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In this series we are looking at how Plutarch in his Life of Alexander represents the women whom Alexander met and knew. The first post centred on Olympias as she appears in the opening three chapters of Plutarch’s Life. We saw that she had a deep devotion to the rites of Dionysus, surrendering to the god during religious ceremonies with a wild abandon that outstripped that of her fellow Dionysians. Clearly, Olympias was a very passionate woman.
Olympias of Epirus
After chapter three, Plutarch’s next mention of a woman comes in chapter five. Once again, it is Olympias who features; this time, though, it is a passing reference to the fact that she was related to Alexander’s tutor, Leonidas.
Plutarch doesn’t explain how Olympias and Leonidas were related, which is a shame as it is an intriguing connection. On the one hand, we have the devout and wild queen, on the other, the ‘severe disciplinarian’ who, despite being of high birth, did not mind being called Alexander’s paidagogos (attendant), even though it was a job and title more commonly associated with servants or slaves.
The fact that Plutarch doesn’t mention how Olympias and Leonidas are related, and the fact that the latter is a servant in the first place, suggests to me that they were more distantly related than not. Either way, I can only guess at what a typical conversation between them might have been. I doubt they had much in common.
We now jump forward to chapter nine. Here, Plutarch informs us that,
[t]he domestic strife that resulted from Philip’s various marriages and love-affairs caused the quarrels which took place in the women’s apartments to infect the whole kingdom, and led to bitter clashes and accusations between father and son.
In regards the first part of this statement, what I take Plutarch to be saying is that the ‘domestic strife’ in the Royal house caused Macedon’s nobility to take sides – this family for Meda, that one for Olympias. Speaking of whom, Plutarch now gives us an explicit statement of her character. Following directly on from the above statement, he tells us that Olympias widened the ‘breach’ between Alexander and Philip, because she was,
a woman of a jealous and vindictive temper, who incited Alexander to oppose his father.
Now, Olympias may indeed have been every bit as nasty as Plutarch says but because he has not hitherto given any examples of Olympias being the harridan that he says she is it is hard to take his assertion seriously. On this point, I don’t think it is enough to point to Olympias’ conduct in the family dispute. If Olympias had not stood up for Alexander they both may have met the end that Olympias eventually gave to Cleopatra and her daughter. What Plutarch calls jealously and vindictiveness I might call bravery in one engaged in a fight for survival. At any rate, Plutarch is being very lazy in making an assertion and expecting us simply to go along with it.
Still in chapter nine, we conclude this post on the night in 337 B.C. that the quarrel between Alexander and Philip reached its lowest, and most (in)famous, point. Plutarch here introduces us to the Cleopatra referred to above and whom Philip had just married. She was, as you may know, the niece of Attalus, one of Philip’s most senior generals.
Plutarch has little to say about Cleopatra (who took the name Eurydice after her wedding). In fact, the only piece of personal information that we have is that she was ‘much too young for’ the king. I’m not sure what he means by this. I am assuming he is not saying that she was not yet of marriageable age. Could he be referring to the twenty or so year age gap between husband and wife? Maybe, although I am not aware that anyone worried about that kind of thing in those days. Well, maybe they didn’t in Philip’s day but really, I should be asking ‘what about in Plutarch’s day?’ The Greece in which he lived was a different to the one that existed four or so centuries earlier.
What happened at the wedding party is the stuff of legend. Attalus – drunk – asked the guests to pray to the gods that they might bless Philip and Cleopatra with ‘a legitimate heir’ to the Macedonian throne. Naturally, Alexander took offence at this and threw a cup at Attalus. Angered by this show of disrespect towards one of his senior men, Philip drew his sword and made to approach Alexander only to fall over drunkenly. Alexander mocked him before quitting the palace and indeed, Macedon, taking Olympias to Epirus before heading on to Illyria. Chapter nine concludes with Philip being brought to his senses by a Corinthian friend named Demaratus and calling Alexander home. Plutarch is very specific here. Only Alexander was asked back. Not Olympias.
To conclude, then, in chapter nine of his Life, Plutarch makes an unsupported statement regarding Olympias’ character and notes simply Cleopatra Eurydice’s (young) age. I can forgive his lack of attention to Cleopatra as she is only important to the story as her part in the story of Alexander’s life is very limited but Plutarch’s laziness in respect of Olympias is very regrettable. His approach to her is the stuff of poor journalism and straight forward propaganda. Whatever Leonidas thought of his relative, if he was as rigorous of mind as he was of body, I think he would have agreed with me.