With the winter Olympics having just finished a few weeks ago, and women’s history month upon us, I can’t help but think of Cynisca; the famous Spartan woman, who was the first female winner of the Olympic games. In case you haven’t heard of her, let me tell you a bit about her.
Spartan women were famously some of the strongest women in the world. You might have heard the line from the popular movie “300”; “Spartan women are the only women who give birth to real men” spoken by Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas. This is a real line (although made to a non-Spartan woman visiting Sparta, not to a Persian messenger), and that is really how Spartan women felt. Spartan women were strong, they were independent, they were fearless, and they were more free than most women to that point and for at least 1500 years afterwards in the whole world had been.
The women of Sparta were not housewives, they had no household responsibilities, and need not even raise their children, the “Helots”, the population enslaved by the Spartans were responsible for all domestic duties bar none. Spartan women ran the home, had children, and lived lives of relative luxury. As young teens they took part in a grueling physical training process where they were taught to run, fight, and ride. This process was not quite the equivalent of the male “agoge” the Spartans were famous for, but was well known itself inside and outside of Sparta as were the women of Sparta, renowned for both their physical prowess and their beauty. They believed themselves descendants of Helen of Sparta/Troy, who was so beautiful a war was fought for her. Cynisca, was the epitome of everything it meant to be a Spartan woman.
Born in 440 BC, the daughter of the Eurypontid king of Sparta; Archidamus II, Cynisca was also the sister of the later Spartan/Eurypontid king Agesilaus II. Cynisca was known to be more of a “tomboy”, who excelled with horses, and being born to a royal family had a lot of money. She also had a great deal of determination, which was something anyone needs to succeed in the Olympic games during any era, but especially a female during the this era.
(Brief explanation: the Spartan kingdom sat two kings; one on the Eurypontid throne, and the other on the Agiad throne. They believed these two families to be descendants of two twins, who themselves were descendants of “Heracles”, who supposedly conquered Sparta two generations after the Trojan War. Thus, these two families ruled the Spartans.)
Back then, the Olympics were exclusively male only. Women and children were completely forbidden from even setting foot in the arena, let alone participating in or watching the games themselves. Thus, the only way women could enter the games, was through owning and training horses, then hiring men to run them. This is just what Cynisca did, not just once, but twice; once in 396 BC, and again in 392 BC. Sadly however, she likely wasn’t able to witness her teams’ incredible wins. While it’s believed her brother encouraged her equestrian activities for one or several reasons, what’s certain is that for Cynisca it was about winning, and that’s exactly what she did, becoming the first woman to win at the Olympic games, AND the first woman to defend her win.