Seia Spes, the first woman to win a sports competition

by Federico Quagliuolo

To know Seia Spes we have to go to the churchyard church of Santa Restituta, in the smallest and oldest town on the island of Ischia. This is the first woman, at least documented with certainty, that he won a sports competition dedicated to both sexes: the isolympic games of Naples in 154 AD

This story has remained incredibly hidden for centuries and we have also risked lose it irretrievably: the plaque to commemorate his victory, in fact, is remained walled up inside the church for about 4 centuries. And it is a miracle that it was not destroyed, as happened to many other ancient testimonies.

Lapide di Seia spes
Tombstone of Seia Spes, all written in Greek

Who was Seia Spes?

We know very little about her. Indeed, almost nothing. She was the daughter of a man Seio Libero, who was quaestor and then building of the city of Naples. And it was wife of Lucio Cocceio Prisco, who dedicated this plaque to her with great pride. The rest of this woman's life is shrouded in mystery, but its history is fundamental to discovering society in the ancient world.
She was in fact a very good athlete and participated in the 39th edition of the Isolimpici games of Naples: she must have trained hard and, with the squad of daughters of magistrates, managed to win the first place in the running race.

The victories in sports competitions did not usually include cash prizes: it was in fact the glory, with the deposition of a crown on the head, to be the victory that everyone wanted: the winners of sports competitions, in fact, enjoyed enormous admiration and social consideration. Just Seia Spes tells us another anomaly: to sports games, according to the rules dictated even by PlatoUnmarried women aged 16 to 24 could participate in women's competitions. Seia, on the other hand, was already happily married and participated in the men's competitions: this is an absolute novelty that calls into question everything we knew about games from the ancient world.

We also know that in subsequent years there were two other winners of the Neapolitan games: Emilia Rectina and Flavia Talassa, the latter of very clear Greek origins.

Chiesa di Santa Restituta a Lacco Ameno
- the church of Santa Restituta in Lacco Ameno

The mystery of the tombstone of Seia Spes

From the beginning, i doubts there have been many on the origin of the tombstone of Seia Spes. It was indeed embedded in the wall of the church of Santa Restituta a Lacco Ameno for at least four centuries, since the time of construction. The thing even more anomalous is that the face with the Greek inscription was bricked up and the only thing visible was a blank side.

The authors are divided on the opinions: the German-Ischian archaeologist Giorgio Buchner he thought the woman was actually a young Neapolitan: it was in fact a common practice in the 16th and 17th centuries the demolition of Roman buildings to reuse the materials as a basis for the new palaces. In Naples there are in fact many commemorative plaques dedicated to athletes who have won the Isolympic Games (and who knows how many we have lost!) And therefore probably, in a load of work materials from the capital, this tombstone will also be finished.

Other scholars, however, believe that Seia Spes is a native of Lacco Ameno, or at least Ischitana, and for this reason his tombstone ended up in the church. The only certainty is that probably, due to ignorance or an error of the craftsman who evidently could not read Greek, the tombstone ended upside down and the history of Seia remained forgotten until the 1980s, when it was found during restoration works.

Donne che fanno sport nell'antica roma
Women who play various sports

What are the Naples island games?

Naples was the home of the isolympic games, so called because they were considered of equal importance to the Olympics. They were established by the Emperor Augustus in 2 AD in his honor and even he himself attended the edition of 14 AD, shortly before his death in the parts of Nola.

They were practically identical to the Olympics, when these were prohibited in the Roman world, but in addition they also had singing and theater competitions, where there were very rich cash prizes. We know for example the Neapolitan poet Station he participated in these competitions as a young man.

They were expected horse riding, armed race, pentathlon, boxing, discus and, of course, running competitions. Giant sports facilities were built throughout the city, which made it a real one the sports capital of the Roman world. Almost all the structures have been lost but, during the works of the underground, under the foundations of National Museum, was rediscovered the temple dedicated to the star Augustus in which the start of the games was celebrated. In fact, the tombstones with the lists of the winners of all past editions are still present.

Another interesting thing is the use of the Greek language: during the "sebastà", The isolympic games, the use of the Greek language was frequent and normal, which in the other parts of the Empire was considered a quirk by intellectuals, but in general not encouraged at all. In short, it is no coincidence that Naples was nicknamed "the most Greek city in the western world“.

-Federico Quagliuolo


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