Women In Sports: The Heraean Games

Hera was the goddess of marriage, family, childbirth and the protectress of women. The Roman counterpart of Hera was Juno. For the Romans, Juno was the protector and special counselor of the State. The month of June is named after Hera’s Roman name.

Hera. Queen of the 12 Gods

Some of the best known temples dedicated to Hera were the Heraion of Samos (that was one of the largest and most famous Greek temples), The Temple of Hera at Agrigento (one of the best preserved in Sicily), The temple of Hera at Olympia (which was one of the oldest monumental temples in Greece), the Temple of Juno in Rome (which stood on the Capitoline Hill, overlooking the Roman Forum)

Perhaps my favorite fact about Hera is that she’s linked with the first official women’s athletic events in History: the Heraean Games.

The Heraean Games. By Prospero Piatti

Few know that the ancient Greeks organized sporting competitions not only for men, but for women too. Men and women competed in separately organized games, exactly as it happens today.

The most prestigious ones held for women were the Heraea (honoring Hera). These women-only athletic events probably took place around the same time as the Olympic Games.

Ancient Olympia


  • The Heraea were held at Olympia, in the Peloponnese.
  • They were held every four years.
  • There were three different age categories for competitors, and young girls competed in a footrace.
  • All sporting, religious and cultural events of the Heraea at Olympia were presided over and organized by a group of sixteen women from Elis.
  • All athletes were unmarried women.
  • All 16 members of the presiding committee were notable women of Elis, representing all 16 cities of the region of Elis, at the Peloponnese.
A group of priestesses in front of the Temple of Hera at Olympia. They carry the Olympic Flame.

It is worth noting that the first recorded games for women, were held by the Ancient Greeks as early as the 6th century BC, and they were probably held in the Olympic year itself, prior to the men’s games. Since the collapse of the ancient world, women were not allowed to participate in events of major importance, such as the Marathon Race, only as late as 1972 (!) This is when the famous Boston Marathon incident, that involved Kathrine Switzer, took place. Since that day, most discriminatory policies were dropped, leading to the first women’s marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Yes. Since the first official women’s athletic competition to be held in Ancient Greece, more than 26 centuries had passed! We could do better. But, still: better late than never.

Bronze figure of a running girl from Sparta (520 BCE-500 BCE) British Museum

What was the best time in history to be alive?

Have you ever wondered which era would you want to live in? I do quite often. Our age is arguably the best, but if I could travel back in time I would go back to the 2nd century AD, somewhere within the Roman Empire, during the reign of Antoninus Pius.

Everyone has a favorite emperor, right? Mine is Antoninus Pius, the most benevolent and just of all Roman emperors.

Antoninus Pius. (86-161 A.D., emperor from 138)

There was a time when the emperors of Rome “had no need of praetorian cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the good-will of their subjects, and the attachment of the senate,” as Niccolò Machiavelli says in his book ‘The Discourses on Livy’. Antoninus Pius was one of those good Roman emperors.

The first 5 emperors of the Nerva–Antonine dynasty, are commonly known as ‘The Five Good Emperors’

  1. Nerva (ruled from 96AD to 98AD)
  2. Trajan (98–117)
  3. Hadrian (117–138)
  4. Antoninus Pius (138–161)
  5. Marcus Aurelius (161–180)

Antoninus was born near Rome to a family that originated from southern Gaul.  He was adopted by emperor Hadrian, he entered Roman civil service, and he became a highly successful provincial governor in Asia. Antoninus succeeded Hadrian in 138 A.D.

The philosopher king

Emperor Antonius Pius consolidated the frontiers of the empire, quelling the rebellions of the Moors in 152 and of the Egyptians in 153, the only revolts in an otherwise peaceful reign. In Britain he ordered the construction of the Antonine Wall on what is now the Central Belt of Scotland. That wall was the northernmost frontier barrier of the Empire, built to defend against the Picts and Scots.

Ditch of the Antonine Wall at Falkirk, Scotland.

Antoninus tried to revive the power and dignity of the Roman Senate, to which he gave back the task of governing Italy. He shunned the busy life of the capital and lived quietly in his villa at Lorium on the outskirts of Rome. An excellent administrator, he left the public treasury unusually rich at his death. All his energies were devoted to the service of the people of the Roman Empire.

  • He prioritized the rebuilding of cities destroyed in wars
  • He improved the legal rights of slaves
  • He curbed the avarice of provincial governors
  • He established numerous charitable institutions
  • He passed laws to help orphans
  • He prohibited the persecution of Christians
  • He acted as protector and promoter of arts and sciences
Golden Aureus portraying Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius died at the age of 75 after adopting as his successor another would-be philosopher king: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. The Senate conferred upon him the title of Pius in recognition of his qualities.

The Antonine era was the most prosperous and stable period of the Roman empire. A good time to be alive!

Roman Empire in the 2nd century

Native Americans

Native Americans. In defense of the ‘Noble Savage’

Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours.

Benjamin Franklin

An idea, central to how the indigenous tribes in Northern America perceived the world around them, was that all humans are Mother Nature’s children. Equal. Brothers. Native Americans showed everyday their respect to the Eternal, the Great Mystery as they called it. That worship was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking. Native tribes such as the Apache believed that the Great Spirit breathed life to all Creation, so they held the idea that the universe and all natural objects, humans, animals, plants, trees, rivers, mountains, etc, they all have souls/ spirits. A simple but deep consciousness of the divine. For this reason, their everyday acts & deeds were dictated by a sense of modesty and humbleness.

When hunting, Native Americans never killed more animals than it was just enough for them to satisfy the needs of their community. Isn’t it remarkable that the Natives of N. America never regarded their immediate surrounding and environs as their property? Territory: yes. Property: no. The concept of land ownership was alien to them!

Apache warrior painted for war, wearing a red head-band. By Greek artist Christos Giannopoulos.

Dignity and respect were vital characteristics of their way of life. When a traveler happened to be approaching an Apache settlement, it was considered inappropriate to enter the village unexpectedly by not announcing his/her visit. When travelers approached a settlement (the Apache lived in family groups, rather than villages) and they were close enough for their voice to be heard, it was considered polite to stop and announce their presence. Only when their voice was heard and themselves invited to approach, only then they would proceed to enter the village.

The White Man’s illusion of moral superiority

Hospitality was highly valued. Welcoming a foreigner was a custom, much like it was for the Ancient Greeks or the Ancient Indians. In every Apache village for example, there was always a spare tent ready to host any lone, foreign traveler. Villagers would always welcome foreigners with good will, entertain them, offer food and any clothes that the visitor needed, and provided shelter and a place to rest. After that, villagers would offer tobacco to the traveler and sit all together to smoke and engage in conversation.

Before departure, villagers would provide the traveler with any other convenience he/she might need, including clothes, provisions, or even a local guide to help with the continuation of the journey. Native Americans regarded this as their moral duty, doing it out of kindness,  asking nothing in return.

Geronimo and fellow Apache while being ‘transported’ to Florida in chains. Only 5,000 Apaches survive today.

Their politeness, kindness and ‘Spartan-like’ character made a huge impression on Benjamin Franklin. Franklin couldn’t hide his admiration for those “savages”, as Westerners called them: ‘…there is no Force, there are no prisons, no officers to compel obedience, or inflict punishment… Having few artificial wants, they have abundance of leisure for improvement by conversation.

Map of culture areas of Northern American native tribes

Modern day political scientists cannot but marvel at the uniqueness of the Iroquois Confederacy. I’m sure that Aristotle would have found it exciting to study the unique democratic league that those tribes formed. A league that included women too!

Civil virtue. Ethical code. Empathy

The Apache would never share their opinion about an important subject on the same day that they were asked. Instead they would wait a day, as a sign of respect, dedicating more time so as to show that they take the question asked, under serious consideration.

In their public assemblies and gatherings they always displayed discipline and respect. Whoever wished to address the assembly, would stand up while the rest would listen in total silence. Interrupting a speaker was considered rude, shameful and unforgivable. Everyone present was carefully listening to the speaker, focusing on the opinion being heard, nodding,  listening, showing empathy. Even if the opinion expressed was different than the one they held.

Photo portraits of Apache. Far left: Geronimo.

The chief (or in some cases a chieftainess) was chosen for his courage, wisdom and personal generosity. The war chief led the Apache in negotiations and, if necessary, battle (in Apache, chief translates to he who speaks).

A trailblazer: George Catlin

The great  American painter George Catlin, an advocate of Native American cultures, dedicated most of his life creating paintings, immortalizing America’s ‘vanishing race’.

One day in Philadelphia, Catlin happened to come across a group of Native Americans who were on their way to Washington, D.C.
He described the scene:

“A delegation of some ten or fifteen noble and dignified-looking Indians, from the wilds of the ‘Far West,’ suddenly arrived in the city, arrayed in all their classic beauty–with shield and helmet-with tunic and manteau-tinted and tasseled off, exactly for the painter’s palette. In silent and stoic dignity, these lords of the forest strutted about the city for a few days, wrapped in their pictorial robes, with their brows plumed with the quills of the war-eagle.

George Catlin
George Catlin (1796 – 1872)

Catlin later, summarized wonderfully the heart and soul of those peoples:

•             I love a people that have always made me welcome to the very best that they had.

•             I love a people who are honest without laws, who have no jails and no poorhouses.

•             I love a people who keep the commandments without ever having read or heard them preached from the pulpit.

•             I love a people who never swear or take the name of God in vain.

•             I love a people who love their neighbors as they love themselves.

•             I love a people who worship God without a Bible, for I believe that God loves them also.

•             I love a people whose religion is all the same, and who are free from religious animosities.

•             I love a people who have never raised a hand against me, or stolen my property, when there was no law to punish either.

•             I love and do not fear mankind where God has made and left them, for they are his children.

•             I love a people who have never fought a battle with the white man, except on their own ground.

•             I love a people who live and keep what is their own without lock and keys.

•             I love a people who do the best they can. And oh how I love a people who do not live for the love of money.