Cynisca (fl. 396–392 BCE)

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Cynisca (fl. 396–392 bce)

First Greek woman to breed horses and race them in the Olympic chariot races. Name variations: Kyniska. Pronunciation: coo-NISS-ka. Born in Sparta, birth date unknown, but probably close to that of her brother Agesilaus in 444 bce; daughter of Archidamus or Archidamos II, king of Sparta, and his second wife.

Owner of the victorious four-colt chariot in the 96th and 97th Olympic games (396 and 392 bce).

Although we know somewhat more about Bilistiche , who won Olympic chariot races in the 3rd century bce, Cynisca of Sparta was better known in antiquity as the first woman to have done so. She was the daughter of King Archidamus II (reigned 469–427 bce), the famous leader of the Spartans in the first years of the Peloponnesian War, and sister to his son and successor Agesilaus (444–360 bce), who would lead his country against the Persians and other Greek states in the years of Spartan hegemony following the war. Sparta, where a girl's education included rigorous physical and athletic training, was unique among the other Greek states in the relative equality of status between men and women. A woman's participation in the Olympic chariot races, however, was limited to financial sponsorship of team, vehicle and driver, and our ancient sources are quite neatly divided in their accounts of Cynisca's interest in the sport.

On one side we have Plutarch and Xenophon, who mention Cynisca in the course of biographies on her brother Agesilaus. Both claim that she participated in the Olympics only at her brother's instigation, and that he wished her to enter horses in the competition for the sole purpose of teaching his subjects a moral lesson. Plutarch describes Agesilaus' reasoning:

Seeing that some of the citizens thought themselves to be somebody and gave themselves great airs because they kept a racing stud, he persuaded his sister Cynisca to enter a chariot in the races at Olympia, for he wished to demonstrate to the Greeks that this sort of thing was no sign of excellence, but only of having money and being willing to spend it.

While we do not know whether this alleged admonition was heeded, we do know that to later generations Cynisca was highly esteemed for her achievement. The Greek author Pausanius, who wrote his travel book Description of Greece in the 2nd century ce, says nothing about Agesilaus' agency, but only that she was "exceedingly ambitious to succeed at the Olympic games, and was the first woman to breed horses and to win an Olympic victory." Pausanius also reports that in his day a hero-shrine to Cynisca stood in Sparta and that a statue depicting chariot, horses, charioteer and Cynisca herself existed in Olympia. Part of the stone base on which this latter statue group was placed has been excavated in modern times, and its four-line epigraph is preserved whole in the Greek Anthology. The fact that these tangible memorials survived and were considered worthy attractions some five centuries after her death is ample testimony to the favor with which ancient Greece viewed her individual accomplishments; this high esteem likely outbalances the pessimistic opinion of Plutarch and Xenophon as to Cynisca's motivation.


The Greek Anthology. Edited and translated by W.R. Patton. Vol. 5. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1926. p. 11.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Edited By N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1970.

Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der Classischen Alterumswissenschaft. Edited by Georg Wissowa. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche Buchhandlung, 1897—.

Pausanius. Description of Greece. Edited and translated by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod. Vols. 2 and 3. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1960.

Plutarch. Plutarch's Moralia. Edited and translated by F.C. Babbitt. Vol. 3. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1961.

——. Plutarch's Lives. Edited and translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Vol. 5. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1968. p. 53.

Xenophon. Scripta Minora. Edited and translated by E.C. Marchant. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1971.

suggested reading:

Fantham, Elaine, et. al. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. Chapter 2: "Spartan Women: Women in a Warrior Society." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Peter H. O'Brien , Boston University