The wedding of Philip and Olympias

Discuss Alexander's generals, wives, lovers, family and enemies

Moderator: pothos moderators

Post Reply
Hetairos (companion)
Posts: 726
Joined: Thu Nov 26, 2009 11:16 am

The wedding of Philip and Olympias

Post by Alexias »

I was talking to a Greek lady recently and she told me that her mother, a screen writer, was writing a book on Greek history seen from the perspective of the Mysteries. She also said that Alexander was conceived on Samothrace when his parents attended the Mysteries there.

It is easy to see where this has come from:

As for the lineage of Alexander, on his father's side he was a descendant of Heracles through Caranus, and on his mother's side a descendant of Aeacus through Neoptolemus; this is accepted without any question. And we are told that Philip, after being initiated into the mysteries of Samothrace at the same time with Olympias, he himself being still a youth and she an orphan child, fell in love with her and betrothed himself to her at once with the consent of her brother, Arymbas. Well, then, the night before that on which the marriage was consummated, the bride dreamed that there was a peal of thunder and that a thunder-bolt fell upon her womb, and that thereby much fire was kindled, which broke into flames that travelled all about, and then was extinguished. At a later time, too, after the marriage, Philip dreamed that he was putting a seal upon his wife's womb; and the device of the seal, as he thought, was the figure of a lion.
Plutarch makes it clear ('At a later time') that he has combined two separate events, but he doesn't make it clear how much time elapsed between the betrothal (which took place straight away), and the night on which the marriage was consummated. With the auspicious dream though, he is making a tenuous link between the Mysteries of Samothrace and the consummation of the wedding.

Most historians seem to state that the marriage did not take place until several years later (357), making Olympias Philip's third or fourth wife. This date appears to be based on the assumption that they married the year before Alexander's birth. However, this assumes, for no reason that I know of, that Alexander was their first born child. Infant mortality being very high (something like one in four children not reaching their fifth birthday it has been theorised), the chances are he wasn't their firstborn. We don't even know if his sister Cleopatra was younger or older than he was. It is possible she was a year or so older than Alexander when she was married to Alexander of Epirus, as Alexander doesn't seem to have been in any hurry to marry off his half-sister Thessalonike, who must have been well past marriageable age by the time he died.

The second assumption behind dating Philip and Olympias's marriage to 357 was as a result of Philip's defeat of the Illyrian king Bardylis in 358/7. This supposedly brought him an alliance with the Illyrian's neighbours in Epirus, and with it Olympias's hand in marriage.

Philip would have been about 25 in 357 BC, and had been ruling Macedon for a couple of years. That is scarcely a mere youth. Plutarch's youth would suggest something in the 18-20 age range, after Philip was of age and after he had been released from Thebes. So why wait five or six years before marrying? This isn't Victorian England with lengthy engagements and disapproving parents. Neither of them might have been alive in five years time, especially with Philip's military life. Olympias's brother, who may well have been with her on Samothrace, had given his approval. There may have been a delay while Philip sought his brother Alexander's permission to marry, but it was a valuable alliance so permission is unlikely to have been withheld. At this age Philip had two older brothers and wouldn't have expected to become king, so he could afford to marry for love (romantic novel alert!).

In addition, Philip's firstborn son should in theory have been called Amyntas after his father. His second son may have been called Arrhidaeus after his grandfather, or Alexander after his eldest brother. Alexander should have had a younger brother called Perdiccas too. There is a story (that I haven't been able to locate) that one of Philip's wives and a son had died by the time he married Olympias in 357, but the son doesn't necessarily have to have been the dead wife's. So why cannot Olympias have been Philip's first wife as Plutarch suggests? It would explain a great deal about her bitterness at being divorced by Philip on dubious 'sexual depravity' charges relating to her Bacchic religious activity. These activities can't have been anything new and look like an excuse for Philip to get her out of the way. It would also explain the automatic assumption made by Philip's generals that Alexander was his successor being the son of Philip's first wife as well as his eldest surviving (we assume) and most competent son.

So, there could be some truth in the notion that a son of Philip and Olympias was conceived on Samothrace.
User avatar
Jeanne Reames
Pezhetairos (foot soldier)
Posts: 134
Joined: Tue Jun 02, 2015 2:44 am

Re: The wedding of Philip and Olympias

Post by Jeanne Reames »

Athenaeus (13.557b-e) (fragment of Satyrus) provides us with a list of Philip's wives more or less in order (some debate as to whether Audata was first, as Athenaeus, or Phila). Please see Elizabeth D. Carney, Women and Monarchy in Macedonia, pp. 52ff., for a full discussion.

Also William Greenwalt wrote a lengthy, but insightful article on the whole Samothrace thing in Macedonian Legacies, Howe and Reames, eds.:

"William Greenwalt reviews the evidence for links between Macedonia and Samothrace and considers what the episode of Philip and Olympias' meeting and betrothal on the island might reveal about Macedonian politics in the 360s. He follows Hamilton in dating the betrothal to the reign of Perdiccas III and places it in the context of this king's attempts to secretly gain an alliance against Illyrian power. Thus the importance of Epirus goes back to Perdiccas III, and in fact -- this is Greenwalt's new contribution -- the reasons for this king's actions must be sought in the murky waters of the early 360s and the factional struggles surrounding Alexander II, Ptolemy Alorites, and Eurydike."
Dr. Jeanne Reames
Director, Ancient Mediterranean Studies
Graduate Studies Chair
University of Nebraska, Omaha
287 ASH; 6001 Dodge Street
Omaha NE 68182
Post Reply