Thoughts on Rehabilitating Olympias

Alexander committed some terrible actions over the course of his reign as king. The mass crucifixions after the siege of Tyre (Diodorus XVII.46, Curtius IV.4.17), the manner of Betis’ execution (C. IV.6.29) and Black Cleitus’ murder (Arrian IV.8-9, C. VIII.1.22-52, Plutarch Life of Alexander 50-1) spring quickly to mind.

However, we forgive him these because – as Plutarch records – he was also an ‘exceptionally generous’ (P. 39) man just with gifts but in the mercy he showed to others. For two diverse examples of this, see how he treated Timoclea (P. 12) and Porus (A. V.19, C. VIII.44-46. D. XVII.89, P. 60).

Someone for whom forgiveness has surely come less easy over the years is Alexander’s mother, Olympias. Unfortunately for her, she was not a brilliant general, did not spread Hellenism or give riches to her friends and former enemies alike. I used to think that this was because she was simply not a very nice person, that things like her religious zealotry (P. 2) and political ruthlessness (P.10) were all that there was about her.

I should have known better of course, because this is the kind of one-sided approach that tabloid newspapers take when they want to demonise persons or sections of society whom they do not like and we know well enough that they are wrong. But what proof was there that Olympias was more than the sum of the criticisms made of her? Reading Plutarch the other day, I wonder if I found it.

According to Eratosthenes, Olympias, when she sent Alexander on his way to lead his great expedition to the East, confided to him and to him alone the secret of his conception and urged him to show himself worthy of his divine parentage. But other authors maintain that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me?’
(Plutarch Life 2)

But other authors maintain that she repudiated this story

I can’t discount the possibility that I am misreading the above line (if you think I am, leave a comment) but it appears to suggest that Olympias was – or rather, could be – a humble person, one who knew her place in relation to the gods. If so then she was surely capable of humility in other areas of her life.

It is a matter of great frustration that we neither know who the authors to whom Plutarch refers are or what else they said about Alexander’s mother because they seem to me to be evidence of a pro-Olympias tradition in Greek letters. If so, history has sadly extinguished it.

I wonder: would it be possible to read the surviving references to Olympias in the main sources in a positive light? Could her zealotry be seen as devoutness? Her ruthlessness as a fight to survive in a world that was against her both as a woman and queen?

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Thoughts on Rehabilitating Olympias

  1. It’s very nice to read another interesting post from you.

    I never thought of Olympia as a bad/cruel person by choice but by circumstances. Killing Eurydice and her child(ren) – awful but politically understandable for those times, same goes for her other murders after Alexander’s death. And the thing is – who are exactly the judges? Cassander? Ptolemy and Seleukos? The last two who butchered Perdicca’s sister in the camp, right after the general himself was dispatched to the underworld, and of course don’t even start me on Cassander.

    I don’t think that Olympia was any worse than any of her famous contemporaries; her excuse was that she fought to secure the survival of her dynasty, whereas Cassander/Ptolemy/Seleucos/others killed in order to establish their own.

    Funny thing, though, I don’t think she was a humble person and my own interpretation of her phrase about Hera’s jealousy is quite opposite. 🙂 I think she meant it as a proof that Alexander was Zeus’ son not that she was a humble person.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Like

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