BMCR 2021.11.06

Eurydice and the birth of Macedonian power

, Eurydice and the birth of Macedonian power. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 200. ISBN 9780190280536 $65.00.

Since the 1980s, Elizabeth Donnelly Carney has been one of the most important researchers of the ancient Macedonian court. One of her key contributions to the field concerns the political and social lives of royal women, and how their own histories are vital to a comprehensive picture of the Macedonian monarchy. Carney is the author of Women and Monarchy in Macedonia (2000), Olympias (2006), and Arsinoë of Egypt and Macedon: A Royal Life (2013), excellent and engaging works that have brought Macedonian royal women further into both academic debate and public consciousness, and offered a clearer understanding of the court itself. Carney’s latest biography of the oldest generation of royal women we know of, Eurydice, wife of Amyntas III and mother of Philip II, is of the same high standard.

Chapter 1, the introduction, sets out the book’s aim, to examine ‘the nature of Eurydice’s public role, the factors that contributed to the expansion of her role (and that of subsequent royal women), and how that expansion related to the growth of Macedonian power’ (p. 1), and outlines the historiographical problems in reconstructing Eurydice’s life. Aside from Eurydice’s own political actions, her importance to the history of royal Macedonian women is made clear by the fact that she is the earliest woman for whom we have evidence beyond her name (pp. 1, 13, cf. 53). However, the extant literary accounts are not Macedonian and do not derive from direct eyewitness testimonies, such that ‘virtually all this material about Eurydice is contested’ (p. 4). Additional problems are the gender stereotyping typical of Greek and Roman authors, and the inherent instability of the Macedonian court, which few Greek writers understood well (pp. 3, 4). But Carney, who has continually dealt with these problems, is optimistic that we can attempt some reconstruction (p. 5). We are then presented with a brief overview of the thematic concerns regarding the study of the Macedonian monarchy. Importantly, there are key differences from what we would expect of a modern European royal house, and we cannot presume there was a stable system of royal inheritance (pp. 5-12). As illuminated throughout the book, the Macedonian monarchy was an unstable and inherently violent institution with a bleak outlook for those who wished to die peacefully at home.

Chapters 2 and 3 provide a historical and thematic framework for Eurydice’s life within the Macedonian monarchy, which is fundamental to the subsequent three chapters’ assessment of the evidence concerning Eurydice’s public life, her reported actions, and her legacy.

Chapter 2 focuses on Amyntas III’s (420 – 370 BC) rule, and the background of his marriage to Eurydice. Following the work of Michael Zahrnt, Carney provides a positive assessment of the king (pp. 14-22). With albeit problematic evidence, we are presented with a resourceful and wily monarch who ruled over a difficult territory, who had to deal with a variety of invasions and internal problems, and who relied on the aid of foreign powers, including Sparta and Thrace, to keep his kingdom. Nonetheless, he managed to sustain his rule and die naturally.

In the latter half of the chapter, Eurydice’s marriage and her complex genealogy is addressed (p. 23-31). Concerning her ethnicity, the possibility of Eurydice’s Illyrian heritage through her father, Sirras, is considered. Carney provides a nuanced and welcome assessment as to why Eurydice may have possessed Illyrian descent, the fact that Illyrian as a term is a constructed ‘other’, and why her possible Illyrian heritage may or may not have mattered for her marriage and for why her sons were selected to rule. It emerges that we can never be sure whether Sirras was or was not ‘purely’ Macedonian (whatever that means) because the label ‘Illyrian’ could be applied to someone who was entirely or partially Illyrian in a racial sense, or had a cultural upbringing or ties to an Illyrian people (p. 26).

Despite the Illyrian label, Eurydice’s sons were still given preference in inheritance to the throne over those of Amyntas’ other wife, Gygaea. The reasons for this are shrouded in silence. Indeed, Eurydice is absent from our sources during her husband’s reign; we know about her actions only after his death (p. 28). Despite this, Carney infers from Eurydice’s later behaviour and the selection of her children to rule that she must have been politically active and well-connected. It is doubtful that she sat still during her husband’s rule, and Carney is surely right that Eurydice’s knowledge of the court was probably created during these years, when she gathered her own supporters, philoi, to ensure support for her eldest Alexander II to become king (pp. 29-30).

Chapter 3 provides a historical overview of the rule of Eurydice’s three sons: Alexander II, Perdiccas III, and Philip II. Both Alexander and Perdiccas had short and unsuccessful rules; the former was assassinated by Ptolemy, and the latter was killed in battle. These events would create two crises for Eurydice: first, an accusation that she was involved in her sons’ murders, and, second, a challenge to her sons’ claim to the throne. Carney provides an admirable and logical groundwork for the following chapters, while highlighting the problems that will be studied later in the book, albeit with some unavoidable repetition. My only disagreement concerns her argument that Diodorus’ narrative (15.67.4) implies that Pelopidas of Thebes punished Alexander by taking Philip II as hostage (p. 34). Diodorus states that Pelopidas ‘had made an alliance with Alexander II’ (συμμαχίαν ποιησάμενος πρὸς Ἀλέξανδρον τὸν τῶν Μακεδόνων βασιλέα); his narrative appears to agree with Plutarch’s more extensive treatment of the settlement (Pel. 26.3-5). But this point does not undermine the overall analysis.

Chapter 4 is one of the book’s most valuable, tackling the negative tradition regarding Eurydice as an adulteress and murderer (Justin 7.4.7-8; 5.4-9; scholiast for Aeschines 2.29; Suda s.v. Karanos), her possible marriage to Ptolemy, and her involvement with the Athenian admiral Iphicrates in securing Perdiccas’ and Philip’s right to rule. Regarding Eurydice’s alleged adultery and murder of her sons, Carney follows previous scholarship by rejecting Justin’s salacious account due to various implausible events, the obviously political nature of his charges, and his evident ethnic prejudices (pp. 54-8).[1]  Regarding Eurydice’s marriage to Ptolemy, Carney is undecided. The story of the marriage may be more plausible than she allows; if nothing else, it would explain how the charges of adultery and murder fell on fertile ground, as Carney herself accepts (p. 64).

A convincing argument is made that these charges, among others, were part of a complicated fourth-century propaganda effort to discredit Eurydice and her sons (pp. 67-75). One of the most valuable parts of Carney’s account of how these narratives took shape is her discussion of the shifting factions within the Macedonian court (p. 73). We can too easily presume that loyalty was fixed within philoi circles, but these groups could and did shift continually as political and social events occurred. Such shifts may have led Eurydice to seek Iphicrates’ aid to help secure her sons’ claim to the throne. As Carney stresses, we must not reduce Eurydice’s actions here to the work of Ptolemy or another male actor; instead, even though the events are romanticised, the evidence points towards an intelligent woman who, like other male rulers before her, required external assistance to secure the Macedonian court (pp. 73-4).

Chapter 5 turns to Eurydice’s public image during her life, focussing on the archaeological evidence and inscriptions reported by literary sources (e.g. Plutarch, Mor. 14b-c) The Eucleia dedications take up most of the chapter’s discussion; Carney argues that the primary way Eurydice presented herself, and was presented, is through her motherhood. This was in part a response to the negative propaganda. This was tackled in a public way probably by both Eurydice and her son Philip II, using Eurydice’s loyalty to her sons to repulse the charges (p. 90).

The final chapter provides an overall assessment of Eurydice’s legacy and the way it was used, primarily by Philip II. This chapter’s real strength is the neat synthesis of Manolis Andronikos’ unpublished excavation report of the so-called ‘Tomb of Eurydice’ excavated in Vergina in 1987. Carney does justice to Andronikos’ work by not only presenting in clear detail the main arguments for and against the tomb’s identification as Eurydice’s, but also providing more recent scholarship on aspects of the finds. Also insightful is her wider discussion of the development of Macedonian royal tombs and the numerous problems that exist in identifying their occupants and overall history. Regarding the tomb, Carney doubts that it is Eurydice’s, while still arguing for a royal female occupant. Conversely, she makes a convincing case for Eurydice occupying one of the spaces in the Philippeum, rather than one of Philip’s wives, Cleopatra (p. 109).

On a technical level, the descriptions, and precise information about the tomb and the Philippeum are excellent, but the lack of diagrams and photos is disappointing, jarring in the light of the excellent use of images in the previous chapter. Another frustration with this chapter is the brevity of the conclusion to the volume included at its end (pp. 115-117). Unlike the excellent cross-referencing throughout the book, this final summary, less than two pages in length, does not do justice to the whole. A concluding chapter could have allowed for the previous chapter’s ideas to be brought into a synthesis, whereby Carney could have balanced the more debated ideas that her book has presented (such Eurydice’s possible marriage to Ptolemy) with certain insights that seem less controversial (Eurydice’s probable direct involvement with Iphicrates). This would have allowed a clear balance sheet of what the book has achieved and made it easier for readers to find a quick summary of the book’s key arguments. This, however, is a minor gripe when the chapters themselves are so well written and the book’s short length make its full reading easily accomplishable in a day.

As with most of Carney’s body of work, this book is a pleasure to read. Whereas much research on the fourth century can be mired in technical debates, Carney manages to highlight numerous source-based issues while avoiding losing the reader in what is supposed to be a more widely read work. This means scholars, students and the general public will find this work easy to engage with and learn from. Aside from the occasional typo (e.g. pp. 98, 99), including the third chapter’s title ‘The Rule of the Eurydice’s Sons’, the book is largely free from grammatical or spelling errors. The endnotes are well written and detailed, and the bibliography without any obvious errors. However, the book’s comparative brevity should have allowed space for an appendix listing and providing translations of all the inscriptions referring to Eurydice, along with others of relevance (such as on the identity of Sirras). Such an appendix would have been a greatly beneficial addition to such a work.

Throughout her career, Carney has argued that scholars too frequently doubt the agency of Macedonian women and dismiss their actions, as reported by our sources, as exaggerations or really the work of men.[2] Carney has provided an open critique of both Eurydice and the associated sources, which will prove valuable to both Macedonian historians and historiographers. By doing so, she has shown that Eurydice was a resourceful, cunning and politically astute member of the court. She ensured that it was her sons, not Gygaea’s, who took the throne after Amyntas’ death. Eurydice also endured various crises — including the claim that she murdered her own son and two external claimants to the throne (Pausanias and Ptolemy) — and acted to guarantee that her remaining two sons were granted rule. It is hence hardly surprising that Philip wanted to memorialise his mother to whom he owed so much. Carney has once again done justice to a fascinating figure who deserves a place of recognition within Hellenistic history, for good and bad, as one of the key reasons the Macedonian kingdom became the dominant power in the late fourth century BC.[3]


[1] Greenwalt, W. S. (1988) ‘Amyntas III and the Political Instability of Argead Macedonia’, Ancient World, 18, 35-44; Mortensen, C. (1992) ‘’Eurydice: Demonic or Devoted Mother?’, Ancient History Bulletin, 6, p. 156-171.

[2] See a recent interview in Molina Marín, A. A., and D. Molina Verdjo, ‘Elizabeth D. Carney’, Karanos, 3, 2020, p. 175-180.

[3] Thanks to Stephen Hodkinson for extensive comments and edits to this review’s first draft.