Alexander the Great. The power of that name is astonishing. There is no last name needed other than just “the Great.” That is how undeniably powerful and influential Alexander of Macedon was during his reign as the Emperor of Greece from 336 to 323 BCE, and continues to be today. As talked about in Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, although most people in European, Asian, and western civilizations may not recognize it, Alexander’s policies, laws and ultimate dreams for how one’s government and society should be structured and ran, known today as Hellenism, are still very much present today (208). Although he died before he was able to personally implement many of the policies and laws known as Hellenism, Alexander the Great was the primary influence behind the ideals and practices of what became Greek culture. So then the questions arise, why and where did these views come from? Who or what helped shaped Alexander’s beliefs into what they eventually became. One of Alexander’s greatest influences was his mother, Olympias. Although their relationship was complicated to say the least, Alexander would not have been the ruler and emperor he became without the upbringing and guidance he received from Olympias. As a youth, she instilled in Alexander his passion and love of learning, his fiery nature, strength of character, and his ruthless and intelligent war tactics. But most importantly, Olympias’s overwhelming passion and drive to live a life of influence, respect, and power is what dictated her merciless and heartless actions to ensure her son, Alexander, the throne.
Olympias, whose birth name was actually Myrtale, was the daughter of Neoptolemus, the King of the Molossians, one of the greatest tribes in Epirus, and the son of Achilles. After coming to terms and allying with the Macedonian king Philip II, Neoptolemus and Philip arranged a marriage between Philip and Myrtale in 357BCE. Women of the Molossian region experienced tremendous amounts of freedom in comparison to the oppressive lifestyles of the then Athens and Macedonian culture, which Olympias found very frustrating and disrespectful, and forced her to find new ways of expressing her freedom and power. That next year, a chariot that Philip sent to the Olympic games won and Myrtale changed her name to Olympias in honor of her husband’s success. In the summer of that same year she gave birth to her first child, Alexander and according to Plutarch of Chaeronea, both events took place on the same day. In that era of time, a vast majority of people believed in portents, and as Plutarch mentions in “Alexander by Plutarch”; “The night before the consummation of their marriage, Olympias dreamed that a thunderbolt fell upon her body, which kindled a great fire, whose divided flames dispersed themselves all about, and then were extinguished. And Philip, some time after he was married, dreamt that he sealed up his wife's body with a seal, whose impression, as be fancied, was the figure of a lion” (Alexander, 2), and the destiny of their future child was foretold.
Olympias and Philip had a tumultuous marriage, leading at one point to estrangement. Because Olympia dreamt of power and respect, their marriage became particularly strained when Philip married a Macedonian girl named Cleopatra. Although polygamy was very common amongst kings of this time period, Olympias took exception and expressed anger towards both Cleopatra and Philip creating a rift in their marriage. Furthermore, Olympias was said to have practiced barbaric, Ophic rites, which Plutarch describes in “Alexander“…and that Olympias, zealously, affecting these fanatical and enthusiastic inspirations, to perform them with more barbaric dread, was wont in the dances proper to these ceremonies to have great tame serpents about her, which sometimes creeping out of the ivy in the mystic fans, sometimes winding themselves about the sacred spears, and the women's chaplets, made a spectacle which men could not look upon without terror” (Alexander 2), and this fear and belief of Olympias practicing ancient Bacchus rights was solidified when Philip caught Olympias in bed with a serpant, which Plutarch describes in more detail in “Alexander”, “Once, moreover, a serpent was found lying by Olympias as she slept, which more than anything else, it is said, abated Philip's passion for her; and whether he feared her as an enchantress, or thought she had commerce with some god, and so looked on himself as excluded, he was ever after less fond of her conversation.” (Alexander 2). As a result of the friction and quarrels between Phillip and Olympias, she placed herself in a voluntary exile in Epirus with Alexander.
Alexanders rise to power is thought too have begun shortly after Olympias’s exile where he was raised by his mother, as well as where he began too learn and acquire the many qualities he is believed to have inherited from Olympias. During his reign, Pausanias, his former lover, was gang-raped under the command of his new wife Cleopatra and her uncle Attalus whom where both associates of Pausanias’ rival. Pausanias demanded retribution from Phillip because of their former intimate relationship, and when Phillip denied any retribution, Pausanias began to plot Phillip’s death. According to Diodorus Siculus and his Library of History, Pausanias eventually succeded when he stabbed Phillip during a public procession in 336 BCE (101). Although not proven, some believe that the assassination was planned by Olympias and Alexander in order to put Alexander on the throne. Shortly after Phillip’s death, Cleopatra and her daughter were put to death on Olympias’ order, securing Alexander’s ascension to the throne. Regardless of who was behind the assassination, or why it happened, the end result was exactly what Olympias wanted and she had again managed to work her way back to the throne, this time through her son instead of her husband.
Before and during her exile with her son, Olympias made sure to prepare her son in every way possible for his future as the king of Macedonia. Olympias constantly reminded Alexander of his lineage to Achilles, and Alexander took her stories of his courage and bravery to heart. Alexander carried a copy of the illiad with him often, and when Alexander eventually crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor, and made it a point to visit Troy to pay homage to his Ancestor. Olympias did an amazingly good job of instilling in Alexander his strong sense of character and his fierceness through the stories of Achilles. Alexander began to feel that he owed it to his ancestors to be the strong and glorious warrior that Achilles was, and that he could achieve anything, as well as his leadership skills because his father was a great king and because Achilles was led his troops without a fear of death and conquering all who opposed him.
Olympias also made it a point to make sure that Alexander received only the greatest and the smartest teachers to educate and guide the future King. Olympias began Alexander’s education with Leonidas of Epirus, whom presided over other instructors of Alexander, and with guidance from Olympias, planted the seeds of his great potential and passed on the beginnings of what would be the necessary skills to be a successful ruler. It was with Aristotle however, that Alexander gained the most important lessons of all. Aristotle guided Alexander in the ideas and practices of Morals and Politics, as well as schools of philosophy and theories which eventually helped guide Alexander and his actions as ruler. Plutarch explains again in “Alexander”. “It would appear that Alexander received from him not only his doctrines of Morals and of Politics, but also something of those more abstruse and profound theories which these philosophers, by the very names they gave them, professed to reserve for oral communication to the initiated, and did not allow many to become acquainted with.” (Alexander 10). The lessons Alexander learned throughout his teachings where easily seen throughout his conquests and proved to be an invaluable piece of Alexander’s prowess as king.
In conclusion, Olympias’ impact on Alexander proved to be a major building block and influence on his legacy as one of the greatest military leaders the world has ever seen. Although not every lesson Alexander learned was directly through Olympias, and even though their relationship was at the very least, described as rocky, Olympias was one of the most influential forces in his life. Through instilling in the young Alexander his sense of courage and strength, providing him the best teachers of their time, and showing him that ruthlessness and intelligence together provides a very affective form of ruling and conquest, Olympias shaped Alexander into the Emperor he eventually became known as; Alexander the Great.
Diodorus Siculus. “Library Of History, Vol. VIII.” Trans. C. Bradford Welles. Penelope.uchicago.edu. Loeb Classical Library edition, 1963. Web. 3 December 2014 Dryden, John “Alexander by Plutarch.” The Internet Classics Archive. March 2011. Web. 3. Dec. 2014 Pamela McVay. Review of Tsin, Robert Tignor; Adelman, Jeremy; Aron, Stephen; Kotkin, Stephen; Marchand, Suzanne; Prakash, Gyan; Michael, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the Modern World from the Mongol Empire to the Present. H-World, H-Net Reviews. March, 2003.