Olympias: Mother of Alexander the Great by Elizabeth Carney: A Book Review

Olympias: Mother of Alexander the Great 
Author: Elizabeth Carney
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Publisher: Routledge
Release Date: 2006
Pages: 240
Source: Personal Collection
Synopsis: The definitive guide to the life of the first woman to play a major role in Greek political history, this is the first modern biography of Olympias.

     Presenting a critical assessment of a fascinating and wholly misunderstood figure, Elizabeth Carney penetrates myth, fiction and sexual politics and conducts a close examination of Olympias through historical and literary sources, and brings her to life as she places the figure in the context of her own ancient, brutal political world.

     Individual examinations look at:
  • the role of Greek religion in Olympias' life
  • literary and artistic traditions about Olympias found throughout the later ancient periods
  • varying representations of Olympias found in the major ancient sources.
      An absolutely compelling read for students, scholars, and anyone with an interest in Greek, Classical, or women’s history.

     My Review: Olympias is famous for being the mother of Alexander the Great. Unlike her son, she often has a bad reputation. She is mostly known for being involved in witchcraft and sleeping with snakes. While these tales are probably true, Mrs. Carney shows in her biography that there was more to Olympias than the ancient sources claim. In fact, Olympias was the first woman to play a major political role in Greek history. She was a woman of power and influence that very few women in her era could ever wield.

    Olympias was the daughter of Neoptolemus, the king of Molossia. Her marriage to Philip II of Macedon was the result of a political alliance rather than love. She became his fourth wife. Because Macedonian kings had polygamous marriages, there was no queen. Olympias’s status was not based on being the wife of Philip II. Instead, it was based solely on being the mother of the future king. When Olympias gave birth to Alexander, she worked hard to make Alexander Philip’s heir. Philip II had another son, but he turned out to be simple-minded. Thus, it was not long before Alexander became the uncontested heir.

   It was not until Philip II’s fifth marriage that there was tension between Philip and Olympias. Cleopatra’s uncle insulted Alexander by questioning his legitimacy to the throne, Alexander erupted into fits of outbursts. Philip failed to defend Alexander’s legitimacy and in an angry rage tried to kill his son. This caused Alexander and his mother to flee into exile. They stayed with Olympias’s brother, King Alexander I of Epirus. Philip II still intended to make Alexander his heir. The father and son eventually reconciled. Shortly afterward, Philip II was assassinated. Alexander became king of Macedon and led the military campaign in Asia.

  When Alexander was away on campaign, Olympias played a major role in Macedon. She formed an international policy. She exerted public authority as the mother of Alexander. She had a close relationship with her son and kept in correspondence. However, she did not get along with Antipater, whom Alexander chose to rule Macedon in his stead.

  The death of Alexander the Great left his empire in turmoil. His generals fought over his territories. It also left Olympias with no protection. The only thing Alexander left was his pregnant wife, Roxanne. Roxanne later gave birth to a son. Olympias decided to fight for her grandson’s inheritance. However, Antipater took advantage of Alexander’s death and stripped her of her influence. Eventually, Antipater was assassinated and a general named Polyperchon became king. Polyperchon and Olympias formed a military alliance. When Antipater’s son, Cassander, became Olympias enemy. Olympias and Cassander met on the battlefield, and Olympias lost. Cassander put her on trial for the murders of King Philip III and his wife Adea Eurydice. Cassander sentenced her to death and ordered her body to remain unburied. Cassander also killed her grandson.

   Overall, this biography of Olympias shows a woman who was adept in politics. The author states that Olympias’s only weakness was that she did not have any military experience in battle. She waged a military war and lost. Her ruthless actions were no different than any Greek king of her era. There were a few arguments the author made that I did not necessarily agree with.  One example is Mrs. Carney states that Olympias killed her husband’s fifth wife, Cleopatra and her infant daughter as an act of shrewd calculation. I still believe that she murdered them out of jealousy. Mrs. Carney’s novel was also a quick read. She gave a brief overview of her life, and I wish that she would go into more detail about Olympias. Still, it is a light read for the general reader, and it gave me a different perspective on Olympias. Her portrayal of Olympias was much more realistic than anything I have ever read about it. It also shows Olympias to be an ambitious, shrewd, and calculating woman who fought for her son and grandson’s rights to the throne. I greatly recommend this novel for any fan of Ancient Greece and Alexander the Great.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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