If I asked you to picture a Spartan, what would you think of?
You’d probably imagine muscle-clad soldiers, holding spears, and forming some kind of shield wall. The immediate idea of a warrior is what most would think of — ideally the helmet above sitting on their head as they prepared to smash through an army.
As a totalitarian society built around warfare, it would be a somewhat accurate depiction of their own making. Furthermore, you’d expect this society to be pretty rigid, the furthest thing from egalitarian.
Now, what if I told you this same society broke Greek traditions by having the first female winner at an ancient Olympics? It might sound bizarre coming from a group of rough people called Lacedaemonians that give us the term laconic, meaning a short, blunt, and possibly rude comment. Think more Clint Eastwood cowboy than genteel and cultured.
However, this society not only did it but it also created statues and shrines to the woman who won. A statue bearing her likeness erected at Olympia even had a somewhat laconic phrase etched underneath it:
“I, Kyniska, victorious at the chariot race with her swift-footed horses, erected this statue. I claim that I am the only woman in all Greece who won this crown.”
The story of Kyniska
Despite being a society based on war, women in Sparta generally had more rights than those in more cosmopolitan city-states, like Athens. This went double for women of noble birth. Kyniska just happened to be one — a sister to the current king of Sparta, Agesilaus.
According to Ph.D. candidate Todd Caissie at The Conversation, Kyniska was a wealthy noble, owning and breeding horses. Eventually, she’d put these horses together into a four-horse chariot team. This team would train to run in the race called the tethrippon.
Being the sister of the king, she had the money and the status to not only own and breed horses but excellent quality ones. Also, since she wasn’t physically in the chariot, she could technically compete in the Olympics. Caissie reminds us women could be punished for even viewing events, let alone competing.
The king also appears to have been on board as well. Historian Xenophon even notes that the king himself may have suggested his sister compete. She raced in the Olympics in 396 BC and her team won. If this wasn’t enough of an affront to ancient Greek culture, she won again in 392 BC.
Caissie also notes Kyniska erected at least two bronze statues of herself at Olympia commemorating the victories, so other Greeks could be reminded. One of these bears the statement mentioned earlier.
A political driver for the act?
Although it may appear to be a feel-good story ahead of its time, there might be an ulterior motive behind the whole event. According to Donald Kyle’s article, political intrigue between Greek city-states might have moved King Agesilaus to push his sister towards the Olympics.
Kyle notes that Sparta and the city of Elis were originally allies but the latter started to grow closer to Athens. Elis was originally a powerful equestrian force in the Olympics. However, Sparta began to adopt the practice as the relationship with Elis strained. Eventually, the Spartans became a force themselves in the world of chariot racing — winning seven of eight tethrippon Olympic events from 448 to 420 BC.
After this time, Elis and Athens barred Sparta from entry in the Olympics as their rivalry sometimes came to open warfare. In 416 BC an Athenian politician named Alcibiades used his wealth to enter multiple teams into the tethrippon. His teams came in first, second, and third sweeping the event in unprecedented fashion.
Furthermore, Alcibiades wasn’t simply happy with a statue, he commissioned a famous poet to write a lyric about his incredible ability and his Olympic “first”. This statesman also happened to be pushing the alliance and hostilities against Sparta. Now, as if this wasn’t enough, Alcibiades took his Sparta-provoking up one more notch.
After a victory tour promoting his win, at some point according to Kyle, Alcibiades had an affair with Spartan king Agis’ wife, possibly fathering a child. As you can imagine, a full-blooded Spartan might do anything to destroy such an instigator. Agis died in 400 BC, leaving his relative Agesilaus the throne, and a desire to smash Alcibiades’ glory.
Kyle believes Agesilaus created another “first” to bury the one in Alcibiades’ name. If the Athenians were the first to sweep the event, Sparta would be the first to win the event with a woman. Moreover, it would also discredit the event in a way, showing anyone could win it — skill wasn’t necessary only money.
The first but not the last
According to Caissie, Sparta regularly encouraged women to compete in athletic events in their city. He also indicates that Sparta offered an education curriculum for women as well, they were even encouraged to marry later, so they could focus on learning. Aristotle even criticized Spartan women’s independent status in his Politics.
Why would a war-obsessed culture be so egalitarian? In order to produce powerful warriors, you need strong women and men. It makes logical sense — in a Spartan-sort of way. A culture famed for their laconic sayings wouldn’t need a grandiose reason, just simple cold logic.
Speaking of laconic sayings, a famous one is attributed to a Spartan queen. Gorgo, the wife of the famous Leonidas, on a visit to Athens was asked by a local woman dismissively why only Spartan women could control men. Gorgo responded, “Because only Spartan women give birth to men.” The short response smashed the annoying question by indicating no real men came from Athens.
Another view of Sparta
Now, I want you to picture a Spartan again and see if your image has changed a bit. Suddenly, the vision of the 300 may not be the first thing in your mind. The uniqueness of Sparta didn’t just revolve around their warriors, but on the women who birthed them and ran society, so they could go to war.
Even if the Olympic win of Kyniska was based on politics, it was generated by a society that saw women as an integral part of the community. They threw a javelin and ran races just like their male counterparts. In addition, they also enforced social codes, reminding their husbands and sons to come back with their shields or carried on them as a corpse.
There was much more to Sparta than warriors clothed in red capes and bronze armor. A population of tough and smart women also populated the city-state and could dish out a crushing laconic saying as easily as any king or soldier could.