Cynisca was the sister of Agesilaus II, a king of Sparta from about 400 to 360 BCE. Agesilaus was known to help his friends, even if it required corrupt action, so when his sister, Cynisca, became passionate about horse breeding and chariot racing, the king gave her patronage and support.
Driven by her ambition and backed by her family’s wealth, the Spartan princess created one of the most talented horse breeding and training programs in 4th-century Greece. Her chariot teams won glory in the Olympic Games of 396 and 392 BCE, making her the first woman in recorded Greek history to own a victorious Olympic chariot team. The historians, Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE) and Pausanias (143-176 CE), both wrote of her successes. Plutarch’s account presented her only as the trainer and owner of the chariot teams, with no role in the physical operation of the vehicles. Pausanias was more vague in his wording, with a general statement that she won victories at the Olympics. Yet, he, too, did not explicitly credit her with the act of driving the chariot during the race. Nevertheless, she was honored with a statue and a stone inscription at Olympia for her accomplishments. The inscribed stone base still survives today and is on display at the Museum of the Olympic Games in Olympia, Greece.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The Chariot Race in the Circus Maximus, by Alfredo Tominz (1854–1936), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- On Sparta (Life of Agesilaus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.