Performing Politics: The Avenues to Power for Women in the Macedonian Court

by Benjamin Cronshaw

The Ancient Macedonian court is a fascinating setting of intrigue and conflict, particularly because of the involvement of women in dynastic politics. The Kingdom of Macedonia,  compromising the borders of modern day Macedon and northern Greece, lasted from around 808 BCE to 168 BCE. This essay focuses on the period leading up to Alexander the Great’s conquests in around 330 BCE. What we know about the position of women in the court is coloured by the prejudices of extant primary sources, written in the following centuries. The status of Macedonian women was often criticised or downplayed by Greek historians who were hostile to the idea of monarchy and the political influence of women. Looking beyond these biases we can see that royal women had an authoritative role in the governance of the Macedonian dynasty. Women performed a variety of domestic, political, religious and even military roles on behalf of their family. Due to the polygamous nature of the court, women also competed for greater status for themselves and their children, particularly to secure the succession of their son. While men had a comparatively higher status than women, with easier access to political and military power such as the kingship, women could still attain great influence and status in the court.

Women in the Macedonian court were expected to serve in a domestic or familial role, but within this role they could gain status and honour. One such domestic role was weaving fabric and making clothes for their family. Besides the practical help, it also had propaganda value in demonstrating the superior lifestyle and character of Macedonian women over “luxury-loving Persian royal women,” who balked at the expectation of doing housework.  Even more important for royal women was the procreation of children for the continuation of the dynasty. It was customary for the Macedonian king to have multiple wives to increase the chance of producing a viable heir – Phillip II had seven wives. Because of the polygamous nature of the court, there was competition between the wives for the king’s favour and higher status. Unlike in Ptolemaic Egypt where there was a chief wife to the Pharaoh, there was a lack of any official titles or positions. The Macedonian court instead had a “fluid situation” where a woman’s position in the eyes of the king could quickly change depending on a variety of “royal actions and gestures.” The most important indicator of status, which provoked much intrigue and competition, was for a woman’s son to be designated as the heir to the throne. Royal women were not merely involved in childbearing passively, but were actively involved in the machinations that decided who would become the heir. Their domestic role as wives and child bearers crossed over into a political role in determining the next king. A politically ambitious woman could live her ambitions through her sons, gaining greater status and influence if successful in having one of them appointed the heir. The position of Alexander the Great and his mother Olympias was still very “fragile” when the former was designated the heir. Alexander’s position as heir was threatened by every new marriage and other political intrigues happening in the court, even Phillip arranging a wife for his son Arrhidaeus. The position of women in the court could fluctuate wildly as they competed to gain status and plot to put their own children on the throne. Royal women in the court were expected to perform domestic duties, namely bearing children, but through their domestic roles women had opportunities to improve their status and position.

Royal women also had a significant and honoured position in the religious sphere. Interceding with the gods on behalf of the community was an important ritual, which demonstrates the trust and status accorded to royal women. Dedicating statues and making temple offerings displayed the “public piety” of them and their family.Certain women were also included in the royal cult. Phillip II included statues of his mother Eurydice and wife Olympias in the Philipeum. The cult of royal women served to make the ruling house more relatable and accessible to the common populace. Their association with Aphrodite emphasised their feminine “sexuality and domesticity,” which was relatable for common Greek women. By providing an emotional bridge between the king and the common people, the royal women provided legitimacy to the ruling dynasty. Being associated with Aphrodite rather than Hera was also less politically threatening, though public statues of women were still a shock to the Greek psyche. These statues demonstrated the religious and political power these women held, which led to their pre-eminence in the Macedonian court. It also recognised the power women had because of their “sexual influence over godlike royal men.” By being involved in religious activity, royal women served the ruling dynasty and thereby gained honour and status. 

Women also had an important role in forging diplomatic marriages, which gave them higher status. As Macedonian rulers took multiple wives, this increased the number of nations and noble families they could forge alliances with. Women in political marriages could function as a “long-term diplomatic” link between the families of their father and husband. A wife from an important family or nation would be more important politically and thus have higher status than other wives. Phillip’s marriage to Olympias was considered particularly important for the alliance with Molossia, which gave Olympias a relatively high status in the court accordingly. During Alexander’s conquests, Persian women also played an influential role in his court. The captured wives and daughters of Darius and other Persian nobles were a symbol of Alexander’s victory and conquest. While captured women would usually be sexually abused as a humiliation to their fathers and husbands, Alexander spared them this fate so they could serve a grander political purpose. Alexander sought to replace Darius’ position in the Persian royal court as a “legitimate ruler” of the conquered territory. Allowing the Persian women to keep their titles and status helped create continuity between Darius’ reign and his own. Women of royal blood were highly regarded and served as important “transmitters of royal power.” In Persia, as in Macedonia, women were critical in providing legitimacy to those who aspired to sit on the throne. Royal women had a high status because of their political importance in diplomacy and role in providing legitimacy to the ruler.  

Royal women could also seize opportunities to gain and wield substantive political power. When the male ruler was away for extended periods, or unable to rule due to young age or mental disability, women could exploit the political vacuum to rule for themselves. Olympias managed political affairs in Macedonia while Alexander was away on campaign and again later during the reign of her baby grandson. Adea Eurydice ruled on behalf of her mentally disabled husband. The women “never claim[ed] the royal diadem themselves” but ruled through their male relatives. While the power was officially vested in the male king, the real power was exercised by the women behind the throne. Non-royal women were also involved in political intrigue and could take actions to improve their position. Women were likely knowledgeable about the political affairs of their male relatives and could thus have exercised indirect political influence by providing advice. According to historian Dolores Miron, one of the main barriers for women to gaining and maintaining political power was being barred from military leadership because it left them vulnerable to a coup. Power in Ancient Macedonia was “inextricably linked to military might,” hence why Alexander’s successors or diadochi were his generals. However, women could be involved in military matters, including leading armies, military administration and giving speeches to the army. Illyrian women in particular were trained to lead armies and be involved in battle, even in combat. Olympias led an army against an opposing force and, because of her reputation, they mutinied and joined her side. In general, the Greeks believed that “ruling” and “war” were not “fitting occupation[s] for a woman.” The historian Polyanenous went against this trend with his praise of female military involvement. In Polyanenous’ words, Cyanne, daughter of Phillip II, was “famous for her military knowledge” and “charged at the head of [armies],” dying a “glorious death” in the wars of succession. Macedonian women were often at the forefront of political and military conflict. Rather than staying on the side lines, they seized opportunities to gain power and improve their status and position. 

Despite their important roles in the Macedonian court, the position of women is not always fairly represented in the primary sources. One of the issues in interpreting the Macedonian court is the paucity of native Macedonian sources, compelling us to rely on Greek sources with their own cultural prejudices. Greek society was markedly different to the Macedonian society and court. The Greeks disapproved of the role women played in polygamous monarchy, namely because of the capacity to affect succession politics. Macedonian women in general were more independent than cloistered Athenian women. However, women still were barred from certain social events such as the symposium, which indicates a lower social status than men. The Greek city states had strict separation of the public and private domains, with the former reserved for men and the latter delegated to women. Polygamous monarchy mixed the two together, with women and family matters having considerable influence over court politics and succession. Indeed, Plutarch wrote that the Kingdom was “infect[ed]” by the “disorders” from the women in the court. However, the political action of women was often valued by their contemporary Macedonians. Antipater’s daughter Phila, for example, was praised for her political acumen in solving a dispute in camp and was reportedly consulted by Antipater on state affairs.  

The Greeks’ hostility and aversion to ruling dynasties and female involvement in public life led them to downplay or stigmatise female political action. Powerful Macedonian women could easily fall into the Greek trope of “scheming and seductive queens playing succession politics.” Olympias was portrayed as a “jealous and sullen woman” and a “trouble-maker” for her involvement in public life and advising her son. However, far from her actions being unwanted interference, Alexander listened to and valued the advice of his mother. Olympias was also portrayed as “mentally disturbed” and having a “sadistic pleasure” in murder, because of her intrigue. She was also accused of murdering her husband Phillip II, despite scant evidence against her. Even during their own time, powerful women clashed with the “prevailing attitudes” that it was “undesirable” for a woman to hold power. Criticism of politically important women could also be partisan attacks by their opponents, who were nonetheless happy with female political involvement when it supported them. Cassander may have engineered the allegations against Olympias of murdering Phillip to justify his own murder of her as a prestigious woman. The Greek authors writing about the Macedonian court were perturbed by royal women having an important role in public life. Thus, the ancient resources often negatively portrayed politically important women and downplayed their importance in the court.  

Our understanding of the status of women in the Macedonian court is based on the extant primary sources. The Macedonian political structure, of a polygamous monarchical court open to female involvement in public life, was foreign to the Greek ideal of democratic albeit segregated city states. Hence, the representation of women in Greek writings often understated the status and honour afforded to them by their Macedonian contemporaries. While they were expected to bear children and attend to domestic duties, royal Macedonian women could also go beyond this. Macedonian women in the court played a variety of significant roles on behalf of the ruling dynasty, for which they received greater honour and respect. Women could also take the initiative to strive for greater status for themselves and their children, using political intrigue and, occasionally, military action to advance their own position. In Alexander’s Persian court, the Persian women also played an important role in legitimising the regime just as Macedonian women did in the Macedonian court. Thus, while they did not always receive positive commentary in the surviving sources, women in the court played an integral role in supporting the ruling dynasty and earned high status because of this. 

Bibliography 

Primary Sources

Diodorus of Sicily Library of History. Perseus Digital Library, Somerville, Massachusetts, Project Tufts University. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0084 

Plutarch Plutarch’s Lives: Alexander. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard Universityhttps://www-loebclassics-com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/view/plutarch-lives_alexander/1919/pb_LCL099.225.xml?result=6&rskey=ESUE6t&readMode=recto.  

Polyaenus Strategems. Attalus. http://www.attalus.org/translate/polyaenus8B.html.  

Quintus Curtius History of Alexander. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard Universityhttps://www-loebclassics-com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/view/quintus_curtius-history_alexander/1946/pb_LCL368.65.xml?rskey=GReIwc&result=1

Modern Scholarship 

Carney, E. 1992. “The Politics of Polygamy: Olympias, Alexander and the Murder of Phillip.” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 41 (2): 169-189.  

Carney, E. 1995. “Women and Basileia: Legitimacy and Female Political Action in Macedonia.” The Classical Journal. 90 (4): 367-391.  

Carney, E. 1996. “Alexander and Persian Women.” The American Journal of Philosophy of Philology. 117 (4): 563-583.  

Carney, E. 2000. “The Initiation of Cult for Royal Macedonian Women.” Classical Philology. 95 (1): 21-43.  

Greenwalt, W. 1988. “The Marriageability Age at the Argead Court: 360-317 B.C.” The Classical World. 82 (2): 93-97. 

Katz, M. 1992. “Ideology and “The Status of Women” in Ancient Greece.” History and Theory. 31 (4): 70-97. 

Miron, D. 2000. “TRANSMITTERS AND REPRESENTATIVES OF POWER: ROYAL WOMEN IN ANCIENT MACEDONIA.” Ancient Society. 30: 35-52.    

Mitchell, L. “THE WOMEN OF RULING FAMILIES IN ARCHAIC AND CLASSICAL GREECE.” The Classical Quarterly. 62 (1): 1-21.   

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