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Standing in the Shadow of Alexander the Great: Cleopatra of Macedon and Her Life of Danger

Standing in the Shadow of Alexander the Great: Cleopatra of Macedon and Her Life of Danger

Cleopatra of Macedon stood in the shadow of her more famous brother, Alexander the Great. In fact, she was one of his three known sisters, apart from Cynane and Thessalonica. However, Cleopatra was apparently the most influential of the three women, and her exciting life is significant to history. It was a life full of success and never-ending danger.

A Famous Royal Family

Cleopatra was the only daughter of Phillip II of Macedonia and Olympias - and Alexander’s only full-blood sibling. Phillip’s other children were their step-siblings. They all lived lives full of intrigue, but the children were also protected by the strong guardian, Olympias. This family’s history of is full of death and blood, but it also covered with a mother's love that made them all more famous than other royal families.

Phillip II, King of Macedon.

Phillip II, King of Macedon. ( Public Domain )

Cleopatra was born around 355 or 354 BC, and she grew up in the palace in Pella. The rooms of the palace were full of the laughter of children, but also adult problems. Cleopatra and Alexander’s mother Olympias was determined to educate her children to become powerful rulers in the future. Due to this, Alexander was taught by the best teachers of his time, and Cleopatra also took lessons related to many scientific disciplines. Apart from the typical subjects all princesses studied - she received an education which some would say better suited a future king.

Olympias from "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum".

Olympias from "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum". ( Public Domain )

Marriage and Political Impact

Cleopatra married Alexander I of Epirus in October 336 BC. One of a few of surviving documents about Cleopatra’s wedding comes from Diodorus of Sicily :

“King Philip, once appointed as leader of the Greeks, inaugurated the war against Persia by sending to Asia Attalus and Parmenion, to whom he assigned part of his army with instructions to free the Greek cities. [...] He proceeded to perform sacrifices of the utmost magnificence to the gods and to celebrate the wedding of Cleopatra, his daughter by Olympias. For he gave her in marriage to Alexander, the king of the Epirots, who was a full brother of Olympias.
Wishing as many Greeks as possible to participate in the festivities, he arranged as accompaniments to the ceremonies in honor of the gods musical competitions and sumptuous feasts for those bound to him by the ties of guest friendship. When he had accordingly invited his personal guest friends from all over Greece, he instructed his own friends to bring from abroad as many of their acquaintances as they could. For he was extremely keen to demonstrate his affability to the Greeks and to offer fitting hospitality in return for the honors bestowed on him when he was given the supreme command.”

Diodorus Siculus as depicted in a 19th-century fresco.

Diodorus Siculus as depicted in a 19th-century fresco. ( Public Domain )

There was an unexpected tragedy that hit Cleopatra’s life following the wedding. Some researchers believe that Philip II of Macedon’s murder was a conspiracy created by Olympias, who wanted to make her beloved son Alexander the king. Her father’s death took place while Cleopatra was somewhat protected by her marriage, but at the same time, her mother’s position was reduced with each passing month.

Cleopatra and her husband had two children: Neoptolemus and Cadmeia. However, leaving the old palace in Pella didn't mean that she stopped helping her family. She stayed in touch with her brother and supported him during the conquering of the eastern lands. Alexander could always count on her. Some of her husband’s advisers suggested that she was too concerned with her brother’s rule, but with time they understood that Cleopatra’s talents were also very precious to Epirus.

Map of ancient Epirus by Heinrich Kiepert.

Map of ancient Epirus by Heinrich Kiepert. ( Public Domain )

When the king of Epirus went to the Italian Peninsula to fight the Lucanians and Brutti in 334 BC, Cleopatra remained as regent. She ruled Epirus as a talented leader who capably handled the economy and military forces. Alexander I of Epirus was killed during the battle in 331 BC. Cleopatra’s son Neoptolemus was too young to become an independent king, so Cleopatra ruled Epirus in his place. She was well-respected by many other authorities, including those in Athens.

In 324 BC, Cleopatra decided to return to Pella and share her power in Epirus with Antipater. One year later her world collapsed – Alexander died.

The Death of a Queen

Many men wanted to marry Cleopatra after Alexander’s death, but she refused them all. She didn't want to be a trophy wife. When Ptolemy I, the king of Egypt, visited the land near the Aegean Sea in 308 BC, most of his brothers and enemies from the time of Alexander's rule were not dangerous, or they were dead. But Cleopatra was still alive and she knew his weaknesses. She knew that Ptolemy grew up in the palace in Pella and that he still longed for his homeland.

19th century depiction of Alexander's funeral procession based on the description of Diodorus.

19th century depiction of Alexander's funeral procession based on the description of Diodorus. ( Public Domain )

He tried to convince her to join him, but Cleopatra was afraid of Ptolemy. She feared that he had killed some of her relatives - maybe even her cherished brother. So, she decided to escape from her location in Sardes. Unfortunately, she was caught by Antipater who accused her of a conspiracy with Perdiccas. They were both executed by these accusations. However, Cleopatra’s important position in society meant that Antipater gave her a funeral worthy of the queen, with all honors.

The woman whose life took place in the shadow of her famous brother seems to have lived with countless dangers and challenges. Cleopatra’s is a tale about a queen who spent her life trying to survive, but if she had been a man, she could have been as magnificent a ruler as her eminent brother. The Cleopatras in the house of Ptolemies remembered her well, and dreamed of becoming worthy of her name.

Top image: Macedonian coinage and medallions depicting Alexander the Great and Philip II. ( CC BY 2.5 )

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Peter Green, Alexander the Great: 356 – 323, 2013

Cleopatra of Macedonia, available at:
http://www.livius.org/articles/person/cleopatra-of-macedonia/

The death of Philip, available at:
http://www.livius.org/aj-al/alexander/alexander_t72.html

Cleopatra of Macedon, available at:
http://web.archive.org/web/20130118073802/http://www.ancientlibrary.com/smith-bio/0808.html

Comments

As an amuetur historuan, I have read many accounts of Alexander the Great but I’ve never heard anything about his sister other than her name and her marriage to Alexander I. I’ll have to read on her further. It’s interesting that the name Cleopatra became so common in the Ptolemy dynasty. Ptolemy I must have really admired her to name a daughter after her, there were at least 7 as Cleopatra 7 was the queen who lost Egypt to the Romans. I wonder if there were more who didn’t make it into the history books. I’ll have to look up Perdiccas since I’ve never heard of him. Great article though I would have liked more information on the conspiracy that he and Cleopatra were accused of.

After following the links in the reference section, I remember Perdiccas. I had never considered him to be very important but I was wrong.

He was a friend to Alexander and a commander in his   army. Alexander obviously trusted him as he was an adjunct who sometimes acted as a body guard to Alexander. After Alexander’s death, he became reagent to Alexander’s half-brother, Philip Arridaeus, who was epileptic and deemed mentally unfit to rule the Macedonian Empire alone.

The conspiracy in the article is apparently Cleopatra’s attempt to marry Perdiccas and replace Philip Arridaeus with a strong ruler.

Although the assassination of Perdiccas may have been orchestrated by Antipater, he was actually killed by his own men who revolted because of his brutal discipline and his failed invasion of Egypt.

Cleopatra outlived Antipas by 11 years. She was assassinated in 308 (Antipas died in 319 of old age at 80). (Remember that in BC times, the numbers go backwards). Most believe that Alexander’s general Antigonus Monophthalmus was responsible.

Antipater's son Cassander executed Olympias in 316.

One question I’ve always wondered about is Olympias’ name. every account I’ve ever read does not give her a name until after she was married to Philip and his chariot won an Olympic race. Any historians out there know her birth name?

Plutarch (in his work Moralia) says that Olympias was originally named Polyxena and then changed her name to Myrtale prior to her marriage to Philip II of Macedon as part of her initiation into an unknown mystery cult.

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