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Olympias, Mother of Alexander the Great. By ELIZABETH CARNEY. New York and
London: Routledge, 2006. Pp. xvi + 221. Cloth, $33.95. ISBN 0–415–33317–2.
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In her book, the first modern biography of Olympias, the mother of
Alexander the Great, Elizabeth Carney has produced a welcome addition to
the ever-growing body of scholarship on the period spanning the reigns of
Philip II, Alexander the Great and the struggles of the Diadochoi to 316
BC. In fact, Olympias is perhaps the only significant figure from this
period to have maintained and increased his/her prestige, power and
influence throughout this period. The author’s biographical approach to
these years, therefore, provides not only significant insight into the life
of Olympias as well as royal women in general, but it also provides a
unique glimpse into these years that shaped the early Hellenistic world
Carney’s primary goal in Olympias is “to place Olympias in her historical
and cultural context and to determine, as much as possible, why she acted
as she did” (p. 4). In order to do so, the author has chosen to emphasize
unbiased sources that are contemporary with the queen’s life and actions,
while relying less heavily upon later, hostile, and largely anecdotal
sources and the moralizing element inherent in them. In sum, the
information available from the former is remarkably little. We know only of
four accomplishments, and these all occurred within a brief span of time:
Olympias purchased grain from Cyrene, she made a dedication to Hygeia in
Athens, she prevented the Athenians from making a dedication at the temple
of Dione in Molossia and she made dedications at Delphi. To supplement this
meager picture of Olympias’ life, Carney is able to draw some plausible
conclusions about her actions from the later and largely anecdotal sources
(e.g., Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, Justin) by focusing her attention on
Olympias’ Aeacid heritage. This has allowed her to identify examples of
Olympias’ female royal ancestors in epic and tragedy that “may have shaped
her public conduct at critical moments in her life” and to argue that “epic
and tragic images of royal women functioned as models and a script of sorts
for how this woman … shaped her public presentation” (p. 3).
Olympias is divided into six chapters with one appendix. Within the first
four chapters Carney approaches Olympias’ life chronologically, examining
her life in Molossia (Chapter 1), her married life with Philip II (Chapter
2), her activities as mother of King Alexander (Chapter 3) and her role in
the period of the Diadochoi until her death (Chapter 4). In the second half
of the book, Carney examines Olympias in two thematic chapters. The first
is an examination of Olympias and religion (Chapter 5), the second (Chapter
6) an investigation of Olympias’ image in the years following her death
through the late Roman Empire. The appendix discusses the extant sources
for Olympias’ life.
Olympias (twice) and her daughter Cleopatra (once) are the only individuals
listed among many poleis on the famous inscription from Cyrene (SEG IX 2)
that records the purchase of grain and its shipment to Greece during a
particularly difficult famine. Carney supports the belief that Olympias
donated the grain she purchased to Macedonia itself. In her estimation,
Olympias’ ability to exert authority in this manner demonstrates the degree
of authority and power she held while her son was campaigning in Asia.
Carney contends, on the basis of the inscription, that both Olympias and
Cleopatra “were functioning here as heads of state” (p. 51).
Hypereides (Eux. 19), supplies the testimony that Olympias made an offering
to the goddess Hygeia in Athens, probably, Carney speculates, for her son’s
health (p. 49). She also places great weight on Hypereides’ claim (Eux.
24–6) that Olympias prevented the Athenians from dedicating a “beautiful
face” and other objects that accompanied it to the goddess Dione at Dodona,
citing this anecdote to bolster her claim that Olympias used “patronage and
the denial of patronage at a major sanctuary to assert her own power and
prestige” (p. 91).
Olympias is also attested as arranging splendid offerings at Delphi (SIG3
252N). Carney believes that Olympias may have used the darics Alexander
sent to her following the siege of Gaza to fund these dedications (p. 96).
Throughout his campaign, Alexander sent money to his mother and this
interpretation may provide the only evidence for how Olympias used it.
In addition, archaeology can to some degree supplement the picture that
emerges from the record discussed above. Most important is the Philippeion
in Olympia, which Pausanias (5.17.4; 20.9-10) claims once contained
sculptures of Olympias and other members of Philip II’s family. Carney
concludes that the inclusion of Olympias’ image was tantamount to
proclaiming her (and the others individuals represented) as “isotheos … and
perhaps more” (p. 101). Formation of dynasteia was foremost in Philip’s
mind and one can use the inclusion of Olympias’ image neither to speculate
on the state of their relationship nor to date the Philippeion’s
Several well-known and controversial aspects of Olympias’ life deserve
attention. According to Plutarch (Mor. 401a–b), Olympias was the third of
four names by which Alexander’s mother was known. He claims that she was
called Polyxena and Myrtale prior to adopting the name Olympias, and
eventually chose Stratonice for her fourth name. Carney argues that her
given name was Polyxena, a name derived from the Trojan royal family and
fitting for a member of a Molossian family that claimed descent from Troy
(pp. 16, 93–5). Polyxena changed her name to Myrtale prior to her marriage
to Philip as part of her initiation into an unknown mystery cult. After her
marriage, Myrtale adopted the name Olympias, probably not in connection
with her husband’s Olympic victory, but in association with a festival of
Olympian Zeus during which their marriage was celebrated. The name
Stratonice, Carney suggests, was more likely an epithet attached to
Olympias following her victory over Adea Eurydice in 317. Concerning the
assassination of Philip II, Carney argues that Olympias (and her son) were
not complicit in the crime (pp. 39–41). The conflict between Olympias and
the house of Antipater originated during Alexander’s campaign, but after
his death Olympias escalated it. Carney speculates that she named Antipater
and his sons as Alexander’s murderers in a public lament probably performed
not long after news reached Molossia that her son had died (pp. 62–3).
Carney furthermore interprets Olympias’ actions in this instance according
to models found in epic and tragedy. For example, Thetis raised the lament
for Achilles, as did the Trojan women who similarly lamented and prayed for
vengeance. Carney also believes that although Olympias was responsible for
the murder of Cleopatra (Philip II’s seventh wife) and Cleopatra’s infant
daughter Europa, the act was not one of “passionate violence,” but of
“calculation,” consistent with Macedonian dynastic struggles (pp. 43–6).
She arrives at this conclusion through a comparison of Olympias’ actions
with similar examples of dynastic struggles from myth and history (p. 47).
Finally, many scholars have attributed Olympias’ demise to her treatment of
Adea Eurydice and Philip III Arrhidaeus, but Carney contends that her
murder of the pair did not lead to her rapid decline from power, but that
the military losses she and her allies suffered account for this (pp.
Overall, Carney’s Olympias is a balanced treatment of the queen’s life and
her impact on the world around her. A few omissions nonetheless deserve
notice. Given the significance Carney attaches to the contemporary sources
for Olympias’ actions, one would like to see reference to several important
works on them not included in her discussion. For example, Carney’s
analysis of Hypereides’ statements concerning Olympias (Eux. 19, 24–6)
might have included reference to D. Whitehead’s excellent commentary on the
speech (Hypereides. The Forensic Speeches. (Oxford, 2000) especially pp.
155–7 and 215–29). This is most important for an understanding of why
Olympias dedicated the phiale to Hygeia in Athens, for Whitehead
demonstrates that the goddess’ cult statues were dedicated by one Pyrrhus
and that an Aeacid connection with the cult might have prompted Olympias’
dedication. Carney offers no date for the inscription that records
Olympias’ dedications at Delphi; but see now the most recent edition of the
stone (CID II 97), where it is dated to 327/6 BC. The inscription from
Cyrene (SEG IX 2) has also received detailed treatment recently, by A.
Laronde, Cyrène et la Libye hellénistique (Paris, 1987) pp. 30–4, and P.J.
Rhodes and R. Osborne, Greek Historical Inscriptions, 404–323 B.C. (Oxford,
2003) no. 96, pp. 486–93).
MICHAEL D. DIXON
University of Southern Indiana
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