The Olympic Games in ancient Greece were a true celebration of a healthy spirit. Originally held to honor the god Zeus, these sport festivities became one of the cornerstones of Western civilization, an embodiment of strength, prowess, and athleticism. But the games were not for everyone. Women had limited rights at that time, and the Olympic Games were largely off limits to them. But one woman that changed that rule and etched her name into the history of the Olympic Games. Her name was Kyniska (also written Cynisca) and she is a heroine of ancient Greece, the first woman in history to reach victory at the Olympic Games. How did she do it? And how deep are the roots of these athletic celebrations of life, youth, and the gods? The fascinating story of Kyniska is a celebration of human achievement.
Kyniska: the first woman in the Olympic Games. And she won the races two times! (Sophie de Renneville / Public domain )
Understanding the Story of Kyniska: Her Background
Not much is known about Kyniska (or Cynisca) as much of her life and origins are clouded by the mists of time. What we do know though is enough to give us a partial picture and help us understand her rise to victory at the Olympic Games . Born sometimes around 440 BC, Kyniska was a princess of Sparta, born a daughter of the Spartan King Archidamus II and his wife Eupoleia.
Before we delve into the life of Kyniska, let’s get a better picture of her father. Archidamus II was one of the kings of the so-called Eurypontid dynasty of Sparta. We need to remember that this ancient Greek city state had a few unique aspects. The biggest of these was the fact that it had two kings simultaneously, ruling cooperatively. These kings came from two lines of succession, the Agiads and the Eurypontids. There was a long tradition behind these ruling “dynasties,” closely woven with the mythology of ancient Greece. It was said that these lines descended from the ancient twins, Procles and Eurysthenes, both of whom descended from the legendary Heracles. However, these ruling lines were named after the grandsons of these twins, Agis and Eurypon. And Archidamus belonged to the latter line, the Eurypontids.
Reigning roughly between 476 and 427 BC, Archidamus was the 11 th ruler of the Eurypontid dynasty. He ruled in the years just before the famed Peloponnesian War, and was greatly hailed as a composed and cool-headed ruler. In 464 BC, during his rule, Sparta suffered a terrible earthquake, which destroyed much of the city state and a death toll of more than 20,000 people.
Several legendary exploits surround Archidamus at this time, such as the one where he heroically leads the Spartans out of the city as it crumbles. However, this is considered a legend: the truth of the event is much grimmer. The earthquake crisis was exploited by the slave class in Sparta as the basis of a revolt. Archidamus had to resort to asking for help from Athens, but supposedly dismissed them once they arrived to help. It is said that it was this act that contributed greatly to the breakout of the First Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens.
Nevertheless, in the war that followed some decades later, Archidamus led the Spartans against the city state of Attica, consecutively leading campaigns in 431,430, and 428 BC.
A stylized ancient Greece battle scene between Spartan and Athenian warriors from a Greek vase painting. (Matrioshka / Adobe Stock )
Kyniska: Destined For Greatness In Ancient Sparta
Archidamus II married twice, and from his second marriage, to a woman named Eupoleia, he had a son, and a daughter, Kyniska. As such, she was the half-sister to Archidamus’ heir and successor, King Agis II (427-400 BC), and a full sister to King Agesilaus (400-360 BC).
Interestingly, Kyniska’s name has a unique translation: “female puppy,” or “small hound”. It is said that her name was chosen by her late grandfather, who chose it due to the great popularity of hound hunting in Greece at the time. However, the more believable explanation for her name is that she was named in honor of her grandfather Zeuxidamus, the late king of Sparta, whose nickname was Cyniscos.
But how exactly did this woman manage to gain not one but two victories at the Greek Olympic Games? It is no secret that at the time, women in Greece were, for the most part, not allowed to participate in various sports, riding, or hunting. The Olympics were much more than just a display of athletic prowess . They were in fact a great chance for wealthy and prominent Spartans (and Athenians) to showcase their riches and their power. Chariot races in particular were an expensive sport. One had to possess great skill at “driving” a two-wheeled chariot, expert knowledge of horses running at full speed, and be extremely wealthy to be able to afford a four trained thoroughbred racing horses.
Possibly having inherited a part of the estate of the late king Archidamus, her father, Kyniska could have had the means to afford all that was needed for a proper chariot race . She was also aided by the oft-repeated fact that women of Sparta had slightly more privileges than other women in Greece, and were known for their great spirit and independence. Could this have been the key to her success?
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This vase belongs to a distinctive type given as a prize to the winner of the chariot race in the ancient games held at Athens during the yearly festival known as the Panathenaia. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
One important historical mention of Kyniska attributes her interest in racing horses to her brother Agesilaus. The Athenian philosopher and historian, Xenophon, was, coincidentally, a great friend of Agesilaus. Xenophon wrote this about Kyniska:
“But he [Agesilaus] persuaded his sister Cynisca to breed chariot horses, and showed by her victory that such a stud (horse) marks the owner as a person of wealth, but not necessarily of manly merit…”
A few centuries afterwards, Plutarch mentions a similar fact in his writings:
“However, on seeing that some of the citizens esteemed themselves highly and were greatly lifted up because they bred racing horses, he [Agesilaus] persuaded his sister Cynisca to enter a chariot in the contests at Olympia, wishing to show the Greeks that the victory there was not a mark of any great excellence but simply of wealth and lavish outlay.”
An Olympic chariot race in BC Greece. (Archivist / Adobe Stock )
Equestrian Pride: A History of Horse Racing in Greece
In Greece at that time, women – no matter how highborn – were strictly forbidden to participate in the Olympic Games, with the exception of equestrian sports. And even then, they could only participate if they owned and trained the horses used in these events. Kyniska exploited this opportunity and embraced the breeding of racing horses, and subsequently got the chance to enter the Olympic Games.
The Olympic event she chose was called the tethrippon or four-horse chariot racing. Without any doubt, this was a demanding and dangerous discipline. Commanding four horses (a four-horse team) at very high speeds was a life-threatening situation that demanded great skill.
Nevertheless, Kyniska and her team of horses won, first in 396 BC, and then again, four years later, in 392 BC. However, numerous sources claim that Kyniska herself was not involved in these races as a driver. These sources claim she owned the horses but hired skilled male drivers for the races. These sources further claim that she did not even witness the victory, as she was not allowed to enter the grounds. However, it seems more reasonable to discount these sources and assume that she did in fact participate in the race and won on her own.
Her victories echoed through ancient Greece, as it was a feat yet unheard of, and certainly one that made a huge impact. It challenged the established patriarchal traditions that surrounded the Olympic Games, and perhaps even made them more famous.
In the years after the victories of Kyniska, horse chariot racing became an event bigger sport across Greece, and women were encouraged to participate. Some of the female chariot racers that distinguished themselves in the following years include Cassia, Hermione, Euryleonis, and a few others.
The revolutionary victory of Kyniska was solidified by the creation of a bronze statue of her. This huge statue depicted Kyniska atop a horse-drawn chariot. It was made by the celebrated Greek sculptor Apelleas. It is likely that the statue was erected while Kyniska was still alive. The bronze statue stood in Olympia, at the Temple of Zeus, beside the statue of the legendary hero Troilus. Kyniska’s statue was inscribed with these words:
“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 (Greece) to have won this crown.
Apelleas son of Kallikles made it.”
Clear emphasis is made of the fact that Kyniska was the very first – and for a time the only – woman to have competed in the Olympic Games and win a wreath of victory. This statue and the inscription prove that the people of ancient Greece celebrated this great and heroic woman.
Moreover, the statue was only one of the honors bestowed upon Kyniska. In Sparta, a shrine was erected in her honor, and placed in a religious area called the Plane Tree Grove. Interestingly, such an honor was reserved only for the kings of Sparta. Again, Kyniska was the first woman to receive such an honor. This goes further to prove that her achievements were not easy. It must have taken great courage, prowess, and skill to enter the races as the first woman and to be victorious against all other men competing with her in the Olympic Games.
Young men training in Sparta for the wrestling event of the Olympic Games. (Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe Stock )
Fueling The Competition Between City-States
Is there perhaps a political aspect to Kyniska’s famed victory? It is possible that the rulers of Sparta, chiefly her brother King Agesilaus II, used the victory as a way to “boast” and solidify Sparta’s reputation for superiority.
Coincidentally, the Olympic Games in which she won occurred at the end of a long period of strife between Sparta and Athens and Elis. In these decades, Elis, once an ally of Sparta, grew increasingly independent and became an ally of Athens. Elis was also famous throughout Greece for horse breeding. It is most likely that Elis grew to resent the growing success of Sparta in equestrian sports, and, thus, became even more set on winning horse sports in the Olympic Games.
This fact is confirmed by the huge surge in Spartan victories in the tethrippon (chariot racing) from 448 BC onward. The historian Pausanias remarked how the Spartans became the most skilled and ambitious horse breeders in all of Greece. And when the Athenian statesman and general, the legendary Alcibiades, entered the horse racing event in the Olympic Games in 416 BC he won a string of decisive victories, and the Sparta-Athens rivalry reached an all-time high.
Both Kyniska and her brother would have been aware of this during their time. The victory of Alcibiades could have caused much envy in Sparta, challenging their reputation for equestrian superiority. To have a Spartan woman – the first ever in the history of the Olympic Games – win at the horse races would have been a feat yet unheard of, and sufficient to overshadow the successes of Alcibiades.
If we consider the facts that she was supposedly encouraged to compete by her brother, the King, and that he himself commissioned the creation of her bronze statue, we can understand that Kyniska’s victory was perhaps not entirely spontaneous, heroic, and independent. Instead, we can see it from a much duller standpoint. It was a political strategy that was designed to make Sparta’s reputation even greater in her age-old competition with Athens.
Regardless, Kyniska certainly deserved her fame and her praise because she truly was, in many regards, a woman of firsts. And what she attained was no small thing.
Even in modern times, women are able to out compete men in athletic prowess and strength. (David Pereiras / Adobe Stock )
Pioneering the Rights of Women in Sports
The ancient Greek Olympic Games are surely of the most anticipated athletic events in modern history. A celebration of the eternal human spirit, the fire we all carry within us, and the great abilities of our bodies, these games survived to this very day, and undoubtedly bring out the best in us.
The story of Kyniska perhaps shows us that the Olympic Games were often a good way to achieve political leverage and a clear way to raise the reputation of one’s country.
Nevertheless, being the very first woman in ancient history to compete and win at the Olympic Games in a discipline so masculine and dangerous as four-horse chariot racing is an individual achievement worthy of every praise.
Top image: Kyniska won twice at the ancient Olympic Games of BC Greece. She was the first woman to participate in the games and the first to win (twice!). Source: serhiibobyk / Adobe Stock