Cynisca sounds like a childhood nickname, because it means (female) puppy (little bitch...!). But it almost certainly wasn't that, as we know of adult males called by the masculine equivalent, Cyniscus. Our Cynisca in any case was anything but puppyish in adult life; and she was no one_s poodle. Born at Sparta probably some time round about 440 BC, she became the first woman ever to win a victory in the Olympic Games, a feat which she repeated remarkably enough at the immediately succeeding Games. Yet unlike the male victors, she did not have to compete physically in person, as we shall see.
At the probable time of Cynisca's birth, Sparta was one of the two major powers of mainland Greece, indeed of the entire Greek world - which by then stretched from the eastern end of the Black Sea (modern Georgia) to the west coast of Spain (Ampurias, for example, is a hispanisation of Greek emporion, meaning 'trading-station'). The other power was Athens, democratic, naval-imperial, with which Sparta_s relations since their Persian Wars entente (480-79) had been strained to the point of outright military conflict during the so-called First Peloponnesian War (460-445). A sort of peace, technically a truce, had been patched up between them and their respective allies in 445, but that had involved Sparta in effect in recognising the Athenians' empire, and that smarted among an influential section of highly placed Spartan opinion which was just looking for a pretext for a renewed showdown with the upstart Athens.
Such a pretext arose in the late 430s, when the Spartans' influential allies, the Corinthians, urged the Spartans to declare war on Athens and her empire, on the grounds that Athens had broken the terms of the truce of 445. The Spartans though apparently needed little persuading - the ordinary Spartans anyhow, not least because they thought they could beat the Athenians easily and quickly. They voted in 432 for an all-out war (or rather, they shouted for it, because that was how voting was normally conducted in the Spartan assembly). But contrary to expectation, the war that began in 431 with a Spartan invasion of Athens's home territory did not end soon, and victory came anything but easily or predictably only some 27 years later.
That was the international background against which Cynisca was born, grew up and attained her middle years. But Cynisca was no ordinary Spartan girl. She was a royal princess. And, if Thucydides's remarkable account of the proceedings in the Spartan assembly in 432 is to be believed, there had been at least one powerful voice raised against the notion of going to war with Athens. That voice belonged to Cynisca's father, king Archidamus II (r. 469-427). Nevertheless, according to the Spartan rules, it fell to him as the senior of the two kings to lead the allied expeditionary force against Athens, which he did until his death in 427. He was succeeded by his older son, Agis II, born to his first wife (who was also his aunt...). But Cynisca was probably a child of his second marriage and so the full sister of the man who was to succeed his half-brother Agis as King Agesilaos II in around 400.
Spartan royal marital relations were complex, not surprisingly, since economic and above all political considerations were involved, as happens in all dynastic regimes. But by general Greek standards all Spartan marital arrangements were simply extraordinary, if not unbelievable. For a start, Spartan girls married significantly later than their sisters elsewhere, in their late teens rather than at puberty (12-14). This was supposedly for eugenic reasons, to enable the young mothers to withstand better the pangs of childbirth; and there is something in that idea. But the delay also had the effect of narrowing the gap both physical and emotional between them and their husbands, who would typically (as elsewhere in Greece) be in their mid- to late twenties.
This relative equality between the sexes in marriage was prepared for and reinforced by giving the Spartan girls something like an equivalent of the physical part of the Spartan boys' compulsory, state-run upbringing. Some very fine bronze figurines made in Sparta showing adolescent girls or young women in athletic - and literally gymnastic (i.e., naked) - poses powerfully illustrate this social phenomenon, unique in Greece. There is even evidence that there was a female counterpart to the system of male pederastic pairing relationships that was a required component of the educational curriculum once a boy attained his teens - round about the time of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, for example, Cynisca's brother Agesilaus became the younger beloved of Lysander, the man who led the Spartans to eventual victory over Athens in 404.
Marriage, however, did not rule out officially approved extra-marital heterosexual relations, for both partners. This again shocked most other Greeks, who insulted Spartan girls as 'thigh-showers' (because they wore revealing mini-tunics) and considered all Spartan women little better than hussies. But defenders of Sparta, like Xenophon (who lived in Sparta for a while as an exile from Athens and at his patron Agesilaus's suggestion put his two sons through the official Spartan education), looked for sociological reasons to account for what anthropologists have called the plural marriage system of Sparta, and one powerful reason could well have been eugenic in the sense of a concern to keep up the numbers of legitimate, especially male, Spartan births. This concern is well attested in a number of contexts and can be explained by the Spartans' need for constant vigilance not only against their foreign enemies but also against their 'enemy within': the serf-like population of Helots who were many times more numerous than they.
Some of the Helots were perfectly accommodated to their lot; those, for example, who acted as Cynisca_s household servants and no doubt confidantes, who did the food - and clothes - preparation that in other Greek cities would have been done by citizen wives and daughters. But there were significant numbers of disaffected Helots, especially those in the geographical region of Messenia to the west of the 2400-metre high Taygetus mountain range. These longed for their national independence from Sparta and had indeed risen in revolt more than once to try to get it. Their constant threat was one reason for the prudent caution of men like King Archidamus in not wanting to involve Sparta in unpredictable overseas adventures. The Helot threat also accounts significantly for the Spartan educational regime and for the fact that Spartan communal life resembled a soldier's life in barracks more than the normal civilian life lived in other Greek cities.
A Spartan citizen's life was not all fighting or play-fighting, however. Religion was of paramount importance to the Spartans, and line-dancing was a useful way of both honouring the gods and enhancing the communal rhythm and cohesion needed by hoplites fighting in the phalanx formation. As for the girls, they danced not only in Sparta but in a number of other towns in the vicinity. For the Hyacinthia festival, for example, held in honour of Apollo at Amyclae a few kilometres south of Sparta, girls were taken by chariot, and a passage in Xenophon_s biography of Agesilaus tells how even the king's daughter travelled down to Amyclae in the ordinary public chariot just like any other Spartan girl. Her aunt Cynisca presumably had not received any special treatment from her father Archidamus either.
Another form of religious celebration that appealed especially to the competitive and martial spirit of the Spartans was athletics (our word comes from the Greek for prizes. Traditionally, the first panhellenic (all-Greek and only-Greek) athletics festival was the Olympics, established - according to the traditional chronology - in 776 BC. Possibly that date should be lowered somewhat, and in any case 'games' is a rather grand term for what was for a long time just a single running race, the equivalent of our 200 metres sprint. But over the years other events were added, and competitors were divided into Men and Boys age categories, so that by 472, when the administration of the games was overhauled by the nearby city of Elis that always staged them, the Olympic festival lasted five days.
The religious dimension remained central. The fundamental religious ritual at Olympia was a procession followed by the sacrifice of cattle to the festival_s patron god, Zeus of Mt Olympus. But the contests themselves were not conducted in what we would consider a particularly religious spirit. Eric Liddell (of Chariots of Fire fame) would have been appalled by the Greeks' ungodly determination to win at all costs and by (almost) any means. Deaths were not uncommon in the combat sports, and the competitive atmosphere of the whole thing was more like a sort of paramilitary exercise, war minus the shooting, than a communal act of ritual religious worship. One reason for this was that athletics, like so many other fundamental aspects of Greek culture, was radically gendered, and Greek men were very macho (or liked to think so).
So masculine were the Olympics that not only could women not compete directly but - apart perhaps from an official priestess - they were not even allowed to watch the men compete. A story, possibly apocryphal, had it that a woman from the island of Rhodes, whose father was an Olympic victor and whose son was competing, disguised herself as a man in her eagerness to get into the Olympic stadium to watch him - but fell over and so revealed her true sex. Greek notions of masculinity were appropriately tested at Olympia, especially in the fearsome pankration, a combination of judo and all-in wrestling, and in the nearly bare-knuckle boxing contests. But the premier event, partly because it was the oldest, was the 200 metre sprint, known as the stadion (whence our word stadium). Technically, though, his prize, like that of all other Olympic victors, was just a symbolic token - a wreath made of olive leaves from the sacred Altis grove. But that of course was the point: an Olympic victory was in itself sufficient reward, since it was paid in the most valuable currency of all - fame. All Olympic victors were revered, after their death as well as during their lifetimes, and this is where, surprising as it may seem, our Cynisca comes in.
Apart from the running events and the combat events, which took place on or around the main stadium at Olympia, there were also equestrian events which were held in a separate hippodrome (literally, a course for horses, its location recently identified by infrared photography). The chief of these was the superelite four-horse chariot race. In these events alone could women enter - though by proxy only, as owners of the chariots and teams of horses, not as the drivers (who were always men or boys). And so in 396 Cynisca entered her four-horse chariot-team - and won. And she did so again in 392 - and won again.
We happen to know quite a lot about these two victories of hers because they caught the imagination of a much later traveller, Pausanias from Magnesia in Asia Minor, who visited Olympia about the middle of the second century CE. Still visible and legible then (as it is today in the marvellous Olympia Museum) was the inscription chiselled into the black-stone base of the monument that Cynisca had had erected to commemorate her first, unprecedented success, and this is what it said:
My fathers and brothers were Spartan kings, I won with a team of fast-footed horses, and put up this monument: I am Cynisca: I say I am the only woman in all Greece to have won this wreath.
Not backward in coming forward then, our Cynisca. Or so we would have thought, had we not also possessed Xenophon_s biography of her brother, written no doubt with Agesilaus's full knowledge and approval as a work of propaganda for publication immdiately after the king's death (in 359). In this we are told that it was not his sister's own original idea that she should breed chariot racehorses and compete at Olympia with them, but ... Agesilaus's, and that his point was to demonstrate that victories like that were won merely by wealth, unlike victories in other events and spheres (above all battle) where it was manly virtue that counted decisively. For what man would want to chase after a prize that (even) a woman could win?
In trying to diminish his sister's pioneering achievement and conspicuously panhellenic glory Agesilaus was presumably hoping to exploit not only a general Greek male chauvinism but also a longstanding strain in Greek thinking that jeered at mere athletic or hippic accomplishments (accessible only to an especially gifted or wealthy few) and praised the more widely and communally available skills and virtues.
But lots of Greek men, including Spartans, failed to see eye-to-eye with Agesilaus on this one, and for very long periods Spartan men were the single most successful national group of Greek competitive racehorse breeders at Olympia and other festival games.
Besides, after Cynisca_s death, she was awarded a heroine's shrine in Sparta, and the official and unofficial religious veneration that that elevated status entailed. Many Greek men would have given their eye teeth for that.