The 2020 Olympics continue, and both the men and women on team USA make us all proud. Where were the women in the Ancient games? In Greece, a woman was not allowed to attend on penalty of death. A woman could own and sponsor a chariot team; she could not attend. If her team won, she was declared the winner in absentia, not the charioteer. Gods and goddesses were of equal importance in Greece, but mortal women had no rights except those the very rare enlightened male might offer. With what seems an emphasis on sports, it should be noted that male drama contest, the Dionysia in Athens, was as popular and well attended as the athletic games.
Sixteen respected noble women of Elis, where the male athletes trained, organized games to honor Hera, the queen of the goddess’ and wife of Zeus. The games honoring Zeus were not the only games held at Olympia. The temple to Hera was constructed at Olympia in 600 BCE, before the temple of Zeus in 470 BCE. The Heraean games were open only to unmarried young women (parthenoi), and consisted of foot races. In Greek mythology, Hippodemeia held a foot race with sixteen women as a thanksgiving offering to Hera, who helped bring about her marriage to Pelops. The Heraean was held every fourth year at the stadium in Olympus. The length of the stade (stadium) was one-sixth shorter than that of the men’s race. Three separate races were held, with the women grouped by age. The specific age group for each race is unknown.
“Runner in the Heraean” (650-480 BCE) is a Black Figure vase from the Greek Archaic period, when pottery was a major part of Greek art and trade and the clay was well suited to this purpose. The artists of the Archaic period were beginning the process of understanding and depicting a realistic representation of the human body, not achieved until the Classical period (480-330 BCE). The color of the clay was orange and the clay retained that color after it was fired. The figures were painted on the dry unfired clay with slip, clay thinned with water. A needle was then used the draw the detail lines. When fired, the extra layers of slip turned black, while the background remained the color of the clay.
The girls are clearly in running poses, but there are several fun things to observe as the artist struggle with the figures. Unable to achieve three-dimensions, the artist draws heads in profile. However, the shoulders and arms, covered by large waving dress collar are drawn in a frontal position. Waists and legs return to profile, and two different running positions are depicted. Calf muscles are accentuated as are the length and shapes of the feet and toes. Notice the attempt to show different positions of the hands.
“Running Girl” (520-500 BCE) is a Spartan woman athlete wearing a chiton, a gown worn by men and women and fastened at the shoulder. For running, the chiton is cut above the knees, right shoulder and breast bare. Hair was worn loose. Spartan women were called “thigh flashers” because of the short skirt. Winners were allowed to have statues made to present to the Hera, but no early examples are extant. The “Running Girl” (520-500 BCE) is an example of the popular small bronzes made in Laconia. Her figure is slender but she has bulging leg muscles, swelling thighs, and small breasts. The small size and the bronze rivet in the right foot, suggests this piece was most likely a decorative attachment to a vessel.
Spartan girls and boys were well fed unlike girls in Athens. Spartan women were educated and could legally own and inherit property. Unmarried Spartan girls exercised regularly and participated in running, wrestling, javelin and discus throwing, boxing and horseback riding. Sometimes they competed against boys. They also were schooled in music and dance. In Gymnasticus, Philostratus described the Spartan idea: “And there is also a notion older than this which seems right to Lykourgos for Sparta. Because he meant to provide warrior-athletes for Sparta, he said, “Let the girls exercise and permit them to run in public. Certainly, this strengthening of the bodies was for the sake of good childbearing and that they would have better offspring.”
Women in the Roman Empire were considered citizens, but their roles were limited. Women’s rights began to improve in the Empire in the First Century CE. Women were taught to read and write so that in additional to running the household, they might help their husbands in business. Depending on their social status, women owned and sold property. In 11 CE, the Roman Senate forbade the participation of freeborn women under the age of 20 in the games. In 200 CE, Emperor Septimius Severus barred women from participating in the arena. However, references of female gladiators can be found in the writings of several Roman historians.
Archeologist Gino Gentili excavated (1959-60) a floor mosaic in the 4th Century CE Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily. The room was named the “Chamber of the Ten Maidens” or “The Bikini Girls.” The ten females are not participating, as was originally thought in a beauty contest. It is now called the “Room of the Ten Gymnasts.” Three women gymnasts are participating in the “Long Jump, Discus and Running” (310 CE). The dumbbells, held by the girl at the left were used in the long jump to help propel the jumper forward and were jettisoned in the process. The middle figure is holding a discus in position to begin the throw. The last two girls, only the leg of one can be seen, are participating in a foot race.
The top row depicts the four women mentioned above. At the right on the bottom row, two women play a ball game. Ball games were mentioned in Greek writing including in Homer, and were played by both boys and girls. It is speculated that this game might be an early form of volleyball. It is interesting to note that the ball is divided into four equal sections colored red, yellow, green and blue.
All but one of the women is dressed in an ancient version of the bikini. A breast band, likely of linen, was known in Ancient Greece, but not often depicted. The bikini bottom is a version of loincloth and made of linen or leather. It dips well below the waist revealing both the stomach muscles and navel.
The three figures at the lower left depict “Crowning the Winner” (310 CE). Dressed in a golden robe, the woman at the left holds a rose crown and palm branch. She is the only dressed figure, except for her round breast visible below her arm. The girl in the center remains something of a mystery. The wheel, flower, parasol or whatever on the stick, has yet to be clearly identified. The third young woman wears the rose crown and holds the palm branch; she is the winner of the games.
Unfortunately, images of female athletes are very rare, although information about them is available. The abundance of female sculptures, both clothes and naked, are representations of goddess and females in Greek myths. Roman sculpture does provide hundreds of individual portrait busts of both men and woman.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.