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Olympias and her electric snake that changed history


Ryro
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The story goes that Philip II was crazy about Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, above all his other wives, lovers and youths. However, when he catches her in bed, take it as you will, with a snake and was so freaked out he wouldn't sleep with her anymore.

So few Greek coins and images survive of one of the most important women from antiquity. But thanks to the Macedonians under Roman rule, some 500 years after her death we do have an image of her. 

Here Olympias is playing with the snake!

Screenshot_20221106_114611-removebg-preview.png.8aa4760773a9a4ade871e20c30a8f204.png

Time of Gordian III. Type G: Alexander with diadem and ram horn.

11,28 g. 26 mm

Obv.: ΑΛƐΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ; diademed head of Alexander the Great, r., with hanging hair and ram horn.

Rev.: ΚΟΙΝΟΝ ΜΑΚƐΔΟΝΩΝ ΔΙϹ ΝƐΩ; Olympias as Hygieia seated l., feeding serpent from patera, resting on throne.

VF, RPC VII.2, 308. Rare. Purchased from Fitz Nov 2022

If you have any coins with Olympias, ancient women, ATG or anything else please feel free to add.

Edited by Ryro
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Interesting coin!

Yes, Olympias apparently did have a thing about snakes.  One of her snakes visited Alexander as a young boy, in his bed, in the opening pages of Mary Renault's novel, Fire from Heaven, part of the trilogy on Alexander's life and aftermath.

Edited by robinjojo
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That's a very nice coin, and it appears to be quite rare!

Yes, it appears that Olympias did have a thing for snakes. Most likely it was due to a religious function. High born women during that time often led and finances religious ceremonies, and Olympias was reputed to be no exception - perhaps as part of the Cult of Dionysos. Snakes were also viewed differently back then - feared in some ways but also appreciated in others. Legend has it that Asklepios learned his healing secrets from a snake.

It's difficult today to decipher what's true and what's fiction in Olympias' life because we have no lifetime sources and most ancient biographers who discussed her would have been heavily biased against a woman who was so instrumental in the age. We do know from some extant inscriptions that she was active in religious rites though.

I spent some time trying to find a coin that I could remotely attribute to her, but was unable to. Part of the problem is we don't even know where she was most of the time. She also never appeared to have effective minting control.

Interestingly, the most telling ancient insight into her is The Alexander Romance, which in pretty much every other account is completely unreliable. While the letters between her and Alexander are certainly fictional, they do provide some hint of the communication between them and her influence, and were likely based on contemporary sources.

FWIW, she is one of the primary villains in my upcoming book (tentatively titled) Harmonia's Edge. Her friendly snakes are also present. 🙂 

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3 hours ago, kirispupis said:

That's a very nice coin, and it appears to be quite rare!

Yes, it appears that Olympias did have a thing for snakes. Most likely it was due to a religious function. High born women during that time often led and finances religious ceremonies, and Olympias was reputed to be no exception - perhaps as part of the Cult of Dionysos. Snakes were also viewed differently back then - feared in some ways but also appreciated in others. Legend has it that Asklepios learned his healing secrets from a snake.

It's difficult today to decipher what's true and what's fiction in Olympias' life because we have no lifetime sources and most ancient biographers who discussed her would have been heavily biased against a woman who was so instrumental in the age. We do know from some extant inscriptions that she was active in religious rites though.

I spent some time trying to find a coin that I could remotely attribute to her, but was unable to. Part of the problem is we don't even know where she was most of the time. She also never appeared to have effective minting control.

Interestingly, the most telling ancient insight into her is The Alexander Romance, which in pretty much every other account is completely unreliable. While the letters between her and Alexander are certainly fictional, they do provide some hint of the communication between them and her influence, and were likely based on contemporary sources.

FWIW, she is one of the primary villains in my upcoming book (tentatively titled) Harmonia's Edge. Her friendly snakes are also present. 🙂 

2274092f-d5ee-4c1d-98c7-26c141363d3b_text.gif.fcc32df93d3dadd1a8175183cee1af32.gif

Glad you like it my dude. 

As you may recall, one of my favorite examples of the AWFUL Kassander takeover is his intentional snub of the Argead line. From Herakles to Alexander IV. Kassander had the audacity to not only stamp over an MSC, he was also stamping out Philip Arrhidaios and by default Olympias, whom ironically was NOT Arrhidaios mother. 

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IMG_5752(1).JPG

Edited by Ryro
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Neither were saints.

Olympias killed Philip III, Adea (Eurydike), and Philip's last wife Kleopatra and her infant daughter Europa

Kassander finished off Olympias, Alexander IV, and Roxana, and had a hand in the death of Alexander's son Herakles (by convincing Polyperchon his death was in both of their interests)

Olympias gets the award for most creative deaths. She supposedly burned Kleopatra and her daughter alive on an oven. Adea was given three options for death, but chose to hang herself by her dress. Kassander was quicker, though he did have difficulties finding someone to off Olympias.

I have to coins attributed to Kassander, though the first was likely minted by his brother Pleistarchos.

331A1474-Edit.jpg.171c0f1220b244de958d7ab4bd58ae7d.jpg

 

331A0272-Edit.jpg.22f7ddbec6e9429e78597c622458fc0d.jpg

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@zumbly has an amazing contorniate with Olympias on it... hopefully he will post it here!  Meanwhile, that's a real rip-snorter, @Ryro! Do you know if there's a version issued under Sev Alex? (Many of these Koinon types were issued for both, as they proceeded East, emulating Alex the G.)

Just to post something a bit relevant, here's my early Kassander (as regent - or so I'm told; very open to correction!):

image.jpeg.ec84148f6bb84a2bd832248aea9d2b54.jpeg

Needs some verdicare or something, and a new photo. That (photo-exaggerated) powdery white look needn't be there!

Edited by Severus Alexander
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2 hours ago, Severus Alexander said:

@zumbly has an amazing contorniate with Olympias on it... hopefully he will post it here!

Thanks for tagging me!  It's certainly one of my favorites and I'd have hated to have missed the chance to share it. 

213547146_CONTORNIATE-NeroOlympias4195.jpg.5b9b17ea39e558aa16a283f8164d1124.jpg

NERO
AE Contorniate. 18.18g, 36mm. Rome, circa late 4th century AD.
Alföldi, Kontorniat 200; Cohen VIII pg. 290, 129.
O: IMP NERO CAESAR AVG P MAX, laureate head to right; engraved palm leaf before.
R: Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, reclining left on couch, extending hand to serpent coiled at her knee.

Great coin, @Ryro!  These Koinon of Macedonia issues celebrating Alexander are really fascinating.  I'd love to add a few to my collection some day. 

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