The Wars of the Successors were dominated by fascinating warlords, who fought foes across the length and breadth of the known world wielding powerful, diverse armies. Highly influential women also came to the fore during this period – each with their own incredible story.
Perhaps the greatest of these tales belongs to the half-sister to Alexander the Great, the audacious and ambitious Cynane.
Macedonia’s Illyrian foe
Cynane’s origins derive from the contentious relations between ancient Macedonia and their long-time enemies, the Illyrians. They were ferocious warrior peoples situated to the north and west of Macedonia. During the early 4th century BC, the Illyrian menace was particularly threatening.
Under the leadership of the daunting Bardylis, King of the Dardanians, Illyrian warbands wreaked havoc in Macedonia, seizing much wealth and land. By 359 BC, countless Illyrian raids had left the kingdom of Macedonia on the brink of destruction.
In 358 BC, everything changed. The new king of Macedonia Philip II used his new model army to gain a decisive victory against Bardylis, who perished in battle alongside 7,000 of his men. The Illyrian menace was quelled.
In the aftermath, to temper centuries-old hostilities between the kingdoms, Philip joined the Illyrian and Macedonian royal houses together by marrying the Illyrian princess Audata. She was most likely the granddaughter of the recently-deceased 90-year-old Bardylis. About a year later, Audata gave birth to a daughter. Her name was Cynane.
The fascinating thing about Illyrian women in the 4th century BC was that they were raised for war; from childhood they were taught to be tough and to fight alongside the men in battle when necessary. Cynane was no different.
From an early age Audata trained her daughter in the art of war, staying true to her Illyrian roots; by the time Cynane had reached her mid-teens, she had become renowned as a formidable warrior princess.
Cynane accompanied the Macedonian soldiery on campaigns where she proved, first hand, her military prowess on the battlefield. Legendary tales soon spread across Macedonia about her – the half-barbarian Amazon. Cynane was a woman you did not want to tangle with. Polyaenus, writing some 450 years later, recalled a famous tale he had heard about Cynane:
She was famous for her military knowledge; she commanded armies, and in the field charged at the head of them. In an engagement with the Illyrians (344-343 BC), she herself slew Caeria, their queen, with a fatal blow to the throat; and she defeated the Illyrian army with great slaughter.
Polyaenus, Strategems, Book 8
In 336 BC, King Philip II of Macedonia was assassinated and his son Alexander, the later Alexander the Great, came to the throne. One of Alexander’s first actions was to remove any rival claimants to his throne. This included a man called Amyntas, Alexander’s cousin.
Amyntas was also the husband of Cynane. So one of the first things Alexander did when he came to the throne was make Cynane, his half-sister, a widow.
Alexander wasn’t done with Cynane. He saw her as a pawn that he could use in his diplomatic games: a key asset in a time when marriages between royal houses were critical to securing strong, lasting alliances with neighbouring kingdoms.
Alexander did just that in 335 BC when he arranged to marry the strong-willed Cynane off to one of his most loyal allied kings, a man called Langarus. As you can probably guess, Cynane was not happy with being a pawn in Alexander’s diplomatic games. Not long before the marriage was to take place, Langarus died a very mysterious death.
Between 335 and 323 BC, we do not hear much about Cynane, and you can understand why: our sources tend to focus on Alexander the Great, his conquest of the Persian Empire and his marching of his armies as far as India. Yet upon Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 BC, Cynane comes back into the fold.
Following Alexander the Great’s death, and especially in the immediate aftermath of his death, there was absolute chaos. To summarise, there was a big dispute in Babylon over who was to rule between two rival parties: one spearheaded by Perdiccas, the most senior commander in Babylon, the other by Meleager, a leading infantry officer.
Disagreement followed, clashes erupted and at one stage civil war appeared imminent. Yet tempers (temporarily) cooled, and eventually a compromise was reached when the Macedonians crowned a man called Arrhidaeus, who became King Philip Arrhidaeus III.
Philip Arrhidaeus was the half brother of Alexander the Great. Unlike Amyntas he had survived Alexander’s reign because Alexander had not considered him a potential threat to his throne. Although we do not know for certain what condition he had, Arrhidaeus was simple-minded. He couldn’t make a logical decision on his own; he could not rule without help.
For this reason Alexander never saw Arrhidaeus as a rival to his throne. In fact, it appears he liked having him around: Alexander took his half-brother on campaigns with him and he was also in Babylon when Alexander died.
Just as Alexander had not seen Arrhidaeus as a threat, his generals in Babylon thought likewise. Perdiccas, who had become guardian of Alexander’s empire in Asia and chief adviser to Philip Arrhidaeus III, thus wielded the real power.
It wasn’t just Alexander’s generals who realised they could use Philip Arrhidaeus III to their advantage. News soon reached Cynane. She too sensed opportunity.
At that time (early 322 BC), Cynane had a 15-year-old daughter called Adea – the child of her marriage with Amyntas all those years before. As there was currently no Macedonian queen, Cynane championed her daughter to be betrothed to Philip Arrhidaeus III.
Cynane’s thinking behind this was straightforward. If Adea became the wife of Arrhidaeus, she would be the closest person to the king. Consequently, she would wield great control over him, replacing Perdiccas as the key influence over Philip and the one to whisper advice into his ear. If Adea then gave birth to a son, Cynane and Adea would become grandmother and mother to the next in line to rule.
March on Babylon
Cynane had one great trump card to help her achieve her power play: her direct link to Alexander the Great. The Macedonians viewed Alexander as a semi-divine figure, a man who had taken his seat among the Gods as soon as he had breathed his last. Her direct link was a golden ticket for Cynane.
She soon gathered a small army of Macedonians, with whom she began the march to Babylon to put Adea on the throne, defeating a small force sent by Antipater, the most powerful man in Macedonia, to stop them.
When Perdiccas and the other generals heard that Cynane was marching towards them with an army, they were far from happy. They saw Cynane as a direct threat to their status and so had to be stopped.
Perdiccas ordered his brother Alcetas to take command of the Macedonian army in Babylon and stop Cynane in her tracks. Their armies met somewhere on the Asian side of the Hellespont. They had reached a showdown. Prior to any fighting, Cynane and Alcetas met in full view of both armies.
As soon as Cynane saw Alcetas in her way, she berated him, endlessly, in full view of everyone. Yet while Cynane was mid-speech, Alcetas decided he had had enough. He drew his sword and slew Cynane, right there and then. Alexander’s half-sister fell to the floor, dead. Alcetas had hoped that this would terminate Cynane’s power-play, and that the opposing army would simply join his ranks. He could not have been more wrong.
First horror, then anger
When the Macedonian soldiers – including those in Alcetas’ army – saw Cynane fall lifeless to the floor, they looked on in absolute horror. And this horror soon transformed into anger. The reason was simple.
Cynane’s direct link to Alexander and the Macedonian royal family, combined with the legends surrounding her, meant that the Macedonian soldiery held great respect for Cynane. Many perhaps even viewed her as a hero. How dare Alcetas, a mere general, kill the woman directly related to the man that now resided among the gods.
The soldiers were so enraged that they forced Alcetas to comply with Cynane’s wishes. They demanded they escort Adea to Babylon and have her married to Philip Arrhidaeus III as their new queen.
Rise of Eurydice
Alcetas relented; as did Perdiccas, knowing full-well how much their power depended on the army’s support. The marriage went ahead and Adea became one of the most powerful women in the empire, taking the name Eurydice.
For the next five years, Eurydice became a major player in the Wars of the Successors, following in her mother’s footsteps as a strong-willed, formidable warrior-woman. She would soon enter a legendary rivalry with another of the most powerful women of the time: Olympias.
Warlords like Perdiccas and Ptolemy dominated the period, but this was also a world of ambitious and powerful women. Cynane’s story of audacity and military skill shines above the rest, as does the fact that, though she paid the ultimate price, her power play ultimately succeeded.