Take the case of Cratesipolis, a rather remarkable woman who lived at the end of the 4th century BC. We know almost nothing about her, not even her real name (Cratesipolis roughly means 'conqueror of the city', which was probably not a common name for little girls, even in the ancient world). Yet the picture which emerges from the scant few references to her is of a complex and brilliant individual, one capable of capitalising on the chaos and uncertainty of her age and coming out on top.
Cratesipolis was the wife of Alexander, the son of Polyperchon. This is the same Polyperchon who, upon the death of Antipater in 319 BC, was appointed Regent of Alexander the Great's vast empire. This provoked civil war as Cassander, Antipater's son, and Antigonus Monophthalmus, the governor of Greater Phrygia, both felt they should have been given the position. Polyperchon allied himself with Eumenes of Cardia and Olympias, Alexander the Great's mother. The complicated nature of the conflict which ensued is unimportant, suffice to say after the defeats and deaths of Olympias and Eumenes, Polyperchon was rather isolated.
His cause had all but collapsed, yet, he and his son, Alexander, still controlled much of the Peloponnesus, including some important strongholds. Both were courted by the more powerful warlords (the Diadochi) of the time who sought them as allies. Polyperchon and Alexander sided with Antigonus against Cassander at first, but Alexander changed sides having made a deal with Cassander.
Cratesipolis enters the historical record sometime in 314 BC. Plutarch, in his life of Demetrius Poliorcetes, describes Cratesipolis as, 'a famous beauty'. In this year her husband, Alexander, was murdered, as he was preparing to leave Sicyon with his army, by one of those civic patriots Greece once so commonly produced, Alexion of Sicyon. It seems some deceit was involved as Diodorus reports that Alexion pretended to be Alexander's friend.
Sicyon had been garrisoned by Alexander's troops and there can be little doubt he essentially ruled it in the manner of a tyrant. Alexion felt he was liberating his city as he struck down the Macedonian general. However he had reckoned without Cratesipolis. She was, according to Diodorus, skilled in practical matters and an extremely daring woman. Also, she was well regarded by her husband's men for her various acts of kindness and charity. Unfortunately for Sicyon and Alexion there was little kindness or charity in what followed.
While the people of Sicyon perhaps saw Alexander's death as the signal to regain their freedom, Cratesipolis had other ideas. She drew up her husband's troops against the citizens and defeated them with great slaughter. She had about thirty men arrested, doubtless those she considered responsible for the revolt and her husband's death, and had them crucified. After a bloody day's combat Sicyon was now ruled by a woman.
At some point she gained control of Corinth as well. Probably the garrison there was loyal to her husband, indeed it may well have been his headquarters. Cratesipolis controlled these two cities from 314 – 308 BC, all the while still, it would seem, maintaining her husbands alliance with Cassander.
However in 308 BC, Ptolemy showed up and began to meddle in the affairs of the Peloponnesus. He made contact with Cratesipolis and the two of them seem to have struck a deal. Cratesipolis agreed to hand Sicyon and Corinth over to Ptolemy and retire to private life.
The people of Corinth had other ideas and objected to a Ptolmaic garrison so Cratesipolis was forced to resort to deception. She told the Corinthians that she intended to resist Ptolemy and that she had sent to Sicyon for reinforcements. Secretly she informed Ptolemy of this plan and he dispatched a force which appeared before Corinth and pretended to be Cratesipolis's men. They were welcomed into the city and managed to bloodlessly seize power.
This was a major coup for Ptolemy. Corinth occupied a key strategic location in the Peloponnesus and its fortress was one of the mightiest in Greece. We are not told what Cratesipolis got from Ptolemy for this service but it seems likely she was well rewarded. Cratesipolis retired to Patrae (Modern Patras).
She was still there in 307 BC when Demetrius Poliorcetes captured Athens from Cassander and restored its democratic constitution. Such was her reputation for beauty that Demetrius abandoned his army in Megara and and travelled cross country with only a few attendants in the hope of affecting a meeting with her. The way Plutarch tells it, Demetrius pitched his tent a discrete distance from his bodyguards to allow Cratesipolis to come and go without being seen and preserve her modesty. However some of his enemies got wind of this meeting and launched a surprise attack on the camp. Demetrius scarcely had time to snatch up his cloak and run before they were on him. He barely escaped.
So much for that. However a more cynical assessment of situation may be that Cratesipolis was again applying her powers of deception. Had she perhaps arranged the meeting with Demetrius in the hopes of betraying him to Ptolemy? How else would these attackers just happen to know where the meeting place was to be? Perhaps this is just speculation, but it does not seem out of character.
Sadly though, with that, Cratesipolis vanishes from the historical record. We know nothing else of her or what became of her. This is a shame as the woman who is briefly revealed to us is fascinating. Just how did she gain control of her husbands troops and prevent them from merely offering their services to Cassander or Antigonus? How effective was her rule over Sicyon and Corinth? What exactly was her relationship with the great men of the time, with Cassander, Ptolemy and Demetrius?
We can make guesses at the above questions, but frustratingly we will never know for sure. When even simple questions such as who she was and where she came from elude us we cannot hope to draw in-depth conclusions. But her small cameo does help shed some light on the chaotic and often confusing wars of the successors. Her willingness to change sides was not unusual. Many did likewise, offering their services to the general who paid the highest or was thought most likely to win. Further her very success demonstrates what was possible in a world in flux. The old certainties had dissolved and it was now possible for a woman to play a decisive role in events, to hold great wealth and independent means, even to lead soldiers.
It could be argued that if her husband had not died we may not have heard of her, perhaps she would have continued quietly in the background. But he did and she seized her opportunity to, briefly, place herself centre stage in Greek history.
Further Reading: Diodorus Siculus: XIX.67 & XX.37, Polyaenus: VIII.58, Plutarch: Life of Demetrius.
The Image at the top of the page is of a statue of Athena and can be found in the Louvre.