Cynisca was born around 440 BC in the ancient Greek city of Sparta and was the daughter of the Eurypontid king of Sparta, Archidamus II, and Eupoleia. She was also the sister of the later king of Sparta, Agesilaus II. She is said to have been a tomboy, an expert equestrian and very wealthy, the perfect qualifications for a successful trainer. She was exceedingly ambitious to succeed at the Olympic Games and the first woman to breed horses and win an Olympic victory, according to Pausanias.
Her name means 'female puppy' in Ancient Greek. She was named after her grandfather Zeuxidamus, who was called Cyniscos. It is possible that this name related to a specific kind of dog in Sparta, the female bloodhounds which were famous for their ability to find their quarries by their scent.
While most women in the ancient Greek world were kept in seclusion and forbidden to learn any kind of skills in sports, riding or hunting, Spartan women by contrast were brought up from girlhood to excel at these things so as to produce strong children, by going through early training similar to that of their brothers.
The ancient Olympic Games were almost entirely male-only and women were forbidden even to set foot in the main stadium at Olympia, where running events and combat sports were held. Women were allowed to enter only the equestrian events, not by running but by owning and training the horses. Cynisca employed men and entered her team at the Olympics, where it won in the four-horse chariot racing (tethrippon Greek: τέθριππον) twice, in 396 BC and again in 392 BC. The irony is that she probably didn't see her victories.
There have been some speculations over the motives of Agesilaus in directing his sister to join the equestrian competitions. One explanation is that he wanted to rekindle the warlike spirit in the Spartan society, which had given ground for the sake of a win in the Olympic Games. Another possible reason is that Agesilaus wanted to display Cynisca's abilities, or promote women generally.
According to Xenophon, she was encouraged to breed horses and compete in the Games, by her brother Agesilaus II, in an attempt to discredit the sport. He viewed success in chariot racing as a victory without merit, which was only a mark of wealth and lavish outlay due to the involvement of the horses' owner, while in the other events the decisive factor was a man's bravery and virtue. By having a woman win, he hoped to show the sport to be unmanly, but Cynisca's victories did not stop wealthy Spartans engaging in the sport.
However, Cynisca was honored by having a bronze statue of a chariot and horses, a charioteer and a statue of herself in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, by the side of the statue of Troilus, made by Apelles, and an inscription written declaring that she was the only female to win the wreath in the chariot events at the Olympic Games. The first person in the inscription indicates that Cynisca was willing to push herself forward and Xenophon says that this inscription was Agesilaus' idea. In addition to this, a hero-shrine of Cynisca was erected in Sparta at Plane-tree Grove, where religious ceremonies were held. Only Spartan kings were graced in this way and Cynisca was the first woman to receive this honor. The inscription from Olympia (c. 390-380 BC) reads:
Cynisca's win in the Olympics had a great impact on the ancient Greek world as other women, not only Lacedaemonians, later won the chariot racing, including Euryleonis, Belistiche, Zeuxo, Encrateia and Hermione, Timareta, Theodota (both from Elis) and Cassia. However, none of them was more distinguished for their victories than she was. Zoe Karelli, a modern Greek poet, wrote a poem for Cynisca's love for the horses and her Olympic win which made her name famous in Greek history. This Spartan princess is frequently used until today as a symbolic figure of the social rise of woman.
- Euryleonis another celebrated Spartan woman who won the two horse chariot races in 368 BC.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, 3.8.1–3.
- Herod, vi 7
- Xenophon, Minor Works, Agesilaus 9.1 §6.
- Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Agesilaus 20.1
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.12.5.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.1.6.
- "Cynisca of Sparta". About.com. Retrieved 2008-03-28.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, 3.15.1.
- IvO 160
- Modern Greek: Της Σπάρτης πατεράδες μου κι αδέρφια βασιλιάδες
- και μ' άρμα ίππων γοργοπόδαρων νικώντας η Κυνίσκα
- αυτό δα αφιέρωσα άγαλμα. Κι απ' τις γυναίκες μόνη εγώ
- λέγω όλης της Ελλάδας πήρα τούτο το στεφάνι.
- Ολυμπιακοί Αγώνες Γυναικών! (in Greek). www.metafysiko.gr. Retrieved 2008-03-29.
- The No Woman Rule in Ancient Olympics
- Spartan Olympic Victors
- The Spartans on Channel 4
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, online at Perseus
- Paul Cartledge, The Spartans: An Epic History, 2nd edition 2003.
- Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta, The Classical Press of Wales, 2000. ISBN 0-7156-3040-7
- S. B. Pomeroy. Spartan Women (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2002).
- G. P. Schauss and S. R. Wenn (eds). Onward to the Olympics: Historical Perspectives on the Olympic Games (Waterloo, Ont., Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007).