Plutarch’s Women: Olympias, Cleopatra Eurydice & Pixodarus’ Daughter (Chapt. 10)

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In Chapter 10 of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch tells us about the Pixodarus Affair and the background to Philip II’s assassination.
Pixodarus was the satrap of Caria in south-western Asia Minor. In 337 B.C., he made an offer to Philip: his daughter’s hand in marriage Arrhidaeus in return for – ? Timothy E. Duff, in his Notes suggests that Pixodarus’ aim was a military alliance.
Unfortunately, Plutarch gives us no further details regarding Pixodarus’ daughter so she must remain a shadowy figure.
What he does say, however, is that Olympias and a number of Alexander’s friends conspired to convince Alexander that Philip intended to marry Arrhidaeus to Pixodarus’ daughter as a prelude to giving him the Macedonian throne..
Unsurprisingly, Alexander was ‘disturbed’ by this idea and so sent his friend, the famous tragic actor Thessalus, to Caria to tell Pixodarus that not only was Arrhidaeus an illegitimate son of the Macedonian king but feeble-minded as well. To make sure that that the marriage did not go ahead, Alexander offered to marry Pixodarus’ daughter himself.
Pixodarus was delighted with the idea. When Philip found out, however, he was not. He went to Alexander’s quarters and ‘scolded his son’ for wanting to marry the daughter of a man ‘who was no more than the slave of a barbarian king’. The episode concludes with Philip ordering Thessalus – then at Corinth – to be brought back to Macedon in chains, and the exile of four of Alexander’s friends and, presumably, Olympias’ co-conspirators: Erygius, Harpalus, Nearchus, and Ptolemy.
Chapter 10 doesn’t end there. In the last paragraph, Plutarch jumps forward to Philip’s assassination the following year. He notes that Cleopatra Eurydice tried and failed to get satisfaction from Philip on Pausanias’ behalf after the latter was assaulted on Attalus’ orders. Also, that when Pausanias asked Alexander for his help, Alexander quoted,

… the verse from Euripides’ Medea, in which Medea is said to threaten ‘The father, bride and bridegroom all at once’.

But just in case we think that Alexander had anything to do with his father’s death, Plutarch quickly adds that after becoming king, Alexander ‘took care to track down and punish those who were involved in the plot’ to kill Philip. If this is not enough for you, he was also angry at Olympias for her ‘horrible revenge’ on Cleopatra Eurydice.
Some Thoughts – The Pixodarus Affair
Of Pixodarus’ daughter we can say nothing due to the lack of information regarding her. What about Olympias?  In chapter 9, Plutarch accuses her of being ‘a woman of a jealous and vindictive temper, who incited Alexander to oppose his father’. Plutarch no doubt wishes us to see her actions in chapter 10 as being the product of the same spiteful mind. He says, specifically, that Olympias gave Alexander a ‘distorted account’ of Pixodarus’ marriage proposal.
I do wonder, though, why she felt the need to scupper Pixodarus’ proposal. I wonder if she did. Success would ‘bless’ Alexander with a second rate (i.e. foreign) bride. Failure would make him look like an idiot. Surely, Olympias was not so naïf to think that Philip would favour Arrhidaeus over Alexander or, if he did, the army would favour him over Alexander if Alexander chose to make a bid for the throne on his father’s death? I may well be betraying my lack of knowledge here but I see no motivation – other than pure spite, which I doubt Olympias was a slave to – for her to stop Arrhidaeus’ marriage to Pixodarus’ daughter.
I am equally surprised that Alexander could have been so naïve as to believe his mother’s and friends’ story – that Philip,

… was planning to settle the kingdom upon Arrhidaeus by arranging a brilliant marriage and treating him as a person of great consequence.

By 337, Alexander had fought at the battle of Chaeronea, founded a city in his own name and served as a regent of Macedon. Surely, he would have had to be paranoid to fear that his ‘feeble-minded’ half-brother was a genuine rival for the throne. He certainly never thought so after he came to power as he let him live. That fact makes me very suspicious of Plutarch’s representation of this whole episode. Assuming that it has a basis in reality I do not think we are being told the full story, but rather, just enough for Plutarch to make his point regarding Alexander’s character with a soupçon of blame for Olympias on account of his bias against her.
The Background to Philip II’s Assassination
Above, I noted Cleopatra Eurydice’s failed attempt to get justice for Pausanias. This is what Plutarch writes,

When Pausanias assassinated the king because he had been humiliated by Attalus and Cleopatra could get no redress from Philip, it was Olympias who was chiefly blamed for the assassination….

The reason I quote it directly is because I am still surprised that Cleopatra Eurydice interceded for Pausanias; in doing so, she would have been acting against her uncle/guardian. I am wondering, therefore, if I have interpreted Plutarch wrongly. Could he be referring to a different Cleopatra? Perhaps to a different matter? What do you think?
Of course, if I have interpreted the sentence correctly it would say a great deal for Cleopatra Eurydice’s bravery and nobility of character. Both of these are missing from Olympias, firstly, in her unnecessary murder of Cleopatra Eurydice and her daughter, and secondly, in the way she is said to have killed them – by roasting them over a brazier.
If, that is, she did indeed kill Cleopatra Eurydice and her child, and if she killed them in the aforementioned manner.
They are big ifs. That Olympias would seek to eliminate Cleopatra Eurydice and her daughter makes sense from a dynastic point-of-view. I am doubtful, however, that she was executed in the manner described. Timothy Duff cites a second century AD author named Pausanias as the/a source for this fact. The reason for my doubt is because the period following Philip’s murder was a time of crisis for Alexander. And in times of crisis you get rid of your enemies quickly (and, if possible, quietly). Roasting them over a brazier seems more of James Bond form of execution than a likely one in Macedon in 336 B.C. It smells, not of burnt human flesh but a blackening of Olympias’ name.
So, where does chapter 10 leave us? In regards Olympias, still nowhere clear. I am suspicious that Plutarch has misrepresented her over the Pixodarus Affair and in the manner of Cleopatra Eurydice’s death. I have no problem believing that she killed her rival queen without Alexander’s permission but that does not make her the dreadful harridan that Plutarch wants us to take her for; ruthless, yes, but as I mentioned in the last post, she had to be in order to survive.

Categories: Plutarch's Women | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Plutarch’s Women: Olympias, Cleopatra Eurydice & Pixodarus’ Daughter (Chapt. 10)

  1. In ‘The Background to Philip II’s Assassination’ the right interpretation of Plutarch’s quote is:
    “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, etc.”(Plut.,Life of Alexander 10,6; transl. of the Loeb Class Lib. 1919).
    So Cleopatra is the one who offended Pausanias (together with Attalus), not the one who interceded for him.
    Best regards.


  2. Hello Silasaila,

    Thank you ever so much for your comment and for putting me right. I see that my problem arose because I missed the second ‘and’: ‘Attalus and Cleopatra *and*…’. I will mention this in the next post for this series.

    Thank you again!



  3. Angela

    Without his mother in his corner, Alexander may not have crossed the Hellespont. The same can be said about Philip. Both of them contributed to his success. Olymplias had to be strong to match Philip’s success. Alexander’s character was molded by his parents and by the toxic environment in which he was brought up which probably made him a little paranoid.


    • Angela

      I forgot to mention Aristotle’s influence on Alexander as well. He was like a human sponge absorbing everything around him and then using what he learned to conquer the known world; for good or bad.


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