Olympic Games
** Not Aristander of Telmessus who accompanied Alexander on his expedition across Asia
*** From later reports, we know this to be Aristander of Telmessus

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