Question: When the women of ancient Greece were banned from competing in the Olympics, what did they do?
Answer: They started their own
While some of the most celebrated Olympians today are fearless and powerful women, this hasn’t always been the case, and certainly not in the days of the ancient Greek Olympics. Since the days of the first games in 776 B.C.E., women were not allowed to compete—not for a lack of physical strength, but because of their positions in society. However, instead of being deterred by this rule, the young women of Greece took matters into their own hands and started their own version of the Olympics known as the Heraean Games.
Despite ancient Greece’s democratic government and forward thinking, their society was far from equal for the female citizens, and many of their societal advancements only benefited men. Women at the time were not given any legal, political, or personal freedoms, and were essentially treated as second-class citizens along with slaves and foreigners. They were considered to be part of the oikos, a term translated to mean “the property of the house” which was owned and headed by the male patriarch.
Due to the religious and political significance of the Olympic games, women were viewed as not worthy of competing. In the states of Delos and Athens, women were allowed to watch, but in the city of Elis, where the games originated, married women were barred from attending altogether—this was mostly because the male athletes competed completely naked. If a married woman was caught sneaking in to watch the games, she could be punished by death. While unmarried maidens could spectate upon the festivities, throughout Elis and the other city-states, the governments all agreed: no woman could take the field.
Since they couldn’t compete at the Olympics that didn’t have to mean they couldn’t compete at all. Fitness was a highly valued quality in women, and they were already competing in other sports like swimming and acrobatics, just not the Olympics. Honoring the goddess Hera (the wife of Zeus), they established the Heraean Games which consisted of a footrace between 16 young, athletic, and unmarried women and took place every four years.
The runners let their hair hang long and freely, and they wore a shorter tunic than what they were usually allowed to wear. Those who won were crowned with a headdress of olives and were awarded with a portion of the cow used in a sacrifice to Hera. The date of when the Heraean Games began is unknown, but some historians estimate they could have been practiced with the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C.E. There’s very little information on the individual athletes who competed, and the only recorded victor of the games is the mythical Chloris who was Zeus’s granddaughter. This lack of information suggests how insignificant society viewed women’s sport.
Nevertheless, the Heraean Games are the first documented athletic competition held for women in history. When we see the heroic women dominating their events in the Olympic games, we can thank the women of ancient Greece who competed in the Heraean Games for leading the charge.
9 Things to Know About Life for Women in Ancient Greece
- Unlike other ancient societies such as Egypt, Greek women did not enjoy the societal status and privileges of their male counterparts did. The philosopher Aristotle even wrote that “the male is by nature superior and the female inferior.”
- Other intellectuals at the time even argued that men and women were two separate species as “men had more in common with the gods, while women had more in common with the animal kingdom.”
- There were many differences in the way the Greek city-states treated women. For example, Sparta granted many more freedoms to women than Athens. In Athens, women were not allowed to receive an education while boys attended intellectually advanced schools. All women were expected to marry, usually around the age of 14, as there was no role in society for single adult females.
- Women in Athens were viewed as even lower in status than slaves because they had no chance of becoming citizens and could not own property, while slaves could become citizens if they were freed. Women couldn’t even walk down the street on their own without a man accompanying them.
- In the military society of Sparta, women were given more rights because the men were often away at war. Women were able to own property, they could receive an education, and they were allowed to walk wherever they pleased.
- In all city-states, the role of the woman was to give birth to sons. In Sparta, the women were given greater respect if they had strong and healthy sons who became great warriors in the military.
- Even though women were treated as unequal in society, many of the most powerful figures in Greek mythology were women, including Athena, Demeter, and Persephone. Other women characters in mythology were deemed as troublemakers trying to derail male heroes, such as Aphrodite and Medea.
- Due to a loophole in the rules, a woman named Kyniska became the first woman to win an event at the Olympics, although she herself didn’t compete. In chariot racing, the winner was the owner of the horses, rather than riders. So Kyniska, the daughter of a Spartan King, became the first female winner in history when her horses won the race.
- Despite the barriers, a few women rose above and gained acclaim such as the poet Sappho of Lesbos, the philosopher Arete of Cyrene, and physician Agnodice of Athens.
Explore ancient Greek ruins and learn more about ancient Greek society when you travel aboard our Hidden Gems of the Dalmatian Coast & Greece Small Ship Adventure.