Kyniska (or Cyniska), a Spartan princess, was the daughter of King Archidamus II and sister to King Agesilaus.

She owned a sizable estate wherever she bred, elevated and skilled horses, and in 396 BCE, when she was likely among 40 and 50 decades old, she grew to become the initially girl to take part in the Olympic Games.

Spartan culture believed more robust children come from mother and father who had been equally solid, an abnormal thought in Historic Greek culture. Spartan authorities encouraged gals to educate equally head and physique.

In contrast to Athens and the other Greek town-states in which girls were being hidden from the community and figured out only domestic competencies, Sparta held races and trials of power for ladies as nicely as boys.

Kyniska’s childhood would have been whole of athletic schooling: jogging, jumping, throwing the discus and javelin, most likely even wrestling.

Spartan ladies married later on, letting extra decades in schooling. Aristocratic women this kind of as Kyniska uncovered poetry and also educated to dance and sing competitively, so she could have even been literate.

Kyniska had prosperity and status – but it was her ambition that designed her a legend.

This ambition drove her to compete in the 4-horse chariot race, or tethrippon, at the Olympics in 396 and 392 BCE.

Her chariot staff received both equally times.

Hydria with Depiction of Quadriga, Charioteer and Hoplite, Workshop of Lysippides Painter, 530-520 BC.

No females permitted

This feat was particularly amazing mainly because gals could not even phase foot on the sacred grounds of the Olympic Sanctuary during the festival. Married gals were being forbidden on penalty of death from even attending as spectators.

To contend, Kyniska cleverly exploited loopholes.

In sports activities like wrestling or javelin, the victors independently competed on the field. In the chariot race, the winners had been the horse house owners, not the riders – who were almost always slaves. A great deal like with the fashionable Kentucky Derby or Melbourne Cup, the victors are the horse and its proprietor, not the rider.

Kyniska did not have to drive the chariot to gain.

In actuality, chariot staff homeowners did not even have to be physically present at Olympia during the online games. Kyniska could enter her chariot workforce in the race devoid of ever stepping foot on the forbidden sacred grounds.

But Kyniska’s position was not solution. Information of an Olympic victory was carried by rapidly messengers to the victor’s property town, where preparations to celebrate their return were started at the moment. Information that a female experienced gained an Olympic contest would have spread swiftly.

What determined a Spartan royal to crack by way of the difficult glass ceiling of male-dominated Olympic competition and tradition? The scant sources we have offer unique views.

The Greek author Pausanias stated Kyniska had own ambitions to win at Olympia, but Xenephon and the thinker Plutarch credit history her brother, King Agesilaus, for pressuring her to contend.

The remedy may possibly require a bit of both of those.

Painting of Kyniska by Sophie de Renneville. Courtesy: Brooklyn Museum

Her legacy

Lots of ancient Greek gals received Olympic victories following Kyniska, but none were as famous as she.

Kyniska erected at minimum two daily life-size bronze statues of herself at Olympia. The inscription on a remaining fragment of her marble statue base reads:

Kings of Sparta were being my fathers and brothers. 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 received this crown.

Kyniska relished her fame. Agesilaus might have been the catalyst, but Kyniska herself in all probability made a decision to compete – at minimum the next time.

Other women of all ages would go on to compete in the chariot races, and by the 1st century CE females were being competing right in opposition to gentlemen in foot racing activities – and winning.

The simple fact Kyniska didn’t physically contend has brought about history to lower price her achievements, but this argument marginalises her more substantial accomplishment. Amid huge cultural limitations, Kyniska broke gender norms and glass ceilings.

By boldly and proudly celebrating her trailblazing victories with commemorative statues, she transmitted this message to gals throughout the Greek earth.

Fuelled by Spartan delight, Kyniska’s accomplishment to be the very first female to compete, and acquire, in the male-only Olympics is a startling and unforgettable achievement that justifies a notable position in Olympic lore.

Todd E. Caissie, PhD Prospect in Art Background and Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies. Lecturer, Rutgers University

This write-up was 1st posted on The Conversation.