Since the beginning of time, women have liked to surprise men with their extraordinary power, strength, and skills. Few are shocked by female success in these areas nowadays, but in ancient times some women’s brave achievements were considered absolutely shocking. The story of a woman who was able to ride a chariot with four horses is one of the most remarkable tales of a royal lady who was passionate when she felt the wind in her hair and the strength of horses in her hands.
Cynisca (also known as Kyneska) was not just a female athlete; she was a princess of Sparta . However, her passions were not typical for the princesses we imagine. She was most excited when she could work with horses. Her position allowed her to receive the best education, but also a lot of criticism. Although physical activities were well appreciated in Sparta, the role of women in the Olympics was unclear before Cynisca’s spectacular success. It is believed that women were usually unable to attend any competitions (they were discriminated in numerous areas of life.) It is unknown how Cynisca found this passion or who taught her the necessary skills. Her road to the Olympics is unclear too.
French print of Cynisca. ( greekamericangirl)
Cynisca Didn’t Fear Horses
Cynisca took her fist breath around 440 BC in the legendary city of Sparta - known for its unusual way of thinking about life and war. She was a daughter of a woman named Eupoleia and the king of Sparta Archidamus II. She grew up in the court with her brother, the future king of Sparta, Agesilaus II. Her name means ''female puppy'', but her personality wouldn’t allow anyone to treat her as a pet.
Princess Cynisca trained hard. She was unbreakable in her attempts to achieve the best results. However, before she was allowed to attend the competition, she had to pass through a steep road of limitations for ancient women, where the rules were created by men. It is believed that she had to find an ally before she entered the main stadium at Olympia. It seems that the one who supported her the most was Agesilaus.
Agesilaus and Pharnabazus.
Cynisca’s Race for Olympic Glory
It is necessary to say that during the times when Cynisca was training before the Olympics, women couldn't even be spectators for most of the games. However, Agesilaus decided to change this discriminative tradition. He is known as the ruler who promoted women like no other king of Sparta did before him. It is very likely that he was the one who encouraged Cynisca to compete in chariot races. Agesilaus hoped that if his remarkably talented sister won races, the position of women in the Olympic Games would change forever. According to Sarah B. Pomeroy:
''Cynisca’s quadriga (four-horse chariot) was evidence of great wealth like that of some of her contemporaries who were victors, including tyrants in Sicily. Likewise, Cynisca’s commemorative monuments were examples of conspicuous consumption equal to those of men. Like wealthy men who owned racehorses, Cynisca did not drive them herself but employed a jockey. Indeed, she would not even have been present at the victorious event in as much as women were not permitted to attend the games. Her image, however, stood in the sanctuary. Apelleas, son of Callicles, of Megara, created a sculpture of her chariot, charioteer, and horses in bronze, and a statue of Cynisca herself. He also made bronzes of her horses that were smaller than lifesize. These were erected at Olympia. They were the first monuments dedicated by a woman to commemorate victories at pan-Hellenic competitions. The choice of Apelleas suggests that Cynisca had done some research to find a sculptor from an allied city who specialized in images of women. Apelleas was fond of depicting women praying. Thus, it is quite possible that Cynisca was portrayed expressing gratitude to the gods. The author of the epigram inscribed on the base of her statue is unknown. The poem is metrically competent; straightforward in the “Laconic” style; and of course, written in the Doric dialect.
Cynisca herself is represented as speaking: My ancestors and brothers were kings of Sparta.
I, Cynisca, victorious with a chariot of swift-footed horses, erected this statue. I declare that I am the only woman in all of Greece to have won this crown.'' (page 22)
Cynisca had a remarkable personality. She was a horse-lover, but also a person who used her position as princess to open the gates to the Olympics for all women. Although her beginnings and winning were huge scandals, she was honored with a bronze statue of a chariot, horses, and herself in the famous Temple of Zeus in Olympia (Athens).
Wilhelm Lübke's illustration of the temple as it might have looked in the 5th century BC.
Not Only Cynisca
History has more stories of athletic women from Sparta. At least one other woman who lived in the same period as Cynisca and had achievements during the Olympics that are worth mentioning is Euryleonis. She was also a charioteer. She won the two-horse chariot races in 368 BC. Sadly, many details related to her life have been lost. After Cynisca’s success, Euryleonis could also attend the races and dream of winning. It is unknown if she was a princess too, or just a wealthy woman - some stories mention that she was a horse breeder, but there is no evidence for this. The ancient Greek writer and traveler Pausanias described the statue of Euryleonis that was erected in Sparta in 268 BC. It was a remarkable bronze statue dedicated to the inspiring athlete and was described later as a decoration at the temple of Aphrodite in Sparta.
Representation of a chariot race on a clay hydria. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Some other women who were known to have won ancient chariot races were Zeuxo, Hermione, Belistiche, Encrateia, and Cassia. Nowadays, sports championships are available to women, however, chariot races are not a favorite anymore. The magnificence of the old masters has inspired thousands of young ladies to work hard and fight for qualification in the Olympic Games and for medals.
Cynisca or Kyneska was a Greek princess of Sparta . She became the first woman in history to win at the ancient Olympic Games .
Cynisca's win in the Olympics had a great impact on the ancient Greek world as other women, especially Lacedaemonians, later won the chariot racing like Euruleonis, Belistiche, Timareta, Theodota and Cassia. However, none of them was more distinguished for their victories than she was.
This Spartan princess is frequently used until today as a symbolic figure of the social rise of woman.
Cynisca of Sparta (c. 440 BCE – ?)
Today, women in sport are campaigning to ensure that they have equal pay and access to the same training and facilities as their male counterparts. Unfortunately, women across the world are fighting for their place in sport. For years professional sport has suffered from culturally and institutionally ingrained sexism which excludes women.The Matildas, the Australian women’s team, secured an historic equal pay victory in 2019.
Between 1921 and 1971, women were banned from playing on grounds associated with England’s Football Association (the FA). Women’s football in the UK is gaining ground and the Women’s World Cup 2019 has boosted girls’ participation in the sport. But, the gender pay gap between women and men in the national teams is still huge and is being disputed by women’s teams around the world. In 2019, the Matildas, the Australian women’s national team, secured a landmark victory: they are now on the same pay scale as the men’s team.
Still, in other parts of the world, women are fighting to play football professionally, let alone compete at international levels continues. Against all odds, in 2019, Sudan launched its first women’s league and in October 2019 women in Iran were able to attend football matches for the first time in 40 years, a major achievement following the tragic death of ‘Blue Girl’ Sahar Khodayar, who died protesting her right to attend a football match.Women in Iran attend the World Cup qualifier in Tehran in October 2019.
The fact of the matter is that women have and will always overcome these barriers, and we find examples of such resilience and tenacity in the ancient world. One such woman was Cynisca of Sparta who became the first woman to win at the Olympic Games, despite it being a male-only event.
Cynisca was the sister of Agesilaus, a King of Sparta who ruled between c. 398 and c. 360 BCE. According to the geographer Pausanias, writing in the 1 st century CE, Cynisca developed an interest in chariot racing, becoming the first woman to rear and train horses for the purpose.Cynisca of Sparta.
Illustration by Maria Haley.
Cynisca’s passion for chariot racing was supposedly encouraged by her brother Agesilaus so he could make a point. According to Xenophon, wealthy individuals were doing so well at chariot racing, a symbol of ‘manly prowess’ (Gribble, 2012), not because they had any skill in the sport, but because they had the resources to rear winning horses. To prove that such success was not down to talent, and to knock his chariot-racing contemporaries down a peg or two, Agesilaus gave the same task to his sister.
There are a few issues with Xenophon’s assessment, especially as it undermines Cynisca’s achievements. Xenophon was Athenian, and women in Athens lived very different lives from Spartan women. Spartan women were encouraged to be physically active and could participate in financial affairs, including owning land. Despite not being able to vote, women in Sparta enjoyed greater freedoms than women in any other Greek city state. Therefore, it was not unusual for women to be physically active and involved in sports, despite Xenophon’s suggestion (later echoed by Plutarch in the 1 st CE) that Cynisca’s chariot racing was ultimately an extension of her brother’s personal and political agenda.
Nevertheless, whether Cynisca developed her own interest in chariot racing or Agesilaus encouraged her to prove a point, Cynisca excelled in putting together a chariot racing team. Cynisca employed charioteers which was standard practice for wealthy individuals wishing to compete in chariot racing, but also a necessity as women were not permitted to compete at or attend the Olympics.Cynisca of Sparta as imagined by Mme. De Renneville in Biographie des femmes illustres de Rome, de la Grèce, et du Bas-Empire. Paris: Chez Parmantier, Libraire (1825).
Source: Brooklyn Museum.
Cynisca entered teams in the Olympic Games in 396 and 392 BCE, winning the four-horse chariot races on both occasions. In doing so, Cynisca become the first woman to win at the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, as the Olympic Games were a male-only event, Cynisca was not present for the victory and she was unable to attend the winners’ ceremonies.
However, Cynisca’s achievements were not forgotten and a statue of Cynisca was dedicated at Olympia. Cynisca also ensured that her name lived on at Olympia with an inscription which reads:
Kings of Sparta were my fathers and brothers, and I, Cynisca, winning the race with my chariot of swift-footed horses, erected this statue. I assert that I am the only woman in all Greece who won this crown.
In addition, Cynisca dedicated bronze horses in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia to celebrate her victory, where they were still in place when Pausanias visited the sanctuary in the 2 nd century CE. In Sparta, Cynisca became the first woman to have a hero cult dedicated to her, with a shrine erected in her name near the Platanistas where athletic competitions for young Spartans were held.
Cynisca achieved a number of firsts for women: the first to rear and train horses, the first to win at the Olympics, and the first to have a hero cult dedicated to her. Her achievements inspired other women to compete in the Olympics, and later royal women entered teams into chariot races as a means of demonstrating their status, wealth and power.
Cynisca was an early forerunner of the women in sport we see today, those campaigning for equal participation, pay, and access to training and facilities. Like Cynisca, these women will continue to win on the sporting field and off it – so why fight it?
Pausanias. Description of Greece, Laconia 3.8.1-2, 3.15.1,
Pausanias. Description of Greece, Elis 5.12.5, 6.1.6.
Fantham, E. 1995. Women in the Classical World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gribble, D. 2012. Alcibiades at the Olympics: Performance, Politics and Civic Ideology. Classical Quarterly. Vol. 62/1, pp. 45-71.
Kyle, D.G. 2003. “The Only Woman in All Greece”: Kyniska, Agesilaus, Alcibiades and Olympia. Journal of Sport History. Vol. 30/2, pp. 183-203.
Mitchell, L.W. 2012. The Women of Ruling Families in Archaic and Classical Greece. The Classical Quarterly. Vol. 62/1, pp. 1-21.
Pomeroy, S. 2002. Spartan Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
What event did Cynisca win?
Find out all about it here. Keeping this in view, what event did Cynisca of Sparta win?
Cynisca employed men and entered her team at the Olympics, where it won in the four-horse chariot racing (tethrippon Greek: &tauέ&theta&rho&iota&pi&pi&omicron&nu) twice, in 396 BC and again in 392 BC. The irony is that she probably didn't see her victories.
- Running / Jumping / Discus Throw.
- Discus throw.
- Equestrian events.
Simply so, who was the first woman to compete in the ancient Olympics?
Kyniska, in 396 BC, entered her horses into the tethrippon and to everyone's surprise (at finding out the owner of the horses), she won. (3) Kyniska was the first women to compete and win an Olympic Sport, and she tried again at the next Olympics (four years latter) and won again.
At which Panhellenic game did the Spartans allegedly achieve significant victories?
Cynisca and the Heraean Games: The Female Athletes of Ancient Greece
The Heraean Games, held in the Olympic stadium, were instituted as the first athletic competition for women and helped undercut the gendered segregation of Greek society.
Olympic stadium. Credit: jean-Marc Astesana/flickr/(CC BY-SA 2.0
Olympic stadium. Credit: Jean-Marc Astesana/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
The first recorded instances of the Olympics – inscriptions listing the winners of a foot race held every four years – date the games to 776 BC. According to ancient Greek legend, after Hercules completed his 12 labours, he built a stadium at Olympia to honour Zeus, the king of the gods of ancient Greece and established the custom of holding the games.
Held every four years at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, the Ancient Olympics were mega athletic events as well as religious festivals held in honour of Zeus. The various city-states and kingdoms of the Hellenic peninsula sent representatives or ‘champions’ to participate in the games. Athletic events such as foot races, combat sport, equestrian events and a pentathlon (jumping, discuss and javelin throws, foot race, wrestling) featured alongside ritual sacrifices to Zeus and Pelops, the mythical king of Olympia.
Women in classical Greece
Pilgrims travelling to Olympia would pass through warring states without being harmed or molested as they were believed to be under the protection of Zeus. However, these pilgrims would almost always be men, especially during the games. While the Greeks were perhaps the first to establish and promote the concept of democracy, women of those times did not enjoy any legal or political personhood.
In classical Athens, women were considered to be part of the oikos (a term related to the concept of family, family property and the house) headed by a male patriarch. They were excluded from the demos (the mass of the common people who could exercise legal and political rights). Most thinkers of those times supported this gendered segregation. In his book Politics, Aristotle stated that women were “utterly useless and cause more confusion than the enemy”. Women’s roles were restricted to the household and family. No woman ever acquired citizenship in ancient Athens and hence women were excluded from Athenian democracy both in principle and in practice.
While women generally took part in public festivities in the Peloponnese states, the Ancient Olympics retained their ban on women, given the religious and political significance of the event. According to the accounts of Greek travel writer Pausanius, the government of Elis, the city where the games were held, decreed that if a woman was caught present at the Olympic Games she would be “cast down from Mount Typaeum into the river flowing below”.
The Heraean Games
The Heraean Games, dedicated to goddess Hera, the queen of the Olympian gods and Zeus’ wife, was the first official women’s athletic competition to be held in the Olympic stadium at Elis. The games, which occurred in the 6th century BC, were probably held in the Olympic year itself, prior to the men’s games.
Initially, the Heraean Games only consisted of foot races. The champions of the events were rewarded with olive crowns and meat from the animal sacrificed to Hera. They also got the right to dedicate statues or portraits to Hera – winners would inscribe their names on the columns of Hera’s temple. The only recorded victor of the foot races is the mythical Chloris, Pelops’ niece who was also said to be Zeus’ granddaughter.
Participation in the Heraean Games was restricted to young, unmarried women. The men generally competed nude in the Olympics but the women taking part in the Heraean Games generally wore a chiton, a garment worn by men while doing heavy physical work. Pausanius in his accounts describes their appearance as “their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast.”
No one is certain of the origin of the Heraean Games. Pausanius provides two separate theories on the subject. The first theory suggests that Queen Hippodameia was grateful to Hera for her marriage to Pelops and selected 16 women to compete in footraces in Hera’s honour. The other theory suggests that it was the result of diplomatic efforts to resolve tensions between the cities of Elis and Pisa (in western Greece). Sixteen wise, elderly women were chosen from each of the 16 Peloponnese city-states to weave a robe for Hera every four years and to organise the games as symbols of peace. Pausanius wrote:“Every fourth year there is woven for Hera a robe by the Sixteen Women, and the same also hold games called Heraea.”
We cannot ascertain what societal changes led to the Greeks establishing separate games for women or whether the Heraean Games were only a temporary easing of restrictions on women. However, most historians suggest that it could be due to the rise of Roman influence in the Hellenic peninsula. In Rome, daughters of wealthy families freely participated in men’s festivals and athletic competitions.
Unlike the rest of Greece, where women were made to wear long and heavy clothes that concealed their bodies, kept in seclusion and prevented from learning hunting, riding and other physical activities, the women of Sparta wore short dresses, went where they pleased and were encouraged to take part in the same physical activities as their male counterparts. This was, however, only due to the belief that a physically fit woman would produce strong children.
However, Spartan women did enjoy a kind of social status that was inaccessible for women in the rest of classical Greece. Although they were excluded from formal military and political life, they were responsible for running their estates and could even own them. Sarah B. Pomeroy states in Goddess, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, that in the 4th century BC, Spartan women owned approximately 35-40% of all Spartan land and property.
Young Spartan girls received the same education as their male counterparts, rarely married before the age of 20 and possibly even took part in the Gymnopaedia or the ‘Festival of Nude Youths’. Perhaps in it unsurprising that a majority of the participants of the Heraean Games were Spartan women.
The legend of Cynisca, the first woman Olympic champion
Cynisca, born around 440 BC, was the daughter of Archidamus II, the king of Sparta. She was an expert equestrian and aspired to participate in and win at the Olympics. By this time, the Olympics’ rules were slightly relaxed and women were allowed to participate in the equestrian events, but only by training the horses. Cynisca’s brother Agesilaus II actively encouraged this ambition.
There is a lot of speculation over Agesilaus’s motives for encouraging his sister. Some say that he wanted to rekindle the warlike spirit of Spartan society while others think that he wanted to promote the cause for women in general, which is perhaps not as unlikely as it sounds given that Spartan men generally held women in much higher esteem than the rest of Greek men did. On the other hand, Athenian historian and soldier, Xenophon suggested that Agesilaus considered chariot-racing to be inferior and unmanly, and, by having a woman win it, sought to undermine and discredit the event.
Whatever Agesilaus’ motive might have been, Cynisca won the four-horse chariot race twice, in 396 as well as 392 BC and in doing so became the first woman champion of the Olympics. She was honoured by having a bronze statue of her chariot and horses, including a charioteer and herself, erected in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. The statue had an inscription declaring that she was “the only woman in all Hellas to have won this crown”.
Cynisca’s victory in the Olympics had a tremendous impact on the ancient Greek world and other women subsequently took part in and won the chariot-racing event including Euryleonis, Zeuxo, Timareta, Cassia and Belistiche.
Few records exist of female sportspersons of those times. Unrecognised and unappreciated during their time, figures like Cynisca, Belistiche and the female athletes of the Heraean Games were perhaps the pioneers who made the case for women’s sports. This year’s Summer Olympics at Rio de Janeiro have the most number of women participants (45%) ever. There is however, a long, long way to go before gender barriers are fully removed in the world of sports and, of course, society at large.
Shirsho Dasgupta is currently a graduate student of english literature at Jadavpur University. An aspiring journalist and semi-regular quizzer, he takes a keen interest in football, politics and philosophy. He tweets at @ShirshoD
Cynisca, The First Woman In Greece to Win An Olympic Chariot Race
Cynisca was the sister of Agesilaus II, a king of Sparta from about 400 to 360 BCE. Agesilaus was known to help his friends, even if it required corrupt action, so when his sister, Cynisca, became passionate about horse breeding and chariot racing, the king gave her patronage and support.
Driven by her ambition and backed by her family’s wealth, the Spartan princess created one of the most talented horse breeding and training programs in 4th-century Greece. Her chariot teams won glory in the Olympic Games of 396 and 392 BCE, making her the first woman in recorded Greek history to own a victorious Olympic chariot team. The historians, Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE) and Pausanias (143-176 CE), both wrote of her successes. Plutarch’s account presented her only as the trainer and owner of the chariot teams, with no role in the physical operation of the vehicles. Pausanias was more vague in his wording, with a general statement that she won victories at the Olympics. Yet, he, too, did not explicitly credit her with the act of driving the chariot during the race. Nevertheless, she was honored with a statue and a stone inscription at Olympia for her accomplishments. The inscribed stone base still survives today and is on display at the Museum of the Olympic Games in Olympia, Greece.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The Chariot Race in the Circus Maximus, by Alfredo Tominz (1854–1936), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
Participation of Women
However, as early as the early 4th century BCE, there were women who participated in Olympic games, just not the public festivals. The first woman recorded to have won an event in the Olympics was Kyniska (or Cynisca) of Sparta, the daughter of Eurypontid king, Archidamus II, and the full sister of King Agesilaus (399–360 BCE). She won the four-horse chariot race in 396 and again in 392. Writers such as the Greek philosopher Xenophon (431 BC–354 BC), the biographer Plutarch (46–120 CE), and Pausanius the traveler (110–180 CE) track the evolving perception of women in Greek society. Xenophon said Kyniska was persuaded to do it by her brother Plutarch commented that the male members used her to embarrass the Greeks—see! even women can win. But by the Roman period, Pausanias described her as independent, ambitious, admirable.
Kyniska (her name means "puppy" or "small hound" in Greek) wasn't the last Greek woman to participate in the games. Women of Lacedaemon won Olympic victories, and two prominent members of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt—Belistiche, courtesan of Ptolemy II who competed in the 268 and 264 games, and Berenice II (267–221 BCE), who ruled briefly as queen of Egypt—competed and won chariot races in Greece. By Pausania's era, non-Greeks could participate in the Olympic games, and women acted as competitors, patrons, and spectators,
The Greek Anthology. Edited and translated by W.R. Patton. Vol. 5. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1926. p. 11.
The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Edited By N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1970.
Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der Classischen Alterumswissenschaft. Edited by Georg Wissowa. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche Buchhandlung, 1897—.
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Plutarch. Plutarch's Moralia. Edited and translated by F.C. Babbitt. Vol. 3. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1961.
——. Plutarch's Lives. Edited and translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Vol. 5. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1968. p. 53.
Xenophon. Scripta Minora. Edited and translated by E.C. Marchant. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1971.
While most women in the ancient Greek world were kept in seclusion and forbidden to learn any kind of skills in sports, riding or hunting, Spartan women by contrast were brought up from girlhood to excel at these things so as to produce strong children, by going through early training similar to that of their brothers.
The ancient Olympic Games were almost entirely male-only and women were forbidden even to set foot in the main stadium at Olympia, where running events and combat sports were held. Women were allowed to enter only the equestrian events, not by running but by owning and training the horses. Cynisca employed men and entered her team at the Olympics, where it won in the four-horse chariot racing (tethrippon Greek: τέθριππον) twice, in 396 BC and again in 392 BC. The irony is that she probably didn't see her victories.
There have been some speculations over the motives of Agesilaus in directing his sister to join the equestrian competitions. One explanation is that he wanted to rekindle the warlike spirit in the Spartan society, which had given ground for the sake of a win in the Olympic Games. Another possible reason is that Agesilaus wanted to display Cynisca's abilities, or promote women generally.
According to Xenophon, she was encouraged to breed horses and compete in the Games, by her brother Agesilaus II, in an attempt to discredit the sport. He viewed success in chariot racing as a victory without merit, which was only a mark of wealth and lavish outlay due to the involvement of the horses' owner, while in the other events the decisive factor was a man's bravery and virtue.   By having a woman win, he hoped to show the sport to be unmanly, but Cynisca's victories did not stop wealthy Spartans engaging in the sport.
However, Cynisca was honored by having a bronze  statue of a chariot and horses, a charioteer and a statue of herself in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, by the side of the statue of Troilus, made by Apelles, and an inscription written declaring that she was the only female to win the wreath in the chariot events at the Olympic Games.  The first person in the inscription indicates that Cynisca was willing to push herself forward and Xenophon says that this inscription was Agesilaus' idea.  In addition to this, a hero-shrine of Cynisca was erected in Sparta at Plane-tree Grove,  where religious ceremonies were held. Only Spartan kings were graced in this way and Cynisca was the first woman to receive this honor. The inscription from Olympia (c. 390-380 BC) reads: 
|English Kings of Sparta are my father and brothers Kyniska, victorious with a chariot of swift-footed horses, have erected this statue. I declare myself the only woman in all Hellas to have won this crown. Apelleas son of Kallikles made it.||Ancient Greek Σπάρτας μὲν βασιλῆες ἐμοὶ πατέρες καὶ ἀδελφοί, ἅρματι δ’ ὠκυπόδων ἵππων νικῶσα Κυνίσκα εἰκόνα τάνδ’ ἔστασεν μόναν δ’ ἐμέ φαμι γυναικῶν Ἑλλάδος ἐκ πάσας τόν[-] δε λαβεν στέφανον. Ἀπελλέας Καλλικλέος ἐπόησε. |
History: A female athletic champion in ancient Olympics
The end of Women’s History Month is a good time for Outsports to celebrate the first female to wear a victor’s crown of olive leaves at the ancient Olympic Games. In 396 BCE, Kyniska, a king’s daughter from Sparta, won it in the prestigious tethrippon or four-horse chariot race.
“But women couldn’t compete in the ancient Olympics, “ some will say.
Oh, but they did. As owners, they could enter horses in the equestrian events… as long as a male charioteer was the public face on the entry. And the horse-owner was viewed as the winner, not the driver (who was usually a slave or hired professional).
|Painting of a tethrippon, or four-horse chariot race.|
The ancient name for Kyniska’s homeland was Lakonia. One of the dozens of city-states that comprised Greece, it was no bigger than New Jersey -- just a wide valley ringed by mountains and drained by a river, the Eurotas, that ran down to the Mediterranean. Outside its capital city, Sparta, were the fertile well-watered farmlands and a few mud-brick villages. The kingdom’s elite citizens numbered only perhaps 10,000 at its peak, supported by a larger population of freedmen and serfs (called helots).
Though tiny, Sparta stood out among Greeks for its unconventional ways. By channeling its citizens’ energies into a regimented, frugal, communal and clannish life, Sparta had clanked its bronze-armored way to being No. 1 military power in Greece.
But Sparta achieved this by easing some of the heavy patriarchal strictures on women that were traditional with other Greeks. To the Lakonians, a strong healthy active female was the ideal mother of soldiers, imbuing her sons with her own courage and toughness. So Spartan girls got the same rugged public-school education as boys. Scantily clad or even naked, they went out for the same sports as boys. To ensure that every child had a good support system, Spartan women could inherit and own property, and they enjoyed more sexual freedom than other Greek women.
Along with unconventional heterosexuality, the Spartans went a bit further than most Greeks on homosexuality as well -- they institutionalized same-sex love, giving it a respectable place. From early teenhood, boys lived in separate communes where sexual intimacy was common. Older men and women might mentor young people of the same gender mentoring could include an intimate relationship. Among the parthenoi, or young unmarried girls, lesbian passions found their voice in writings by the Spartan poet/educator Alcman.
In short, everything Lakonians did was culture shock for other Greeks. They saw Spartan women as “loose.”
Flashing Your Thighs
Around 440 BC, Kyniska was born to King Archidamus II and his wife Eupolia. She had two brothers, and was to be a rich heiress from birth.
During her first years, Sparta was jarred by profound change. In 431, when Kyniska may have been nine, her royal father hurled Sparta into yet another war -- the 30-year Peloponnesian War with Athens. The consequences were dire. Though Sparta technically won, its male population was drained by casualties. Women now outnumbered men, and moved to fill a void of economic influence.
Personal details about Kyniska are hard to find in the record. She may have been tall and blond, as many Spartans were. She may have been beautiful as well – Sparta wouldn’t have celebrated her later if she had been homely. Her compatriots idolized beauty in both genders. This may have tweaked sibling jealousy in her younger brother Agesilaos, who was recorded as short and lame.
Sparta’s sports complex for youth was located in a grove of sacred plane trees called the Platanitas. Nearby was the temple of virgin goddess Artemis Orthia, protectoress of the unmarried girls and boys who competed there. Kyniska was surely a familiar figure in the girls’ footraces on the dromos (track), or the naked wrestling in the gymnasium. For racing, Kyniska may have worn her long hair knotted up, a bit of gold jewelry, and the skimpy mini-skirt-length chiton that prompted other Greeks to refer to Spartan girl grumpily as “thigh flashers.”
But horse sport was tops with Kyniska. According to Sparta expert Sarah Pomeroy, her mother Eupolia’s family were a horsy clan. So Kyniska must have fallen in love with equines at an early age. Fine horses were life itself to the ancients -- not only for war and daily use, but also for artistic and spiritual inspiration. The Spartans’ rich farmlands and grassy river bottoms gave them the resources to breed good horses, under the protection of Artemis Orthia, to whom these animals were sacred.
When Kyniska’s father died in 427 BCE, she may have been 13 years old. She divided her father's wealth with her two brothers, and must have inherited a big country estate with serfs and grooms. There – possibly under the watchful eye of her mother or her own mentor -- the princess learned to ride astride and drive a cart and team. Pomeroy suggests that Kyniska might have been a tomboy.
Around age 18 or 20, Kyniska may have adopted the more austere look of an adult Lakonian woman – long chiton, short hair, no jewelry.
But there’s no evidence that she ever married or had children. Spartan royalty had strict rules about whom she could marry – but war casualties may have meant that there was no suitable match for her. On the other hand, she may have asserted a new kind of independence and refused to marry, spending her whole life among the parthenoi. She may have taken her turn at mentoring a girl by then.
The changing times had opened a door for Sparta’s royal and upper-class women. Though they never pushed as far as capturing the throne or seats in the Council of Elders, women now controlled much of the kingdom’s property, and expanded their influence in the arts and religion. With no family to occupy her, and no chance to rule the kingdom (that fell to her brothers Agis and Agesilaos), Kyniska looked for her own open door – one that would lead to excitement and achievement.
Times of Change
In the Mediterranean world, an olive crown at the Olympian Games made you a living demi-god in a way that we can't fathom today -- even when we see the idolizing of modern winners like Michael Phelps. The difference: our sports are secular, while the traditional Greek games resonated with religion. Every four years, the often-quarreling Hellenic kingdoms declared a truce and gathered at Olympia’s sanctuary of Zeus to compete. As the ruling god among all Greek deities, Zeus was patron of the Games – and his will determined the victors.
The Spartans were obsessed with beating their old rival, Athens, at chariot racing. Prior to the Peloponnesian War, they’d been on a roll -- winning seven out of eght tethrippons. But during the war, Sparta had been barred from the Games by their enemies. When Kyniska’s father died in 427, her older brother Agis became king and kept hammering at the war. Finally a truce was negotiated. The next opportunity for Sparta to compete would be the 96th Olympiad, in the year 396 on our calendar.
Race-crazy Spartans were thirsting for revenge.
By then, Kyniska had evidently noted that loophole in the Olympian rules. Then, as now, horse racing was a very costly sport. Up to that point, no Greek woman had ever commanded the resources that she had. Not only did Kyniska own a lot of land and human resources, but she had cash. With her family’s victory in the long war, new wealth had poured into Sparta, and she had a pile of foreign gold and silver to spend on horses.
So why not go for that first woman’s win? Why not in the most prestigious race of all – the tethrippon?
Greek historian Pausanias noted that Kyniska was "very ambitious" for this win. She may have taken her prayers to Artemis Orthia’s temple, leaving there a little lead votive figure of the goddess flanked by two horses.
North African Horses
But when King Agis died and her younger brother Agesilaos became king in 400, the ugly brother now butted heads with his pretty sister over racing. Agesilaos disapproved of the way that racing would burn up Spartan wealth. He was a reformist, looking to return his people to the good old days, when Spartans were less rich and self-indulgent.
“You should be breeding war horses, not racing horses,” he is said to have sniffed at her.
But Kyniska turned a deaf ear.
She probably started by finding a good trainer, and collecting the best bloodstock she could get. Libyans were the hot racing strain, ancestors of today’s Barb and Arabian horses – tough, refined animals with high-set tails and a fiery temperament. Through some noted horse broker, Kyniska may have found her stallions and mares in the Spartan colony of Cyrene in North Africa, famed as a source of winning chariot horses. Ships brought them to Lakonia’s seaport, Gytheio from there, they marched the 25 miles to Sparta.
Next the princess had to wait a year for her foals to be born. Then she spent several years raising the young horses, having them trained to harness, galloping them in long workouts across the meadows to leg them up – perhaps even trying them out in local races. Only mature horses – five years old or more -- could stand up to the stresses of the 8-mile tethrippon.
So Kyniska may have needed six or seven years, maybe more, to put together that perfect span of four horses. They had speed and athleticism and iron legs, plus the endurance and heart to gallop those 8 miles.
Most important, Kyniska had to find a top driver. If she lost the race, she'd never live it down. So she may have hired the best charioteer in the kingdom away from somebody else.
Shipwrecks on Land
Today we can get a good idea of chariot racing’s atmosphere from the movie "Ben-Hur."
Historians concede that the film’s race details are pretty accurate. We see a dozen four-horse teams and chariots go careening around the hippodrome at breakneck speed, with awful pile-ups along the way that mangle men and horses alike. The ancients called them “shipwrecks.” Great ancient writers like Homer and Sophocles penned accounts of historic races that leap right off the page. It was such a colorful, thrilling, dangerous spectacle that, when Rome took up the sport, the Romans loved it even more than gladiator combats. Clearly the real-life event was even hairier and gorier than the movie.
As 396 neared and his sister’s team was looking good, Agesilaos evidently stopped grumping at her. He had figured out that a chariot win by a Spartan female would be the ultimate humiliation of Sparta’s old enemies. After all, they viewed Spartan women as whores. So the king started encouraging her ambition.
But money alone, or even good breeding and training, wouldn’t give them the win. They would also need a nod from Zeus. A stumble, a bronze harness buckle failing, could spell disaster.
Through the Great Gate
When the summer of 396 came, Kyniska’s team and support crew set off for Olympia, some 200 miles away.
History doesn’t mention whether the princess went along -- but I’m sure she must have. What wealthy and independent-spirited horse-breeder would sit at home at a time like this? Besides, her intention to enter would surely stir up hostility in other kingdoms – she must have feared for the safety of her horses and driver, and would have kept them under heavy guard.
Kyniska’s entourage arrived at Olympia a month early for the required selection process, as well as a chance to get the horses acclimatized. No doubt they were hosted and protected by some local ally in Olympia – perhaps the priestess of Demeter, who traditionally presided over the Games as a special guest. Her team may have done its last works at the Olympian hippodrome (racetrack), which was located just east of the temple of Zeus. This was where all the equestrian events took place. Next door was the stadium where other athletic contests occurred.
Day 1 of the Olympics was spent – as today -- in ceremony, speeches, and hordes of athletes taking the Olympic oath, while spectators streamed in from all over.
As Day 2 dawned, the first morning would offer a program of various chariot races. Hundreds of teams and vehicles lined up at the great arched gateway. Then they filed into the hippodrome for a spectacular procession, while the owners’ names were loudly announced to Zeus. Thousands of spectators crowded the slopes flanking the track.
Kyniska’s super-fit horses were on their toes, knowing what was ahead. Their manes were neatly roached, their coats spotless. Their harness, the eight reins and the light modified war-chariot had been inspected over and over. The driver held his whip ready, wearing a headband and a long protective garment called the xystis, belted around the chest to keep it from flying up. This was the only Olympian event where men competed with clothes on. In case of a shipwreck, nobody wanted to be dragged naked in the dirt.
After the procession, the tethrippon was first on the program. As many as 60 chariots might have entered.
In the glare of morning sunlight, the great oval track awaited them, with a narrow median down the middle. Entries would run 12 laps around that 1,200-meter oval, with a sharp 180-degree turn around a pillar at each end. At one end was the long slanting row of starting gates, designed to release the outside teams first, since they had farther to run. The crowd was probably buzzing with outraged gossip -- word had gotten around that a Spartan hussy was running a chariot.
We don't know if Kyniska was actually there to watch – Greek historians differed in their reports on whether women were allowed to view the Games or not. Worst case scenario -- Kyniska had to wait it out somewhere else, biting her nails, perhaps at the villa where she was a guest. She might have been close enough to hear the crowd roar in the distance as the long line of starting gates jerked open.
That army of chariots poured out like a battle charge, raising a golden dust in the hot Mediterranean sun.
Kyniska would have worried about dirty tricks. The rules barred malicious interference, but every charioteer would have been under dire orders from his rich owner to not get beaten by that Lakonian chippy. So there were ways to wreck a rival that the judges might not see. An accident could destroy those wonderful animals into whom she had poured her heart's blood.
For strategy, Kyniska’s driver had the options that competitors have always used in long races. You could go out fast and stay in front, hoping your horses could hold the pace. Or you could sit towards the rear, and try to keep yourself out of trouble, hoping for a few shipwrecks to thin the field, so you could make a closing rush without much competition. Whatever your strategy, the sun would be in your eyes, blinding you through the dust, on the eastward leg of every lap.
The most dangerous moments were the 23 turns – as the team veered around the pillar, your chariot would go wildly loose like a racecar does. Its wheels would skid sideways, possibly hurling you out of the chariot by centrifugal force. Nobody used safety belts. If you cut the turn too close, you risked catching a wheel on the pillar and destroying your chariot. Result: you’d be tangled in the wreckage and dragged to death behind your runaway horses.
Kyniska must have died a thousand mental deaths by the time she heard the final rising roar in the distance. Somebody’s chariot was streaking past the finish at the judges’ podium. But whose?
Eventually a dusty messenger came galloping with the news, followed by her dusty, tired horses and driver going at a walk. The olive wreath was hers.
A Hero’s Destiny
Four years later, to show the world that it was no fluke, Kyniska went back to Olympia for the 97th Games and won the tethrippon again.
The princess didn’t fail to thank the higher powers. Olympian Zeus had willed a woman’s victory – not once, but twice. It sent a strong message to the whole Mediterranean world. Traditionally the Olympic winners expressed their gratitude by dedicating a statue at Zeus’s sanctuary. These joined a vast collection of artworks and mementos that had accumulated for centuries. So Kyniska’s family ordered up a magnificent bronze statue of her chariot, horses and driver, one of the biggest ever given. They also dedicated a statue of Kyniska herself, made by the sculptor Apelleas, known for his sensitive works portraying women.
When historian Pausanias visited Olympia, he logged a mention of Kyniska’s bronzes and her boastful inscription, that ended:
Sadly, the names of the charioteer and horses didn’t get written down.
Kyniska’s win touched off a run of female victories. Next was Euryleonis, another Spartan who won the 2-horse race at Olympia in 368. In all, nearly a dozen women captured the crown, not only at Olympia, but also at other Greek games. When Kyniska died, Sparta declared her a national hero – one of the few women to be so honored in the kingdom’s history. A shrine was built for her cult at the sacred grove of plane trees, near the temple of Artemis Orthia.
A century and a half later, her win was still a target. Berenice II, the Macedonian queen of Ptolemy III of Egypt, fielded a team of brilliant Cyrene-bred mares that won a dozen races, including the Olympian tethrippon. In her victory inscription, Berenice bragged that she had stolen Kyniska's “ancient glory.”
As paganism dissolved into Christianity, this tradition of wealthy woman race-owners kept going. In Renaissance Italy, noble women ran horses in the palios. In Protestant England, the “virgin queen” Elizabeth I had her racing stable. Today Queen Elizabeth II is the world's most enduring royal lady winner and patron in horse racing. In the U.S., flat racing enjoyed the patronage and breeding achievements of socialite Elizabeth Arden, while in harness racing, Frances Dodge (of the Dodge auto royalty) played a similar role. Indeed, harness racing is today’s descendant – a tamer one -- of chariot racing.
On a broader front today, women team owners emerge in other pro sports – from baseball’s Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, to Effa Manley, a pioneer in the old Negro Baseball League. The NFL has the Rams’ owner Georgia Frontiere and Denise DeBartolo York of the 49ers. In 2008, the WNBA approved the sale of Seattle Storm to an independent LLC owned by Lisa Brummel, Ginny Gilder, Anne Levinson, and Dawn Trudeau. Brummel, a Microsoft executive, is openly lesbian.
Meanwhile, Kyniska is still remembered today – her victory still a milestone in ancient and modern Olympic competition.
Archeology adds its own magic to her memory. Amid the ruins of Olympia, diggers actually found the battered marble base of Kyniska’s statue. Part of the inscription reported by Pausanias is still legible. Sad to say, the statue itself is missing, possibly destroyed by misogynist Christians who sacked the temple in the 5th century. If so, they cheated us of the chance to see the face of that remarkable sportswoman who lived 2,400 years ago.
This is another in a series on gays and lesbians in sports history by Patricia Nell Warren. Check out her archive.
"Spartan Women," by Sarah B. Pomeroy (Oxford University Press, 2002)
"Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta," by Paul Cartledge (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).
"Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World," by Donald G. Kyle (Wiley-Blackwell, 2006)
"Brief History of the Olympic Games," by David C. Young (Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004)
“Female Property Ownership and Status in Classical and Hellenistic Sparta,” by Stephen Hodkinson (Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University).
“The Only Woman in All Greece,” by Donald G. Kyle, Journal of Sport History, summer 2003.