Cynisca's Olympic Victories

Kristina R. Ingersoll (University of Colorado, Boulder)

Cynisca of Sparta was the first woman to win the 4-horse chariot race at Olympia (ca. 396 and 392 BCE). Cynisca's accomplishments suggest that horse-training and racing offered a venue where wealthy women had increased opportunities for acquiring status and displaying autonomy. Cynisca initiates a trend in which Greek women, through their involvement with horses, were able to compete against men in a public arena and on an equal “playing field,” at least in the limited sphere of chariot-racing. Equestrian sport provided Cynisca with a prominent, symbolic means to display eugeneia, sophrosune, arete, time, and kleos, virtues usually restricted to men.

Before discussing the virtues which Cynisca demonstrates, it is useful to consider the nature and extent of Cynisca's involvement in her Olympic victories. A strong case can be made for participation beyond expenditure of money. Although Cynisca did not drive her chariot in the Olympics, she may have driven her chariot at home for training purposes or even in local competitions. There is evidence for such female participation in Sparta (see Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae 4.139f and Propertius 3.14, line 11). More specifically, Xenophon, Pausanias, and Plutarch consistently refer to Cynisca's equestrian activities with the verb hippotropheo or harmatotropheo (see Xenophon's Agesilaus 9.6, Pausanias 3.8.1 and 3.15.1, and Plutarch's Agesilaus 20.1). The broad meaning of trepho (to bring up, breed, rear, maintain...) implies involvement beyond financial contribution and suggests that the success of Cynisca's chariot team can be attributed (at least in part) to her efforts.

Cynisca's equestrian success enabled her to practice some of the “manly” virtues that were associated with the ideology of horsemanship and equestrian victory. If Cynisca was responsible for breeding her horses, she may have exhibited some control over eugenics. Any contribution to the maintenance or training of horses would have required Cynisca to demonstrate sophrosune, which was a defining characteristic of Greek men. Xenophon's Art of Horsemanship suggests that Greek horsemen recognized the importance of moderation and self control in the care, riding, and training of horses. For example, Xenophon says “the one best rule and practice in dealing with a horse is never to approach him in anger” (6.13) and he also notes that “nothing in excess is ever pleasing either to horse or man” (10.14, trans. E.C. Marchant).

Regardless of the extent of her participation, Cynisca's Olympic victories allowed her to attain the Greek ideal of arete. Cynisca was also able to acquire time for herself and also for Sparta, perhaps as Alcibiades claimed to have done for Athens when he won an Olympic chariot race in 416 BCE. Cynisca's victories may have also granted her some political power, since she represented Spartan excellence and power at a time when Sparta was attempting to establish its hegemony in the Greek world following Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian war.

Cynisca's victories allowed her to attain kleos; an unusual accomplishment for a female. She was honored with a statue and inscription at Olympia, and she was also honored posthumously with a hero shrine in Sparta (Pausanias 3.15.1). In addition, Cynisca inspired a trend of female victors in panhellenic equestrian events (Tracy and Habicht 1991,New and Old Panathenaic Victor Lists”, 213-217). Cynisca's Olympic victories reflect the changing status of Greek women during the fourth century. Her accomplishments also anticipate the elevated status of women in the Hellenistic period, when female equestrian victors become more prevalent.

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