Alexander of Molossis

Alexander (c.370-331): king of Molossis (350-331), uncle of Alexander the Great, best known for his invasion of Italy in 334.

Map of the Campaigns of Alexander of Molossis
Map of the Campaigns of Alexander of Molossis

Alexander was born as the first son of Neoptolemus, the king of the Molossians, one of the greatest tribes in Epirus. They lived in the neighborhood of modern Ioannina in Greece. During Neoptolemus' reign, the tribe became more sedentary; urbanization started and we hear about scribes and other administrative officials. From now on, Molossis was the most important part of Epirus.

When Neoptolemus died (c.360 BCE), his brother Arybbas became king. He strengthened his position by a treaty with the new king of Macedonia, Philip II (360-336). The alliance was cemented by a diplomatic marriage: Neoptolemus' daughter Olympias became queen of Macedonia. Her younger brother Alexander was sent to Macedonia as well, to receive a Greek education.

In 350, Philip invaded Molossis and installed Alexander as king. Arybbas fled to Athens, where he died peacefully in 342. Since it would be irresponsible to make a boy king, we may infer from the date of Alexander's accession that he was born in about 370.

Hardly anything is known about his reign, except for the fact that he subdued the other Epirote tribes and offered asylum to his sister Olympias when she had fallen into disgrace in 337. Alexander was not very steadfast, however: when Philip offered him the hand of Cleopatra, his daughter by Olympias, he agreed to the marriage, allowing Olympias to become very isolated. The death of Philip in October 336 prevented that he had to extradite his sister.

The new Macedonian king was Alexander the Great, who set out to conquer the east. At the same time, in 334, Alexander of Molossis decided to intervene in the west, where the divided Greek colonies in Italy were threatened by the federation of mountain tribes that is known as the Samnites. They were formidable warriors who had, in the preceding century, conquered several Greek towns. Usually, the Italian Greeks hired mercenaries in the mothercountry to help them. For example, king Archidamus III of Sparta had campaigned in the "heel" of Italy between 343 and 338, and the Corinthian Timoleon had liberated Syracuse from the Carthaginian threat in a series of wars between 344 and 337.

Support of the Greeks in Italy was probably not the only motive for Alexander's actions on the other side of the Adriatic. The struggle against pirates must have been an additional motive.

Our most important source for Alexander's campaign is the Roman historian Titus Livy (59 BCE - 17 CE), who describes it in book eight of the History of Rome from its Foundation, chapter 24. He states that Alexander accepted an invitation from the Tarentines. His most important motive was, according to Livy, that there was an oracle that told him that he would be killed near the Acheron, a river in western Greece. But, as it turned out, "in order to escape his destiny, he ran full upon it".

Having defeated the Samnites, Alexander moved against the Lucanians and Bruttians. He conquered Heraclea (a Greek town that had been captured by the Italian tribes), took Sipontum (one of the pirate's ports), and captured Consentia and Terina. The tribes were defeated several times, and Alexander opened negotiations with the leading power in Central-Italy, Rome, which feared war with the Samnite federation as well.

He seemed to be in control of the situation, when his army was unexpectedly attacked near Pandosia. Although he was able to cut the losses and kill the enemy leader, it was a severe setback. When he tried to bring his army in safety by crossing a river, he was murdered by one of his allies. As it turned out, the river was called Acheron, just like the river in western Greece. Or so we have to believe - the story is a common motif (cf. king Cambyses of Persia and the emperor Julian).

Livy dates the death of Alexander in the consulship of Gaius Poetelius Libo Visolus and Lucius Papirius Cursor. They were consuls from July 323 to June 322 BCE (the common identification with the year 326 is wrong). This must be a confusion with the date on which the news of the death of the other Alexander, the Macedonian conqueror of Persia, reached Rome. But Livy also offers another date: he says it happened at the time of the foundation of Alexandria. That happened in the first weeks of 331, and this must be more or less right.

Alexander's campaign gave the Greeks in southern Italy some respite and weakened the Italian tribes. They fell victim to the Romans. Their war against the Samnite federation lasted -with a brief pause between 303 and 298- from 322 until 290. After that, war between the Italian Greeks and Romans was inevitable. Alexander's great-nephew Pyrrhus of Epirus helped the Greeks, but in vain: in 272, Tarentum was forced to conclude a peace treaty.

In the end, the campaigns of Alexander served no real purpose. The Italian Greeks were doomed. However, they were not subjected by the Samnites, but by the Romans. The Mediterranean world was bound to become a unity, but in 331 it was not yet obvious that Rome would be the leading power. Alexander helped to pave the way.

His wife Cleopatra returned to Macedonia and played a role in the wars of the Diadochi, the successors of Alexander the Great.

This page was created in 2004; last modified on 4 May 2019.