Out of the Gynaeceum: A New Look at Ancient Greek Society

Kept out of Sports?

By Flavien Villard

La coureuse du Vatican

Fig. 1: Girl Runner, marble statue, 1st century B.C., Rome, Museum of the Vatican, Inv. 2787. ©Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Jastrow.

The stereotype that all Greek women were excluded from sports has been persistent. The image of the Athenian wife whose only physical activity, according to Xenophon (Economics, X), should be keeping house is far from applicable to the myriad situations of women in Greece. In reality, women as a whole were not excluded from agonistic (competitive) athletic activities. Their participation depended on their status as well as on their city of origin. Thus, in many regions, groups of unmarried young women participated in competitive ritual races—their marital status was thus more significant than their gender in determining their participation. This was true for the Heraia games held in the stadium of Olympus in honor of the goddess Hera, (1) the Dionysiades in Sparta, (2) and the games organized for young women in Macedonia and in Thessaly (3). Some historians believe that these events, rituals that brought together adolescent girls from elite families, symbolized the passage to adulthood that would be made concrete by marriage. In other cases, men and women did not participate in separate athletic activities; rather, citizens were separate from the rest of the population. In Sparta, free women participated not only in races but also in feats of strength, both before and after marriage.

(1) Pausanias, Description of Greece V, 16.
(2) Pausanias, Description of Greece III, 13.
(3) See in particular Hatzopoulos Miltiade, Cultes et rites de passage en Macédoine, Αθήνα (Athènes), 1994.
Jeunes spartiates à l’entraînement

Fig. 2: Edgar Degas, Young Spartans Exercising, 1860. Oil on canvas, London, National Gallery, Inv. NG3860. Photo: N. Ernoult

The Spartans: Particular Attention to Physical Activities?

Sparta is often described as a unique city in Greece, and the fact that Spartan women took part in sports is essential to making this claim. Thus, presenting Spartan women as accomplished athletes is a topos (commonplace) that runs throughout Antiquity as well as the contemporary era. So, naturally, when Edgar Degas took the Peloponnesian city as his subject, he showed partially nude young women challenging boys on a training field.

This representation of Spartan women is quite old, and in classical Athens, various authors with opposing agendas put it forward. Euripides, in Andromachus, and Aristophanes, in Lysistrata, both drew on this cliché and had their characters say that racing and strength exercise stripped Spartans women of all sexual modesty and made them sexually active. On the contrary, Critias (1), Xenophon, and Plato defended the practice, which, they said, promoted teknopoiia (efficient child production). In the Roman era, Propertius and Plutarch maintained the ambiguity of the image: their Spartan women, adept at javelin and discus, were attractive and excelled at fulfilling their duties as mothers.

In spite of the partiality of these testimonies, we can observe that beginning in the archaic era, Sparta was distinguished from Athens, for the free women of Sparta practiced regular physical exercise, in particular for the purpose of teknopoiia. Two activities seem to have been favored: foot races and training exercises such as the bibasis, which involved kicking one’s heels to one’s buttocks.

(1) Critias, fragment of the Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, in Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VI, 2.

Athletic Heroines 

Not all women in Greek myths are reduced to passive roles and kept out of physical activities. Several stories present female figures of exceptional athletic ability in a positive light. These characters are all unmarried young women (parthenoi), whose athletic prowess enhances their attractiveness. Some of these heroines rebel against marriage, and all refuse the activities considered traditionally feminine. Each must ultimately give in to the power of Aphrodite, which no mortal can escape.

Amphore à col à figures noires

Fig. 3:  Black-figure neck amphora, attributed to the Painter of the Atalanta of Munich, 550-500 B.C., Munich, Antikensammlungen, Inv. J584 / 1541. © Munich, Antikensammlungen. Photo:  DR.

Atalanta was a young Arcadian woman, daughter of Iasos, who refused to marry. From the archaic era (Theognis, Elegies II, 1282-1293) to the imperial era, various authors affirm that she fled her father’s house and performed various feats. According to some authors, she beat Peleus at wrestling during the funeral games for King Pelias. Finally, the heroine was seduced by Melanion, whom she married. The wrestling episode was very popular in Greek ceramics during the 6th century B.C., in Attica as well as other regions. Here, Atalanta, recognizable by her white skin, dominates Peleus, whom she has firmly in a neck hold.

Hippomène et Atalante

Fig. 4: Guido Reni, Hippomenes and Atalanta, 1620-1629. Oil on canvas, Naples, Museum of Capodimonte, Inv. Q349. © Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Trzęsacz.

Relief sculpté en marbre

Fig. 5: Relief sculpted in marble, 120-140 A.D., London, British Museum, Inv. 1861, 1127.30. Photo: ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Another story recounts how Atalanta, a Boeotian and daughter of Schoineus, rejected all offers of marriage and, with her father’s approval, challenged her suitors to a race. The bulk of her story is contained in fragments of the Catalogue of Women (fr. 73-76). Because of her beauty and grace, many young men hoped to take her hand in marriage. Only Hippomenes succeeded in the challenge, thanks to Aphrodite’s golden apples, which slowed Atalanta down. Thus, he was able to marry the young woman and escape the death that awaited the unsuccessful competitors. While this myth seems not to have been very popular in Greek ceramics, Ovid’s version in the Metamorphoses (X, 560-680) influenced modern European painting. Like Guido Reni, several artists chose to represent the moment when the young woman, grabbing hold of the apples, symbolically accepts marriage.

In other versions of the myth, Cyrene is presented as an athletic young woman who fought wild animals and vanquished a lion (Callimachus, Hymns II, 91-92). Pindar (Pythians IX, 21) writes that she was the daughter of Hypseus. Apollo, seized with desire for her as he watched her wrestle the lion, kidnapped her and took her to Africa, where he married her. The figure of Cyrene, connected to the founding of the city in Libya that bears her name, was thus important to the region, through the imperial era. Various representations of a young woman wrestling a lion to the ground have come down to us, including this bas-relief from the 2nd century A.D. Here, Karpos thanks Cyrene, representative of the city, for her hospitality. Crowned by Libya, the young woman appears in all her glory, the result of exceptional athletic prowess.