Friday, April 4, 2014

Track Trio on the Pro Circuit by Vicki León

The first century A.D. was a time of glory for the athletes Hedea, Tryphosa, and Dionysia, three talented sisters from Tralles, a prosperous, sports-mad city overlooking the Maeander River in Asia Minor (Turkey today). By this era, almost every city in the far-flung Roman Empire boasted public baths, gymnasia, and running tracks. Each year, more than 300 athletic competitions (and musical ones, as well) were held around the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The number of athletic meets and female participation in them grew yearly. Good Roman roads had made overland travel safe (if slow), and a reduction in once-rampant piracy made marine travel another option. 

Tryphosa and Dionysia, the oldest and youngest of the triple-threat trio, specialized in running. Hedea was an all- rounder. Besides track, she raced war chariots, sang, and played the lyre.

The sisters competed in two types of events: crown and money. Crown games included the original big four: the Olympian, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean games. Instead of medals, winners got high-status symbolic wreaths. Once the winning athletes got back home, the perks flowed, such as free meals for life. At money games, winners got cash and other gifts, paid for by the sponsoring city. First prize in the 200-meter footrace, for example, could amount to four times the annual salary of a soldier. Goodies aside, athletes also won incredible fame.

The record of wins by these teenagers is astonishing. Over a period of some five years, Tryphosa took crowns at the Isthmian Games near Corinth and the next Pythian Games at Delphi—the first girl ever to do so. Dionysia won track firsts at the Asclepeian Festival in Epidaurus and the Nemean Games.

Hedea won the war-chariot race at the Isthmian Games and two firsts for track at the Nemean and Sicyonian games. She also nabbed a first for lyre players at the Sebasteia Festival in Athens. These “golds” are only career highlights. The formidable sisters no doubt racked up many seconds and thirds, but in ancient times, only first-place winners got recorded or rewarded. The girls were made honorary citizens of several cities, including Corinth. Citizenship (which women lacked in certain times and places) gave such benefits as tax-free pensions and office-holding privileges.

Hedea, Tryphosa, and Dionysia may not have endorsed track shoes, but they surely served as role models for girls everywhere. They were probably active through their teenage years. By the time they retired from competition, the words from a certain Paul from Tarsus, an evangelist and rabid sports fan, were on everyone’s lips: “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the course; I have kept the faith.” His quotes could just as easily have summed up the lives of the track trio from Tralles.

Most of what we know about 
these girls comes from the existing 
base of their now-lost statues, erected 
at the famed oracular shrine at Delphi
 by their father, Hermesianax of Tralles. Further confirmation comes from the historian Pausanias, who saw and wrote about their still-intact monument 100 years later. This proof sheds substantial light on women’s competitive athletics in the Mediterranean world of the first century A.D.—adding to the growing evidence about female participation in athletic, musical, and cultural life 2,000 years ago.

EXCERPT: pages 38-39, 4000 Years of Uppity Women. copyright 2011 by Vicki León (MJFine Books 2011).

A multi-faceted writer of non-fiction for readers young and old, Vicki León has 38 books to her credit, including numerous titles on wildlife and endangered ecosystems.This California author is best known, however, for her 9 books on women's history: from 3 Outrageous Women titles for younger readers to a pictorial book on Malinali, the slave girl whose language skills were key to Cortez' conquest of old Mexico. Her "best of" book about daring gals of long ago, called 4000 Years of Uppity Women, came out in 2011 and remains a leading title for Barnes & Noble. She also welcomes uppity girls at her author facebook page, "Vicki Leon's Books for Uppity Women."

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