The Influential Women that Surrounded and Aided Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great was lucky to have very supportive women at his side throughout his life. Historical records show that he was well-protected by them and that they were his secret source of power as well.
The most important woman in Alexander’s life was his mother Olympias, but Barsine and Roxana also seem to have had key influences on him. Some of the Macedonian king’s shorter romances also affected his life positively. It is worth wondering if he would have been such a successful person if he had not had the strong women who took care of him at his side.
Olympias – Mother, Protector, and Best Friend
Olympias was Alexander’s mother, protector, and best friend. She was a woman who fought like a lion to protect her son and even sacrificed her husband, king Philip II of Macedonia, to support Alexander.
Her birth name was Myrtle, and she was a daughter of Neoptolemus, the king of Epirus. Legend says that she had relatives who fought in the Trojan War.
A statue of Alexander and Olympias, Schönbrunn, Vienna. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Olympias wasn't lucky in her marriage. When she couldn't have more children, Phillip became interested in other women. He didn't accept monogamy, and Olympias suffered. She promised herself that she would do her best to not allow any of Phillip’s other sons to become king – just her own. She became Alexander’s most demanding teacher and supporter. She hired an army of people who earned lots of money for protecting the boy who would become the king of Macedonia.
After Alexander’s death, Olympias did her best to be the same source of support and strength for his wife and son. She hoped that her grandson would be able to continue the reign of Alexander, but unfortunately things did not go as she planned. Olympias was murdered by Cassander around 310 BC. She was stoned to death.
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Barsine – the Noble Wife of Persian Legend
Barsine was once a wife of Memnon. She was also a daughter of the influential Artabazus. After Memnon’s death of in 333 BC, she felt she was free to look for another relationship. When she saw Alexander the Great, she knew that he was the best her option. As Plutarch wrote:
"At any rate Alexander, so it seems, thought it more worthy of a king to subdue his own passions than to conquer his enemies, and so he never came near these women, nor did he associate with any other before his marriage, with the exception only of Barsine. This woman, the widow of Memnon, the Greek mercenary commander, was captured at Damascus. She had received a Greek education, was of a gentle disposition, and could claim royal descent, since her father was Artabazus who had married one of the Persian kings’ daughters. These qualities made Alexander the more willing he was encouraged by Parmenio, so Aristobulus tells us to form an attachment to a woman of such beauty and noble lineage." (Plutarch, Alexander, 21).
A mural in Pompeii, depicting the marriage of Alexander to Barsine (Stateira) in 324 BC. ( Public Domain )
Barsine may have given birth to Alexander’s son in 327 BC. According to Plutarch, Alexander fell in love with Barsine for her beauty, and they had a son named Heracles. It is important to note that his only confirmed son was born after his death, so Barsine’s child would mean one was born while he was alive as well. It is unknown if the story about the baby is real or not, but it brings some questions. If the boy did exist, what happened to him? Why do no resources mention him as Alexander’s successor?
Barsine was a woman who understood Alexander’s power and she may have been with him as she wanted to create the greatest kingdom of all the time. But this wasn't to happen. She was only to be one of Alexander’s lovers, although one of the most important ones - she wasn't a mistress or a concubine.
Roxana – the Beloved
Some historians believe that Roxana was Alexander’s greatest weakness. He lost his heart to her when he was 28, and with this relationship he also lost interest in other women. She was described by the writers who saw her as one of the most beautiful women in all of Asia. Her Afghan name was Roshanak, meaning ''little star''. The ancient historians say that she was Persian.
Alexander the Great and Roxana, in a 1756 painting by Italian Baroque artist Pietro Rotari. ( Public Domain )
Roxana and Alexander also married for political reasons. After conquering many lands in Asia, Alexander wanted to strengthen the bonds with the new parts of his Empire. The marriage took place in spring or in August of 327 BC. According to ancient sources, Roxana became Alexander’s greatest passion. He was so charmed by her beauty and wisdom that he spent more time with her than his soldiers wanted him to.
When Alexander died in 323 BC, Roxana’s position was still strong, but she already knew the cruel ways of royal courts. She decided to kill two of Alexander’s other women, hoping to protect herself and her unborn son. She gave birth to a boy named Alexander (Alexander IV), six months after the death of Alexander the Great.
Alexander IV with his mother, by Alessandro Varotari. ( Public Domain )
In 320 BC, Roxana was taken into custody by the regent of Macedonia (and a former friend of Alexander) named Antipater. She was murdered by his son, Cassander, in 320 BC.
Other Romances of the Macedonian King
Apart from the described women, Alexander's short life was rich in other affairs too. Nonetheless, according to Plutarch, the king tried to be as careful as possible. He knew that many people would like to murder him and he was much more interested in conquering enemies than finding serious love affairs. But there were a few women who caught his attention. He was overwhelmed by the beauty of Persian women in particular, and they were his weakness. Some historians believe that one Persian with beautiful eyes could even have been the cause of the Macedonian King’s death.
Among Alexander’s women, it is also important to mention Callixena, who was the first lover of the young Alexander. She was known for her beauty and Olympias often sent her to Alexander to have sex. Theirs was not much of a “relationship,” but the future king spent lots of time with this woman.
The romance of Alexander and the Queen of the Amazons, Thalestris, sounds like a story taken from a Hollywood movie. They met in Hyracania, on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. It was autumn 330 BC, and she traveled 200 or even 600 miles to meet the king, who was already the most famous warrior of the world. The sources aren't clear about the specific place of meeting. It is also unknown where Thalestiris’ settlement was. Some resources suggest that it was somewhere near the Black Sea.
Wherever it took place, when Thalestris stood in front of Alexander, her dress did not entirely cover her body. She was dressed like an Amazon, so the left side of her chest was uncovered. She appeared to be a passionate woman in Alexander’s eyes, and he was amazed by her strength and power. They spent thirteen days together as a couple. However, after this short romance, they probably never met again.
An 18th-century Rococo painting of The Amazon Queen Thalestris in the Camp of Alexander the Great, by Johann Georg Platzer. ( Public Domain )
The Powerful Women Behind the King
History knows a few more names of women who may have been Alexander’s lovers or wives. One of them is Queen Cleophis, who was also known as Candance. She was a queen of Massaga, an ancient capital in current northern Pakistan.
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In Alexander’s life there was also a woman known as Princess Statira (a daughter of the former Great King Darius III) also known in sources as Barsine or Arsinoe. Alexander met her in February 324 BC. On the same day he married Parysatis, a daughter of the Persian King Artaxerxes III. Statira and Parysatis were both murdered by Roxane, suggesting that they were quite important in Alexander's life. It is obvious that he used their knowledge in his strategies and plans.
The family of Darius in front of Alexander, by Justus Sustermans and preserved in the Biblioteca Museu Víctor Balaguer. ( Public Domain )
Alexander the Great was something of a “ladies’ man”. Unfortunately for the women who were drawn in most of them became the victims of murder. Alexander died when he was 33, but when he was alive he did little to protect the women who served him with their minds, souls, and in many cases bodies too.
Featured image: The Women of Darius's Family before Alexander the Great. (c. 1517) by Il Sodoma. Source: Public Domain
S. Fisher-Fabian, Alexander Der Grosse, 1994.
M.J. Olbrycht, Aleksander Wielki I świat Irański, 2004.
I. Worthington, Alexander the Great, Man and God, 2004.
Gustave Droysen, Alexander le Grand, 1991.
For me it is quite clear from the historical evidence that Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers, while marriages with persian women were basically political aliases, and much of the romantic descriptions of Alexander's relationship with female lovers seem more fictional, or mirror the particular views of those who wrote these descriptions.