How Did She Do It? Cynisca, a Spartan Princess Who Won the Ancient Olympic Games


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.

Agesilaus and Pharnabazus. ( Public Domain )

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).

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