I, Cynisca, 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.
She was the daughter of Archidamus II, king of Sparta, and his wife Eupolia and the sister of King Agesilaus II. Her mother’s name, Eupolia, means “well-horsed,” perhaps showing where she got her interest in horses from. Her own name, Cynisca, means “female hound.”
We know nothing of her life until her victory. She was not able to participate in the Games for much of her life as the Elians had barred the Spartans from Olympia in 420. It was only after the Peloponnesian war when Sparta attacked Elis and gained access to the city once more. Cynisca entered her horses into the games at the first possible opportunity in 396, at which point she would have been in her fifties.
Like other Olympic victors in chariot racing, Cynisca did not drive her team herself, but employed a jockey. Unlike many other victors, she probably did not even see her own victory. She did, however, train her horses herself and was encouraged to enter the Games by her brother, though what his motives were remains in doubt. Plutarch and Xenophon both claim it was in an attempt to discredit the sport. Modern scholars find this explanation dubious.
In honor of her victory, the sculptor Apelles created a sculpture of Cynisca for the sanctuary at Olympia, probably commissioned by the horsewoman herself. The inscription at its base (see above) is thought to have been written by the woman herself. She was also commemorated with a hero shrine in Sparta.
Though she was the first, she would not be the only woman to win the Olympic crown. Female victors were not common, but a few women did follow in Cyisca’s hooftracks.
*The text in Greek can be found here.