The few pieces of information we have about Bilistiche (sometimes Belistiche) carve a mysterious figure of a complex and interesting woman.
A courtesan and mistress of Pharaoh Ptolemy Philadeplphus (brother-husband to Arsinoë II), she won both the tethrippon (four horse) and synoris (two horse) chariot races in the 264 BC Olympic Games.
She was clearly a wealthy and important figure in the Egyptian court as it was often only the rich who could breed and train horses for racing. Bilistiche also held a truly affectionate place in her lover’s heart – the Pharaoh deified her (made her a goddess) as ‘Aphrodite Bilistiche’.
The truth of who she was and where she came from, however, is uncertain. The historian Pausanias describes Bilistiche as ‘a woman from the coast of Macedonia’, and Athenaeus says she was in fact a Macedonian Princess. Plutarch offers the most intriguing backstory, one of rags to riches, as he calls her ‘a barbarian from the marketplace’. This suggests that she was purchased as a slave, and was not Greek or Macedonian at all.
Though she is mysterious to us, Bilistiche was apparently a celebrity in her own time, a visible member of the Egyptian Royal household and a champion athlete.
Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to Cleopatra – Sarah B. Pomeroy
Description of Greece, 5.8.11 – Pausanias
Twenty-four years after Cynisca’s victory as the first female crown-bearer at the Olympic Games, Euryleonis became the second.
Also from Sparta, Euryleonis was triumphant in the two-horse chariot races at the ancient games in 368 BCE. Other than this, we know little about her life. She may have been a royal woman – she was certainly wealthy. It is likely that she bred and trained her own horses, as Cynisca had before her.
We do know that Euryuleonis was celebrated in her own time. Pausanias writes that a bronze statue of the athlete was erected at Sparta after her victory. It was one of the first statues of athletic or military victors in Sparta.
A-Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women – Marjorie and Benjamin Lightman
Spartan Women – Sarah B. Pomeroy
‘Kyniska, victorious with a chariot of swift-footed horses, has erected this statue. I declare myself the only woman in all Hellas to have won this crown.’
The ancient Olympic Games were male-only and women were not even permitted to enter the main stadium. The only way women could get involved was to enter the equestrian (horse) events – step in Cynisca.
A Spartan princess, Cynisca was known as a tomboy growing up – she enjoyed athletics and competition, particularly horse riding and chariot racing. She exploited the loophole in the Olympic rules which stated she could not compete – by hiring a team of men to ride on her behalf. Cynisca bred and trained the horses herself and her team won the four-horse chariot racing event twice – once in 396 BCE and again in 392.
Cynisca must have been an extremely ambitious woman, and was certainly proud of her achievements as the first woman to triumph at the Olympic Games. She was honoured with a bronze statue in Olympias, with an inscription celebrating her victory. A shrine was built to her in Sparta’s Plane-tree Grove – making her the first woman given this honour as previously only Spartan Kings were memorialised in this way.
The great irony in Cynisca’s life was that despite her trailblazing efforts to prove herself as capable as any man, the rules did not permit her to witness either of her victories.
Description of Greece (3.15.1) – Pausanias
A deep sea diver responsible for bringing down the Persian Navy
Hydna (sometimes Cyana) of Scione fought in the same war as Artemisia of Caria – only on the opposing side. Growing up in a seaside town, she was a strong swimmer and proficient deep sea diver.
When the Persian navy began closing in on the Greek coast in 490 BCE, Hydna and her father volunteered to help defend their Empire. Seeing that a storm was brewing, the father and daughter came up with an elegant plan of attack.
At nightfall, the pair swam for ten miles through storm-tossed waters to reach the Persian ships. Silent and unseen, they then took their knives to the moorings, cutting the ropes and dragging away the anchors.
The peninsula where Xerxes fleet were moored – near Mount Pelion
Untethered, the Persian ships were defenseless against the storm and crashed against each other, causing a huge amount of damage. Hydna and her fathers’ actions prevented battle until the Persians could recoup their losses, buying time for the Greek forces.
A New Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and Geography – Sir William Smith
Description of Greece (10.19.1) – Pausanias