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Sisygambis, the Queen Mother

Sisygambis was the mother of Darius III. She might also have been the mother of Darius’ wife, Stateira, as she is described as Darius’ sister—although she might, of course, have been a half-sister (eg. Aulus Gellius 7.8.1-4).

In 333 BC Darius took his family with him to Issus, where he expected to fight, and defeat Alexander. The resulting battle saw the Persian army defeated and Darius in flight; he left his family to the mercies of the Macedonian conqueror (Arr. 2.11.9-10; Curt. 3.11.24-26; Pl. Alex. 21.1; Diod. 17.37.3; Just. 11.9; Itin. Alex. 14).

Sisygambis and her family feared that Darius had been killed, so Alexander sent Laomedon, who spoke Persian, to reassure them. (In fact, most sources say it was Leonnatus, but Heckel, 1992, argues persuasively that it was really Laomedon). The story is then told that Alexander went to visit Sisygambis, accompanied by Hephaestion. Sisygambis assumed that Hephaestion was the king, because he was the taller and more handsome of the two. When she realised her mistake she feared retribution; but Alexander forgave her. He promised that she and her family would be treated as befitted their rank, and that her grand-daughters, Stateira and Drypetis would be given husbands of suitable rank (Arr. 2.12.5-8; Curt. 3.12.6-17, 24-26; Pl. Alex. 21.2-3; Diod. 17.37.5-38.7; Itin. Alex. 15; Val. Max. 4.7.ext.2a; Athen. 13.603b-d).

The royal family travelled with the army for the next two years, until they were installed at Susa in late 331 BC. At some point during those years—it is not clear exactly when, but probably earlier in 331 BC—Darius’ wife died, perhaps of fatigue, or perhaps, as was rumoured, in childbirth (Curt. 4.10.18-24; Pl. Alex. 30; Diod. 17.54.7; Just. 11.12). This tragedy was compounded by the fact that Darius had recently lost at Gaugamela, and was currently in desperate negotiations with Alexander to try and keep at least some of his kingdom.

Alexander became fond of Sisygambis, perhaps seeing in her a mother figure, a similar relationship to that which he had previously enjoyed with Ada of Caria (Curt. 5.2.20-22; Pl. Moralia 6.522A). But he was, in 331 at least, still ignorant of Persian customs, and he committed a grave faux pas: when he received some fabric from Macedon he sent it to the queen mother, suggesting that she might like to use it to teach her daughters dress-making, something Persian royal ladies were not expected, or accustomed, to do. Once he realised his mistake, Alexander explained his lapse and no longer-term harm was done (Curt. 5.1.17-22). His relationship with Sisygambis was strong enough that, when he threatened to destroy the Uxians, she was able to intervene and save them (Curt. 5.3.13-15).

When Alexander finally caught up with Darius, who had been murdered by Bessus, he treated the dead king with honour, and sent him to Sisygambis for burial according to Persian custom (Pl. Alex. 43.3; Arr. 3.22.1). While not diminishing the regard that Alexander felt for the queen mother, such an honourable and sensitive act was politically astute, in keeping with his role as Darius’ successor.

Sisygambis remains out of the picture after that until 325/4 BC, when Alexander returned from the campaign in India. At Susa he married Stateira, Sisygambis’ grand-daughter, while Hephaestion married Drypetis (Arr. 7.4.4-5; Pl. Alex. 70.2; Diod. 17.107.6; Just. 12.10; Athen. 12.538b. Pl. Moralia 4.338D-F says the marriage was purely political). Drypetis was widowed before the end of 324, and Stateira also found herself a widow the following year, when Alexander died. Shortly after Alexander’s death his pregnant Sogdian queen, Roxane, lured Stateira and Drypetis to their deaths (Pl. Alex. 77.4). Whether they predeceased Sisygambis is not really known, but it is said that, when she heard of Alexander’s death, the queen mother turned her face to the wall and starved herself to death (Curt. 10.5.19-25). We do not know what happened to Darius’ son, Ochus, although it is most likely that he had been quietly disposed of in the intervening time. Within eight years, therefore, three generations of the Achaemenid royal house had expired, most of them violently.

Written by marcus