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CJ-ONLINE  November 2007

CJ-ONLINE November 2007

Subject:

CJ-Online 2007.11.01 CARNEY, Olympias

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Mon, 5 Nov 2007 09:43:57 -0600

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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.

Order this text for $33.95 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal: 

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20

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 
itself.

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 
construction.

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. 
75–9).

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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