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Cynisca (Kyniska – meaning “puppy”) was a Spartan princess who was born around 440 BC. She was the sister of Spartan king Agesilaus II. She became the first woman in history to win at the ancient Olympic Games. 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 and to disdain household chores.
Although the ancient Games were almost entirely male-only, women were allowed to enter the equestrian events – not by running, but by owning the horses. Cynisca won in the four-horse chariot race in 396 BC and again in 392 BC.
However according to Plutarch, she was encouraged by her brother Agesilaus (Ages. 20) in an attempt to discredit the sport. He viewed success in chariot racing as a victory without merit, due to the limited involvement of the horses’ owner. By having a woman win, he hoped to show the sport to be unmanly, but Cynisca’s victories did not stop wealthy Spartans’ engagement in the sport.
In the sanctuary of Olympia, Cynisca had an inscription written declaring that she was the only female to win the wreath in the chariot events at the Olympic Games.
- Kings of Sparta are my father and brothers.
- Kyniska, conquering with a chariot of fleet-footed steeds,
- Set up this statue. And I declare myself the only woman
- In all Hellas to have gained this crown.
- Hodkinson, Stephen. Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (The Classical Press of Wales, 2000) ISBN 0-7156-3040-7