Sunday, 25 October 2015

Macedonian She-Wolves

Alexander the Great’s death left a massive power vacuum, exacerbated by the fact his heirs were a foetus and a man with the mind of a child. Worse still, their guardians were a large number of bold, intelligent and fiercely competitive men, any one of whom would make a great king in his own right.

These men, the Diadochi [Successors], embarked almost immediately on a massive war, from the coast of modern day Albania to Pakistan to Libya, and all points in between.

But no less vicious were the machinations of the women Alexander left behind, most prominently Roxanne (one of his wives), Olympias (his mother), and Adea (AKA Eurydice, wife of Alexander’s half-brother).

When Alexander died, he was in his early thirties. The most obvious successors were absent (Hephaestion had died a short time earlier, and the greatest general, Craterus, had just been sent west). His half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, was a grown man but had the mind of a small child (it is suspected the jealous and ruthless Olympias had poisoned him to damage his mind, and remove him as a potential rival to Alexander [her son]). The only other credible blood heir would be the child of Roxanne, his wife.

However, Roxanne was only pregnant. There was no guarantee she would give birth to a son rather than a daughter. To make matters worse, she was only the daughter of a Bactrian satrap, and lacked the regal pretensions of Alexander’s other wives (Macedonian kings were permitted multiple wives).

To enhance her position, Roxanne took the brutal step of (along with the regent Perdiccas) having Alexander’s other two wives murdered. One of them, Stateira II, was the daughter of Darius, once ruler of the Persian Empire (and, therefore, of rather better pedigree than Roxanne).

As it happened, she did give birth to a son, whom she named Alexander. He and Philip Arrhidaeus become joint monarchs, although in truth the power lay (for a time…) with the regent, Perdiccas.

Two women, Cynane and her daughter Adea, who also had royal Macedonian blood, travelled east with the plan of marrying Adea to Philip Arrhidaeus. However, Perdiccas (allied to Roxanne) sent his brother Alcetas to remedy the problem by assassinating the two women. Cynane fell, but when the soldiers realised the identities of the women they had been sent to kill and that Adea still lived, their respect for the royal house made them her protectors rather than her killers.

Later, a botched invasion of Egypt led to Perdiccas’ death. After he was killed (by his own troops), Adea, backed by the sentimental support of the army, demanded a share of authority. She seemed to attain it, but only briefly. Antipater, the aged, respected veteran viceroy of Macedon during Alexander’s adventures, arrived on the scene. The army was in vengeful mood and very nearly murdered him, but Antigonus and Seleucus rescued the viceroy. Adea tried to provoke further mutiny, but in the end authority was settled on Antipater, Antigonus and Seleucus.

Antipater, a loyal servant of the Argead dynasty but understandably not well-disposed towards the now powerless Adea, accompanied her back to Macedon. However, he died shortly thereafter, and political turmoil ensued.

Adea made another bid for power, allying with Cassander, the son of Antipater. Against her was Olympias, Polyperchon (the rather feeble successor, as per Antipater’s will, of the viceroy) and Roxanne.

For perhaps the first time in history, two armies, both led by women, approached one another.

However, the same loyalty that had prevented the Macedonian soldiers killing her years ago, now worked against Adea. They couldn’t bring themselves to even fight the mother of the legendary Alexander, and surrendered to Olympias.

Olympias came to power. Adea, wife of Alexander’s half-brother, found her days numbered, and that number was very small. At first, she and her husband were strictly confined, but Olympias was concerned by the sympathy the Macedonians felt towards them. In line with her usual response to a problem, Olympias chose to kill those who might be a threat. She presented Adea with a sword, rope, and poison, to choose her own death. Adea first of all killed her husband, the unknowing, blameless Philip Arrhidaeus, whom Alexander had taken to Asia and protected, and then hanged herself with one of her own garments, shunning the rope Olympias gave her.

By contrast, Roxanne was protected by the violent, volatile and cunning Olympias (because she was the mother of Alexander’s son). However, Olympias’ uncompromising and arrogant manner lost her much support, and she faced perhaps the wiliest of the Diadochi: Cassander. Antipater’s son gradually built up his strength, even as it drained away from the bloodthirsty Olympias.

Eventually, he bottled her up in a port city, and she surrendered herself, Roxanne and Alexander. The surrender included the condition Cassander show her mercy. He did not, and had her killed by the relatives of her many victims.

Defeat to Cassander removed the shield that had protected Roxanne and her son. Cassander kept the young Alexander alive until he reached his mid-teens, at which point he became a threat, and was killed. His mother was also assassinated, and thus ended the Argead line of kings in Macedon.

For more reading on this, I highly recommend James Romm’s Ghost On The Throne, which I reviewed here.



  1. Why people need to make up fiction about intrigues, power, death and sex (e.g. Game of thrones) when real history provides far more entertaining stories I do not understand. The "Accursed Kings" series of books by Maurice Duron has all the elements (sex, violence, murder, intrigue, treason etc.) and has the added benefit that all the, main, characters existed and the events actually happened.

    Of course books like the excellent Sir Edric series offer something else over and above the normal fantasy stuff and are therefore worth buying and reading.

  2. I often wonder why the Diadochi era, or the intrigues of Byzantium, get scant attention. Lots of exciting and fresh (to most eyes) material there.

  3. Interesting stuff - cheers for posting it. :)

    There are a couple of instances in history where children could potentially lead great dynasty's only to be murdered. Caesarion, by Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, is another.

    And another vote for all things Byzantine here. :)

  4. Thanks, and cheers for reading it :)

    There are a few Alexander-Caesar parallels, epilepsy being another: