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Women & the Ancient Olympics

Goddess Hera is eldest daughter Kronos and Rei, sister and wife of Zeus. Ancient statue isolated on black background.

If you’ve read my previous Olympic-themed posts, you know that women were not allowed to attend or participate in the Ancient Games.

And for the most part that was true.

However, women did have their own Olympics, of sorts, that took place every four years and consisted of foot races. There’s little documentation on this sporting event. One can only assume they started around the same time as the men’s Olympics, but we don’t actually know. His-tory, amirite?

Women and the Ancient Olympics

The women’s version of the Olympics was called the Heraean Games, held in honor of the goddess Hera, wife and sister to the almighty Zeus. I won’t bother unpacking that last bit.

Ironically, or perhaps not, Hera was the goddess of marriage, family, childbirth and women. Yet, the one criterion all female athletes had to meet was to be unmarried, which I believe was just a polite way of saying, “virgins only.”

Pausanias, a second-century Greek traveller, was our documentarian on these Games and it seems his main interest lay with what the girls wore rather than the races.

According to Pausanias, the female athletes wore their hair down and dawned a shorter-than-normal tunic. Now, this tunic had one remarkable feature that I feel needs mentioning. Admittedly, I’m pleased this feature is no longer allowable in athletics today, as this sporty little knee-length number was designed to cover the left shoulder and only, and I repeat only, the left breast. Just the one. Why not both or neither?

Now, these unwed, bare-breast athletes were also allowed to watch the male competitions, unlike the married women. If by chance a missus took a notion to sneak into the stadium to watch some naked wrestling or boxing, she was punished. By death. Seems harsh, but I didn’t make up the rules.

There was, however, one exception.

If a married woman owned a horse or horses competing in the Ancient Games, she was allowed to attend the horse races. Very kind of the men to allow such a thing but that’s money and horses for you.

This brings me nicely to the Hippodrome.


Hippos, of course, is Greek for “horse” and dromos means “race, course.”

The Hippodrome was purpose-built for chariot racing and also where the flat racing took place. As with the equestrian events of the Modern Olympics, the horse stuff in the BC era was held offsite, though it was close enough to the other events that spectators could easily wander over.

Horses cost then, as they do now, a substantial amount of money to raise, feed and train and so it’s no surprise that the wealthy (men and women) were the ones to head up teams of chariot racers and/or owned racehorses.

As all the horse-related races were held in the Hippodrome, The Hippodrome became the place for the rich, noble and powerful to hobnob, exchange ideas and shake hands. A practice that stands today.

This was the one place women were allowed access, with the ticket price of owning competing horses. But of all the places to see and be seen, the Hippodrome was the pinnacle.

So, thank you, horses for leveling the playing field, even for only a few hours every four years.

Speaking of horses…

Horses and Sport

The equestrian portion of the Ancient Games was based on warfare and military training, much as it was in the early Modern Olympics.

The horses competing 2,800 years ago were often raised with the idea of the Olympics in mind. Horses weren’t plucked from a field, hitched to a wagon and expected to race where imminent death awaited. Well, in a way they were, but I suspect the owners preferred if their horses lived to race another day.

There is a story that Cimon (510-450 BC), an Athenian statesman, had a team of mares who were given a dedicated tomb in Athens for their efforts in winning the Tethrippon at three consecutive Olympics. However, further research in the book The Histories by Herodotus revealed that Cimon was slain after his third Olympic victory by the sons of Pisistratus, his nemesis. I’m sure there is more to the story.

Anyway, according to the book, Cimon’s body was buried just outside Athens and opposite his tomb, the four winning mares were buried. Perhaps slain as well, but of that, I’m unsure. Either way, the point I’m trying to make is that horses were more than a commodity back then, which is nice to know. 

And Thus

And thus concludes the Ancient Olympic Games portion of this series.

I dislike that married women were unable to attend the Ancient Games unless they had deep pockets and a love for horses, but such was life all those centuries ago.


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