Olympias lived from 375—316 BCE. She held other names and epithets such as Myrtale, Polyxene, and Stratonice (the latter which meant “victor of the army”.) She was the Queen of Macedon, a politician, and an accomplished battle strategist.
Olympias was born in an age of military innovation in ancient Greece and her home country of Macedon, thus she was a woman who was born into a very militaristic time period. Due to her lineage and her place in Macedonian society, she could not have refused military life even if she wanted to. She married a warmonger in 357 BCE, named Philip II of Macedon. Their marriage produced at least one surviving child, Alexander the Great. Olympias had a good career in military strategy, even after she was married, although she did take a place at the sidelines, as her career didn’t fully blossom until after her husband died.
In the time between 336 and 331 BCE, Olympias was a great influence in Macedon while Alexander was campaigning in Asia. He left Macedon in 335 BCE, and never returned to his home country. Thus, he left the governance of it to his mother, Olympias. She sent many letters to her son, where we can see that she discussed quite a lot of battle strategy with him, as well as the expansion of the Macedonian empire. Her primary residence was in Epirus where she continued to fight to gain an absolute power in Macedon.
In 317 BCE, half a decade after her son’s demise, Olympias led her troops into Macedon to campaign against Philip III Arrhidaeus and his wife Eurydice II. Duris, a famed Greek historian, dubbed this war as the “first war between women” (which it wasn’t, considering the many matriarchal tribes in Africa and other continents). During the battles, Eurydice II’s troops turned coat and defected to Olympias, who then imprisoned and killed Eurydice and Philip III. After the fact, Olympias gained full autocratic power in Macedon.
In 317 BCE, Cassander threatened her with an invasion in revenge for his brother’s death at her hands. Olympias made the error of withdrawing her troops to Pydna, a city that was not prepared well for Cassander’s siege. After Cassander placed a blockade, her troops respectfully asked her to withdraw. She did so, and surrendered to Cassander. She was executed a year later by the families of the people she had executed in her rise to power.
Legacy: Olympias has been a character in various fiction works. She was played by Angelina Jolie in the 2004 biographical film, Alexander.
Ancient Greek Women in Military: There is some evidence that in certain countries and cities in the north and west of Greece, aristocratic girls and women were raised to be in war. (Pennington, page 321) Cynane, the daughter of Eurydice I is an example.
Books: Pennington, Reina. Amazons to Fighter Pilots: A Biographical Dictionary of Military Women. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2003. Print.