The recent winter Olympics in Sochi have been divisive across the globe on a political level. But regardless of your personal views, or whether or not you are even a sport fan, it cannot be denied that the Olympics creates national icons, sporting heroes and cultural role models, often even beyond their identity as an athlete. What better time then to take a look at one of my personal favourite figures from history – the 5th Century BCE Spartan princess and Olympic Victrix, Kyniska.
Sparta is a fascinating and contradictory society. The city-state was unique throughout all of Hellas in its societal structure. It was an oligarchy rather than a democracy, headed by co-kings from two different royal families. The citizens (Spartan males) primarily lived in barracks and were constantly being trained as soldiers. The comment from Leonidas in the movie 300, rings true – when he asks how many soldiers other city-states brought compared to Sparta. Because in other city-states their armies were collected together from farmers, philosophers, artists and orators, by contrast every Spartan citizen was a soldier. Spartan laws were aimed at maintaining an austere and equal society, and yet some Spartan citizens amassed great wealth and land, whilst others were disenfranchised and had their citizenship nulled as they were not able to afford the dues they had to pay into the barracks towards their upkeep – some men were more equal than others.
We have little archaeological and written evidence from the Spartans themselves, writing and art was not as important to the Spartans as was the case for their Hellenic neighbours. As such, much of what we know of the Spartans comes from Athens and other city-states, along with their own feelings and biases regarding the Spartans. In fact Sparta was often quite alien to its neighbours – their enslaving of the Helots, their politics, their lack of arts, their warlike nature and certainly their women.
The Ancient Sources
“It is important to read such descriptions in the light of the authors’ desire to contrast Sparta with their own societies” (1)
The above is important to remember when looking at Sparta because differences between cultures are often exaggerated. There is a tendency for ancient authors to use the behaviour of women in particular as a bench mark for an alien society’s entire character – sexuality playing a large role in marking differences – thus why many are quick to idealise or condemn the women of Sparta, making it often difficult for us to get a clear picture of them (2) (3). Of the ancient source we have for Spartan women some are critical, even disapproving, of their apparent freedoms – with various issues being the way they control the men (Aristotle), their immodesty (Euripides), and perhaps in general their lifestyle as the opposite of the Athenian ‘norm’. The other side to this of course is the idealisation of Sparta (by authors such as Plato), which can again skew the image of the ‘real’ Sparta.
Xenophon seems our most reliable source as he spent many years in Sparta and had a close relationship with King Agesilaus (Kyniska’s brother), however he does have a tendency to moralise and idealise Sparta in his writings (4) (5). Along with Xenophon, Kritias and Archytas in some respects tend to describe a Sparta they felt should exist rather than the one they observed (6). On the opposing side to this we have Aristotle who argues against the Spartan Utopia and is especially critical of the position of women (7).
Herodotus refers to Spartan women more and in greater detail than any other Greek women – alluding to their sexual freedom (8). Their sexual freedom is also the subject of Spartan women in Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata – with Lampito displaying both sides of the Spartan female – beautiful but also able to ‘throttle an ox’. It is another play, this time by Euripides, that gives us our best example (though fictional) of Spartan royal women, Helen and Hermione – cunning women who behave contrary to the civilised Greek/Athenian norm (9).
Other sources for Spartan women include Polybius, and more importantly Plutarch, who often reports the writings of earlier authors, but we have to be wary of both given that they are so far removed from the period in question, reducing their reliability. In the case of Kyniska another later source is important – Pausanias, whose importance lies in his reporting the monuments set up by Kyniska for her Olympic victories, rather than on historical events. On Kyniska specifically, our sources are slim – consisting of a passage in Xenophon’s Life of Agesilaus, one in Plutarch’s Life of Agesilaus, and several references from Pausanias in his Description of Greece. The sources specific to Kyniska can be found at the end of this post.
Who is Kyniska?
“Kyniska was no ordinary Spartan girl.” (10)
It is thought that Kyniska was the daughter of Eupolia to the king Archidamus and so the full sister of King Agesilaus and step-sister to King Agis. If this is the case then it is likely she was born around the year 440BCE and would have been in her forties when she won her Olympic victories (11). Her name appears to be a nickname, meaning “little puppy” or variations thereof, possibly given to her out of respect to her paternal grandfather, Zeuxidemus, who was also nicknamed Kyniskus (Herodotus, 6.71). Kyniska, from what we know of her, seems to embody much of the Spartan ideal; she is an intelligent, talented woman whose name may imply the Spartan skill for breeding hunting dogs and, in her achievements and her Olympic victories highlights the superior horsemanship of the Spartan people.
It is likely that she was raised in a family with an interest in hunting and riding. We know her brother Agesilaus bred war and hunting horses. And perhaps the hunting connotation of her name may have been the route of her fascination with horses. This is possibly something that the family might have had an interest in due to their wealth and position in society. Kyniska’s closest female relatives’ names also hint at a family tradition of equestrian interest. Her mother Eupolia “well horsed” or “well colted”, this was also her niece’s name. Her sister’s name Proauga “flash of lightening” and that of her other niece Prolyta “She who is let loose in the forefront” may also refer to horses (12) (13).
As we have no evidence to the contrary, and possibly supported by the fact that royals who were not in-line to the throne would undertake the agoge (a rigorous education and training system for boys over the age of 7), Kyniska would have gone through the female equivalent, being trained both physically and mentally for life as a wife and mother to Spartan citizens. Her life as a young woman is hard to ascertain as there is no evidence of her marrying and having children. Although this likely happened, the only real sources we have for her are concerned with her Olympic victories or her royal connections, to which her married life may have had little relevance in mentioning. It is likely that any suitor would be a man of land or valour or both. Aristotle suggests that the rich married the rich even in Sparta (Politics, 1307a34-38); however it is also possible that on occasion a prominent warrior may marry a wealthier woman (14). In the case of the royal family this may have served as a political manoeuvre, especially as marriages were likely arranged by fathers. Even so, we may assume that had such a marriage taken place between Kyniska and a ‘famous’ warrior we would probably have heard about it, even just in passing, through one of her brother’s biographers. With the pressure on men to marry and the problems of citizen numbers it is unlikely that women would been able to remain unmarried, and Xenophon notes that the position of a spinster was regarded as miserable and comparable to the condition of relatives of men adjudged cowards. Arguably a woman’s role in Sparta, that which allowed them the freedom other Greek women did not experience, was the production of citizen children. It is even possible that, like other royal women, Kyniska would have married a male relative in an attempt to consolidate properties. In all likelihood she did have a husband and children, in fact it is possible that Kyniskus the harmost was her son (15).
The next thing that can definitely be stated in Kyniska’s life is her Olympic victories in 396 and 392BCE. Women were forbidden to take part in the Olympics, but this small issue did not stop her – and she entered the chariot horses she had trained, driven by a male charioteer – thusly she won the victories becoming the first female Olympic victor in history. It is for this that we have the most evidence, both in the form of an inscription reported to us by Pausanias, and the mentioning of her by Xenophon and later Plutarch. A heroine shrine was dedicated to her at Sparta close to the Dromos, the sanctuary of Helen and to the tomb of Alkman, people all connected with the lives of women (16). Kyniska may also have been connected to Helen at the Menelaion where part of an inscribed Doric capital and abacus mentions her name – this may have been part of a celebration and dedication to her Olympic victory in front of citizens at home (17).
It is hard to judge given our sources, whether Kyniska led a life average to all Spartan women. We know that in some ways she seems extraordinary, but that does not mean she didn’t embody many of the same qualities. Of Spartan women in general Aristotle says that in some respects they acted like men, even asserting themselves in political spheres, though without the valour and excellence (arete) associated with the male sex – even going as far as to suggest that the women of Sparta are like the men of other Greek states (18).
“Marry a good man, and bear good children.” Leonidas’ words to Gorgo before leaving for on his suicide mission to Thermopylae, from Plutarch’s Moralia
Plato argues that only the men were restricted by the laws set down by lawgiver Lykourgos with the women being allowed to exist in a luxury forbidden to the men (19). So, Spartan women were not bound to the same laws that governed the apparent, though pretty much non-existent, austerity of their men folk. All women are presumed by Aristotle to have a certain level of power in Sparta, though the accuracy of this is hard to tell. With the increase in private wealth, much of which was in the hands of women, Kyniska was one of the first group of extremely wealthy women who become apparent after the Peloponnesian War (20). The women of Sparta, and especially the elite if we are to believe Euripides’ avaricious portrayal of Hermione, were both wealthy and greedy.
The women enjoyed a certain degree of economic independence unknown to most other women of Hellas. This independence may have given a certain degree of leverage in family matters and as such Kyniska may have had more of a say in the royal workings than is belied by the sources (21). The power of royal women is likely greater than that of other Spartan women who are already accredited with quite a bit. This is because of their influence over the men (discussed by Aristotle), and in the case of royal women, over the kings. We know from examples such as Gorgo (who you might remember as the Queen in the movie 300, daughter of Cleomenes I and wife of King Leonidas I), that daughters could be outspoken and able to broach the kings with advice (Herodotus 5.51, 7.239) (22).
Part of their power also lay in their role in the lives of the men, being in the position of publicly praising brave men and berating cowards and bachelors. They also sang congratulations to new members of the Gerousia (the Spartan Senate), and though he may have been over stating a little, Aristotle may have been in part right when he noted that Spartan men were ruled by their women. With men away and women with so much power in various respects their control may have been quite great. It is likely that the women also were dominant in the household where they were left to run it almost in complete autonomy. The small age gap between men and women (in comparison to other Hellenic city-states) may also have added to their confidence and influence over male members of their families – there may have been some truth behind the empowered Spartan woman stereotype (23). After all, in Sparta the real women give birth to real men, and both men and women represent a higher standard than those in the rest of Greece, as far as they believed.
It is likely that Spartan women knew how to both ride and drive horses, this can possibly be connected to women’s ownership of land, with horses being used to ride out and survey property (24). Interestingly Anderson puts the practicality of Athenian and Spartan women fashions forward as evidence – the Athenian women wore long dresses to the ankles that would not have allowed them to sit astride a horse . Spartan women, however, as we know from archaeological evidence wore short, ‘thigh flashing’ dresses, allowing them to ride without the aid of a side-saddle (25). If this level of horsemanship was a reality amongst women then, as Pomeroy suggests, it would have added to the power of the Spartan woman, especially in comparison to other Greek women (26). Kyniska was not unique in her horse-handling, with women driving horses in processions (Plutarch, Life of Agesilaus 19.5), and racing two-horse chariots at the Spartan festival of Hyakinthia (Athenaeus 4.4, 139c-f), demonstrating perhaps both the wealth of women and the lack of austerity in society as a whole (27).
Although wealthy, and probably wealthier than most women, even Kyniska would not have had the same opportunities as men to increase that wealth. Her father and brothers would have been able to increase wealth through gifts and ‘royal tribute’. Redfield, however, suggests that the greed of women was great and that they demanded of the men that they increase the status of the oikos (household) through performance and acquisition (28).
It appears that from the mid-sixth century all Spartan women were entitled to inherit, even those with living brothers (which had previously not been the case), through a universal female inheritance (29) (30). Gradually land in Sparta came into the hands of the few. Redfield suggests that the women may even have become pawns in a sense, with wealthier or prominent (not necessarily landed) men marrying women with land – thus turning money and fame into land (31). Although she owned sufficient land and resources to keep horses, Kyniska was not a patrouchos (the equivalent of the Athenian “epikleros” – the daughter of a man with no male heirs), as her brothers were still alive, which indicates that she was able to inherit in her own right, as possibly all women were (32). We have no written law codes to back this up, but we do have good evidence from other women in a similar situation which would indicate it wasn’t a singular incident (33).
The result of female inheritance was that with each generation the land become reduced, the wealthy/aristocracy intermarry with the result that the rich get richer, inheriting the land between them, and the poor get poorer, leading to disenfranchisement of Spartiates, and it is not a stretch to see why Aristotle interprets Spartan oliganthropy (the decrease in the citizen population) as resulting from the Spartan system of land-tenure and inheritance. That said, universal inheritance was not the only cause for the reduction of the citizen body. Commanders in the army and especially those awarded the coveted commands abroad would have endeavoured to increase their own personal wealth and influence to get them into a position to claim such commands in the first place (34). The full crisis, possibly made worse by later marriages and reduced birth rates, reached crunch point in the third century BCE. There is a unanimous association amongst the sources with materialistic greed leading to the downfall of Sparta – greed for land to keep property intact (35).
Kyniska and Agesliaus
“A man of action not wealth, who keeps hounds and war horses, is superior to the Persian King, who breeds chariot-horses” (36)
Kyniska probably had a good relationship with female relatives. As the agoge separated the men from their families at the age of 7 relationships such as with mother and sisters were the only continuous bonds in the Spartan family (37). The kings were never required to live in the barracks, so it is possible that Kyniska’s had a close relationship with her brothers and father, and evidence suggests that fathers who moved back to the family indulged their daughters (38). Her relationship with her brother, King Agesilaus, is still one of some mystery.
On the surface these were two vastly different people. Kyniska indulged her interest in horses by chariot racing at great financial expense, whereas Agesilaus attempted to encourage traditional Spartan austerity throughout his polis and felt horses only served for war and hunting.
Chariot racing was not only symbol of great wealth, but a flaunting of it, considered a leisurely pursuit as opposed to the “working” war or hunt horses. Kyniska, as with any trainer, and possible breeder of horses, would have needed two things; firstly a talent for equestrian matters; and secondly the wealth to indulge them. Chariot racing in Sparta was big business even among the apparently austere men, with the Spartans being hugely successful at the Olympics in the four-horse chariot race, especially between 448 and 420BCE (39). The keeping, training and racing of horses in Sparta was happening from the mid-sixth century onwards, showing the wealth of Sparta as a whole – contradicting the egalitarian austerity that was the Spartan ideal. The breeding of horses was expensive and it is likely that many throughout the Greek city-states that kept horses, bought new ones in rather than breeding them themselves, as may have been the case in Athens. In Sparta the picture is less clear, though the size of estates and wealth of the Spartiates may have meant more Spartiates were able to breed their own horses (40). This is especially the case for cavalry and hunting horses. The breeding of horses for a purpose other than war or hunting was seen as unnecessary, not reflective of an austere ideology and intrinsically feminine. And these were certainly the thoughts and feelings that Agesilaus projected on the Spartiate.
Not only did Agesilaus publicly disapprove of chariot racing and his sister’s part in it, he wanted to demonstrate what a folly it was – that anyone, even a woman, could breed good chariot horses if they had enough money. In this way he was pointing out that the very indulgence of chariot horses was un-Spartan as an afront to both austerity and manliness, and should be shunned in pursuit of the laconic ideal.
Xenophon and Plutarch believed that Agesilaus was on a moral crusade in this respect – trying to restore traditional Spartan values to an already declining society, a losing battle personified by his sister’s chariot racing – but it could be more complex than it would appear. After all, he must have either believed absolutely in his cause or in his sister’s ability to breed winning horses as he entrusted Kyniska with the honour and glory of the royal oikos in a politically significant pan-Hellenic competition. Had she lost the implications would have been massive – it would have shaken Agesilaus’ message, but moreover would have shown up the Spartans to their Hellenic neighbours (who were always eager to see Sparta fail). As it is, she won (at two separate games) and proved not only her brother’s point but Sparta’s might – that even a woman could beat the best of non-Spartan men.
We could believe that Agesilaus is absolutely committed to ensuring others take up his apparent dedication to austerity – diverting the Spartan’s competitive efforts from extravagant display and expenditure of wealth towards the development of the Spartan ideal of excellence (41). However, it is easy to read this situation a couple of other ways as well.
Firstly, it is possible that Agesilaus didn’t believe entirely in what he was saying in regards to austerity, or at least not for women – one rule for one and one for another as we have seen above. Though he may have been concerned with the cracks he could see appearing due to Spartan avarice, he himself had the benefit of being in a position of wealth were he could afford to take a contemptuous attitude. As well as being King, he had accumulated great personal wealth whilst commanding abroad in Asia (42). Or, secondly, that Agesilaus did believe in what he was saying, and Kyniska, enraged by her brother using her in this manner, made a point of defying these values.
The reason one of these scenarios may be the case is because Kyniska didn’t just enter her horses in one Olympic game and then quietly disappear, having made her brother’s point. In fact she continued to train horses, entered her chariots into at least two games, those that she won in 396 and 392BCE, when arguably one would have been sufficient. Furthermore she went on to erect monuments all of which would have been explicit testaments to her wealth to an un-Spartan extreme. Therefore we must reason that either Agesilaus approved of these displays, or she acted against his will.
The celebrations of Kyniska’s victory even extended, unusually to Sparta itself and Agesilaus later sanctioned her posthumous heroisation (43). If Agesilaus really did believe in austerity for all, then these celebrations and monuments are ironic at best insulting at worst, with her brother trying to discredit the sport, and scorning the making of personal statues, as a display of wealth rather than virtue (44). Indeed Agesilaus’ moral Spartan high-ground and pride would likely have been injured by these displays by his own sister. Put in these terms then we have to wonder whether Agesilaus felt Kyniska was exempt from his moralising (on the basis of being a woman and/or his kin) or conversely Kyniska was rubbing her brother’s face in it.
Either way, Agesilaus was sure she would win, showing that he either believed in her abilities or had great faith in his own beliefs on the merits of racing. Whichever way you look at it, Kyniska’s victories, and subsequent honours, had the dual effect of proving both Agesilaus’s point to the Spartiate but also driving home the fact that of their superiority to their Hellenic neighbours – that their princess can defeat even the best of other men. Contextually these victories must have been great achievements not just in all of Greece but amongst the Spartans themselves, with Kyniska’s epigram at Olympia being only the second erected to commemorate a Spartan royal – the other being that erected at Delphi in honour of a victory over the Persians. Though one theory is that this inscription was intentional – to draw attention to Sparta’s leading position at the time without engaging the men and thusly becoming potentially incendiary (45).
Moving on from these events, Agesilaus’ fear that his rivals would outstrip him with prestige pushed him to focus his energy into the breeding of Sparta’s cavalry, but again the horses were provided by the rich (46). Interesting, his use of Kyniska in his moralising actually had the effect of opening the door for the wealthy women to enter the “male world and breach the traditional restrictions on display imposed upon Spartiate men” (47). In fact she was the first of many Spartan women to enter pan-hellenic chariot racing.
“The polis hence held Kyniska up to young girls as the model of a woman who had gained aristeai” (48)
Kyniska was able to enter the male world and gain the masculine attribution of aristeai (the feminine of arete – excellence). Her victories said something to the other Greeks about the quality of Spartan women, of whom she was one of the greatest. With this in mind we can see that Kyniska was indeed unique amongst all the women of Hellas, as she proclaimed on her inscription.
Ancient sources on Kyniska:
Surely, too, he did what was seemly and dignified when he adorned his own estate with works and possessions worthy of a man, keeping many hounds and war horses, but persuaded his sister Kyniska to breed chariot horses, and showed by her victory that such a stud marks the owner as a person of wealth, but not necessarily of merit. How clearly his true nobility comes out in his opinion that a victory in the chariot race over private citizens would add not a whit to his renown; but if he held the first place in the affection of the people, gained the most friends and best all over the world, outstripped all others in serving his fatherland and his comrades and in punishing his adversaries, then he would be victor in the noblest and most splendid contests, and would gain high renown both in life and after death.
Xenophon, Agesilaus, book 9.6-7
However, on seeing that some of the citizens esteemed themselves highly and were greatly lifted up because they bred racing horses, he persuaded his sister Kyniska to enter a chariot in the contests at Olympia, wishing to show the Greeks that the victory there was not a mark of great excellence, but simply of wealth and lavish outlay.
Plutarch, Agesilaus, book 20
Archidamus left sons when he died, of whom Agis was the elder and inherited the throne instead of Agesilaus. Archidamus had also a daughter, whose name was Kyniska; she was exceedingly ambitious to succeed at the Olympic games, and was the first woman to breed horses and the first to win an Olympic victory. After Kyniska other women, especially women of Lacedaemon, have won Olympic victories, but none of them was more distinguished for their victories than she.
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.8.1.
The Spartans seem to me to be of all men the least moved by poetry and the praise of poets. For with the exception of the epigram upon Kyniska, of uncertain authorship, and the still earlier one upon Pausanias that Simonides wrote on the tripod dedicated at Delphi, there is no poetic composition to commemorate the doings of the royal houses of the Lacedaemonians.
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.8.2.
At Plane-tree Grove there is also a hero-shrine of Kyniska, daughter of Archidamus king of the Spartans. She was the first woman to breed horses, and the first to win a chariot race at Olympia. Behind the portico built by the side of Plane-tree Grove are other hero-shrines, of Alcimus, of Enaraephorus, at a little distance away one of Dorceus, and close to it one of Sebrus.
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.15.1.
The offerings inside, or in the fore-temple include: a throne of Arimnestus, king of Etruria, who was the first foreigner to present an offering to the Olympic Zeus, and bronze horses of Kyniska, tokens of an Olympic victory. These are not as large as real horses, and stand in the fore-temple on the right as you enter. There is also a tripod, plated with bronze, upon which, before the table was made, were displayed the crowns for the victors.
Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.12.5.
As for Kyniska, daughter of Archidamus, her ancestry and Olympic victories, I have given an account thereof in my history of the Lacedaemonian kings.3 By the side of the statue of Troilus at Olympia has been made a basement of stone, whereon are a chariot and horses, a charioteer, and a statue of Kyniska herself, made by Apelles; there are also inscriptions relating to Kyniska.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.1.6.
“My ancestors and brothers were kings of Sparta.
I, Kyniska, victorious with a chariot of swift-footed horses,
Erected this statue. I declare that I am the only woman
In all of Greece to have won this crown”.
Pausanias. Description of Greece
Plutarch. Life of Agesilaus. Moralia.
Xenophon. Life of Agesilaus. Polity of the Lacedaemonians
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