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World-Changing Women: Cynisca

Updated Thursday, 1 July 2021
Spartan females had much more freedom than other women in the ancient world; this allowed Cynisca of Sparta to win the Olympics twice. Find out more about her victories here...
Cynisca Sparta, Ancient Greece c. 440 -? BCE Sport

Spartan woman running in the form of a bronze statue A bronze statue of a Spartan woman In the ancient world, women in the Greek city of Sparta were allowed a greater public role, and more freedom than in most other cities.  Although they did not have the vote, Spartan women were allowed by law both to inherit and to bequeath land, which was unknown elsewhere in Greece.  In the early 4th century BCE, women owned about 40% of Sparta’s agricultural land. Girls had access to education and women had freedom of movement.   In addition, Spartan women were discouraged from spending time on household activities and encouraged to participate in active physical exercise. Their revealing sportswear earned them the nick-name 'thigh-showers'.  However, at Olympia, women were still not allowed to participate in the most prestigious games festival in the ancient world.

Cynisca was sister to King Agesilaus of Sparta, who was a successful military leader.  Her story reflects Spartan women’s increased wealth and interest in sporting achievements. King Agesilaus encouraged his sister to enter a chariot team in the Olympic Games. She entered teams in 396 and 392 BCE, winning on both occasions.  Thus she was the first woman to win the 4-horse chariot race at Olympia, albeit as trainer rather than as racer.
Although women were barred from the festival and thus she could not take part in the winners’ ceremony, sculptures commemorating Cynisca’s achievements were commissioned. Her victory monument read:

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.

Other women later went on the win the chariot racing and so many people have pointed to Cynista’s achievement as a significant milestone in women’s sporting achievement.

This article is part of the world-changing women collection. All the articles in this collection are specially produced for the How women changed the world interactive tour created to reveal the untold stories the history books left out.

You can also view these articles without the interactive feature here.


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