Patricia Nell Warren

Women's History Month: Filling In the Blanks

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | March 09, 2009 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality
Tags: ancient Olympics, Kyniska, lesbianism in Alcman's poetry, lesbians in ancient Greece, Olympic women winners, Sappho, Sparta

How can we say for sure if a famous woman who lived 2400 years ago was a lesbian? Even in our own time, we can't say that for sure about a woman -- unless she makes her own personal statement about sexual orientation. For example -- we don't know much about Kyniska, princess of Sparta -- the first woman winner at the ancient Olympic Games.

Women weren't allowed to compete directly in the Games, but there was an odd loophole in the rules: women could own horses in the equestrian events. So Kyniska's 4-horse team won the most prestigious chariot race at the Olympian Games, in both 396 and 392 BCE. This particular event was one of the wildest, most spectacular sports the world has ever known. The race scene in the movie Ben-Hur gives a good idea.

How can a historian speculate that Kyniska might have enjoyed what we'd call "the lesbian experience?" It's not too much of a stretch. In the Hellenic world, Spartans were notorious for the degree to which they institutionalized and celebrated same-sex relationships among women as well as men.

I say "notorious" because other Greeks sound a little like Rush Limbaugh when they tsk-tsk about Spartan ways.

The Spartans often did the opposite to what people did in the other Greek city-states. For instance, upper-class men of Athens kept their own women closeted, barefoot, pregnant and second-class-citizened. Whereas Spartan females enjoyed some relative independence and sexual freedom. Their public visibility, their scanty clothing, their quickness to speak their minds, their passion for rugged sports like wrestling and javelin throwing -- these shocked Athenian men. According to historian Sarah Pomeroy, they thought of Spartan women as "bold sluts."

Other Greeks were also ambivalent about homosexuality (contrary to what many gay people fondly believe about the Greeks today). Sure, the occasional same-sex couples got into the history books, along with polyamorous doings of gods and goddesses. But most Greek males were uneasy about the idea of a man bottoming for another man. The young unmarried men (called ephebes) who put out for their older "mentors" were expected to stop doing that kid stuff when they became adults. Anal sex was viewed as loss of manliness for the guy on the receiving end.

Indeed, the Athenians did away with Socrates, their most notable practitioner of intergenerational gay love. Accusing him of "poisoning the minds of Athenian youth," they railroaded him into execution by suicide in 399 BCE.

It's true that Spartan heterosexual marriage was a core institution, heavily relied on to keep the famed Spartan army well supplied with soldiers -- but homosexuality had a respectable place alongside marriage. Historian Sarah Pomeroy discusses this in depth in her Spartan Women.

Voices From the Past

A few known facts can help us patch together what Kyniska's personal story might have been.

The writings of Alcman, a poet/educator who lived around 200 years before Kyniska, give us some vivid, sweaty thumbnail portraits of girl-on-girl yearnings and intrigues. We hear their names, their voices -- we can almost smell the hot golden hair and the sweaty little chitons that they wore when competing in sports. By comparison, the poetry of Sappho herself seems a bit stiff-upper-lip.

In Alcman's Partheneia, the girls compare one another to beautiful horses, especially the Veneti breed that was popular for racing.

... Her hair,
As gold as a Veneti's mane,
Flowers around her silver eyes.
What can I say to make you see?
Agido, almost, almost as beautiful,
Is a Kolaxaian filly running behind her
In the races at Ibeno.

The Spartans wouldn't have understood our post-Christian concept of sexual orientation as something "marginalized" or "immoral" in our culture, let alone something "inborn" that makes us "different." They didn't live by political labels or scientific categories, the way we do. Going both ways was woven into the whole extreme experience in the Spartan world, along with that extreme self-discipline and military austerity that they were famous for -- something that evidently saturated every Spartan's life from birth to death.

Helen of Troy -- who has been appropriated by heterosexual romance -- was a Spartan. When she ran off to Troy with her boyfriend Paris, her husband King Menelaus wrathfully went after her with the support of other Greek armies. Homer wrote that Helen's beautiful face "launched a thousand ships" full of fighting men. Going by what we know of Spartan life, her face probably launched a few shipfuls of girls as well.

A Tomboy or Not?

So we can safely speculate that Kyniska was probably shaped in some way by same-sex love traditions in her society.

Known fact: she was a daughter of King Archidamus II and his wife Eupolia. She had two brothers. Her birth date isn't recorded, though Sarah Pomeroy places it around 440 BCE. We don't know many details about her appearance or personality. She may have been tall and blonde -- many Spartans were. Was she a wild child, a tomboy, as Pomeroy suggests? We don't know. Known fact: her mother's family were horsy, so she may have grown up around stables and ridden well.

Was Kyniska hot for some girl's golden mane? Was she hot for men? We don't have much of a clue. But the record doesn't ever mention that she was married or had children....which suggests that she stayed a member of the parthenoi (unmarried female) class for the rest of her life.

But there is one significant known fact: Greek historian Pausanias was careful to mention that Kyniska actually bred those winning horses. He stated further that she was "very ambitious" for the Olympic win.

Pausanias was talking about producing four tough fast horses, that could run as one in harness. They needed legs of iron and hearts as big as a Greek battleship -- able to hold a fierce pace for the 8 miles of that race. Even today, any woman who aims to breed a winner of the Triple Crown or the Breeders Cup Classic needs to be "very ambitious" (i.e. passionate and singleminded and patient). It took the U.S.'s Chenery family, and their daughter Penny Chenery, many years of patient work to come up with the great Secretariat, who won the Triple Crown in 1973. So Kyniska gets more credit than if she just went out and purchased somebody else's proven team.

Then, as today, it also took financial and real-estate resources to do what Kyniska did. Known fact: Spartan upper-class women had the right to inherit and own a significant amount of property. Which meant that Kyniska had an independent economic platform for putting her "ambitions" into action.

Sparta's Revenge

As I pondered the scanty facts, and studied her era, I could fill in some blanks.

In 433 BCE, her father, King Archidamus, had started the 30-year-long Peloponnesian Wars, which were a big watershed in ancient Greek history. Since Sparta was the aggressor, Kyniska's kingdom was banned from the Olympic Games for over 20 years. Archidamus died in 427, leaving the ongoing wars to his two sons to fight. Kyniska would have divvied his property with her brothers. She must have wound up owning a sizeable rural estate where she could keep stallions, and graze mares and foals. The holdings would have included human resources to do all the hard work that horses demand -- Spartans owned serfs.

The wars ended in 403 BCE, with Sparta the winner and virtual ruler of Greece. Sparta was also richer now, flooded with looted foreign gold and silver. With their kingdom slated to return to the Olympic Games in 396, the Spartans were eager to get back on the racecourse and kick butt on their political enemies. Their conquered foes wanted to kick butt back.

With so many resources and so much cash in hand, Kyniska suddenly was the first woman in Greek history who could even think about a chance to win at Olympia. Why shouldn't she be the one to kick butt?

Most important, Kyniska -- or somebody counseling her -- had to know pedigrees. The ancient world had already been chariot-racing for centuries -- the best bloodlines were known, as they are today to anyone who aims at Grade I wins in horse racing. But after 20 years of fighting, the best of Sparta's horses had probably been killed on the battlefield, so Kyniska had to look around for fresh bloodstock. Possibly she sent a horse buyer to North Africa, where the Spartan colony of Cyrene was famed for its winning chariot horses bred from local Libyan stock.

She could also afford to hire a top trainer and, most important, a top charioteer (since she couldn't drive the team at the Olympics herself).

Pooh-poohing Kyniska's Win

There are always a few revisionist historians who try to debunk female achievements. A few years ago in Journal of Sport History, Donald Kyles examined the comments of Greek historian Plutarch, who insisted that Kyniska was a mere tool -- that she was manipulated into breeding racehorses by her brother Agesilaus, who was king by then. Allegedly it was Agesilaus who gave her project the necessary props.

But I'm not buying it. Known fact: Kyniska's brother was actually contemptuous of chariot racing. He thought of it as a silly pastime that burned up money. So Agesilaus couldn't have had that burning motivation for an Olympic win that his sister did. If he did support Kyniska's aim, it was probably because he'd realized -- belatedly -- that a win by a woman would be a fabulous way to humiliate Sparta's old enemies one more time.

Another known fact: the Greeks believed that nobody won at Olympia unless the great god Zeus, who patronized the Games, had willed it. Athletes were introduced to Zeus when they stepped out on the field to compete. So we have to imagine the social impact of the "Spartan slut's" chariot driving into the great hippodrome at Olympia -- the male hostility that may have greeted it. Her driver and horses may have run into dirty tricks by other competitors.

When Kyniska's team and driver won -- in 396 and again in 392, the Greek world must have gone into shock. Zeus had obviously willed it. What was the world coming to?

Known fact: the boastful inscription that Kyniska left on her victory memorial at Olympia. It was important to thank Zeus by donating a beautiful statue to his temple. Twentieth- century archeologists actually found its battered black-marble base right in the ruins of Zeus's temple, where Pausanias said it was. The bronze statue had vanished. But the last line of the inscription reads:

I declare myself the only woman
in all Hellas to have won this crown.

Proud of her accomplishment? You bet. Sharing the limelight with her brother? I don't think so.

A Lasting Inspiration

There is no known record of the date Kyniska died. But after her death, she was declared a hero of Sparta -- one of the few women ever given that honor. As yet, archeologists don't know where her hero shrine and tomb was located. But someday they will probably find it where Pausanias said it was -- near the sacred grove of plane trees at the temple of Artemis in Sparta.

Known fact: Kyniska's wins touched off a whole spate of women's victories in chariot racing. For a century and a half, her record was the mark to shoot at. The first came in 368 BCE when Euryleonis, another Spartan woman, won the 2-horse chariot race at Olympia. This was just 24 years after Kyniska's second win.

If Kyniska was born in 440 and still living in 368, she would have been 72 years old by then. Did she know Euryleonis -- support her, maybe "mentor" her in horse racing...and more? Pure conjecture on my part, I admit. But Euryleonis is the only woman with whom I can remotely connect Kyniska's story.

Today Kyniska is remembered in most every book and website that deals with the history of Olympic sports.

Stories of ancient women are detective puzzles that we laboriously put together, only to find out that we're missing a piece or two. But the effort is worthwhile -- it gives us gay people a long timeline to celebrate. Kyniska's story reminds us of just how long that timeline is.

Lesbians in the "Maiden Songs" of Alcman

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Patricia, what a great read. The Spartan clan sound like a much more free about life and sexuality than even us today.

Thanks for a fascinating history lesson, Patricia. The amount of research you've done is staggering. Great post.

Lots of research...and lots of fun too. I love doing these historical profiles. They always teach me a lot about the human things that don't change much from era to era.

Great post, Patricia. It covers a period of history earlier than what I studied (I was a medievalist), but points out that there is definitely more work to be done in the area of women and their economic power in pre-modern times--and all the social and cultural power that flowed from that.

There are a number of works that discuss Spartan women's property ownership that can be found online by searching. Sarah Pomeroy's wonderful book "Spartan Women" also discusses the subject.

I am fascinated by the medieval period too. And it is full of surprises about women.