Women Athletes in Greek and Roman Mythology

Women Athletes in Greek and Roman Mythology

Gearing up for exercise with your workout clothes and gym bag may sound like a modern-day scenario. But as far as athleticism or staying fit is concerned, the Greek and Roman women had it all figured out centuries before the modern woman got into her activewear and headed out for an advanced Yoga class. Interestingly, the Olympics have been dated back to 776 BC. There's a lot we can learn from women athletes in ancient Rome and Greece. Here are some fascinating facts.

Roman women and sports

Historians believe that female athletes could be dated back to Roman gladiators. Female gladiators are thought to have been pioneers in ancient sports. However, these women were heavily criticized by the philosophers and literary artists of the time. Many of these laureates also believed that only women from the lower strata of the society participated in these activities. 

Greek women in the Olympics

The mega sports contest that we all know as the Olympics had a rather humble start. Studies indicate how the competition indeed started as a foot race that was conducted every four years. Unlike the modern women of today, the women in ancient Greece were far from empowered. They were confined to the four walls of their homes and were mostly occupied with household chores, raising kids, and taking care of their husbands. The Ancient Olympic Games maintained a ban on women from participating in the competition due to religious nature. This was also a time when most of society backed this decision, including famous philosophers and thinkers like Aristotle. Aristotle also wrote a book, where he called women utterly useless.

Roman women and ancient games

Female gladiator games initially started as a part of funeral ceremonies. Women would often perform famous scenes from literature in honor of the deceased. As these games gained popularity, they became more common in not just funerals but also other occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays, and other celebratory events. 

There is no record of these women gladiators fighting men. Gladiator schools were also separate for men and women. But historians do suppose that it must have been the men in the family-like fathers, brothers, etc., who taught them to fight. 

Another example of sportswomen in history is the Spartan women who left their mark in history. Just like the cute workout clothes of today, Spartan women wore short skirts and often participated in physical activities, including hunting and horse riding. Their lifestyle and clothing were quite different from the rest of the region at the time. It was believed that a fit and active woman would give birth to healthy and robust children. 

Greek women and Heraean Games

The wave of change in ancient Greece came with the introduction of the Heraean Games. These games were started as a tribute to Hera, a Goddess in Greek mythology. Women were allowed to participate in foot races. Reportedly, Chloris, Zeus's granddaughter, also participated in these games and inscribed her name on the wall. But there still remained certain prejudices against women. While men participated in games naked, women were only allowed with a garment called 'chiton'. The competition was also only open to young unmarried women.

There still lingers some mystery about how the Heraean Games came into being. Some historians believe that the games were not an attempt for women's inclusivity rather a political gesture. There were supposedly some tensions in Western Greece at the time between cities of Pisa and Elis. The games were a part of a diplomatic gesture to stop these tensions. Another assumption suggests that Queen Hippodameia organized the games in honor of Hera to thank her for marrying Pelops. It was Queen Hippodameia who would pick 16 women every four years to compete in the races. Some historians also believed that the decision to have a separate competition for women came from the increasing Roman presence in the region. Unlike the Hellenic peninsula, women (especially daughters) from affluent families in Rome would often organize and participate in games, sports competitions, and festivals alongside men.

Champions in ancient Rome

'The Bikini Girls' remain the most plausible example of women champions in Roman history. The image of these women dressed in bikini dates back to the 4th century. The girls in the illustration can be seen doing exercises that would resemble any 21st-century women clad in fitness clothing. One of them seems to be holding a ball, while another one seems to be lifting a dumbbell. Some believe that these women could have been playing volleyball or a similar sport.

The Bikini girls are perhaps the closest similarity that you can find in history with today's women athletes.

Champions in ancient Greece

Cynisca was believed to be the first female champion to win the games. Cynisca was the daughter of Archidamus II, who ruled Sparta at the time. Cynisca reportedly participated and won the race two times. She was the first woman to win the Olympic Games. She was also given a bronze statue as a prize. In addition to this, her statue was made with an inscription that she was first and only woman in Hellas to win the crown. Later, over the years, many women went ahead to win the prestigious games. Cassia, Euryleonis, Timareta, Zeuxo, and Belistiche were a few names to have been documented.

To sum it up

Although only some names and cultures have been accredited with championing the cause of women in sports, there have been many more contributions that have gone unnoticed and unrecorded in history. Many women athletes have tirelessly fought, participated, and furthered the cause over many centuries.

So the next time you put on your workout crop top and workout pants, remember how fortunate you are to be living in the current times and take this opportunity to seize the day and move towards a more balanced and healthy life.


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